Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

Musings about language, books, grammar, and writing in general

Catching Up on Life and Reading

First, I apologize for not being more regular about posting. It’s been a rough two years, including spinal surgery, and more heart work. That, plus all the usual junk that life piles on you, and writing crashes to the bottom of the priority list for a bit.

So, In May of 2016, I woke up one morning and could not get out of bed. Literally. It took three EMTs almost half an hour to get me into a transport chair so they could get me out of the apartment, and I was screaming in pain the whole time. It turns out that a number of things had gone wrong. There was sciatica, which I had known about, but there was also stenosis, a nerve so pinched at the base of my spine that the doctors couldn;t even find it on the MRI, degenerative arthritis at the base of my spine that no one knew about, two crumbling disks, and an infection between the two crumbling disks that was doing its damnedest to get into my spine.  I spent six weeks in what is probably the worst rehab place in Brooklyn (ask me offline if you want the gory details) getting IV antibiotics, then a few weeks at home to make sure the antibiotics had worked. Then I had a consultation with a neurosurgeon, and spinal surgery was scheduled. The good news is that even though there was some discomfort after the surgery, the relief was so profound that the discomfort could pretty much be ignored. Then came the slow recovery. Now, what I didn’t know at the time was that none of the doctors involved, except my primary care guy (who is a saint) believed I would ever walk again. Fortunately, I proved my primary care guy right and surprised all the others. However, just after Passover this year, my heart started racing. I mean my heart rate was something like 130 when I was just sitting at my desk. I called my doctor and was diagnosed with atrial flutter, a situation where the heart’s electric signals are getting missent. It’s not quite as serious as atrial fibrillation but does increase risks for strokes, heart attacks and the like. I went into the hospital for a cardioversion (basically electroshock therapy for the heart) and it worked. BUT…two weeks later, I had another episode. My cardiologist (another saint), set me up with a cardiac electrophysiologist, who recommended that I have a procedure called an ablation, wherein the tissue that is misfiring is basically destroyed, allowing the heart to return to a normal pace. I had that procedure about three weeks ago, and things are getting back to normal, although we are having some fun trying to find a new balance for my meds.

I have been able to start reading again, since my ability to concentrate is one of the things that has been returning. Not that I wasn’t trying to read this whole time; I was just having enough concentration issues that in stead of a joy, it was becoming downright unpleasant.

I am now trying to finish books I had started and given up on along the way, as well as new books.

In that regard, I am reading Excelsior, You Fathead!: THe Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, by Eugene B. Bergmann. I was surprised at having a hard time reading this (not realizing that it was largely because of the physical stuff) before my health issues kicked up because I have always been a fan of Jean Shepherd’s. My mom always had WOR-AM on her radios in the house, so I grew up falling asleep at night to Shep’s delicious cynicism. I have picked the book up again (thank God for Kindle readers), and it now seems less of a slog.

In fact, what inspired this entry is something that Shep came up with in the late 1950s (when I would have been listening to him every night that he was on): Dream Collection Day! What Shep proposed was that the city declare one day to be Dream Collection Day, on which day everyone could put out on their stoop, like so much garbage, all the dreams they had not achieved, along with the paraphernalia for chasing those dreams. His contention is that those old dreams are doing nothing more than making us feel guilty and holding us back from what we could be doing if we were living in the present moment. Thing is, from my great perspective of almost 65 years, I think he might be onto something here.

I received an email today from an acquaintance who was bemoaning that nothing he had tried in his just under eighty years on the planet had worked out the way he had wanted it to. in his words, “My entire life could best be described as an unrealized potential–a tale of what MIGHT have been; not a tale of what ACTUALLY happened. Not for a single moment did my shafts hit the bullseye. I was off by a mile. I was considered second-rate; never a winner. I was no more than a face in the crowd; a nameless, unidentifiable being; a nobody.” Now, this friend is about to have a second volume of poetry published – not a mean feat these days. Yet all he can see is the things that didn’t happen. And he judges his life as being worthless because of those. I wonder what it could be if he could focus on going forward, rather than looking back in despair. I also am debating taking Shep’s idea and putting it to use in my life. I have been wanting to

I also am debating taking Shep’s idea and putting it to use in my life. I have been wanting to get rid of tons of things over the last few years, and have even made some attempts at doing so before I got sick. I think I need to look at the stuff in my life, and see what dreams are no longer relevant to me, and sell, give away, or toss out the things pertaining to them.

In other news, I have been reading a delightful series by Shira Glassman; the Mangoverse series. It revolves around a Jewish, lesbian queen named Shulamit; her wife in all but name, Aviva; Riv/Rivka, her cross-dressing bodyguard; and Riv’s husband, Isaac, a man/dragon shapeshifter. The series is fun, silly, delightful, and way too damned short. I want more stories about them. I stumbled onto this series because the author is a Twitter friend of one of my real-life friends, and I had interacted with her through my friend’s Twitter account and liked her. She’s also done some stand-alone book, and I read the first one, Knit One, Girl Two, with great delight (except that it was too darned short and I want to read more about Clara, Jasmine, The Phantom, and Danielle)! I highly recommend this book, as well as the Mangoverse series.

Another thing I got to read, thanks to the wonderful Lawrence Block, who seems to have gotten me listed as a reader/reviewer for Random House, was a book by Donald E. Westlake, Forever and a Death, which is – according to Random House – his first novel. It was delicious, with all the hallmarks of a great Westlake read. Not Dancing Aztecs, by any means, not a Dortmunder, but well worth the time spent reading it. Again, highly recommended, especially if you are a Westlake fan.

There is so much more I have to recommend, but I think that’s enough for one post. So I will be back to my regular schedule soon, I hope, and look forward to seeing everyone again.

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White, Hot, and True – A review of Danielle LaPorte’s WHITE HOT TRUTH

 

White Hot Truth: Clarity for Keeping It Real on Your Spiritual Path from One Seeker to AnotherWhen I first heard Danielle LaPorte through The Yoga Summit, I knew I was hearing someone special. WHITE HOT TRUTH just reproves that. LaPorte is funny, wise, and practical. Part memoir, part what-to-avoid, part how-to-get-there, this book is an enjoyable survey of what worked for her and what didn’t. She has strong advice on how to evaluate teachers, gurus, or other practitioners, and lots of advice on how to follow your own star. Also, unlike many books of this type, she notes why many practices are not “one-size-fits-all.”

Much of her book resonated with me, and rang true to the experiences I’ve had with various groups. I also had a couple of key breakthroughs on things I had never gotten closure on through reading her experiences.

I highly recommend this book if you consider yourself to be on any kind of spiritual path, whether mainstream, New Age, obscure, or fringe.

Kindles and Tablets and Phones, Oh My!

As most of you know, I am a pretty deep and wide reader. I will read anything that doesn’t run away fast enough. My apartment has more books than bookshelves, even with the four additional bookshelves I inherited when one of my oldest friends moved. Further, my roommate is a retired librarian. If there is a flat surface in our house other than the kitchen counter and table that is not covered with books, you can be sure it soon will be. I love to crack open a good book, and I always will.

That said, I am a great fan of e-books and e-readers. I wasn’t always, I admit, but I have come around. E-readers and e-reading apps make life easy. My Kindle has, as of this morning, 3,098 e-books on it. Imagine the delight of carrying that much reading material with me, especially since having several major surgeries, both of which have required me to drastically cut down the amount of stuff I can lug around on any given day. Further, so long as I remember to bring a charging cable with me, the devices can be used to make long hospital stays much more endurable.

Even better, I can borrow e-books from both the Brooklyn and New York Public Libraries. This means that new books are just a few clicks away. I can even send things like knitting patterns to my Kindle or other e-readers, so I am lugging less paper.

Also, one advantage of e-readers and apps is that I can adjust the size of the print to whatever I can comfortably read. Many e-readers and apps also allow you to adjust the brightness and background color to something that your eyes find comfortable. I also like that I can easily make notes, place bookmarks so that I can pick up from the same spot in a book on my Kindle, my tablet, or even my smartphone. I can also choose to have a different book open on each device or app. Since I tend to read several books at a time, this is one of the biggest advantages as far as I’m concerned.

I have found only one downside to using e-readers and apps: I now tend to acquire books at an even faster rate than I did before. The thing is that people, both online and off, keep recommending books and series of books to me. And there are always newsletters and websites to tell me about all the books I might want to read Real Soon Now.  I have actually maxed out my Amazon store card on occasion because of this. It is far too easy, when buying a book for my e-reader, to just buy the whole series – just a few clicks and they are on my device. Still, this does have the upside of being able to have all of a series with me, just in case I need to look back to find something.

So, while books will always hold the premier place in my heart, e-readers and apps will tie for a close second. If you have not used an e-reader, I suggest that you download one of the many e-readers available to either a tablet or smartphone, and give it a try. You may discover that you enjoy the flexibility an e-reader or e-reading app.

I’d love to hear from y’all as to whether you like or hate e-reading devices and apps, so please feel free to comment below!

Reading, Religion, and My Quest for Knowledge

As you guys know, I am a reader. Nothing makes me happier than to curl up with a good book, whether it’s a hardcover or on my Kindle. What you may not know (unless you know me in real life) is that I read multiple books over the same period of time. I might grab a good Lawrence Block mystery in the morning (which I will undoubtedly finish at one sitting because I can’t put it down), and then dip into a few chapters of a cookbook. In the evening, I might read a bit about meditation or a few chapters of a biography.

This year, I am taking on two major reading projects. The first is to read the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) in a year. I’m using a New Revised Standard Version because I cannot find my King James version. I love the way the language is used in the King James. The New Revised Standard is a bit too modern for my taste but, in the smallish doses I read each day, it will serve. The reading plan I am using for this is www.walkthru.org’s “Walk Thru the Bible.

The other project is reading the Talmud. Since I cannot read Hebrew, I am reading the Koren Publications English version of the Steinsaltz Edition. The first three volumes, covering the first two tractates, arrived yesterday (I opted for “real” books for this, rather than an online or PDF version). I cannot claim to be going full Daf Yomi on this project — the reading for today is in the 26th volume, and I suspect it would take forever to catch up. However, I will advance at my own pace – I plan to try for at least two dafs a day on days when I don’t have doctors appointments or other things scheduled.

Now, those of you who know me know that I am not particularly religious so you might raise the question of why I am taking on these two projects. Well, I have always loved learning about religions, and I think it’s time to take the next step and start going deeper into that. I do not intend for these to be the only religious books I add to my list — there are a number of other religions I am also interested in. It just seemed to me that my own religion and the other major religion (Christianity as a whole, rather than any one sect of it) would be the proper place for me to start.

So, my reading multitasking just got bigger by two projects. We’ll see if I can stick to them.

Alexander Hamilton Comes to Town

Hi! I know it’s been a while, but I was off having spinal surgery.

The book I want to talk about today is Ron Chernow’s  in-depth biography of Alexander Hamilton. I bought this e-book because, like most of America, I was fascinated with the alexander_hamilton_ron_chernowsubject after hearing the score for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play, Hamilton.

That Hamilton was, like many New Yorkers, an immigrant, was just part of what made him so fascinating. That his main weapon was words was another thing. I felt that this biography not only brought the man to life, but also brought to life the milieu he lived in. Further, the book didn’t reduce his foes or colleagues to cardboard characters. You could really feel the intensity of Hamilton and his colleagues and foes as they struggled to create and defend a new nation. Further, the political infighting was fascinating, especially given the election we recently had. Also, the writing itself was good

Also, the writing itself was good.Many history books are so dry that they remind me of bad textbooks. Alexander Hamilton avoids that fault. The writing is concise, but lively. While it was not a book I could read in one sitting, often I would sit down to read a chapter or two, get caught up, and be reading far longer than I had planned — sometimes deep into the wee hours of the night.

I highly recommend this book if you are interested in history, both of the United States and New York, or in biographies of the founders of our country.

Book Review: Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel by Lawrence Block

block - cover - writingJust for full disclosure: I was sent an advance reading copy of this book by Mr. Block. Further, I read the original when it came out years ago, and loved it then.

I still love it now. I probably should note that I am not by nature a novel writer, but Block’s views on writing are always interesting and engaging. And I have found his advice valuable, even as an essayist and a short story writer.

Block notes that, until now, he has not been interested in updating the original, because there was nothing substantial to add to it until now. He has become a great advocate of electronic publishing over the last few years, and has taken his own works online.

In order to maintain the book’s initial organization, Block has added his insights about electronic publishing to the various chapters they belong in, using a different typeface for them in the hardcopy version.

One of the best things about the book, however, is Mr. Block himself. He does not come across as preachy, or as laying down the law. He is clearly offering advice based on his experience of over 50 years.

I highly recommend Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print to Pixel, by Lawrence Block to anyone who wants to write, whether or not a novel is in their plans.

The Snark Mark

Ran across an interesting article on the Grammarly blog this morning, “Introducing the Snark Mark and Why You Should Use it,” by Stephanie Katz. In it, Ms. Katz propses using a period followed by a tilde (“.~”, created around 2007 by American typographer Choz Cunningham) at sentence end to indicate when one is being sarcastic online.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I can see where it would be useful, given the opportunities online for miscommunication due to lack of the cues we pick up in real life conversations. On the other hand, I’m not sure that it would catch on. For one thing, many folks these days seem to have enough trouble using one punctuation mark correctly. For another, a part of online communication seems to rely on shortening things to their bare minimum, especially on venues like Twitter. Adding a new punctuation mark – especially a two-stroke one – would take up valuable space.

Still, the article is food for thought, and I’d love to know what you all think.

Review: “The Crime of Our Lives” – Lawrence Block

There’s only one problem with opening a new non-fiction book by Lawrence Block: Your reading list explodes logarithmically. His newest collection of introductions, eulogies, and other appreciations, The Crime of Our Lives, is no exception. In addition to finding authors I already knew of and enjoyed, like Robert B. Parker and Donald E. Westlake, there were a whole bunch whose work I had never heard of, and another bunch of writers who I dimly remember from school — all presented so engagingly that I now have a new list of authors to pursue, along with a batch of notes on their various pseudonyms and notable pieces, so I don’t miss anything. When I mentioned this to my ex — also a Lawrence Block fan — he noted “you don’t have to read every author he recommends.” “Maybe so,” I responded, “but he makes them all sound so engaging.”

And that is the truth of Block’s writing. Fiction or non-fiction, gentleman thief, assassin, adventurer, ex-cop, running essays, stamp collecting, writing — Block’s work is engaging. I have never read a Block book or story that didn’t feel like I was settling in with a good friend for a catch-up session.

In The Crime of Our Lives, he gives overviews of the work of sixteen writers — peppered with anecdotes about them, about his own life and writing, and about writing and the mystery/crime genres in general. One caveat which Block notes in the beginning, is that he has restricted the subjects of the book to deceased American writers, primarily of the “hard-boiled” variety of fiction, and the list has no women on it. He does note that the last is because Christie and Sayers are British while the female American writers he would include are still living. His reasoning is that he does not wish to assemble a list of favorites and upset friends by their exclusion. In his words: “I have mentioned how generous and amiable mystery writers are, how much I enjoy their company, how well we all get along. If you think I am going to change all that by assembling a list of favorites and leaving some of them off it, you’re out of your mind.”*

Among the writers Block covers in this volume: Anthony Boucher, Frederic Brown, Raymond Chandler, Stanley Ellin, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, and Donald E. Westlake.

After reading Block’s overviews, my first instinct was to go to the Brooklyn Public Library website, find all the books by each writer and start putting them on hold, one writer at a time.

If you are a fan of mysteries, crime stories, noir, or all three, this is an interesting, engaging overview of some of the author’s favorite writers, who happen to be among the best in their fields. I highly recommend this book to you. In fact, I recommend this book even if you aren’t a fan of the genre. You might just well become a fan after reading it.

*Block, Lawrence (2015-03-26). The Crime of Our Lives (Kindle Locations 286-288). Lawrence Block. Kindle Edition.

Mixed Reviews, e-Publishing, and Other Amusements

I was recently assigned a short story to review and post about. I did what was required, but did so with a really heavy heart. You see, the book was an e-book, and had many of the faults that keep people from whole-heartedly adopting the technology.

The story idea was mildly interesting. However, the characters were flat and wooden — nothing there for a kid to really relate to. The editing was horrendous – spelling errors and bad grammar to the point where I wanted to write the author and tell him to get a good copy editor and pull this from Amazon until it was fixed. Worst of all, the story was entirely too heavy-handed and preachy; the nicest thing I could say about the way it was handled was that the author’s points could not be missed.

Why do I discuss this here, especially since I did the required review elsewhere, then? I note it to point out what I, and many others, see as some of the problems with e-publishing, especially of the vanity variety. As anyone who reads this blog is probably aware, self-publishing e-books is incredibly easy compared to getting published the “old-fashioned” way. Unfortunately, this means that pretty much anyone can publish stuff — good or bad. Amazon abounds with poorly edited e-books; my favorite mistyped title is The Three Tenants of Prosperity. Gratuitous spelling errors, plots with holes you could have Andre the Giant walk through were he still alive, grammar errors that would be looked at askance in a second-grader’s work…and don’t forget to toss in characters that could be cut from recycled printer paper; sometimes it feels like people are just into parading their ignorance.

Please note that I am not talking here about using various street or regional dialects; those can add real flavor to a story. However, characters whose speech does not reflect who they are just make me want to throw the book at the nearest wall. Part of making fiction good is having the characters put an accurate picture of who they are in the readers’ minds.

However, I digress a bit. It’s not that all e-publishers are bad. Lawrence Block has been e-publishing his books for a while now, and the e-books are just as meticulously edited as his hard copy books are.There are reputable e-publishing houses. What I object to about e-publishing is largely that anyone can put anything out these days. I’m not saying they don’t have a right to – just that all the garbage out there makes it much harder to find the good books by new authors who are exclusively e-publishing for whatever reason. Yes, I know that even paper publishing has small vanity houses where these issues are regular visitors. This is why my reading remains a mix of both e-books and paper books.

I have been working a bit more, as I get healthier. It’s interesting to see all the different styles clients want. There are at least two guides for each of the writing teams I’m on. One is from the client, the second is from the project manager. Often, there are additional guides, cheat sheets, etc.  the most amusing part of this kind of work is making sure your work is not plagiarized – not even accidentally. This is usually done by using a program such as Copyscape, which searches the Web for words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that match your work. Unfortunately, there are things Copyscape flags that cannot be changed, such as your product’s name. Get enough “hits” and you can be let go by your project. Add in to this that most clients provide you with keywords and/or links they want you to use, and turning out 100% original copy becomes, shall we say, interesting. It’s not too terrible for me. Often I find the biggest challenge is writing to an approximate tenth-grade level.

Part of the problem is that the world has changed since I was taught to write. When I was growing up and in school, complex sentences were the sign of an educated person. Not that you used extra words, mind; such sentences had several clauses, but were – optimally – not strings of adjectives and adverbs. Passive voice was often part of formal writing; it served to distance you from your writing – to make the writing sound neutral. The current style is short sentences (I have been told that 25 words is optimal), with few clauses and fairly limited vocabulary. It’s not a style I learned easily, and I use a few programs to check for things like that (my favorite is Hemingway Editor). Anyway, I am finding writing in the new style something of a challenge, but it’s an interesting challenge. Language evolves, and we should evolve with it, even if it moves us out of our comfort zones.

That said, I still am happier when books I read are written with proper grammar and spelling – except when changed for reasons of dialect.

Writing for the Web*

I learned grammar in the 1950’s/1960’s. We parsed (diagrammed) sentences. We learned that complex compound sentences were the mark of educated people. We used colons, semi-colons, ellipses, etc.; and revered the Oxford comma. Our sentences were full of filler (we called it “nuance”). Unmodified nouns (except for proper names) were rare.

That was then.

In many ways, writing is now taught 100% differently from then. Concise, pithy sentences are the goal. Writers avoid adverbs when possible. Adjectives are for those getting paid by the word for fiction. The less punctuation needed to make a sentence clear, the better.

Do I like it? Not one bit! Do I follow these guidelines when web writing? You bet your sweet hiney I do.

The truth is, whether we writers want to admit it or not, good web writing is different from other types of good writing.

GOOD WEB WRITING HAS A SPECIFIC PURPOSE

Good web writing aims to get the reader to do something: order a product, click on a link, share something on social media. Web writing is the textual equal of sound bites. It breaks up ideas with “calls to action.”

A FEW WORDS ABOUT KEYWORDS

Good web writing also utilizes Search Engine Optimization. This is using keywords, or keyword phrases, to cause search engines like Google to recognize your work. This practice is part art, part statistics. You want to use keywords that are the things your audience will use to search for your product or service. However, you want to use them judiciously, so you don’t trip the search engines’ algorithms against keyword stuffing. You also need to know what your client wants. While most clients want a 2-3% keyword density, there is always the chance they will want a different amount. Not adhering to the client’s preference can get your work rejected.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE ATTITUDE

Good web writing is also relentlessly positive in nature. You do not ignore issues.  You just find positive ways to state them. “Our hotel is perfect for when your family wants a quiet getaway,” as opposed to “Our hotel is miles from the center of town.”

PROMISES, PROMISES

Another aspect of good web writing is only promising what the buyer can expect. Rather than saying that your pan is nonstick, say that the pan’s surface is resistant to food sticking. Rather than saying it is “heat-resistant,” say your pan is “oven safe up to ‘X’ degrees.”

THE ONE AND ONLY…

The aim of every client is to have you turn out unique writing. This means that even if they provide one sentence product descriptions, they want you to write between 100 and 300 words about their product so that it does not copy what anyone else has written. Your best investment to achieve this is an anti-plagiarism program, such as Copyscape. When I do web writing, I use Copyscape Premium. For $.05/search, it makes sure that when I submit any writing, it will come through as clean. Since plagiarism is one of the quickest ways to get fired in web-writing, I consider Copyscape an essential. There are also free or low-cost applications, like Hemingway, that highlight style errors. If you are considering web-writing as a career, such an app is one of the best investments you can make.

Most companies provide style guides if they have large amounts of work. This ensures uniform results no matter how many different writers are on the project. The most common style is APA (American Psychological Association) Style. You can find out more about APA Style here.

The good news is that proper web writing is not hard to learn. If you learned to write when I did, you may have to break a few habits: Two spaces after a period has pretty much gone the way of the dodo. Few clients want you to use the Oxford comma, but the ones that do are almost religious about it. You can change these habits; your web writing will be the better for doing so.

*NOTE: Just for the heck of it, this post has been run through both Hemingway and Copyscape.

 

 

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