Adventures in Reading


Reviewing the unfinished
November 19, 2008, 11:35 am
Filed under: thoughtful | Tags: , , , ,

For those of you who don’t have secret crushes on film critic Roger Ebert or who don’t want to adopt him, you may be out of the loop on some recent occurences known as Minutegate. In short, Ebert wrote and published a review on the film Tru Loved; a film he notes within the review that he didn’t finish:

Full disclosure. I lifted the words “San Francisco to conservative suburbia with her lesbian mothers” straight from the plot summary on IMDb.com, because I stopped watching the movie at the 00:08.05 point. IMDb is also where I found out about Bruce Vilanch’s dual role. I never did see the lesbian mothers or my friend Bruce. For “Tru Loved,” the handwriting was on the wall. The returns were in. The case was closed. You know I’m right. Or tell me I’m wrong.

Q. How can you give a one-star rating to a movie you didn’t sit through?

A. The rating only applies to the first eight minutes. After that, you’re on your own.

This got me thinking about my own little world of reviews and the times I’ve commented on books I simply couldn’t finish: Branchwater, The Turtle Moves!, I Am A Cat, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Forgery of Venus, and The Witches of Eastwick to name a few. Reasons to not finish a book range from reader’s block to a book just being sucky (in my opinion). But how do people feel about this? Thumbs up or thumbs down on explaining why you couldn’t make your way to the last page of a book?

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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: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872

“The effect of the full moon in such a state of brilliancy was manifold. It acted on dreams, it acted on lunacy, it acted on nervous people, it had marvelous physical influence connected with life.”

J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla is a novella about vampires and a predecessor to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Laura and her father inhabit a lonely schloss in “Styria;” after a carriage accident outside of their home, a strange and “invalid” girl is left with the family. Laura and the girl Carmilla recollect each other from a dream-like experience from their childhoods. The family’s experience with Carmilla is surreal and haunting; the neighboring villages are plagued with some sort of feverish, wasting disease, which kills a variety of female inhabitants. The emphasis in Carmilla, unlike in Dracula, is with female subjects as both predators and victims.

This year has turned into my year of vampires, I suppose, and my interest in Carmilla was peaked while reading the introduction to Dracula. Though LeFanu’s work is easily solved approximately half way through and there are some significant unanswered questions, Carmilla is bother a curious and interesting look at vampirism.