THE GENIUS OF LANGUAGE

FIFTEEN WRITERS REFLECT ON THEIR MOTHER TONGUE

Sometimes fun and often instructive, though occasionally sluggish.

Fifteen original essays of varying quality from writers who learned English as a second language and now employ it more or less full-time.

The purpose of this uneven collection, writes editor/critic Lesser (Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering, 2002, etc.), is “to uncover the sources of writing in writers I admired.” Okay. Give points, first of all, for diversity. First languages here include Bangla and Chinese, Italian and Czech, Yiddish, and Korean. Several authors believe that their native language made learning English more difficult; Koreans negotiate the first-person singular in much different fashion, notes Ha-yun Jung, and English has sounds that do not exist in Korean. Bharati Mukherjee (Bangla) envies the tenses available in English. Some of the writers, unsurprisingly, seem to have as keen an interest in promoting their books as in talking about their first language. But others present engaging ideas in finely crafted, even lovely, sentences. Bert Keizer (Dutch) admits that he initially found the writing of English to be “like trying to plough a stretch of marble,” while Luc Sante (French) avers, “Elegance and precision are necessary allies; together they indicate the presence of truth.” In one of the most entertaining essays, Gary Shteyngert (Russian) links words and ways as he wistfully recalls how the popular culture of America lured him into the language. Ariel Dorfman’s piece about being bilingual (Spanish and English) must have been fun to contemplate but emerges as awkward and off-putting; he sends readers back and forth so frequently between text and massive footnotes that his clever point about two perspectives is lost in the underbrush. The collection closes with a touching and humorous piece by the late Leonard Michaels (Yiddish), who manages to put Elmore Leonard and John Webster in the same sentence—probably a first.

Sometimes fun and often instructive, though occasionally sluggish.

Pub Date: July 27, 2004

ISBN: 0-375-42238-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2004

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NUTCRACKER

This is not the Nutcracker sweet, as passed on by Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa. No, this is the original Hoffmann tale of 1816, in which the froth of Christmas revelry occasionally parts to let the dark underside of childhood fantasies and fears peek through. The boundaries between dream and reality fade, just as Godfather Drosselmeier, the Nutcracker's creator, is seen as alternately sinister and jolly. And Italian artist Roberto Innocenti gives an errily realistic air to Marie's dreams, in richly detailed illustrations touched by a mysterious light. A beautiful version of this classic tale, which will captivate adults and children alike. (Nutcracker; $35.00; Oct. 28, 1996; 136 pp.; 0-15-100227-4)

Pub Date: Oct. 28, 1996

ISBN: 0-15-100227-4

Page Count: 136

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1996

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TO THE ONE I LOVE THE BEST

EPISODES FROM THE LIFE OF LADY MENDL (ELSIE DE WOLFE)

An extravaganza in Bemelmans' inimitable vein, but written almost dead pan, with sly, amusing, sometimes biting undertones, breaking through. For Bemelmans was "the man who came to cocktails". And his hostess was Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe), arbiter of American decorating taste over a generation. Lady Mendl was an incredible person,- self-made in proper American tradition on the one hand, for she had been haunted by the poverty of her childhood, and the years of struggle up from its ugliness,- until she became synonymous with the exotic, exquisite, worshipper at beauty's whrine. Bemelmans draws a portrait in extremes, through apt descriptions, through hilarious anecdote, through surprisingly sympathetic and understanding bits of appreciation. The scene shifts from Hollywood to the home she loved the best in Versailles. One meets in passing a vast roster of famous figures of the international and artistic set. And always one feels Bemelmans, slightly offstage, observing, recording, commenting, illustrated.

Pub Date: Feb. 23, 1955

ISBN: 0670717797

Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 25, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1955

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