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Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

31 October 2007

Word candy

Some words are just delicious to say. The tongue wraps around them tenderly, letting the syllables roll out slowly to savor all the taste before the word melts away.

My favorite word candy is antique rose names. Like a chocolate cake drizzled with framboise liqueur and garnished with raspberry drupelets and mint leaves, these names layer flavor on flavor. There’s the sound of the name itself, the beauty and perfume of the rose it represents, sometimes memories of growing the rose or seeing it at the botanical garden, and the intriguing histories behind the development of the rose and its naming.

The antique rose closest to my heart is Souvenir de la Malmaison. The picture at left cannot do justice to the perfection of its color and form. The name is a joy to say, far more piquant than its original name, “Queen of Beauty and Fragrance.” And the name evokes one of the world’s great love affairs, with a tragic and bittersweet end: The cast-off empress spends her lonely last years creating a magnificent garden.

Many rose breeders named their creations after their wives or lovers or in honor of some important person. These are among my favorites to say (please forgive my not taking the time to put the accent marks in): Cecile Brunner, Baronne Henriette de Snoy, Belle Poitevine, Dame de Coeur, Duchesse de Brabant, Felicite Parmentier, Frau Karl Druschki, General Jacqueminot, Ghislaine de Feligonde, Kronprincessin Viktoria, Madame Alfred Carriere, Zephirine Drouhin.

Some names make me laugh: Baby Faurax, Climbing Don Juan, Granny Grimmetts.

Some raise questions about the rose’s history or habits: Complicata (is it really hard to grow?), Gruss an Aachen (aka Salut d'Aix la Chapelle; did the breeder purposely snub other cities, or did he die before creating Gruss an Koln, Gruss an Bonn, etc.?), Mutabilis (are you in danger of its developing gigantic flesh-eating blossoms during the night?), Seven Sisters (can you only own one if you went to an exclusive women’s liberal arts college?), Variegata di Bologna (are the petals the colors of lunch meat at different stages of ripeness?), York and Lancaster (do the bushes hold pitched battles and change sides with confusing frequency?).

And some, like the eponymous roses, are luscious on the tongue: Celsiana, Coquette des Blanches, Enfant de France, Etoile de Lyon, Reine des Violettes, Reve d’Or, Rose a Parfum de l’Hay, Safrano, Veilchenblau.

Although you might be pleased to have a rose bearing your name, it can be a mixed blessing. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall.”

24 October 2007

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

We left New Orleans because my husband did not ever want to fix a flooded house again in his life.

Now we find ourselves surrounded by another disaster, one even bigger than the breaking of the levees: an inferno consuming much of Southern California. When I look at the newspaper’s map of the fires, I see that the areas north, west, and south of our town are burning.

We have been spared. But the beautiful stark hills we see from every window of our house have taken on an ominous aspect. Dotted with dead brush, they are ripe for burning. The Santa Ana winds roared through here Sunday and Monday, ripping all the shingles off our garden shed and tearing shrubs out of the ground. They left our hills untouched.

We smell the smoke and see the gray haze. I scan the hills periodically for signs of flames.

Even living through the Katrina experience, I never could get my mind around the whole of it. Too many people were affected, too many square miles. These fires are even harder to grasp. One million refugees? Can it be true? What will happen to them?

I do know that these people are worse off than we Katrina refugees were. Most flooded houses could be repaired, and in most cases second floors and their contents were spared. This week’s fire victims have lost nearly everything. Even if the firefighters put out a fire in time to save a house, the water from the hoses likely destroyed everything inside.

At times like this, I wish I were religious so I could yell at God.

fire photo copyright Ernest von Rosen,
other photos copyright 2007 Shauna S. Roberts

17 October 2007

Copyediting: The mysterious middle s

I haven’t blogged on a copyediting topic since April, so it’s well past time. Today’s subject: plural formation.

Because of its mixed ancestry, the English language makes nouns plural in numerous ways. Plurals could provide grist for many weeks of entries. Today, I’ll focus on an often overlooked, often confusing class of nouns: compound nouns.

Compound words are just what they sound like: two or more words stuck together to mean a single concept.

Some compound nouns are easy to punctuate. Doghouse, skyscraper, teaspoonful, breakthrough, and city council all take a final “s”: doghouses, skyscrapers, teaspoonfuls, breakthroughs, city councils.

Others are tricky. They may take an “s,” but not at the end. Examples are:
•fleur de lis —> fleurs de lis (although fleur de lis is an alternative plural)
•passerby —> passersby
•surgeon general —> surgeons general
•attorney general —> attorneys general
•pâté de foie gras —> pâtés de fois gras
•mother-in-law —> mothers-in-law
•coup d’état —> coups d’état
•chief of staff —> chiefs of staff

How do you know where to put the “s” in a compound word? The easiest way is to check the electronic dictionary on your computer or the hardcopy that sits by your side. (You do keep at least one dictionary always at hand, right?)

Alternatively, follow the rule given by The Associated Press Stylebook and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: Add the “s” to the most important word in a multiword compound noun. Of course, then you have to decide which word is most important.

Or try the lazy way. If you look at most compound nouns, you’ll find that only one of the words in it is a noun. If you add the “s” to the end of the noun, you’ll usually be right.

There are exceptions, though, to the lazy way. For example, compound nouns that end in ”ful” use an “s” at the end: handfuls, cupfuls. Your ear will usually be able to tell you when you have the "s" in the wrong place.

10 October 2007

Five writing strengths

My friend Lisa Kenney of the blog Eudaemonia tagged me with a new meme: Identify five writing strengths I have. Her timing was perfect, because I had no clue what to blog about this week. My life still revolves around unpacking boxes, dealing with contractors, and trying not to get lost on the way to the grocery store. I haven’t given much thought to writing.

Here, then, are what I consider five of my writing strengths.

1. I have a good vocabulary and excellent grammar and spelling skills. Readers usually don’t have to guess what I’m getting at because I’ve used the right words in the right order.

2. I have a thick skin. Writers need feedback. I can accept it from editors and other writers without feeling hurt. (I do admit to getting annoyed with physician and scientist reviewers for my nonfiction articles who substitute multisyllabic technical terms for plain Anglo-Saxon, ask for irrelevant information to be added, and insist on other reader-unfriendly changes.)

3. I’m concise.

4. I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until my mid-forties. As a result, I have a wealth of personal experience to draw on: I’ve lived all over the country; been poor, well off, and in-between; known people of many ages, occupations, religions, ethnic backgrounds, and political leanings; had a wide variety of jobs; made colossal screw-ups; and looked death in the face. I can write from experience instead of rehashing what I’ve read in other novels.

5. I read a lot of nonfiction, particularly history, biography, and science. It’s a good way to replenish the creative well with ideas, and it fills in the gaps in my knowledge when I want to write about something I haven’t experienced personally.

So often, by the time I’ve been tagged for a meme, everyone I know has already done it. Not so this time. So I will tag:

Farrah Rochon

Roz at The Ninth Muse

Sphinx Ink

Candice at Candy’s Blog

Therese Fowler at Making It Up

03 October 2007


Charles Gramlich blogged about resonance in his Razored Zen blog on September 26. He defined resonance as the “degree to which a name or a term evokes already existing associations in a person’s mind.” He suggested that words like “Freud,” “Jesus,” “Adolph,” and “steel” have mental weight that pack a punch for readers.

I came across another kind of resonance this week: resonance of situation.

The September 2007 issue of Locus contains an interview with Guy Gavriel Kay. (An excerpt can be found at He said that when he goes to countries or regions that have experienced political and cultural repression, such as Croatia, Poland, and Quebec, people ask whether his 1990 fantasy novel Tigana was based on their own history. In Korea, the novel is marketed as a political novel, not as fantasy.

Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite authors, but Tigana left little impression on me. In fact, I could not remember anything about it, so I reread it this past week to see why I reacted so differently from the Croatians et al.

The answer was clear: Tigana tells the story of a conquered land whose name has not only been changed but also erased from history, and its architecture has been reduced to rubble. No one who was not born in Tigana can speak its name or hear it pronounced. Many of those who weren’t slaughtered by the king who conquered them have fled to other regions. The plot follows a few Tiganians who are working to bring down the tyrant and revive Tigana.

The people of Croatia, Poland, and Quebec have experienced similar events; the people of the United States haven’t. The situation did not resonate with me when I read it a decade ago.

Ironically, that’s no longer true. After most of New Orleans was destroyed by the failure of the federal levees in 2005, some members of Congress suggested that New Orleans not be rebuilt, or be rebuilt elsewhere. The people of the Broadmoor neighborhood found a big green dot (representing a park) painted smack over Broadmoor on the first proposed rebuilding map. A diaspora of musicians took place, probably permanently changing New Orleans culture. Some of our historic buildings were destroyed or had to be torn down. I’ve had a small, bitter taste of what it means to have one’s political and cultural identity threatened with erasure. This time around, I’ll remember Tigana.