*****The Sellout

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Paul Beatty, narrated by Prentice Onayemi – I write, knowing this review cannot do justice to this stunning satire—winner of both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—which tackles a tricky subject: U.S. race relations and the essential absurdity of the human species. I can only urge you to read it for yourself as a journey to important places, dark and light.

Near the end of the story, Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me comments on a black comic who m.c.’s the Dum Dum Donuts open mic nights. He says the comedian “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Beatty has just spent 285 pages doing exactly that with his readers’ every racial attitude and carefully buried prejudice, whether toward blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, or whites.

Perhaps the only way for Americans to approach this difficult subject is with the tools Beatty wields so well: wicked perceptiveness and devastating humor. He slaps them down like a bricklayer troweling thick mortar, building his case brick by brick.

At first I thought his approach was to come at racism obliquely, like an artist using negative space, rendering everything around an object, not the object itself. Draw all the plants and trees, the shape of the dirt patch, the rocks, the pond, the lines of fencing, and every other feature surrounding an elephant and, when you’re done—voilà—out pops the pachyderm.

His descriptions of his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood, his administratively erased home town of Dickens, his father and his friends, with their intellectual floundering and frustrations as members of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “the local think tank.” All seemed designed to produce that elephant.

We meet unforgettable characters, not least Bonbon himself: erudite, fearless, hell-bent on offending and sure to succeed. Bonbon’s father was a psychologist who subjected his son to bizarre experiments growing up, which the boy’s psyche was lucky to survive. His slave (yes) Hominy Jenkins, was a minor celebrity in his youth as a member of the Little Rascals cast; on-again girlfriend and city bus driver, Marpessa, tries to talk sense to him. And more. Much.

However, as the story proceeds, Beatty brings the hammer down. As a joke, Bonbon puts a temporary sign inside a bus that reads “Priority Seating for Whites.” When it’s inadvertently left in place, behavior on the bus becomes exemplary. People are treated with respect. Marpessa says, “Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids go do their homework? Not home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.” The sign is just the start of a Bonbon crusade. If there’s a word for “this is sooo crazy, it just might work,” Bonbon must have had that word in mind.

The book’s Prologue at the U.S. Supreme Court was a little slow for me, but when Beatty starts to roll, you are in for an amazing, hilarious, heart-breaking ride. Bonbon never breaks character. But at some point, all the comedy flips and you see it for what it is, the mask of tragedy.

It’s also a feast for people who love language. Beatty’s talent as a poet shows up in the rhythm of his prose; in multi-meaning slant rhymes, like the name of his lawyer, Hamilton Fiske; in direct rhymes, like the reference to his father’s farm, “forty acres and a fool”; and his imagery, “he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark.”

I’m sure reading this book in print would be transformative, with the advantage of being able to go back and reread and pause to reflect. Yet, Prentice Onayemi’s narration of the audio version was pitch-perfect. His Hominy addresses Bonbon as “Massa,” with just the right combination of obsequiousness and insolence; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals bloviate convincingly; Marpessa keeps her wits about her. You see each of them in front of you, just like you cannot avoid seeing the elephant in the middle of our collective living room.

Paul Beatty is coming to Princeton on February 8, 2017, and will appear at the Berlind Theater, 4:30 p.m., sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Open to the public. Free.

*****The Lesser Bohemians

london-theater

photo: Andy Roberts, creative commons license

By Eimear McBride — You’ll have trouble with this book. I did. About page 40, I wondered, “is she ever going to write in complete sentences?” About page 90, I thought, “is it ever going to be about anything but sex?” The answer to both these questions was “almost never.” But The Lesser Bohemians is much more than a literary 50 Shades. And I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.

Ireland native McBride won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and many, many other accolades for her 2013 book, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and when I saw she’d written another one, I jumped at the chance to read it.

In Bohemians, released last month, an 18-year-old Irish girl—a drama student in London—meets  meets an older man, a handsome actor near 40. She isn’t a virgin much longer. There’s a lot of sex, a lot of cigarettes, a lot of alcohol. We don’t even learn these characters’ names until very far along. He’s Stephen, he calls her Eily. Her full name, her real name, Eílís, is used only once, two pages from the end, when their identity is finally clear to each other and themselves, perhaps. Their urgent and scouring intimacy is McBride’s way of flaying any falseness from the characters and laying them (literally) bare.

The story approaches somewhat closer to a conventional first-person narrative (sentences!) in the second half, in a long section in which Stephen tells her about his past, a true heart-breaker there. Most of it is written in almost a stream-of-consciousness way, and McBride is often compared to James Joyce for that reason. Conversations are presented in long paragraphs, uninterrupted by such reader-aids as quotation marks, but once I got into it, I didn’t have much trouble following.

Emphasizing the difficulty of it risks underpraising how mesmerizing it is. McBride’s approach forces you to slow down and really absorb what’s being said, as she fractures the rules of punctuation and grammar. As NPR reviewer Annalisa Quinn said, “By sacrificing grammatical precision she gets emotional and psychological sense—even as those things are in themselves impossibly and inherently imprecise, like light or color.” Or love, I’d add.  A sample:

On that said Saturday, she (Eily’s friend) helps me move into the (friend’s ex-boyfriend’s) flat. Tired white walls. No curtains or blinds. But perfect. Landlady free. The I hope you’re proud of yourself, ringing in my ears and lug my stuff from the Safeway’s trolley I nicked and pushed down to Patshull Road. I think I’ll blank him, she decides. Fair enough, I say, blu-tacking Betty Blue up. I pity you, he’s such an–. Keep it down, I live here now. I bet he shags you before the term is out. I wouldn’t.

Conventionally, this would be handled something like this:

On that said Saturday, she helps me move into the flat. Tired white walls. No curtains or blinds. But perfect. Landlady free. The “I hope you’re proud of yourself,” ringing in my ears and lug my stuff from the Safeway’s trolley I nicked and pushed down to Patshull Road.
“I think I’ll blank him,” she decides.
“Fair enough,” I say, blu-tacking Betty Blue up.
“I pity you, he’s such an–.”
“Keep it down, I live here now.”
“I bet he shags you before the term is out.”
“I wouldn’t.”

The Lesser Bohemians is an unforgettable book about two characters I came to really care about. I can picture their lives and prospects and I appreciate an author who doesn’t believe she has to make my job as a reader too easy.

***Between You and Me

Mary Norris, punctuationBy Mary Norris – This book—part history of language, part grammarians’ bible, part punctilious punctuation-snob puncturer—by a veteran New Yorker copy editor attempts to explain why writers in English, particularly those whose work appears in The New Yorker, make the choices they do. Form, not content, is her subject. While that publication is notoriously picky about copy matters, Norris’s anecdote-rich text suggests how much elasticity actually exists within its seemingly constricting rules.

Particularly entertaining are the early sections that include a review of her checkered, pre-New Yorker work experience. (You can’t really call a stint as a milk-truck driver and costume shop clerk a career for a person who did graduate work in English.)

Norris took her title from the common grammar mistake people make in using “I” when “me” is required. I yell at the radio when I hear the awful “between you and I” or “He invited Tom and I . . .” I suspect Norris does too.

Several chapters cover the ongoing punctuation wars. No surprise, as the subtitle of the book is Confessions of a Comma Queen. In the comma skirmish, I find I fight on the side of “playing by ear,” dropping in a comma where I sense a pause. And in hyphen disputes, her emphasis on clarity of meaning seems a useful approach. Thus the hyphen in milk-truck driver above.

Some of the text on verbs got away from me and her suggestion for how to tell whether a sentence needs “who” or “whom” (for the straggling soldiers in that lost battle), her system was overly complex or not explained clearly. I’ll stick with mine.

pencils

photo: Vladimer Shioshvili, creative commons license

The very best chapter was devoted to Norris’s love of pencils. Extra-soft No.1 pencils, in fact. The kind of pencil that has also kindled a love of pencil sharpeners. (I’ve served time in innumerable meeting rooms over the years and can tell you that The Ford Foundation’s black pencils, embossed with its name, and the round ones of the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., which come in easter egg pastels, are the best. Whenever I attended meetings there, I stocked up.)

Reading anyone’s description of something they are both passionate and deeply knowledgeable about—making wine, say, or 1950s automobiles—is always interesting, and you learn as much about the person as about their particular interest. I don’t ever have to read about pencils again, but I’m glad I did.

Words That Make People Grumpy

fingernails, blackboard

photo (cropped): redpangolins, creative commons license

Every reader—writers, too—have certain words that sound to them like fingernails on a blackboard. I have a thing against “hopefully,” though that’s a losing battle. I don’t like alright—the phrase is “all right already”—and I’m not a fan of the singular “they.” Most times making the antecedent plural fixes it:

NOT: The patient should fill out their own forms.
BUT: Patients should fill out their own forms.

That is to say, if you find “his/her” and “s/he” and their spawn hopelessly awkward, I agree.

Rebecca Gowers in The Guardian has compiled “An A-Z of horrible words,” and I’m happy to find both alright and hopefully in it. On my own mental list of horribles, I can usually identify which grammar zealot burdened me with carrying their torch. Some examples: “under way” is two words, not one; don’t use “over” when you mean “more than”; “presently” means “soon,” not “at present”; use “whether” not “if” when “whether” is meant. And so many, many more.

Gowers’s article isn’t just another listsicle. She explains her prejudices, how the words came to be, and provides amusing sidelights (that would be a “compound”). The entry for “euphemisms” is especially enlightening.

Under “finally,” I discovered I ran afoul of this one just yesterday, using it to mean “at last,” rather than “for the last time.” Oops. Fingernails and a screeching blackboard for some irritated reader. Fixed.

Take a peek at Gowers’s list and tell me what Really Important pet word peeves of yours she overlooked!

Princeton Literary Inspirations

Elvis, Fort WorthYesterday, poet Ciaran Berry and novelist Nell Zink read from their work as part of a series of author presentations at Princeton University, open to the public (that’s me!). On Friday, Man Booker Prize-winner and Ireland’s “first fiction laureate” Anne Enright will read excerpts from her most recent novel, The Green Road. I’ll be there!

The series of readings is conducted by the University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, with Enright’s presentation sponsored additionally by the Fund for Irish Studies. (Last year’s fantastic presentation by Belfast author Glenn Patterson was under the Fund’s aegis also.)

Ciaran Berry

Coincidentally, award-winning poet Ciaran Berry also is an Irish poet and grew up in County Galway and County Donegal. He now directs the creative writing program at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He doesn’t have the full-out accent, though.

Berry read several of his poems from various periods, including The Death of Elvis and Liner Notes. His particularly lovely poem For Shergar, Neither Ode nor Elegy, is a tribute to the legendary race horce Shergar, kidnapped and killed by the IRA, and includes this: “the past tense entering its perfect form.” It’s one of those, “wish I’d thought of that” lines.

Nell Zink

Nell Zink grew up in King George County, Virginia, but for many years has lived in Israel and Berlin, and has become a recent literary phenomenon in this country. She was introduced by faculty member Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex, The Marriage Plot) who said the classic “Nell” and its assertive “Zink” is “a name just waiting to be famous.”

Zink’s debut novel was The Wallcreeper, from which she read a passage about a married woman who plunges into an affair with a gas station attendant named Elvis—acknowledging the nifty segue from Berry’s poem. A New Yorker profile of Zink by Kathryn Schulz said The Wallcreeper “sounds like nothing you have ever read, and derives its bang from ideas you hadn’t thought to have.” Smart, funny, insightful. Likely to come to a bad end. In this setting, it’s hard to get a sense of the whole work, but the voice was terrific.

Her second excerpt was from the more recent novel Mislaid, a scene in which two gay men eating dinner in a crab restaurant make observations about other diners and themselves. The novel is notorious for its Caucasian main character Peggy, who reinvents herself and her white-blonde, blue-eyed daughter by claiming they are African Americans—“a high comedy of racial identity,” Schulz says, and not easy to pull off. About such tectonic plot shifts in her books, Eugenides said, “You cannot call them plot twists, because that implies some underlying straightness.”

In short, the subjects she takes up and the unflinching way she renders them make her, he said, “a bull in the china shop of contemporary American fiction.” More to read, more to read.

It’s Red Pen Time!

editing, red pen

(photo: Nic McPhee, creative commons license)

BookBub marketing expert Diana Urban has advice for writers—and that’s pretty much all of us, right?!—about words to excise in our prose. You have probably heard many times about the importance of some of these, but yet, when I read the drafts of new writers, not to mention people who should know better (like me!), they are persistent problems.

  • Avoid passive verbs—the classic example “Mistakes were made” illustrates the problem perfectly. Who made those mistakes? Passive constructions remove the “actor” from the “act.” “The keys were misplaced.” Yes, but who should be looking for them?! With the passive, you never know; responsibility diffuses in a miasma of vagueness.
  • In fact, avoid auxiliary verbs in general. “I was standing at the window, and I was gazing at the sheep” may have been an acceptable dozy writing style 150 years ago, but today’s readers want to get to the point: “I stood at the window and gazed at the sheep, including that black one.” (Hero of the rest of the story, no doubt.)
  • I once had to cut 40,000 words out of a 135,000-word manuscript and found having people simply go to the window and look at the sheep took a lot fewer words than saying they stood up first. Unless a character has problems standing, it isn’t necessary to have them stand, then go. Nor do they need to stand up, as Urban points out, or conversely, sit down. Sit.
  • Similarly, it isn’t usually necessary to say “I started to call the police,” “I began wondering whether . . .” As Nike would say, just do it! “I called the police”; “I wondered whether . . .” Only rarely do you need the pause created by “I started to call the police, but he pulled out a gun and pointed it at me, and I laid the phone gently on the desk.”
  • Intensifiers, like “very,” “really,” (really bad, that), when perhaps your prose would perk up with a jauntier verb. Either something’s bad or it isn’t. How much badder is very bad? Similarly, “totally, completely, absolutely, literally.” Careless writers include phrases like “completely destroyed.” Redundant. Totally.
  • Removing “just” or, in my case, “even” is a bit harder, but they are superfluous most of the time.

Urban’s list continues, including 43 words to jettison. And, she demonstrates a handy way to find these stumblers in your own writing. It’s hard to do, because some of them are so prevalent they slip under the radar. I do searches for them in my prose and find them in embarrassing profusion, so I’ve taught myself to recognize them.

Naturally, what is questionable in the narrative part of your work may be acceptable—and desirable—as part of dialog. People rarely speak as precisely as they write, and a character’s persona may appropriately employ certain verbal tics. What’s important is that the writer recognize them for what they are. Absolutely.

Pump Up Your Vocabulary

words

(photo art by Darwin Bell, Creative Commons license)

Stuck in a rut when you’re writing and want to find some fresh words for your ideas? Not sure where you stashed that dusty old thesaurus? If your vocabulary needs a bit of a boost, the Just English website has produced a gaggle of synonyms for the 96 words that are most commonly used in English. While the list doesn’t replace a thesaurus (online, I’m a fan of Visual Thesaurus), equally interesting is what those 96 words are.

Who would guess these most frequently used words would include crooked, idea, neat, and predicament? Some of the commonly used words cited include alternative slang definitions, which undoubtedly increase their usage, but Just English doesn’t provide synonyms for these.

Anger, angry, awful, bad, fear—they’re all there. A few more alternatives for “bad” than for “good,” but perhaps it means something positive that we have 27 alternatives for “beautiful,” and only 19 for “ugly.”

By age four, children know some 5,000 words in their native language, and children of age eight know 10,000 words. The average adult who is a native English speaker has a vocabulary of 20,000 to 35,000 words, and most adults learn about one new word a day until middle age. The New York Times is happy to help with that. A bit more challenging assortment can arrive in your email inbox from A.Word.A.Day.

Teens who read “lots” have about twice the vocabulary of those who read “not much”—more than 20,000 words, versus about 10,000. While reading builds vocabulary, and people who read “a lot” throughout the lifespan have a bigger array of words in their communications repertoire than do non-readers, what they read matters. On average, people who read fiction “a lot” have larger vocabularies than people who do not—even if they read a lot of non-fiction.

You can test the size of your vocabulary here. More than 5 million people have taken this test; I did, and my estimated vocab size is 37,000 words.

27 Maps about English & America

language tree

Ellis Island Language Tree (photo: Colin Howley, creative commons license)

The English language is rich and diverse—and so difficult to learn, especially the spelling—for reasons made amply clear by the first map in this fascinating series. The English language has grown root and branch from a wide diversity of linguistic traditions.

Moreover, English is full of idioms derived from all these different cultures. (A friend who is a native German-speaker wanted a book to read to improve his language skills, and I suggested The Big Sky, a 1947 novel about the American frontier by Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. B. Guthrie, Jr. It’s told in the plain language of the era and characters, and I thought it also might shed light on the formation of the American outlook, pre-1970 or so. Big mistake. Although the vocabulary was easy, the book was so shot full of idioms, phrases an American reader would understand at once, it was impossible for an outsider to parse.)

Back to the maps. Others of particular interest include #7, the accompanying text of which points out that the pronunciation of American English today is closer to 18th-century British English than what current British speakers use. The changes that occurred in British English in the 19th century led to the dropping of the “r” after vowels, which elegant Hollywood stars of the 1930s and 1940s would emulate (“Chahles, wheah did you pahk the cah?”) and other pseudo-elegances, leading inevitably to Singin’ in the Rain’s “I cahn’t, cahn’t, cahn’t.”

#13 is a map of Europe showing where English-speakers can most likely have a conversation in their native language. More than 95% of Britons can carry on such a conversation, as can 39% percent of people in France. Whether they will do so is a separate question, though the French I’ve encountered have shown great patience with my fumbling attempts at their language.

Don’t miss #22, which is a reprise of a video that made the rounds some months ago, a woman demonstrating 17 different British accents. First up is the “received pronunciation” that straddles differences across regions, akin to what we think of in the United States as newscaster-speak, or, more technically, as shown in map #24, “General Northern.”

“General Northern” has replaced a “truly astonishing” number and variety of language families present on the North American continent when European explorers arrived. Few of these American Indian languages survive today. This story also is graphically told on these two maps, accompanying Orin Hargraves’s Visual Thesaurus story on “The Continent of Lost Languages.”

Easy-to-Read?

Goodnight Moon, Children's book

(photo: wikipedia.org)

Not just authors, but most of us often have to communicate in writing, whether in reports for the office or papers for school or other purposes. But, how readable are our efforts? What readability standard should we strive for? Shane Snow’s recent Contently article began by saying, “Ernest Hemingway is regarded as one of the world’s greatest writers. After running some nerdy reading level stats, I now respect him even more.”

Leaving aside the “world’s greatest” issue, certainly Hemingway is considered one of the most direct and uncluttered authors of the 20th century. This is an assertion that can be tested using the various scales developed to measure the readability of texts. How does he stack up? Snow ran The Old Man and the Sea through one of the most-used readability tools, the Flesch-Kincaid index, and Hemingway’s classic was pegged at a fourth-grade reading level.

He reports results of similar analyses of a number famous authors’ works–both fiction and nonfiction. Among fiction writers, Hemingway’s effort was at the low end of the scale, only slightly less demanding (in terms of readability) than the writing of Cormac McCarthy. Most demanding was Michael Crichton’s work, which scored at almost grade 9. So even the “most challenging” of the 20 or so fiction authors tested required less than a high school education. That isn’t to say that the content of these works was suitable for children in those grades. Just because the words and sentence structure are simple, the meaning may not be.

Test your own work here: Just cut and paste your text into the window and instantly find out how it scores on six different readability measures. (This piece, which seems pretty straightforward to me, tests out at almost the ninth-grade level.)

I ran a short story I’m working on through the tests, and it came out at grade 6.1, approximately the difficulty of the work of Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer. In another popular measure—the Flesch-Kincaid “Reading Ease” score—my story had a score of 74.2, similar to the work of Dan Brown (holding my tongue), J.K. Rowling’s 7th Harry Potter book, John Grisham, and James Patterson, but easier than work by Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace. In this particular test, Hemingway and McCarthy are both more “readable” than Goodnight Moon.

The most recent national studies, which are now more than a decade old, suggest the average American reads at about an eighth grade level. Inexperienced or academic writers shoot themselves in the foot when they make their writing too complex in an effort to appear more intelligent. This strategy fails miserably, according to the results of experiments published a decade ago and summarized here.

And, even if people can read at a higher than eighth grade level, do they want to? My theory about the booming popularity of “young adult” fiction is that people like it because it’s easy to read. They don’t want to have to slog through a lot of complicated vocab and syntax. Looks like Hemingway was onto something!

Let there be . . .

birthday cake, candles

(photo: pixabay)

This week Orin Hargraves posted an illuminating essay on his Visual Thesaurus blog in tribute to the designation of 2015 as International Year of Light. Light, says Hargraves is “one of the most productive concepts for metaphor in English.”

Metaphors about light relate not just to our dependence on light for seeing (“light of day”; “leave a light on for me”), but, more profoundly, on light as a fount of understanding (“shed light,” “puts a new light on the matter,” “I see, . . .”). By contrast, dark suggests not just not seeing, but also not understanding (“in the dark,” “unenlightened,” “a cloudy perception”). No surprise, then, that the original meaning of “obscure” was “dark, opaque, gloomy.”

I picked up my copy of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, then found Hargraves consulted them on this matter, too. The two linguists cluster these and many similar metaphors under the rubric “Understanding is seeing; ideas are light sources; discourse is a light-medium.” Their examples include “What is your outlook on that? I view it differently. Now I’ve got the whole picture. It was a murky discussion.”

The relevant metaphors extend from direct references to light and dark to more indirect ones (“point of view”; “a transparent argument”; “lamp of knowledge”; “it dawned on her”; versus “someone not too bright”; “he’s a dim bulb”) and once you start looking for them, you find them embedded everywhere. In fact, Hargraves says, “there is hardly a noun, verb, or adjective in English with a core meaning arising from light and vision that cannot be used in metaphoric extension to depict knowledge and understanding.” And, to a great extent, the obverse. The full essay is a great read. Enjoy!

A random closing thought, but is it possible that birthday candles are a subconscious but resonant metaphor for the accumulation of understanding gained with each passing year?