Book bits

Three books about language, a review of 'The Spanish Bow,' and readers' picks.

The Spanish Bow

Author: Andromeda Romano-Lax

"I was almost born Happy."

So begins Andromeda Romano-Lax's debut novel, The Spanish Bow, a book that was almost a nonfiction account of the cellist Pablo Casals. Instead, Romano-Lax's extensive research led her to write a historical novel about a musical trio: Feliu Delargo, a Catalan cellist born in 1892; Justo Al-Cerraz, a Spanish composer and pianist; and Aviva Henze-Pergolesi, a Jewish Italian violinist. Mostly, it is the story of Feliu, the cellist, whose name (from the Spanish feliz, for happy) was misspelled on a premature death certificate when he nearly died at birth.

Throughout "The Spanish Bow," there is a strong whiff of what could have been but for one small event. Feliu's breech birth left him with a lifelong limp and a misspelled name. Six years later, a trunk arrived from his father who had died in the Spanish American War and its gifts were distributed among the children. Feliu chose a cellist's bow, without knowing what it was. His siblings chose a compass, a blank diary, a blue bottle, a jungle cat, and each choice helped to define them. Later Feliu would wonder, what if he had chosen the compass?

Romano-Lax, a journalist and travel writer from Alaska, could have chosen the pianist as her main character to make this a picaresque novel, in the Spanish tradition of the adventurous rogue who lives by his wits. Certainly, Justo Al-Cerraz talks his way into numerous humorous and serious adventures – amorous, political, and musical – and his patron even thinks he's composing a piano piece based on Cervantes's Don Quixote.

Instead, Romano-Lax has chosen a more fascinating path, "jostled awake by the 9/11 terrorist attacks" and asking herself, "if I could write about only one more thing – what would it be?" Both she and her protagonists wonder, "In difficult times, is art an indulgence or a necessity?"

"[F]or me," she says in her author's note, "the sound of hope and humanity has always been the cello." Her novel attempts to answer several moral questions and is, in part, a search for heroes. Just as Pablo Casals became known for his stance against fascism, so, too, do these fictional musicians have to decide on their politics, their responses to war, their willingness (or lack) to perform for kings and queens, for fascists or dictators, and when to stay or flee. Expertly woven throughout the book are cameo appearances by Pablo Picasso, Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco, Bertolt Brecht, and others, but it is the fictional Feliu, Justo, and Aviva who will keep you mesmerized to the last page.

3 books about language

We all do it – affix our signatures to confusing but important legal documents that we don't fully understand. To aid, educate, and entertain, Alan Freedman has written The Party of the First Part: The Curious World of Legalese. Freedman, a former litigator, writes the "Legal Lingo" column for New York Law Journal Magazine and so knows well whereof he speaks. Freedman not only explains but also offers common-sense suggestions for legalese reform.

For crossword puzzlers, tourists, and British murder mystery aficionados, there could hardly be a more useful book. And for the just plain curious this makes a very fun read as well. In Divided by a Common Language, Christopher Davies offers a guide to and comparison of British and American English.

"Every profession has its own language," writes Diane Ravitch in Ed Speak: A Glossary of Education Terms, Phrases, Buzzwords, and Jargon. "Education is no exception." But educators, she points out, need to be able to communicate with both parents and the general public. To help make "ed speak' more accessible to lay people, Ravitch has defined more than 500 commonly used terms from the "strange tongue" of pedagogese.

– Marjorie Kehe

Sit, stay, read

Just when you had recovered from the remarkable success of "The Dangerous Book for Boys," here comes another (perhaps equally potent) threat to domestic tranquility: The Dangerous Book for Dogs (Villard Books, 193 pp., $15.95) by Rex and Sparky.

The book features chapters with titles like "Making Toys Out of Household Items," "Foul Smells Every Dog Should Roll In," and "A Connoisseur's Guide to Shoes."

The word "parody" in the subtitle reassures all of us that we need not take it too seriously but it does, of course, arrive just in time for holiday gift giving. I'm not quite sure why dog owners – who could write their own such manuals – will need a book like this, but the little sketches are cute, the prose is funny, and who can resist a work with the dedication, "For Marley"?

Readers' picks

I just finished R.D. Rosen's A Buffalo in the House: The True Story About a Man, an Animal, and the American West. Weaving the story of bison in American history through the tale of a man who became inseparable from an orphaned buffalo calf, this book will touch the heart of any animal lover.– Louise Brennecke Brown, Sherwood, Ore.

I knew that I would attract smirking attention from my wife when I began my most recent assault on Thomas Pynchon's crazily beautiful, chaotic Gravity's Rainbow. Why read such a difficult book? It's a constant search for beauty and elegance, and I guess only reading can help.– Barry Wightman, Elm Grove, Wis.

I am almost halfway through Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and find it enjoyable, witty, and charming. Elizabeth Gilbert has let me into her life. – Michelle Jaeger Jones, Playa Vista, Calif.

For something a little different, I tried Spin by Canadian author Robert Charles Wilson. Its three main characters sacrifice all they have – one for science, one for faith, and one for love. As soon as I finished it, I read it all over again and still can't stop thinking about it and the way it gives me hope for our race.– Kathy Piselli, Atlanta

In Stars of the New Jersey Shore: A Theatrical History, Karen Schnitzspahn has taken currently controversial Long Branch, N.J., and given it back its fabled past. You'll be astounded at the names that pop up, with details of their private lives. This is a must read for fans of celebrity history.– Art Scott, Flagstaff, Ariz.

Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy is about ceasing to procrastinate. For people who are overwhelmed by tasks of all sizes, this book provides methods for accomplishing more.– Lena Davidson, Portland, Ore.

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