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Monday, November 23, 2009

The Broken Teaglass

I read the most wonderful book this weekend: The Broken Teaglass, by Emily Arsenault. It seemed like it was written just for me: a mystery about two bored employees at a dictionary publisher who discover a trove of mysterious citation slips which don't seem to relate to the word they're supposed to be defining and perhaps point toward a decades-old murder. That is, they wonder if the citation slips were written just for them--or for some other lexicographer who may be wrapped up in the murder.

The mystery starts when there's a dispute about the correct plural form of editrix: is it editrixes or editrices? As lexicographers interested in variant spellings, they go to check the citation files of all uses tracked by the dictionary over the years. Editrixes and editrices both have citations, but the one for editrices doesn't seem to actually illustrate the word itself:

She warmed that water with her hatred. She sighed plaugues into that water. I didn't care. In this chill and inhuman place I was obedient and invisible to everything. I needed that tea to remember I was alive, warm-blooded. I always carried the tea slowly up the stairs and to my desk. I drank it with careful relish. No spilling on the citations. No slurping, no satisfied Aaaah! Such noises would echo through the cubicles and start an uncomfortable collective shifting of the editors and editrices in their seats. So I always sipped quietly.

Editrices is present in the citation, of course, but there's too much and not enough context in the file. It's more about tea and workplace boredom than editing. Then they keep finding more odd citations, marked each time as being from a book called The Broken Teaglass. But no such book seems to exist. When they find maven and it seems to refer to their own place of employment, the detectives start combing through the citations to find more citations to see how the mystery works:

When the papers went crazy, I knew everything might very well explode. Still, I resigned myself to the stern presence of my fellow word mavens. There was at least an odd comfort in submitting to the long silence of the day. Reliable and insistent, it served as a kind of protector. I was reading a book about drug slang, underlining the word 'stash,' and you came into my desk. When you saw what I was reading, you said, Now you're talking. You said that junk slang was your favorite, and wanted to know if there was a chapter on junk. Then you asked if I'd finished that other book yet. No, I whispered, I was unraveling fast. Was it a trick question? What exactly had been in that article that I hadn't had time to read? Was there somtheing suspect near the corpse? Were you smiiling, Red, because of something you knew?

It's a delightful book, like Samuel Johnson and Jim Thompson joining The Westing Game.

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