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Absurdly Funny
George Carlin never got tired of making us squirm,
A book by James Sullivan '87

7 Dirty Words
The Life and Crimes of George Carlin

Da Capo Press, 2010

See also In Their Own Words

James Sullivan '87

George Carlin was a pioneer and an iconoclast, a comedian who not only made you laugh, he made you think. As cultural critic James Sullivan '87 shows in his excellent new critical biography, Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin (Da Capo Press, 2010), Carlin never stopped pushing the frontiers of "appropriate" comic material throughout the course of his 50-year career.

Carlin was a natural outsider—"I don't really feel like an American . . . and I don't really feel like a member of the human race, to tell you the truth," he once saidand, as a result, his stand-up routines were composed of brilliant observations about the absurdities of human experience that evoked complex reactions from his audiences—laughter, yes, but he could also make you squirm. Sullivan shows how Carlin never stagnated, never took his finger off the pulse of American culture. His career, then, reflects the exceptionally changeable nature of the last half of the 20th century, and Sullivan's biography is also a provocative and insightful cultural history, with all the funny parts included.

Carlin grew up in "White Harlem" on 121st Street in Manhattan and attended Catholic school; he spent summers at Camp Notre Dame in Chesterfield, N.H., where he won a drama medal, which remained one of his two most treasured possessions. He discovered early the pleasures of entertaining people; on his 1972 record, "Class Clown," he joked about his school years: "You'd be bored, and you'd figure, 'well, why not deprive someone else of their education?'" He once said that he was happiest in his room alone, after school, where he voraciously read humor magazines and listened to radio variety shows, perfecting mock newscasts and Cagney and Bogie impressions.

Carlin began as a conventional comedian. His early work, Sullivan writes, was "the equivalent of a hit parade for middle-class couples." But Carlin, personally, was neither conventional nor middle class. He was a pot-smoking, high school dropout and his hero was the subversive comedian Lenny Bruce. After Carlin appeared on the "Tonight Show" and was making $250,000 a year, he walked away and returned to the small folk clubs where he started, with new, edgier material. His bit, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," sparked a debate about censorship that got him arrested and went all the way to the Supreme Court. In his later years, he found a home on HBO, and became, as the New York Times deemed him, "the Grand Old Man of the Counterculture," influencing a new generation of comedians like Chris Rock, Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart. "Every comedian does a little George Carlin," Jerry Seinfeld wrote at Carlin's death in 2008. "I've heard it my whole career: 'Carlin does it,' 'Carlin already did it,' 'Carlin did it eight years ago.'"

Three main elements comprised Carlin's comedy: the "little world" of everyday experience ("kids, pets, driving, the stores, television commercials"); the big unanswerable questions ("race, war, government, big business, religion and the mysteries of the universe"); and the English language ("lingo and faddish trendy buzzwords and catch phrases and Americanisms"). Carlin, Sullivan argues, perhaps more than any other comedian of his time, "instinctively recognized that the key to culture lies in how people communicate with one another." He loved words and they formed the stick with which he poked fun at America. "It's called the American Dream," he said, "because you have to be asleep to believe it."


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Home Bodies: Tactile Experience in Domestic Space

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This compellingly original, theoretical study investigates domestic tactilitythe sense of touch in our experience of life at homein poetry, novels, autobiographies and documentaries.

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Headin' for the Rhubarb!: A New Hampshire Dictionary (well, kinda)

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Storyteller and humorist Becky Rule, who is both smaht (intelligent) and a hot ticket (a person with spunk and initiative) explores New Hampshire's unique vernacular and pronunciation in her new book. As for the title: "If a person is said to be headin' for the rhubarb, he or she is about to get into trouble."

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The Real Dirt: Toward Food Sufficiency and Farm Sustainability in New England

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The third in a trilogy about sustainable agriculture in New England, this volume examines energy issues, town agricultural commissions and the power of small gardens, and focuses on the region's six land-grant universities and their role in providing support for the growth of food security and sufficiency.

In Their Own Words
Descriptions of new and recent written work by the authors themselves

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A Boy's Seasons: Haibun Memoirs

My book, A Boy's Seasons: Haibun Memoirs, is about a boy (me) growing up in mid-20th Century America. Like many other boys of my generation, the seasons were defined by the sports I played and loved. By the time I was into my teens, spring and summer had become baseball season, fall was football season, and winter was basketball season. Along with writing about my devotion to these major sports, I have tried to describe many of the other interests I pursued as a boy. Some came earlier in my life, such as marbles, hideouts, and skating. Some were enjoyed through all of my boyhood, like going to the beach and to amusement parks. My participation in, and my feelings about, our traditional holidays, I've tried to carefully call to life in a long section called "A Boy's Holidays."

More than just a memoir in the form of personal essays, this book is in a new form in English that has become very popular on websites and literary magazines devoted to haiku and its related genres: its called haibun, a mixed form of prose and haiku. I feel that it's an ideal form for what I hope is a star-spangled red-white-and-blue book about life in America at a certain time in our history. I've tried to help the reader experience with the boy what he feels when he watches the flag go past as he watches the Memorial Day parade. I do so by showing the parade through his haiku-like awareness. Haiku moments involve the senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching. You don't have to be a haiku poet to have such moments. Any of us can have one if we see or hear something so vividly and clearly that we have a feeling of unity, or oneness, with it, and by extension with Nature itself. It may be something as simple as the sound of your dog lapping water from his bowl in the kitchen on a hot summer day or the sight of spring sunlight shining on some sheets blowing on the line. For the boy in this book it may be the coolness of his glove as he plays centerfield in the late afternoon shadows of a ballpark or the lonely sound of his basketball bouncing on the floor of an empty gym on a rainy, winter day.

Many moments in the book are about such simple, ordinary things. But others are atypical: such as the blow-by-blow descriptions of several important fights I had as a boy, one cheered on by a WWII troop train stopped at a railroad crossing; and the reliving of the time I went to the circus and fell in love with the beautiful bareback rider. The boy also experienced the confusions of adolescence. As he walks his paper route along a snowy country road, he thinks longingly about the pretty girl having supper in the next house, yet becomes tongue-tied and awkward in her presence. When he feels a teenager's skepticism about Easter or Christmas, or finds himself getting into a fight, he feels uncertain about what life is all about. But, when he stands waiting at the plate and a summer breeze comes across the field, or he is running through the slanting light of autumn to catch a touchdown pass, such troubled thoughts are far away. He is alive and happy in the moment.

I also present moments of awareness about human feelings and relationships through a kind of haiku called senryu, actually a related genre with the same form as haiku. Instead of relating us to nature like haiku, senryu tell us about human nature itself. For half a century American poets have been transforming Japanese haiku into a genre that fits our language and culture, into an American haiku that is free in form and subject matter. Not limited to a set number of syllables nor to classical images, American haiku reflects the freedom-loving ideals of this country and its wide variety of cultural and natural environments. In any language, haiku is one of the most effective means of communicating the wonder and mystery of everyday life and of reuniting us with the world of nature.

When I decided to write this book, I felt that haibun, using haiku-like prose mixed with haiku and senryu, was the most effective way to tell the story of my life as a boy. I've been writing haiku since I was first introduced to it by Gary Snyder in San Francisco in 1958. I am an ex-president of The Haiku Society of America, the winner in 2002 of the Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Award, editor of all three editions of The Haiku Anthology (the latest from W.W. Norton in 1999), and co-editor of the recently released Baseball Haiku (also from Norton, 2007). And I've published more than a dozen chapbooks of haiku. It was natural for me to tell A Boy's Seasons in haibun form.


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What Every 4th Grade Teacher Needs to Know about Setting Up and Running a Classroom

Fourth grade is an incredible year. Students are so alive. They race down the halls each day and burst through the door ready to cheer and groan at each new activity and part of the day. They are old enough to be able to do incredible work: read complex books, write in-depth and thoughtful stories and non-fiction texts, and complete multi-genre research projects. They are also still young enough to get lost in fun activities and not be caught up in the storm of adolescence which is just around the corner for many. Fourth graders can also be intense, competitive, moody, and anxious. I think it's this variety of qualities that has always made teaching fourth grade so challenging and enjoyable.

My book, What Every 4th Grade Teacher Needs to Know about Setting Up and Running a Classroom (NEFC, 2010) is designed to delve into the complexities, challenges, and excitement of teaching fourth grade. For new teachers, teachers who are new to teaching fourth grade, or veteran fourth grade teachers, there is advice about how to arrange the physical space of the classroom, how to design lessons and units with the particular common characteristics of fourth graders in mind, how to communicate effectively with families, how to teach specific social and academic skills, and so much more.

I spent fifteen years as a classroom teacher and have also been a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher for more than ten years, and I have packed this book with practical strategies and advice from my own experience as well as from the vast resources of Responsive Classroom teaching practices. I hope that it serves as a great resource for many fourth grade teachers!

To learn more about the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching, check out our website at To see other books and articles that I have written, check out my personal website at


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The Gift of Age

At age 70, after writing more than thirty books on all matters linguistic, I have been exploring new worlds in my most recent books. In taking on new, non-language subjects, I not only work with new content and address new audiences: writing with a new voice, I also become a new person.

In my new book, The Gift of Age, I write in the introduction: "There is only one way to live a long life, and that is to age. And there is only one way to age-with a smile. If you are able to laugh at yourself, you'll never cease to be amused. After all, you're only old once."

In the book, I share wit, wisdom, information and inspiration about the incredible journey to maturity, using touching stories, fascinating facts, and rollicking humor.

Inside these pages--set in 14-point type and enhanced by Jim McLean's sprightly illustrations--you'll discover such wit and wisdom as:

Why It's Great to Be Chronologically Endowed, Distinguished (But Not Extinguished) Leaders, Ageless Athletes, Valued Memories, Grandkids Say the Darnedest Things, The Lighter Side of Aging, Work vs. Retirement, Jest for the Health of It, Golden Poetry.

Please explore my Web site at


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Jane, by April Lindner '84, Little Brown and Company, 2010. Lindner, whose poetry collection, Skin, was reviewed in the Fall 2002 issue, has written a compelling, convincing novel for young adults that is a re-telling of Jane Eyre, in which Rochester is re-cast as a rock star.

The Bramanville Girls

The Bramanville Girls, by Beverly McLean Cambridge, Authorhouse, 2010. This lovely book is a memoir about how six young women, who grew up in a section of Millbury, Massachusetts called Bramanville, and became lifelong friends, entertained themselves after their boyfriends enlisted in World War II.

Anne Downey '95G, a freelance writer who lives in Eliot, Maine, received her Ph.D. in English from UNH.

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