Talking About Books . . .


Amy Weiss-Meyer wrote an article in The Atlantic about a series of books, the Dear America series for girls, that had quite an impact on her as an adolescent.  She makes the point that even though the major characters in the books are fictional, ordinary people, they gave her a sense of historical events that she didn’t get from history books.  She also mentions a similar series for boy called My Name Is America.

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If Captain Ahab or Katniss Everdeen ate Chinese food, what messages would their fortune cookies contain?  That’s the premise of an entertaining article from Quirk Books.

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Translating a book from one language to another can be difficult, but translating J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series from English into other languages posed some unique challenges.  For instance, how do you translate Hogwarts, the name of the school that Harry attended, into other languages?  How do you translate Slitherin, the name of one of the four houses at Hogwarts in a way that maintains the idea of a slithering snake without using the word “slithering” in your translation?  And what do you do about the names of various characters in the novels?  Why did Albus Dumbledore remain unchanged in some translations, and changed in others?  Albus Dumbledore became Albus Silente in the Italian translation, but what does the Italian word silente have to do with Dumbledore?  He was not at all “silent.”  And speaking of names, why did Tom Riddle’s name become Tom Elvis Jedusor in the French translation?

A 2007 article by Sarah Dillon addresses the problems of translating Harry Potter both in the article she wrote, and through the links to other articles that she provided.  One of those links takes us to an excellent Wikipedia article entitled “Harry Potter in Translation.”  Dillon’s article and the linked articles are quite enjoyable and informative regardless of your interest in the series.

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“Raised Roman Catholic in Protestant England, he was perennially unhappy with his appearance, especially his spherical figure, and beset by multiple fears: of heights, policemen, imprisonment and, simply, other people. Even after he was well-established in a job with quasi-dictatorial powers — movie director — he “still did not like to cross the studio floor in case a stranger came up to him.’”

Alfred Hitchcock, the subject of the above quote was a very complex man, and Peter Ackroyd’s brief biography of him is well worth reading according to Dennis Drabelle.  You can read Drabelle’s review of Alfred Hitchcock here.

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The National Book Award finalists for 2016 have been announced (along with the longlist selections that did not make the final cut). The awards will be made on November 16th.


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Words at Play


I recently read a wonderful book about words entitled Wordcatcher: An Odyssey Into the World of Weird and Wonderful Words (2010) by Phil Cousineau.  The author discusses approximately 250 words (in alphabetical order), but also talks about many more “companion words.”  Here are a few examples of his entries – including “lagniappe” which is the title of a monthly post on this website.

JAZZ In a word, Louis; in two, Ella Fitzgerald; in three, Charlie “Bird” Parker; in four, Irish heat or passion. Its origins are as hip as its syncopated rhythm. Jazz jumped out of Black America’s juke joints, those cheap bars in the South that flailed with bump-and-grind dancing and bad-ass music, as intertwined as two lovers on the dance floor swaying to an Eartha Kitt song. So jazzin’ was slang for getting it on, jazzy became an adjective to describe the slick moves of a Pete Maravich on the basketball court. Cassidy’s Irish-American dictionary offers the Irish teas, pronounced j’as ch’as, and meaning “passion, ardor, excitement, sexual heat and excitement.” His persuasive research tracks the word to as early as 1917, in the Bay Area, where it was a “hot new word” heard in music halls and whorehouses and on baseball fields. He writes, “Jazz was so full of jasm and gism (iteas ioma, an abundance of heat) … It was a word you learned by ear—like jazz music.” Often used together by the immigrant Irish, jasm and gism had a kind of bluesy “call and response” relationship, which resulted in tch’as pronounced, drum roll, please—jazz. Originally a kind of “spark.” it appears in Northern California sports pages, in the 1890s, to describe ballplayers who performed with gis, sass, zest, pizzazz. In hipster slang, jazz means having sex, as in “I Want a Jazzy Kiss,” by Mamie Smith, 1921. Companion words include jazzbo, boyfriend; jazz water, bootleg alcohol; jazzed, excited. Jive, as indispensable in jazz as syncopation, is defined in Hip Slang as “to kid, to talk insincerely, to use elaborate or trick language”—immortalized in Cab Calloway’s crepuscular dictionary of Jive Talk in the 1920s.

LAGNIAPPE An expensive word for a cheap gift given to a customer. This coinage comes from New Orleans, deriving from la napa, Spanish for “the gift,” from the American Indian or Cajun word yapa, a present from a trader to a steady customer. The impulse behind this form of gift giving is alive and well in the form of tchotchkes and gewgaws such as T-shirts, pens, pads of paper presented as little gifts, reminders, gratitudes. Funk cites our greatest wordsmith, Mark Twain’s, clever usage in Life on the Mississippi: “The English were trading beads and blankets to them [the Indians] for a consideration and throwing in civilization and whiskey ‘for lagniappe.’”

MELANCHOLY Overwhelming sadness, merciless moodiness, grief’s house. Hovering on the edge of chapfallen, sullen, gloomy, and petulant. The word first appears in English in 1303, from the Greek melancholia, from melas, black, and khole, bile or gall, an excess of which was said to cause plunging fits of depression, or irascibility. Traditionally, melancholy was regarded as the result of an overabundance of this “black gall,” a belief that’s survived in the expression “You’ve got a lot of gall,” suggesting someone who is rude, impertinent, or bitter. Medieval physicians believed the accretion from the spleen, one of the four “humors,” led to depression, even insanity. Eventually, four types of melancholy were distinguished: melancholia attonita, gloomy; melancholia errabunda, restless; melancholia malevolens, mischievous; and melancholia complacens, complacent. And we might add a fifth, melancholia romantica, as in “Melancholy Baby,” as sung by Judy Garland. Surprisingly, down in the dumps comes from dumpin, Swedish for melancholy; dimba, to steam, reek; and Danish dump, dull, damp, as in “to damp one’s spirits.” This was John Milton’s sense when he wrote in Paradise Lost: “A melancholy damp of cold and dry, / to weigh thy spirits down,” by which he is saying that melancholy damps, as in suffocates, the human spirit. Virginia Woolf wrote, in Jacob’s Room, “Melancholy were the sounds on a winter’s night.” Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, about his life of “active melancholy .” On the walls of the Lion’s Den pub in Greenwich Village we find: “Neurosis is red / Melancholia is blue / I’m schizophrenic / What are you?” Companion words include moanworthy, sad; doleful, full of grief; lugubrious, mournful; and crepehanger, a gloomy Gus, a pessimist.

PUN A play on words. For some, a pun is the height of cleverness, for others a punishment, like having one’s ears pounded—no mere coincidence, as that’s exactly the derivation. Pun devolves from the Anglo-Saxon punian, to pound. Skeat writes, as if mortally offended, “Hence, to pound words, beat them into new senses, hammer at forced similes.” To paraphrase Shakespeare, the lad doth protest too much. The bard couldn’t help himself; he punned precisely 1,062 times in his works. The technical term is paronomasia, but slang words proliferate, such as liripoop and quip. Everyone has their favorites, such as the “unspeakable” pun by Confucius: “Seven days on honeymoon makes one whole week.” In his risible handbook Stop Me If You’ve Heard This, Jim Holt writes, “Shakespeare’s puns, while chucklesome, are invariably bawdy, even when they are being made by clowns: Hamlet: “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” Ophelia: “No, my lord.” Hamlet: “I mean my head upon your lap.” Ophelia: Ay, my lord.” Hamlet: “Did you think I meant country [cunt-try] matters?” My punster father used to love to quote the famously droll Dorothy Parker’s “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think,” which she thought of when challenged to use the botanical word in a quipping contest at the Algonquin Club. Her notoriously quick wit was the mirror image of esprit de l’escalier, what we might call esprit de table, the spirit of the table. Companion words include the querulous quibble, originally meaning to pun or play on words, and only later to have reservations about them.

QUIZ A test, a question, a mystery word. Quiz is of obscure origin—but stories abound. So we can approach the word in its own spirit, quizzically: When is the first mention of the word? 1847. What are the roots? The first Latin question, Qui es? “Who are you?” asked in traditional grammar schools. What about that old chestnut, the Dublin bar bet? There is a popular though undocumented story that dates back to around 1836 about a man named Jim Daly, the manager of a Dublin theater, who laid down a wager in a local pub that he could coin a new word and render it famous within twenty-four hours. According to the legend, he won the bet by stenciling, as Brewer writes, “four mystic letters,” Q-U-I-Z, all over town, which prompted the indignant question, “What is this?” To which Daly was happy to answer something to the effect of, “What is this? Why, it’s Latin for ‘What is this?!’” Speaking of questions, the story goes that the question mark itself [?] is a kind of collapsed version of the letter “Q,” short for “question.” Quiz is also slang for an “odd character.” Irony of ironies, Charles Van Doren, the Columbia University English professor implicated in the scandal to “fix” the 1950s television quiz show “Twenty-One,” told a grand jury through his lawyer, “It is silly and distressing to think that people don’t have more faith in quiz shows.”

ZITCOM A sitcom for teens. One of the more colorful of the bountiful examples of newly slung slang. In all truthiness, as Stephen Colbert calls slippery talk, it takes a staminac, a sleep-starved overachiever, or a sleep camel, a power-sleeping workaholic who slaves away for a few days, then draws on those stored z’s for the long trek across a week of nineteen-hour workdays, to keep up with the slang. Other eclectic examples: Spendorphins is the curious boost of shopping endorphins released upon entrance into the local mall. Banalysis is a trivial recap of complex material; blamestorming is faultfinding among co-workers. Chipmunking is looking all scrunched up while typing out text messages. Digitalia refers to indispensable gadgets from the wired world. Infonesia is amnesia about information, possibly due to being overwhelmed by infoglut. And for me the most stirring neologism of all, tankmanning: standing up to authority, after the anonymous man who defied the tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, providing the world with a modern equivalent of Gandhi’s Salt March, King’s Selma March, and the actions of the current titan of courageous protest, the pro-democracy figure Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been calmly defying Burmese authorities for the last nineteen years.

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How do you pronounce “timbre”?  “Givenchy”? “Budapest”?  “Gyro”? You are the exception if you can pronounce all four words correctly.  The Atlantic magazine has an article about a new book, You’re Saying It Wrong, that corrects our pronunciation of many words that are so commonly mispronounced. You’ll be surprised (and perhaps a bit embarrassed) when you learn their correct pronunciations.

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Professor John McWhorter is well known and highly respected in the world of linguistics.  He has written several books on the evolution of language, and he discussed his latest book, Words on the Move, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

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Jonathan Green’s Dictionary of Slang is now available  in book form and on the internet.  It represents years of work on his part, and is unparalled in its depth.  A Time magazine article give us an idea of just how complete Green’s three book set is.  Green discusses his decision to also launch the dictionary on the internet in a Slate article.

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We just celebrated my mother’s 97th birthday.  My sister, Brenda, sent Mom a collage depicting notable events and people who were popular in 1919, the year Mom was born. Brenda included a list of some of the things that were new that year.  “Collage,” which is what Brenda sent was new that year as were Mercurochrome, the payphone, the exclamation “phooey,” and the term “white-collar.”

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As You Wish



“My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

“Have fun storming the castle.”

“Rest well, and dream of large women.”

“Please consider me as an alternative to suicide.”

“As you wish.”

If any of the above comments mean something to you, you are probably a fan of the 1987 cult film The Princess Bride.

William Goldman, who wrote the book of the same name, also penned the screenplay.  Various studios and directors considered turning Goldman’s book into a movie, but none had the right “vision” until the director Rob Reiner (formerly “Meathead” from All in the Family) came along.

After obtaining the rights to the story, Reiner made an unlikely but fortuitous move, he cast two little-known actors, Cary Elwes and Robin Wright, in the lead roles of Wesley and Buttercup, and surrounded them with an exceptional supporting cast that included Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Mandy Patinkin, Peter Falk, Fred Savage, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, and André the Giant.

In a wonderful memoir, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride (2014), Cary Elwes writes lovingly about the genesis of the film, the filming itself, the reception of the film, and the chemistry that would unite the cast and crew for the rest of their lives.  It is a story that is too good to be missed.

In addition to Elwes’ remembrances we are treated to numerous sidebar comments by Reiner, William Goldman, and many of the cast members.  The audio book, which I highly recommend, actually features most of those who contributed comment reading them.  That in itself gives you an idea of how close those involved in the project remained over a quarter of a century after the film was completed.

The book serves multiple purposes: it gives us insight into how casting is done, the pleasures and problems of filming, and how Hollywood works.  It also gives us an example of how serendipitous movie making can be.

If you’ve seen The Princess Bride, I suggest that you read As You Wish, and then watch the movie again.  The insights gained from the book will make the movie infinitely more enjoyable.  If you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, read As You Wish before you watch the movie.

There are too many great moments for me to mention them all, but I’ll mention a few of my favorites.  For starters, Elwes tells us that the awesome sword fight between Wesley (Elwes) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) was done without stunt doubles except for some acrobatics on a horizontal bar.  And though it may seem simple to the viewer, it took months of intense daily training with two fencing experts for them to pull off the three minutes or so of actual film footage.  Another amazing fact is that they had to learn to fence both right handed and left handed.  Wesley and Inigo both start out fencing with their left hands, and, after complimenting one another on their skill, both admit that they are actually right handed, so they switch the swords to their right hands and continue.  Some say that theirs is the most awesome sword fighting scene in movie history. Inconceivable!  Take time to watch them in this YouTube video.

Another memorable scene takes place when Inigo and Fezzik (André the Giant) take the seemingly dead Wesley to Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) to see if Max can bring Wesley back to life.  Max informs them that Wesley isn’t dead, he’s only mostly dead – an important difference, you must agree.  For three days Crystal filmed the scene with Carol Kane (as his nagging wife), and for three days he kept everyone laughing with his ad-libs and over-the-top acting.  No one on the set spoiled “takes” more than Rob Reiner.  In fact, Reiner had to leave the set a number of times because he couldn’t keep himself from roaring with laughter during the filming.  Here is part of Crystal’s scene – one of the greatest cameo performances ever.

But how did the story begin?  Well, it begins when a sick boy (Fred Savage) receives a visit from his eccentric grandfather (Peter Falk) who brings him a present.  It’s a copy of the novel The Princess Bride.  The boy reluctantly agrees to let his grandfather read the book to him, and the boy gradually becomes hooked on the story despite himself.  Falk, star of the long-running TV series Columbo, was perfect in his role.  As the loving grandfather of three, I found this aspect of the movie to be quite charming and poignant.

We cut back to Savage and Falk at various points in the film, but their world, and the world of Wesley, Buttercup, and the others always remain completely separate from the “real” world.  Reiner filmed an alternate ending in which the boy looks out his bedroom window and sees Wesley and the others beckoning him to join them in their next adventure, but wisely, Reiner didn’t mix the two worlds.  Here is the scene where the grandfather and the boy first appear.

I listened to the audio version of As You Wish – occasionally while driving – and found myself totally immersed in the stories that Elwes and other members of the project tell us.  In fact, I had to consciously focus on my driving to avoid an accident.  Perhaps the audio version should begin with a warning that we shouldn’t mix it with any activity where your attention is otherwise required.

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Quotes of Note

“And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone or that’s an evil one because it hurts them. People are too complicated to have simple labels.” – The Amber Spyglass, Phillip Pullman

“We did not ask for this room or this music. We were invited in. Therefore, because the dark surrounds us, let us turn our faces to the light. Let us endure hardship to be grateful for plenty. We have been given pain to be astounded by joy. We have been given life to deny death. We did not ask for this room or this music. But because we are here, let us dance.” – 11/22/63, Stephen King

“Travel is the death of prejudice.” – Mark Twain

“Life is a game, and love is the trophy.” – Singer Rufus Wainwright

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” – Satchel Paige

“Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened up.  Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, I was reading in  the library, I was reading in my bunk.  You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge . . . Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned.  In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life.” – The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X

“If Attila the Hun were alive today, he’d be a drama critic.” – Edward Albee

“Gambling: The sure way of getting nothing for something.” – Wilson Mizner

“No nation is ever defeated in its textbooks.” – Caesar and Christ, Will Durant

“Make haste slowly.” – Classical Adage

“You will wonder how a man as busy as he [Pliny the Elder] was could find time to compose so many books, and some of them too involving such care and labor. But you will be still more surprised when you hear that he pleaded at the bar for some time, that he died in his sixty-sixth year, that the intervening time was employed partly in the execution of the highest official duties, partly in attendance upon those emperors who honored him with their friendship. But he had a quick apprehension, marvelous power of application, and was of an exceedingly wakeful temperament. He always began to study at midnight at the time of the feast of Vulcan, not for the sake of good luck, but for learning’s sake; in winter generally at one in the morning, but never later than two, and often at twelve. He was a most ready sleeper, insomuch that he would sometimes, whilst in the midst of his studies, fall off and then wake up again. Before day-break he used to wait upon [Emperor] Vespasian (who also used his nights for transacting business in), and then proceed to execute the orders he had received. As soon as he returned home, he gave what time was left to study. After a short and light refreshment at noon (agreeably to the good old custom of our ancestors) he would frequently in the summer, if he was disengaged from business, lie down and bask in the sun; during which time some author was read to him, while he took notes and made extracts, for every book he read he made extracts out of, indeed it was a maxim of his, that ‘no book was so bad but some good might be got out of it.’ When this was over, he generally took a cold bath, then some light refreshment and a little nap. After this, as if it had been a new day, he studied till supper-time, when a book was again read to him, which he would take down running notes upon. I remember once, his reader having mispronounced a word, one of my uncle’s friends at the table made him go back to where the word was and repeat it again; upon which my uncle said to his friend, ‘Surely you understood it?’ Upon his acknowledging that he did, ‘Why, then,’ said he, ‘did you make him go back again? We have lost more than ten lines by this interruption.’ Such an economist he was of time! In the summer he used to rise from supper at daylight, and in winter as soon as it was dark: a rule he observed as strictly as if it had been a law of the state. Such was his manner of life amid the bustle and turmoil of the town: but in the country his whole time was devoted to study, excepting only when he bathed. In this exception I include no more than the time during which he was actually in the bath; for all the while he was being rubbed and wiped, he was employed either in hearing some book read to him or in dictating himself. In going about anywhere, as though he were disengaged from all other business, he applied his mind wholly to that single pursuit. A shorthand writer constantly attended him, with book and tablets, who, in the winter, wore a particular sort of warm gloves, that the sharpness of the weather might not occasion any interruption to my uncle’s studies: and for the same reason, when in Rome, he was always carried in a chair. I recollect his once taking me to task for walking. ‘You need not,’ he said, ‘lose these hours.’ For he thought every hour gone that was not given to study. Through this extraordinary application he found time to compose the several treatises I have mentioned, besides one hundred and sixty volumes of extracts which he left me in his will, consisting of a kind of commonplace, written on both sides, in very small hand, so that one might fairly reckon the number considerably more. He used himself to tell us that when he was comptroller of the revenue in Spain, he could have sold these manuscripts to Largius Licinus for four hundred thousand sesterces, and then there were not so many of them. When you consider the books he has read, and the volumes he has written, are you not inclined to suspect that he never was engaged in public duties or was ever in the confidence of his prince [Emperor]? On the other hand, when you are told how indefatigable he was in his studies, are you not inclined to wonder that he read and wrote no more than he did? For, on one side, what obstacles would not the business of a court throw in his way? and on the other, what is it that such intense application might not effect? It amuses me then when I hear myself called a studious man, who in comparison with him am the merest idler.” – Letter to Baebius Macer, Pliny the Younger [describing his uncle the Roman army and naval commander, author, scientist of nature, and naturalist Pliny the Elder.  He wrote a huge number of books – many of them lost to us. Now, what have you accomplished today?]

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Quiz of the Month – September 2016

This month’s quiz will test your general knowledge of books.  As always you will find the answers on the Quiz Answers page.

  1. From what illness do the two protagonists in John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars suffer?
  2. Where does the title of the book The Fault in Our Stars come from?
  3. Who was Hamnet?
  4. In 1535 the first English translation of the Bible was printed in England.  Who is credited with the translation?
  5. The first volume of this magnificent dictionary was published on February 1, 1884 – a quarter-century after it was begun.  Name the dictionary.
  6. What famous American writer was a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany when it was extensively bombed by the United States during World War II?
  7. Where was Elmore Leonard born?
  8. What is the real name of the author who published a novel under the name of Currer Bell?
  9. Heathcliff is one of the main characters in Wuthering Heights.  What is his full name?
  10. Many authors had full-time professions before they became writers.  What was the profession of Arthur Conan Doyle? John Grisham?
  11. The Kitchen God’s Wife is the follow-up to what well-known novel by what well-known author?
  12. In a well-known short story by Herman Melville the title character says repeatedly to his employer, “I would prefer not to.”  What is the title of the short story?
  13. Name Joan Rivers’ last book.
  14. What contemporary of Shakespeare wrote the plays Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta?
  15. Donna Tartt won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for what novel?
  16. Juno Díaz won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for what novel?
  17. What Irish writer wrote the play Juno and the Paycock?
  18. Who wrote the 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago, and who played the part of Zhivago in the 1965 movie adaptation of the novel ?
  19. Colson  Whitehead’s latest novel is an Oprah Winfrey book club pick.  Name it.
  20. This  2010 book by Rebecca Skloot was very popular when published and remains on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list to this day.  Name it.
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The Lady Chablis, who gained world-wide attention as one of the character’s in John Berendt’s book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, has died in Savannah, Georgia at the age of 59.  She insisted on playing herself in the 1997 movie adaptation of the book, and gave a memorable performance.  There were many strange characters in Midnight, but The Lady Chablis was by far the most popular according to Berendt.

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Charles Osgood has just retired after hosting Sunday Morning on CBS for 22 years.  He is a multitalented man as you can see from the clips at the Sunday Morning website.  You might also enjoy some of his far-ranging radio pieces from the so-called Osgood File.

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You read lots of books, I’ll bet, but do you know the process that takes place between an author’s idea and the physical book?  You can follow the process with a nice article on the Chronicle Book Blog.

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The Royal Mail is issuing some new Agatha Christie stamps with hidden clues included, but that’s just one of the many Agatha Christie related articles you’ll find here.  Check them out – including the Christie quiz.

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I have a friend who is an attorney with a sense of humor.  He loves to tell lawyer jokes.  He, and you as well, will probably enjoy an article I found in The Guardian that discusses 10 Dodgy Lawyers in Literature.

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Harry Potter fans will enjoy a chart from Mental Floss that illustrates some magical items from the wizarding world.

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On Sunday morning, October 2nd, I will once again host “Music on the Sunny Side” from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. CT on WBRH public radio.  I’ll present a feature called “Name That Year” in which I give my listeners information about a particular year, play music from that year, and invite them to guess the year in question.  It’s lots of fun if you like history and music.  I’ll also feature songs that contain the names of U.S. cities with a very special number at the end that will blow your mind.  The other feature will be a segment from The Bickersons which was a comedy routine done by actor Don Ameche and vocalist Frances Langford on both radio and TV.  As you might have guessed, John and Blanche Bickerson don’t get along very well.  Their back and forth grousing is quite funny – as long as we are only observers.

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The next edition of the live author interview program In-Depth on Book TV (C-SPAN2) will air Sunday, October 2, 2016 from noon to 3:00 p.m. ET.  The featured guest will be author and historian Gerald Horne.  His books include The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America and Confronting Black Jacobins: The U.S., The Haitian Revolution, and the Origin of the Dominican Republic.

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The Fifties


Like many people, I feel that I grew up in a very special time.  I saw the birth of television, and everything that followed its birth: nightly news programs, beloved series like I Love Lucy and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, live coverage of world events, riveting congressional hearings, The Ed Sullivan Show, the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports (mostly remembered for its very popular Friday night boxing matches), and so much more.  I saw the birth of what was truly the fast-food industry with the growth of a chain of restaurants started in California by the McDonald brothers.  I saw the birth of something called a “motel” which is a portmanteau word formed by combining motor and hotel.  I saw the birth of rock and roll, and the rise of Elvis Presley – one of the greatest entertainers of the twentieth century.  I saw the rise of two of the most beautiful actresses in the history of cinema: Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot.  I saw some of the most beautiful automobiles that have even been built – many of them thanks to the genius of a gifted designer named Harley Earl.  I saw the beginning and end of the Korean War and the fall of a warrior who thought he could defy his superior, the President of the United States, with impunity.  I saw the rise and fall of a truly despicable man who recklessly destroyed many lives: Senator Joseph McCarthy.  I saw the birth of suburban subdivisions that sprang up out of farmland and were made up of ticky-tacky houses that seemed to appear in the blink of an eye.  And I saw the beginning of the space race when Russia successfully launched a satellite named Sputnik into outer space.

All of the events catalogued above took place during a single decade – the 1950s.  And most of them are discussed in considerable depth in David Halberstam’s marvelous 1993 book The Fifties.  Halberstam, born in 1934, obviously thought the 1950s were a special time, too.  His book, which is over 700 pages long, would have been 500 pages longer if his editor had not insisted that he reduce its length.

One of my favorite parts of the book has to do with Kemmons Wilson who started the Holiday Inn chain.  Wilson asked a draftsman friend named Eddie Bluestein to draw up the plans for his first proposed motel.  When Bluestein delivered the drawings he had the name “Holiday Inn” on the motel.  He had seen the Bing Crosby movie Holiday Inn (which introduced Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” to the world) the night before and liked the name.  Wilson went with it.

Wilson had an uncanny ability to go into a city, analyze the terrain and the traffic flow and to choose just the right location for his Holiday Inns.  He was literally a legend when it came to choosing locations.  After the motel chains had become very popular someone at a conference asked Marion Isbell of the Ramada Inn chain how he chose the locations for his properties.  “All I do,” answered Isbell, “is go into a city and find out where Kemmons Wilson has a good Holiday Inn and I put a Ramada Inn right next door.”

Ed Sullivan, who had a tremendously popular variety program on CBS every Sunday night from 1948 to 1971, had no obvious talent for show business, but did have the ability to choose performers that America loved.  He seemed so uncomfortable and wooden on stage that he became known as “The Great Stone Face.”  Sullivan had no tolerance for crudeness, and so he refused for a while to invite the pelvis-swiveling Elvis Presley on his show.  Eventually, due to Presley’s fame, Sullivan was forced to relent.  After interacting with Elvis, he realized that he was a clean-cut, polite young man. (I remember a lowly wardrobe lady on one of Elvis’ movies praising him because he always called her “ma’am.)  At the end of Presley’s third performance Sullivan walked up to him on stage and made aments on the air by saying, “This is a real decent, fine boy. We’ve never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you.  You’re thoroughly all right.”  I doubt that Sullivan ever made another apology like that.

Sullivan often featured black entertainers – a practice that angered some in the deep south where I grew up.  In fact, I remember asking a friend of mine if he had seen the Ed Sullivan show the night before.  My friend grinned and said, “Our TV doesn’t pick up that show.”  I understood.

I could go on for hours telling you about my favorite decade and Halberstam’s enthralling book, but I’ll leave it to you to find out more elsewhere if you’re interested.  David Halberstam did an interview on Book TV with its founder, Brian Lamb, back in 1993 that might interest you, and The History Channel did a multi-part series on The Fifties that is available (without commercials) on YouTube.  Both are worth your time.

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