Adventures in Reading


Nonfiction: Writing Women in Central America by Laura Barbas-Rhoden, 2003

“Weapons, plots, violence. Lush landscapes and guerrillas. Central America is a site of danger (again), but not because of its revolutions. The danger is in words–the words of women.”

If you’re interested in feminism, literary criticism, women writers, historical perspective, and/or Central America, Laura Barbas-Rhoden’s Writing Women in Central America: Gender and the Fictionalization of History is a feast of information on the Central American authors Claribel Alegría, Rosario Aguilar, Gioconda Belli, and Tatiana Lobo and how these women reinterpret history through their fictional works.

Reading Barbas-Rhoden’s book was peculiar as I’ve never read any of the authors she critiques, but I was very attracted to the subject matter and I enjoy reading literary criticism. Though people frequently ascribe a stark contrast between nonfiction and fiction, Barbas-Rhoden’s book explores how the novel disrupts and adds to historical narrative, and frequently expresses the the silent Other: often women and indigenous populations. (This idea actually played a large part in a paper I wrote about Jane Austen.)

Not being familiar with the authors that are discussed was a definite draw back in that I had no point of reference. On the other hand, Barbas-Rhoden introduced me to some great and thoughtful women writers from Central America.



Nonfiction: Things That Make Us [sic] by Martha Brockenbrough, 2008

“People who buy grammar books usually don’t need them, except to slam down upon the heads of others…”

After ReadWriteWeb’s article on “Errors By Bloggers Kill Credibility & Traffic, Study Finds,” it was most fortunate for me that I had a copy of Martha Brockenbrough’s Things That Make Us [sic] in my reading stack. Brockenbrough is the founder of The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG), which is known for sending out letters to correct everyone from politicians to hockey teams on their grammatical slips.

Embracing pop culture examples, Brockenbrough reviews the traditional language mishaps as well as expanding on some neglected and interesting bits: a list of commonly misspelled words (did you know spelling is linked to genetics?), a section on losing sentence weight like “began/started” and “could/would,” and a nice list of Latin words and usage (including two I regularly mix-up: e.g. and i.e.). Likewise, the book is full of interesting language nuances such as the Chicago Tribune’s attempt at spelling simplification, Jane Austen and JALATIN, and punctuation marks for irony from typographers.

Things That Make Us [sic] is mostly a guide for intermediate language users who already have some grasp on usage. Brockenbrough’s book is a review of grammar and also interspersed with some thoughtful commentary, such as the author’s thoughts on punctuation: “…we first used it to tell people when to breathe as they read out loud, later using it to help silent readers understand syntax. Punctuation isn’t meant to make the author’s state of mind clear. Well-chosen words do that, and the day serious writers turn to punctuation to communicate their ideas be be a :-( day, indeed.”

I confess that Brockenbrough’s book is not the grammar book for me and this has more to do with tone than content. I think language is a many splendored thing, but I believe that few individuals are actually experts and that the vast majority of people live (or struggle) somewhere within the vast spectrum of interlanguage. (Something I’m sure the author would concur with.) Brockenbrough’s tone goes a little too far towards picking on people than sympathizing and being helpful. In her chapter on malapropisms, Brockenbrough says “Mirth does not occur when a grown-up […] reaches into his box of words and pulls out the wrong one,” and though the author does not explicity say she supports this attitude she doesn’t disagree. I think if we embraced our embarassment a little more mirthfully, we might be more open to learning a little bit more.

Conclusion: Tosser.

(Donated to the Writing Center.)



Nonfiction: Assassin’s Accomplice by Kate Clifford Larson, 2008

“…the Assassin’s Accomplice will recover a little-known chapter in American history: the full and dramatic account of the life and trial of Mary Surratt, the woman who nurtured and helped cultivate the conspiracy to kill President Abraham Lincoln.”

Most school age children in the United States can tell you that President Lincoln was killed at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth, but did you also know that a conspiracy surrounded the assassination that would lead to the execution of four additional individuals including Mary Surratt — the first woman to be executed by the United State’s government?

Kate Clifford Larson’s The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surrat and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln is part biography, part true crime testament, and part social commentary on the dichotomous roles of women in the Civil War era. Mary Surrat was a widow, land owner, and Southern sympathizer during the war, though she lived in the precariously positioned Maryland. Larson’s research began with the supposition that Mary was not entirely guilty and did not deserve the death penalty, but her research unveils exactly how deep into the conspiracy Mary was.

What I love about The Assassin’s Accomplice is the simple readability. It’s such an interesting topic and Larson conveys the story in such an interesting manner. This is definitely a nonfiction work that was written to be enjoyed by the reader and targeted at a much wider audience than fellow historians. Additionally, the book adds some interesting humanity to the assassination of Lincoln and the trial that followed.

Conclusion: Keeper.