Sunday, April 29, 2007

Elevating the Pun to an Art Form

According to Samuel Johnson, the pun is "the lowest form of humour". I've always been inclined to agree.

To me, the pun has always seemed like a character type.

A Lyle Lovett lyric goes like this:

You are a lonely, weak, pathetic man.*

My favorite lyric from any Smiths song goes like this:

So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry and you want to die.**

If puns were people, these are the kind of passages that would seem entirely appropriate for describing them.

I have no real pity for the pun, no matter how much disrespect is thrown at it. The pun seems desperate, but not especially pitiable. I'm not saying that there aren't clever puns out there. Surely, there must be. But on the whole, as a class, puns are insipid. Is there a better word to describe them? I doubt it.

However, there is one area of human endeavor where I truly believe the pun has been raised to an art form: The mystery novel title.

There seems to be an entire subgenre of mystery novel that has sprung up around the punny title. Consider the following:

Diane Mott Davidson
  • Sticks & Scones
  • The Cereal Murders
  • Chopping Spree
  • The Main Corpse

Nancy Fairbanks
  • Crime Brulee
  • Truffled Feathers
  • Chocolate Quake

Laura Durham
  • Better Off Wed
  • For Better or Hearse
  • Bride and Doom
  • Acts of Violets

Charlaine Harris
  • Grave Sight
  • Dead Over Heels
  • Club Dead
  • Last Scene Alive

Maddy Hunter
  • Norway to Hide
  • Top O' the Mournin'
  • Alpine for You
  • Pasta Imperfect

Gillian Roberts
  • A Hole in Juan
  • Till the End of Tom
  • Adam and Evil
  • Claire and Present Danger
  • Helen Hath No Fury

...and the queen of the subgenre (in my opinion), Mary Daheim
  • Saks and Violins
  • Dead Man Docking
  • Fowl Prey
  • September Mourn
  • A Streetcar Named Expire
  • Legs Benedict
  • Dune to Death
  • Wed and Buried
  • Suture Self
  • Creeps Suzette
  • Silver Scream
  • Murder, My Suite

It's not that the puns in these titles are especially rich. (Mostly they aren't.) Rather, it's just the hokiness of the whole thing. A punny book title like these is almost guaranteed to belong to a mystery novel. Seeing all of these titles makes me seriously wonder what's going on.

  • Which comes first? The title or the book idea?
  • Do the authors maintain title lists for years, just waiting for the opportunity to cross the items off their lists?
  • Are the titles really tied to the stories? (I'm almost tempted to grab a few of these books and read them just to check on this one.)
  • Do publishers or agents provide the titles as writing prompts?
  • Do publishers salivate at the prospect of a new punny-title mystery series? Or do they all groan at the idea of yet another punny-title mystery series?
  • Are there punny titles that are rejected?

* Her First Mistake
** How Soon is Now

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Crocuses — a new photograph

Here's one of those shots from a couple of days ago. Beth has identified the flower variety as crocus. We have white ones and purple ones in bloom at the moment. I really like that they're on such short stems. Staying so close to the ground, I think they seem a perfect flower to "peek" out from all of the winter deadness, early in the spring season (relatively speaking). It's a nice contrast, I think.

crocus, Spring, flower

Friday, April 27, 2007

Self-Healing Technology

I love self-healing technology! It's kind of like skin. Cut it and it bleeds. But if you wait a while, it repairs itself. The mechanism is a mystery to most of us. But the results are the same: effortless repair, often just about as good as new.

Three examples:

1) My Sirius satellite radio receiver: A few months ago, I left it plugged into my car's lighter outlet overnight, and I forgot to turn it off. Three unfortunate things happened:
  1. It drew down all of the power from my car's battery, thus requiring me to get a jump from Beth's MINI.
  2. It blew one of my car's fuses, thus requiring me to replace an automotive fuse for the first time ever.
  3. The display died. So I spent a few months driving around with no visual indicator telling me which station I was tuned to, who was singing or talking, what song was playing, what the current score of the hockey game was, etc.,...
Since then, I have made a real effort to remember to turn off and unplug the receiver after each trip (less because of the fuse and the display issue than because having a dead battery is a real bummer).

However, one day last week, I forgot to unplug it. (But I did remember to turn it off, so at least it wasn't draining power from the battery. Not much, anyway.)

Guess what happened.


Most exciting. The display is now working like a charm. Now I can see what I'm listening to.

2) My car itself: I spent a week or two driving around with the "Service Engine Soon" indicator constantly lit. This was a little troubling, as I really don't want to have to invest money in a costly repair. But I checked the manual to see what this indicator really means. It turns out that it seems to tie into an emissions monitoring system. If the emissions go funky, the light comes on--presumably because the car isn't operating as well as it's supposed to. I guess it really means that it's not burning fuel as efficiently as it's supposed to do.

Anyway, as I was driving home from the book store the other night, I was fretting about this light, but I was also calculating (as the fuel gauge needle passed 1/2 tank at about 215 miles since my last fill up) that if this pace holds up, my mileage for this tankful is going to end up at somewhere north of spectacular.

Lo and behold, when next I looked down at the dashboard, the indicator had been extinguished. Self-healing technology! Hooray!

3) Beth's MINI's driver's side door lock: A few months ago, it stopped wanting to let her out when she wanted to get out. Instead of just being able to take the standard two pulls on the handle (the first to unlock, the second to open), she found herself needing to use the toggle switch on the center console to unlock the doors before it would let her out. Then at the beginning of last week, things got even worse! Now the toggle swich refused to do the trick. So when she got to work, she ended up having to crawl out through the passenger's side.

Actually, it seems that the toggle switch did unlock the door, but the door handle refused to actually disengage the latch, so the effect was the same. Luckily, this knowledge did lead to a somewhat less strenuous solution than crawling out the other side of the car: She could roll down her window and reach out to use the exterior handle to release her.

We contacted a mechanic friend to see whether he could fix the problem. He said he'd need to diagnose it and order any necessary part(s) and then he'd be able to fix it when the part(s) arrived. So that's a two day affair, and it's a pretty good trek from here to there. So we didn't make the appointment. (Beth came down with a nasty cold in the meantime, anyway, so she spent some days in bed, not worrying about the car.)

Over the weekend, we did some significant driving (as far as Long Island). You'll never guess what happened...

Self-healing! The MINI fixed itself.

Did I mention that I love self-healing technology?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Spring Thaw — a new photograph

The daffodils in the back yard started opening a couple of days ago, and today I noticed some other flowers (species unknown to me, of course) on the front lawn. I've taken some shots of them, but before I start posting the flowery bits, I figured I might as well post a shot from a few weeks ago: melting ice on a calm stretch of a local waterway. I've actually done more color experimentation on this one than I normally like to do. I happen to like this version best:

Melting ice, Spring thaw, Sugar River, Croydon NH

I killed the color and then enriched the black with a little hint of blue. If you'd like to see an alternate version, with the color actually punched up pretty significantly from how it was shot, click here.

Critiques, as always, are welcome. Let me know which version you prefer...and whether you think either is any good or whether they're both just awful.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Capsule Review: The Ice Storm

Here's another of those little "Staff Recommendation" reviews that I write for the book store:

The Ice Storm, directed by Ang Lee.
Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire, Joan Allen, Katie Holmes. If you're a movie fan, these names should mean something to you. This low-key gem may actually be the best piece of work any of them has ever been associated with. We named our first dog after the Katie Holmes character. "Libbets? What kind of a name is Libbets?!?" The movie is centered around a couple of families during a strange and tragic Thanksgiving weekend in the 1970s. It probably won't make you cry, it may not make you laugh, but it might just leave you in awe.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Another Photo I'm Proud Of

I'm also pretty proud of this photo:

Newt, spotted newt, red spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens

This is the New Hampshire state amphibian, the spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens).

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Maybe My Favorite Photo

Of all the photographs I've ever taken, this one very well might be my favorite:


For some reason, it just strikes me as being particulary gorgeous, albeit pretty limited in its color range. I hope you like it. As always, comments are welcome--pro or con.

Another Keiko Photo available

In case anyone wants to see a fifth photo of Keiko, one has been featured on today's installment of the Bird A Day Blog. Thanks, Bird A Day!

Monday, April 16, 2007

New Blogging Strategy, Newton Baby Picture, Two Reviews

I know that I haven't been the most regular blogger. I would like to do something about that. I doubt that I'll get to the point where I'm posting something new on a daily basis. But I would like to post something new at least a few times a week. So, I've devised a new strategy.

While I certainly don't want to turn this into a photo blog, I have come to realise that my photography is what's getting me more hits than anything else. (Why doesn't my dictionary project seem to capture anyone's attention? I don't know. I've found it absolutely fascinating!)

So what I'm going to start doing is posting photographs more regularly, particularly when I don't have anything else to contribute for a few days. Some of these will be old photos that I haven't previously posted, but that I happen to like a lot. Some will be new photos. For today, an old picture of Newton, from when he was still a little baby, 4 1/3 years ago.

Newton Roo, chihuahua, baby, comfort

Strategy shift number 2:

For the book store, I sometimes make staff recommendations. Instead of just telling our merchandising supervisor, "I like this", I generally provide a brief review. It's almost certain to be a positive review. (Why recommend something I don't like?) But it's a review nonetheless. I figure I might as well make dual-use of these reviews. So I think that in addition to posting more photographs, I'll also start occasionally posting these reviews. Surely I won't always post both on the same day, but as today is the launch of my new blogging strategy, I figure I'll make it a super-bonus day. In fact, I'm going to give you two reviews today!

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. Having loved the movie for over a decade and a half, I finally got around to reading the book and was surprised to find that I loved it just as much. The two are different, but they very much share the same spirit and I find that they can happily coexist in my mind as two parts of the same beautiful dream.

The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner. So far, the only thing that dates this movie is the antiquated video game played by Fred Savage in the framing story. Eventually, the line "When I was your age, television was called books" will date it as well (as the word "television" drops out of common parlance). Beyond that, this is one for the ages…a timeless classic. This is undoubtedly of the most quotable movies ever made. I'm convinced it's also one of the most flawless. And it's suitable for the entire family.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Pictures of Keiko

My sister requested that I post some pictures of our bird, Keiko. So here he is:

Keiko, blue headed pionus

Keiko, blue headed pionus

Keiko, blue headed pionus

Keiko, blue headed pionus
He's a blue headed pionus. Actually quite pretty. He's camera shy, though. I took over 70 shots and ended up with only about 20 that I thought were any good. From those, I chose to post these four.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Dictionary Project, Status Update

It occurred to me recently that some of the dictionaries in my testing are out of print. For example, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition is no longer available. So I checked the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, which I believe is just a slightly updated version of the same dictionary, with a name change stemming from a merger. The results of that test: the same. So #15 is basically just #2, renamed. I've gone back and color coded the titles in previous blog entries to indicate which are currently in print and which are not. Blue indicates in print. Dark red indicates out of print.

I've also checked a few more dictionaries in the last couple of weeks. A couple are "on the record", meaning that I had my list with me and was therefore able to take an official count. Others are "off the record", meaning I worked from memory and don't have official tallies. In all cases, I have been satisfied that the dictionaries tested are inferior to the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD), which still stands as the winner of this little competition.

Among those I checked "off the record" was Webster's Third New International Dictionary Unabridged, which I just checked today. It's a pretty immense volume, and with a sticker price of $129, it's more than twice the price of the NOAD. Sadly, it missed on multiple counts: geographical entries, Goombah, ninja and ninjutsu, Scientology. Really, it was quite a disappointing showing for such an expensive offering. And it should be noted that I did not check all of the words on my list (again, working from memory).

As the table was already as wide as could fit comfortably into my blog layout, I've stripped out the out of print dictionaries from the new version of the table here:

dictionary comparison table, aardwolf, aitch, anhedonia, Baha'i, bumf, capybara, cavy, curmudgeon, em, epistemology, Fuji, full nelson, Gadzooks, goombah, habanero, Jainism, Kilimanjaro, nappy, ninja, ninjutsu, Orinoco, pariah, schadenfreude, Scientology, Sufism, zorilla, kayfabe

1. Webster's New World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Copyright 2003
5. The Oxford American Dictionary. Copyright 1980
6. The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary, 4th Edition. Copyright 2006
7. The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition. Copyright 2001
8. The American Century Dictionary. Copyright 1995
9. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition. Copyright 2006
11. The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition. Copyright 2005
12. Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Copyright 2006
13. Encarta Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition. Copyright 2004
14. The American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Copyright 2004
15. Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition. Copyright 2005

Special note: Dictionary #13 gives the definition I was seeking for habanero, but it lists it under habanera, which I view as an error, rather than a suitable alternative. I'll leave it to you to judge whether I am correct in this assessment.

And I've still not found kayfabe in any dictionary. So sad.