Tag Archive: non-fiction


Catch-up

Oh Boy.

I have been reading but not blogging. Am seriously, majorly behind on the blogging and realized that as my one-year book experiment is coming to an end that I need to catch-up NOW.

So unlike many of my previous posts, this one is going to really just be some quick thoughts on all the books that I have read recently.

The first two are Young Adult books, the start of a series written by Michelle Cooper. The first book in the series is called A Brief History of Montmaray and The FitzOsbornes in Exile. The books create a sort of alternate history within history– they focus on the children of the royal family of Montmaray (fictional)– an island between England and France, in the run-up to WWII (non-fiction). In doing this, they place the children smack in the middle of real historical events.  Told by the younger sister Sophie, the books capture both the importance of the historical events unfolding around her and her siblings, as well as the fantasy world of the made-up Montmaray island. The books are romantic (in the true meaning of the word) gothic, clever, and at times very funny and outlandish. The FitzOsbornes are quite the family, complete with a mad uncle (the King) and illegitimate offspring (the best friend of the Crown Prince.) While the books are in some way, a fantasy, they are in other ways, highly relevant– they show how WWII was a watershed moment for many of the smaller European royal houses, which did not survive the war. Loved both these books, savored reading them, and recommend them highly, for both adults and teens.

Next– I read two memoirs by people who grew up in religious sects.

The first is by Mary-Ann Kirkby, entitled I am Hutterite

Mary-Ann grew up on a Hutterite colony on the prairies of Canada. Hutterites are often confused with groups like the Amish, and while they are an Anabaptist group (like the Amish) they are very different. Hutterites hold everything in common– they are a sort of Utopian Anabaptist group. And I mean everything– everyone works on the common farm, eats in the common kitchen, etc, etc. While they dress “plainly”- it is distinct from Amish and Mennonite styles, the style of worship is different and they use modern conveniences like farm equipment, trucks and electricity. Anyway, Mary-Ann’s book is a beautiful memoir– she goes into great depth to help you understand her family’s history as Hutterites, the Hutterite lifestyle, her Hutterite childhood, and how eventually struggles over power (and to some extent, family) forced her parents to leave the colony– never having lived on their own in the real-world (like never having owned anything of their own, not even knowing the specifics of what a bank account is, etc.) The book is beautifully written, beautifully realized, and insightful.

The other book is Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler- also a memoir of life in a distinct religious group.

On the whole, I like the book but perhaps its title should be “Leaving the Amish” because it really focuses on Wagler’s tortured young adult days and the multiple times he left and then ended up coming back to the Amish. Although Wagler’s character is well-realized, I feel like his family isn’t (unlike in Mary-Ann’s book, where you get a tremendous sense of family and community. In Wagler’s book, you don’t, which is strange given the sort of community he grew up in). I had no sense of his father other than he was a strict man who was trying to hold his family together, and no sense of his mother other than the fact that she was clearly a long-suffering woman. I wish he had spent more time delving into his parents’ characters– to make them more multidimensional. I will give the author credit for being brutally honest– even when it did not paint him or his choices in a very good light.

I have two more books to catch up on, but that will be another post….. see what happens when I get behind?

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

 

 

 

Advertisements

A Great Patriot

John Adams was a great reader himself, no doubt he might have appreciated this blog project. So, in honor of our country’s independence, I picked up John Adams by David McCullough this weekend, and ploughed right through it… finally.

My mom had given me this book years ago, and I read about half of it, but never finished. Life got in the way. Well, that is no longer an excuse, so I started all over again and finished it in about five days, surprising myself, because it is an enormous book. Thick, dense, and chock full of information.

McCullough’s masterwork is a gem for history nerds like myself. It is a popular autobiography that is written much like an academic book, meaning that McCullough combines popular writing with serious history and created a masterwork. No wonder it won the Pulitzer.

The book covers the entire span of Adams’s life, from his early years as a humble lawyer, to his work on independence, to his time as a diplomat in Europe, his vice-presidency, the Presidency, and his old age. It is loaded with detail, most of it gleaned from Adams’s own papers and letters. Adams was a prolific letter-writer– and extraordinarily self-aware and self-critical, and because of that, we know what he thought about almost everything. (Note to important world figures: keep an interesting diary and leave someone else to write your biography.) The book is so huge that there isn’t much that I can cover here, but a few major themes.

The first is the myth of the founding. Lately, all kinds of misinformation has been spread on America’s independence– and much of this is for political ends, which, would have no doubt exasperated Adams (and his friend Jefferson.) The fact is, that as McCullough’s book shows, independence from Great Britain and the founding of a new country was messy, fraught with peril, and that we got through it at all was due to not only great leadership, but also a measure of luck.  The Founders were often making it up as they went along, they did not agree on many things (in fact they agreed on very little) and slavery was a massive problem already for the young country. It was not some mythical moment of a newly formed, shining America rising out of rebellion. More like it was a mess, but a mess that sorted itself out, slowly, sometimes painfully and at times awkwardly. This, I think, is important to remember.

Adams was a man, who was religious, but who also believed in reason. He felt that religion and intellectual curiosity went together– there was no reason for them not to. He also believed in serving his country– he always did what was asked of him, even when he was put in miserable diplomatic situations, even with so many disparaged him, even when it seemed that everyone was against him– he put his country (not politics) first. We could learn a bit from this mentality.

Politics was as ugly then as it is now. A sensationalistic press came after Adams when he was VP and later President. His own friends (Jefferson) turned on him in the name of politics. Political parties began to determine where people stood, and Adams did not like this one bit. The sections on his Vice-Presidency and Presidency are amazing for how utterly modern they feel. Some things never change– party politics remains brutal. Presidents continue to be viciously criticized for their ideas and policies. Some things have not changed one bit.

His marriage to Abigail was extraordinary for its times. In fact, with would be extraordinary now. It was a marriage of equals, and without her, it is doubtful he could have achieved what he did. She was an incredibly smart woman, a brave woman, and his best friend. This is so apparent from their letters– their friendship is what carried them through life through thick and thin forever, and they survived some exceedingly trying times.

Finally, Adams’s emphasis on friendship. Adams remained friends with those closest through him through thick and thin, even when his friends did horrible things to him. His relationship with Jefferson is the best example of that– as young diplomats they were incredibly close, only to have the friendship torn to shreds when Jefferson ran against Adams for President. Yet, later in life Adams forgave his friend and struck up a close, but steady correspondence with him, and they became friends once more as old men in the twilight of their lives. To me, this was the most striking part of the book. Adams clearly valued people, he valued his friends, and he maintained those relationships even when at times it was painful.

This is a wonderful book– there is so much more I could  say, but I would just go on and on forever. Read it. It is not necessarily easy to read, but it is well worth the effort. It is a rich exploration of a great patriot’s life.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

The Biography of a Cat

The Aprils have morphed into the Mays, but once the final push of the semester is over, I suspect that J and I will be back at reading the books. Right now it seems that we have both been swallowed by piles of papers and exams to grade. Anyway, with this in mind I deliberately picked up a light book to read the other day- something I saw a while back, and decided that it might be a fun book . So today’s book is Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron (with Bret Witter.)

The (true) story of Dewey Readmore Books starts when a small orange kitten is shoved into a library drop box on a frigid Iowa December day. He is found by the head librarian Vicki Myron, who nurses him back to health with the help of the library staff. Dewey then becomes the “library cat” for the town of Spencer, Iowa.

Okay, so you are probably thinking, “a library cat, really?” But this book is about much more than a library cat. Dewey’s story unfolds in little vignettes, and as that comes out, so do other themes. The town where this all takes place, Spencer, is a small  town center in a rural area, and Myron carefully plots out some of the problems that the town faced– the losses of the small family farms, the rise of big Agra, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and how life in a small farm-town is markedly different from that of big cities.  She also builds on the importance of the public library in the town, how it serves for a center of civic and public life, and how  libraries are instrumental for regular people. For instance- in many local libraries in small Midwestern towns, the libraries keep fancy cake-pans (yes, cake pans) for people to check out so that they can make a special cake for a birthday or celebration. Yup, Midwesterners do not mess around when it comes to food, and even the libraries embrace this fact.

Dewey, of course, is the star of this book, and much of the work centers on how he, as a cat, lives an extraordinary life. Those who live with animals and who understand animals, know that our cats and dogs humanize us, and that is, in one sense what Dewey did as the Spencer’s library cat. He gave joy to all who came to the library, including disabled children, homeless people, exhausted young mothers, and the elderly. He became a sort of mascot for the town, more popular than the local politicians, and he became Vicki’s cat.

Some of the more moving parts of the book center around how Dewey’s love and affection grounded Vicki— a single mom who escaped a bad marriage to an alcoholic, who managed to graduate from college as an adult despite numerous obstacles. As the book unfolds, you realize that it is about more than just a cat that came to live in a library– it is about ordinary Americans living ordinary lives (that are often filled with emotional and physical pain) but who manage to persevere– much like Dewey himself.

Interwoven into all of this are funny little stories about the cat himself, small-town politics, and how Dewey eventually became a media sensation (long before this book ever came out.) This is a sweet little book, one that could be shared with older children (not the whole thing, a few chapters are pretty dark) but is an easy read about how one little cat came to change the life of a little town in Iowa, and their head librarian. I enjoyed it– it was light and pleasurable and a good book to help get things rolling again.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

The Angelic Doctor

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  As C noted, some of this is due to “the Aprils,” but it’s also just that there have been other things going on and on my mind that have distracted me from reading.  Nevertheless, we press on.  This is probably the longest I’ve kept up with a New Year’s Resolution, and I’m not going to let a little reader’s block stop me now.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, during Lent I thought I would take up one or two more spiritual reads.  For a variety of reasons, I decided to reread a classic by G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.  It is a small book about a large man – and I mean large in every sense of the word: physically, intellectually, spiritually.  Since it’s writing, the book has received mixed reviews.  The great 20th century Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson dubbed it the best introduction to St. Thomas’s life and thought.  Others, however, were not as impressed, labeling it in many ways amateurish (undoubtedly an adjective Chesterton himself would have used of it, again, in every sense of the word).  The book certainly is not a close engagement with the writings of Aquinas, but rather presents an icon, if you will, of the man and what he was fundamentally about.  The story goes that the way Chesterton wrote the book is by first reading everything he could get his hands on about Thomas, then asking his secretary into his office and dictating the entire thing.  As such, it is not a scholarly tome, but a portrait.

For all its faults, the book does give the reader a lively sense of Aquinas the man, the scholar, and the saint.  Chesterton begins by contrasting Aquinas with the other saint about whom he wrote a biography, St. Francis.  Despite the many superficial differences between the two, Chesterton argues that fundamentally they were at one, particularly in their emphasis on the doctrine of the Incarnation.  For both these great saints, matter mattered – creation is good and God-given, and as such it is to be affirmed.  For Chesterton, this devotion to the Incarnation explains much of Thomas’s thought: his adoption and baptism of Aristotle, his obsession with the error of the Manichees, his affirmation of a common sense acceptance of the existence of the world.  In a typically Chestertonian witticism, he writes, “If the morbid Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say, ‘To be or not to be – that is the question,’ then the massive medieval doctor does most certainly reply in a voice of thunder, ‘To be – that is the answer.'”

More moving than the man’s intellect, however, is his singular devotion to Christ and to following the call of God.  Thomas’s family had plans for him: he was to be the abbot of a Benedictine monastery, at the time a position of wealth and status.  Thomas, however, would have none of it.  Resolute in his conviction that he was called to the upstart mendicant Order of Preachers, he stood his ground against the protestations of his family, casting aside status for the beggarly life of the Dominicans.  Chesterton’s discussion of the famous vision Thomas had of Christ offering him anything he wanted puts the story into perspective.  Here was a man who would willingly trade an entire city for a copy of a homily by St. John Chrysostom, but when the Lord offered him whatever he wanted, he replied, “Only thyself.”  For all his brilliance and scholarly acumen, his devotion took precedence even over the greatest intellectual gifts.

It is perhaps true that The Dumb Ox is as much about Chesterton as it is about Aquinas – this is often the case with books by the great British journalist.  Even if the book may not be the single best introduction to the great doctor’s thought, it nevertheless does convey the spirit and the fervor of this medieval man of mystery.

Twenty-two down, (at least) thirty to go

Ta,
J

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll

We are still here! It has been quiet the last two weeks at the blog, J and and I know– it’s a case of the Aprils. You see in academia, April really is the cruelest month. Why? Well, everything culminates in April. Lots of grading to do, all these events to go, meeting after meeting, graduation coming up, preparing for any travel/research for the summer. It gets chaotic. So we are still here and still reading, just the pace is a bit slow, and might be for a few weeks.

Anyway today’s book is Life by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. I have been on a memoir kick lately, and when this book came in from the library (I placed it on hold months ago) I just had to read it. It is a big, rambling book, with a distinctive story-telling style. The kind of book that is best read leisurely, which is part of the reason why it took me so long since it tops out at 600+ pages. But yes, what a life it is.

Richards is infamous for his life– his battles with drug addiction, his battles with the Stones’s frontman Mick Jagger (who despite it all, he clearly loves as family– but the thing about family is that sometimes they can get you pretty angry even when you love them.) His famous womanizing. It is all in there, with a great amount of frankness (this is not stuff your kid should read– although to be fair, Richards does not glamorize his junkie phase at all. Rather he comes to terms with it with a refreshing pragmatism.) The book is at times entertaining, thought-provoking and quite funny. It is also surprisingly touching, as when Richards addresses the death of his young son, who he clearly continues to mourn, and his relationship with his mom, who he adored– and he is certainly progressive. In an era when segregation was still the norm in America, Richards embraced African-American culture wholeheartedly, as well as the people.  Richards also admits that he has always played to his bad-boy image because it has been what people expect of him. The book is extraordinarily rich and I can’t do it justice really in a few paragraphs.

But the heart of the book is music. Although it was model Patti Hansen who tamed Richards and who pulled him out of his womanizing, junkie lifestyle, I think it is music that his one true love. This book is really great if you are a music lover, Richards goes over how he came up with some of the most memorable Stones riffs– for example, “Satisfaction” came to him in his sleep. He spends a lot of time going over his love of American roots music, both white and black, and he talks about the way that music soothes the soul and opens the heart.

“What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people became a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and take to heart is a connection, a touching of bases. A thread that runs through all of us. A stab to the heart. Sometimes I think song-writing is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack.”

This is a great read if you are a music or Stones fan. The book focuses more heavily on the earlier portions of Richards’s life, and sometimes you cannot believe that he survived it all. Richards is certainly (in many ways) a lucky man.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Reader’s Block

So I recently ran into my first wall of the year in terms of this reading project.  I’m not exactly sure why – late last week I was plugging along at a good clip, and managing to read half of this book in an afternoon/evening.  Then, I crashed.  Part of it was the book, which I had a hard time getting into (not sure how I managed to plow through the first half so quickly).  Another part was a number of distractions, including, but not limited to, March Madness.  Perhaps now that my team flamed out in spectacular fashion, I can get back into the rhythm.

At any rate, my latest read was Northrop Frye’s classic The Great Code: The Bible and Literature.  I had been wanting to read it for some time, and though it skirts dangerously close to my field of study (thus nearly breaking the rules of this little project), my co-blogger gave me a dispensation to read it.  I kind of wish she hadn’t.  It’s not that the book isn’t good or insightful – it is, after all, a classic.  It’s just that, for whatever reason, I couldn’t get into it.

In the book Frye attempts to show how the Bible can be read as a unity, not on the basis of religious belief, but in terms of literature.  The Bible, he argues, is a myth – not in the pejorative sense of something that didn’t really happen (though he happens to believe that many of the stylized accounts are embellished to some degree), but in the sense of a continuous narrative with beginning and end.  Much of the book is devoted to analyzing the prominent images and metaphors of the Bible, and though I found it somewhat dry, Frye is a perceptive reader, showing how themes are constantly recapitulated and reframed throughout Scripture.  He also argues that the scriptural story follows a repetitive U-shaped pattern (I would perhaps describe it as a sine curve, hearkening back to my geeky days as an engineer) of alternating rises and falls.  This pattern appears both on the macro level (humanity loses the tree and water of life in the garden in Genesis and regains them in the Book of Revelation) and on the micro level (Israel’s story is a continuous cycle of these rises and falls).

There is much more to the argument than this, and I’m sure it would merit a closer reading, but as I said, for whatever reason, I had a hard time paying close attention to it.  Despite this dryness, Frye did manage to get into a quotation file I’m keeping of my favorite passages from the books I’m reading this year: “[O]ne should doubtless keep an open mind about them, though an open mind, to be sure, should be open at both ends, like the foodpipe, and have a capacity for excretion as well as intake.”  Perhaps the book was worth reading just for that line.  Well, here’s hoping the next read goes a bit more quickly.

Twenty-one down, (at least) thirty-one to go.

Ta,
J

An angry Ocean

I picked up The Wave by Susan Casey the day after the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami hit.I had ordered the book almost two months ago to be put on hold (it was apparently very popular) and I got notice that day that it was in– oh the strange irony of it all.  Now, having grown up in Los Angeles, I know earthquakes pretty well. There is nothing more rude or scary as being sound asleep when a big quake hits (in my case the Northridge quake) and you are thrown out of bed by the shaking and therefore are barely awake as you try to crawl your way across the bedroom floor while the walls heave at you. I remember thinking “this might be it” and I crouched in a ball on the floor– the noise of a quake is terrific– you never knew your house could groan that way and still remain standing. A friend was spending the night and I remember her screaming as stuff came crashing off the walls, my parents yelling from down the hall, the neighbor’s dog howling, and the deep angry growl of the earth. I was silent, huddled on the floor with a stuffed animal over my head.  I know earthquakes well, so I really feel for those in Japan– I know the terror that is a quake– but the idea of a huge Tsunami is something else. It is beyond my imagination.

As it turns out, The Wave is not really about Tsunamis per say– it is about giant rogue waves- chiefly the kind that destroy ships in the middle of the ocean, and the kind that surfers ride while looking for the ultimate high. The author, Susan Casey, travelled the world, seeking out wave scientists, mariners, and surfers in order to learn more about giant waves, which as it turns out, are more common than we think they are.

Rogue waves have long been a part of shipping lore. With an astonishing regularity, large ships sink (at about a rate of 1-2 a week- and yeah you never hear about it unless it is a ferry carrying a lot of people or something of that ilk) and more often than not, they sink and leave behind no survivors. A few ships survive and report that monster rogue waves arose from the oceans (often in a storm or rough seas) and took them out. However, since it is hard to measure such waves, they are often never really recorded. Its sorta like a Bigfoot sighting. People say they see him but there are no pictures. Big waves are like that too. And we are talking BIG waves- 100 footers.

So Casey travels the world in search of the waves and the people who have experienced/studied them. But the heart of the book turns out to be her experiences with Big wave surfers, a small tribe of (mostly) men who defy the ocean to ride the monster waves. This tribe is led by the famous Laird Hamilton, Big Wave surfer extraordinaire. Casey documents the surfers who surf Mavericks, Todos Santos, Ghost Tree, Jaws, and the awesome, mythical, Egypt. (These are surfing spots in Hawaii and California if you don’t know your surfing breaks.)  Hamilton acts as her guide, and the tribe of big wave surfers open up their world to her with amazing hospitality, good humor, knowledge and grace. As it turns out, about 2/3s of the book focuses on this, and frankly I think Casey should have simply just focused on writing a book on Big Wave surfing and surfers– because essentially that is the meat of this book.

Casey documents the new fronts in wave science, but she shines in dealing with the surfers and the way they approach 50-100 foot waves. For them it is a spiritual experience, something that humbles you before God and the ocean, and Casey captures that nicely. The basic line in Casey’s book is that the ocean is an angry, unknowable place, and that while man thinks he can conquer it, he cannot. The ocean gives life, and it destroys life (as we saw in Japan last week) and we cannot control it. The book overall, was an interesting read– especially the parts about Big Wave surfing, but it was a bit uneven. Like I said before, the author should have simply focused on the surfers– because I think in the end she fell in love with them more than the Big waves.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Cracking the Narnia Code

Suppose someone claimed to have discovered a secret code in one of the most wildly popular children’s series in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Moreover, suppose that this person claimed the code would unlock the architectonic structure of a series that, while certainly a modern classic, has often been accused of being written in a bit of a slapdash manner, with no clear guiding principle.  Then suppose that our interpreter further claimed that the author of the series intentionally used this code, but kept it a secret, only to be “discovered” nearly half a century after the author’s death.  You would think this guy was crazy, no?  These are precisely the claims that Michael Ward makes in his recent study of the Chronicles of Narnia, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis.  Want to hear the most outrageous part?  He actually pulls it off!

Words fail to express the genius of this work, which originated as a doctoral thesis at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  Ward’s claim at first appears audacious, bordering on absurd.  The argument can be summed up briefly: each of the seven books in the Narniad (the scholarly term for the series) reflects the characteristics of one of the seven heavenly spheres of medieval cosmology (Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn).  Not only does each book reflect one of these spheres, though; each one actually embodies the spirit of the planet, from beginning to end.  The characters, the plot, the imagery of each book – all of these combine to establish an overall Gestalt corresponding to the book’s planetary symbol.  To take just one example, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first book in the series, is imbued with the characteristics of Jupiter.  It is a Jovial book filled with kingly features, joyfulness, feasting, and the passing from winter into spring.  Aslan embodies many of these features, but so, in their own way, do the four Pevensie children, as do other characters and the very plot of the story.  This Jovial character explains appearances that have seemed anomalies to most interpreters.  Many critics, for example, argue that Father Christmas is out of place in Narnia and so was simply a blunder on Lewis’s part.  Narnia was a mishmash of various mythologies carelessly cobbled together (this was J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous criticism of the book).  Ward argues that the Jovial theme explains the appearance of Father Christmas: rather than an oddity or an incongruity, Father Christmas appears because he is the quintessential Jovial character in modern culture – both in the sense of jocularity, and in the sense of reflecting this and other characteristics of Jove, king of the gods.

The lion’s share of Ward’s book interprets each of the Chronicles along these lines.  Ward does not confine himself to the Chronicles, though.  In each chapter he also discusses the significance of one of the planetary spheres in Lewis’s scholarship, in his poetry, and in the space trilogy (the other work obviously influenced by Lewis’s fascination with medieval cosmology) before turning to the Chronicle that embodies the sphere.  With each successive chapter, the case becomes stronger and stronger, such that by the end the reader can’t help but agree with Ward that his discovery of the schema is definitive – not in the sense of closing off discussion, but in the sense of explaining the fundamental guiding principle behind the series.

Ward does more than offer a fascinating literary analysis, however.  He also opens a window onto Lewis’s genius, his broadmindedness, and his playfulness.  His thesis shows numerous connections between Lewis the scholar, Lewis the poet, and Lewis the storyteller.  Lewis lived and breathed medieval culture, and he synthesized it in a stunning way.  Moreover, Ward demonstrates the capaciousness of Lewis’s Christianity.  Like his medieval hero Dante (and the medieval spirit in general), Lewis did not disdain all things pagan, but rather intentionally drew upon the good, the true, and the beautiful in pagan mythology.  In short, he baptized the pagan gods and used them to represent different aspects of the Christian God he had come to worship.  Finally, the fact that Lewis could use such a schema and yet keep it a secret suggests an endearing puckishness on his part.  Ward suggests that one of the reasons Lewis may have kept the schema a secret was to see if anyone would get it.  The joke paid off, as it took nearly fifty years for someone to get it.

Planet Narnia is a breathtaking work.  It opens new vistas on this modern classic, and it deserves to become a classic itself.  I have long been a fan of both Lewis and Tolkien, but I always considered the latter’s Middle Earth the superior achievement.  While my loyalty still lies with Tolkien, Ward has convinced me that Lewis’s Narniad is no less spectacular.  For any serious fan of Lewis and of the Chronicles, Planet Narnia is an absolute must-read.

Seventeen down, (at least) thirty-five to go.

Ta,
J

P.S. If you are a bit daunted at the prospect of tackling a work that began as a doctoral thesis, Ward has also published a more popular version of the work, The Narnia Code (also available on DVD).

Believe it or not, in the history of the English language grammar and glamour were once the same word.  Derived from the same Greek and Latin roots, the two were connected through an association between learning and enchantment.  In his recent book The Glamour of Grammar Roy Peter Clark seeks to re-glamorize grammar for a modern audience.  Clark is a man of many hats: medievalist, journalist, writing coach.  As the “About the Author” section notes, Dave Barry has said of him, “Roy Peter Clark knows more about writing than anybody I know who is not currently dead.”  If The Glamour of Grammar is any indication, he knows more about writing than a good many dead people, too.

The book is divided into five parts, moving from the most basic units to the big picture.  Part I focuses on WORDS.  No element of composition is too insignificant in a writer’s attempt to communicate with readers.  In Clark’s hands, such seemingly minor distinctions as the definite and indefinite articles (“the” vs. “a/an”) take on a much larger role than their small stature would suggest.  Using well-known examples, Clark shows how even the slightest change to a title can have a drastic effect on the feeling it conveys: for example, change the title of the classic movie The Godfather to A Godfather, and you have a completely different mood.

In Part II (POINTS), Clark discusses punctuation marks.  The preceding sentence most likely elicited a yawn from most readers, but Clark manages to show in an engaging way just how much work something as simple as a period – or a “full stop,” as the Brits call it (and as Clark prefers) – can do for one’s writing.  From the period to the serial comma to the sexy semi-colon to the exclamation point, Clark teaches how to bring one’s writing to life with these little jots and squiggles.

Part III (STANDARDS) addresses what grammarians commonly refer to as “rules.”  Clark eschews the tendency to reify these standards into unbendable rules, finding an elegant balance between descriptive and prescriptive accounts of language.  Writers must learn the “rules” of grammar before they can bend or break them to good effect.  The “rules” thus become “tools” that can be deftly applied in the hands of a skilled artisan.

The final two parts of the book (MEANING and PURPOSE) tackle the larger questions of writing.  In Part IV Clark explores what makes for a good sentence.  Along the way he challenges some of the most common pieces of writing advice – avoid the passive voice, never use sentence fragments – while at the same time demonstrating the wisdom of standards such as keeping subject and verb together.  Part V addresses the reasons for writing and the complex social, cultural, and political implications of word choice, dialect, taboo language, and a host of other decisions a writer must make.  The final chapter discusses new technologies, showing how even a 140-character Twitter message can crackle with elegance and style.

The Glamour of Grammar is a good read for many reasons.  Clark presents his instructions with a hefty dose of humor, and he often models the style he is teaching.  To take but one example, the following paragraph appears in the chapter on the question mark:

“But who was Question Mark?  And how did he become one of the godfathers of the punk rock movement?  And why am I asking these questions in a book about grammar and language?  The answer has to do with the extraordinary power of the question mark.” (89-90)

I also found Clark’s advice to be practical and balanced.  Challenging the “grammazons” (his lovely neologism for hardline grammarians), he affirms the usefulness of standards, but also the freedom a writer must have to buck the rules – but only once the writer understands them.  Perhaps more impressively, he manages to explain these rules effectively without relying on grammatical jargon, no doubt a necessary tactic to restore grammar to its state of glamour.

Finally, Clark is not afraid to wander into the realm of theology, grounding the beauty and richness of language not only in human evolution but also in the divine.  He manages to do so without coming off as preachy (a hard charge to stick to a man who uses the movie The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet as an illustration), and yet it comes across as genuine, and therefore genuinely moving.  The Glamour of Grammar deserves to be on the shelf of any serious – and not-so-serious – writer.  Read it for pleasure, read it for learning, but, most of all, read it to make your writing glamorous.

Thirteen down, (at least) thirty-nine to go.  (1/4 of the way there!)

Ta,
J

A Connoisseur of Fine Sentences

Recently a friend of mine sent me an article about a new book by Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.  Before I even read the article, I knew the book would be a must read.  Fish is a widely respected literary critic who has taught at UC-Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and who, more recently, has been a regular columnist/blogger for the New York Times.  While I don’t read his posts religiously, I do enjoy them whenever I get to them – both because he is a thoughtful man with an interesting perspective on the world, and because he is a consummate wordsmith.  If Fish has something to say about writing, it is worth listening to.

How to Write a Sentence did not disappoint.  Part how-to book, part literary analysis, and part appreciation of the art of the good sentence, the book leads the reader on a tour of some of the best-crafted sentences in literature and film, explaining how and why the sentences are so powerful.  Fish’s approach is considerably different than that of another modern classic, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (cf. the puckishly titled chapter “Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White”).  Rather than provide rules drawing on grammatical concepts foreign to many people today, Fish analyzes the logical structure of sentences, explaining the components essential to all sentences and then offering ways to expand on the basic unit.  He summarizes his approach concisely toward the end of the first chapter: “Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation” (11, italics original).  In order to write good sentences, one must understand and appreciate good sentences.  Going against received wisdom, Fish advocates imitation as an important way of learning to write well.

Along the way, Fish makes a number of important observations.  In the third chapter (wittily titled “It’s Not the Thought That Counts”), he argues that content alone is insufficient.  In order to write persuasive and compelling sentences, one must master the forms of writing: “It is true that you can’t get form from content, but it is also true that without form, content cannot emerge” (27).  Likening the writing of sentences about nothing to practicing musical scales, Fish recommends writing nonsensical sentences over and over again until one has mastered the forms.  Only once a writer has mastered the forms will he be equipped to convey his thought intelligently and eloquently.  By “forms” Fish does not mean the typical grammatical terms found in many books on writing, but rather the logical structures that make a sentence coherent and intelligent.  While these structures can be analyzed with grammatical terms, one need not understand the finer points of the gerundive or the pluperfect in order to put Fish’s lessons into practice.

The middle three chapters of the book explain and analyze three different sentence styles, the subordinating style, the additive style, and the satiric style.  Fish then moves on to discuss first and last sentences.  A final chapter before the epilogue focuses on “sentences that are about themselves.”  Throughout the book he treats the reader to some of the finest sentences ever crafted, thus delighting as well as instructing the reader.

What struck me most as I read How to Write a Sentence was some of the borderline theological implications of Fish’s argument.  My favorite sentence in the book, and one, in my humble opinion, that would be in good company with the sentences Fish analyzes, is the following from chapter four: “It is often said that the job of language is to report or reflect or mirror reality, but the power of language is greater and more dangerous than that; it shapes reality, not of course in a literal sense – the world is one thing, words another – but in the sense that the order imposed on a piece of the world by a sentence is only one among innumerable possible orders” (37).  I know Fish is not himself a Christian (though his work on Milton has given him profound religious sensibilities), but the idea behind this sentence in many ways resonates with the prologue to the Gospel of John.  Moreover, it speaks to the potential language has, both for good and for evil.

Despite his erudition and eloquence, Fish manages not to take himself too seriously, making the book all the more appealing.  Any academic who can call his approach to learning to write a sentence “the Karate Kid method” and who draws examples not only from fine literature, but also from the essay of a fourth-grader, is okay in my book.  At a brief 160 pages, How to Write a Sentence is a quick and delightful lesson in the fine art of sentence craft.  To borrow the words of the anonymous child in St. Augustine’s Confessions, “Take and read.”

Eleven down, (at least) forty-one to go.

Ta,
J