29 Oct 2013

It's Halloween, show off your word nerdery!

As a confessing word nerd who as a rule never dates anybody whose spelling is worse than mine and who's got a bit of subbing experience in two languages - one of which knows the full extent of both the terms 'grammar' and 'Nazi' -, I wince whenever I read this title, not to speak of the atrocity of typing it. Admittedly, this might also have something to do with the literariness of the quote that touches on another of my private passions. Originally from one of the Meditations by John Donne, but usually better known as the title of Hemingway's Spanish Civil War novel of 1940 (or the Metallica song), it could very well be that I'm doubly challenged in this respect.

A book that takes as its aim to set grammar right and to clean up with a couple of obsolete or indeed obscure 'rules' of writing will nowadays inevitably be called a "grammar nazis' Mein Kampf", and some tweets and readers' reactions appear to confirm this. Yet, Marsh's book is in fact anything but: grounded in current linguistic theories of the evolution of grammar and the philosophy of language, Marsh puts reason before rule. As production editor of the Guardian, who is also the face behind the @guardianstyle twitter feed, he knows about the importance of clear and concise writing, as well as a sensible approach to language in general. He is strongly in favour of the descriptive side of grammarians, who analyse language in the form we all use it - not as certain purists would have us to. So, real grammar nazis will have to look elsewhere to get off on strict prescriptive dos and don'ts.

Thank. Dog.

For Who the Bell Tolls (ouch!) starts with a very short introduction and explanation of the most important grammatical terms for the non-linguist, such as noun, adjective, preposition, etc. If this already sets off your didactical alarm bells, rest assured: Marsh does this with the help of a "grammar playlist", i.e. song titles that mainly consist of the word group he'd like to talk about in this instance. This playlist combines pretty much anything from The Beatles to Kylie Minogue (I never thought I'd put those two together in a sentence, but here we go), and works astonishingly well to remain a welcome lightness. And what is more, Marsh generally keeps the terminology to a minimum throughout the book.

He then takes out his broom and gets rid of a couple of obsolete or obscure writing rules, such as the various 'thou shalt nots' on splitting infitivies, beginning sentences with conjunctions, or ending them with prepositions. His underlying thesis here is, 'if people speak like this, and they understand each other without difficulties, that's totally fine - relax!'. The following chapters deal with the most common sources for mistakes or - what is worse - misunderstandings: the definitiveness of relative clauses, where to put apostrophes and other punctuation marks. The tone is slightly less entertaing in these chapters, mainly because they are more list-like and probably meant to serve as a manual, which contrasts a lot with the beginning chapters and those towards the end of the book. Particularly the passage on semicolons broke my longish-sentence-loving heart (a bit): it's not quite as painful as Kurt Vonnegut's dismissal of semicolons as "transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing", but to state that "you can lead a full and happy life without bothering with semicolons" (p.96) appears to me like a life without pugs did to the German comedian Loriot: possible, but certainly unfulfilled. (If you want to read up on the qualities of the sexiest and most elegant of all punctuation marks, I'd recommend this.)

From about two thirds of the book onwards, For Who the Bell Tolls (!) goes back to discussing good (mainly in the sense of non-offensive) writing style rather than focussing on the purely grammatical: how to use foreign words correctly, if you're sense of superiority can't do without them altogether; how to spot and fight incomprehensible or misleading jargon; how to write non-offensively (known as 'politically corrrect' to those who don't get it); and how to battle empty phrases and clichés in the form predominantly distributed by newspapers and other media. What's mainly of interest here and also a very valid point, is that Marsh sheds light on how language - and its sloppy or even misleading and wrong use of it - influences and shapes our world. This is by no means a new thought, as pretty much everybody who deals in words has found out at one point of their lives, but no less worth repeating in the age of "ethnic cleansing" and "preemptive strikes".

The volume finishes with a personal and annotated top ten of language books for the future word nerd, and an index that helps you to quickly find topics like "berks and wankers" (they're referred to on pages 29 to 30) or "pedantry, up with which not to put" (p. 40).

As mentioned at the beginning, Marsh is a great fan of using plain, concise language and he sticks to his own maxime, which is generally a godsend, but in this case particularly welcoming. He occasionally tends towards the more awkward simile that puts pictures at least in my mind that I had never dreamed of in the context of language. Just to take two examples that occur within only a few pages of each other: the wrong use of the 'who' instead of the object case 'whom' can in some instances stick out "like a cucumber stuffed down a Chippendale's thong" (p. 61), or a phrase left dangling at the beginning of a sentence feels "like a naked man trying to climb a barbed-wire fence" (p. 64). Ah, yes. Thank you; I'd already suspected grammar had something to do with penises and their substitutes...

So, For Who the Bell Tolls (it STILL hurts!) is a great, quirky and entertaining book if you always wanted to know what Milton and Yoda have in common, or what exactly 'antanaclasis' is and how to use it. In short, it's the right book for you if you want to prove a total word nerd at the next Halloween party - and seriously: who wouldn't?

Book info:
David Marsh, For Who the Bell Tolls. London: Faber & Faber and Guardian Books, 2013. GBP 12.99. (hard cover)

P.S.: I normally wouldn't point out typos in a review unless they seriously distract from the reading, but I think it's just too hilarious to find a mix-up of "their" and "there" in a book that is all about explaining the difference between them and eliminating mistakes such as these - so I hope that in this case I may be forgiven: dearest editor, take a look at page 230, bottom half.

20 Oct 2013

New stuff for free: Literary mags to your inbox

As a uni lecturer who used to focus on contemporary writing a lot of  people used to ask me how I kept track of all the stuff that's out there. Most of my colleagues simply rely on Best Of lists, on prize-winning works, etc. All well, but to be honest, that's not quite as much fun as finding out for yourself is. Plus, it's an excellent exercise: how long does it take you to find out whether you want to finish reading a particular text; what do you find intriguing about it; which elements of the writing or the content jar with your idea of how this text could, or even should, work? In short, I find it easier to learn something about your own reading behaviour when you're dealing with stuff that's not already been through the academic text processor, to discover your own taste, and to be able to explain it to others.

Now, as students - like a lot of other people - tend to live on a budget, I'd like to introduce two brand new literature mags that are delivered for free to your email inbox, one about letters of all sorts, the other about poetry.

The Letters Page: A Literary Journal in Letters

Edited at Notthingham Uni by Jon McGregor, to whom I eventually owe all of my knowledge about cricket (which is still no more than skin deep, but hey!), you can either enjoy what other people make of their letter-related briefs, or you can exercise your penmanship yourself (and be paid for it)  in this new and entirely free letter mag. Handwritten submissions only. For an online mag. They've noticed the irony.

P.S.: Funny that as a subscriber I'm now receiving personalized emails from Notts Uni English Department - the same department that chucked me out of my English classes when I was an Erasmus student there years ago. You always meet twice...

IN Magazine

Apart from my other idiosyncratic habits, students of mine have always been puzzled by my love for poetry, particularly for contemporary poetry. Most of them simply shook their heads in utter incomprehension, or sometimes in quiet sadness at my obsession, but some at least appeared to be intrigued and kept asking me how and where to find good contemporary poetry. Though I'm definitely the wrong person to say anything about 'good' poetry, I can at least tell them what I like - and where to begin and find it.

So, there's a new free poetry magazine out: originating around the Durham Book Festival, this is a weekly poetry email you can subscribe to. They publish a small number of poems every week, sometimes accompanied by an interview or by additional material about a poem. Since it comes in easily digestible chunks compared to traditional poetry mags that can be a bit too much at once, IN magazine is a good way to get familiar with some of the stuff that's being written right now if you're strapped for cash, or don't know yet whether you want to stick with it or no.

These are only some suggestions to start with. I'll try and update this post with other contemporary stuff that I find interesting to check out, so watch this space! And thank you for listening.

13 Oct 2013

The Day After: Book Fair Hangover

It's over; I'm back. With a massive hangover.

As always, those days of the Frankfurt Book Fair that were open for the general public were the busiest. I have yet to hear official visitor figures but particularly halls 3 and 4, where the German language publishers presented their fare, were pretty impossible to get though in less than half an hour, if mainly for the un.i.maginably slow pace of all those retired school teachers, who casually stroll from one stand to another, usually crossing the aisle while chatting to their best bookmates. Nothing wrong with that - if you don't need to be elsewhere at exactly that moment. So, planning appointments on Book Fair Saturday is a bit of a challenge but one never learns, right?

Anyway, in the end I usually got to where I needed to be and the conversations started. And that's where this peculiar kind of hangover comes from. On the bus home this afternoon I realized how many observations, contacts and ideas for future projects I took with me in my holdall: loads of food for thought, and fodder for the blog. Thanks to all the lovely people who took the time to chat to me, asked about the blog and my projects, who pushed books onto me, dictated lists of publishers worth checking out, etc. That's what a fair is about, isn't it?

So please excuse me while I see to my hangover...

6 Oct 2013

Another Galley Beggar Single: Almost Blue, by Tony O'Neill

Almost Blue by Tony O'Neill will punch you hard and slap you in the face. The third Galley Beggar Book Single on my list, it's by far the most upsetting until now. Not at all because something dreadful happens, though there is enough potential for this, what with all characters fast on the track towards an overdose. It's more to do with the self-made hamster cages all characters find themselves in but are unable and/or unwilling to leave. It's truly a story of dead ends, and that's the awful bit. The truly awful bit. And that's all I'm going to say about the content. For 1 GBP, Almost Blue is good value - I for once won't forget this one for quite some time to come. So go ahead and read for yourself; here's the link: http://www.galleybeggar.co.uk/book-store/ebook/almost-blue/

I think after having read and attempted to talk about a couple of book singles that all happened to be from the same publisher, it might be a good idea to take stock. Or perhaps it isn't. Anyway, time's running out for my blogpost this week and I don't want to run up any Iron Buchblogger debts. Can't afford it, mind.

So, these singles on the short end of the spectrum brought me back to the short story. Not that I was very far away from them before, what with my students unearthing new ones every summer term, but I hadn't read too many of them fresh from the publishers, rather slightly older stuff, or simply, the stuff that tends to get washed up at universities some decades after their first publication. And some things that I like about the short story popped back into my consciousness again; the limited perspective of the narration, the sketchiness of the characters who don't need a back story or anything to make their stories interesting or plausible. They're stories that are sort of 'natural' stories; for me, they are like meeting someone in a bar who - perhaps slightly drunkenly - tells you a story, something they've experienced and want to share for one reason or another. And as with strangers in a pub, I think there's a similar momentary  intimacy that retreats within minutes after having read the last sentence - no, I don't want to know more about those people and what happened to them afterwards; I'm content and intrigued with what I heard, that's that and that is good.

Tech stuff: After having been not really convinced of reading the files in PDF format, I finally managed to read Almost Blue on my kindle app for Android (yay!). Unfortunately you need to trick the app into believing that you bought it via the kindle shop, which is not as intuitive as it should be. Anyway, once you've found the folder where the app stores its ebooks and you've copied your brand new single into this bespoke folder, it works perfectly (took me only ten days to figure this out - of course the idea came in the middle of the night - so if you ever experience similar troubles and my solution turns out to work for you too, think of me and offer me a highly paid position right away - you won't regret it).

Book Single information:
Almost Blue, by Tony O'Neill. Published by Galley Beggar Press, 2013. GBP 1.

Next week I'll try out singles by another publisher. In fact, they only just launched last week, so this stuff would be hot off the presses if there was such a thing any longer. Watch this space!