Category Archives: editing

Our Night Out

woman-in-hatA little apropos of nothing… If maturity means disillusionment, acceptance, a “realistic” outlook, or modest expectations, then we are prepubescent.[1] Even so, we’ve made some progress in the past few years. Facts are facts. We no longer leap to the defense of erstwhile idols Simpson (O.J., not Jessica), Cosby, and Gibson. We’ve stopped believing that, in this life at least, we will time-travel to King Arthur’s Court, flatten our stomach, or remove Internet Explorer from our computer once and for all.

We deserve nothing

When we meet a self-proclaimed feminist—we have no idea why this happens—we feel as if we’ve done something wrong and look around to see if anybody noticed… as if we were the one who installed the glass ceiling so you couldn’t get the promotion you so richly deserved and we made it difficult if not impossible for you to be elected president… and, as we are writing this in September 2016, we would advise you, private citizen H. Clinton, against claiming any merit whatever in the result of the November 8 election. You will win, but it will not be a victory, any more than if you had competed against a species of invasive but nondescript dryland shrub. It will not be a tribute to you, or a testimony to the dogged determination of the American woman, or even the inexorable result of human evolution. An outcome in your favor will mean nothing more than that the citizens of our great nation chose you over Cheez-Its. Remember this when you’re drafting your acceptance speech.

panorama-simpson-gibson-cosby

Simpson, Gibson, and Cosby undisgraced

The feminists we like and respect are outnumbered by those who make us want to cut and run, or to curl our lip if we thought we could pull it off. Has it escaped your notice that some of the most vociferous protesters are often women bemoaning the paucity of female directors of high-budget Hollywood films—women, it must be said, who have individually made more money in a single day’s work than we have made since the Eisenhower administration? Is it any wonder that we lack sympathy for such celebrities, when once upon a time they defined career success as being cast as the younger of the two women in a Dove-cleansing-bar commercial?

This is not to say that women, as a category, have no legitimate grievances. But golly, if it’s not one thing it’s twenty. We must be very careful when claiming rights. If we got what we deserved—any of us, male or female, infant or octogenarian—we’d all be living in daub-and-wattle huts competing with rodents for wedges of moldy cheese.

We have a memory of a Saturday afternoon when we were not yet thirty, waking from a brief nap and lying very still because a ray of sun illuminating a few strands of hair that had fallen across our eyes had made a tiny miracle of rainbow, and we had never seen anything so beautiful, not in any mountain meadow or marble palace, not even at our favorite scenic outlook, a knoll in the wooded bluffs above a bend in the Missouri River. Our small, personal rainbow should have served as a reminder to wash our hair, since it was almost certainly a layer of oil that had dispersed the sunlight so gloriously. But at the time we could only be grateful for color and light and stillness, and the feeling has never entirely gone away.

lewis-and-clark-scenic-byway

The Missouri River separates Nebraska and Iowa at the Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway

And by the way, what’s with the suffix –ist, a half-second’s sibilance that makes you a monster or a devotee? If you’re a sexist, racist, or ageist, you’re to be deplored. If you’re a narcissist or hedonist, you’re self-absorbed. Botanists, philologists, and philatelists are specialists. But if you call yourself a feminist, then you are… what? An admirer of or champion for women? Nothing wrong with that. We’d still rather be a cowgirl.

The suffix –ist … is a word-forming element meaning “one who does or makes,” also used to indicate adherence to a certain doctrine or custom, from French -iste and directly from Latin -ista (source also of Spanish, Portuguese, wetalian -ista), from Greek agent-noun ending -istes, which is from -is-, ending of the stem of verbs in -izein, + agential suffix -tes.  —dictionary.com

Solecisms by the dozen

So this evening we went to hear the novelist Geraldine Brooks talk about writing books. Her voice skritched, as one’s voice might when it is put to overuse on a lecture tour, but she was articulate and funny and we minded only a little that she is considered a “women’s author” and that among the thousand people in the audience there were maybe four men. We settled into our seat, anticipating a pleasant and informative ninety minutes—not that we deserved to enjoy ourself, or deserved not to, but we did indeed expect to be happily entertained, and we guess it’s fair to say that we got what we deserved.

She gave a concise, amusing account of her journalism career and the horrors, dangers, conquests, and rejoicings she experienced on five continents. She turned to fiction as a way of lending her voice to women who lived in times and places that denied them self-expression. It was as Ms. Brooks was relating the experience of one such woman—a character in her third or fourth novel—that the fall from grace occurred, with, we would almost say (were literal precision not essential here), an audible thud. The woman was, Ms. Brooks said—these were her exact words—waxing eloquently.

woman-waxing

To wax or not to wax—that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer….

If you are not a well-known author or a serious student of the English language, you may be excused for not grasping the enormity of the phrase waxing eloquently. My mother detested polishing our hardwood floors—something virtually required of all middle-class women of her generation—and she could be quite eloquent on the subject, to the point where my father felt the need to close the door to prevent her eloquence from alarming her young children.

But Geraldine Brooks’s character was not engaged in polishing the floors, the furniture, or the family car.

Often, people who speak of waxing eloquently have heard the phrase “wax eloquent” and mentally added –ly because verbs are modified by adverbs, right? But in this case, wax is what is sometimes called a linking verb, which means that the verb is joining two things that are more or less equal:

My word is my bond. Word = Bond
The song was an anthem. Song = Anthem
The sun appears unusually bright. Sun = Bright
You look nice today. You (that is, your appearance) = Nice
The night was becoming stormy. Night = Stormy
Uncle Steve is feeling poorly. Steve = Poorly. Not all modifiers ending in –ly are adverbs. Poorly, wily, owly—all adjectives.
The speaker waxed eloquent. Speaker = Eloquent

A modifier used with a linking verb is not an adverb describing a verb, it’s an adjective describing the subject.

Wax means grow or become when we’re talking about the moon. A waxing moon is “growing,” getting plumper every night until it’s full. After that, it starts to narrow, or wane. Likewise, when a speaker “waxes eloquent,” he or she is gradually becoming more and more articulate.

Writers know this. It’s taught in How Not to Write Stupid 101, where they also learn to not say “Hopefully, it won’t rain” or “The year is comprised of four seasons.” So at first we thought that our speaker was making a little joke. But she had been funny and clever to that point, and “waxing eloquently” fell short as humor. She didn’t deliver it jokily, and no one laughed. It’s hard to believe that she doesn’t know the idiom or that no one has ever pointed out her error, but that seems to be the case.

In any event, she plummeted in our esteem. That’s on us. Why should one mistake sink her past redemption? And who are we—writer of little note and less fortune, probably committing solecisms daily by the dozen[2]—to judge a famous, rich, and talented novelist for flawed diction, when Shakespeare can write, with impunity, “This was the most unkindest cut of all”?

kingfong

Chris Machian, Omaha World-Herald

Woman of mystery wannabe

We are not proud of it, but after ten minutes we gave in to our pique and slipped out of the lecture. Feeling peevish, and peckish (certainly not peckishly) as well, we walked downtown, hoping to find a coffee shop still open at 8:30. We’d almost given up after eight blocks, having passed but one open establishment—a steak house—and the venerable King Fong, closed for renovation.

But we were in luck.[3] We found not just a coffee shop but a Jamaican coffee shop, owned and operated by a Jamaican individual who had a charming manner—eager to please but not obsequious—and whose very speech was song. We wanted to adore his coffee; if only goodwill could have infused the éclair with moistness. No matter. It was the sort of place we would have loved dress up for—in floppy hat and flowing skirt—to waltz into, a bit mysteriously, as if we had an assignation, but perhaps not… to bide a wee and read the Christian Science Monitor, make longhand notes in a lovely parchment journal about our fellow javaphiles[4]… and why, indeed should we not? As Kurt Vonnegut confides in Mother Night, “You are what you pretend to be.”

joan-hickson-miss-marple

Mysterious lady in hat

[1] An editor of a respected business journal warns against starting sentences with “I”—not the letter but rather the word. Evidently it smacks of narcissism. We are testing an alternative herein.

[2] We might adopt that as our campaign slogan when we run for public office: Mary Campbell, Committing Solecisms Daily by the Dozen, for president. Some will vote for us; others will wonder how a self-confessed grammar predator expects to garner a single vote. (We just broke another compositional rule: No footnote numbers midsentence.)

[3] Paragraphs are not to be commenced with But, according to the same editor. Goodness me! The number of words with which it is permissible to begin paragraphs has shrunk to 171,476. We should establish a committee to advocate for the preservation of freedom with regard to paragraph-starters.

[4] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Javaphile

Sidebar: Pore Me

pp_sadman

Pore Me

Homophones are words that sound alike but that have different meanings and origins — poor, pour, and pore, for example. (Depending on where you were raised, you might pronounce these words slightly differently from one another. Poor might sound a bit like POO-er, and the O sound in pore might be more rounded than that in pour.)

Pouring Over the Bible

Pouring Over the Bible

In a sentence on studying the Bible, in the book Prayer, Faith, and Healing: Cure Your Body, Heal Your Mind, and Restore Your Soul, the authorsKenneth Winston Caine and Brian Paul Kaufman—recommend that we “ponder …[the Bible], study it, and really pour over it [emphasis added].”

It’s easy to use the wrong member of a set of homophones because sometimes the incorrect word seems to make more sense than the correct one. I thought for years that a sound bite was a sound byte.

* * *

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Sidebar: Face of America?

Vitriol in Print

Senator John McCain

Senator John McCain

I searched the Internet for metaphorical characterizations of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama and got my eyes scorched (metaphorically, of course). What ever happened to, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? That was Every Mother’s chastisement, at least back in the 1950s. My own dear mom, were she alive, would primly disapprove of the (metaphorical) vitriol being (metaphorically) hurled at these two remarkable public servants.

I Googled “John McCain is a” and “Barack Obama is a” to see how the candidates are being represented metaphorically. Of course, I had to wade through a lot of nonsense and nonmetaphorical predicate nominatives: John McCain is a socialist, Barack Obama is a socialist, Barack Obama is an elitist, Barack Obama is a Muslim, John McCain is an old fart, John McCain is a coward, and so forth.

Hardly anyone had anything nice to say.

But when we go to our polling places next Tuesday, we will not be voting for a metaphor. We will be voting for a flesh-and-blood human being who might (metaphorically) be the face of America for the next four years. (Three different precincts vote in the church in which I live. Do you think any of these precincts is my precinct? No-o-o-o-o! I have to walk six blocks to Dewey Park!)

Senator Barack Obama

Senator Barack Obama

The literal meaning of maverick, by the way, is “an unbranded range animal (especially a stray calf).” The term originated in 1867, referring to a “‘calf or yearling found without an owner’s brand,’ in allusion to Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70), Texas cattle owner who was negligent in branding his calves. Sense of ‘individualist, unconventional person’ is first recorded 1886, via notion of ‘masterless.'” —Online Etymology Dictionary

Here’s a sample of my search results (If many of these metaphors were on the mark, I would write in the name of my son-in-law, Paul, as I usually do when there’s no one on the ballot who deserves my vote, as was the case in 2004):

  • John McCain is a maverick
  • John McCain is a corporation’s worst nightmare
  • John McCain is a pirate
  • John McCain is a monster
  • John McCain is a superman
  • John McCain is a Walking Senior Moment
  • John McCain is America
  • Barack Obama is a Mac (and Hillary Clinton is a PC)
  • Barack Obama is a flake
  • Barack Obama is a terrorist’s best friend
  • Barack Obama is a blessing to the USA
  • Barack Obama is a popular Mii
  • Barack Obama is a work of art
  • Barack Obama is a disaster

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Sidebar: Profanity Revisited

Fact-oid

"Just the Facts, Ma'am"

Sergeant Joe Friday (Jack Webb): "Just the Facts, Ma'am"

On June 10, I wrote in this blog about justifiable uses of the F-word, occasioned by a late-night intrusion of my apartment and a half-hearted attempt to intrude on my personal self. All’s well that ends well (Shakespeare), and I was only superficially scarred physically and not at all damaged emotionally. I’m pretty sure. Although it shook me up a bit when somebody rang my doorbell, repeatedly, at about 5:30 this morning and refused to identify him- or herself.

In any case, police detectives have questioned and requestioned me, and at this moment I am looking at a “Victim Profile Sheet” that I’m supposed to fill out. Whoever put together this “Victim Profile Sheet” has, you might say, precarious command of the English language:

♦ JUST BEFORE THE INCIDENT — What were you doing? ie. walking, running, came home from work, etc.

There are several questions about my residence— “Is residence and entryway visible from the street?” “Is residence on alley?” “Multi-level?”

Here’s the one that has me scratching my head:

♦ Is residence indoors?

Is that a gentle way of asking whether I am homeless? Or do they want to know if I live on the roof?

I’m tempted to editorialize on my “Victim Profile Sheet,” but the likely response would be: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Sidebar

Metaphors Can Cause Headaches

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

I read this morning that Barack Obama had named Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate, and that Senator Obama had done so either before or after (I don’t remember which) “unleashing a fusillade of vitriol” about his opponent, John McCain.

Writers and speakers of the English language—especially journalists—slip into metaphor-ese automatically, disregarding the literal meanings of the metaphors and throwing various symbols together any which way. That’s forgivable, usually. A language is built mostly on metaphors whose original definitions stopped mattering long ago.

Unleashing a fusillade of vitriol, however, is just plain nonsense. Fusillade and vitriol are startling words that call attention to themselves, and since the writer was bold and foolish enough to combine them in this way, I feel justified in picking that combination apart.

What we have here is three words, actually, used metaphorically with feckless indifference to the metaphor’s integrity:

  • unleashing, which means “letting go of”; but to be “unleashed,” a thing must first have been “leashed,” or restrained. It’s common, and appropriate, to speak of “unleashing one’s anger,” which has presumably been pent up. Unleashing a fusillade doesn’t make much sense, really, because it’s hard to picture a fusillade as having its own impetuous energy.
  • fusillade, which is a rapid discharge of gunfire. It isn’t the bullets themselves, or the guns, or the people firing them.
  • vitriol—sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive chemical, often used as a metaphor for “abusive language” or “invective.”

We native speakers of English know what the writer means, which is that Barack Obama harshly criticized John McCain. But someone who is just beginning to understand the English language might easily be flummoxed. She sees unleashing, and pictures a dog straining at and perhaps breaking his tether. She sees fusillade and thinks, perhaps, of the action of a firing squad. Then she reads vitriol, which she knows to be a particularly nastily corrosive liquid that she has read about in detective or crime stories, where it is thrown in the face of an enemy, usually for vengeance or retribution.

Add it up and you have, what, impatiently frisky rapid-fire emissions from squirt guns? I don’t know. I can’t think about it any more. It gives me a headache.

No Prozac

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

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Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 2: Your Self Is Irrepressible

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Get depressed, learn to knit

Prozac (fluoxetine)

Prozac (fluoxetine)

In 1970, when I was twenty-two, I was hospitalized for depression and anxiety. I was so depressed I couldn’t tie my shoes. What was the point? They would just come untied again.

Worse yet, I was depressed about being depressed. I had a two-year-old daughter to care for and a husband to try to hang on to. I didn’t have time to be depressed.

In those days when you were depressed they put you in a room with other depressed people and taught you how to knit. It was called occupational therapy. You sat around with these people and exchanged misinformation. There were four middle-aged women who played bridge all day, every day. They were so chatty and cheerful that I assumed they made clumsy suicide attempts every so often just so they could spend a week or two in the hospital playing bridge.

There were no drugs like Prozac in 1972. Psychiatrists were people who tried to help you figure out why you were depressed and then, when you figured it out, stop doing whatever it was and go on with your life.

My psychiatrist was a family friend whom I’d known all my life. He wasn’t the kind of psychiatrist who asked you about the trauma of potty-training or about your sexual fantasies. He was the kind of psychiatrist who explained things and gave advice.

Liberating my inner bitch

“Know thyself,” was, in effect, the advice he gave me. He said that I was angry and didn’t know it—that I had “projected” my anger onto the world and therefore perceived the world as hostile. I was also diminished by having projected my attributes—intelligence, wisdom, sense of humor—onto other people and things, so that I had lost confidence in my abilities and my judgment. (See figures 1, 2, and 3.)

The essential I will assert itself. It will not be ignored or subjugated. If I deny it, it will flap its wings in my face. “Claim me,” it squawks. “Use me. I’m the reason you’re here.”

Mine was a quick recovery, followed within just a few months by separation from my husband and ultimately by divorce. I spent the next few years, yes, liberating my Inner Bitch but also gleefully gathering other scattered bits and pieces of myself and just enjoying the hell out of my life, my daughter, my family, and my friends.

Figure 1. Unworthiness

Figure 1. Unworthiness

Figure 2. Anxiety

Figure 2. Anxiety

Figure 3a. Personality in Balance

Figure 3a. Personality in Balance

Figures 3b and 3c. Out of Balance

Figures 3b and 3c. Out of Balance

 

Next: Defining the Self Made Simple

Sidebar

Bugged

I can live with sloppy grammar—sometimes. Regionalisms and colloquialisms don’t bother me—much. I ain’t got no time to worry over them things.

Here’s what bugs me: imprecise usage, when the words being misused have such distinct meanings. I am particularly annoyed by the following:

  • disinterested, when the speaker or writer means uninterested
  • alternate, when the speaker or writer means alternative

Disinterested means, roughly, “unbiased.” A judge, for example, is supposed to be a disinterested party in a trial, but you wouldn’t want your judge to be uninterested, would you? Well, you might, depending on the circumstances. Don’t tell me, I’m better off not knowing….

Alternate, as a noun, means “every second one of a series” or, very roughly, “substitute”; as a verb, it means “swing back and forth between two states or conditions.” Alternative, as a noun or an adjective, refers to one of two or more options.

  • I take tuba lessons on alternate Tuesdays.
  • Francesco and I alternate as Richard III in Richard III.
  • There are rest rooms on alternate floors [that is, on every other floor].
  • We could drive to Walla Walla, or, as an alternative, we could roller skate.

I get pretty irked, for me, when I read (as I just did, in Nora Roberts’s Ceremony in Death), “Alban—no known alternate name—born 3-22-2020….” Roberts also consistently, tediously, and infuriatingly uses disinterested when she means uninterested. (Ceremony in Death is published under Roberts’s alternative pen name, J. D. Robb. Alternate might be marginally appropriate here because, as far as I know, she has only two pen names and she goes back and forth with them, in a manner of speaking. If she had several pen names to choose among, “J. D. Robb” would be one of the alternatives.)

Strictly speaking, a thing can have only one alternate. Thus if I work at the popcorn counter every three days, taking turns with Betty Sue and Napoleon, we do not (strictly speaking, as I said), alternate. But that usage wouldn’t make me rip out my eyeballs, as I do frequently when reading Nora Roberts, though she does write a fine tale… where was I? Oh. That usage (re Betty Sue, Napoleon, and me) isn’t as troublesome because there’s no good alternative verb. “Take turns” doesn’t quite work; it sounds too playful.

Okay, that’s it. Thank you for allowing me to purge here in print. The only alternative is to rip out my eyeballs, and I’ve exhausted my supply.

Tapping Your Troubles Away

EFT: The Possibilities Are Acronymical

An acronym is a pronounceable abbreviation consisting of initials. Thus, NASA and UNICEF are acronyms, while NAACP and ASPCA are simply abbreviations.

The “rule” regarding the use of punctuation with (a) acronyms and (b) abbreviations consisting of initials is as follows: If the abbreviation is not an acronym but is pronounceable (as in U.S.A.), each initial should be followed by a period. Most writers disregard this rule. You might read that John Doakes received his BA at Harvard, his MBA at MIT, and his Ph.D. at Stanford. (Quite a guy, that John.)

Per the “rule,” only MBA is correctly rendered in the preceding sentence. If you were to read the sentence when you were extremely fatigued or otherwise addled, your brain might “hear” it as, “John Doakes received his bah at Harvard, his MBA at mitt,…” and so forth. But it’s more likely that your brain would make the necessary adjustments, allowing you to read BA as “B.A.” and MIT as “M.I.T.” With or without punctuation, you would probably not read Ph.D. as “fd.”

Accordingly, the placement or nonplacement of periods in such abbreviations doesn’t matter much, usually. When your eyes see USA, your brain is unlikely to “hear” “OOsa.”

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately, however, about an alternative-healing method called EFT,* which stands for “Emotional Freedom Techniques,” and, I’m not sure whether to pronounce EFT in initials (E-F-T) or as “eft” (a sort of newt, as anyone who does a lot of crossword puzzles can attest).

EFT or E.F.T. sounds too good to be true and probably is, but I have tried to keep an open mind about such things since that management-training class I took in the early 1990s at which I described a woman’s ex-husband’s combover and his house and his two Irish setters without her having told me anything about them.

In any case, inasmuch as proponents of EFT or E.F.T. tout it as a quick and comparatively easy way to banish chronic fatigue and procrastination, I created an EFT or E.F.T. page on my website, consisting of several YouTube videos and some text from the official EFT or E.F.T. manual, by Gary Craig, who originated EFT or E.F.T. You are welcome to visit the page at your leisure.

The EFT or E.F.T. healing method consists mostly of tapping the “meridian points,” as defined in acupuncture, or the chakras, or both, possibly, or maybe some of them are the same, but in any event you won’t want to try EFT or E.F.T. in public unless, perhaps, you are riding a bus and you would rather not have anyone sitting next to you.

If you have tried EFT or E.F.T., or if you plan to, please let me know how well it works for you. Thanks!

* Not to be confused with “electronic funds transfer,” whose abbreviation, EFT, is always pronounced “E-F-T.”

Paradigm for Passion

Warning: This Is Not an Historic Blog Post

If you love words, or if you just like to feel smug and superior because you use them properly, mosey on over to the Lake Superior State University List of Banished Words website.

“The tongue-in-cheek Banishment List began as a publicity ploy for little-known LSSU” in 1976, according to the site’s History of Word Banishment. You can view the list year by year, along with the rationale for banishment, or you can see the entire list, words only. A link next to each word takes you to the relevant annual list.

An advantage of looking at the entire list is that it’s easy to see the repeaters, including viable alternative, very unique, world-class, and proactive. A few words and phrases appeared three times—live audience and ongoing among them.

I was glad to see robust and revisit (1996) on the list but disappointed that passion was absent.

What’s wrong with robust?

List contributor Rob Robinson “pulled nine references to ‘robust processes,’ ‘robust materials,’ and ‘robust packaging,’ from the first 13 pages of the Ford Automotive Operations MS-9000 requirements.”

Traditionally, robust has referred to physical characteristics: energy, durability, and health. I don’t have a problem with more intangible forms of robustness, used sparingly. I can live with the occasional “robust advertising campaign,” which is what my boss required of me when I was marketing director of a short-lived* dot-com. But the dear man absolutely reveled in robustness. If someone said something moderately intelligent in a staff meeting, he seized upon the statement as a “robust idea.”

Robust quickly gained buzzword status, meaning that verbally challenged business types used it at every opportunity to indicate that they were hip to corporate trends… or something. Revisit suffered the same fate, brought into frequent service as a synonym for “revise.” Passionate probably took the worst beating. Once upon a time we were passionate about our sweethearts; then we became passionate about, say, the arts. Most recently our employers have required us to be passionate about our jobs as file clerks.

Here are a few of my favorite entries from LSSU’s list, along with the submitters’ comments:

Paradigm

Author’s note: The most cogent definition I could find was “pattern or model; a collection of assumptions, concepts, practices, and values that constitutes a way of viewing reality, especially for an intellectual community that shares them; an abstract basic structure, of some tenure, in which knowledge is related within a given realm.”

This has become the educational buzzword of 1993. I would like to see “paradigm lost.” Nancy Dean, Stephenson, Michigan

As in “I want to empower a new paradigm of health care,” [a euphemism for] “I want to shut down the hospital and let the people get their own aspirin.” Bob Cudmore, The Record, Troy, New York

Youse or Yous

Author’s note: Regionalisms don’t trouble me; I treasure them, in fact.

As in, “Would youse like coffee?” …Only in the North American vocabulary. Tori Cook, MCTV News, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario

An Historic

As in “an historic moment.” Commonly used by news people (print and broadcast). It’s wrong! If this abuse is allowed to continue, the next sound you hear from me will be an hiss! Jim Wiljanen, Dewitt, Michigan

To Gift; Gifting

What happened to “giving”? Gifting is seen in catalogs everywhere. I wonder if the originator is someone who was not in this country born.  J. Gregory Winn, St. Paul, Minnesota

———-

* In short-lived, “lived” rhymes with “hived.”

She Writes a Hell of a Book

Diana, Philippa, or Nora? Take Your Pick

It was my brother, John—a manly man, who thinks The Gulag Archipelago is light summer reading—who turned me on to Diana Gabaldon. Somewhere in our fifties, John and I discovered that our preferences in music and literature intersected more than we might have thought. His taste runs toward Ray Charles, mine toward Ry Cooder. But we both like bluegrass, mysteries, and historical fiction.

It’s my hunch that Diana Gabaldon caught the reading public’s fancy with the steamy sex in her first novel, Outlander, and then, in succeeding books, pumped up the history and toned down the sex. A little. Claire and Jamie are getting on in years, after all, though Claire’s still vain about her “unruly curls,” even if she pretends not to be, and Jamie’s still built like a redwood, and of course we still have Roger and Brianna’s heat to fan ourselves against, and….

I’m sorry. Are you lost?

Diana

A little over ten years ago, John sent me Diana Gabaldon’s first four novels, insisting that I read them in the proper order. I didn’t read novels then. I was writing for the business world, and all my reading dealt with marketplace trends. For recreation, I dipped into books about English-language history, grammar, style, and usage. Outlander remained unread, though John kept nagging. It’s our Scots heritage, he said, that had pulled him in, and his fascination with the idea of time travel.

I always took two weeks off at Christmastime, and everything went to all to hell the Christmas of, I think, ’99, and I desperately needed a diversion, so I picked up Outlander and barely drew a breath until I finished Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in the series, about ten days later. I packed the four paperbacks off to my daughter, and she opened Outlander and then forgot to feed and clothe her children for a couple of months.

I pined for the fifth book, and then the sixth. Most of the English-speaking world is impatient for the promised seventh.

It got so that I could sniff out Gabaldon aficionados, people I casually did business with, knew only by phone or e-mail. I marveled that Diana Gabaldon, who, I believe, has a Ph.D. in marine biology, could write with such fluid, picturesque, assured precision about the eighteenth-century Scottish highlands. I thought that she had spoiled me for other authors… that I would never be able to read anyone else’s novels… that I’d have to go back to reading about corporate culture and profit-sharing.

Philippa

About four years ago, my daughter, Marian, presented me with a wicked new indulgence—the historical fiction of Philippa Gregory. The book was The Other Boleyn Girl. I devoured it. Philippa Gregory doesn’t do steamy sex in her books, really (with the exception noted a few paragraphs down), although the most erotic passage I’ve ever read in any book is Gregory’s depiction of Mary Boleyn and the commoner William Stafford snuggling, fully clothed, on a deserted beach in France.

Gregory has written five novels about the Tudors. I started reading The Queen’s Fool late one Monday night and called in sick on Tuesday. (A sixth book, The Other Queen, about Mary, Queen of Scots’, imprisonment in England, is due out this fall.)

Whereas Gregory writes about people who actually existed, Gabaldon’s main characters are invented, so the question of historical accuracy is less urgent in Gabaldon’s work. It doesn’t trouble me, particularly, in Gregory’s books. I can read the facts in the encyclopedia, but I can’t become immersed in the inconveniences, the injustices, the excesses, and the intrigues of sixteenth-century British royalty—a microcosm that Gregory presents with such exquisite timing and drama. There is, literally, never a dull moment in Gregory’s prose.

(I tried to read Gregory’s first novel, Wideacre, published in 1987. The “heroine’s” amorality was so repellent, complete with steamy sex involving her own brother, that I couldn’t finish the book. Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber [1944] presents a much more sympathetic but equally selfish heroine, and Winsor is more astute about the plight of independent-minded women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.)

Nora

Dare I link Nora Roberts’s name with Gabaldon’s and Gregory’s? Nora Roberts, who has had 124 novels on the New York Times bestseller list? Whose books in print exceed 280 million copies? Who produces a new book more often than I dust?

After my most recent Roberts-fest, the “MacGregors” series, I asked myself, once again, “How does she do it?” How, that is, does she write the same story, over and over and over again, putting her characters into different bodies and different scenic locales (usually by the turbulent sea, Atlantic or Pacific), giving them different names and occupations, but telling essentially the same tale?

She does it beautifully, though I confess I cringe every time she uses disinterested when she means uninterested. Still, I am seldom distracted by careless writing mistakes or poor editing. Her research must be fascinating, and exacting. The men and women who populate her books are very believable cops, boat-builders, U.S. senators, cartoonists, witches, racecar-drivers, innkeepers, sculptors, carpenters, fashion models, certified public accountants, four-star chefs, and horse breeders. None of them, it must be said, is fat or ugly, and if a character in one of her books is short of cash, it’s only temporary.

Boy meets girl, boy is rudely antisocial, girl is fiercely independent, the barriers come down, the clothes come off, someone puts a fly in the ointment, it gets fished out, I’m mixing metaphors, pay no mind, and boy and girl get married, have at least three children, and live happily ever after. If we’re fortunate, as in the case of the MacGregors, we get to read about several generations of lusty young men and women repeating the errors of their elders, toughing it out, proving they can make it on their own, discovering they don’t have to, and, finally, making new grandbabies for The MacGregor—Daniel, the patriarch, who built the castle by the sea—though he claims it’s his beloved Anna, the surgeon, who fusses.

The principals are virtually always caucasian (often of Irish or Scottish descent, though there are French and Comanche strains running through the extended MacGregor clan) and robustly heterosexual, but their close friends might or might not be black, or gay, or both. Roberts writes very comfortably, never coyly, about interracial and gay couples, neither making an issue of “diversity” nor backing away from it.

Her gift, I think, is the ability to pick you up and plop you down in some irresistible setting—an island along the New England or Georgia coastline, a clifftop near Monterey, occasionally a sunset town in Montana—and then surround you with charming people—utterly innocent, thoroughly jaded, and everything in between… and you get to live there for a while, in the beautiful, kaleidoscopic whirlwind she’s painted, and watch people grope their way toward each other… and it’s just lots of fun. Every damn time.

And I learn from them all—these made-up people with genuine humanity—the creations of Gregory, Gabaldon, and Roberts. They inspire me, even if it’s only to have a tidy, well-organized workspace like Cybil Campbell in Roberts’s The Perfect Neighbor. They never let me forget—as engrossing and colorful as their lives and times are, there, on the pages, their affairs so tidy one minute, so messy the next—to live my own life first and peek in on theirs only after my chores are done. Well, except for that “sick day” I spent reading The Queen’s Fool… but I’ve learned my lesson, and it will never happen again… at least not until September….

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California Central Coast photo by Paul Lee

A marvelously engrossing read is Audrey Niffenegger’The Time Traveler’s Wife. Couldn’t be less like Gabaldon’s approach to time travel. Marian gave me The Time Traveler’s Wife for Christmas a few years ago and asked to borrow it after I was done. When I relinquished it, I begged her to finish it quick because I wanted to reread it. A day or two later she called me. “Are you sure you want it back?” she wanted to know. “How can you DO that to yourself again?”