Mortal Kombat

Author: Jeff Rovin

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1995

I read it: June 2016 (re-read)


Yes, there was a novelization of the video game Mortal Kombat. Yes, I’ve read it… more than once. Let’s dive in.

To Bathe in Frequency

I’ve read a book or three in my day. I have favorites, but I don’t lean on them like a crutch the way I might with music. That’s mostly a practical thing: books take time, and I want to lean into the new. In a given year I might re-read a handful of titles, let’s say maybe four out of the 45+ I complete before December runs out. Even then, those instances usually mark only the second reading of a single book. I suppose there are some that have a larger count. I think I’ve read Lord of the Flies quite a bit, The Catcher in the Rye a few times way back when, stuff like that. Harry Potter for sure. LOTR at least four times and The Hobbit more than that. The list isn’t very long.

But then I was prompted to consider The Book I’ve Read More Than Any Other. And like the author of that post, I realized the answer was somewhat strange. A bit embarrassing even, though I’ve (mostly) outgrown the need to justify what I read or to waste time contemplating the low- and high-browness of anything. But the fact remains that the book I’ve read more than any other is Mortal Kombat by Jeff Rovin. I’ve read it eight times.

Eight times? Yep, and I know that because after the first time through, I wrote “6th grade (95)” on one of the inner pages and the list began. I kept track ever since, reading it throughout middle and high school, continuing inexplicably the first couple years of college, and then letting over a decade pass until realizing it deserved a post on my blog. Eight readings is not an enormous amount (Mr. Hanagarne of the linked post read the Terminator 2 novel a hundred times) but it still tops the list. Only Bilbo follows close behind.

Of Blood & Guts

This book was released in 1995 (I must have read it when it was brand new—I have no recollection of actually obtaining it), the same year that Mortal Kombat 3 came out. That means the original MK and MK II were fully established in the culture and in my life. What the hell was up with the Mortal Kombat phenomenon?

I remember the arcade version at Pizza Hut. I remember playing it at our daycare provider’s house, whose son owned it. I remember borrowing either the original or the sequel from him and biking home with the cartridge. I remember the finishing moves and the “Toasty!” and the raised eyebrows from my parents. We brushed off the violence as nothing.

It wasn’t nothing; it was interesting. I’m not going to attempt some grand statement about video game violence generally or MK’s influence specifically, though at the time this was considered a pretty intense piece of entertainment. There was a hint of realism to the games due to the graphics being based on in-studio actors, but the violence itself was highly cartoonish. Blood spurted in fountains, but the combatants’ powers were all magical. It was fantasy violence, if you take “fantasy” here to mean “of the fantastic; unreal,” not “I’m fantasizing about killing people.” One might argue that the latter is what first person shooters opened the door to. MK should probably bear only a partial burden as a stepping stone to more violent games. Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty this was not.

Still, the crunching of those digital bones had to have been offputting to a ton of parents at the time. It was a strange video game, Mom and Dad.

Art as Commodity as Art

Let’s get to the book! How does one write a book about a popular video game? Well, you choose to start with the skeleton (heh) mythology laid out in the games themselves. (A note on the cover explains this is “Based on characters created by Ed Boon & John Tobias for Midway Manufacturing Company.”) Then, you decide what kind of author you are. Are you churning out sheer product? Obviously this book, being officially sanctioned, was going to have the iconic dragon symbol on the cover (“the dragon of Shimura Island, with its horse-like head and sharp frills that curled up from its long neck, was a treasure dragon”). This puppy was meant to move units. But could it be artful? Is there a way to add quality to the whole scheme?

The first page is the Author’s Note, in which we are told that in addition to the specific characters from the video game, “most of the gods, dragons, heroes, alchemists, curs, and folk characters described or mentioned in this novel come from the rich mythology and history of China” and that readers can learn more by consulting two listed texts that were a big influence on this book.

Hold up. Was 1995 not yet entirely swallowed in marketing cynicism? You’re telling me that this thing kicks off by recommending two non-fiction books that the author turned to for guidance so he could write an actual novel?

Turn the page, and there’s another readerly surprise. An epigraph:

The roots of a thing may be well balanced, but its branches may be deviant.
– The Nei P’ien of Ko Hung, A.D. 320

Is this a genuine attempt at story?

Rockin’ Rockin’ Prologue of the Gods

The prologue continues in the honorable vein of establishing a mythology. How can we get to a story about otherwordly fighters? It makes sense to start with deities. The first being was P’an Ku, whose birth and death marked “the beginning of all things physical, the start of growth and change and decay—the beginning of time.” Next came the multi-limbed god T’ien, whose heart radiated auras from four separate chambers: one that led to our world, one to T’ien, another to the world of the dead, and the final one to Outworld.

Outworld, of course, is where strange demons dwell.

Kung Lao & Co.

Oddly, the first MK-brand character we meet is Kung Lao, who wasn’t introduced in the games until Mortal Kombat II. There, he appeared a solemn character with little flair, his sole signature being his hat, the circular brim of which was ringed with a razor-sharp blade. (It was a lot of fun to fling that hat across the screen.) Here, he is a willful young Chinese man who, in the year A.D. 480, is arguing with his Aunt Chen about wanting more from life. His aunt wants him to be safe, but Kung Lao blasphemously wants to seek the truth about the god T’ien, whose very visage is not allowed to be rendered.

I’m not sure how much I dwelled on this in past readings, but the early theme of knowledge is refreshing, not to mention wonderfully stated. In convincing his aunt of his passion, Kung Lao supports the increasing skills of the local monks and states that “we grow by learning, and we learn by doing.” A few pages later, Aunt Chen reasonably asks why he can’t just “enjoy being human” and do things like court a woman, read, and tend plants. It’s not enough for him:

“I would prefer to know how and why the sun moves than to watch it set. As for the others, love fades and trees die. Paintings fade or become quaint relics. Knowledge is all we can truly pass on, all we can build on.”

So Kung Lao sets off in search of truth. Along the way, he notices the figure of a stranger tracking him… a stranger who is preceded by lightning, wears a conical straw hat, and has a blue sash around his waist. He speaks to Kung Lao of duality and mysteriously guides the youth forward, yet for now goes unnamed.

The next couple chapters swiftly introduce us to the opposition: Shang Tsung, holed up in a crumbling Shaolin temple and devoting his decades to study. Not unlike Kung Lao, he’s on his own search for the truth. Here the author again ties in references to actual philosophers and scribes to give scraps of mysterious writings that Shang is following so that he can tap into the world of gods. He’s trying to open a door to Outworld, the home of Shao Kahn, the big boss from MK II and Shang’s ruler. Shao Kahn can’t yet cross through to earth, he can only demand his slave demon, Ruthay, to act as messenger to Shang Tsung. The initial exchange between Ruthay and Shao Kahn always stuck with me (I have a vague memory of reading it in the backseat of the car on a summer day). Not a character from the games, Ruthay is a fearful, groveling creature meant to repulse: “beads of bloody sweat erupted on the demon’s parchment-thin yellow flesh.” Poor Ruthay.

Back to Kung’s journey. He finally realizes that his new friend is Rayden, the thunder god. Curiously, his description of Rayden’s fighting skills include one of the only times in the book in which moves from the game are explicitly mentioned: the Lightning Throw, the Torpedo Attack. Kung Lao does not use his hat as a weapon, but he does undergo martial arts training and Rayden bestows upon him a magical amulet. The fighter travels to Shang Tsung’s island once a year and competes in the mysterious tournament of Mortal Kombat. With the help of the amulet, Kung Lao becomes the returning champion, winning for thirteen straight years. But one year he senses a new evil, and hides the amulet so that in the case of a loss it won’t fall into the wrong hands. Four hands, actually.

Goro was probably the coolest character of the original Mortal Kombat game. The four-armed beast was the sub-boss, Shang Tsung’s lackey. Many will remember getting caught in his grip and pounded. He was immensely strong but seemed dumb. In this book, we are reminded he’s a Shokan Prince. He arrives at the tournament with confidence, and between snacking on reptiles, keeps up with regular conversation along with the rest. This is a very active Goro.

Kung Lao loses Mortal Kombat without the amulet. Goro wins the tournament on behalf of Shang, and that’s that for Part I.

Choose Your Fighter

A good 1500 years later, in the present day, Shang and crew are still alive because the tournament’s victors do not age. He still needs to figure out how to get Shao Kahn through the portal, and can do so by collecting souls. But it’s slow going, so he hires someone to seek out the ancient amulet. Hello, Kano.

Here we meet the regular players in swift yet efficient introductions. Kano is contracting for Shang Tsung, leading a group of mercenaries through the Chinese foothills. He’s trailed by Sonya Blade in disguise, who is out for revenge. Sonya is a partner to Liu Kang, both of them super-skilled martial artists. These three take up a lot of page space. Kano becomes a bit too integral to the plot, but he does have the butterfly knives and the red eye (there’s a nice bit of detail where he is able to read a map at night).

Apart from the first third of the book, which does the most with the smallest number of characters, the Scorpion and Sub-Zero rivalry is the next-best thing. These two were always fan favorites in the game, dressed the same but in different colors, one fire and one ice. According to Rovin’s take, Scorpion is the good guy and Sub-Zero is the baddie.

Scorpion’s origin story is super cool. A poor fisherman is murdered by an assassin, and the assassin throws the body in the canals. The demigod of the canals is not okay with this dishonorable disposal. He lifts the spirit of the dead man out of the water and floats him to the bedroom of his son. The spirit of the father merges with the body of the son, and powered by supernatural revenge they become Scorpion. Even the name and weapons are explained: the new father-son will use the hooks and barbs of the fisherman’s trade, the sting of which will be like that of a scorpion.

The assassin, of course, was Sub-Zero, a ninja’s ninja who resides in a cliffside cave and whose his icy powers are drawn from his soulless center.

So Scorpion joins Liu and Sonya under the guidance of Rayden and these are the good guys. Oh, and there’s also a new Kung Lao, descendant of the first and a peaceful priest. Sub-Zero reluctantly works with Goro, Kano, Shang, and a cameo Reptile to be on the bad side of things. Yin and Yang were mentioned early on in the book (“the interaction of these qualities was what influenced the destinies of events and creatures”) and there’s a nice sense of closure to know who exactly is on which team in this interpretation. (Scorpion is a good guy!)

Of all the faces from the first MK game, only Johnny Cage is absent here. And thank the dragons that it’s so. Clearly the lamest character, there would have been no logical fit. Kano is annoying enough in his own right, and Liu Kang has a bit of American cockiness to at least partially fill the Johnny Cage gap. No one is weeping for this exclusion. There is a mention of Jackson Briggs being Sonya’s boss, though, which is nifty.

Also: Baraka. The fan favorite makes an appearance as a demon priest who cuts up bodies as sacrifices and then uses the blood to paint on a cave wall in reverence. It actually kind of works, and at least gives some reasoning behind the big blades.

A Queue By Any Other Name

With multiple readings come at least a few ingrained memories, one of which is the first time I came upon the word “queue.” There on page 10 I can see eraser marks from where I had once circled the word, and then at the end of the paragraph wrote “pronounced: kyu.” The definition here is the type of ponytail that Kung Lao wears. Until Netflix eventually made the word popular stateside, this was the only usage I came across.

(I remember marking words to look up while at my desk before class started in high school. Whoever sat in front of me noticed what I was doing and idly commented on it. He said he’d never do that voluntarily. Not in a mean way, but just that in observing me studying this book [even then, I knew it was a pretty corny one to be carrying around] it occurred to him that I was the type of person who would look up words I didn’t know, while he was not. I went to school with some pretty civil young people, all told.)

Other things that always stuck with me from the book: Liu Kang’s recollection of a game he played with his brother in which they would surprise each other and attempt to wrestle the other down, which went on for years while a tally was kept; the first Kung Lao’s pre-fight ritual of scraping thorns over himself so that he would be that much more hesitant to let his opponents land a blow on his tender skin; Sub-Zero being raised by the dreaded Lin Kuei, who snatched kids at a young age and put them through brutal trials in which only the best survived to become deadly ninjas.

These backstories made the book worthwhile, and were more memorable than the fighting because the fighting, although plentiful, is rather tame and mostly bloodless. Instead, there are some brief reflections on the experience of injury:

Nothing kept one from dying like intense pain. On the contrary, it brought one to life—from the burning agony of the wound itself, to the raw insides of one’s screaming throat, to the hate in one’s heart for the one who was doing the killing.

This balancing act of telling the story of deadly fighters while not detailing too much of the gore is similar to the strategy that moviemakers took when they explored Mortal Kombat in yet another medium.

At the Movies

I’m pretty sure I saw this movie in the theater. It was a big deal, at the height of MK mania, released in (you guessed it) 1995. Comparable perhaps to Batman Forever in the same year, this was a surprisingly serviceable live action video game adaptation.

For those on a nostalgia wave, I’d recommend reading this oral history of the film. Sounds like they had a blast making it. Hewing to its own take on the mythology, the movie centered on Liu Kang coming to terms with the death of his brother and being drawn to the mysterious tournament. It’s about as logical and loony as can be, and not all that different in tone from the books. Quick comparisons here:

  • Liu Kang was solid, played by a good actor, and fit the part well. Book Liu is alright but kind of forgettable. Both of them summon exactly one fireball in a dire situation.
  • Sonya is decent, driven by her one-dimensional motive of hunting down Kano. Same as in the book. No bicycle kicks or pink energy balls in either though.
  • Kano is great in the movie, though he appears only briefly. This is the exact type of Kano I picture in the book.
  • Rayden is lame in the movie. I know, he’s probably the biggest name they wrangled, but he’s way too genial and not believable as a commanding demigod. Book Rayden, described as inhumanly tall and depicted in the single graphic in the book as having the glowing eyes, is way better. Why is he kind of old in the movie?
  • Opposite goes for Shang Tsung. In the movie, why is he so young? Old Shang, also depicted accurately in the painting at the beginning of the book, is the way to go.
  • Goro was kind of neat in the movie (he was obviously a guy in a suit or some big animatronic creation, but they did what they could and it beats CGI). He’s a lot dumber than book Goro.
  • Scorpion and Sub-Zero are mindless foes in the movie. Their main fight scenes against the protagonists are actually kind of cool, but they have no backstory.
  • The movie has Johnny Cage and a painfully unforgettable line about his sunglasses. It’s like a cinematic punch to the nuts.
  • Kitana was also in here for some reason.

I saw this movie a lot (probably at least eight times, heh) and the sequels were crap. But it’s still cool they pulled it off. And let’s not forget the song that quickly came to define not just the movie but the games themselves.

Wherefore Art Thou, Jeff Rovin?

Our implicit question here is the same we might propose for all books, but perhaps jumps to fore quicker for this odd cross-medium attempt: “Is the book any good?” A quick yes or no can never suffice (otherwise the posts on this blog would be very brief indeed), so then we lean on the related question: “Is the book any good given what it set out to do?” That is, is this a worthy novelization of a goofy video game?

I lean toward yes. The issue of whether this should ever have become a book at all is totally valid, but the finished product is not from the bottom of the barrel. There is real writing here, as seen in the original Kung Lao’s journey to the tournament (“he had managed to capture and cook a pheasant… a molting, ancient thing that seemed to welcome the broken neck he gave it”) or a brief description of a ghostly yet tangible being (“his voice unheard yet heard, like the sound of reading”). There are a few philosophical nuggets scattered throughout, which were effective  when I was in the target audience: “Behind every myth there is some truth, and behind every truth there is more myth.” Not just fluff, that. Jeff Rovin seems to have done the artist’s baseline duty of at least taking the project seriously.

And where are you now, sir? I can’t even try to weight this question with mystery. You are alive and well, for our Goodreads tells us so. I still have a paperback with your name on it, cracked and worn and an odd sight amongst the other books in my collection. I honestly don’t know what to do with the copy now. But I can say that I read it. Did I ever.

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Posted by on October 21, 2016 in Novels


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The Witches

Author: Roald Dahl

Artist: Quentin Blake

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1983

I read it: October 2016


Roald Dahl has no hesitation about exposition when it comes to his mini-mythologies. He’s perfectly comfortable with telling before showing.

The first pages in this children’s horror classic make up “A Note About Witches” where the author clearly states the existence and danger of REAL WITCHES. It’s also a quick introduction to his signature humor and macabre style, such as this little bit of woe about our helpless state: “Oh, if only there were a way of telling for sure whether a woman was a witch or not, then we could round them all up and put them in the meatgrinder.” Um, well, I guess we know what we’re getting into here.

The story proper introduces us to a young boy and his kindly, wise, tough Norwegian grandmother. She knows all the ins and outs of witches, because they were historically concentrated in Norway. The pair move to England after the boy’s parents die, and the grandmother proceeds to explain that England has its own witch infestation, and then she relates all the physical abnormalities to look for if you want to spot one.

Economically, the boy soon encounters his first witch while on summer vacation. Soon after that, he and his grandmother go visit a lavish hotel where most of the book’s action takes place. Indeed, of the 200 pages total, 120 of them are consecutively spent just within the ballroom of the hotel, where the boy stumbles upon an annual meeting of the witches. It’s an obvious yet still delightful display of each of the gruesome attributes the boy had previously learned from his grandmother. Here we also meet The Grand High Witch, who speaks in a cartoonish almost-Russian, Dahl playing with language similar to how he did in The BFG.

Somewhat conveniently, the boy is turned into a mouse after harboring dreams of running a mouse circus. He quickly takes a liking to his new form and quite enjoys being an acrobatic rodent. Dahl briefly philosophizes about the positive side: “When mice grow up, they don’t ever have to go to war and fight against other mice. Mice, I felt pretty certain, all like each other. People don’t.”

Although the witches never get to carry out their plan of turning all of England’s children into mice, there’s plenty of horror in the speculation of it. This is enhanced by Quentin Blake’s sketches, such as the picture of a nice schoolteacher sweeping dead mice (the bodies of her former students) into a pile. The witches’ gruesome faces droop from their bones and it’s easy to imagine these pictures spooking a young reader.

There’s no need to relay the ending, but the whole book is a swift, detailed, imaginative little gross-out adventure. Watch out for those witches.

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Posted by on October 14, 2016 in Novels


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The Westing Game

Author: Ellen Raskin

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1978

I read it: September 2016


I first heard about The Westing Game from some list that was like “Five Books to Read if You Like the Movie Clue” or somesuch. Then I happened to see it at the thrift store and snagged it, and then a friend saw me add it on Goodreads and said he remembered it from his youth and was curious how it held up. (Plus, I’ll read anything with a  Newbery Medal on it.)

Published in the late 70s, the plot presumably takes place at that time. A range of characters with various backgrounds are somewhat inexplicably persuaded to all be tenants in a single apartment building just in time for a grand game to begin (this miracle of timing might be the most wondrous trick of the book). The people are interesting enough, and include wives and husbands, fathers and sons, restaurant owners and doormen, judges and sisters. Each is the potential heir to the fortune of Sam Westing, who dies in a mansion that’s in sightline to the apartment complex.

While the corny tagline on the cover—”What wouldn’t you do for a cool $200 million?”—hints at brutal backstabbings, the action is a bit more subtle and social than all that. There are a couple “bombings” of homegrown explosives that I’m not sure are really explicitly pinned on any one culprit. Otherwise, it’s a race based around a word puzzle, and the potential heirs simply try to dupe (or emotionally manipulate) each other to get shreds of the clues. I suppose the generally non-violent style is what earns the book its YA label, though beyond that I can’t see how this attempt differs all that much from an Agatha Christie novel.

But I’m just not sure of the attempt. Raskin is a skilled author with a clear picture of where she wants to go, but some thread is lacking here. The obvious downfall is the point of view. I’m always a stickler about POV in general, but this book specifically uses such an omniscient perspective that the reader gets yanked from page to paragraph to sentence with hardly a transition. So when the chapters, or even sections, are not reliably from the perspective of any one character, the feeling remains all surface. You can play along with the mystery, I suppose, but you probably wouldn’t lose anything by simply flipping to the last few pages.

I’d like to hear from mystery fans or those who had read this book when they were the target age. Does The Westing Game do what you expect it to do? For me, I’ll have to tell my friend that coming in cold as an adult, the book held little thrill.

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Posted by on October 7, 2016 in Novels


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Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

Artist: Pauline Diana Baynes

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 1967 (original “Smith”), 1949 (original “Farmer Giles”)

I read it: September 2016


I’d long known there were Tolkien works peripheral to his popular series, and whenever I’d glanced this book I thought it was a single title: Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham. Turns out it’s two, but their basic similarities as short fantastic fables make them bound companions. (Though they were  originally published nearly 20 years apart.)

“Smith of Wootton Major” is the shorter of the pair, a fairy tale in the purest sense as it involves the protagonist traveling to the land of Faery, where few mortals tread. You see, as a boy Smith Smithson swallowed a rare trinket at a village feast and was blessed ever since. He became a successful and popular villager, a delightful singer as well as talented at his trade. He even kept a family and was a thoughtful sort of Renaissance man:

He remained a learner and explorer, not a warrior; and though in time he could have forged weapons that in his own world would have had power enough to become the matter of great tales and be worth a king’s ransom, he knew that in Faery they would have been of small account. So among all the things that he made it is not remembered that he ever forged a sword or a spear or an arrow-head.

The tale is a dreamy one about inheritance, destiny, skill, and identity. Of course, it’s only too tempting to identify the author’s recurring ideas from other stories (this one was published decades after LOTR)—I perked up at one character saying, “Tell them that I’ve gone on another holiday, but this time I shan’t be coming back again.” And Smith gets possessive about the fairies’ totem: “Isn’t it mine? It came to me.” To this last, a mentor replies, “Those that are free gifts are given for remembrance. But others are not so given. They cannot belong to a man for ever, nor be treasured as heirlooms. They are lent.”

“Farmer Giles of Ham” is noticeably more lighthearted and comical. Its components are a bit more grounded, and its trajectory straightforward. Instead of a mystical realm parallel to our own, this story features giants, dragons, talking animals, and a magic sword, all out in the open and surprising to no one.

Here, Tolkien is having a lot of fun with his historical and linguistic obsessions. He gives the tale a laborious subtitle, first in Latin but then “in the vulgar tongue.” (It reads “The Rise and Wonderful Adventures of Farmer Giles, Lord of Tame, Count of Worminghall, and King of the Little Kingdom.”) In a foreword, the reason he gives for presenting the story (framed as an interpretation of a found account) is for “the glimpse that it affords of life in a dark period of the history of Britain, not to mention the light that it throws on the origin of difficult place-names.” And oh yes, the plot is kind of fun as well: “Some may find the characters and adventures of its hero attractive in themselves.”

The story concerns itself with lineages and grand names, from its hero Aegidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola (in the vulgar tongue, Farmer Giles of Ham), the dragon Chrysophylax Dives, and the King, with a name and title that take up a small paragraph. The hero doesn’t learn lessons tragically, but simply ascends from bumbling origins to become an unlikely leader. (Hence the “Rise and Wonderful Adventures” of the subtitle instead of “Rise and Fall.”) The King is petty and ineffective, as are his knights. It’s a story that firmly champions the common folk.

Small people unexpectedly turning the tide… sounds familiar. Though not published until over a decade later, “Farmer Giles” was written the same year that The Hobbit was released. Other overlaps include a reference to dwarfs making the best chain mail and the treacherous, greedy hearts of treasure-hoarding dragons. In so much as The Hobbit is a primer for LOTR, this story is a fine primer for The Hobbit itself. As an added delight, simple yet detailed illustrations complement the pages (by a different artist than the one who contributed the cover art). So now I know: it’s two stories, destined to be forever paired in one perfect little paperback.


Posted by on September 30, 2016 in Short stories


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Unfortunate English

Author: Bill Brohaugh

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: Unfortunate English: The Gloomy Truth Behind the Words You Use

Published: 2009

I read it: September 2016 (re-read)


My wife’s hometown friends claim that backyard bonfires are a common evening event in the summertime. I can never resist asking for more details, as I doubt most city regulations would allow for common fires to reach a humongous size. But apparently what they consider “bonfire” is what I consider “campfire,” and there the conversation devolves into standard MN vs. IA barbs. (Cue the ducks and gooses.)

Because of Unfortunate English, I can add a little more detail to make my case. “Bonfire” is not “bon” as in “good,” but “bon” as in “bone.” It’s a fire big enough for—and originally, with the explicit purpose of—burning bones. Not exactly the type of thing I image lighting the horizons of suburban Minneapolis.

The book is a fun (see below), if often corny, compendium of etymological nuggets. The angle is the unseemly origin of the words, some worse than others. Here are some notable discoveries:

  • bicker, cope – bicker originally meant “to fight physically, to exchange blows” while cope was “to battle” with an enemy
  • trophy – a Greek monument (a “tropaion”) to victory, made up of an enemy’s armor, weapons, and treasures
  • battery – artillery that discharges, so a connection can be drawn to modern batteries discharging electricity; another meaning of battery is specifically “beating drums”
  • first-string – not musical, but rather the first bowstring used by an archer (kind of a no-duh after you realize it… and “high-strung” follows from the same basic source)
  • thrill – from a word meaning hole, from which we get “nostril” for “nose-hole” (it was good ol’ Shakespeare who used thrill as in “piercing or penetrating someone with emotion or excitement”)
  • travel – at one point, the same word as “travail,” with a word describing an old torture device buried deep in the etymological layers
  • drat! – a nice tightening of “God rot it” to “’od rot” to “rat”; others in the same blasphemous vein include “gadzooks” from “God’s hooks,” “zounds” from “God’s wounds,” and “blimey” from “God blind me” (even further in the same entry, we learn that in “What the dickens?” and “What the deuce?,” both the d-words mean “devil”)
  • fun – “an instance of cheating, a swindle, a deception, a hoax,” as surviving in “make fun of” and “poke fun at,” with the connotation of “make a fool of” (and if you are “fond” of something, you are fooled by it)
  • nostalgia – “a severe reaction to being in unfamiliar surroundings—homesickness in the literal sense”
  • verge – “a staff, rod, or scepter that symbolizes rank or office” which at various times was also the word for a candle, an architectural column, and a penis (which itself spawned its own slang in “pencil,” but which also meant “little tail” and eventually led to “penicillin” and “peninsula”)
  • feisty – from “fisting,” used to describe dogs, as in “fisting cur,” meaning “farting dog”
  • bridal – from “bride-ale,” when “ale” had an alternate meaning of feast or celebration, and meant more generally a wedding celebration, of which one 1587 author decried “the heathenish rioting at bride-ales”
  • snack, snap – both meant small quick bites
  • muscle – from a poetic description of ripples underneath the skin that resembled a “little mouse,” or “musculus”
  • God forbid – at one time, this was used specifically because it rhymes with “kid” and used as a noun phrase: kids were “God forbids,” as in “God forbid I have any more”
  • suggestion – in the 1300s, an “enticement or prodding to evil” or in the 1500s “to propose something evil”… which we still see in “suggestive”

The book would work just as well, if not better, had it included even more deep history about each word, and less awkward attempts at humor. But if that can be overlooked, then this collection may thrill you to the feisty verge.

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Posted by on September 23, 2016 in Non-fiction single subject


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The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Author: George Saunders

Artist: Lane Smith

Type: Fiction, short story

Published: 2000

I read it: September 2016


I received a free copy of this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway.

Compact is what Saunders does best (so far), and a fable for readers of all ages seems up his alley to such a degree it may as well be in his city center. But cities are too large for this story—here we’re concerned with the three-house town of Frip. The only citizen capable of weathering change is a young girl with the allegorial name of Capable. When the gappers (spiky orange ball-beasts) glom on to only her goats and not her neighbors’, she is overwhelmed and underhelped.

The story seems to be both very direct but sneakily subtle. The main points are the values of community, the importance of creativity, and the twin burdens of both asking for and lending a hand. Saunders’ dry humor pervades everything, and he includes plenty of concise jabs at people in general: “Just because a lot of people are saying the same thing loudly over and over, doesn’t mean it’s true.” The stubborn neighbors of Frip are these kinds of people, who would rather hire men to physically move their house away from a problem rather than address the issue head-on.

While the neighbors  are able hang on to their good luck they appeal to their good standing in the cosmos. Sid Ronsen says, “I believe that, when my yard suddenly is free of gappers, why, that is because of something good I have done.” He and his wife also thank God “for making them the sort of people they were, the sort of people who had no gappers,” while asking forgiveness for those who are not the right sort of person.

But the concern goes further than a point against the explicitly religious types. Even more modern tribes stubbornly cling to the medieval notion that every end is self-justified: that punishment arrives for those who deserve it, while easy living is a gift that simply lands on the ones who have the correct internal compass adjustments. Just keep your ear open to every muttering of the word “karma” and you know that the idea is alive. That vague wish for divine order-making is going to be a hard gapper to shake.

Ah yes, the illustrations! The story could work okay just as text, but it wouldn’t have nearly as much life to it. Lane Smith of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man fame offers up a textured and exaggerated take on Frip and its residents. He nails the mood and adds a touch of melancholic strangeness, be it the decaying exterior of the houses or a voodoo doll stuck with pins floating at the edge of the frame. These drawings are meant to leave an impact in minds of every age, while the moral quandaries do their own work on a wide array of readers.

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Posted by on September 16, 2016 in Short stories


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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Author: Karen Joy Fowler

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2013

I read it: July 2016


The plot hook for this novel isn’t revealed until page 77, but it might be hard to avoid given the necessary marketing for the book. If you want a solid literary novel with a unique family at its core, I recommend just picking this up and jumping in.

But for those who have already noticed the silhouetted mammal hanging from the “C” on the cover, you’ll probably know what’s going on before the author chooses to reveal it. The story is told by a woman named Rosemary, who reflects back on her childhood and how it shaped her life. Her parents are scientists and she has two siblings: older brother Lowell and a sister, Fern. Fern is a chimpanzee.

The book spends a lot of time with Rosemary during her college years, while dipping back into her early childhood memories. The traumatic event around which everything hangs is when Fern was removed from the family when Rosemary was five. Thus the novel is a personal story with broader philosophical musings on (wo)man vs. nature. The major parts in the book are introduced by quotes from Franz Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy,” the story in which a captured ape learns how to speak and act like a human. Rosemary pieces together her thoughts on what kind of human she came to be after living alongside Fern. Some of this is realized through the lens of what her parents did, or tried to do:

Dad didn’t know then what we think we know now, that the neural system of a young brain develops partly by mirroring the brains around it. As much time as Fern and I spent together, that mirror went both ways.

These ideas emphasize the cleverness of the title. While I had to look up the basic meaning of the phrase to remind myself what it meant (a description of madness), it neatly sums up the “mirroring” that the sisters experience—a phenomenon that affected Rosemary as much as it might have affected Fern. Rosemary developed dramatic social limitations because of her sister being ripped away from her, and who was one of the only creatures Rosemary was intensely attached to. Among other things, it affected her relationship to language:

At dinner, I adopted my usual strategy of saying nothing. The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back once you’ve gone over that cliff. Saying nothing was more amendable, and over time I’d come to see that it was usually your best course of action.

So it is that we hear a lot about Fern’s endless chattering at a young age: how she entered a period of not talking after Fern was out of the picture, and then the book itself is an outpouring of confession after she is ready to talk again. The narrator doubts language as fully capable of telling her story, although of course it’s the only option she has. She tries to self-analyze and analyze her family members to give a factual yet also emotionally accurate account of her upbringing.

Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.

Fowler’s command of language, flow, story, and ethical musing is an attractive mix. The novel tries to be, and I think succeeds at being, many things at once. The first-person gossip makes for swift page-turning, yet the “who are we?” subtexts mean that we get to chew on a lot of the thornier issues. The author creates a realistic story because she relays actual cultures: the experimental science of the 1970s, college life in the 90s, and even the complexities of animal rights activism. The real-life case studies that Fowler weaves into her fiction intrigues, such as one researcher who said this about the chimp he studied and cared for, who was the first nonhuman ever to learn American Sign Language: “she taught him that in the phrase human being, the word being is much more important than the word human.”

Or the following, which further illustrates that Fowler is exploring real ethical and scientific implications throughout her novel:

Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? They answered with a definite yes. Chimps do see that mental states, such as purpose and knowledge, combine to produce deliberate action. They even understand deceit.

What chimps don’t seem capable of understanding is the state of false belief. They don’t have a theory of mind that accounts for actions driven by beliefs in conflict with reality.

And really, who lacking that will ever be able to navigate the human world?

Who, indeed? Rosemary states, “Language is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we bother with it.” The paradox is Fowler’s willingness to try to tell the story through language anyway. Language is just another imperfect way of seeing ourselves, a strange mirror as a substitute for staring directly into a sibling’s face.

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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in Novels


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