Archive for June, 2009

You get to go to Sydney to check out an APA seminar on the future of e-content, and then visit Ligare, your publisher’s sometime printer. It’s pretty special seeing books being spat magically out of machines that are so complex as to seem intuitive. The older machines were more visually striking, including one which had different stations for the standard black, magenta, cyan and yellow inks, but the newer machines were purringly efficient, feeding undulating paper through the stages of becoming a book. Most excellently, Ligare has a sustainability program, and a huge recycling facility which cost about $500 million. Vegans beware, particularly vegan lawyers – animal glue is still used for certain bound books, because apparently it sticks like no other.

Sydney is beautiful. I hardly ever give it a fair chance, being too busy licking my Sartorialist-inflicted wounds. But its pastel/bold houses, overgrown foliage and expanses of water are kind of too wonderful to hold a grudge for long. Flying in over that winking sapphire ocean and spying the enclosed beaches’ calmer waters made me long for a holiday. The Queen Victoria Building is a six-layered diamond cake of splintered colours, and a shop across the road furnished me with my one and only encounter with these Surface to Air shoes. Luckily, my boss spotted a stapler covered with pink and white rhinestones at a cafe we went to, and – bliss – there was a matching bejewelled calculator. Tacky bingo WIN.
Nothing, however, beats flying back into Melbourne at night over that cheerfully neat grid of electric lights, wound through by the dark snake of the Yarra, the city’s boundaries resembling lax power lines. My ears hardly ever hurt during those descents.

Converse to my experience when reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything (people would look at the sepia-toned cover and think I was a learned nerd; notwithstanding the accuracy of the nerd part, it was galling, etc), reading Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves was conducive to some fairly different interactions with other members of society. Nothing to do with the gung-ho ‘punctuation warrior’ approach Truss espouses in the book, but it did bring on an unexpected encounter with a stranger on a tram. The fellow, older than I (and I suspect, quite inebriated), pointed at the cover and commented that his nickname at university had been ‘Wombat’, because he ‘eats, roots and leaves’. Pretty good. Amused by this anecdote, I humoured his desire for conversation. I was in the middle of telling him that he should encourage his son to learn languages from as young an age as possible when he fell asleep. Literally, actually, does-this-actually-happen fell asleep. Oh well. A friendship bites the dust.

I am sure that Truss would like this anecdote. She has a great sense of humour, though that sense of humour is often displayed in conjunction with an alarmingly violent distaste for incorrect use of punctuation marks. Eats, Shoots and Leaves (the title refers to a panda-walks-into-a-bar joke) reminds me how important voice is in non-fiction. Truss is a scampish vigilante who would be lots of fun at a dinner party, and the book comes with punctuation stickers which she exhorts her fellow guerillas to use in the quest for perfect public punctuation. Though not a ‘grammarian’, she’s sought help from old sovereigns of the English language, such as Amis, Burchfield, Fowler and Bryson.
Our friend Truss rightly points out that exacting standards in punctuation can be important beyond their usual vocation in alerting our companions to how educated we are. Take a look at the difference between the following expressions of a Bible passage (Isaiah, xl, 3):
“Comfort ye my people” (please go out and comfort my people)
“Comfort ye, my people” (just cheer up, you lot; it might never happen)
Doctrinal differences, indeed. I don’t think I had many doctrinal differences with Truss; she keeps it pretty simple. There are five chapters dealing with punctuation marks themselves: the comma, the apostrophe and the sub-editor’s nightmare, the hyphen, each get a chapter of its own; while the colon and semicolon share a chapter (in which Truss ashamedly entrusts us with an anecdote about her 14-year-old self trying to intellectually best an American penpal by using the word ‘desultory’, as well as throwing a colon in for good measure). A fourth chapter brings these guys: ! ? ‘ together with the dash and italics.
It’s really entertaining, and classic ‘I’m learning, but I’m having too much fun to realise I’m learning!’ stuff. Truss’s examples of how punctuation can finely mould the meaning of strings of words are often hilarious, and they’re also balanced with the recognition that once you’ve got all the rules down pat, you can kind of fling them away in a judicious manner if the flinging-away serves to make your writing more tasty.
Worth noting is the fact that this is a British book, and for reasons I’ve previously discussed (also strenously and disapprovingly pointed out by Louis Menand in his review for The New Yorker here) Eats, Shoots and Leaves is relevant only to the practice of British writers. It’s okay for Australians too, as we’re fairly British-leaning and non-standardised in our punctuation usage. Some of Menand’s, uh, crispy comments:

The supreme peculiarity of this peculiar publishing phenomenon is that the British are less rigid about punctuation and related matters, such as footnote and bibliographic form, than Americans are. An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces. Some of Truss’s departures from punctuation norms are just British laxness. In a book that pretends to be all about firmness, though, this is not a good excuse. The main rule in grammatical form is to stick to whatever rules you start out with, and the most objectionable thing about Truss’s writing is its inconsistency. Either Truss needed a copy editor or her copy editor needed a copy editor. Still, the book has been a No. 1 best-seller in both England and the United States.

Oh dear – maybe he knew the American penpal. It’s true that there are trip-ups in the book, and it’s true that the book isn’t really a style manual: it’s more of a researched monologic extravaganza. But I’m okay with that, for some reason. It’s really fun. But the one thing I did not like was the final chapter, which bemoans the impending ‘intellectual impoverishment’ we invite if we allow ‘proper’ punctuation to go the way of the dodo because of swifter, less considered communications on the internet. This kind of talk has dated horribly since 2003, and there’s a cringeworthy section in which Truss ridicules emoticons. This part is overlong, lecturey and therefore a bit boring – it could be revised or cut out for future editions. Also, I happen not to agree with most of her assertions, and the niche-filling weight of now widespread e-conventions makes her rant look a bit silly.
Time to wind this bad boy up. In a nutshell: basic, super fun, not without its faults, but I’d date it.
June 25, 2009

Oh, thank god. There’s someone else who hasn’t read Virginia Woolf yet. This year, I promise. And then Tolstoy and Foster Wallace and Iris Murdoch and Flaubert and Barthelme and Updike and Musil and O’Connor and Munro. You too, Salinger. Literary guilt: just how different is it to Catholic guilt? I have, however, bought a Woolf book this week, a Vintage two-hander: A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas.

Damned Rushdie and Murakami. I wasted my youth on you.

June 23, 2009

New book Lacan at the Scene is like CSI: Psychoanalysis. via.

Review of a new book about Jean Rhys, a writer whom everyone should read, by Maud Newton.
Although the book appeared to wide acclaim, Rhys held a grudge against editor Diana Athill for, she believed, publishing it prematurely. “‘It was not finished,’ she said coldly. She then pointed out the existence in the book of two unnecessary words. One was ‘then,’ the other ‘quite.’”

Tim Winton wins the Miles Franklin award. Will I ever read it? The only Tim Winton book I ever read was Cloudstreet, and I don’t remember it very fondly or very well. Might be time to give one of his other books a crack.
Matt has created a cool little list of ‘paired’ literature – kind of like wines and food.
Wells Tower will take a short story class at Melbourne Writers Festival this year. Get acquainted with his verbally elegant self.
Literary furries rejoice.

When someone asks you what you are reading, and you so cheerfully tell them it is a history of the Oxford English Dictionary, it is unlikely that their response will be very animated. Unless, of course, it is a person who has already read The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester, because such a person will know that it is a seriously good book. Hold your head high against those who would pigeonhole you (‘Nerd. Nerrrrrd. NERD NERD NERD NERD NERD’ etc.) because Winchester is a cheeky writer with a dashing feel for historical narrative; and, in fact, a few of the chaps involved in the compilation of the OED were a bit cheeky too. I was pretty ready to enjoy this book, in any case, as the Shorter OED is my dictionary of choice. Its authority derives from stylish, succinct, impeccably researched, absolute coverage of the English language: essential reference material for any avowed philologist.
I love reading about British men from days of yore. There’s something about them – swanning around in boating caps, tapping their pens on the edges of inkhorns, and positively swimming in money and learning and propriety – that I find hilarious. Don’t pretend that a historical period when the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths was alive and kicking wouldn’t have been pretty dandy. If someone were to ask me which historical era I would like to visit, 1800s England would definitely under consideration, because making sure I was using the correct spoon to eat watermelon, tatting lace and learning Latin all sound like my idea of a good time. Wait, now I’m not sure if I’m still being facetious. But take it from me; the cover of this book, featuring an image of a smiling real-life Dumbledore (it’s one-time OED editor Frederick Furnivall – great name, right?) doesn’t promise anything it can’t deliver: books, old white men, snarky letters, filing arrangements, murderers, and people so learned as to make good old Ben Naparstek seem like a bit of an underachiever. Example: It was said that Henry Bradley, senior editor of the OED from 1896, learned Russian in a matter of 14 days, ‘with no help but the alphabet and a knowledge of the principles of Indo-Germanic philology.’
When the OED was but a dream in the learned ether, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was the British gold standard of word-reference books, while in America, Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language reigned supreme. (It was actually very popular in Britain, too.) Winchester’s exposition is fantastic: a brief, fascinating history of the English language is followed by a discussion of the philosophical niceties relating to the enterprise of creating a dictionary – should such a book be conservative, forbidding usages other than those fixed therein; or should a dictionary’s steering team acknowledge the unparalleled fluidity of the English language, which grows and feeds greedily upon various sources, unlike the tightly controlled lexical glaciers of Italy and France?
Winchester has an eye for illuminating trivia that make history come alive. He points out that the first English-only dictionary (dictionaries produced before 1604 were predominantly compiled for translation purposes) was collated to feature short meanings of plain words ‘for the benefit and helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons’. Yeah – my unskilfull lady-self feels so benefited that I think I will vomit. Yet he also fleshes out the trials of the OED’s construction, including the exponentially growing resources pumped into it by Oxford University and other benefactors: the original estimate for the dictionary’s completion was 10 years and £9000; but it took 54 years and cost £300,000. Wisely, Winchester leads us through the dictionary’s tale by concentrating on some of the key figures in its production – the first three editors: sickly Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet), Furnivall (who had a penchant for very young ladies, and started an all-female sculling team) and stern draper’s son and school-leaver James Murray, who saw the dictionary almost through to completion.

There is nothing dry or boring about The Meaning of Everything. Story-wise, it’s wonderful: the OED was on the brink of being discontinued several times, and though the battles framing its completion were all eventually won, it’s scary for language tragics to contemplate what might not have been. In addition to putting the facts and figures of the OED on record, this history of what is now considered the most comprehensive, definitive record of the English language raises questions about how the language was and is formed, created and democratised. Language, equally integral to daily life as it is to matters of great abstraction and complexity, is often taken for granted, and The Meaning of Everything engagingly tells of the immense effort and foresight poured into what is one of the greatest literary enterprises known to the anglophone world.

My first introduction to Georges Simenon was a Paris Review interview; I usually avoid these long, intimate and revealing pieces, as they’re guaranteed to make me chase the works of the profiled author, and my bookshelf requests respite, sometimes. But who wouldn’t be intrigued by a man who wrote 60-80 pages a day? This copy of The Blue Room was a lucky find at one of the City Library’s biannual book sales, where most everything is one dollar. Scoop-ups a-plenty. It’s in rather nasty condition, clearly having been the victim of a spill, but c’est la vie. I don’t generally read crime fiction, but I do like the occasional television crime show. So I’m not averse to the genre per se; I’m just usually much more focused on literary fiction. I like crime shows because they’re ‘hard fluff’ – you get your easy-to-pigeonhole characters, your souped-up logic and of course your predictable cathartic denouement, which is what a girl sometimes needs after a long day of shoe shopping.

The Blue Room didn’t quite adhere to these expectations. A little more interesting than your local cop show, it’s set in Saint-Justin-du-Loup, one of the many hamlets and villages of rural France where residents often have known no other home in all their lives. It opens with a conversation between two lovers:

‘Have I hurt you?’
‘Are you angry with me?’

These memories are rendered as replay in Tony Falcone’s mind, endless undertow troubling him while he is being questioned by psychiatrists and court officials. We only find out slowly what the crime is, and though it’s a slow-burning question, the crime itself is not the prime target of Simenon’s gaze. The reader is given front-row seats to the spectacle of the suspect’s torment – after a nicety sought by the judge during questioning: ‘This endless wrangling over words!’ In response to a line of questioning that would be thrown out even in the laissez-faire world of the American crime television franchises, we have ‘Tony, staring blindly into the Judge’s face…trying desperately to understand, to explain.’

In France, the criminal justice system is inquisitorial (rather than adversarial, as in Australia or the UK), and the judge’s wide-ranging, erosive questioning is compounded by the condemnation of the townspeople, whose propinquity explains their quickness to judge. Simenon maintains the pressure of these comparisons, describing the judge as a man not unlike Tony, a man who even likes Tony for who he is. It’s a quiet book which easily evokes the burden of trial by small town, as mild as it is utterly bewildering.

The Blue Room defied my baseless expectations of crime novels, though, granted, I don’t read many of those. It wasn’t a dense read, and did quench my thirst for lighter fare. But rather than just focus on gore or extreme personalities, though the latter certainly feature in the book, Simenon invites us to interrogate our opinions on culpability and traces the relationship between thoughtlessness and expectation: can we be guilty for the passions of others?

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