April 22, 2011

Book 11: American English: Dialects and Variation

American English: Dialects and Variation
Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes

Ah, textbooks. Those semester-long providers of endless drudgery and dry, condescending, and repetitive information, with page after page of endless examples and dull prose, will soon be dead to my required reading lists, but here is an example of the good mixed in with the otherwise dominant bad. As a textbook, American English: Dialects and Variation can be expected to run a bit on the dry side, and dry it is indeed, though there is a sly humor that meanders its way through the book and occasionally pops up in unexpected places. Though it is not a book most would choose to read for fun and is certainly not meant for a general audience, the book is engaging and informative, with an exceptional glossary and indispensable appendix of grammatical features discussed throughout the book, making it useful as a reference book beyond the initial run-through. Nor is the prose, dull though it may be, quite a slog. There are plenty of places where it could be more lively, but the authors are careful to introduce new concepts with plenty of illustrative examples and relevant academic studies that clarify potential questions while providing suggestions for further reading. In fact, one of the most useful aspects of the book is the bibliographies and suggested reading that accompany each chapter, providing readers with a vetted list of the linguistic studies that provide the foundation for the book's assertion. This academic honesty and thoughtfulness for the audience is appreciated and echoed in the book's greater organizational scheme, which presents variationist linguistics first through a series of chapters exploring the nature of variation and its potential causes and then moves into specific aspects of variation (race, gender, or age, for example) and, finally, practical applications. These final two chapters, in fact, are the only part of the book that becomes cumbersome for interested readers, as a promise to explore applications of dialect study stalls instead on educational aspects. This follows a very intriguing (and more widely applicable) treatment of the linguistics of standardized testing, and while the information presented on teaching dialects is interesting enough for those particularly interested, the focus is too specific, too drawn out, and does not provide a fitting conclusion to the book. Instead, the authors insert an overt agenda that reaches far beyond the book's general, self-justifying, and reasonable assertion that variation is legitimate and which makes the final chapters not so much a summation as a slog. Regardless of its final failure, however, American English: Dialects and Variation is a remarkably useful and accessible introduction to variation and dialects for the academically inclined and, though dry, efficiently packs a wealth of information and examples into a reasonably slim and easy volume.

Grade: A

April 19, 2011

Book 10: Lysistrata


It is difficult to enter the study of any ancient literature without a serviceable knowledge of ancient culture, and in that regard it is impossible to separate my reading experience of the Lysistrata from the work of translator Alan H. Sommerstein. Unfortunately, however, this thought occurred to me not afterward in a fit of particular gratitude but, instead, in the midst of reading the book. Sommerstein’s introduction to Aristophanes and his endnotes are immensely useful to readers who, like me, have little experience with Ancient Greece, but his work is sadly transparent throughout the work in numerous missteps and distractions. It is, of course, difficult to display the nuances of dialect, slang, and vulgarity in any work’s non-native language, and the supplementary material within the book indicates that Sommerstein has a firm grasp on the play’s context and creator. Nonetheless, the rendering of Spartan speech in a stereotypical and borderline offensive exaggerated Scottish dialect does not imply the general difference I believe the author was aiming for but, instead, simply makes the group sound, well, Scottish. Various Britishisms that appear throughout this particular translation are forgivable as the dialect is presumably Sommerstein’s own, but the silliness of the Scottish Spartans and of numerous awkward constructions will immediately and forcibly drag American minds away from the text at hand and will induce a pondering of the translator rather than the text itself.

That said, however, Lysistrata is a delightful and surprisingly vulgar play, humorous for modern readers and understandable despite a number of contextual references to Greek culture and history that may not be immediately understood by modern readers. Moreover, the play is at times uproariously hilarious, and its take on the ability of physical desire to trump all human evils is surprisingly cutting even in these enlightened times. Lysistrata is an enjoyable read for its own sake, and Sommerstein’s occasional inadequacy is significantly mitigated by his adeptness at translating the songs of the play’s various choruses, which absolutely shine. The play is well constructed, though the ambiguity of time leaves the plot seeming at times a bit disjointed, and the work is revealing about the context of its creation even if some of that context is obscured either by the fog of history or a particular reader’s own unfamiliarity with the topic. Generally speaking, each character develops his or her own voice, and though the plot can seem a bit silly and gets downright dirty, even for today’s standards, at some points the play contains what is necessary and few distracting embellishments. While some phrases are repeated too often and an undue emphasis is often placed on sex and the naked body, Aristophanes succeeds in creating a lasting play that is readable and relevant millennia after its creation. Though Lysistrata may suffer at the hands of overeager translators, it remains a quick, fun, and surprisingly revealing read for modern readers, though it is certainly not for the faint of heart.

Grade: B+

April 12, 2011

Book 9: Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection, 1987-1991

Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection, 1987-1991
Scott McCloud

To call Zot! a graphic novel is a bit inaccurate, as this particular collection instead represents the complete run of the black-and-white comic series over a number of years. As a self-contained body of work, however, the collection does portray a number of narrative arcs and presents an addicting fusion of manga-influenced artwork, the classic American superhero tradition, and comics' late-1980s foray into the everyday problems otherwise relegated to more highly regarded types of literature. Though some oblique references to the series' earlier 10-issue color run may be a bit confusing, this particular collection is well-annotated to avoid confusion, and these references and in-jokes are generally of the kind that will enhance longtime readers' experience with the book without greatly hampering those new to the series. In fact, what makes Zot! so appealing across a range of audiences is an elegant mixture of a great historical awareness that contextually situates the comic in a particular point of genre development and a well-developed series of engaging storylines that are well-balanced and that engage a number of topics, themes, and storytelling tones. While there is nothing inherently revolutionary about the collection, it represents a successful attempt to fuse new storytelling styles and techniques in American comics with a delightfully old-fashioned superhero and classic teen coming-of-age angst.

Zot! is a series that is appealing and marvelous despite some very obvious shortcomings. Though McCloud's explanatory essays, which themselves are a welcome addition and are presented helpfully after the storylines in question rather than as spoilers, frequent self-derision regarding the artwork is distracting, though not entirely undeserved. McCloud does, however, call undue extra attention to the inconsistency in his art, which is apparent but which does not greatly hamper the general reading experience. It should be obvious to most readers that the comic is primarily character-driven, and though there is a bit of necessary nuance lacking in taut emotional scenes, his eye for perspective makes his futuristic scenery stand out, particularly as it is rendered in black and white. Moreover, McCloud clearly has a good grasp of the medium and its particular affordances and abilities, and series of panels meant to convey very small changes in expression or gestures may not quite achieve their artistic goals, but are nonetheless effective in representing the effect of what the author/artist is going for. This is, ultimately, what is important about Zot!, which is clearly not intended to survive solely or even mostly on artistic merit but which instead challenges boundaries and is more than sufficiently supported by its storylines, writing, and characters.

In fact, McCloud's constant apologies attempt to atone for problems that are often not even evident. Part of Zot!'s charm is its distinctive artistic style, and the resistance to color illustration allows the content to triumph over the use of superhero cliché. And while McCloud does utilize some character exaggerations that often make the comic seem too earnest, there are signs of author, artist, and character growth over the course of the series. Even the traditional-seeming supervillains are thoughtfully constructed to represent different possibilities for a future gone awry, and McCloud is able to utilize the superhero narrative as a critical device rather than as a narrative fallback. It also helps that he often displays exceptional talent, from an implicit understanding, if not complete mastery, of comics' potential as revolutionary narrative medium to a number of issues nominated for various accolades. McCloud displays an exceptional range. He nails effective political commentary, from the non-threatening De-Evolutionaries, who revert humanity back to monkeys with special ray guns, to the overzealous capitalism of the Blotch. Here, too, are more serious threats to humanity posed by once-human robot Dekko (whose visions are rendered in absolutely stunning artwork) and, most tragically, by technology itself, as personified in 9Jack9, a true "ghost in the machine." The story arc of the same title lingers, its haunting conclusion and surprisingly dark tone aptly setting the stage for the more mature second half of the series. The implicit darkness of Dekko and 9Jack9 will stay with readers, though their last hurrah comes as comic relief as Zot's worthy nemeses come together for a pitch-perfect battle that provides a perfect segway between the series' two main thematic halves while entertaining and rewarding fans.

The concluding batch of stories, which concentrate on our Earth and which do not utilize the portal that facilitates travel to superhero Zot's brilliantly retro-futuristic world, grounds the series and allows it to wrap up in such an effective manner. As the series opens, readers are left to wonder why we shouldn't, after all, want to live in a world whose perfection stems from favorite visions of Golden Age futurists. Early in the book, protagonist and Earth girl Jenny wonders why we might bother to appreciate anything about our world, but as these sentiments are echoed in the series' final lines, they display a depth made possible only by the intervening stories. McCloud is, in some ways, a genius, one who more than makes up for his own acknowledged shortcomings by presenting readers with the familiar in an unfamiliar context, forging meaning out of cliché and elevating comics to a new artistic respectability. Ultimately, Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection, 1987-1991 has its awkward moments and growing, but the overall effect is a marvelous blend of traditional escapism and real-world relevance that transcends its own limitations to present a wonderful collection of riveting stories that is truly a joy to read.

Grade: A