Writer’s Workshop: A Book From My Childhood (Encore Presentation)

One of the prompts for today is “March 2nd is National Read Across America Day. Tell us about your favorite childhood book.” I had written this back on August 2014, and since it’s been a while, decided to share it again. Everything I said then still applies.

Source: Amazon.com
Source: Amazon.com

This was one of my favorite books as a kid. I got it from my godmother when I was seven or eight. She had brought a copy home with her when she returned from a trip to Europe, and we used to read it together. She thought I might like a copy of my own. I lost track of the book after I left home, but Mom kept it for me and gave it back to me not long before she died.

These were children’s stories written by Herr Wilhelm Busch in the late 1800’s. They were written in German, and the book I have (an earlier edition of the one currently available) has the text written in German and translated into pretty amazing English poetry by “H. Arthur Klein and others.”

These are not pleasant stories. Max and Moritz are two delinquent little boys that wreak havoc wherever they go. They kill a woman’s chickens, then abscond with the meat, put gunpowder in the church organist’s pipe, goad the town’s tailor into crossing a bridge which they have sawed through, and end up being ground up by the local miller and fed to the ducks. Ker and Plunk, or “Plisch und Plum” if you prefer, are two dogs that are saved from drowning by Peter and Paul. The dogs (and boys) are about as bad as Max and Moritz, but without the malicious intent, and finally all are taught a lesson with a hazel-root stick, after which they become model citizens.

There are shorter stories as well. A boy goes skating on a very cold day, falls through the ice, and freezes. His father finds him and brings him home, and when they try to thaw him, he melts away. Two boys tease an old man who lives in a barrel, and eventually get flattened by said barrel. A boy tries smoking his father’s pipe, and the room starts dancing around him until his mother finds him and puts him to bed with strong coffee. A boy teases an old man with a blowgun, and the old man shoves the gun down the kid’s throat.

Gee, really pleasant stuff, huh? As awful as it sounds, it’s a wonderful book. Busch wrote the whole thing in verse and illustrated it himself, and both drawings and verse are clever. The translators took care to produce a text that’s faithful both to Busch’s words and to the poetry and stories. The Afterword of the book has details about the stories and explains some of the translations. And, my copy is over fifty years old, and while the cover is torn off, the pages are still intact.

If you know German, or are trying to learn it, you’ll like this book. If you write verse, you’ll like this book. If you have kids, they’ll like this book. If you just like stories like this, you’ll like the book. I can still remember the details and the pictures forty years later, even though I hadn’t had a chance to sit down and read it again until recently.

I rate this book five stars (or, if you prefer, Fünf Sterne).

Sing Lyric Sunday: “New Math”

When I started taking arithmetic classes in 1962, there was all kinds of excitement about a revolution in pedagogy called “New Math.” Ours was the first class at St. Ignatius School to have the honor (or be cursed with, depending on your point of view) of learning arithmetic in this newfangled way, and of course it baffled me and most of the class and I was falling behind. This was the cause for consternation in my family, because, after all, my grandfather was a professor of Mathematics at Loyola University less than two blocks away and, in fact, had taught many of the same teachers that were now telling my mother that I was falling behind. In fact, I was pretty number literate and could add and subtract with the best of them (all you need to know to pass 1st Grade), thanks to all I had learned from Professor Hicks, but there was the issue of learning it the “New Math” way, where getting the right answer was secondary to being able to explain how I got that answer (i.e. to tell the teachers what I was doing in between getting the problem and arriving at the answer). Sound familiar?

Anyway, around that time a Professor of Mathematics from MIT, Tom Lehrer, was making waves in the entertainment business by writing humorous songs and performing them in concert. At one point he was employed as a songwriter for the popular TV show That Was The Week That Was, the name of one of his albums. In one of his songs, he discusses this revolutionary new method of taking a problem like 2+2=4 and turning it into an incomprehensible discussion where you might end up with 5 as the answer, but at least you understood what you were doing. Normally I would include the lyrics copied from one of the many lyrics collections online, but as you’ll see, a young man named Jared Khan did that already.

In the computer biz, math is done in base 16, so 342 – 173 = 1CF (in base 16 you count 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F, 10…), usually pronounced “one charlie foxtrot.”

Anyway, that’s Song Lyric Sunday for March 17, 2019.

Writer’s Workshop: Mighty Fighter of Foo!

A guy I worked with once used the line “Buy ’em books, buy ’em books, all they do is chew the covers off.” I thought it was hilarious, even though I didn’t understand what he meant. I remembered it when I saw the prompt for this week was “books.”

Still not quite getting what it meant some 40 years later, I decided to look it up, and evidently there are two possible explanations.

  • It’s in roughly the same vein as “Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
  • It’s about doing something for someone that they don’t fully appreciate.

A slightly different take is “You buy them books and send them to school, and all they do is eat the pages.” Which then reminded someone on a message board who went by the name “Smokey Stover” of a cartoon they had seen years before, where a cannibal chief is saying, “Buy them books, send them to school, and they eat the teacher.”

Which brings me to the true purpose of this essay, Bill Holman, a cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune who drew the cartoon Smokey Stover. I used to read the cartoon every Sunday, and decided the guy was either crazy or on something, maybe both. But I liked it.

Smokey Stover comic book cover, from Wikipedia (Fair Use)

Smokey was a fireman, or in his parlance, a “foo fighter.” (Now you know where the band’s name came from.) His chief, who he referred to as “Chiefy,” was named Cash U. Nutt. The strip was loaded with puns, not necessarily related to the story of the strip; they appeared as a sort of picture-within-the-picture, in part of the comic frame that would otherwise be unoccupied. (An example: a picture might be labeled “Whipped Cream” and depict a cream pitcher being lashed with a cat-o’-nine-tails.) Or a tag might be attached to an item in the picture, such as a dog’s bone bearing the tag “Ca c’est bone.”

In addition to “foo,” Holman always managed to squeeze the phrase “Notary Sojac” into the comic somewhere, on a street sign, a wall, or even as a sheet of paper if he couldn’t find anywhere else to put it. He always explained that it was an approximation of “Nollaig Shona Dhuit,” the Gaelic phrase meaning “Merry Christmas.” For a time, he would also include the phrase “1506 nix nix,” no doubt an inside joke.

The cartoon, many examples of which can be seen on the website, was so unique that, when Holman retired in 1973 after having drawn it for roughly forty years, the strip merely ended. No one took it over, because no one could. It was unique to Holman and his loony sense of humor. It hasn’t totally died, though: the word “foo,” generally in conjunction with the word “bar,” shows up all the time in computer science textbooks, generally as variables, e.g. foo = 1; bar = 2; That, in turn, refers to the military term FUBAR, which politely translates as “badly screwed up.”

To bring this full circle, I checked Amazon for books of Smokey Stover comics, and it appears that most of them are antiques. Seems a shame to let humor like his die out…

#ROW80: A good week


I had a pretty good week. The summary:

  • Read 3 books: I got Busker by D. B. Rouse as a freebie, and read the whole thing. It was the enjoyable memoir of an itinerant musician and some of the things he ran up against on the road. That counts as my second book; I’m now reading Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan; I just started it today. I knew he had little formal education, but he might have made himself one of the most intelligent presidents because (a) he read a lot, and (b) he wrote a lot. All I learned about him in school were the apocryphal stories about him. Somehow they glossed over the autodidacticism, and the determination he had to make himself as intelligent as he could. Had that been stressed, I might have taken my studies a little more seriously.
  • Write the entries for the A to Z Challenge: I’ve started with some of the shorter ones, and have about a half dozen done. Six out of 26 ain’t bad.

In other news:

  • After a relatively mild winter so far, we’re getting colder and there’s talk about snow, sleet, and freezing rain. I don’t like the sound of that.
  • Today would have been Dad’s 83rd birthday. Happy birthday, Dad!
  • I’ve decided to grow a beard. More like I’ve decided that the assault on my face with a sharp instrument isn’t worth it. Mary’s cool with it, as long as I don’t end up looking like Hägar the Horrible like I did the last time.

That’s it from me. Straight ahead.

I have my work cut out for me…

We've been shopping here since the home page looked like this (source: newsteam, dailymail.co.uk)
We’ve been shopping here since the home page looked like this (source: newsteam, dailymail.co.uk)

You would think that Amazon would have a way to download the list of Kindle books in your library to a CSV file so you could open it in Excel or LibreOffice or Google Drive, wouldn’t you? I’ve wanted that since our Kindle library was still at a manageable size (about three years ago) and they still don’t have one. There are a number of complicated processes documented on the Internet for doing it, none of which seem to work because Amazon changes the format of whatever listing you can get from them every couple of months, whether it needs it or not.

Anyway, I was poking around yesterday and discovered Shelfari, Amazon’s version of Goodreads. It will allow you to download a full list of all the books you’ve bought from Amazon since four years after they opened (including actual physical books) for inclusion on your Shelfari bookshelf. Since most of what’s in our Kindle library are romance novels that Mary bought, I can go through the list and check off the ones that I added and stick them on my shelf. From there, I can download a list of what I have out there to import to a spreadsheet. It’s a real pain in the ass, but you do what you have to do.

The upshot: I have close to 700 books that I’ve added, many of which are in various stages of being read, which I abandoned when I couldn’t find them. Mary would run out the battery on her Kindle and/or her iPad and grab my Kindle so she could run out the battery on that as well. (Mary is a compulsive reader, spending hours at it. I keep telling her she ought to be the writer in the family, but she has no interest in it.)

So I have my work cut out for me reading-wise next year. Maybe I should also look at Amazon’s API and see if there’s a way to create the list I’m looking for.

Before I go through that effort, though, let me ask you: do you know of a way to get the list I’m talking about?