Writer’s Corner: Ungrammatical

The Evolution of the Book mural at the Library of Congress (John White Alexander, c. 1896)
The Evolution of the Book mural at the Library of Congress (John White Alexander, c. 1896)

The last few years have been a boon for grammar sticklers. Surprise bestsellers like Eats, Shoots & Leaves tried valiantly to stem the ever-growing tide of language informality in Western culture.

But writers are a rebellious lot. And while they appreciate the keeping up of standards—if you live by the word, one can get a mite protective about their being abused—they also don’t like being told what they can’t do. In other words, if the muse demands that a sentence begin with “and,” then so be it.

For that kind of writer, Steven Pinker provides herewith a helpful list of 10 grammar rules (he thinks) it’s perfectly okay to ignore. A few selections:

  • Prepositions at the end of a sentence: “There is nothing, repeat nothing, wrong with “Who are you looking at?” or “The better to see you with” or “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” or “It’s you she’s thinking of”.
  • Split infinitives: “Most mythical usage rules are merely harmless. The prohibition of split infinitives (as in “Are you sure you want to permanently delete all the items and subfolders in the ‘Deleted Items’ folder?”) and the even more sweeping prohibition of “split verbs” (as in “I will always love you” and “I would never have guessed”) is downright pernicious.”
  • Who and whom: “The best advice to writers is to calibrate their use of “whom” to the complexity of the construction and the degree of formality they desire. If William Safire, who wrote the New York Times‘ “On Language” column and coined the term “language maven” in reference to himself, could write, “Let tomorrow’s people decide who they want to be president,” so can you.”

Readers’ Corner: 3 Hopefully-Great September Books

Since summer is nearly on its way out and everybody is trying to finish up their beach reading—note to self: bring lighter books, both in weight and subject time, next time—it’s time to get on with what’s going to be hitting bookstore display tables in the next few months. Here’s a glance at five September titles that look the most promising:

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The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House, $30)

After the historical misfire of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet, Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell might be getting back to what he does best: spinning vast, pointillist sagas that cross space, time, and dimensions without ever being less than precise. This one spans decades and involves a runaway teenager who might be psychic and a secret cabal of “dangerous mystics.” There’s an excerpt of the book here.

 

childrenact1September 9

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Random House, $25)

Ian McEwan’s last book was 2012’s superb spy story Sweet Tooth. Now he looks to be getting back to the topical territory of novels like SaturdayThe Children Act follows a family court judge who has to decide whether or not to overrule a teenager’s religious decision to forego medical treatment that could save his life.

 

margaretthatcher1September 30

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt, $27.99)

Apparently to tide us over until the third volume in her Thomas Cromwell series (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Mantel provides this in-the-meantime collection of stories about “dislocation and family fracture, of whimsical infidelities and sudden deaths with sinister causes, [which] brilliantly unsettle the reader in that unmistakably Mantel way.”

Department of Weekend Reading: August 29, 2014

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New in Theaters: ‘One Chance’ Nearly Makes It

Alexandra Roach gets charmed by James Corden, playing an unlikely opera singer from Wales, in 'One Chance' (Weinstein)
Alexandra Roach gets charmed by James Corden, playing an unlikely opera singer from Wales, in ‘One Chance’ (Weinstein)

One Chance, one of those charming but really-should-have-been-better rom-coms, is opening this weekend in semi-limited release. It’s nearly worth seeing for the inestimable James Corden.

My review is at Film Racket:

For the true story of Paul Potts, the down-on-his-luck Welsh cellphone store clerk with dreams of becoming an opera star, you don’t expect much in the way of nuance. True to form, the folks at Weinstein — who’ve created a decent-sized niche line of feel-good stories with light quirk, preferably from the United Kingdom — and David Franckel, director of well-acted fluff both tolerable (The Devil Wears Prada) and not (Hope Springs) leave the nuance behind and goes for broke on the cute, lightly sprinkled with comedy. The formula, part romantic comedy and part Billy Elliot, comes close to working, but collapses at the conclusion like a poorly-made cake. That’s what happens when your big finale involves Simon Cowell…..

You can see the trailer here:

Now Playing: Romantic Comedy Sci-Fi in ‘The One I Love’

Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass get a surreal bit of marriage counseling in 'The One I Love' (RADiUS-TWC)
Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass get a surreal bit of marriage counseling in ‘The One I Love’ (RADiUS-TWC)

The One I Love is playing now in highly limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

How well can we ever know each other? That’s one of the less interesting questions posed by Charlie McDowell’s willowy and romantic science-fiction two-hander with a Twilight Zone twist about a couple with marriage problems whose sojourn at a therapeutic retreat takes a quirky turn. When the story is fully locked in, it wrestles with some more gripping issues of identity and a Machiavellian spin on relationship dynamics. But all too often, it falls back on easygoing relationship drama that saps the underlying premise of its more meaningful promise….

You can see the trailer here:

Writer’s Corner: Anaïs Nin on Saying It All

Anais Nin (Elsa Dorfman, c.1970s)
Anais Nin (Elsa Dorfman, c.1970s)

As one of the twentieth century’s more celebrated and mutinous rebel authors, Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) didn’t seem to keep much back. After all, she made money for a time in the 1940s by knocking out ornately gilded pornography at a buck a page for an anonymous, wealthy collector. The stories were later prettied up under the label “erotica” and published posthumously in collections like Delta of Venus.

Although she wanted to be remembered for her knotty and abstract avant-garde fictions like Cities of the Interior, Nin gained true notoriety for her multi-volume diary. The first iterations were high-toned smutty gossip for the literary set, liberally threaded with luminous poetic musings. deltaofvenusThey detailed her lavishly busy and experimental love life—including a 12-year affair with fellow literary rule-breaker Henry Miller—but were later outdone by the release (starting last year) of the completely unexpurgated diaries. This revised series includes everything cut out earlier by request of some of her then-living lovers.

Nin’s career-long back and forth between taboo-busting and rectitude makes this piece of writerly advice even more fascinating:

The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say but what we are unable to say.

Department of Weekend Reading: August 22, 2014

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