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Saturday, January 11, 2020

Just Hangin' Out

Thursday's sunset
After a nearly sleepless night, I stayed home Thursday for a day of housecleaning while the Artist went to town, and then, taking a break to walk down  to the mailbox in the teeth of a cold west wind, managed to lock myself out of the house, with my cell phone in the house and a pan of milk left simmering on the stove. Ah, yes. That was Thursday, a grey, blustery, bitterly cold day in the ghost town. For all that grief, the mailbox had been empty, too. Friday had to be better.

And it was. 

Road to Chiricahua
On Friday our mailbox was full; friends from Michigan came for lunch; and in the afternoon the Artist and I made an expedition to the Mustang Mall, taking the Chiricahua way down and the Kansas Settlement Road back. 

Clouds stringing along
Clouds were beautiful, all around. And coming back to the cabin -- coming home -- we sighed with contentment as we settled into reading chairs with our respective books.

Moonlit mountains and desert

Books Read Lately

Several of the last few books I’ve read I can recommend, beginning with The Waning of the West, essays by Stan Steiner, published after his death in 1987. Steiner, born in Coney Island, New York, in 1925, fell in love with the West and spent most of his life writing about it. He challenged many Western myths and stereotypes and wrote not only of cowboys and ranchers but also of minority communities throughout frontier history. He acknowledged and insisted on the role of strong women in building the West; wrote the formerly untold story of Spanish Jews (run out of Spain by the Inquisition) and their role in Mexican ranching history; paid attention not only to Navajos in history but also to changes in the Navajo relationships with U.S. government and with corporations, etc. “The New West,” which the author died before he could finish, positions Ronald Reagan as a “new Westerner” and seeks to understand continuities and novelties in the evolving Western character, which he sees as the essential but very complicated American character 

While many details and statistics in The Waning of the West are dated, I recommend it for the the insights and political questions the author raises, issues we wrestling with in our country yet today. Perhaps Steiner’s most well-known book is La Raza: The Mexican Americans, one I need to read sometime in 2020. I also want to read The Last Horse, despite its, to me, frightening title.

Change of pace -- 

Then there was Greenwillow, a plunge into escape literature if ever there was one! B. J. Chute’s novel was a bestseller when it first appeared in 1956, and Lewis Gannett of the New York Herald Tribune thought it might “prove the literary find” of the year. Have you ever heard of it? Or of B. J. Chute? I had not. It begins:
Long ago, centuries perhaps, the village of Greenwillow had been stood in the corner and forgotten.

The following, gently meandering story takes place within the confines of the forgotten country village and its environs. There is a village church. When need arises for a new minister, one appears out of nowhere; when the need has been satisfied, one way or another the minister whose purpose has been fulfilled vanishes from the scene. It must be said that not everyone in and around Greenwillow is “churchly.” Only in the eyes of Reverend Lapp, however, are those who fail to attend services putting their souls in danger; Reverend Birdsong, who preaches sermons of love, leaving the devil, hellfire, and damnation to his colleague, apparently harbors no such fears.

Out in the country lives Martha Briggs, with her mother-in-law, Grannie Briggs; her stepson, Gideon; and all the little Briggses that have come along since Martha married the widower Amos, a wandering man. Amos, himself the first son of a wandering man, disappeared when he had the call to wander. Now he returns “at intervals” (as Reverend Birdsong observed), always long enough to ensure that, in time, another little Briggs will come to occupy the cradle. Gideon Briggs manages the farm and will until he gets the call himself — in anticipation of which he has vowed he will never wed, will leave no wife to raise children alone, nor father another wanderer to do the same in turn.

Down in the village live two sisters, Miss Maidy and Miss Emma, and with them lives Dorrie, a girl with no other name. No one knows Dorrie’s antecedents. As did more recently the Reverend Birdsong, Dorrie simply appeared one day, out of nowhere. A child then, she was taken in by the sisters and, to their delighted surprise, demonstrated what could only be called a gift for cooking and housekeeping. Now under the sisters’ roof Dorrie is becoming a woman. 
Dorrie put her elbows on her knees and her chin on her fists and stared, gray-eyed and interested. It did seem hard on Mrs. Briggs that she should have wedded a wandering man, and hard on Gideon too, left with a farm and a fistful of kinfolk.

When the two reverends hear that Amos Briggs is back, Reverend Lapp is determined to impress upon Amos his duty to stay at home, and to his annoyance the easy-going Reverend Birdsong seems to feel he must go along, too.
When they came near the little meadow, they could hear Gideon’s scythe singing and the silky whisper of tall grass dropping down, and the late grasshoppers talking around the edge. The scent followed the scythe, the hot oven smell of yellow turning brown, the dusty-powder smell of clover, the sharp smell of bruised pennyroyal like a plume in the air….

The implacable, imperative call to wander, along with suspicions that the Devil himself may be at work in their midst, are the flies in the otherwise soothing ointment of Greenwillow life. But, as my friend Kathy in New South Wales says, I would not for quids spoil the story for you by telling you how everything comes out!

Moving on —

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Marry Norris, is a book I would have bought for the title alone. In fact, in truth, I did. 

But Between You and Me is far from a dry grammar reference book. Instead Norris gives us, in essays on particular grammatical issues, enticing scraps of memoir. A girl from Cleveland who studied dairy science along with English and drove a milk truck winds up working at the New Yorker! Well, that is a story!

Grammatical nitty-gritty stuff morphs into the personal early on, but I have to begin with the nitty-gritty. Let's begin with pronouns. Between You & Me? (Yes, there is an ampersand instead of a spelled-out conjunction in the title.) I’m there! 

I can overlook casual, conversational, colloquial, spoken instances of “between you and I” or “to Alphonse and I” (here I choose an unusual name to protect the guilty), but it drives me up the wall when paid professional writers (I’m not making this up) use these incorrect forms! As if they knew no better! (Do they not? Scary!) Or when I hear an ‘I’ that should be a ‘me’ on the national evening news! I want to shout out loud (and sometimes do), “Get it straight!”  

It seems to me that getting object pronouns right is unbelievably easy and that there is no excuse for a professional writer to fall into error on this score. It isn’t like figuring out how or when to use the subjunctive, for heaven’s sake, or being clear about the difference between the verbs ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ (where ‘lay’ is the past tense of ‘lie’ and ‘laid’ the past tense of ‘lay,’ one verb intransitive and one transitive, and God save us from remembering out what those terms mean!), which the same people, i.e., professional writers, should also make an effort to figure out if they want to call themselves writers — or maybe those thorny bits can be left to copy editors? But pronouns??? 

(1) “He gave it to Alphonse. He gave it to me.” 
(2) “He gave it to Alphonse and I”??? WRONG!!! 
Correct: “He gave it to Alphonse and me.” See (1).

Mary Norris, though, is no drill sergeant. She never puts on an annoying, smarter-than-thou act. For example, she freely admits to the amusement she felt when hearing people pronounce correctly words she thought they were mispronouncing. Coming from a modest background in Cleveland, Ohio, there were many words she had only seen in print and never heard pronounced, as well as words she had never encountered at all and could not believe were real words, which explained the faux pas she made when changing the word ‘terrine’ to read ‘tureen’ in copy she was editing. Fortunately, someone down the line caught that, and her error did not go into print. That is, she not only points out mistakes made by others but cops to her own. Disarming, n’est-ce pas? Refreshing!

Back to pronouns. Gendered pronouns, Norris tells us, became much more important and freighted with meaning for her when a beloved sibling decided to transition from male to female — and in this context Norris expresses gratitude for the English word ‘sibling,’ a word with no equivalent, she tells us, in Italian. 
One of the first sentences I formed in Italian class was ‘Mio fratello vuole essere mia sorella”: “My brother wants to be my sister.” 

She (Norris, that is) realizes how important words are when Dee, the sibling in question, is cast into gloom over having Mary refer to her as ‘he’ rather than ‘she’ when speaking to their waiter in a restaurant. There is a subsequent, quite enchanting scene with their mother. 

Well, I could go on, but you get the general idea. If you have an interest in language and writing, you will find this an enchanting book. I laughed out loud more than once while reading to myself and had to read several amusing passages aloud to the Artist, after he commented, “Someone is enjoying that book!” Indeed!

Oh, what the hell! I’ll go on a bit longer.

Any copy editor’s eye (and I worked as a copy editor -- but remember, I have no editor for this blog, so leave me a comment if you find errors!) is, always, not only on the sparrow but on every crumb and seed in the vicinity. So as you might imagine, reading a book by a copy editor and about copy-editing (note: hyphenation distinction as made by author’s employer, the New Yorker magazine) gave my own inner editor a strenuous workout. And once or twice, it was what the author did not note in her examples that I found striking.

In Chapter 5, “Comma Comma Comma Comma, Chameleon,” Norris dwells — and I mean, she dwells — on a particular passage from Melville, asking her reader to think about Melville’s placement of commas and how the commas might be used differently. She tries it this way and that. Okay. But what jumped out at me in the quoted passage was the way Melville conjugated the verb ‘to lie.’ 
Often have I lain thus, when the fact, that if I laid much longer I would actually freeze to death, would come over me….

All right, picture the scene. See character lying down. He has been lying down for quite a while, as he must do every night if he is to get any sleep: “Often have I lain thus.” Fine. But why on earth does Melville shift from the correct to the incorrect, the intransitive to the transitive, writing “if I laid” rather than “if I lay”? He is not, after all, in danger of laying an egg! And I realize that the focus in this example is on commas, but I kept waiting for Norris to mention that verb business in an aside — and endnote — something. Silence.

Another Melville example was initially much more alarming to me. The author of Moby-Dick, frustrated over the number of errors in proofs from his English publisher (of The Whale, as it was titled over there), finally decided to correct the worst and let the rest go, “jeering with himself at the rich harvest thus furnished to the entomological critics.” I couldn’t believe my eyes on first, second, and third readings of this passage. Light dawned at last on a fourth reading: the errors constituted for Melville “minute, gnat-like torments”! Entomological! Gnats! All right!

Such are the torments, pleasures, and delights of a reader cursed and blessed with the eye of an inner copy editor.

And now — history, fiction, grammar set aside — I turn to suspense and crime in the world of (believe it or not) bookselling as I open the first pages of John Grisham’s Camino Island. So if you want me in the next couple of days, I’ll be in Florida, hanging out with very shady characters! In the world of rare books and bookselling no less!

Spanish moss -- miles away from the desert!

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