The Grammarians, by Cathleen Schine*****

Oh hell yes. This charming little book had me on the first page, and when it was over, I was sorry to be done.  Big thanks go to Net Galley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for the review copy.  This is the first time I have read anything Schine has written, but it cannot possibly be the last. You can buy it now.

We start in the dark; we start behind bars. Happily, it’s because our protagonists are infants, and they’re in a crib. As light streams through the open door, we enter the lives of Daphne and Laurel, who are identical twins. They are brilliant, and they are in love with the written word from the get-go.

At the outset this story seems like a romp, but its success is in the details. As children we see the girls move in lock step; the first one out of the womb is the alpha, and they both understand this. But as they grow up and define their places in the world, there’s tension and at times, competition. In order to develop relationships and families separately, they have to pull away from each other, and when two people are very close, the only way they can become independent is through a hard break. Schine is absolutely consistent in the development of her characters, and this also includes their intellectual gifts.

One aspect of fiction that grates on my nerves is when I see a gifted child protagonist that’s developed in an amateurish way. Some writers want to use a child in their writing, but don’t have any clue about the qualities inherent in a child at the age they have chosen, and so they build giftedness into the character as an excuse, so that they can provide the child with adult-level dialogue and dodge the stages of childhood.  Schine doesn’t do that. Instead, she creates completely believable little geniuses that are nevertheless coping with the growing pains, developmental milestones, attitudes and frequent self-centeredness that characterize children and adolescents. Her care and skill result in characters that are entirely believable. I like the side characters a lot also.

The wit and sass shown by Daphne and Laurel as they indulge in their secret twin language as well as word play using standard English is original and makes me laugh out loud more than once, but as they grow older, both twins encounter broader philosophical issues that connect language with class, ethnicity, and other variables, and they must find their way through the ethical slough. They don’t choose the same paths, and their anger and pain toward one another is visceral. But in the end…well. You’ll have to find that out for yourself.

This book is highly recommended to those that have twins in their lives; those that love the English language; and those that want to howl with laughter. However, I don’t recommend it to anyone whose first language isn’t English.

I read several books at a time, and while I was reading this one, it became the reward for finishing a chapter in a less rewarding read. You, however, can reward yourself right now by ordering a copy.

Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel L. Everett *****

dontsleeptherearesnakesI read this shortly after it came out, and I’ve been going nuts trying to remember the title. Thank goodness for Google’s search engine! Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes is an amazing memoir that challenges assumptions under which most first-worlders have lived for a very long time.

Everett went to Brazil with his wife;they were Protestant missionaries, sent by their church to convert the Pirahas, an indigenous people who live deep inside the Amazon jungle, to Christ. They took a few tools and trinkets with them, which have been useful to missionaries–think of them as spiritual bribes–for generations. They traveled under tremendous physical hardship, experiencing terrible illness and threatened by deadly snakes and other jungle life, risking their necks for their cause.

Furthermore, they were tasked with deciphering the Piraha language so that the New Testament could be translated for the salvation of these Christless savages.

Instead, the opposite occurred.

First of all, the Pirahas didn’t want their stinking trinkets. Even items that Westerners regard as essential, such as knives and cooking pots, were only of temporary interest. When presented with these goodies, they would enjoy them, then abandon them. Because stuff doesn’t matter to the Pirahas, and when you’re a nomadic people, you need to travel light.

At first, Everett patiently tried to teach them to hang onto things so they’d have them when they needed them. He watched them go to a tremendous amount of effort to replicate a process that the knife, the cook pot could have shortened by hours, not to mention a reduced physical effort. But over the course of time, they let him know that it wasn’t that they didn’t understand him; they just didn’t agree.

And the greatest barrier to the conversion of the Pirahas to Christianity is this: they were already happy.

Eventually, Everett found himself questioning his own prayers. Why was he asking the Almighty to help him change these people, to obliterate their successful lifestyle–at least by the basic standard of personal fulfillment, as opposed to who has the greater technology–in order to become grasping materialists trying to keep up with the Joneses?

Ultimately, he came to a startling conclusion: the Pirahas were absolutely correct. His God was a myth. All the Pirahas needed was what they already had, and to be left alone, along with the environment in which they flourished. And this conclusion ultimately cost him his marriage, but he could not, would not retreat into the opiate of Christianity. Once he had a clue, he couldn’t lose it.

It’s a fascinating read.

Everett also develops a new understanding of how language is learned. My daughter, who is a passionate linguist herself, tells me that his discovery is flawed and has been discredited. I would not know. It sure sounded interesting to me.

The one thing I can guarantee is that if you have no religious drum to pound yourself, you’ll find the transformation that occurs here compelling.

Not recommended reading for serious Christians.

The Trials of Lenny Bruce ***** by Ronald K.L. Collins, David Skover

 thetrialsoflennybruce I cannot remember the last time I felt so strongly about a book I had bought. I have never, ever felt this strongly about a CD! I found, by a rare bit of luck, this hardcover book in brand new condition, in a used book store. The CD inside the cover was still sealed. It is not just an actor on the CD; it is actual footage of Bruce’s voice performing (along with narration by someone else). It cost me all of five bucks. Unbelievable!

If you are a champion of free speech, you have to know that this amazing (though oh yes, profane) comedian broke new ground. It could be (and has been) argued that he paid with his life, that performing in a nightclub LINED with cops all up and down ultimately broke him, but he did not go gently.

The first time I heard the material was in the movie “Lenny”, starring actor Dustin Hoffman in the title role. I knew it was good, but I was also young, had very tender ears, and I think there were times when the one-two punch of some of the words that I hadn’t heard much, caused me to miss some of the point. Even then, I understood that this was a powerful thing, though.

This book and ESPECIALLY the CD, which provides not only the words, but the all-important inflections (transcribed, for those who miss some of what goes by in the snappy nightclub patter, in the book), is one of the most important pieces of primary evidence I have ever been privileged to hear, see, and own. I cannot believe the clarity of the sound! For those, like me, to whom the early sixties are not within the realm of memory, the book is essential for context. There are people who were well known at the time whose names go by like gunshots in his routine; two who come to mind were a cardinal and a bishop. The context that the CD does not provide is in the book.

The text itself is 442 pp. in length; the rest is meticulous documentation. Pictures of everyone…this is a treasure!