26 May 2006

Casagrande, June. Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Much of what I know on grammar—i.e., those parts of language structures that are distinct from usage and styles—I learned in high-school German. Ours is, as you know, a Germanic language, and while the Germans may throw all their additional verbs in their infinitive forms at the end of a sentence (hence: Es hätte ein bessere Tee werden können = "It [subjunctive form of the verb to have] a better Tea [become] [can]" = It could have been a better tea) much of the structures and cases and tenses operate the same. I learned what the subjunctive case was in German class, though they called it the conjunktive, and this is what made me realize why "If I were a carpenter I'd hammer on my piglet" is, indeed, the correct way to phrase the opening line of verse two of They Might Be Giants' "We Want a Rock".

At any rate, I didn't start being a dick about grammar until my group of friends all suddenly did, fed, if I can recall, by Alexis (not de Tocqueville) and Shelley (neither Percy nor Mary). This was like 10th/11th grade; we'd all get a superior feeling by catching someone saying "good" instead of "well"—that kind of paltry thing. I think it all led to a blowup of some sort, splintering us into two factions, one that didn't care about proper grammar, and one that cared only about being right all the time.

In college, this abated—or maybe it laid dormant; I'm not sure I know exactly what the difference might be—until I took an introductory journalism class, which required that I buy the AP style manual, a book I pored over and read almost like pornography. I'd never encountered a style manual before, and something about its terse, prescriptive manner—demanding that one write "adviser" and never "advisor," for instance—connected with my admittedly large schoolmarmish side. In just about a year, I became the editor of the Opinions section of the university newspaper, in charge of selecting and printing letters to the editor, among other things, and I lorded the AP stylebook over everyone, to the point where I'd see someone use a serial comma and think them just about the stupidest motherfucker on the planet.*

I had lots of friends, and people enjoyed me.

In time, I read other style manuals, and slowly came to understand the differences among grammar, usage, and style, and I realized the subtle ways that all three work to create and influence meaning. In other words, it stopped being about learning all the rules, and has now become knowing how understanding usage allows me to say exactly what I need to say. And so I don't harp on grammar any more, even though I do like to consider myself a bit of an authority on it among friends and family. A bit of one, I said.

And maybe just among friends. With family, particularly with my sisters, things are a bit different. Because I'm the youngest and because I'm the only boy, I feel as though I'm expected to be a brat, and so with them I play the role happily. We don't email often, the three of us, but when we do and when some error is made (even obvious typos...I'm kind of a dick) I have a good time pointing it out to them, and they have a good time telling me to lighten up and stop being a dick.

All this leads them to consider my grammar snobbery when it comes time to give gifts. So my second birthday present from my sister this year, is the book I'm supposed to be blogging about. Notice I didn't write, "about which I'm supposed to be blogging." It's because I know the never-end-sentences-with-prepositions rule is bullshit, a relic from the forgotten time when people tried to force the rules of English grammar to conform to those of Latin.

Knowing this, Casagrande's book wasn't very informative.** It's great for people who don't own copies of the AP and Chicago style manuals, Strunk & White, Fowler's Modern English Usage, or Erlich's mostly useless The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate (another sister-gift). For those who do, it's a sporadically entertaining airport read. Entertaining yes when Casagrande connects grammar snobbery to conservative punditry (Safire, Buckley) and shows the many ways all these squabblers contradict one another and really have very few answers. Entertaining no when she makes such jokes as:
(I must confess that I had the same goal in mind for this book when I pitched the subtitle Grammar Served with Lots of Sketches of a Nude Homer Simpson, but I got shot down. Lawyers! Michael Jackson, however, did offer to cover my legal bills if I included images of Bart) (191).
She's got to be kidding us, right? In a book that consistently portrays copy editors and grammar snobs as a humorless bunch of ninnies, Casagrande's inability to ever be funny (as opposed to the lightly humorous tone she carries throughout) puts her right in the camp she tries so hard to distance herself from.

* I now not only adore the serial comma (which is when you drop a comma before the conjunction in a list of items: this, that, and the other), but I also think it's the only way to go if you want to ensure your meaning is clear. I wish I had an example for you, but I'm sure Strunk & White or the Chicago manual have better ones than any I could come up with.+
+ Another thing that blows about this book is that practically all of Casagrande's illustrative examples are culled directly from the texts she openly admits one should turn to for questions, instead of to pop-grammar books like Truss, Safire, et al.
** I did learn from this book that "right" and "wrong" are adverbs as well as adjectives (and nouns, too, actually). "Tell me if I use it wrong" and not "Tell me if I use it wrongly." But I learned this in the introduction, about three pages in.

Dirda, Michael. Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. New York: Holt, 2005.

A birthday present from my sister. At the end of his preface, Dirda (who's the editor of the Washington Post Book Review), includes this little nota bene: "Some of the authors cited use the generic 'man' or the pronoun 'he' to refer to the totality of humankind. The female half of the population will, I trust, make allowances for this largely outmoded convention" (xvii). When I read it, I thought what an odd thing to include. Shouldn't the book-loving reader (or even just the book-reading reader) Dirda presupposes be used to this convention and, decades after the equal rights movement, be somewhat okay with it?

Turns out, though, that the book leans more heavily on the "life" part of its subtitle, and so it's littered with the kind of grand prouncements on Man that are all very prescriptive, and declared by the bevy of guys that make Bartlett's the thick book that it is. I wish this weren't so. I'm far more interested in a book reviewer writing about why he loves books, and which books he loves and why, and why reading is so pleasurable to him than I am in a book reviewer writing about visual arts, classical music, parenting, or matters of the spirit. Sure, Dirda does both, in almost equal amounts, and he does spout good advice—all of it supported by quotations on Mankind—but the overall effect is, I imagine, similar to what one gets when one reads one of those Tuesdays with Morrie books: schmaltz. It's schmaltz mixed with the thin wisdom of Great Books of Western Thought courses.

Grab the book in the store and flip through it for the half-dozen suggested reading lists in various genres. These are pretty good. Also, if yer the kind of person who loves to read pages and pages of quotations on such general subjects as love, education, and art, you've got a lot to work with. I'm not this kind of person, and so I skipped these pages, and so I really haven't finished this book, but that doesn't mean I'm not finished with it.

Writers who provide "praise for Michael Dirda" on the jacket's back:
  1. Annie Proulx
  2. Anne Fadiman
  3. Harold Bloom
  4. Francine Prose

17 May 2006

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours (1998). New York: Picador, 2002.

I'm teaching this book later in the summer, decided by wanting to teach a novel, wanting something contemporary, and wanting something if not written by a gay novelist than at least exploring queer issues. This one's got all those and a bunch of awards. It's also been made into a movie (starring Meryl Streep, which is weird because Streep herself actually appears (maybe...it could also be Vanessa Redgrave; the character isn't sure) early on in the novel), which makes me nervous for new college students not wanting to read an entire novel. I read it in two nights; it's a breeze.

I've got very little to say about it at this point, as I'm about to run off and catch a flight. Maybe I'll try to write a blurb for the book, as if it were 1997, and Cunningham or Jonathan Galassi, his editor, asked me to lend credence to his forthcoming novel. Here goes. I've never written one of these before:
Cunningham is a good writer. I like how long he can spend in characters' heads. I've never read Virginia Woolf [which would have been true back in 1997] but I felt like I didn't have to to like this book. Kudos to him.
That's not very good. No wonder they never called.

You should read this book because its moments of stillness are rendered with such stunning dramatic weight. It's a book that says all lives are filled with poignancy. Really lovely, just about everywhere.

I wonder what my mother thought of it.

16 May 2006

Rakoff, David. Don't Get Too Comfortable. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

David is a humorous essayist whose work initially appeared on This American Life. He's also gay. His name isn't Sedaris. He's like Sedaris but with reportage. He's Sedaris in the field.

He's also an incredible prose stylist. Look at this sentence (the second, that is, which I think needs set up by the first):
The general New York Times reader enjoys the privileges and plentitude of life in the world's wealthiest country, so articles on rolling cigarettes out of pocket lint or recipes on salvaging that last bit of rotting pork would make no sense. But is it completely naive to think that a squib in the same newspaper about ice cubes frozen from a river in the Scottish Highlands and overnighted to your doorstep—the perfect complement to your single malt—necessarily demands, if for no other reason than to preserve some vague notion of karmic balance, either a great big "April Fools!" scrawled across the top, or a prefatory note of apology that such a service even exists?" (24)
Why I like this sentence is that it's essentially a joke, a bit of humor that Rakoff doesn't toss off in the way most humorists would. It's the kind of joke you have to work for, delaying as it does the punchline for so long that one almost forgets one's been reading a question all the while.

There are downsides, though:
It was turning out to be an anxious Christmas season. Too many were the early mornings spent sitting at the table, insomniac in the gray dawn, thinking to myself [redundancy sic], Eggs would be good. Not for eating but for the viscous wrath of my ovo-barrage. It seemed only a matter of time before I was lobbing my edible artillery out the window at the army of malefactors who daily made my life such a buzzing carnival of annnoyance (188).
It goes on in this vein for another dozen lines or so, but I'll spare you the rest. Purple as hell, right? It's the exact kind of creative euphamism you get from thesaurus-happy high school students who've been told too early and too often that they're good writers. Snobbish of me to say, sure, but throughout this book I always wished Rakoff would move ten times faster through his flights of fancy and return to the weird and enthralling actual he's so good at uncovering.

One thing I learned reading this book, and was immediately encouraged to share with others and so will, is this quotation from Barbara Bush, our queen mum, on her son's decision to censor images of flag-draped coffins returning from his folly of a war. She said this on Good Morning America: "Why should we want to hear about body bags and deaths? I mean, it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"

[C word.]

12 May 2006

Scott, A. O. "In Search of the Best." nytimes.com. 21 May 2006.

This is a very good essay about a pretty arbitrary but of course very fascinating study: What's the best work of American fiction produced over the last 25 years? (No, it's not from the future...the Times decided to hype it online before printing it in an upcoming edition of the Book Review.)

The winners are:
  1. Morrison's Beloved
  2. DeLillo's Underworld
  3. Updike's Rabbit novels (collected in the 90's, which inclusion I find cheap as fuck)
  4. McCarthy's Blood Meridian
  5. Roth's American Pastoral
I've never read any of these novels. Well, I read Rabbit, Run and didn't much like it, but again this shouldn't count because it was written far longer than 25 years ago. The essay, which I guess I'll go ahead and link to here, has a nice bit at the end about the way "American letters" seems to have a case of elder worship you won't find anywhere else in our youth-loving culture. I should be happy for this. Most young recording artists and screen stars make me feel like a knob-kneed geezer in plaid pants, and happily so at the ripe old age of 27. But I'm not happy for this. My top five would include none of these books nor, probably, any of their authors (who, again, I haven't read, with the exception of DeLillo's Mao II and The Body Artist, as recorded by Laurie Anderson, who, really, should read everyone's novels on tape (oh, and how F-ing disingenuous: I read Portnoy's Complaint, but so has everyone)).

Without spending too much time on it, here are mine, unordered:
  • Wallace's Infinite Jest
  • Franzen's The Corrections
  • Foer's Everything is Illuminated
  • Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude
  • Barthelme's Forty Stories (if we're gonna be cheap about it)
Looking at this, I'm reminded of my pal Adam's observation about his students—that, when asked what their favorite movie is, most will say the latest good thing they saw. Something from last summer, maybe. Look how new all those are. Oh, and lemme also toss in Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, even though its a graphic novel, not just a linguistic one. Anyway, look how new they are. Also, I hate women, apparently. And gay people and non-honkies.

Feel free to post yer own in comments. As I said, it's arbitrary and fascinating, and I promise to let it reveal everything I need to know about you.

05 May 2006

Scruton, Roger. "A Carnivore's Credo." Harper's. May 2006, p. 21-26.

I read this:
The real force of the vegetarian argument stems, I believe, from a revulsion at the vicious [meaning "of vice", as opposed, I think, to "pious"] carnivore: the meat eater as he has evolved in the solipsistic fast-food culture, with the removal of food from its central place in domesticated life and the winning of friends. [. . .] Reduce meat to an object of solitary greed like chocolate and the question naturally arises: why should life be sacrificed just for this (26)?
And then this:
I would suggest that it is not only permissible for those who care about animals to eat meat; they have a duty to do so. If meat eating [sic? no hyphen, there, strangely enough] should ever become confined to those who do not care about animal suffering, then compassionate farming would cease. Where there are conscientious carnivores, there is a motive to raise animals kindly. Moreover, conscientious carnivores show their depraved contemporaries that there is a right and a wrong way to eat (26).
Buy it? I might. Lately I've been thinking that eating animals raised on farms (as opposed to in factories, but even still...) is much like eating corn raised on farms. One is eating what has been bred and cultivated for eating. Just as we don't eat vegetables that are come across in "the wilderness" as part of nature's bounty, we don't eat wild animals (well, hunters do, which of course is a whole 'nother blog entry).

If anything, the article argues for meals to be shared among friends and family, which, regardless of what's being eaten, is something I need to do more of. I wonder if people get married and have kids just to fill their empty dinner tables.

04 May 2006

Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist. New York: Norton, 1999.

A few days ago I grabbed this book off my shelf to get some backup quote on prose rhythm for a paper I just finished on Cather's long story, "Coming, Aphrodite!" (about which, I know, I should have written in this forum, but it's hard to write casually and briefly about something you have to also write ten smart pages about). Yes, I also grabbed from Gardner's The Art of Fiction, which is kind of like a Book of Common Prayer to OBaN's Bible—AoF is great for dipping into and finding advice on any problem the writer of fiction finds himself in time and again. There's a superb index, etc. Hence the quickness with which I got my quote on prose rhythms (they should exist, Gardner says, you should have an ear for them, but they should be camouflaged, unnoticeable, which is frustrating if you're the sort of person (and maybe the sort of writer) who likes to call attention to the hard work he's done). OBaN, however, is less demarcated (there's a whole subheaded section on rhythm, for instance, in AoF), with longer chapters, and the voice is less instructive and more ... I want to use the word spiritual. It's conversational but stern. The whole thing seeks an extended, complicated answer to the brief-yet-complicated question: Do I have what it takes to be a novelist?

I'm the exact kind of dork that gets carried away with books like this, which posit that the life of the novelist is one dedicated to the pursuit of human truths, or interconnectivity, or a discerning eye and an understanding of the ways human behavior fits into a structure. The shapes of experience and narrative. All that. Annie Dillard's The Writing Life is similar. These books make me want to sell all my possessions and hole myself up in a room with a typewriter and unending supplies of paper. They tell me this really is all it takes: work, dedication, all that.

Of course I have family and friends and a boyfriend who would all be very personally affected if I were to be so holed up. And by affected I of course mean hurt or annoyed. Who has the patience for such a person? Gardner says that when he's in the thick of a novel, he likes to work for 16 hours a day. Sixteen. If he isn't lying, this means (a) he's not getting 8 hours of sleep a night, or (b) he hasn't a single obligation to anyone or anything in his life but to his work.

Such a romantic notion. Such a temptation to blame my current lack of international success on the presence of other people in my life, rather than on the dumb fact that I don't write much these days because idon'tknowwhattowriteabout or idontknowhowtostartanovel or idrathergetafullnightssleepeverydayoftheweek or icanonlywritefirstthinginthemorning or this or this or this.

Anyway, the semester's over starting tomorrow. We'll see how well I get along becoming a novelist, or a nonfictionbookalist.