Friday, February 27, 2015

On grammar, punctuation, style, and versions of English

Readers may remember my occasionally writing about issues of grammar, punctuation, and style (see, for example, my posts of 10/16/10, 3/11/12, and 3/19/13). These are interests of mine, not only because I love to read, and read widely, but also because much of my professional/academic work is in language and linguistics. Two recent articles on related topics caught my eye. Mary Norris’s New Yorker article in the February 23 and March 2, 2015 issue, “Holy Writ,” is “personal history” about her years as copy editor for that magazine. Her first sentence, “I didn’t set out to be a comma queen,” caught my attention, and I was thoroughly drawn in by her story of her intertwined loves for New York City, The New Yorker, and grammar and style. She goes into particular detail about the role of commas, which to me is always a fascinating topic. (I am also way too fascinated by semi-colons. Am I a punctuation nerd?) The second article, a briefer one, is “Mind the Gap,” by Sophie Gilbert, in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic. This piece explores the decisions that magazines and newspapers with international editions and readerships are having to make regarding which brand of English to use: American or British. (I won't go into this now, but this dual choice begs the question of other versions of English around the world, known in my field as World Englishes.) The author starts by reminding us of various vocabulary terms that differ in these two versions of English, including some that can be embarrassing if used in contexts where others don’t understand them. One newspaper struggling with these differences is the Guardian, a (terrific, in my opinion, based on occasional reading it online, especially their literature pages) British newspaper that started an online version called Guardian US. Should editors enforce an “all British English” policy, or an “all American English” policy? Or neither? After much discussion, they chose to let American writers use American English, and British writers use British English, with exceptions for spellings of proper nouns, which must reflect the locale being written about (so, “no more Lincoln Centre or Labour Day”). The British magazine The Economist made a different decision. Although 52 percent of its circulation is American (a fact that surprised me), the magazine preserves all British spelling and usage, noting that American readers seem to enjoy that British quality in the magazine. I enjoyed hearing this latter detail, because it speaks to the existence of many American Anglophiles such as myself. (I come to my love of most things English – although I also have conflicted feelings about it because of colonial history – by way of my being born Canadian, growing up in barely postcolonial India, and reading scores of British novels over the years.) This issue of “which English” to use in international media is a perhaps small but certainly telling issue in the increasingly global world of many publications.

Monday, February 23, 2015

"Lila," by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel, “Housekeeping,” was amazing and wonderful. Years later, Robinson published first “Gilead” and then “Home,” two related novels about two ministers and their families in a small town in the Midwest. I somehow – probably revealing shallowness on my part – didn’t feel like reading all the theological discussion that the reviews mentioned. And when the third novel in this trilogy of related novels came out, I still resisted. But something about the descriptions in reviews, and perhaps the fact that this novel focused on a woman character, drew me to read it. After all, I knew what a terrific writer Robinson was. So I did read “Lila” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), and found it one of the most original novels I have read lately, with the main character, Lila, having a distinct and very individual voice. This novel is unique, and I almost don’t know how to write about it to convey its power. As a young child, Lila is rescued from a chaotic childhood by a homeless woman, Doll, who raises her in a precarious life, but with fierce love and care. Due to various events that happen to Doll, when Lila becomes an adult, she is on her own. She finds herself working in a brothel, then leaves and wanders some more, as she and Doll did during her childhood. By chance, she stumbles into the town of Gilead, Iowa, and is drawn to a church there, initially just for shelter and peace. In what seems like an extremely unlikely relationship, but one that somehow works, she and the aging minister, John Ames, grow close, eventually marry, and have a child. The minister was a widower; years before, he had lost both his wife and new child at childbirth. These seemingly completely mismatched characters, both good at heart, but Lila wary, find themselves discussing existence, God, meaning, and more. Lila is not educated, but she clearly has a fine mind and highly developed perception. She loves to read the Bible, as the stories speak to her. She is not sure what she believes, but wants to talk and think about existential and moral questions. Ames is loving, gentle, and patient with her, and is grateful that she is in his life. This unlikely relationship, and the questions about God and the meaning of life that the two characters explore, separately and together, somehow create – very unexpectedly – a compelling and satisfying narrative. Don’t let the summary of the odd plot and characters discourage you; this is masterful writing and provides a unique reading experience.

Friday, February 20, 2015

"Almost Famous Women," by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Women who were a little bit famous. Women who were related to, or close to, someone actually famous. The organizing principle of Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection of short stories, “Almost Famous Women” (Scribner, 2015), about real although mostly forgotten women, may sound like a gimmick, but the stories are effective not only because of their intriguing topics, but also because they stand strong as stories, regardless of the “fame” angle. The stories are fictional, but very believable. Each character is explored, even cherished, for her individuality, her vividness, her desire to "be someone,” to experience life fully. The protagonists include the poet Lord Byron’s young daughter Allegra, the actress Butterfly McQueen, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister Norma, the writer Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly, and Violent and Daisy Hilton, two sisters joined at the hip. A small quibble I have is that one story is about the adventurer, aviatrix, and writer Beryl Markham, who is in fact quite famous, definitely more so than the women in the other stories. Some of the stories are quite sad; the one about Allegra comes to mind, as she was left in a convent orphanage as a small child, lived there for years, kept expecting to see her parents, but did not. Another pathetic case is that of the writer and painter Romaine Brooks, well known in her glory days in Paris, but now in declining health, querulous, bedroom-bound, and manipulated by those who take care of her. But all the stories burst with the oversized personalities of these very different but all strong and compelling women. Gender is certainly an issue, and we see how many of the characters were oppressed, repressed, and restricted, at various times in various ways, and yet they could not be completely kept down. I especially like the literary aspects of several of the stories, the ones about writers, or relatives of writers.

Monday, February 16, 2015

RIP Philip Levine

I was sad to read this morning that the poet Philip Levine died Saturday (2/14/15) in Fresno at the age of 87. Levine is most well known for his poetry about the lives of working class people. According to John McMurtrie of the San Francisco Chronicle (2/16/15, p. A8), Levine started working in a factory in Detroit at age 14, wrote poetry even at that age, and promised himself that he would “find a voice for the voiceless,” the working class. That became his life’s work. Levine's poetry is wonderfully written as well as being accessible, and he won several prizes, including a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards. I feel a bit connected to Levine because of where he grew up and where he taught. He grew up in Detroit, a city I lived near for several years. After earning an MFA at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, and being selected for the Stanford Writing Fellowship, he taught most of his career at California State University, Fresno, a city where several of my close family members live, and one which, although I have never lived there myself, I have visited several times a year for decades. But most of all, being interested in issues of social class, and addressing them in my academic writing, I am drawn to the fact that he spoke for the working class. His death is a great loss, but he leaves a distinct and important legacy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"We Are Not Ourselves," by Matthew Thomas

I had read good reviews of Matthew Thomas’ novel “We Are Not Ourselves” (Simon & Schuster, 2014), so I requested it from my wonderful local library. When I picked it up, I was a bit daunted to see that it is 620 pages long. I am fine with long books, but only if they are very good, and I wasn't sure about this one. I decided I would just begin reading, and gave myself permission to stop reading and return the book to the library if I was not enjoying it after the first 50-100 pages. Well, since I am writing about it here, readers can probably guess what happened: I was soon drawn in to the story, and kept reading. However, I have to say it was a struggle at times. Sometimes I was enjoying it and/or absorbed in it, while other times I was very tempted to stop, or to skip to the end. Why? The novel focuses on many themes in which I am interested, including social class and social mobility, the limitations put on women in the middle of the 20th century, family, illness, and work. The events of the novel take place in some less fashionable areas of New York City, and over the time period of 1951 to 2011. The writing is quite good, and the characters are well drawn. But the aspect that I struggled with was that the main character, Eileen, is so unhappy, and that her unhappiness is like an extended pall over the novel, too drawn out and too ever-present. Eileen comes from a sort of genteel poverty exacerbated by alcoholism in her family of origin, manages to find her way out of it, marries and has a child, has a successful career, but is never really happy with her life. She always feels that others have more, and that she is not allowed to have more, and when she does, it is never enough. For example, she cares deeply about which neighborhood she lives in, and what kind of house she can acquire and live in; these have tremendous symbolic value to her. And then her little family -- her husband Ed, her son Connell, and Eileen herself -- is slowly devastated by a calamitous illness. Eileen keeps working hard, making it all work as well as possible, taking care of everyone, taking care of business. She is a strong, strong woman, but only late in life does she find a measure of peace and happiness. The relentlessness of her unhappiness up to that point was hard to read about, even when I had to admire her sheer hard work and refusal to let anything defeat her. And I think the novel would have been as good or better if the author had trimmed it by perhaps a quarter of its length. (As I said, I am fine with long novels, but the length has to be justified by the needs of the specific novel, and I don't think that is the case here.) That said: Despite my struggles to get through it, I do think it is a good novel. So I honestly don’t know whether to recommend the book to readers or not.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

"West of Sunset," by Stewart O'Nan: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood

I have read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels (some several times), many of his short stories, and several books about him and about his work; he is still one of the most well known and frequently read of American writers. I have also read several books – nonfiction and fiction – about his wife Zelda. (See, for example, my 6/1/13 post on “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.”) So I was not particularly interested in yet another book about the couple. But when I saw that one of my most admired American writers, Stewart O’Nan, had just published a novel about them, “West of Sunset” (Viking, 2015), I couldn’t resist reading it. The novel focuses on the last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, some years after the peak of his success, and after the glamorous, if often self-destructive, early years in Europe. At the time of this novel, starting in 1937, he had left his wife Zelda in a kind of sanitarium for those with mental illness (readers probably know that Zelda dealt with mental illness for much of her life, although she was also a brilliant writer and artist in her own right, and it is even rumored that she co-wrote some of her husband’s fiction), and went west to Los Angeles to try to earn money as a screenwriter. He had some success but was mostly obstructed by the unpredictable whims of movie producers and others in the Hollywood world, at the same time that he was struggling with his own alcoholism, health issues, money problems, attempts to keep working on his serious fiction, and feelings of guilt and worry about Zelda, as well as about his daughter Scotty. He did have good company in fellow writers and old friends such as Dorothy Parker, and new friends and neighbors such as Humphrey Bogart, but they also contributed to the atmosphere of constant drinking that was so dangerous for him. Another important bright spot was his relationship with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, but it was a very up-and-down relationship, with much drama and many break-ups and reconciliations. She did seem to truly love him, though, and did take care of him when his health was failing. The novel portrays Fitzgerald as very flawed (especially by the alcoholism), but a basically good and sympathetic character. He tried to do right by his family, and cared passionately about his writing, even the formulaic writing he was asked to do in Hollywood. (Interestingly, some other portrayals have been less positive, implying that Fitzgerald neglected his wife, or even worse, treated her as mentally ill when she was in fact just displaying independence and artistic originality; I don’t know the truth of it, obviously, but there does seem to be evidence of some kind of mental illness.) O’Nan is, as always, a wonderful writer (see my posts about other novels by him on 5/17/11, 1/26/12, and 3/14/13). (As a side note: this novel is the first book I have posted on with a 2015 publication date.)

Monday, February 2, 2015

"Is This Tomorrow," by Caroline Leavitt

I have read Caroline Leavitt’s novel “Pictures of You,” and liked it (this was before I started this blog), so when I saw that she had a new novel out, “Is This Tomorrow” (no question mark) (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013), I checked it out. At first the theme of the missing child almost kept me from reading the novel, first because that theme seems to have appeared too often in fiction in the past few years, and second because the theme is just so sad, and hard for a parent to think about. But because I knew I liked Leavitt’s writing, I persevered and read the novel, and I am glad I did. The first important thing to know is that the story takes place in the 1950s and 1960s, and the mores of the time, especially for women, are heavy presences. For example, one of the main characters, Ava Lark, the mother of another main character, Lewis, is divorced, and therefore somewhat shunned by the neighbors and treated a little too familiarly by her male (of course, male!) boss. Ava’s ex-husband is completely out of her life and that of Lewis, who pines for his father. Their neighbor Dot is also on her own with her kids Jimmy and Rose, who become Lewis’ best friends, forming a tight triumverate. But then (and this happens very early in the novel, so my telling you is not a spoiler) young teen Jimmy goes missing. The effect of his disappearance is devastating for all four of the other characters (two mothers and two teens), and as the novel jumps a few years into the future, we see that it has long-term effects on their behaviors, choices, emotions, romantic relationships, and almost every other aspect of their lives. Dot and Rose move away, and Ava and Lewis lose contact with them. But when the novel jumps to the time when Lewis is a young man in his early and mid-twenties, something happens that brings the two families back into contact with each other. This is where telling you more about the plot would be a spoiler, so I will stop there. I will just say that there is no complete resolution, and how could there be after the terrible events of the story? But as time goes on, there is learning, there is softening, there is connection, there is love, and that is all to the good. This is a wrenching story, but it also has much to tell us about the harm done by society's prejudices, as well as about families, deep friendships, love, and connection.
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