A lively and informative study, not to mention wonderful cocktail party material.

NINE NASTY WORDS

ENGLISH IN THE GUTTER: THEN, NOW, AND FOREVER

A prominent linguist probes the most transgressive words in English.

The power of profanity is obvious, but the sources of its power aren’t as easy to account for. Why is one combination of sounds taboo and not another? Why don’t damn and hell have the same ring today that they did in the past? Is there one N-word, or are there two? To answer such questions, McWhorter, the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Words on the Move, and other notable works, does what linguists do: He teases out “structure in what seems like chaos, mess, or the trivial.” The book is a systematic treatment of cursing that combines historical analyses of the evolution of usage, etymologies, linguistic tables, and amusing anecdotes. It’s distinctive McWhorter, dense yet breezy, jumping from one reference to another. A characteristic passage reads, “Yoga moms, not just sailors, are covered in tattoos. Toddlers ask for edamame and pad thai instead of Spaghettios. Hell becomes a scalar particle. Language, like life, is this.” Setting aside fashion and food, much of McWhorter's analysis is grounded in music, film, and stage, the histories of which he seemingly knows as well as language. It makes for a delightful style when you don’t have to stop to look up a reference, and alongside the pizzazz is real substance. Take the author’s macro observation about what is considered a curse, shifting from the religious sphere (damn) to the physical (shit) to where they are now most charged, in the sociological and ethnic arenas. This trajectory is not accidental. “For Americans of this post-countercultural cohort [Gen X],” McWhorter writes, “the pox on matters of God and the body seemed quaint beyond discussion, while a pox on matters of slurring groups seemed urgent beyond discussion. The N-word euphemism was an organic outcome.” The book is replete with such insights.

A lively and informative study, not to mention wonderful cocktail party material.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-18879-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Avery

Review Posted Online: Jan. 30, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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A virtuoso performance and an ode to an undervalued medium created by two talented artists.

A WEALTH OF PIGEONS

A CARTOON COLLECTION

The veteran actor, comedian, and banjo player teams up with the acclaimed illustrator to create a unique book of cartoons that communicates their personalities.

Martin, also a prolific author, has always been intrigued by the cartoons strewn throughout the pages of the New Yorker. So when he was presented with the opportunity to work with Bliss, who has been a staff cartoonist at the magazine since 1997, he seized the moment. “The idea of a one-panel image with or without a caption mystified me,” he writes. “I felt like, yeah, sometimes I’m funny, but there are these other weird freaks who are actually funny.” Once the duo agreed to work together, they established their creative process, which consisted of working forward and backward: “Forwards was me conceiving of several cartoon images and captions, and Harry would select his favorites; backwards was Harry sending me sketched or fully drawn cartoons for dialogue or banners.” Sometimes, he writes, “the perfect joke occurs two seconds before deadline.” There are several cartoons depicting this method, including a humorous multipanel piece highlighting their first meeting called “They Meet,” in which Martin thinks to himself, “He’ll never be able to translate my delicate and finely honed droll notions.” In the next panel, Bliss thinks, “I’m sure he won’t understand that the comic art form is way more subtle than his blunt-force humor.” The team collaborated for a year and created 150 cartoons featuring an array of topics, “from dogs and cats to outer space and art museums.” A witty creation of a bovine family sitting down to a gourmet meal and one of Dumbo getting his comeuppance highlight the duo’s comedic talent. What also makes this project successful is the team’s keen understanding of human behavior as viewed through their unconventional comedic minds.

A virtuoso performance and an ode to an undervalued medium created by two talented artists.

Pub Date: Nov. 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-26289-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Celadon Books

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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A handful of pearls amid a pile of empty oyster shells.

THE COMFORT BOOK

Bestselling author Haig offers a book’s worth of apothegms to serve as guides to issues ranging from disquietude to self-acceptance.

Like many collections of this sort—terse snippets of advice, from the everyday to the cosmic—some parts will hit home with surprising insight, some will feel like old hat, and others will come across as disposable or incomprehensible. Years ago, Haig experienced an extended period of suicidal depression, so he comes at many of these topics—pain, hope, self-worth, contentment—from a hard-won perspective. This makes some of the material worthy of a second look, even when it feels runic or contrary to experience. The author’s words are instigations, hopeful first steps toward illumination. Most chapters are only a few sentences long, the longest running for three pages. Much is left unsaid and left up to readers to dissect. On being lost, Haig recounts an episode with his father when they got turned around in a forest in France. His father said to him, “If we keep going in a straight line we’ll get out of here.” He was correct, a bit of wisdom Haig turned to during his depression when he focused on moving forward: “It is important to remember the bottom of the valley never has the clearest view. And that sometimes all you need to do in order to rise up again is to keep moving forward.” Many aphorisms sound right, if hardly groundbreaking—e.g., a quick route to happiness is making someone else happy; “No is a good word. It keeps you sane. In an age of overload, no is really yes. It is yes to having space you need to live”; “External events are neutral. They only gain positive or negative value the moment they enter our mind.” Haig’s fans may enjoy this one, but others should take a pass.

A handful of pearls amid a pile of empty oyster shells.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-14-313666-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Penguin Life

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2021

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