Adventures in Reading


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.)



Fiction: The Visitors by Anita Brookner

“This was surely the stuff of fiction? A strong plot, unusual characters, a threatened outcome: who could ask for worthier diversions?”

Anita Brookner’s Visitors was an impulse selection from the library book sale. Its publishing house Vintage often puts out nice books and I liked the texture of the cover. And after concluding Visitors, I enjoyed it so much that I quickly Bookmooched her Hotel du Lac – a Man Booker Prize-Winner. Visitors is a story of disruption. Dorothea May is a solitary, elderly widow living alone when a member of her extended family asks her to house an impromptu visitor: Steven from America.

Brookner takes great care in establishing her novel. Dorothea is isolated, estranged from all relationships, though seemingly satisfied with this. As a result, much of the book is the internal dialogs and thoughts of Dorothea. The writing style and usage of the book befits this character perfectly and it wasn’t until after roughly thirty pages that I had any indication what time the novel was set in (besides after the invention of the telephone) and I was quite shocked when Rollerblades were finally mentioned.

This visitor Steven is young, brash, and with a party of other young people. This party is invading the space of a set and reliable elderly group. Both groups confront the unknown in an exchange of values and mores that range from wedding planning to religion to manners. From Dorothea’s perspective, Visitors becomes a book about what it means to be old and looking back on her life. “Those who survived and grew old were in a country without maps: she knew that. All that was left to them was to find some middle way, between acceptance and defeat. When grace was gone only usefulness remained.”

Reminiscing on Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Dorothea describes that “The world of Persuasion had been long gone even when she had read it as a girl, believing it to be the norm. Yet Jane Austen had never gone out of fashion; rather the opposite. It was as if those who flouted traditional values long to be reminded of fine manners, even if they marveled at them, and made little attempt to emulate them.”

Visitors is a delicate and subtle novel filled with well-crafted complexities and demands. While my literary experience has been largely lacking with regard to elderly protagonists, Dorothea confronts her reader with all the fears of age (from dying to breaking a hip) and graceful acceptance of her life. Brookner has written a tender novel and I cannot wait to get my copy of Hotel du Lac.

Conclusion: Keeper.



Looking Back at Stephenie Meyer

Before picking up Meyer’s final book in the Twilight series, I wanted to reflect on these recently read books. I asked another blogger about the pathos driving the series and the response was along the lines that they didn’t feel emotionally manipulated by Meyer, but I must beg disagreement. In fact, the entire series revolves around emotional manipulation and Meyer’s talent at doing so.

I didn’t realize this at first and was so blinded by my own emotions, by my heart going pitter-pat over Bella’s love trysts, by the teenage fan girl quality of the books that I nearly missed it. But a friend and co-worker who happens to be an exuberant fan of all things vampire related pointed out that in her opinion one reason this series has become so popular is because the whole vampire thing doesn’t matter. (Meyer even seems to agree with this.) In fact, one of the major marketing points of this book could be amputated and the reader would still have an emotionally alluring novel. And when I gave this some thought, I realized with some relatively minor editing Twilight wouldn’t change that much if the whole vampire thing was taken out and was replaced with straight up teenage hormones and sex (adíos double entendres).

This is less true about the next two books in the series: New Moon and Eclipse. And that is because without something else (anything else) occurring they’re not well-developed novels. New Moon is five hundred pages of near-suicidal reflection of an angsty teenage girl after being dumped and Eclipse is a sexually charged soap opera that dares to defy some of the best love triangles on Spanish speaking television. In retrospect, I think a more strict editorial process could have helped the story. After reading these three books, I firmly believe that Meyer did not have enough plot for an entire series of books. Maybe she had two (depending on Breaking Dawn three books) encompassing these characters. But then, Meyer describes herself as being “character driven” and that “The plot comes from the characters. If you have interesting personalities, the stories write themselves. Some writers love intricate plotting, some love the beauty of language. For me it’s all about the people – always.” [1] Honestly though, the characters were not interesting enough for me but I still found myself pushing through these three novels.

This doesn’t necessarily make the series bad (and the cotton candy stickiness is undoubtedly what keeps me coming back). It depends mostly on your tastes. If you feel exploited and used when an artist depends on provoking a purely emotional response or if you feel that this sort of narrative is too easy then avoid this series. It reminds me of the movie reviewer Pauline Kael when she bashed one of the world’s most beloved movies: The Sound of Music. Kael described the film as: “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat,” and “we have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.” You see, The Sound of Music is a melodrama and one of the intentions of this movie is to make the audience cry and for the most part the film has been quite successful at doing so. (Seriously, how many people aren’t choked up by the time the Von Trapps are being chased through a nunnery by Nazis?) But Kael hated the movie for this very reason and there is something malicious in it and masochistic involved for the viewer.

Regardless, I still immensely enjoyed Twilight (and The Sound of Music) and I stand by my Dworkian interpretation of events (if only because I love to look for layers everywhere). But the remainder of the series has been too extended, too melodramatized, just too much. (And I suppose my interpretation isn’t even necessarily about a work being character driven. After all one of my favorite directors is Woody Allen and the majority of his films are character driven. But Allen’s characters say interesting things and prod interesting ideas for 90-minutes.) They’re fun books in that they offer an extended exploration of the characters. (Like when Pride & Prejudice is over, even the real Austen purists must have a tiny burning desire wondering now what’s in store for Elizabeth and Darcy?) I read these books with a similar mindset to my near-obsession to the X-Files or Moonlighting. These were television shows that were fun and interesting, but the one thing that kept viewers coming back was that magnificent animal-like sexual tension pouring off of the screen. Meyer is a master at this! The woman definitely knows how to write passion and tension and I admit I quickly got lost in it.
But like with X-Files and Moonlighting, once that tension was burst I didn’t really care anymore? And this is why I’m roughly 1,500 pages into a series that I am finding increasingly running cool on but that has allowed my emotions to stampede over my best intentions.
[1] On July 31st an interview with Stephenie Meyer was published by the Wall Street Journal.