syntax

A special sentence structure

July 17, 2017 | 15 Comments

We can fix a sexist blip

November 16, 2016 | 16 Comments

I flipped over journalist H.L. Mencken’s delicious syntax, in 1980, when I was a young reporter at Today in Cocoa, Florida. A few years later, I made a pilgrimage to his lifelong domicile, a rowhouse in Baltimore. Aside from delighting in his sturdy, witty sentences, I found him hilariously hateful to American anti-intellectualism. Now, what he warned about our republic’s strain of dumbass Babbittry has come true. All the same, I’ve always been suspicious of his hatred of the “booboisie.” He was an elitist Germanic autocrat, a man blinkered for all his brilliance—he looked kindly upon the rise of Adolph Hitler. And here’s what I keep reminding myself:

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote!

I feel like the little boy found upending the dirty stable, who said, “With all this manure, there’s gotta be a pony here somewhere!” But America is too special and too important to despair just because (not quite half) of our fellow voters gave Trump the barn despite his mountainous preexisting dung heaps. Many Americans have only temporarily forgotten why they appointed Barack Obama to shovel us out after George Bush.

The likely right-wing Supreme Court appointment(s) and the probable loss of progress on fighting climate change upset me. But I return to my original point: a majority of American voters chose Hillary Clinton. Trump lacks the mandate of a landslide. Without the Electoral College—thanks, Alexander Hamilton! Love the brilliant musical, not so much the brilliant Republican—Trump wouldn’t have won at all. As a people, we’ve been trying to move in a gently progressive direction, as befits a nation with such progressive ideals. Our mistakes, tragedies, and setbacks notwithstanding, we’ve stacked up a lot of justice since America’s founding.

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Memoir’s fiery psychic struggle

October 7, 2015 | 15 Comments

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr reiterates her everlasting obsession: honesty in personal prose. She’s been criticized in the past for protesting a bit much about memoirists not fabricating. Her practice is of sharing pages with those mentioned. The revelation here is how she unites this basic concern with the thrilling imperative to find an authentic perspective/voice/persona. As she puts it:

“Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice. . . . The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.”

She skims over many writers’ obsession, structure, feeling it’s your perspective that determines in the first place the story you structure: “Usually the big story seems simple: They were assholes. I was a saint. If you look at it ruthlessly, you may find the story was more like: I richly provoked them, and they became assholes; or, They were mostly assholes, but could be a lot of fun to be with; or, They were so sick and sad, they couldn’t help being assholes, the poor bastards; or, We took turns being assholes.”

Karr observes that the you writing the story can forget without even realizing it who the past you actually was. How she loved, feared, yearned. Karr feels that inner conflict is memoir’s real driving force:

“The split self or inner conflict must manifest on the first pages and form the book’s thrust or through line—some journey toward the self’s overhaul by book’s end. However random or episodic a book seems, a blazing psychic struggle holds it together . . .”

Ah, the mysterious nature of self, memory, and remembered self. Upon these memoir (and much of adult life) rests. Starting with finding your truth-finding-and-telling present self, maybe the macro-struggle to achieve authenticity—a fair truth—is why we honor personal writing, if we do. In Karr’s portrait, this subset of literature is, in its beauty and risk, a scale model of the larger struggle to be awake and human.

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Mister Essay Guy

September 30, 2015 | 9 Comments

In Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, Dinty W. Moore plays both straight man and humorist. He answers prominent creative nonfiction questioners—who pose ridiculous or book-length conundrums—and then he presents his more-or-less illustrative essay. Out of the absurd queries flow pervasive exaggeration, deft timing, addled answers, and wry storytelling. This sustained comedic performance glimmers with wisdom concerning life and the creation of art.

To state the obvious: Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy employs the structure of an advice column. Many now call such a borrowed structure a “hermit crab,” a term coined by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in Tell it Slant. Within Moore’s clever container, this mega hermit crab, are baby ones, such as essays presented as lists, and one on a cocktail napkin.

And then there’s his playful, celebrated experiment in form, “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” a Google Maps essay on his encounters as a bumbling college student charged with escorting the befuddled literary lion. A personal favorite Moore works in is “Pulling Teeth, or Twenty Reasons Why My Daughter’s Turning Twenty Can’t Come Soon Enough”; he explains in his preceding answer that it’s all he could salvage from a failed book project on adolescent girls that consumed five years of hard labor.

In “Have You Learned Your Lesson, Amigo?” Moore appreciatively dissects the craft of two con artists who fleeced him on the street. This is reminiscent of his essay “The Comfortable Chair: Using Humor in Creative Nonfiction,” in Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerrard, which profiles an unctuous but irrepressible furniture salesman named Howie. Moore so admires professional competence that he’s amused by Howie and less than outraged by the latter pair of larcenous fellow travelers.

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A salute to sentences

July 2, 2014 | 15 Comments

Jenny Davidson loves to read. In fact, she’s spent her entire life immersed in words as a professional reader. A professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Davidson has written four novels and two academic works. Her blog is called “Light Reading.”

In a new book, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, she explores literature while weaving together vignettes from her two worlds of reader and critic. She likens the reading habit to a compulsion or an addiction. For fellow reading addicts, she suggests keeping a field notebook, as an ornithologist might on bird sightings, to record those sentences that “glimmer.”

Davidson debunks the “self-improvement” motive to read, calling reading “a form of intellectual play” rather than a lesson. She boils it down to the “details of language” and states firmly: “All sentences are not created equal.” She labels sentences “verbal artifacts,” believing style is everything. A person’s temperament can be discerned by sentences written, she says, adding, “a sentence is the key to the heart.” She confesses she was a “word child.”

While weighing the merits of a comma versus a colon or semicolon, she champions the comma for being less judgmental—but loathes the Oxford comma.

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Upon reading Anna Karenina

January 30, 2014 | 13 Comments

As I said in my first post about reading Anna Karenina, I picked the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky based on its opening line—”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—liking their version’s phrasing and punctuation, as well as the opening sentence of the second paragraph.

It took me a couple of weeks to read the 817-pager, and in the process I learned that Leo Tolstoy can do anything as a writer. And he wants to do a lot. A couple of times he goes into the mind of a dog and makes it feel easy and natural. I was impressed by the way he traces shifting human emotions, shows how people get embarrassed, get angry, change their minds, rise above ego and fall to it. In Anna, people blush—a lot. I imagine this is historically accurate, and makes me realize one way we’ve changed, our shifting shame points, though the same conflicts remain.

But more than this, Tolstoy excited and touched and astounded me with his depiction of the way people read each other—their feelings and even their plans shifting as they interpret facial expressions, body language, and comments that might say one thing and mean another. This in response to cues they’re picking up from each other or to feelings they can’t suppress. He’s obviously studied himself and others like a scientist.

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Joshua Cody’s book [sic]

January 8, 2014 | 15 Comments

The first two times I opened [sic]: A Memoir, I was impressed by Joshua Cody’s sentences—cool, syntactically complex, allusive. But I didn’t keep reading it because was working on my own book and sensed immediately that his high-flying persona was at odds with my attempt at a sincere one.

Late in 2013 I made it through [sic] and admired it, so refreshingly different from my own writing—or almost anyone’s. I wouldn’t try such a performance and couldn’t sustain one for long if I did. A possible cost of Cody’s approach is that I always felt distanced from him. How much “knowing” and liking a memoirist matters to you is intensely personal, but partly because of this, at times reading [sic] my mind wandered. Cody’s memoir showcases not only the rewards but the risks of a flamboyant (some would say egoistic) persona.

American reviewers generally raved [sic] (see the appreciative review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review), while it got a cooler reception in Europe—the Guardian’s review’s headline: “Joshua Cody’s postmodern memoir of terminal illness is too busy being clever to engage the reader’s feelings.” Guardian reviewer Robert McCrum called Cody “too cool for school” and said, “Part of the essential vanity of this publication is that Cody has been horribly overindulged, and allowed to lard his manuscript with illustrative material. [sic] is a book about sickness that should have been sent to the script doctor. It’s a mess; worse, it’s a pretentious mess. Descended from that great Victorian exhibitionist, ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, it’s almost as if he’s genetically programmed to perform to the crowd.”

But the pervasive gut-level response of Amazon’s crowd of readers was rage.

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