Thursday, April 21, 2016

Do No Harm...

I stumbled on this extraordinary quote by St. Ambrose. Here's the English followed by the Latin original:

No One Heals Himself by Wounding Another.
nemo alium vulnerando se sanat. (Explanatio psalmorum XII 37.46)

Grammatically, it's a nice sentence. You've got a gerund, in the ablative (vulnerando), with a direct object in the accusative (alium). 

More importantly, it's an important sentiment. Let us love one another...

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Free eBook: Mirabile Dictu: Thoughts and Theories on Mysteries of History, Life, and Language
I've taken a large number of my most successful blog posts and compiled them into a eBook that I offer for free on my main website. It's also available on Kindle for the cheapest price I can assign there, 99 cents. 

It includes essays in which I propose solutions to historical riddles such as the Shugborough Inscription, the Last Words of Julius Caesar, the fate of Spartacus, and even why we have chins. I include an abundant amount of essays on matters related to the Latin language, as well as two short stories I wrote years ago.

I explain in the introduction of this book that some of these items could probably have been turned into academic articles, if I were still interested in publishing my ideas in those formal channels. But I prefer nowadays to write my thoughts in a more popular voice and I believe they will find a larger readership on my blog than they ever would have buried in an academic journal.

So if you've ever enjoyed one of my posts, I hope you'll find other things to inform and entertain you in the book that you may not have previously read. 

For the cover art I use as background an image from Unconscious Rivals (1893), by one of my favorite artists, Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The combination of classical imagery, the explosion of color, and the appearance of the pensive woman seemed perfect to accent the overall content of my book--my thoughts and theories on mysteries of history, life, and language.

Learning Latin with Pope Francis - April 16, 2016

To visit my archive of Latin Papal Tweets, go to my main page. 

April 16, 2016 

Literal translation of the Latin: Today Benedict XVI performs (his) birthday solemnities. Let us pray for him, giving thanks to God that He gave him both the Church and the world.

Ad multos annos, Benedicte!

Here's how the Latin works:

Grammar Points
nom. sing. masc. name
Benedictus, Benedicti, derived from past part of benedicere, to bless
the 16th
acc. pl. neut. adj.
natalicius, natalicia, natalicium
3rd pers. sing. pres. act. ind. verb
ago, agere, egi, actus
acc. pl. neut. noun
sollemne, sollemnis
let us pray
1st pers. pl. pres. act. subj. verb
oro, orare, oravi, oratus; hortatory subjunctive
prep + abl.
abl. sing. masc. dem. adj.
is, ea, id
acc. pl. fem. noun
gratia, gratiae
nom. pl. pres. act. part.
refero, referre, retuli, relatus
to God
dat. sing. masc. noun
Deus, Dei
he himself
nom. sing. masc. dem. adj.
ipse, ipsa, ipsum
both (and)
to the Church
dat. sing. fem. noun
Ecclesia, Ecclesiae
to the world
dat. sing. masc. noun
mundus, mundi
acc. sing. masc. dem. adj.
is, ea, id
as (for) a gift
dat. sing. neut. noun
donum, doni; double dative construction
3rd pers. sing. perf. act. ind. verb
do, dare, dedi, datus

Monday, April 11, 2016

No Laughing Matter: Islamic Traditions in Our Culture...

In the current ugly and intolerant climate, in which some citizens are apparently not immediately repulsed by calls to bar Muslims from entry to our country, the familiar story of Noah and the Flood can inform us of the traditions and values we both share and draw from Islam itself.


To be clear, I am not soft on Terrorism. From 2002 until 2006, I was an Arabic linguist at the National Security Agency. I was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal for service I performed in Iraq in 2004.

But after I had spent that time in service, I decided to move on with my life and I have been teaching Latin at a public high school since then.

As a linguist, I try to keep my languages strong through regular study.

I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian. But purely from a language learning standpoint, I was recently listening to a Fundamentalist Protestant program available in multiple languages which described the events of the Book of Genesis.

And each of the accounts in my target languages of Romanian, Spanish, and Arabic, described the often cited account of how the people at the time of Noah laughed at him and mocked him for building that ark.

As I heard these language materials describe this, I smiled at the irony of how people who claim to believe Sola Scriptura, only the Bible, in practice believe things that the “Tradition” has passed down from many and various sources.

No Laughter in the Bible

If you were taught that the people in Noah’s time laughed at him or mocked him, open up your Bible to Genesis, Chapter 6. There you will  read how God instructed Noah to build an ark to preserve his family and the animals of the earth.

And there is no mention whatsoever of the surrounding peoples making fun of Noah for building that ark.

Where Did the Story Come From?

The answer is, the story is clearly presented in the Quran, the Holy Book of Islam.

We read in the Quran 11.38:

And he was building the ship, and every time that chieftains of his people passed him, they made fun of him. He said: Although you make fun of us, yet we make fun of you even as you make fun.

Jewish Rabbinical Literature implies that the People in the time of Noah made fun of him (E.g., Sanhedrin 108a; Gen. R. 30.7), but there is no overt statement describing Noah made fun of by the people earlier than what is stated in the Islamic Quran. The Jewish Midrash Tanhuma Yelammedenu, dated generally after the Quran, does explicitly describe people laughing at Noah. I’m sure that source is not quoting the Quran, but rather some internal tradition. But my point will still be the same.

Protestant Christians in 2016, 500 or more years after they broke from the Church of Rome over the claim that they follow only the Bible, are passing down the tale of people making fun of Noah when that story is not found in the Bible itself. How are they passing down a story that is only openly stated in the Islamic Quran when they are simultaneously entertaining talk of refusing Muslims entry to the United States?

The answer is found in the simple fact that the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Traditions are not now and never were truly isolated from one another.  From their origins, despite animosities, indeed, overt hostilities, these Traditions have recognized kinship in one another.

Islam historically recognized adherents of Judaism and Christianity as belonging to the group termed the “People of the Book” (‘ahl al-kitaab; Quran 3.199).

Somehow, the charming tale of people laughing at Noah entered into the Western World and persisted. It survived, even thrived, in communities that claimed they followed only the Bible, despite the fact that there was no mention of this charming tale in their Scripture.

The Christian, Jewish, and Islamic communities do indeed hold views internally that the others do not. But, if these traditions were displayed as a Venn Diagram, these particular views are slivers apart from the considerable overlap that all three share.

And that explains why that which can only be described as an Islamic spin on a traditional story has been pervasively passed down in the kinship traditions.

The take-away is that Christians, Jews, and Muslims should feel quite free, even obligated, to mine truths from one another’s traditions. All those things that are not overtly contrary to my tradition should be esteemed as part of “The Common Tradition.”

If you are a believer of any Tradition, you feel God is present in your life. You feel God is near you.

If you have never heard it before, absorb this profound Truth from the Holy Quran. God says:

And we are closer to him than his jugular vein (Quran 50:16)

Place your finger against that vein. You feel your very life coursing through it. God is there. God is within it. 

Blessed be the God of Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Writer Ponders the Negative Reviews...

Every writer has felt the pain—indeed, the excruciating wound—of a bad review.

A bad review is not just a personal assault. It is potentially a professional liability. I mean, you've spent thousands of hours creating this product, and now someone can just flippantly crap on it in Amazon and the chances of it being purchased again have just officially diminished!

Bad Reviews in History

Now writers far better than I have received such treatment. Note, for instance, reviews of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass:

"A mass of stupid filth." Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Criterion, November 10, 1855.

“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” Thomas Wentworth Higginson, The Atlantic, “Literature as an Art,” 1867.

Bad Reviews and Bad Reviewers

In this post I will examine some of the bad reviews my books have received. I will discuss which I thought were reasonable differences of opinion and which, in my opinion, are simply unfair.

Now, regarding the practice of reviewing, I personally follow the principle of "First, do no harm." I've bought and read plenty of things I didn't adore. But I know that long hours of work and craft went into a literary creation. As the Romans would say:

De Gustibus Non Disputandum est
"Concerning tastes, it must not be debated." (I.e., to each their own)

I would not file a negative review unless I sincerely believed that the work somehow represented a fraud on the reader—that it utterly failed to deliver what it promised or that it was truly unprofessional in its construction.

But there are others quicker to judge. There are also just some nasty haters out there, people who spit venom from behind anonymity on the internet. And they are allowed to sit in judgement on the creative products of others.

And so, here are the negative reviews I have gotten for my efforts.
Intermediate Arabic for Dummies

I wrote this book for Wiley Publishing. I worked as an Arabic linguist for the NSA for four years after 9/11. I did my best to cover the grammatical topics in the book. It has received good reviews, such as:


[Five Star Review] "This book is a tremendous resource for anyone attempting to tackle Arabic grammar. The table of contents is very clear and it is easy to reference anything you need help with. This isn't a book for beginners, but it is simple enough to educate without intimidation. If you need a quick reference resource, this is a quality book"

But this book, on which I spent thousands of hours of work, also received the following review:

[One Star Review] "This book did not turn out to be what I expected. The section on handwriting especially is useless.Arabic letters are written with parts above and below the line and it's impossible to figure that out from the information given because the letters are not written on lines. The rest of the sections are also very basic. I think this book would be best for travelers to the middle east. It is not of much use for students wishing to learn formal Arabic grammar." (firsttimemon)

I don't know what you expected, firsttimemom (whatever your name really is). There was no section on handwriting at all, because this is an INTERMEDIATE level book. Even so, all the Arabic included English transliteration. I systematically covered every aspect of Arabic grammar (as the other reviewer noted); I totally didn't write a book of use for "travelers to the middle east" (which I have been and I suspect you, firsttimemom, are not). Place of Brightness

This is a novel I wrote about a Romanian family, members of a guerilla movement called the "Haiduci," who fought a generational war against tyranny--starting in the times of the Ottoman Empire, and down through the times of Communism and the modern day.

It has gotten very good reviews, such as:

[Five Star Review] "Such a wonderful book! I finished it in a day because I just couldn't put it down."


But it has also received the following negative review:

[Two Star Review] "The story of a family of Haiduci fighters against the communist regime, devolves into a trite spy thriller with little historical background or insight. The characters are wooden, the plot is not all that complicated to figure out, and the dialogue is stilted." (Susan S.)

In my opinion, this is an entirely reasonable negative review. While I did my best to craft characters who were alive for me (and I succeeded for others who reviewed), I clearly did not connect with Susan S.

I'm grateful that she gave me two stars and not one...

De Gustibus. Saecula Saeculorum

This is my Time Travel/Espionage Adventure novel in which four young people are unwittingly prepared to undertake a dangerous mission in Ancient Rome on a mission to save the modern world.

It has gotten some great reviews, such as:

[Five Star Review] "In Saecula Saeculorum is an exciting adventure that has had me thinking back again and again on the journey. Now I'll admit that I'm crazy about time travel fiction, and this story satisfied my highest expectations. The character development is particularly strong, and the reader comes to feel very close to these characters. Ancient Rome comes to life in all its intrigue, glory, and grittiness. The dialogue is at times funny, at other times deeply emotional, a roller coaster of experience that makes you forget its fiction. For anyone who loves history, time travel, languages, or just a great story, read In Saecula Saeculorum!"

And it has gotten the following negative review:

[Two Star Review] "It felt like I was reading a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys novel, featuring extremely capable teenagers who were very respectful of their elders - it was completely unrealistic. As I was reading, I kept thinking that had I stumbled upon a book for pre-teens... (If this *is* a pre-teen book, I'd say that it's for unsophisticated pre-teens.)" (ogecko)

Mirabile Dictu, in a novel about a trip back in time to save the modern world, the reviewer claims that my presentation of young people's respect for their elders is an "unrealistic" point.

Maybe, like me, the reviewer has taught high school for the last ten years and has the lived experience that young people are all simply horrible and a book in which they are presented as decent is "unrealistic."

I wrote the book from the perspective of a high school teacher who finds today's young people to be generally decent and respectful.

And so, ogecko (whatever your name really is), if you have encountered horrible youth in your abundant teaching experience, I am truly sorry and understand your review.

If, however, you have no authentic experience of today's youth, I don't care about your negative review of my book. I reject your negative review of them.