Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconTitle: Lexicon
 Max Barry
18 July 2013
The Penguin Press HC
science fiction, thriller, mystery
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Two plot lines converge in Lexicon. In one, a man named Wil Parke is kidnapped to keep him safe from people who are trying to kill him. Wil doesn’t know how he could possibly have ended up in this situation, but that’s because his memory has been wiped. He used to live in a tiny Australian town called Broken Hill. Broken Hill had a population of over 3000 people. Now all of them are dead because of a single word. Except for Wil, who survived because he was immune.

In the parallel plot, Emily Ruff, a sixteen-year-old with a natural talent  for persuasion, is recruited by a mysterious and extremely wealthy but nameless organisation. They send her to their academy to train her to use words. This is not about rhetoric but about analysing people and using sets of keywords to hack their minds so that you can instruct them to do whatever you want. The people who do this are known as Poets. Emily isn’t particularly talented, but what makes her notable is her strong attack power and her disregard for the rules.

All of this can be quite confusing at first, particularly in Wil’s storyline where he struggles to get any kind of useful information out of Tom Eliot, the Poet who saved/kidnapped him (all the Poets use famous poets as aliases). But everything becomes clearer as the story progresses through Emily’s training and Eliot and Wil’s flight from the USA back to Broken Hills, Australia where the word is still killing everyone they send in to retrieve it.

I love stories about language, and Max Barry has made a particularly enjoyable sci fi thriller out of this one. Admittedly, it felt very familiar – Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson also used mind hacking and language mythology, and magic often serves similar functions in fantasy stories. But it was a great read nonetheless.

Also, unlike the stories this reminded me of, language and persuasion is the focus of the plot in Lexicon. Emily compares it to magic, suggesting that persuasion once took the form of magic, until it was studied, developed and organised:

“Once upon a time, there were sorcerers,” she said. “Who were really just guys who knew a little about persuasion. And some of them did all right, ruled kingdoms and founded religions, et cetera, but they also occasionally got burned to death by angry mobs, or beheaded, or drowned while being tested for witchness. So sometime in the last few centuries, maybe even just the last fifty or so, actually, they got organized. To solve the whole being-burned problem. And . . .” She gestured. “Here we are. No more beheadings.”

Emily’s education gives us an understanding of how it works. The students are all taught “attention words” which are words that basically cause people to stop, open their minds, and take in whatever instruction the speaker giver. Emily comes up with this rather useful explanation:

A word is a recipe. A recipe for a particular neurochemical reaction. When I say ball, your brain converts the word into meaning, and that’s a physical action. You can see it happening on an EEG. What we’re doing […] is dropping recipes into people’s brains to cause a neurochemical reaction to knock out the filters. Tie them up just long enough to slip an instruction past. And you do that by speaking a string of words crafted for the person’s psychographic segment. Probably words that were crafted decades ago and have been strengthened ever since. And it’s a string of words because the brain has layers of defenses, and for the instruction to get through, they all have to be disabled at once.

Yes, she’s info dumping, but I find this really interesting so I don’t mind. I also like the way the novel incorporates mythology like the Babel story into its plot. I actually wish there was more info dumping, because Emily mentions some myths I’m not familiar with.

Admittedly, it did get confusing on occasion, particularly since I’m not a linguist and I haven’t studied any kind of language-related science. I also got the feeling that, because I didn’t understand the science, I was buying into something that didn’t make any sense. The attention words used to compromise people felt particularly odd, since it’s just gibberish, like “Vartix velkor mannik wissick”. The idea that that could be used to hack someone’s mind seemed a bit unlikely. And does it still work if, for example, they wouldn’t pronounce those words the same way the speaker does? Because, as I understand it, there are different words for different languages, but languages themselves can be spoken with widely varied accents.

To keep things simple though, the book only deals with English speakers who have fairly similar accents. Persuasion is mostly limited to one-on-one confrontations. This doesn’t explain why the organisation exists though, so for that there are many breaks between sections where excerpts from news reports, blogs, and other media are used to give us a fuller understanding of the organisation’s purpose. This mostly involves data collection and information control. There are several news reports on events in the novel which show that the Poets have been at work, feeding people a fake story to cover up the truth. Some people manage to guess at the organisation’s workings, like in this comment on a $1.6 billion scheme to replace train tickets with smart cards that allow people’s movements to be tracked:

I’m not a privacy nut, and I don’t care that much if these organisations want to know where I go and what I buy. But what bothers me is how HARD they’re all working for that data, how much money they’re spending, and how they never admit that’s what they want. It means that information must be really valuable for some reason, and I just wonder to who and why.

The answer – at least in part – is that the Poets use this kind of information to analyse people. It’s how they built up the system of attention words, and in the age of information they can take their research so much further:

Everyone’s making pages for themselves. Imagine a hundred million people clicking polls and typing in their favorite TV shows and products and political leanings, day after day. It’s the biggest data profile ever. And it’s voluntary. That’s the funny part. People resist a census, but give them a profile page and they’ll spend all day telling you who they are. Which is . . . good . . . for us . . . obviously . . .

Not all of this is directly related to the plot, but I find it intriguing, and quite scary. It’s makes me nervous about how much information is on my Facebook page or how much I reveal about myself in my blog. It hints at how the Poets have been using their skills across the world, and the organisation hovers in the background of the story as this monstrously manipulative global power.

However, some readers may feel that there’s a major flaw here. The story focuses on a very dramatic and action-intense plot, which is great, but may leave you wondering about the more complex issues behind the story. How was the organisation formed? What exactly does it do with the Poets it trains? We get a few ideas, but these are asides. What could this story be about, if it was less like a Hollywood action movie, and more of a philosophical sci fi novel that delved deeper into the ideas at its core?

At times this kind of thing bothers me, when I feel like the author chose the lighter, more entertaining story over a more complex, thought-provoking one. In this case though, I think Lexicon strikes a good balance between action and ideas. The mysterious nature of the organisation gives you a curiosity that the novel never really satisfies, but at the same time the fact that you can’t know the whole truth is suitably disturbing. I’d love to read a more philosophical version that delves deeper into the organisation, but I like the thriller version a lot.

And I like the characters. Emily is tough and smart. I didn’t always like her or approve of her choices, but I wanted to follow her to the end of the story. Wil and Eliot made an unexpectedly amusing pair, because Wil keeps talking and asking questions and Eliot can’t stand him, but can’t bring himself to abandon Wil either. Initially I was annoyed that Eliot’s character seemed completely flat, but there’s a good reason for this. Poets operate by categorising people according to a system of 228 personality types or segments. Each segment has its own set of words for hacking (or “compromising” as they call it) those types of minds. To protect themselves from being compromised the Poets cultivate fake personalities or avoid showing any personality traits at all, hence Eliot’s bland personality. They need to avoid being characterised, so they can’t be religious or show vanity by being fussy about clothing. And personal relationships are out of the question.

It’s an extremely cold way of living that does not fail to have profound affects on the characters. And ultimately, their personalities and idiosyncrasies play an important role in the story. It’s not just about the ideas at work, but the people caught up in them, their emotions, and the decisions they make. All in all, it’s a fantastic sf thriller. And great holiday reading if you want something cerebral and action-packed.

Embassytown by China Miéville

Title: Embassytown
Author: China Miéville
Published: 2011 by Pan Macmillan
Genre:  science fiction, space opera
Source: Copy received from publisher for review
My Rating: 9/10

China Miéville said that he wanted to write a book in every genre. Embassytown (2011) is his experiment in science fiction, and more specifically, in space opera. And oh, what a beautiful piece of science fiction it is – elegant, cerebral, audacious. Sf might be the genre of ideas, but many of those once outlandish things have become tropes of the genre, as common and clichéd as love triangles or dark and stormy nights. It’s wonderful then, to read a novel like Embassytown, proving that sf can still push the limits. Not that Miéville ever disappoints in that department.

His space opera is less about exploring the universe than about using the possibilities of an infinite universe to explore ideas about language and communication. In the novel, Embassytown is a relatively small, parochial town on the planet Arieka, at the very edge of the known universe. There’s only one Embassy in town, and its function is communication with the Ariekei, the large insectoid aliens of the planet. The Ariekei (also known as ‘Hosts’) speak Language – yes, that’s language with a capital ‘L’, because it’s unlike any other in the universe. The only humans capable of speaking with them are the Ambassadors, who are specially bred and trained from birth for this purpose.

But then an “impossible” new Ambassador arrives from off-world, and the Ariekei react to his speech as though it were a powerful drug. Addiction spreads through both the Ariekei population and their biotechnology (‘biorigging’), dismantling the entire social and political system. It threatens not only the existence of the Ariekei, but also the humans of Embassytown who depend on Ariekene biorigging to survive on the planet.

Recording this momentous time in Ariekei and Embassytown history is Avice Benner Cho. Possessing an innate talent for immersion (space navigation), Avice left the backwater that is Embassytown for more exciting prospects. She returned only at the request of her husband Scile, a scholar fascinated by Language. Avice’s off-world experience gives her some influence within the Embassy, but she’s also important to the Ariekei, because when she was a child they made her a part of Language.

Miéville’s world-building  in this novel is superb because he’s created something very alien. It’s hard to grasp at first, but that strangeness is part of what makes the novel so fascinating. You feel like you’re literally exploring the unknown:

Had I ship-hopped in other directions, I could have gone to regions of immer and everyday where Bremen was the fable. People get lost in the overlapping sets of knownspace. Those who serve on exot vessels, who learn to withstand the strange strains of their propulsion—of swallowdrives, overlight foldings, bansheetech—go even farther with less predictable trajectories, and become even more lost. It’s been this way for megahours, since women and men found the immer and we became Homo diaspora. (p.50)

‘Knownspace’, ‘exot’, ‘bansheetech’, ‘Homo diaspora’ – once again Miéville plays around with language, inventing and repurposing words for his world (he also has a tendency to use words described as ‘literary’ or ‘formal’ so keep a good dictionary handy). Some are easy to figure out; others escape understanding. I’m still not sure what the ‘immer’ is (hyperspace?) except as a vague idea that it’s some dimension of space and ships travel in it. But not being able to understand it is the point. According to Avice, only the few people capable of immersing know what the immer is. It’s impossible to describe:

The immer’s reaches don’t correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on. (p.31)

It makes sense for this to be beyond understanding as well – having never travelled through space, encountered aliens, or lived on other planets, why should we be able to ease into this world with comfortable familiarity?

Not only is space conceived differently, but time, social structures and religion as well. Avice has the bad habit of giving her age in years, when she should be using subjective kilohours. But the years she uses aren’t Earth years anyway (at 11 she’s into her fourth marriage). Children are raised in communal nurseries by ‘shiftparents’. Avice has had two husbands and a wife, and her marriage to her fourth husband, Scile is registered as a “nonconnubial love-match” (p.40) because the couple soon found that they didn’t enjoy having sex with each other and would rather have it with other people. Christianity has survived in the worship of Christ Pharotekton.

Any one of these ideas could generate enough content for a whole novel, but Miéville uses them as the detailed backdrop for a more unusual story about language. Unlike every other known language, the Ariekei’s Language is not an arbitrary system of signs: in Language, “Words don’t signify: they are their referents” (p.80). I’ll explain – if I say or write the word ‘red’, it’s the sequence of sounds or letters that communicate the idea of the colour to you. But the sounds and letters have nothing to do with the colour itself. It’s only because we both use a traditional system of signs (English) that those sounds and letters are linked to the concept. The sounds and letters are interchangeable, as long as they’re part of a system, which is why we can have many different languages and alphabets.

In Language however, the word for red is synonymous with the colour itself. In Language, “each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for the word can be seen” (p.55).

These ideas about language are the basis of the linguistic theory I studied in literary theory classes at varsity. The novel certainly isn’t reserved for those who’ve studied linguistics, but going over the basics (I  re-read a few chapters of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916)) really helped me appreciate these ideas more. The Hosts’ Language differs fundamentally from everything we understand about language, and Miéville explores the implications of that.

The Hosts can’t lie. Because their words are linked to reality, they can’t say anything that contradicts reality. Because they can’t lie, they can’t use metaphors, as metaphors are essentially lies, saying that one thing is another. They can use similes, but they have to ‘create’ them first. In order to say “We are like the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her” they must first hurt a girl in the dark and give her something which she then eats. As a child Avice performed this particular simile for them and so become part of Language. The Hosts ‘speak’ her, and by becoming a simile she makes it possible for them to say and think things that were inaccessible to them before.

Clearly, Language both enables and impedes thought and communication. With no metaphors and only limited similes, the Hosts can’t think about things in non-literal ways. Because their words aren’t arbitrary, aren’t interchangeable, they cannot learn any other languages, cannot even imagine other languages. For them, thought is impossible without Language, and they can’t conceive of those who don’t speak it as being sentient. Another quirk is that they speak using two voices that utter different words simultaneously. To be able to speak Language, the Ambassadors, therefore, are pairs of clones (doppels) who have been trained from birth to speak as if they are one person. They have names like CalVin (ie. Cal and Vin), MaBel, MagDa. The novel twists grammar a little to accommodate them – CalVin is not a ‘he’ but a ‘they’.

Then EzRa comes – the “impossible” Ambassador (I won’t say why). Technically, EzRa should be unable to speak to the Ariekei, but somehow they can. This impossibility enthrals the Ariekei, and that’s why his speech is like a drug – the Ariekei’s minds and bodies are overcome by an experience that they should not be able to experience at all. EzRa becomes a “god-drug”, a literal opiate of the masses as the Ariekei seek out his voice in desperate droves, abandoning all other activities.

It’s a pretty damning concept of religion. There are lots of other religious ideas and references in the novel. Some humans see Language as a pure, prelapsarian language, because words and meanings are indivisible, and the Ariekei are unable to lie. A few do try to lie, with great difficulty, and some humans are appalled by this – they think that if the Ariekei actually learnt to lie, they would parallel the Fall of Man by introducing deception to their race.

One idea I really liked is how this god-figure is a manifestation of the impossible – is that perhaps why gods are so alluring, why people are always looking for one? At any rate, impossibility is certainly part of the allure of sci fi and Embassytown is full of impossibilities; it’s part of what makes it such an amazing novel. The Ariekei’s biorigging, the Ambassador EzRa, his ability to speak Language, even Language itself – all these things are described as impossible at some point, yet they defy such limitations by their very existence. Even the resolution of the novel’s greatest conflict depends on defying the limits of possibility. And this is what sci fi, as a genre, should ideally strive for – to push beyond what we think we know, what we think we can do. That’s when it’s most exciting.

Although Embassytown is mostly slow-moving, requires patience and attention, and feels fairly academic at times, it’s a fascinating and rewarding read. Avice is a strong character and a well-placed narrator who also reflects on the way in which she is telling the story. She eventually beings this mostly quiet, contemplative narrative to an epic climax that, to my surprise, actually had me on edge. What I got in Embassytown then, was almost everything I value in a novel – interesting ideas, a good story, riveting tension. Perhaps it’s only flaw is that the story isn’t quite as strong and impressive as some of Miéville’s earlier work, specifically Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002). Not that that really matters – it’s still a top class novel that any fan of science fiction or literary fiction should pick up.

Buy Embassytown
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Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

Title: Un Lun Dun
Author: China Miéville
Published: 2007; pictured edition published 2011
Genre: YA, urban fantasy
Source: I have two copies actually, one received from the publisher, one received as a gift
Rating: 7/10

Zanna is the Schwazzy – the chosen one. Animals stare and bow at her. Strangers approach her in awe. But Zanna and her friends have no idea what’s going on. Then one night Zanna and her best friend Deeba see an umbrella crawling along the ground. They follow it and find their way in UnLonden, a bizarre otherworldly version of London where buses fly, the trash is alive, creatures like carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and the rubbish of London is transformed into strange new things (like living ‘unbrellas’). Deeba and Zanna encounter characters like Hemi the half-ghost boy and Obaday Fing, a clothing designer who makes “the hautest of couture” (39) from the pages of books and uses his own head as a pin cushion. They get followed by a cute little milk carton  who Deeba names Curdle and adopts as a pet.

But Deeba and Zanna have been drawn to UnLondon for a purpose. The city is at war with the Smog, a living, malevolent cloud of pollution that threatens to consume the city. According to an ancient prophecy, the Schwazzy will come to save UnLondon, but Zanna and Deeba aren’t too keen on this quest. UnLondon is very weird and dangerous, and they want very badly to get home as soon as possible. However, the citizens of UnLondon desperately want the heroine they’ve been waiting for, and Zanna starts to enjoy being treated with awe, while Deeba finds that she can be more than just the Schwazzy’s companion.

I really enjoyed Un Lun Dun. I don’t often read YA, but the ones that I do enjoy tell great stories without feeling dumbed down or childish. For that, Un Lun Dun is perfect. It’s adventurous and funny, but also creepy at times, and deadly serious when it needs to be. It’s a really clever novel with loads of cool ideas that never weigh the story down. On the downside, it is a tad long and can drag at parts, but overall it’s well worth a read. Miéville fans will instantly recognise his trademarks – a bizarre city, a plethora of weird characters, creatures and concepts, and a tendency towards the fascinatingly grotesque (downplayed here, as it’s YA). You’ll also find some of the themes he’s explored in other novels – the idea of a hidden city, accessible only by unconventional means (King Rat, The Scar, The City and the City), language and meaning (Embassytown), and some subtle comments on religion and scripture (Kraken). And, as with all Miéville novels I’ve read thus far, Un Lun Dun is incredibly rebellious, going against authority, corruption, and even language itself.

The latter is the most fun. The UnLondon ‘propheseers’ tells Zanna that “it’s been written, for centuries, that […] you will come and save us” (p.108). Because it’s written, no one questions the prophecy, least of all the book in which it’s written. The book itself is alive, can speak and is one of the most entertaining characters in the novel. Terribly self-important, it speaks grandly of its contents and patronisingly assures others of its truth:

‘And we know this because…?’ the book said expectantly.
‘Because it’s in the book?’ Zanna said.
The book said, ‘Bing!’ (p.113)

But then, at a critical moment in the prophecy, when Zanna is supposed to “prevail in her first encounter” with the enemy, one smack on the back of the head knocks her unconscious, and all sense of destiny and genre cliche collapse with her. The book is devastated, “This isn’t what’s written” (128) it despairs, and gets depressed “What’s the point? […] What is the point?” (130).

Deeba, however, was sceptical from the start and isn’t swayed by prophecies being proven false. Having made friends in UnLondon, she feels compelled to try and help them. So what if “[t]he destiny didn’t work out with the Chosen One” she says, “I’ll do it instead” (272). The book might have been wrong about some things, but it still knows how the Smog can be defeated, so Deeba renews the quest to defeat the Smog and win the war for UnLondon. The prophecy details the typical quest structure, requiring the hero(ine) to go on a journey to collect various artefacts from strange, dangerous places, eventually acquiring the ultimate weapon with which to defeat the enemy. At first Deeba follows the instructions to the letter, but as soon as the prophecy becomes impractical she doesn’t hesitate to deviate from the course, proving again that what’s written doesn’t have to be what happens. She doesn’t have the power of destiny to keep her safe and assure her victory – she has to get by with her own talents and courage and her quest (which makes up most of the book) has a sense of real danger and tragedy.

The whole thing with the book and its prophecies completely dismantles the authority of the written word, not to mention cliches of the fantasy genre (the chosen on coming to save the world). In addition, the novel is constantly playing around with language, showing how fluid and adaptable it can be. Some of its word games are phonetic. ‘Schwazzy’ is the phonetic spelling of ‘choisi’, the French word for ‘chosen’. ‘Un Lun Dun’ is the phonetic rendering of UnLondon, but it’s also the city’s war cry. The book’s title then – just a prefix and two nonsense words – has a double meaning that encapsulates the two major features of the story – the city and the war being fought within it.

Cover featuring one of the 'binja'

Other word games play with meaning. The bus conductor, for example, doesn’t just clip tickets but can use his body to conduct electricity. Miéville has also invented multiple words for his novel, using known words as building blocks. The ghosts of Wraithtown are also known as ‘wispers’ (wisp and whisper), referring both to their incorporeal states and the inaudible whispers they speak in. The ‘binja’ are dustbin ninjas (you’ll see them on the covers of some editions); ‘smombies’ are smog zombies; ‘abcities’ are cities like UnLondon, Parisn’t and Sans Francisco, all of which are both opposite and parallel to the cities we know.

Playing with these words, Miéville bends them to his purpose, but at the same time there’s still that awareness that words and language aren’t completely under your control. You see that most clearly when Deeba and her friends encounter Mr Speaker, ruler of the Talklands, where all speech must be authorised by him. Mr Speaker has a gargantuan mouth, and every word he utters is manifested as a small creature – an ‘utterling’ – that falls from his mouth. He promises to allow Deeba to continue on her journey if she pays him in words, but then breaks his promise. “I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT,” he booms, “A PROMISE IS WORDS. I’M MR SPEAKER! WORDS MEAN WHATEVER I WANT. WORDS DO WHAT I TELL THEM!” (296)

This is literally true for Mr Speaker – his every word becomes an utterling and he commands an army of them. But Deeba calmly points out the flaw in his reasoning: “Words don’t always mean what we want them to […] None of us. Not even you” (297). Words can be misinterpreted. Meanings can change over time. Words can have multiple connotations and listeners or readers might pick up on the unintended ones. As any author should know, once words are written or spoken you lose control over them and they’re open to interpretation. When the utterlings latch on to this idea, they rebel against the Speaker who uttered them.

Besides linguistic rebellion, Un Lun Dun has rebellion of the more conventional sort as a small group of bold individuals go up against a seemingly unstoppable force. The Smog threatens to take over UnLondon, and the image of this vast, poisonous cloud hanging over the city is an apt metaphor for hegemonic power. It’s evil, but it still has allies in the city because “there’s nothing so terrible that someone won’t support it” (111). And there are indeed some people who can benefit from an alliance with the Smog. Among the Smog’s allies are a group called the Concern. Their businesses use factories that create more emissions for the Smog to feed on, so they want to work with it. They have a slogan: E=A. Effluence equals affluence.

There’s an obvious capitalist critique here, coupled with strong environmental concerns (Miéville is an outspoken socialist, and his political perspective naturally influences his novels). The Smog was created during the Industrial Revolution, when the roiling mix of chemicals from the factories of London turned a cloud of pollution into a toxic “cloud-brain” (110). The pollution from modern (ie. capitalist) societies continued feeding it and now it has the power to consume a city.

At this point I’ve made it sound like the novel gets very heavy-handed, but I didn’t feel that it was. While these themes give it depth and class, the story comes first, making it a good read all round. Some readers have complained about the force of the environmental theme though, in which case I’d say that if you don’t like books with any kind of social commentary then it will most likely annoy you here. On the other hand, if you can appreciate books with a social conscience then go right ahead. It’s much lighter and more playful than Miéville’s other fiction and I think it’s a great choice for adults who read YA. I particularly recommend it for readers with an interest in language. Oh yes, and for young adults too 🙂

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Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to PunctuationEats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lynne Truss is, perhaps, a little nuts about punctuation, but she has a point and she knows how to use it.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a very useful and very funny little book that discusses and illuminates punctuation in a manner that all but ensures you’ll know how to use it. Truss strongly believes that “[p:]roper punctuation is the sign and the cause of clear thinking” (202) and she argues her case very well. Using gorgeous little metaphors and images, historical origins, and a generous dose of humour (including hilarious errors), Truss makes clear the functions and importance of various types of punctuation. Not only does she explain the rules (where they exist), but she gives you a feel for language that deepens understanding.

Particularly amusing are the ‘raging’ debates that have occurred over such things as the frequency of comma use or whether or not one should use a semi-colon. Any editor or proofreader will be able to recall similar disputes (with fondness, frustration, sadness, anger, hilarity, etc., etc.). “If there’s one thing to be learned from this book,” Truss says, “it is that there is never a dull moment in the world of punctuation” (125). Heated debates on apostrophe use aside, I’m not sure if that’s true, but I can say that at least there’s never a dull moment in this book.

Highly recommended to everyone.