Reading between the lines

Oh my goodness, I am now a “proverbial philistine” with “smug self-confidence”, the epithets having been bestowed on me at languagehat, by none other than the Hatted One himself.  I am honored and will do my best to carry the titles with all appropriate smuggishness.

But is LH just being a cranky old jackass?  Or is there something else going on? The crankiness was directed at remarks I made about a particular author, but there are indeed other authors he himself is perfectly willing to be smug about.

forbidden-fruitsDan Brown, Grisham, Clancy, Crichton.

Who are these authors and how do his readers seem to know so much about them?  Have they read them?  If they are so objectionable, why?  Not pedantic enough?   Too prescriptivist?  The mystery deepens.  Clearly there is some sort of taboo associated with these books.  I love to read banned books, oh yes I do.  And these works are banned all right.  Not by library fiat, but by the even more subtly powerful weapons of sarcasm, peer pressure, and innuendo.

Dan Brown, Grisham, Clancy, Crichton.

Specifically singled out for special attention was Dan Brown, ranked among the “creators of paint-by-number self-help books”.  So you know which one I want to start with.  Oh, yeah.  By chance I remembered some books I brought home last week that were still in a bag and went to see what they were. Yes, indeed, a book by Dan Brown.

I feel like Orwell’s Winston Smith,  holding “the book” for the first time.

Don’t tell anyone.

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Three Poetry Exercises

If you want to exercise your creative muscles more in the new year, here are some poetry exercises:


This French poetry form can be used with any cultural group or skill level of English.  My beginning ESL students love it.  The format is:

Line 1: States a subject in one word (usually a noun)
Line 2: Describes the subject in two words (often a noun and an adjective or two adjectives)
Line 3: Describes an action about the subject in three words (often three infinitives, or a three word sentence)
Line 4: Expresses an emotion about the subject in four words.
Line 5: Restates the subject in another single word that reflects what has already been said (usually a noun)

Example (in French and English):

Optimiste perpetual
Attend son maitre
Il entend des pas…

Perpetual optimist
Waiting for his master
He hears steps

Form Poems

(from Zee)

Compression channels one’s creativity.  It’s a syllabic poem, 2-4-6-8-2 syllables per line.


The Courtship of Medusa

He came
up behind her
and braided her wild locks.
“Who are you?” She turned to see him

Poetry slams


Nijma, I’m not a typical slammer…I’ve slammed sonnets…yes, trust is key. We found starting with one’s name helps. Also, a fellow poet friend of mine has an awesome “breathing” exercise.

Inhale nose, exhale nose = air

inhale mouth, exhale nose = fire

inhale nose, exhale mouth = water

inhale mouth, exhale mouth = earth

Each energy has its benefits

Each in turn is a good warm up.

More from Zee about Poetry and Slams:

  • The reason poetry works better for me is that I polish as I go. I painstakingly read each page of my novels aloud several times and spit-polish. That “get the rough draft out” doesn’t work for me. I wish it did.
  • As far as the exercises, the ones in our workshop were all centered on Emily Dickinson’s work, so that might not work for you or your students? The next workshop will be centered on song-writers.
  • If you go to open mics (Slam Poetry started in Chicago, after all!) you will hear a LOT of “identity poems” (I am black, I am gay, I am a woman, I am an incest survivor, I am, I am, ad nauseam) and also a lot of poems about songs and famous musicians. Both of these work well for kids, if you need exercises for students.
  • Besides exercises in form and meter, you might try either imitating a style of a poet, or trying to cast it in an “opposite” light (different setting, different tone, etc.) For an “identity” poem, try asking the students to write an introduction to themselves. (When working with really young kids and performance we had them simply stand up and shout their name in an introductory call and response, they love it!)
  • For students with language barriers (English as a second language) we had them read their short poems in both English and their native language, and they felt very empowered.
  • For a language-based exercise you might try working with cliches and common sayings, either as inspiration, or to twist them around.
  • For an experience-based exercise, try writing about a “transition” one faced.

Thanks Zee, via

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How do you pronounce King Abdullah II in Arabic?

If you want to hear a word in Arabic, you can hear it pronounced by a native speaker on Forvo, a website for listening to words in different languages.

Forvo is the place where you´ll find words pronounced in their original languages. Ever wondered how a word is pronounced? Ask for that word or name, and another user will pronounce it for you. You can also help others recording your pronunciations in your own language.

This is such a great idea.  Wherever I want to know how to say something in Arabic I have to go shopping for falafel in the Arab neighborhood some 40 minutes away and strike up a conversation. As the  joke goes, a Jordanian concluded a ten minute conversation on his cell phone and turned it off.  His companion asked what was wrong that the conversation was so short. “Wrong number”, the Jordanian answered.  I deeply enjoy these exchanges (and the food), but Forvo might save me some time.

So far, there are  42  Arabic native speakers who have recorded words.

One popular Forvo search is for pronouncing names of world leaders.  Here’s  how to pronounce:

  • America’s president-elect Barack Obama (in English, of course)
  • Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (محمود احمدی‌نژاد) in Farsi
  • So far, no one has recorded a pronunciation for Russia’s president Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev (Дмитрий Анатольевич Медведев), but (searching in English) there are two somewhat different pronunciations in Russian for Medvedev .

abdullah-star-trek-cameoAnd what about my favorite monarch, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, the son of the late King Hussein ( الملك عبد الله الثاني بن الحسين‎)?  In Jordan we just called him “Malik Abdullah”, but I’m not sure what his proper name is.  After all, the world does have more than one King Abdullah. Searching in English, nothing.  Searching in Arabic by pasting the official name from Wikipedia into the search field yields ten possibilites, but none of them is our King.  Searching in English for Abdullah, still nothing, and a search in Arabic for Abdullah as عبد الله shows “Allah” الله (God) has been pronounced but not “abd” عبد (slave).  But skimming the page for male names in Arabic, finally on the last page I see a pronunciation for

So now I know how they say Abdullah in the Gulf states, which sounds pretty much the same as in Jordan, although the guy sounds to me like he has an accent.

If there are any Jordanians reading this who know how to pronounce the King’s name properly with a Jordanian accent, this is a perfect opportunity. I have added the name to Forvo  here.

UPDATE:  Someone has already left a recording of the pronunciation.

How do you Pronounce Nijma نجم ?

nijma-star-icon1-d986d8acd985Pronounced “Nidj-mah”, Nijma نجم means “star” in Arabic. I was given the name by the sister of a friend, who thought I was just like the character in the “Bedouin Soap Opera” who had all kinds of wise answers for life’s persistent problems. When I returned to the city and tried to watch the Bedouin Soap Opera, it had gone off the air, so I never got to pick out which character was my namesake.

I had other nicknames, most of them with a romantic meaning, but this was the name I liked the most, being named for one of my qualities, and not a quality I inspired in the person giving me the name. It is always a female name, and is considered to be a bit old fashioned and rural, the kind of name that a bedouin aunt might have. A wise,  sort of Ann Landerish aunt that you can trust not to give away your romantic secrets.



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America’s most expensive farm land in an ice storm

The prairie has its own architecture. Grain elevators that loom like skyscrapers. Farms with windmills standing alone in plowed fields. Bins with grain moving mechanisms in the cupolas. An ice storm adds tire tracks through the slush, cars in ditches, tree branches coated with ice, the tail lights of a snow plow. Photographed right before dusk.

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God Jul


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orange-with-cloveShopping done? Presents wrapped? Snow shoveled? Not in the holiday spirit? Here is a little antidote: Christmas Glögg.

My chores aren’t done yet, so I’m not quite ready to relax, but I’m already starting to give some thought to this year’s glögg possibilities.

Now I’m no cook, and I don’t even have a family recipe for it, as most Scandinavians do, but I have found out that glögg isn’t really that hard. Last year I played around with it a little bit, and I think I’ve discovered the basic principles. Glögg is what they call “mulled wine”, and consists of spices, citrus peel, and booze heated up together.

In my undergraduate days, one professor had a Mexican crock with a cover that for parties was propped against a bed of glowing charcoal. Inside the crock was a mystery concoction with a whole orange floating in it . Stuck in the orange was a bunch of cloves. When anyone wished to imbibe, they took a dipper and scooped some of the steaming liquid (it was non-alcoholic at that point) and put it into a cup, then added some of the good professor’s expensive booze to it. This system has the advantage of keeping the alcohol from evaporating, as alcohol tends to do when heated. It is also not so dangerous, as those alcohol fumes can be a fire hazard when exposed to open flame.

So here’s what you do in your own kitchen. Get some kind of apple or berry juice–last year I found cranberry-apple on sale. Find an old orange and stick some cloves in it, then pour the juice into a stainless steel pan and put the orange ball in with it, along with a stick of cinnamon. I found a lime in the fridge, so I cut a slice off and put it in with the peel on. You can add more spices, but if you ask me, those recipe books with the dozen or ingredients and all those references to spice bags, citrus peel, raisins, cardamom, and almonds are unnecessarily intimating. Just boil up the juice with the orange ball and cinnamon stick. Then take whatever booze you like and put some in your glass with the hot concoction. I put in about a third Merlot. This is supposed to be a “mulled wine” so brandy (a grape product) would probably be appropriate, but the important thing is to drink something you like. The advantage to using wine is that if you’re like me and real lightweight with booze–I fall asleep on half a beer–you can sip this slowly and feel a little mellow without having the urge to put lampshades on your head.


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