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New in Paperback for February

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Here are just a few paperbacks coming out this month that have caught my eye.

Artful by Ali Smith
Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world—it is about the things art can do, the things art is made of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. A magical hybrid that refuses to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form, Artful is narrated by a character who is haunted—literally—by a former lover, the writer of a series of lectures about art and literature. Ali Smith’s heady powers as a novelist and short story writer harmonize with her keen perceptions as a reader and critic to form a living thing that reminds us that life and art are never separate.

Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self by Jennifer Ouellette
me myself whyAs diverse as people appear to be, all of our genes and brains are nearly identical. In Me, Myself, and Why, Jennifer Ouellette dives into the miniscule ranges of variation to understand just what sets us apart. She draws on cutting-edge research in genetics, neuroscience, and psychology—enlivened as always with her signature sense of humor—to explore the mysteries of human identity and behavior. Readers follow her own surprising journey of self-discovery as she has her genome sequenced, her brain mapped, her personality typed, and even samples a popular hallucinogen. Bringing together everything from Mendel’s famous pea plant experiments and mutations in The X-Men to our taste for cilantro and our relationships with virtual avatars, Ouellette takes us on an endlessly thrilling and illuminating trip into the science of ourselves.

The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner
Created by the most respected American publisher of dictionaries and supervised by editor Philip Gove, Webster’s Third broke with tradition, adding thousands of new words and eliminating “artificial notions of correctness,” basing proper usage on how language was actually spoken. The dictionary’s revolutionary style sparked what David Foster Wallace called “the Fort Sumter of the Usage Wars.” Critics bayed at the dictionary’s permissive handling of ain’t. Literary intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald believed the abandonment of the old standard represented the unraveling of civilization.

Entertaining and erudite, The Story of Ain’t describes a great societal metamorphosis, tracing the fallout of the world wars, the rise of an educated middle class, and the emergence of America as the undisputed leader of the free world, and illuminating how those forces shaped our language. Never before or since has a dictionary so embodied the cultural transformation of the United States.

What’s Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson
Bankers prowl Brooklyn bars on the eve of the stock market crash. A debate over Young Elvis versus Vegas Elvis turns existential. Detoxing junkies use a live lobster to spice up their love life. Students on summer break struggle to escape the orbit of a seemingly utopic communal house.

And in the title story, selected for The Best American Short Stories, two film school buddies working on a doomed project are left sizing up their own talent, hoping to come out on top–but fearing they won’t.

In What’s Important Is Feeling, Adam Wilson follows the through-line of contemporary coming-of-age from the ravings of teenage lust to the staggering loneliness of proto-adulthood. He navigates the tough terrain of American life with a delicate balance of comedy and compassion, lyricism and unsparing straightforwardness. Wilson’s characters wander through a purgatory of yearning, hope, and grief. No one emerges unscathed.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Electric, exhilarating, and beautifully crafted, Ghana Must Go introduces the world to Taiye Selasi, a novelist of extraordinary talent. In a sweeping narrative that takes readers from Accra to Lagos to London to New York, it is at once a portrait of a modern family and an exploration of the importance of where we come from to who we are.

A renowned surgeon and failed husband, Kweku Sai dies suddenly at dawn outside his home in suburban Accra. The news of his death sends a ripple around the world, bringing together the family he abandoned years before. Moving with great elegance through time and place, Ghana Must Go charts their circuitous journey to one another and, along the way, teaches us that the truths we speak can heal the wounds we hide.

Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production by Nato Thompson
A fog of information and images has flooded the world: from advertising, television, radio, and film to the information glut produced by the new economy. With the rise of social networking, even our contemporaries, peers, and friends are all suddenly selling us the ultimate product: themselves.

Here curator and critic Nato Thompson interrogates the implications of these developments for those dedicated to socially engaged art and activism. How can anyone find a voice and make change when the world is flooded with images and information? And what is one to make of the endless machine of consumer capitalism, which has appropriated much from the history of art and, in recent years, the methods of grassroots political organizing and social networking?

Highlighting the work of some of the most innovative and interesting artists and activists working today, Thompson reads and praises sites and institutions that empower their communities to see power and re-imagine it. From cooperative housing to anarchist infoshops to alternative art venues, Thompson shows that many of today’s most innovative spaces operate as sites of dramatic personal transformation.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide; Eric Selland (translator)
A bestseller in France and winner of Japan s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award, The Guest Cat, by the acclaimed poet Takashi Hiraide, is a subtly moving and exceptionally beautiful novel about the transient nature of life and idiosyncratic but deeply felt ways of living. A couple in their thirties live in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo; they work at home, freelance copy-editing; they no longer have very much to say to one another. But one day a cat invites itself into their small kitchen. It leaves, but the next day comes again, and then again and again. Soon they are buying treats for the cat and enjoying talks about the animal and all its little ways. Life suddenly seems to have more promise for the husband and wife the days have more light and color. The novel brims with new small joys and many moments of staggering poetic beauty, but then something happens

Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic; David Williams (translator)
Hurtling between Weltschmerz and wit, drollness and diatribe, entropy and enchantment, it’s the juxtaposition at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s writings that saw Ruth Franklin dub her “the fantasy cultural studies professor you never had.” In Europe in Sepia, Ugresic, ever the flâneur, wanders from the Midwest to Zuccotti Park, the Irish Aran Islands to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, from the tristesse of Dutch housing estates to the riots of south London, charting everything from the listlessness of Central Europe to the ennui of the Low Countries. One finger on the pulse of an exhausted Europe, another in the wounds of postindustrial America, Ugresic trawls the fallout of political failure and the detritus of popular culture, mining each for revelation.

Infused with compassion and melancholic doubt, Europe in Sepia centers on the disappearance of the future, the anxiety that no new utopian visions have emerged from the ruins of communism; that ours is a time of irreducible nostalgia, our surrender to pastism complete. Punctuated by the levity of Ugresic’s raucous instinct for the absurd, despair has seldom been so beguiling.

Glyph by Percival Everett
glyphBaby Ralph has ways to pass the time in his crib—but they don’t include staring at a mobile. Aided by his mother, he reads voraciously: “All of Swift, all of Sterne, Invisible Man, Baldwin, Joyce, Balzac, Auden, Roethke,” along with a generous helping of philosophy, semiotics, and trashy thrillers. He’s also fond of writing poems and stories (in crayon). But Ralph has limits. He’s mute by choice and can’t drive, so in his own estimation he’s not a genius. Unfortunately for him, everyone else disagrees. His psychiatrist kidnaps him for testing, and once his brilliance is quantified (IQ: 475), a Pentagon officer also abducts him. Diabolically funny and lacerating in its critique of poststructuralism, Glyph has the feverish plot of a thriller and the philosophical depth of a text by Roland Barthes.

On Loving Women by Diane Obomsawin; Helge Dascher (translator)
loving womenOn Loving Women is a new collection of stories about coming out, first love, and sexual identity by the animator Diane Obomsawin. With this work, Obomsawin brings her gaze to bear on subjects closer to home—her friends’ and lovers’ personal accounts of realizing they’re gay or first finding love with another woman. Each story is a master class in reaching the emotional truth of a situation with the simplest means possible. Her stripped-down pages use the bare minimum of linework to expressively reveal heartbreak, joy, irritation, and fear.

On Loving Women focuses primarily on adolescence—crushes on high school teachers, awkwardness on first dates—but also addresses much deeper-seated difficulties of being out: fears of rejection and of not being who others want one to be. Within these pages, Obomsawin has forged a poignant, powerful narrative that speaks to the difficulties of coming out and the joys of being loved.

Her first English-language work, Kaspar—a retelling of the life of Kaspar Hauser, the mysterious German youth who was raised in isolation and murdered just a few years after emerging from his imprisonment—was critically lauded for its simple but expressive storytelling, and for the way it portrayed traumatic material compassionately but without self-indulgence. Preview.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

Written by Gabrielle

February 5, 2014 at 6:48 am

Week in the News for November 11

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Here are this week’s interesting media and publishing stories. Add your favorites to the comments section.

Social Media

  • Daily Facebook activity among younger teens is in decline. AdWeek
  • Jenna Wortham wonders if Facebook is fading. Bits
  • Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter, talks about his new venture, Medium. NYT

Media and Publishing

  • John Oliver leaves the Daily Show for HBO. AdWeek
  • BuzzFeed Books promises positive coverage. CJR
  • 10 technological innovations in TV broadcasting. Stuff of Genius

Lifehack and Business

Writing and Grammar


  • Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper and lead developer for Tumblr. NextMarket
  • Tim Stevens, Engadget’s former Editor-in-Chief. RIYL
  • Tech columnist David Pogue talks about leaving The New York Times for Yahoo! NextMarket

For fun

  • The experiment that led to the concept of “thinking outside the box.” io9
  • Do our brains find certain shapes more attractive than others? Smithsonian

Written by Gabrielle

November 17, 2013 at 11:39 am

Link Roundup for the Week of October 14

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TelegraphHere are just a few things in the media and publishing world that caught my eye this week. Add your favorites in the comments section.

E-books, Readers, and Apps

  • Oyster iPad app has arrived. GalleyCat
  • Judge appoints monitor to keep eye on Apple’s e-book business. CNET
  • Five useful apps. Aliza Sherman

Social Media

  • One year later, Medium is changing the way writers write and readers read. MediaShift
  • Video sharing site Upworthy pairs emotional content with catchy headlines to spread social awareness. New York Times
  • Online mentions: New York Times vs. Mashable [infographic] SocialTimes
  • Twitter revenue more than doubles in third quarter. Bloomberg
  • Does real-time marketing work? AdWeek

Media and Publishing

  • Debut ratings for MSNBC’s “Up Late with Alec Baldwin” TV Newser
  • Willa Paskin reviews “Up Late with Alec Baldwin” Slate
  • A look inside the life of New York City newspaper hawkers. CJR

Writing and Grammar

Lifehack and Business

  • Five prefixes to use in your email subject lines. 99u
  • Use your email autoresponder for maximum productivity. FastCompany



Written by Gabrielle

October 18, 2013 at 6:49 am

Link Roundup for the Week of September 23

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printing pressHere are just a few articles on publishing, technology, and other geeky things that caught my eye this week. If you follow me on Twitter at @contextual_life you’ll find some of these and many more. Link to your favorite stories of the week in the comments section.

E-books, Readers, and Apps

  • Jeff Bezos talks about the new Kindle Fires. Businessweek
  • Apple now holds a patent for a digital autographing app. TechCrunch
  • Earlier this summer HarperCollins invited app developers to reimagine how we discover books. The submissions are in. LitReactor
  • Best apps for serious readers. Gaget Lab


  • If you can’t operate your gadget, it might be the designer’s fault. The New York Times
  • What web developers need to know about iOS 7. Nieman Lab
  • Interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook. Businessweek
  • Tips for making the change to iOS 7. Bits

Social Media

  • Six Word Memoirs held their first Six Word Festival on Twitter. GalleyCat via Six Word’s press release
  • The government is cracking down on deceptive online reviews. Bits
  • A growing number of journalists are using Pinterest. Poynter
  • Apple used Twitter to send out their Kindle Fire press release. All Twitter

Media and Publishing

Writing and Grammar

Lifehack and Business


  • A discussion about John Steinbeck’s life and work. Great Lives
  • Cord Jefferson, West Coast editor at Gawker, talks about journalism. Longform
  • American Icons: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Studio 360


  • Syllabus for MIT’s science fiction course. MIT
  • A.J. Jacobs 3-D prints his dinner. NYT Opinion
  • Farhad Manjoo says email will never die. Slate
  • Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (dubstep remix) YouTube
  • Follow Little, Brown on Tumblr. Here

Written by Gabrielle

September 27, 2013 at 6:54 am

New in Paperback for February

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Here are just a few paperbacks coming out in February that have my attention. Tell me what I’ve missed in the comments section.

Why We Write

Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do edited by Meredith Maran
Twenty of America’s bestselling authors share tricks, tips, and secrets of the successful writing life.

Anyone who’s ever sat down to write a novel or even a story knows how exhilarating and heartbreaking writing can be. So what makes writers stick with it? In Why We Write, twenty well-known authors candidly share what keeps them going and what they love most—and least—about their vocation. Read Jennifer Egan’s essay.

18% Gray18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev
Distraught over the sudden disappearance of his wife, Zack tries to drown his grief in Tijuana, then returns to the U.S. with a stolen stash of marijuana. Using this as an impetus to change his life, Zack sets off for New York with the weed and a vintage Nikon. Through the lens of the old camera, he starts rediscovering himself by photographing an America we rarely see. His journey unleashes a series of erratic, hilarious, and life-threatening events interspersed with flashbacks to his relationship with Stella and life in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.

A suspenseful, darkly funny love story, 18% Gray won both the Bulgarian Novel of the Year Award and the Flower of the Readers Award when it was first published in 2008, and received the praise of critics everywhere.

Finding MerlinFinding Merlin: The Truth Behind the Legend of the Great Arthurian Mage by Adam Ardrey
Merlin: the very name summons up images of the wizard of Camelot — magician, prophet, and counselor to Arthur. The legend is famous but the truth is less well known: Merlin was a real historical figure, a champion of the old way of the Druids, a British man who hailed not from England or Wales, as traditional wisdom would have it, but from Scotland.

Adam Ardrey, who stumbled upon some of the hidden sources of Merlin’s life while researching the history of a Scottish clan, offers compelling evidence that links a very real Merlin figure into the histories of other real and prominent sixth century figures. “Finding Merlin” uncovers new evidence and reexamines the old. The places where Merlin was born, lived, died, and was buried are identified, as are the people surrounding him — his nemesis, the fanatic Mungo, and his friend, the hero Arthur. In this impressively researched and accessibly written book, Merlin leaps from the pages of legend into history.

Exercises in StyleExercises in Style by Raymond Queneau; Barbara Wright
Contributors: Ben Marcus, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Jesse Ball, Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Shane Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Enrique Vila-Matas, Frederic Tuten.

Exercises in Style — Queneau’s experimental masterpiece and a hallmark book of the Oulipo literary group — retells this unexceptional tale ninety-nine times, employing the sonnet and the alexandrine, onomatopoeia and Cockney. An “Abusive” chapter heartily deplores the events; “Opera English” lends them grandeur. Queneau once said that of all his books, this was the one he most wished to see translated. He offered Barbara Wright his “heartiest congratulations,” adding: “I have always thought that nothing is untranslatable.Here is new proof.”

A new edition of the famous modernist story told ninety-nine different ways — with newly translated exercises by Queneau and contributions by some of today’s most acclaimed stylists.

Hat tip to Sarah Gerard, writer and bookslinger, for bringing this one to my attention.

How Not to Write Bad SentencesHow to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them by Ben Yagoda
How to Not Write Bad uses this basic tenet — what Ben Yagoda calls “not-writing-badly” — to illustrate how we can all write better, clearer, and for a wider readership. Yagoda offers advice on crafting sentences that are correct in terms of spelling, diction, punctuation, and grammar and that display clarity, precision, and grace. He then moves on to the art of constructing whole paragraphs—focusing on cadence, consistency of tone, word repetition, sentence transitions, and length.

In a fun, comprehensive guide, Yagoda lays out the simple steps that we all can take to make our writing more effective, more interesting—and just plain better. As “lolspeak” and texts take over our linguistic consciousness, Yagoda emphasizes the lost art of grammar and the well-constructed sentence. He provides clear grammatical rules to help students and writers everywhere write better; this is a book for anyone who wants to improve his or her writing.

There Once LivedThere Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Love stories, with a twist: the eagerly awaited follow-up to the great Russian writer’s New York Times bestselling scary fairy tales

By turns sly and sweet, burlesque and heartbreaking, these realist fables of women looking for love are the stories that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya—who has been compared to Chekhov, Tolstoy, Beckett, Poe, Angela Carter, and even Stephen King—is best known for in Russia.Here are attempts at human connection, both depraved and sublime, by people across the life span: one-night stands in communal apartments, poignantly awkward couplings, office trysts, schoolgirl crushes, elopements, tentative courtships, and rampant infidelity, shot through with lurid violence, romantic illusion, and surprising tenderness. With the satirical eye of Cindy Sherman, Petrushevskaya blends macabre spectacle with transformative moments of grace and shows just why she is Russia’s preeminent contemporary fiction writer.

ExodusExodus by Lars Iyer
A wickedly funny and satisfyingly highbrow black comedy about the collapse of Western academic institutions under the weight of neoliberal economics and crushing, widespread idiocy.

Lars and W., the two preposterous philosophical anti-heroes of Spurious and Dogma—called “Uproarious” by the New York Times Book Review—return and face a political, intellectual, and economic landscape in a state of total ruination.


With philosophy professors being moved to badminton departments and gin in short supply—although not short enough—the two hapless intellectuals embark on a relentless mission. Well, several relentless missions. For one, they must help gear a guerilla philosophy movement—conducted outside the academy, perhaps under bridges—that will save the study of philosophy after the long, miserable decades of intellectual desert known as the early 21st-century.

Granta 122: Betrayal
Without love there can be no betrayal – love of a country, a brother, a wife, a platoon mate, a family. In this issue of Granta, Janine di Giovanni witnesses a nation, Syria, betraying its people; Karen Russell imagines a soldier inscribing the memory of a fellow soldier on his back; and Colin Robinson writes about ancient brotherly friction resurfacing in a game of paddleball. From the playgrounds of New York City to the alleyways of Damascus, here is the theatre of betrayal.

Written by Gabrielle

January 29, 2013 at 6:51 am

Write it Like Tin House

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Every year Tin House, a literary journal and independent publishing house, coordinates a Summer Writer’s Workshop, a “weeklong intensive of workshops, seminars, panels, and readings.” Together with today’s most respected American authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Tin House editors teach a small group the ins and outs of writing and publishing.

This year’s instructors include Steve Almond, Karen Russell, Jim Shepard, Dana Spiotta, Jess Walter, Cheryl Strayed and D.A. Powell–a dream lineup if you love independent presses and literary imprints.

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House is a collection that stems from these yearly meetings; essays on character development, pace, editing, and other elements of storytelling offer those who can’t attend a glimpse inside the classroom walls.

Steve Almond explains good and bad sex writing; Kate Bernheimer discusses the four elements of fairy tales and “the reductive spectrum of mainstream and avant-garde writing;” Dorothy Allison describes “place” as it relates to “All the stuff you’ve got that you don’t see;” and Chris Offutt talks about revising, a skill that “requires a cruel and ruthless objectivity” and, to him, is akin to performing “surgery on yourself without anesthesia.”

Instead of a “how-to” guide, The Writer’s Notebook is as Lee Montgomery, Associate Publisher and Editorial Director of Tin House Books and Executive Editor of the magazine, describes it in her introduction: “like intimate conversations, like a notebook.” She further explains:

I suppose there are those who find prescriptive advice about writing helpful, writers who can look at a project, identify a structure, use an outline, and get to writing One, two, threepoof! But I cannot imagine a world where this is true, a world where one creates great characters in five steps, a world in which one pops books out like laying eggs. In my world, writing is difficult and short cuts are few. The only real way to learn how to do it is to read the work of authors who write well and to, well, write–a lot. Along the way, of course, it is always helpful–and interesting–to talk or listen to writers discuss their process and the work of other writers.

In his essay, “The Telling that Shows,” Peter Rock says:

I very rarely understand talking about writing or writing about writing as discourses that intersect with writing itself. I don’t believe that wisdom can be dispensed to writers in this way. How lovely if it were so, and how boring. Instead, I’m always hoping to provoke, to let writers weigh my assertions or learn from my mistakes.

It’s this philosophy–or honesty–that sets The Writer’s Notebook apart from all others on the writing reference shelf. Here are a few excerpts that resonated with me.

Rick Bass, “When to Keep it Simple”

In “When to Keep it Simple,” Rick Bass explains what to do “when you get too wrapped up in a lofty thought and you can’t quite make the ends of a sentence or paragraph hook back up”.

Try cleaning up the words and diction first … and if that doesn’t work, then begin breaking apart the truths, or purported truths, which are probably shrouded in windiness … Say it straight … as if in conversation … Lay that much-simpler and less-ambitious sentence down like a tiny placeholder.

Susan Bell, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby”

Susan Bell’s essay, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby,” looks at the relationship between author and editor. While writing “The Artful Edit,” Bell read the biography of legendary editor Max Perkins, the man who worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe. She also reread The Great Gatsby, this time as a “tour de force of revision.”

She starts off, “Gatsby is what Michael Ondaatje called ‘that seemingly uncrossable gulf between an early draft of a book … and a finished product’–in other words, editing.”

The writer had gone far enough on his own with Gatsby and was ready for the latest editorial push–one he freely admitted he was incapable of envisioning alone … It helped to have an editor as astute and courtly as Perkins and who knew how to balance general commentary with specific suggestions. …

Many consider editing as either the correction of punctuation (copyediting) or the overhaul of a book such as Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. The editing of The Great Gatsby sits between these extremes–a testimony to a writer’s discipline to edit himself and his wisdom to let himself be edited by someone worthy: that is how he crossed the gulf.

Lucy Corin,“Material”

Generally, we are taught to value content over form, to have something to say and then “find a form for it” as if one part of what we produce is our stuff and the other is a suitcase we bought to put the stuff in. You find the form to “suit” your content, your material. This is not an unhelpful way to think about things, but it is not the only way.

Jim Krusoe, “Le Mot Incorrect”

According to Wikipedia, Gustave Flaubert “believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding ‘le mot juste’ (‘the right word’), which he considered the key [to achieving] quality in literary art.”

While Krusoe “understand[s] the great magnetism of ‘le mot juste,’” he says that there are advantages to using the wrong word:

Wrong words help us stray off the path, not by producing a new path, but by throwing us into the thicket … in writing, correctness not only stops the conversation between the writer and the reader, it also stops it between the writer and her or himself. To have no questions is to cease to explore. A poor piece with all the right words has nowhere to turn. Wrong words, however, put us into a different relationship with our sentences and our work.

Margot Livesey, “Shakespeare for Writers”

A more straightforward lesson to be learned from Shakespeare’s plots is the virtue of having subplots … a successful subplot is one that is interesting and compelling in its own right, resonates with the main plot appropriately, and intersects with it at the perfect moment.

I fear I can no longer avoid the most obvious and the most impossible lesson we can learn from Shakespeare: namely, what can be accomplished by the magnificent, melodious, rigorous, energetic, boisterous, vivid, inventive use of language.

The notion of a painter who isn’t interested in paint is baffling, but many writers (I exclude poets) don’t actually seem that interested in language. They are convinced that the interest of their work lies in characterization, plot, and theme. But the plays I’m discussing have survived, in large measure, due to the language Shakespeare invented and put in the mouths of his characters.

The Writer’s Notebook II is out this month and Tin House will be accepting applications for their 2013 workshop starting January 1st.

Buy The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
Buy The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House
Apply for the 2013 Workshop (applications accepted starting January 1, 2013)
Tin House Podcast: Listen to authors discuss writing
Tin House website

Written by Gabrielle

November 6, 2012 at 6:07 am

On the Shelf: NaNoWriMo!

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Beginning on the 1st and ending a second before midnight on the 30th, November is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short.

Now in its 13th year, NaNoWriMo has grown from a small group of idealistic, aspiring writers in the San Francisco area to an organization with an office, 501(c)(3) status, international participation, and celebrity author recognition in just a few years.

In its first year, 1999, founder Chris Baty rounded up 21 participants. By 2010 involvement had grown to 200,000 with 30,000 writers making it to the end with the 50,000 word count goal.

“It’s all about quantity, not quality. This approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly,” the website says. By focusing on producing pages, the writer does away with the endless, sometimes obsessive, retweaking and editing that can stymie creative efforts.

While writing can often be a solitary experience, NaNoWriMo, for one month, makes it feel like a communal happening. Not only is the internet flooded with encouraging stories and helpful tips, there is also plenty of evidence of collective suffering: sleep deprivation, skipped dinners, unwatched television shows, and showers not taken—all in the name of word count.

The rules were developed, reluctantly, the second year as more writers signed up and demanded clarification, but they are simple: 50,000 words, from scratch, written within the month of November.

If you’re in the San Francisco area the organization puts on some great events throughout the month. If not, many bookstores and libraries around the country and across the oceans host write-ins. When you sign up for NaNoWriMo you receive pep talks from some great authors, including Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus.

Unfortunately, if you write nonfiction your work won’t count for NaNoWriMo but you can benefit from the month’s spotlight on writing—both on the process and philosophy of it: setting aside time to bang out a word count, not worrying about a perfect first draft, paying attention to bad habits like procrastination and working to fix them, and reading some great articles on the craft from fellow writers at all stages of expertise and development.

There’s much more information and interactive material on the National Novel Writing Month site including a detailed history of NaNoWriMo and a link to an article about NaNoWriMo’s participation jump in its 3rd year. I encourage you to check it out, even if you aren’t participating.

Around the Web:
GalleyCat is posting all month, you can keep up to date and scroll their archives here.
io9, has a great post on how to write a sincere first draft of a sci-fi novel or fantasy epic.
The Christian Science Monitor has five reasons why you should participate.
Mental Floss is there to taunt you with 6 famous novels that were written in under a month.
Watch a short interview with Erin Morgenstern about how her book came out of a NaNoWriMo session.
Lifehacker has tips on how to harness the mental, creative, and emotional benefits of regular writing.
Flavorwire has a slideshow of advice from history’s fastest and most prolific writers.
The Electric Literature crew came up with a mixtape to listen to for the month while writing.
And if anyone tells you you’re crazy or wasting your time, The Los Angeles Times has 12 reasons to ignore the naysayers.

Helpful Writing Sites:
Poets & Writers, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips, Merriam-Webster online, Daily Writing Tips, Beyond the Margins, Writer’s Digest, Grammarphobia, Center for Fiction, Terrible Minds

Writing Advice Podcasts:
I Should be Writing and Writing Excuses have regular episodes and Tin House magazine has a great lecture of Dorothy Allison’s where she talks about crafting dialogue

What’s on the Shelf:
Now that you’re all geared up to write, here are some books to help you along the way:

The Associated Press Stylebook
More people write for The Associated Press than for any newspaper in the world, and writers-nearly two million of them-have bought more copies of The AP Stylebook than of any other journalism reference. It provides facts and references for reporters, and defines usage, spelling, and grammar for editors. There are separate sections for journalists specializing in sports and business, and complete guidelines for how to write photo captions, file copy over the wire, proofread text, handle copyrights, and avoid libel. [via IndieBound]

The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation
In the no-nonsense, authoritative tradition of the best-selling AP Stylebook, the top editors at the AP have now written the definitive guide to punctuation. [via IndieBound]

The Chicago Manual of Style
Clear, concise, and replete with commonsense advice, The Chicago Manual of Style, fifteenth edition, offers the wisdom of a hundred years of editorial practice while including a wealth of new topics and updated perspectives. For anyone who works with words, whether on a page or computer screen, this continues to be the one reference book you simply must have. [via IndieBound]

Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark
I can’t recommend Roy Peter Clark’s books enough. I loved Writing Tools and refer to it on a regular basis. It’s also my most recommended book of all time—fiction or nonfiction. You can read my essay about it here.

Glamour of Grammar is his most recent book and in their review, The New York Times picked up on why I like him so much: “Clark wholeheartedly endorses breaking the commandments that make no sense, as long as in the breaking, the writing still holds up.” I’m a rule-breaker and Clark is an encourager of such practices—as long as it’s an informed breaking. They called it “a welcome addition to the bookshelf of anyone who cares about language — and is willing to argue about it.” You can read his Q&A with the Times, follow him on Twitter @RoyPeterClark, and you can find outstanding articles and archived live chats from him on the Poynter Institute’s website.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
“The secret of creativity, Natalie Goldberg makes clear, is to subtract rules for writing, not add them….Proof that she knows what she’s talking about is abundant in her own sentences. They flow with speed and grace and accuracy and simplicity….It’s the simple style of a Zen archer who looks like he’s not even aiming, yet sends arrow after arrow to the bull’s eye, time after time.”—Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” [via Natalie’s website]

Here’s an interview with Natalie on Beliefnet about what failure can teach us.

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty
Written with the wit, warmth, and accessibility that the podcasts are known for, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing covers the grammar rules and word-choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers. From “between vs. among” and “although vs. while” to comma splices and misplaced modifiers, Mignon offers memory tricks and clear explanations that will help readers recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules. [via publisher]

No Plot? No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty
As mentioned above, Chris is the founder of National Novel Writing Month and it only makes sense to have his book included here.
Chris Baty, motivator extraordinaire and instigator of a wildly successful writing revolution, spells out the secrets of writingand finishing a novel. Baty puts pen to paper himself to share the secrets of success. With week-specific overviews, pep “talks,” and essential survival tips for today’s word warriors, this results-oriented, quick-fix strategy is perfect for people who want to nurture their inner artist and then hit print! Anecdotes and success stories from NaNoWriMo winners will inspire writers from the heralding you-can-do-it trumpet blasts of day one to the champagne toasts of day thirty. Whether it’s a resource for those taking part in the official NaNoWriMo event, or a stand-alone handbook for writing to come, No Plot? No Problem! is the ultimate guide for would-be writers (or those with writer’s block) to cultivate their creative selves. [via IndieBound]

Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury shares the wisdom, experience, and  excitement of a lifetime of writing. Here are  practical tips on the art of writing from a master of  the craft-everything from finding original ideas to  developing your own voice and style-as well as the  inside story of Bradbury’s own remarkable career  as a prolific author of novels, stories, poems,  films, and plays. [via IndieBound]

On Writing Well by William Zinsser
If you’re searching for a motivational manifesto and how-to manual in one, this is it. Zinsser, a veteran writer and writing teacher with numerous books and magazine articles to his credit, lays it out straight in a refreshingly no-nonsense tone. [via Dailywritingtips]

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
In the years since its original publication, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life has become a staple must-read for aspiring writers of all walks. Perhaps this is because her approach to the creative process manages a kind of golden ratio, a balance of magic and pragmatism that continues to reveal its depths to writers of the 21st century. Plainly, this is not a field guide. Dillard does not draw a tidy map. She does the opposite, acknowledging the unknown and unknowable wilderness that every writer must face. [via Center for Fiction]

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
You’ve always dreamed of writing science fiction and fantasy—tales that pull readers into extraordinary new worlds and fantastic conflicts. Best-selling author Orson Scott Card shows you how it’s done, distilling years of writing experience and publishing success into concise, no-nonsense advice. You’ll learn how to utilize story elements that define the science fiction and fantasy genres; build, populate, and dramatize a credible, inviting world your readers will want to explore; develop the “rules” of time, space and magic that affect your world and its inhabitants; construct a compelling story by developing ideas, characters, and events that keep readers turning pages; find the markets for speculative fiction, reach them, and get published; and submit queries, write cover letters, find an agent, and live the life of a writer [via Writer’s Digest]

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House combines the best craft seminars in the history of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop with a variety of essays written by some of Tin House’s favorite authors, offering aspiring writers insight into the craft of writing.

Dorothy Allison, Jim Shepard, Aimee Bender, Steve Almond, D. A. Powell, and others break down elements of craft and share insights into the joys and pains of their own writing. This cast of deeply respected poets and prose writers explore topics that vary from writing dialogue to the dos and don’ts of writing about sex. With how-tos, close readings, and personal anecdotes,The Writer’s Notebook offers future scribes advice and inspiration. [via Tin House]

What are your favorite writing books? Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Do you have a favorite NaNoWriMo article? Comments are open. 

Written by Gabrielle

November 9, 2011 at 5:40 pm

On the Shelf: David Foster Wallace’s Wishy-Washy Legacy and Noir Galore

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In her recent essay in the New York Times, “Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace”, blogger, critic, essayist, and all-around book flogger Maud Newton talks about the link between the deceased writer’s loquacious writing style and the rise of wishy-washy criticism today.

Referencing another essayist, Geoff Dyer, in his piece on Wallace’s writing, “My Literary Allergy,” in Prospect magazine where he says “I react against the variously contrived sloppinesses of all those ‘sort ofs’ and ‘kind ofs’ in tandem with, sometimes followed by, the magisterial flamboyant (‘Existentiovoyeuristic conundra notwithstanding’). Or the grunge affectation of the double ‘though’ in: ‘There are big differences between Agassi’s and Joyce’s games, though. Though Joyce…’,” Maud voices her own feelings about David’s (over)use of qualifiers: sort of, pretty much, really. “At their worst these verbal tics make it impossible to evaluate his analysis; I’m constantly wishing he would either choose a more straightforward way to limit his contentions or fully commit to one of them,” she says.

Dyer laments that DFW’s style is “catching, highly infectious” and Maud poses that Wallace’s “slangy appeal,” in the Internet age has “been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument.”

Newton says that when blogging was first coming up in the world, the confusion about style was understandable: “Was a blog more like writing or more like speech?” But after all these years, she wonders (and I’m condensing her essay horribly right now but you should read the whole thing after this) why today’s critics are still “making their arguments in this inherently self-undermining voice — still trying to ward off every possible rejoinder and pre-emptively rebut every possible criticism by mixing a weird rhetorical stew of equivocation, pessimism and Elysian prophecy”.

“Increasingly drawn to directness, which precludes neither nuance nor irony,” Maud concludes, “Qualifications are necessary sometimes. Anticipating and defusing opposing arguments has been a vital rhetorical strategy since at least the days of Aristotle. Satire and ridicule, when done well, are high art. But the idea is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe. And the best way to make an argument is to make it, straightforwardly, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward.”

Read Maud Newton’s Blog and then, if you missed it, you can check out my essay on three grammar books to help you write more economically.

If you’ve ever read David Foster Wallace, have you noticed this tendency to use qualifiers? Did it bother you? Do you notice this trend in reviewing and commentary?

And now, what on the shelf . . .

This week it’s all about noir. It occurred to me the other day that I have a gaping hole in my library—mental and physical. As many of you know, I’m on a sci-fi kick. What I noticed about the stories is that many of them have a mystery element to them—and I like that. So, I figured it was time to dive head first into the stripped down genre—minus the the fantasy and spacecraft. Noir, for those like me who are first coming to this, is also called “hardboiled”. It’s crime fiction, detective stories, “distinguished by the unsentimental portrayal of sex and violence.” Sounds like some good reading for the tail end of summer.When I asked for help on Twitter, Paul, the co-host of the arts & entertainment podcast Fuzzy Typewriter, recommended the first book on this list. Some other helpful people chimed in with a few others and some I found through my own searching.

A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane
Description from IndieBound: A cabal of powerful Boston politicians is willing to pay Kenzie and Gennaro big money for a seemingly small job: to find a missing cleaning woman who stole some secret documents. As Kenzie and Gennaro learn, however, this crime is no ordinary theft. It’s about justice, about right and wrong. But in Boston, finding the truth isn’t just a dirty business . . . it’s deadly.

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Mildred Pierce is a book I’ve heard about from a number of people. It got a boost from HBO when they created a mini-series starring Kate Winslet. Here’s a brief description: Mildred Pierce had gorgeous legs, a way with a skillet, and a bone-deep core of toughness. She used those attributes to survive a divorce and poverty and to claw her way out of the lower middle class. But Mildred also had two weaknesses: a yen for shiftless men, and an unreasoning devotion to a monstrous daughter.

Sin City: Volume 1 by Frank Miller
For some reason I never realized Frank Miller’s Sin City was considered neo-noir. If you’re looking for something other than a straight prose but are curious about this genre, check out the graphic novel. Here’s a brief description: It’s a lousy room in a lousy part of a lousy town. But Marv doesn’t care. There’s an angel in the room. She says her name is Goldie. A few hours later, Goldie’s dead without a mark on her perfect body, and the cops are coming before anyone but Marv could know she’s been killed. Somebody paid good money for this frame. . .

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Arguably, no noir collection is complete without Raymond Chandler and his popular protagonist, Philip Marlowe. Farewell, My Lovely is considered one of his best. The Little Sister and The Long Goodbye being the other two that are often mentioned.

Tart Noir edited by Lauren Henderson
Another recommendation was the author Lauren Henderson, a crime writer with a feminist edge. While Tart Noir is a collection of female crime writers edited by her, with a story of hers included, she has seven novels in her Sam Jones mystery series. Henderson’s website’s about page says that she’s “been described in the press as both the Dorothy Parker and the Betty Boop of the British crime novel.” Sold!

Brooklyn Noir edited by Tim McLoughlin
As a Brooklyn girl, I’m tempted to pick up this little collection, especially since it’s published by the local indie press Akashic Books. Contributors include Pete Hamill, Nelson George, Maggie Estep, Adam Mansbach, and others.

Black Orchid Blues by Persia Walker
Speaking of Akashic Books, I recently went to a party for them at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn and had the pleasure of hearing Persia Walker read from her book, Black Orchid Blues. After just 5 minutes, I added this mystery set in 1920s Harlem to my mental “to be read” pile. I’m including it here so you can add it to your as well.

What’s on your shelf?

Written by Gabrielle

August 25, 2011 at 5:46 am

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a Writer’s Philosopher

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“A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world. They are all constructed according to a common logical plan.”

In Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, renown British philosopher A.C. Grayling makes a strong case for summarizing the late-philosopher’s views. Critics of the idea argue that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work, often stated in aphorisms, is compressed enough already and that any further breakdown would misrepresent both the content and intention.

For those first coming to Wittgenstein it’s helpful to know beforehand that his later writing is largely a takedown of his earlier work with his middle writing acting as a transition. Another problem posed to newcomers is where to start. His first book, the one that garners most of Wittgenstein’s criticism, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was the only book published in his lifetime. All others emerged posthumously and are often featured in many different collections, making difficult to know which one to buy.

A Very Short Introduction, aptly named, moves swiftly through Wittgenstein’s personal details—born in Vienna in 1889 to a wealthy family, taught at the University of Cambridge before serving in the First World War, after returning he took a 10-year hiatus from teaching, at the age of 40 he went back to Cambridge, World War II broke out, he felt compelled to help and left teaching for the last time, and finally, at the age of 62, he died of prostate cancer. Instead, Grayling spends most of  the 134 pages charting the ins-and-outs of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and explaining the trajectory of his evolving theories.

Categorizing Wittgenstein is not easy. In another book on this towering figure, a collection of analytical essays, The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, the editor, a philosophy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Hans Sluga, says that what makes it difficult to peg the twentieth century philosopher is “first of all the unconventional cast of his mind, the radical nature of his philosophical proposals, and the experimental form he gave to their expression.”

What does help provide context is his main influence, and possibly biggest supporter, the prolific philosopher Betrand Russell. It was Russell’s 1903 The Principles of Mathematics, where the author argues that mathematics and logic are identical, that put Wittgenstein on the path to a career in philosophy. With Russell, Wittgenstein, at the time of their writings, took part in what Sluga calls a “sense of a new beginning in philosophy”. Together they broke from the traditional and national constraints that prevailed.

Russell was instrumental in getting the Tractatus published and had written an introduction to the edition in 1921. Known to be irascible, Wittgenstein had a bad reaction to what Russell’s interpretation and in an angry letter claimed his friend had not understood a word of his work. However, as Wittgenstein’s theories progressed he realized that he had not reached his objective: “to solve the problems of philosophy . . . by showing how language works”.

Wittgenstein’s focus on language makes him something of a writer’s philosopher. With saying such as, “Language must speak for itself” and “Language is like a collection of very various tools,” his books are brain candy for those who love words.

Throughout Wittgenstein’s work there are brilliant sayings that make him sound like a spiritual leader: “A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of discussion,” “Philosophy is not a body doctrine by an activity,” and famously, the last line of the Tractatus, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” But as with those gurus from the 60s, it’s tempting to hang onto Wittgenstein’s theories as if they were absolute truths; they’re concise, poetic, and have a koan-like quality to them. Unfortunately, history shows them to be misguided, refuted by the very same man who had once believed in them wholeheartedly.

It’s refreshing, however, that Wittgenstein was not afraid to disagree with himself and that over the years he continued to flesh out his ideas. Sluga believes that “Wittgenstein’s development from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations parallels that of the culture at large” and goes on to explain that the analytic tradition as a whole “progressed from the single-minded pursuit of an ideal of formal unity to the acceptance of informality, pluralism, and proliferation of forms.”

Grayling summed up the shift saying that the Wittgenstein made the “rejection of [the Tractatus’] central doctrines the very cornerstone of his later philosophy”. What Wittgenstein had originally asked readers to believe he later felt was oversimplification and instead began to argue the opposite, “that language is a vast collection of different activities each with its own logic.”

Abandoning his earlier assumptions, Wittgenstein focused on language as a medium of communication that doesn’t follow strictly prescribed rules and became interested how language is learned. In short, he went from asking “What is the meaning of a word?” to “What is it to explain the meaning of a word?”. He even went so far in the Philosophical Investigations to make the critical view of the function of rules his central theme.

One is left to wonder, does Wittgenstein’s sharp divergence from his early work mean that the Tractatus should be thrown out the window? The answer, if we are to listen to the man himself, is no. Wittgenstein felt that the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations belonged side-by-side, understanding that the latter is largely a reaction to the former.

A.C. Grayling prepares the casual philosopher and autodidact for the content and context of Wittgenstein’s theories while The Cambridge Companion’s essays, spanning a diverse range of views regarding the philosophers work, expands the reader’s scope of analysis. Both introductions will create a more confident reader and spark an interest for further investigation.

Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction by A.C. Grayling
The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein edited by Hans Sluga and David Stern
The Puzzlement of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an interview on The Philosopher’s Zone
The Unhappy Family of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an interview on The Philosopher’s Zone

Written by Gabrielle

August 9, 2011 at 8:31 am

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On the Shelf: Punctuation, Webcomics, and Robot Uprisings

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If you like grammar you probably have a favorite punctuation mark. Maybe you feel strongly about the use of the serial comma or exclamation points in email. Quite possibly you have an opinion on double spacing after periods. If any of these ring true, you’ll want to read the following articles. In case you missed them, here’s Ben Yagoda on where to put the period when using quotation marks, Farhad Manjoo on the origins of double-spacing and why you should never do it now, and Aimee Lee Ball’s fascinating cultural piece on the exclamation point—she even interviewed some of today’s top authors for their thoughts.

And, If you still haven’t gotten your fill, the Christian Science Monitor has a language column called Verbal Energy; Grammar Girl is a great reference site to keep handy for all your grammar questions and the Grammarphobia blog features fun language facts that are bound to keep you the life of the party.

What’s on the shelf?

Since listening to the Bookrageous podcast and now SF Signal‘s, both of which frequently comment on comics and graphic novels, I’m seeking out webcomics, comics published on the internet and are often free. I grew up with Archie Comics and then, in my early 20s, I found some great artists published by Oni Press but since then I haven’t stayed on top of the graphic novel industry.

While many of the top webcomics tend to focus on gaming culture, such as Ctrl+Alt+Del by Tim Buckley and Penny Arcade, written by Jerry Holkins and illustrated by Mike Krahulik, both wildly popular, there are a few for the non-gamers. The award-winning Girl Genius, by Kaja and Phil Foglio, is a steampunk adventure story with a female lead, Agatha Heterodyne. Diesel Sweeties by R Stevens is the story of a robot who dates real women and, despite my doubts, is surprisingly addictive. Over at The Rumpus, they take their comics seriously and have an impressive lineup of contributors which currently includes Tony Millionaire, All Over Coffee, Jon Adams, and more. While you’re at it, you should follow legendary Scott McCloud, one of the earliest promoters of webcomics. What’s your favorite? I’m looking for more.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
It’s hard not to notice that Robopocalypse is out now in stores. If you read major newspapers, scroll through popular websites, or peruse your local bookshop you’ve undoubtedly seen the haunting cover image—the close-up of a shiny, white plastic face with determined red eyes. Daniel H. Wilson, a man who holds a PhD in Robotics and who has written many humorous nonfiction books on robots now brings us the story of a world after a robot uprising. Boingboing sums it up as a “a kind of oral history, composed of vignettes that take the form of first person accounts, transcripts, technical documents. . .” and Steven Spielberg has a film version slated for release in 2013.

You can read a review at boingboing, check out an excerpt at io9 followed by nonfiction musings from the author, and listen to an interview with Daniel on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. If you still want more, Future Tense, a project in conjunction with Slate, even used the book’s buzz to jump into the larger issue of safety in a world that is increasing its use of technology.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
I recently came across Angry Robot, a publisher specializing in “modern adult science fiction, fantasy and everything in between,” according to their site. A few of their books caught my eye at the bookstore last week, thanks to their really cool logo and cover designs, and I picked up Zoo City by South African writer Lauren Beukes. Zoo City is Beukes’ second book—Moxyland is her first—and can be summed up as an urban speculative fiction novel about a young woman, recently released from prison, now “animalled” (saddled with an animal due to a past illegal act), who is hired, under the radar, to solve a missing persons case. I’ve plowed through half of this book in a day, full review to come.

Written by Gabrielle

July 7, 2011 at 6:11 am

Books for Writers :: Fashionable Grammar

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To write is to communicate with the outside world. It’s how we explain ourselves and understand each other. In whatever form it takes, whether it be print, email, text, or tweet, writing is a representation of the self.

Incorrect grammar, or the simplification of sentences in fear of it, limits expression. Just as someone is turned away from a nice restaurant for not wearing a tie, a person without command of the English language is shut out of certain social circles. It’s with this analogy in mind that one can begin to think of grammar’s demands. As someone who would much rather wear jeans and a t-shirt than skirts and heels, and as someone who once struggled with grammar and who still has questions, I can understand the trepidation of someone who feels lost in the sea of rules.Unfortunately, sometimes a situation calls for the Editor Pants from Express. But not to worry, there will always be Casual Fridays and times when cutoffs and sandals are appropriate. Just as it’s important to know which clothes to wear and how to wear them, it’s important to have an informed writing style. And just as it is with clothing, once you know the rules, you’re in a better place to break them; or as Stanley Fish says in his book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, “you can’t depart from something with confidence unless you are fully practiced in the something you are departing from.”

There’s no denying that grammar can be daunting, especially for those who, like myself, attended public school at a time when the subject was on the wane. Sure, we learned that a noun is a person, place, or thing, a verb an action, that an adjective “modifies” a noun and an adverb “modifies” a verb but go beyond that and it starts to feel like a foreign language.

In his introduction to Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark, Vice President and Senior Scholar of the Poynter Institute, calls on Americans to become a “Nation of Writers”. As part of his plea he refers to The National Commission on Writing’s report that warns about the “disastrous consequences of bad writing in America — for businesses, professions, educators, consumers, and citizens.” Apparently, “poorly written reports, memos, announcements, and messages cost us time and money.” It’s as if we all woke up one morning and went to work in our pajamas.

The good news is, through the ubiquity of handheld electronic devices and use of email for work, the majority of us write everyday—now we just need to do it well.

Clark offers a comprehensive—and comprehensible—guide to grammar, style, and practice, which he arranges into four sections: “Nuts and Bolts,” “Part of Speech,” “Blueprints,” and “Useful Habits”. The first section introduces readers to the basics: the use (and overuse) of -ing endings, the difference between active and passive voice, the proper way to construct long sentences, and how to get a feel for punctuation. Unlike many grammar books that have come before it, Clark’s does more than merely list prescriptive rules—prescriptive grammar being the language that people think should be used (think: stuffy) as opposed to descriptive, how people actually speak and write (think: conversational). Instead, he pays homage to both forms, allaying fears of wrong use and putting the audience at ease.

In one of the most welcomed chapters in the book, Clark evokes strong visuals to explain the role of punctuation, a terrifying aspect of grammar suddenly made accessible to anyone familiar with the rules of the road: “If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks?” he asks. “The comma is a speed bump; the semicolon is what a driver education teacher calls a ‘rolling stop’; the parenthetical expression is a detour; the colon is a flashing yellow light that announces something important up ahead; the dash is a tree branch in the road.”

At the end of the chapter, as with each chapter in the book, Clark offers practical assignments. On punctuation he says: “Take one of your old pieces and repunctuate it. Add some optional commas, or take some out. Read both versions aloud. Hear a difference?” then, “Make conscious decisions on how fast you’d like the reader to move. Perhaps you want readers to zoom across the landscape. Or to tiptoe through a technical explanation. Punctuate accordingly.”

Just as Roy Peter Clark encourages us to dissect other people’s writing to see what works and what doesn’t, Stanley Fish, in How to Write a Sentence, urges the same careful study of sentences. But in comparison to Clark, whose book has the feel of “What Not to Wear,” the BBC reality show where the fashion-challenged are given basic do-and-don’t tips, How to Write a Sentence is Vogue. This philosophical treatise on language, like the upscale, glossy magazine, presumes the reader brings with them a sophisticated appreciation for the subject.

Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, frequent contributor to the New York Times Opinionator blog on legal matters, and self-described member of “the tribe of sentence watchers” says, “if you can add to your admiration of a sentence an analytical awareness of what caused you to admire it, you will be that much farther down the road of being able to produce one (somewhat) like it.” Using material from novels, films, and speeches, Fish finds sentences for imitation and, step-by-step, recreates their structure. He admits that quality doesn’t always follow but, as he says so elegantly while convincing us to focus on form rather than content: “verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales.”

According to Fish, “without form, content cannot emerge,” which would explain why the former makes up more than the first half of the book. Wading deep into what could be considered a master class, he defines “forms” as the “structures of logic and rhetoric within which and by means of which meanings—lots of them—can be generated.” Logic, he defines, is the relationship between part of speech that make a statement and rhetoric the relationship between statements.

Fish highlights three “formal categories” and gives each their own chapter—the subordinating style: “the art of arranging objects and actions in relationships of causality, temporality, and precedence”; the additive style: a form that has “the effect not of planning, order, and control, but of spontaneity, haphazardness, and chance”; and the satirical style: “sentences that deliver their sting in stages.”

Although grammatical terms appear throughout, Fish criticizes rote knowledge: “You can know what the eight parts of speech are, and even be able to apply the labels correctly, and still not understand anything about the way a sentence works. Technical knowledge divorced from what it is supposed to be knowledge of, yields only the illusion of understanding.” Instead he speaks of developing a “sensitivity to the presence of a problem” by “performing exercises that hone it.” This is a not-so-veiled dig at the many conventional grammar guides on the market.

The criticism continues as he points out the flaws in the bestselling book Elements of Style: “Strunk and White’s advice assumes a level of knowledge and understanding only some of their readers will have attained; the vocabulary they confidently offer is itself in need of an analysis and explanation they do not provide.” Fish does a better job than Strunk and White in explaining the terms he uses but is at times guilty of the same crime.

How to Write a Sentence is not for beginners, or at least not the fainthearted newbie, but it is one of the more original books on the English language, a book that as you become familiar with introductory material found elsewhere you’ll long to read. In this respect, Fish’s short yet challenging exposition should be considered motivation for learning the fundamentals of grammar.

While Fish’s book delves into the first half of Roy Peter Clark’s book, analyzing the technical aspect of sentence structure, Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a companion to the second part.

In his chapter “Limit self-criticism in early drafts,” Clark says that in books like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott he’s “less likely to find advice on technique than on living a life of language, of seeing a world of stories.” Through this lens, one can see the influence in part three and four of Writing Tools—“Blueprints,” and “Useful Habits”.

Clark’s chapters go from “Set the pace of sentence length” and “Vary the lengths of paragraphs” to “Work from a plan,” “Write from different cinematic angles,” whose subtitle, ‘Turn your notebook into a camera,’ is by far my favorite, and “Turn procrastination into rehearsal”.

In “Turn procrastination into rehearsal,” one of Clark’s tips is to “keep a daybook,” a place where you can jot down story ideas, key phrases, and momentary insights. Although it might seem like commonsense to some, many writers are often caught without pen and paper, often with disastrous consequences. Ann Lamott, in her chapter “Index Cards” talks about how she always keeps one folded in her pocket ready for use whenever anything strikes her.

If Clark is the host of “What Not to Wear,” than Anne Lamott is the friend who tells you it’s ok you wore white after Labor Day or that your skirt was tucked into the back of your pantyhose—because it happens and, despite her numerous bestsellers, these faux pas threaten her too.

Lamott’s own struggles, both as a writer and as a human, reduce the paralysis brought on by fear of failure and inadequacy. As if riffing on the biblical device of repetition, twice in this collection of essays she says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” The book is full of these self-help observations, funny anecdotes, and clever one-liners; but they never feel cheesy—only poignant and inspiring. “Almost all good writing starts with terrible first efforts” is another mantra, simple yet liberating to legions of wannabe authors everywhere.

Anne’s willingness to expose her insecurities with biting humor and self-deprecation makes her harsh truths for aspiring writers seem like a shared experiences—wisdom from an elder—rather than a nasty take down.

Each author approaches the subject from a different angle: Clark as a journalist whose “practical tools will help you to dispel your writing inhibitions, making the craft central to the way you see the world”; Fish as a literature professor who believes sentences “promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world”; and Lamott, a fellow soul-searcher who wants you to “start seeing everything as material.” But all have the same goal in mind, to turn their audience into astute and confident writers.

Not all of us may be suited for the runway, or feel the need to aspire to it, but it’s worth knowing how to clean up when the situation demands. These three books are a great place to start.

Stray Questions for Roy Peter Clark on the NY Times Arts Beat blog
Interview with Anne Lamott on Big Think (opens with sound)
Interview with Stanley Fish on ABC Radio National’s Book Show

*please note that I am still a student of grammar and there may be some errors in this piece. be nice. 

Written by Gabrielle

May 17, 2011 at 8:02 am

Posted in books, grammar, reviews

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vocab:: f is for . . .

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fastidious (adj.): hard to please
fatuity (n.): something foolish or stupid
feckless (adj.): feeble; ineffective
fettle (n.): state of health or spirits
filigree (n.): ornamental work especially of fine wire of gold, silver, or copper applied chiefly to gold and silver surfaces
firkins (n.): a small wooden vessel
foist (v.): palm off as genuine
frisson (n): a brief moment of emotional excitement
fug (n.): the stuffy atmosphere of a poorly ventilated space
fulsome (adj.): cloying; offensively excessive; insincere
fussbudget (n.): someone who fusses about insignificant things

Written by Gabrielle

May 3, 2011 at 7:20 am

Posted in grammar

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books for readers :: how to write a sentence / stanley fish

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Chapter 1
Why Sentences?

In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “ ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’ ” The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that “if he liked sentences he could begin,” and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. “I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I like the smell of paint.’ ” The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabor it), is that you don’t begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.

But wouldn’t the equivalent of paint be words rather than sentences? Actually, no, because while you can brush or even drip paint on a canvas and make something interesting happen, just piling up words, one after the other, won’t do much of anything until something else has been added. That something is named quite precisely by Anthony Burgess in this sentence from his novel Enderby Outside (1968):

And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.

Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere. Once the words are nestled in the places “ordained” for them—”ordained” is a wonderful word that points to the inexorable logic of syntactic structures—they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another. They are subjects or objects or actions or descriptives or indications of manner, and as such they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject, or refine. . . .

. . . Here is Dillard again: “When you write you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.” And when you come to the end of the path, you have a sentence.

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One / Stanley Fish / ©2011


syntax: the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses)
syntactical: of, relating to, or according to the rules of syntax or syntactics
inexorable: not to be persuaded, moved, or stopped
syntactic structures: good definition not found
ligature: a) a printed or written character (as æ or ƒƒ) consisting of two or more letters or characters joined together;
b) something that is used to bind
subject: a) one that is acted on; b) an individual whose reactions or responses are studied
object: a) a noun or noun equivalent (as a pronoun, gerund, or clause) denoting the goal or result of the action of a verb;
b) the goal or end of an effort or activity
actions: things done
descriptives: serving to describe
indications: serving to point out
stanley fish on ABC radio national’s the book show

Written by Gabrielle

March 27, 2011 at 10:51 am

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vocab: e is for . . .

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ebullition (n.):
a boiling or overflow of liquid; an outburst of feeling, passion
elide (v.): to suppress or alter by elision; to omit
elision (n.): the omission of an unstressed vowel or syllable in a verse to achieve a uniform metrical pattern
ephemeral (adj.): lasting a short period of time
epistolary (adj): written in the form of a series of letters
eponymous (adj.): of, relating to, or being the person or thing for whom or which something is named
ergo (conj.): therefore
ethereal (adj.): not composed of matter; celestial, heavenly
etiolate (v.): to grow pale; weaken

Written by Gabrielle

February 23, 2011 at 8:26 am

Posted in grammar

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vocab :: m is for . . .

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macabre (adj.): having death as a subject; dwelling on the gruesome
manacle (n.): a shackle for the hand or the wrist; something used as a restraint
manifold (v.): to mulitply; to make copies of
maudlin (adj.): drunk enough to be emotionally silly; weakly sentimental
metonymy (n.): a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated
mellifluous (adj.): having a smooth, rich flow; filled with something that sweetens
miasma (n.): an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt
modal (adj.): of or relating to a structure as opposed to a substance
moue (n.): a little grimace

Written by Gabrielle

January 26, 2011 at 8:03 am

Posted in grammar

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