Pop Culture Homework Assignment for Beth: Language

This summer, I am sharing with Beth something that has been a passion and a profession for me: the study of language. At the end of the month, I will defend my dissertation. If it all goes well, I will have a PhD in linguistics. Language and its study have been a huge part of my life for a long time now, but the details of it haven’t really been something that I have shared with my family. I know that they know what I do, but I worry that they find the discussion of it way too boring. To be honest with you, coming up with this list felt a little self-indulgent and unfair. (So much so that I have a back up assignment, in case she protests and boycotts this one.) But, I love the work that I do and find it exciting, so I have decided to share a little bit of general linguistics with my sister (and anyone who wants to join the challenge!) this summer. The four books I have picked are half non-fiction and half fiction (huge hat-tip is Jessi Grieser on twitter for asking for book suggestions and Gretchen McCulloch for this blog post! It helped me pick the fiction on this list!).

  1. What Language Is: and What it isn’t and what it could be by John McWhorter


John McWhorter has written a number of pop science on language and I’ve found them to be quite enjoyable. I haven’t read this one, but the reviews suggest that it will be a good introduction to what linguistics is, while also providing some fun trivia about language.

2. Left hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin


I couldn’t resist adding an Ursula K. Le Guin book to the list following our read along last February.  Le Guin uses language in interesting ways in this novel. I look forward to hearing Beth’s thoughts on the book, after having read McWhorter’s thoughts on language.

3. The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison


Depending on how you count, there are between roughly 6,0007,000 languages in the world. For many of them, the possibility that they will still be spoken in one hundred years is slim. This book highlights that and brings attention to speakers of some vanishing languages.

4.  Embassytown by China Miéville


Language is at the center of my final selection. Living figures of speech, a unique language humans must be modified to speak. Danger! Catastrophe! Hard choices! So fun. I can’t wait for her to read this.

In fact, I can’t wait to hear what Beth thinks about all of them!

Quick Review: Believe Me by Eddie Izzard

eddie Phew!  I did it. I only had about 48 hours to read my DRC and I just barely made it under the deadline.  It helped that those last two days fell on my days off from work.  I’m very glad that I got a chance to read it.  Believe Me was a touching and honest memoir of man who struggled by persevered not just in his career but in his life.  Eddie Izzard is mostly known for his stand up but he is also an actor and transgender.  He talks openly about his sexuality and trying to identify who he is when there really wasn’t a word for it, the loss of his mother when he was six and breaking into the entertainment industry when you have no idea on how to find the door.  He goes step by step throughout his life that lead him to where he is now and those who are familiar with his stand up will notice how many of his chapters are written like his shows.  With a topic and then a short digression into a topic that’s related but not really related before coming back to the original thread.  It’s filled with humor and grief.  Hard times but good times too.  He didn’t have an easy road but it wasn’t all tragedy either.  He owns up to his privilege of growing up in a middle class household.  How the hard work of his father not only inspired him but allowed him to be able to follow his dreams and when he wasn’t able to pay the bills, his father was there to support him.  He talks about the fear of coming out and knowing that it could be the end of his career but how he had to do it.  I don’t think I have ever read a more clear and detailed experience of someone’s coming out.  I think most people see it as it as a one time thing. You Say I’m Gay! and that’s it but really it’s like multiple coming outs.  Once to themselves, then close friends and family and then coworkers and so forth.  To my LGBTQ+ friends, I hope that I have been supportive you and know that I believe that you are all brave for being you.  It’s also a good demonstration that if want something you have to be willing to work for it.  Eddie’s path to success had a lot of failures and a lot of unexpected detours but he used everyone of them to learn and grow and kept at it.  He’s still looking for new challenges like performing his stand up in different languages to connect more with people from different cultures.  Fans of Eddie will love it but I think people looking for inspiration will get a lot out of it too.

Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

wonder woman For a superhero who has outlasted all by Superman, Batman and Captain America, she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves.  She was created to inspire young woman to take up their rightful place in society as her creator William Moultan Marston once stated that in the next 1,000 years, Woman will rule the world.  He wanted a superhero that embody female strength can be just as strong as any man if not stronger. To truly understand Wonder Woman and her place in history, you really have to know who origins and the man (and the women who inspired) who created her.  William Moultan Marston was an heir to a family with a long history.  An only child who was doted on by his mother and four aunts.  His wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, was just as educated as he was and was often the breadwinner of the family and his other wife, Olive Byrne (yep, he had two wives) was once his student and the caretaker.  He was a lawyer and academic.  He invented the lie detector.  He wrote screenplays and worked for Universal Studios during the earlier days of Hollywood.  He was a little bit of everything and a little bit of a mess. He failed as more then he succeeded but all of it culminated in creating Wonder Woman.  Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth was an extension of his life work of seeking truth through his own lie detector machine and research.  Wonder Woman’s bracelets were inspired by his second wife’s, Olive Byrne,bracelet that she wore instead of a wedding ring.  Speaking of Olive she was the niece of Margaret Sanger.  Champion for birth control and founder of Planned Parenthood.  Feminism was strong in the family.  Actually the suffragist movement very much influenced Wonder Woman as the stories and imagery can be seen all over the the early Wonder Woman comic book.  This was a very easy read that goes into the great detail of William Marsters life and highlight moments in his life that he drew upon to create his Amazonian.  It may take a while before you get the actual creation of Wonder Woman but Jill Lepore does a great job of showcasing how people, situations and politics would influence Moultan Marsters and how they ended up in his work.  How an old professor turned into Dr. Psycho.  Or how the art of Lou Rogers inspired story lines.  How the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady shaped Wonder Woman’s character and how his own wives and children breathed life into her as well.  Sadly, it also shows how the Wonder Woman changed after Marster’s death.  Like many women after World War Two, Wonder Woman was forced back into the kitchens even if it went against her origins.  She may have gone completely by the wayside if it wasn’t for Women’s movement in the 60’s and 70’s but even then she wasn’t the same.  It’s sad to see that many of the issues that Wonder Woman faced in the late 30’s and 40’s we are still facing today.  The criticism of her is still charged against many female protagonist of any genre. Progress has been made but we are still so much to go.  You to like this book you don’t know need to know anything about Wonder Woman or even comics to enjoy it.  You just need to have an appreciation for a good story and kick ass woman.

This Year in Reality 2015

When Beth and I decided we were really going to get on this thing and use this space and do some writing, we decided that we both needed a recurring series. Beth has been doing the Series You Should Check Out. These have been enjoyable to read (and have definitely put books into my TBR pile) and they’ve even gotten us a couple of author retweets. (Which, I have to say, was super exciting for both of us!) I decided to go in a different direction and review at least one non-fiction book a month. I flippantly titled this recurring series This Month in Reality. And, while not getting us any retweets, it has at least gotten me the personal satisfaction of engaging in some topics that I’ve had an interest in but have maybe not have made time for. The books that I read this year can probably be divided into three categories: Self help (dating advice,exercise, etc, New Years resolutions and Mesoamerican History! *only self-help for me because I study Mesoamerica*. ) Pop Culture Interest (the life and times of Kim Gordon, Piper Kerman and Orange is the New Black,Pop Physics,Travel as a metaphor for personal growth, Oscar winners ) meditation (Meditation and Science, meditation and practice, meditation AND pop culture). I’m so proud of my accidental consistency. I plan to continue this column in the coming year and I will also endeavor to be consistent, although more intentionally so. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year considering who holds space and who is asking for it in our society, so expect to see books that help me meditate on and answer that question in 2016. But, before we get to 2016, I’d like to say goodbye to 2015 to revisiting my favorite reads/listens in reality this year! So, in no particular order:



<a href=https://stacksexceedlifeexpectancy.com/2015/07/31/this-month-in-reality-love-and-revolution/> Revolution by Russell Brand</a>.


This book hit me right in the feels. In a moment of synchronicity, I listened to this book at the exact right time for me because the messages of his book, that love is important and should be cherished and cultivated and that if something isn’t working we have to try something new and endeavor to make it better, were both things I needed to hear. It feels a little trite to say that a celebrity known for being a dirty hippie who once did a lot of drugs said the things that I needed to hear (especially when those things are stuff like, “your reality is the result of your attention and intention” and “sometimes you have to realize that the only power you have in a situation is the power to make it worse”) but it’s true so I might as well own it. I think Brand is a funny dude and I think the ideas he discusses are worthy ideas. So, if you’re feeling despairing and fed up with what the world looks like, take a break and hang out with this squirrelly English dude. Maybe he’ll say what you need to hear, too. (Or, maybe you’ll hate it and it’ll be one of those hate reads which is also cathartic. I don’t know.  You do you.)


<a href=https://stacksexceedlifeexpectancy.com/2015/04/02/this-month-in-reality-travel-as-a-metaphor-for-personal-growth/>Eat, Pray, Love</a>


I wanted so badly to hate this book. No, really. I wanted to hate this book because knowing barely anything about Elizabeth Gilbert (except the general plot of this story) I had decided that Gilbert was a selfish person who does what she likes and (mis)uses foreign cultures to justify her self-serving decisions. Now, maybe my original judgments about her are true and maybe they aren’t. But, try as I might to hate this book, I just couldn’t.  I found this book to be tremendously enjoyable. In the book someone suggests to her that every person and every city has a word that sums them up. When you find the city that you match, you’ve found your home. This is a clue to her that it is time to move on. I really liked this idea and I spent a long time considering what my word is. I just went back through a bunch of text messages with a friend who loved the book to see if I had come to a decision about my word. I think it might be “chameleon”. But, I’m still not sure. This book was a beautiful, painful, wonderful read. I’m so happy I picked it up!


<a href=https://stacksexceedlifeexpectancy.com/2015/10/31/this-month-in-reality-mesoamerican-history/>Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed by Professor  Edwin Barnhart</a>

I picked up this lecture series from audible because I thought, “What the hell? You know practically nothing about the historical context that gave birth to this language context you study, what could it hurt?” Nothing, I decided. And, I’m so glad that I picked it up. It covers the Toltecs, Olmecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Tarascans, Aztecs, and Mayans: all of whom had empires in Mesoamerica prior to the arrival of Columbus. Did you know that? Prior to reading this audio book, these were names I knew, but I didn’t realize the the history that these names conveyed. These were huge empires that had sweeping impact on the culture, the people, and the land. How cool is that? Audible has an entire series of lectures, so if you’re interested in learning a little about anything, you might find something that will capture your interest! I, of course, recommend starting in Mesoamerica.



I hope that you have enjoyed learning a little this year along with me and that 2016 will bring us more knowledge about this cool and exciting world we live in!


Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Featured imageI did it. I have completed my summer’s Pop Culture Homework Assignment and still have a couple more weeks before the kids go back to school. (Kids in NYC go back ridiculously late.) I’ve read four books.  Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, 13 Blue Little Envelopes and Last Little Blue Envelope (extra credit) by Maureen Johnson and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.  I feel very good about all of this.  I’ve read three non-fiction books, which is three more than I read all of last year.  I read about two brave women and how they overcame their struggles and came out stronger.  I got a feel for what it’s like to hike and camp and it still has no appeal to me but I can see how it might appeal to others.  I also got to read a new book form an author I really like.  I would say it was a productive summer.

So A Walk in the Woods was enjoyable.  I can definitely see why Kate loves it so much.  Bill and his friend Stephen Katz are two people who probably shouldn’t be hiking but they did and they made it.  Ok, maybe Bill but definitely not Katz.  Bill moves to New Hampshire and finds out it’s right by the Appalachian Trail and decides, he’s going to hike it because why not.  Out of no where, his long lost friend Katz decides to do it with him. Like Cheryl in Wild, they have no idea of what they are getting themselves into.  Sure, they’ve done some hiking before but nothing like this.  Reading their misadventures was a delight.  From their struggles with their packs, the people they meet and their run-ins with animals that were real or imaginary was amusing.  The best part of the book is when they are together.  In the middle, Katz has to go back to Des Moines for a job and Bill continues on his own.  It’s not that I don’t like Bill, it’s I liked him more when he had Katz to play off.  If they were a comedic duo, Bill would be Desi to Katz’s Lucy.  The book read faster and I was more interested.  When it was just Bill, I felt like he spent more talking about history and other tangents and while interesting, it slowed the pace down.  Maybe he spent so much time talking about other things because he was by himself he obviously didn’t have any witty dialogue to include. The Appalachian Trail is older then the Pacific Crest Trail that Cheryl hiked and so it had a lot more places to stop.  Also, it’s surrounded by more towns and people, so Bill and Katz had more chances of interacting with people on and off the trail.  It was interesting to see how they were treated when they left the trail.  In some cases like Gods and others indifference.  All and all it was an enjoyable read.  I’m glad I read it.

Review: Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

Featured imageI remember years ago, Madonna was quoted as saying that she wasn’t a religious person but a spiritual one. For the life of me I can’t find the actual quote.  Internet, you have failed me! This seemed strange to me at the time because Madonna was very much in her Kabbalah phase and it seemed like everything in her life  was influenced by it.  Just listen to albums Ray of Light through Confessions on a Dance Floor for more evidence.  She has since have moved on from Kabbalah.  I’m not sure if she is still practicing or not but the presence is not as prevalent in her music as it used to be. Does one have to actively practice a religion to be that religion?  The one thing that stuck with me from my Introduction to Islam class I took in college (taught by New York Times Bestseller, Reza Aslan.  Yep, I’m totally name dropping!) was that in Islam, if you don’t practice you really can’t be really considered Muslim. Now, I took that class *gulp* over 10 years ago, so I apologize if that is not entirely accurate but I do remember that Islam is a very practical religion as well.  As Mr. Aslan explained, if you couldn’t pray five times a day at the right time that’s ok, as long as you get those prayers in sometime during the day.  If you can’t fast during Ramadan because of work, illness or other circumstances, that’s fine, too, as long as you make time to fast later to make up for it.  That last point was illustrated to me when a former co-worker had to skip a week of fasting during the month of Ramadan because she was having stomach pain.  As soon as she was feeling better, she completed that week of fasting.  This makes sense to me. If you think about it, you really don’t have to go to church or read the bible to call yourself a Christian.

Why do I bring all this up?  Well, both of these things were going through my mind as I was reading this book. Anne Lamott talks to openly and honestly about her faith.  She puts to paper all her failings, fears and shortcomings. Even after finding a church and Christianity, she still struggles with keeping faith.  She still has moments of “Dear God, why is this happening?”  I’m a big fan of her two favorite prayers of “Help Me Help Me Help Me” and “Thank You Thank You Thank You”.  I appreciate how she talks about her journey but makes it clear that this is her journey.  She’s not forcing her beliefs on the reader but is more saying “this is what happened to me and this worked for me and maybe something like it will work for you”. I appreciate that.  I was truly touched by her story.  I haven’t been to a church going person since I completed confirmation when I was 13.  I’ve found many things that people who say they are Christians to be incredibly offensive and contrary to the Christianity that I grew up with.  I also studied a lot of Medieval History in college for my major and well, I haven’t really been able to look at Christianity the same since.  We seem to think that religious institutions are unchanging and infallible but anyone who has studied history has seen how much the church has changed to fit in with the times it was in.  Religions are always changing, growing and to say otherwise is just, well, naive and ignorant.  This is why at times I have called myself agnostic because I do believe that a God exists or at least a higher power exists. I wasn’t sure I could really call myself a Christian knowing all these things.  I didn’t want to be associate with the likes of the  Duggars and Westboro Churches of the world or have people think that I was like them.  I sort of backed way from all religions for awhile.  Now, that Madonna quote from the beginning makes sense to me.  I wouldn’t say I’m religious or even spiritual but I would say that I have faith. I would say I still believe in the basic Christian belief that God loves all his children when it comes down to it.  I don’t need to go to church or read the bible to be a good Christian.  I just need to be a good person and treat people with love and dignity because isn’t that what Jesus would do?   I came to this realization a couple of years ago so reading this book didn’t really change my mind but it did cement my thinking.  Miss Lamott found a certain peace in her faith and I have found it in mine.  We are practicing it differently but ultimately we have come to the same place and I know Miss Lamott would respect and love that. So Thank You Thank You Thank You

Now I am halfway through my Pop Culture homework assignment.  I’m looking forward to something that hopefully won’t make me cry while I’m on the subway.