Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The [Non-Intimidating] Elements of Style

"The shape of our language is not rigid; in questions of usage we have no lawgiver whose word is final."

I received a great amount of enjoyment from this little book.  I highly recommend the illustrated version, too, since it adds to the serious, yet humorous, nature of the writing.  I appreciated how it was written, as well as the opinions expressed, even if my pet peeves aren't necessarily the same as Strunk's.  I do agree that more attention should be paid, generally speaking, to eliminating the extra words that add nothing but clutter to a written piece.

The brevity was refreshing.  Too often, books about writing are not written in a way worth emulating.  It would be nice to be able to say that, having read this book, my writing is now greatly improved.  But in the absence of that, at least the book's format lends itself nicely to future reference.

"The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time."

I was spurred into pulling the Elements of Style off my shelf by my recent grammar encounter, and I have to say that it felt great to read something on a whim for once...the last year has been about becoming disciplined in my reading, which--though I've been pleased with my progress in this department--has severely restricted my reading impulses.  Perhaps now it is time to find some balance. :)

Two excerpts that made me smile; a great example of the humor laced throughout:
Prestigious. Often an adjective of last resort.  It's in the dictionary, but that doesn't mean you have to use it.
Avoid the use of qualifiers.  Rather, very, little, pretty--these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.  The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.
Two excerpts about writing, or more precisely being a writer, that I enjoyed:
A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up.  Like other gunners, the writer must cultivate patience, working many covers to bring down one partridge.
Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.  Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.
Strunk & White.  The Elements of Style.  A classic writing manual, yet surprisingly entertaining, informational, and not at all intimidating.  If you enjoy language, this is worth a read.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

She's Been Hanged

Last night I was telling my husband that I'd just finished reading Newes From the Dead: the YA title based on the true story of a girl who, in 1650, revived after being hung for infanticide.

My husband replied, "Hanged."

I stopped.  Looked at him.  Raised my eyebrows in a well-practiced demand for explanation.

He explained, "When you are speaking of a person who has been killed, they've been hanged, not hung."

"What?"  I was incredulous.  Never heard of that one...but this guy--he's always pulling crazy things like that out of his hat.  He may not plow through books like I do, but he's pretty much brilliant...and honestly has a better brain for remembering grammar terms than I do.

I continued, "I don't think I like that."

He shrugged.

"Anyhow," I said, "she was hung because she gave birth to a stillborn baby when she was 5-6 months pregnant and was accused of murder."

We smiled and went on to discuss the story briefly, as well as scientific theories of the 17th century...both pretty interesting topics.  Then this morning, after spending a little bit of time with my friend Google, I informed him of my findings.

I have no problem admitting that, generally speaking, my husband is right.  He usually is.  I'm resigned to that fact.  When speaking of executions, the word is hanged; everything else gets hung.  We could leave it at that (thank you very much for stopping by, have a nice day,) but I wanted to know if it was a RULE or if it was, like so many things in English, a trend, preference, or even a choice.  My favorite commentaries on the matter were the page, and Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips. had me from the first two words.  It said, "For centuries," and I knew I was going to find more than the simplified rule.
"For centuries, hanged and hung were used interchangeably as the past participle of hang. Most contemporary usage guides insist that hanged, not hung, should be used when referring to executions."
Mm, interesting already.  I love finding out the etymology behind the words we use.  English is such a mish-mash of adopted and stolen vocabulary that it is rarely plain and simple.  I loved the example this page cited from Merriam-Webster's 1994 Dictionary of English Usage:
     "Our evidence shows that hung for hanged is certainly not an error. Educated speakers and writers use it commonly and have for many years. . . . " Hanged is, however, more common than hung in writing. It is especially prevalent when an official execution is being described, but it is used in referring to other types of hanging as well. . . .
     "The distinction between hanged and hung is not an especially useful one (although a few commentators claim otherwise). It is, however, a simple one and easy to remember. Therein lies its popularity. If you make a point of observing the distinction in your writing you will not thereby become a better writer, but you will spare yourself the annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong."
Just my style. (Cue evil grin.  Initiate renegade-grammar-usage sequence.)  Grammar Girl supports this, and also mentions where the word "hang" came from, just in case you are interested. (The emphasis above, by the way, was mine.)

So, while I'm still trying to decide whether to continue saying FebRUary, (because saying FebUary makes me feel like I'm saying Libary, but that R makes me feel like I'm mumbling,) I will also continue practicing the difference between lie/lay (don't know why that one still holds me up) and happily continuing to spell GREY with an E, I will add the task of mulling over this question:  whether being a grammar renegade is worth the "annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong."

What thinkest thou?  Is it worth it? Are you all just laughing in befuddlement that a person who reads as much as I do could have been ignorant of such a basic thing?  Never fear, I've pulled out my illustrated Elements of Style, and hope to become obnoxiously intelligent shortly.  Or maybe I'll shoot for intelligently smug instead.  Although, I have to admit, blissfully ignorant has its attractions as well.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Nonfiction Finds

For some reason I find it harder to blog about most nonfiction books than fiction.  Almost like there is so much to say that I draw a blank and don't know where to I thought that some mini-reviews might be in order.  I haven't read as much nonfiction this year as I have in years past, but here's some nonfiction books I've been wanting to share.

Tattoos on the Heart, Gregory Boyle
We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses
when she's not pissed off at us.

I read this for one of my book clubs.  It was a nice change of genres, and held the added interest of being local(ish) to our area.  I typically run from memoir/self-help type books, which this could technically be categorized as, but the author has such a humility and personal-improvement perspective that it is not at all what I thought it would be.  Father Boyle works with gang members in Los Angeles, and he has a very practical grasp on how to demonstrate love and emulate Jesus' ministry.  Also, he's quite a reader so there were many times he quoted authors (double fun!)

You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.

At Home, Bill Bryson
If you've ever read Bill Bryson, especially if you are a person who appreciates the odd facts and juicy tidbits he likes to throw in there, you know that if you try to write out interesting quotations you'll have filled a large notebook before the first chapter is over.  This book was no different.  Much of the book talks about architecture, although the intro where he talks about the history of home and the idea of comfort was quite interesting to me, as were the bits about servant life.  Did you know that there was one point when lobster was so plentiful that servants actually had clauses in their contracts so they wouldn't have to eat it more than twice a week?  One of my fascinations is with the structure of servants in a large household, so I enjoyed that much of this book seemed to focus on the 19th century. There's a ton of pages in this "short" history, but it is interesting, as can well be expected of Bill Bryson.

The Stolen Village, Des Ekin
I bought this book in Ireland, which is quite fitting really, since it has to do with Irish history.  I wasn't very far into this book when I became rather embarrassed about my lack of knowledge about the Barbary Pirates.  This book not only schooled me on a bit of Irish history, but also on a whole aspect of world history that I missed in my not-so-stellar education.  Before this book my mental connections went something like this:  pirates=Carribbean, slaves=Africa-->America.  Now, thanks to this book, I know to what extent the pirate/slave trade scenario was alive and well long before Sir Francis Drake and Southern plantations.  I love it when a book expands my world!  The writing could have been more polished, but it was an easy, interesting read, and I loved the topic.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
This book has been on the bestseller list for so long that I'd just decided to NOT read it (I'm rebellious like that) when it was chosen for my book club.  I was happy, since that was pretty much the only way that I'd read it.  The most fascinating part  of the book for me was the history on medical procedures, scientific study, and the evolving issue of patient privacy.  There is such a huge disparity between the enormous contribution HeLa cells have made to society, and the great difficulty the Henrietta Lacks' family has in getting proper medical care that this made a perfect platform for a discussion about ethics.  I thought the author did a good job at representing all sides in a fair, even generous, manner, and I enjoyed her writing.  She researched this case for quite some time, but I'd venture to guess that we'll be seeing more from Ms. Skloot.

The Story of Christianity Vol. 1, Justo Gonzalez
This is only the first half of the story, and it took me just about forever to get through--but that's just because I got hung up on all the details of corrupt popes about midway through.  I'm not so interested in those details, so I had a really hard time pushing through that part.  It was necessary, I understand, but still--blech.  I did enjoy all of the theological discussions of the early church, and the political climate that dictated much of those developments.  And towards the end, when it was talking about the beginning of the Reformation and the establishment of Christianity in the New World, I was also quite interested.  I have the second volume on hand, but haven't quite decided to jump into it yet.  On one hand, I'd love to finish it up by the end of the year, on the other hand, who I am kidding?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Blast From the Past with The Forgotten Garden

I've been suffering from reading lag, largely due to my novella challenge.  I read 30 books last month but this month? One.  Finally, one.  I read The Forgotten Garden for one of my book clubs, (although it was already on my shelf from those days when it was the latest thing and I was entranced by the cover anyhow,)  and in a couple of ways it felt like a blast from the past.  (I wanted to wait until my book club met before posting about it, but everyone has been swamped with school, thus the meeting has been put off until next month.  I was already halfway through the book when I found out, and couldn't put off finishing it, so I thought it fitting not to put off posting about it either.)

When I was younger, I loved mysteries.  I loved the way they made me think--those hours at school when I was forced to get my nose out of the book left thoughts swirling through my head and crowding out my teacher's voice.  I've never been so great about actually figuring out the mystery, but that's because the answer isn't what I was after--what thrilled me were the possibilities.  Like so many Christmas gifts under a tree.

I've had intermittent mystery obsessions over the years: a Nancy Drew obsession when I was young developed into a Victoria Holt obsession as a hormonal teen, which then turned into a Mary Higgins Clark obsession as a very young adult.  Since then, not so much.  I've read one Agatha Christie, but that's about it.  So what changed?  Well I grew and discovered literary fiction/non-fiction, and the thrill of a whole new way to get my mind stirred up. The Forgotten Garden, while being a little more refined than the mysteries of my younger days, brought me back there all the same.

Another aspect that brought me back to my youth was the whole premise of the walled garden itself.  I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett when I was young, checking out The Little Princess and The Secret Garden repeatedly from the library.  They were books that stuck with me.  I'm still fascinated by the idea of a walled, overgrown, garden: oh the possibilities!  Kate Morton pays more-than-symbolic-homage to Burnett by actually including her in the book as a visitor to the inclusion I'm torn about.  In a way it was kind of fun, but it also stood out as being a bit silly.  In a book that did a good job with pace and flow, there were still a couple of things that stood out like that (like the use of "suddenly" at one point, which bugged me more than I thought it would: Suddenly, behind her, a crash.  Not the worst "suddenly" sentence ever, but still.)

The fluctuating timeline worked well for the unveiling of the story, and the characters were all believable, though I prefer more depth.  I enjoyed The Forgotten Garden; found it to be an above average read, but I'm not necessarily rushing out to find her other books.  Have you read The House at Riverton or The Distant Hours?  What did you think?

Title: The Forgotten Garden
Author: Kate Morton
Pages: 552
Published: 2010 Washington Square Press (orig. 2008)
Read For: Book Club (& books on my shelf for 1 year +)
My Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, September 12, 2011

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Most of us know, whether from our own experiences or not, what Alzheimer's symptoms look like.  But what does it feel like?  This is the thought that Alice LaPlante expands upon in Turn of Mind.  The main character, Dr. Jennifer White, was a newly widowed and newly retired orthopedic surgeon.  Her strong personality stands in stark contrast to the beginning stages of dementia.

The Plot (from the book jacket):
"As the story opens, Jennifer's life-long friend and neighbor, Amanda, has been killed, and four fingers surgically removed.  Dr. White is the prime suspect in the murder and she herself doesn't know if she did it or not.  Narrated in her voice, fractured and eloquent, a picture emerges of the surprisingly intimate, complex alliance between this pair--two proud, forceful women who were at times each other's most formidable adversaries."

The story is split into three different sections, and with each progression the disease progresses as well, indicated by a change in point-of-view.  What begins in first person narrative eventually moves to the second and third person, showing the growing disassociation in Jennifer's mind.  Told in a combination of dialogue, thoughts, journal entries, memories, and general scene description, the big question is: was this combination of techniques successful?  The answer, for me, is yes and no.

I liked the pace of the book--the snatches of conversation, glimpses of the past, and the perceived reality, but other things seemed too fabricated and pulled me away from the story being told.  The point of view, for example, was a little wonky.  It wasn't simply first person, second person and third person, because scenes were often described clearly, when Jennifer definitely wasn't experiencing them that way.  It was more like a first-person-limited-omniscient or something.

It was an enjoyable read, something different and unique, yet still forgettable.  Perhaps because of the distance created from the premise of the story, most of the conflict seemed superficial.  I didn't sympathize with any of the characters, and in fact found most of them to be annoying--especially the view on marriage which was a first-rate downer.  I need hopeful circumspection mixed in with my depressing reality.
You learn, you grieve, you forgive, or at least you accept.  That's why we've lasted.  That's how we've endured.  The secret of a happy marriage: not honesty, not forgiveness, but acceptance that is a kind of respect for the other's right to make mistakes.  Or rather, the right to make choices.  Choices you can't be sorry for, because they were the right ones.  So I never apologized.  And so the matter died between us, but with it something else.  Not enough to bring down the tree of our marriage, but a bough did fall that didn't grow back.
Title: Turn of Mind
Author: Alice LaPlante
Pages: 304
Published: Grove Press 2011
Read For: Powell's Indiespensable selection
My Rating: 3.5 stars
Eligible to be nominated!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Quit Being Difficult!

I'm up for finding some new book-bloggy friends, so I thought I'd join in on the Literary Blog Hop.  I like the question they've posed this time around, because it is something I actually have opinions about!

Must all literary writing be difficult? Can you think of examples of literary writing that was not difficult? 

First off, "difficult" is relative.  Simple things such as pace, topic, and setting can make a big difference in how difficult it can be to get through a book.  I've read small, simply written books that have been very difficult to get through due to the topic (ahem, Alchemist, hrm) and small, well written books that are made painfully difficult just because the setting is one I dislike (uh, Melville, I'm talking to you).  As far as the writing structure itself, (vocabulary, symbolism, sentence structure, etc.) so much relies on the reader's preferences and maturity that a concrete definition isn't possible.

All that being said, I'd like to talk about my preferences as far as the difficulty in writing structure and style.  I've definitely grown as a reader, (see my recent Gatsby post for a great example,) and books that I didn't appreciate when I was younger I am able to appreciate now.  Not only that, but tastes change and develop.  One thing that really gets my goat, though, is when a work seems to be difficult just for difficulty's sake.  I'm not a fan.  In fact, I think it often comes off as arrogance.  I don't read in order to decode a puzzle of super-embedded subtle symbolism--it just isn't an interest of mine.  On the contrary, I'm impressed when an author can use seemingly simple language to create depth, layers, and complexity.  When a book can be fairly simple to read and yet spur deep thought, spin complex themes, and ignite my passion and imagination, I'm enthralled.  There are many beautiful books that exhibit this characteristic, and I've found that they usually share the characteristic of being enjoyable on many different levels, for different reasons, and at different times of life.

The term "Literary Fiction" does imply some level of difficulty, though.  Even titles that are easy enough to read still demand an interest in personal growth and the development of your mind.  So there: the answer is yes and no. :)

Is This the Real Life?

What a crazy August, full to overflowing with the:
  • Art of the Novella Challenge
  • sending my girls to camp, 
  • getting 3 kiddos ready for school (and 1 ready for home-school) and then 
  • conquering the 3-day music festival over Labor Day weekend that my husband runs (which just happens to take place a good 500 miles away from where we're living) and finally 
  • getting everybody off to school (1st day at a brick&mortar school in the big city for 2 of my kiddos)... 
  • except for my youngest--who "stayed home" from home-school with a stomach bug, 
  • and then now jumping into birthday celebrations for my husband....
well, if your head isn't spinning then mine certainly is.  I can hardly gather my thoughts to complete my day, let alone write a book review!  But I'm working on getting it all under control.  This post is going to help! :)

I have some compulsory reading to get through in the next week or two: 2 book club books and a couple of ARCs.  There are a couple of books I finished that I want to chat about soon, but the biggest development with the arrival of September is in regards to the Indie Lit Awards: Nominations are now open!  I can't wait to see what newly published fiction everybody has loved this year. Conveniently coinciding with all this fun, Safe From the Sea by Peter Geye (last year's fiction winner for the Indie Lit Awards) was released in paperback this week.  Put this baby on your shelf!

Check out the site for full details, but the big news is that everyone (readers with or without blogs) can nominate up to 5 different titles in each category this year.  I can't nominate fiction books (since I'm involved with the judging) so will you pretty please read my favorites and nominate them for me??  Maybe you are in the mood for some 1980s Straight Edge with Ten Thousand Saints? How about an amazingly humorous view of mental illness with Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb?  Or dive into a book that turns baseball into a universal look at the human condition with The Art of Fielding! I'd love to see one of these pop up on the longlist, but even more I'd love to hear what you think about them.  If you're up for some current literary fiction, these three are a great place to start.


Nominations are open until the end of the year, so if you are anticipating some brilliant new releases this fall, there is no need to worry.  You can nominate favorites now and save some some of your 5 votes for later.  Also, remember that you don't need to be a blogger to nominate this year, so encourage the other readers in your life to pipe up too.

Enjoy the last months of warm weather as we begin to move, once again, towards those crazy end-of-the-year months.  And as always, happy reading!