Thursday, October 29, 2009

Style and Popular Fiction

I've been amusing myself recently with items from the linguistics blog Language Log (latest posts here). One of the topics it has covered in years past is the writing style of Dan Brown, who for those who don't know is the author of The Da Vinci Code and other apparently quite similar thrillers. I don't follow present-day popular culture any more closely than I can help (just as I try not to tailgate on the freeway--it could be hazardous to my health), but as an art historian, I couldn't help hearing about Brown's book, if only because art historians fight an endless battle with students who think that Leonardo da Vinci should be called "Da Vinci." (Being a specialist in modernism, I've stepped back a bit from this fight because I have the opposite problem, that of training my students to stop calling more recent artists by their first names. And not just artists. I just graded a paper that repeatedly, although not consistently, referred to the philosopher Edmund Burke as "Edmund.")
Well--not to digress too far onto the vagaries of students--these pieces, written by Geoffrey K. Pullum, are highly entertaining even for those of us who haven't bothered to read anything by Brown. I am not linking to every last one of the posts, as there are many and some of them are a bit tangential to Brown's stylistic quirks, but this is a good sampling:
The Dan Brown Code
The Sixteen First Rules of Fiction
Dan Brown Still Moving Very Briskly About
Renowned Author Dan Brown Staggered Through His Formulaic Opening Sentence
Learning the Ropes in the Trenches with Dan Brown
Now, while I thought Pullum's observations were quite funny (not to mention that they have taught me a few things I didn't know about what Mark Twain might have called The Awful English Language had he been writing from a German perspective), it did rapidly strike me that prior to his encounters with Brown, Pullum had evidently escaped acquaintance with the language of American popular fiction.
I don't read all that much popular fiction myself, and very little of what I do read falls into the blockbuster category, but I've read enough of that sort of thing that the quotations from Brown's books didn't sound odd to me. My reaction was not so much "My god, the man has execrable style" (after all, I read much worse style every time I grade papers) but "Hmm, sounds like typical bestseller schlock style." I was a bit surprised, in fact, that Pullum was so appalled at Brown's journalism-inspired habit of saying things like "Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered..." It's not a construction I would normally use in my fiction, but then I don't write Brown's kind of fiction.
This might not have struck me so forcefully had I not recently been pawing through a stack of books on writing. A few of them have been on academic writing, but some of them have been on fiction writing, because I am well aware that plotting is hard for me and I thought I might investigate what other writers have said about it.
This bit of investigation quickly reminded me why it has been so many years since I've read books on writing fiction: books on writing fiction are almost invariably designed to teach the reader how to write somewhat like Dan Brown. Whether it be a question of style or plotting, the general sort of thing Brown does is held up as an example of how to write.
I can see why. Brown may have crummy style, but it's vigorous crummy style. When books on fiction writing give examples of good and bad writing, the bad writing is always remarkably inert. Writers like Brown (and to be fair I don't think I've seen a writing text use him as an example, but other thriller writers are quoted liberally) carry the reader along with their energetic words. It may be the energy of an uncoordinated guy playing Whack-a-mole, but that kind of thing clearly appeals to a lot of people.
Since I'm not one of those people, I look at such writing guides and sigh. There may be useful tips in there even for writers of literary fiction, but it's hard to pick them out when the authors are exhorting us to write cliffhangers.
The analyses of Brown's flawed phrasing brought a couple of additional thoughts to mind. We learn to write from the writing we read, and so if popular fiction is full of mangled metaphors and poorly thought out phrasing, how can I expect my students to do better? After all, we're all seeing so many plurals written with apostrophes that it's hard to avoid writing those even when we've always known better. I've had to reality check myself on things I know are correct (I first found Language Log when I felt compelled to verify that "simplistic," a word I am constantly telling students to look up, does not mean "simple").
But also, after looking through all the things that Brown does wrong, I began to get very nervous. There's a general notion that I write pretty well, but the thought of having Geoffrey K. Pullum copyedit me makes me unusually anxious.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


There have been requests for photographic documentation of the kittens who appeared in the garage. Yes, they were a product of spontaneous generation. As Shakespeare (that is to say Hamlet) says, "For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog," the obvious corollary is "a dark garage full of defunct refrigerators breeds black kittens."
Try it yourself, I'm sure you'll find that kittens result. On the other hand, it would be better if you adopted these two. They're awfully nice. And one of them will prune your geraniums for you.

Friday, October 23, 2009

And Kittens...

Yesterday morning as I stumbled into the garage to drive to school, something small and dark dashed from under my car over toward the pile of miscellaneous debris left by I'm not sure what earlier inhabitants. Despite my nearly sleepwalking state, I was hard-pressed not to let out a yell. Were there... rats in the garage now?
Fortunately I had gotten a brief look at the creature's tail, which seemed much too furry for a rat. I decided it must have been a squirrel, since the neighborhood abounds with them. Or a chipmunk, perhaps; if it was a squirrel, it had a pretty poor excuse for a tail.
When I returned, I saw three squirrels with extremely bushy tails playing outside the garage, and I thought well, it certainly can't have been one of those squirrels. I opened the garage door, got out of the car, and caught sight of a small face that could only belong to a kitten.
This was better than seeing rats, but not at all what I wanted to find in my garage. The animal was very skittish, so I went in the house and, being utterly exhausted, forgot about it.
This afternoon, however, I remembered that there was a kitten in the garage, so I thought I had better reconnoiter. Apart from the fact that it was a rainy day, the kitten might want to get out of the garage and go home.
Er... I now perceived that there were at least two kittens in the garage. This could be bad. There might be a whole litter, although how my neighbor, my landlord, and I could have failed to notice a litter of cats growing up in the garage over a period of weeks, I couldn't imagine. I decided I had better bring them some milk. My neighbor didn't seem to be home, so I put a note in her mailbox about our new tenants. She has cats, so I supposed it was vaguely possible that the kittens belonged to her, but this seemed improbable.
When I went out to check the mail later in the afternoon, I found her checking hers as well. Her reaction to the news of the kittens was not a happy one. She had just, she informed me, taken in a mother cat and four kittens to help out a friend, and was having no luck finding homes for these animals. The last thing she needed was more kittens in her life. We agreed that the young squatters must have wandered in recently when our landlord was working on the garage. We did not think it made sense to tell him about these new inhabitants, as he reacts badly to stressful news and would probably tell us that it was our fault that kittens had moved into the garage. Instead, we went out to examine the beasts. They are small and black, one with sleek fur and the other with fuzzier fur. One of them also has a white spot on its chest. As is the nature of kittens, they are quite enchanting, and while they were initially very shy, the scent of cat on Leanne prompted them to feel more comfortable about both of us, and we were able to pet them a bit. This did not, of course, help us figure out what to do with them. Leanne said that the local shelters had already told her they weren't taking any more cats. We gave the kittens more milk and some cat chow, and Leanne took me in to meet her new guests, who are quartered in a sector of her living room, separated from the permanent cats. Leanne's kittens and their mother are white with tortoise-shell-like spots, and of course are also very appealing animals. The garage kittens look very slightly older, but I don't suppose by more than a week.
We haven't decided what to do about our guests, but of course we can't let them starve.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Life with German Wasps

I've been complaining of the yellowjackets that keep appearing in my dining room. I'm not sure where they get in, but once in, they fly around, burn themselves on the overhead light, crawl around on the floor, and eventually die. From time to time they venture into the living room, especially if I have a lamp on there. Now and then they buzz angrily past my head, which makes me nervous. And I've seen Orion gazing at them with deep fascination, almost like a cat ready to pounce.
Last weekend was the jackpot, entomologically speaking. In the space of two days, no less than ten of them found their way onto my dining room floor. While most of them were dead by the time I counted, a certain number were crawling about. I was mildly concerned about being stung, but more worried that Orion would incite one to sting his nose.
Of course, I was the one who got stung. I was minding my own business, which is the best thing to do around bees and wasps, but one of the yellowjackets apparently crawled onto my sock and got entangled in the surface (it was a sort of terrycloth-like fabric). The first I knew of this was the onset of a nasty sensation in my heel. I looked down and observed the creature--probably still stinging me.
Well, I've been stung by bees before, with effects from minor to fairly extreme (not, however, including anaphylactic shock), but yellowjacket stings were new to me. I knew that while bees die after stinging, wasps are able to sting again, so my main thought was to get the sock and yellowjacket separated from my skin.
That wasn't all that easy given that I was in pain and the sock was way down there on my foot. Sometimes one's foot seems remarkably far away from the rest of the body--mysteriously inaccessible--and I say that despite not being more than perhaps five or ten pounds over my ideal weight. But eventually I got the sock off and limped upstairs to the tub, where I washed the sting, applied a Czech insect-bite-and-sting remedy (all I had handy) and a bandaid, and hunted for the Benadryl.
As such things go, the sting wasn't appalling. It kept me awake for awhile that night, but not in agony. This was, I will say, the first time that Benadryl didn't knock me out completely--but then I've only taken it twice before, and not for stings.
The area around the sting, however, has continued to be rather itchy, and this finally led me to do a bit of internet research. Apparently quite a few people find that yellowjacket stings itch for long after the initial pain subsides. People even describe the sensation as making them want to rip their skin off. I'm glad to say that I am not in that position. I am, however, contemplating getting one or more of the remedies suggested by the various sufferers, which include household ammonia, baking soda (normally I do have this on hand), meat tenderizer, and hemorrhoid creams.
I also looked up yellowjackets with the notion of learning more about them. It turns out there are several species of similar wasp all going by this name. Postmortem examination of one of the corpses tells me that what we have here are German wasps, a fairly aggressive species that has mostly taken over from the native Eastern variety. Both types are beneficial insects so long as they don't come into direct contact with humans. They eat insect pests, but unfortunately they also like things like picnic food and garbage. Their fondness (and I might say especially the German wasps' fondness) for junk food and sugary things leads them to conflict with humans.
I don't actually keep either meat or many sugary foods on hand, but if the wasps are nesting in the wall of the house, apparently all I can do is wait until the frost kills them. Only queens, apparently, overwinter and nests are only used for one year in this climate.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Revising the Dissertation

Publishers want my dissertation. They've told me so. But of course that doesn't mean they want it as is; the more well-regarded of them want it fixed up. There haven't been any specifics on this, but I know they want the footnotes trimmed, the literature review (which I didn't want to write anyway) trimmed or excised, the title improved, and all that sort of thing. And the book proposal has to be finished up and then (like a basic grant proposal) recreated in several different formats to suit the various publishers to whom I will submit it.
Exactly when I'm going to do all this when teaching full time and preparing new classes, I don't know, but pretty much everyone with a new PhD and a job has that problem.
I'm not sure my dissertation needs huge amounts of revision, but whatever it does need is bound to seem huge to me. With all that in mind, I took a look at William Germano's From Dissertation to Book.
As with any how-to or self-help book, the question facing me as a reader was "What brilliantly useful bit(s) can I glean from this? Will there be anything that just rockets me forward?" It really only takes one of those tidbits for a book of this kind to be worthwhile. But unfortunately, or fortunately, as the case may be, I'm already rather familiar with writing and publishing. It's not easy to give me the pleasant surprise of "that's just what I needed to know." All through the first half of the book, I kept muttering "Get to the revision." That first half was full of information and counseling that I'm sure a great many people need, but which for me were bloody obvious. Germano doesn't get going on actual pointers for revision until halfway through, but that wasn't really clear until I got there. After all, you never know where some informational gem might be hidden. I might not know as much as I think I do.
Germano has useful tips on coming up with a new title (something I had already done, at least provisionally); on subheading the chapters (sections with subheads had been a big help from a book on writing the dissertation itself, but my subhead titles will benefit from the Germano touch, as will the chapter titles themselves); and while people generally think I write well, I was decidedly charmed by Germano's advice not too quote too liberally from authors whose prose style is far better than one's own. "Strong writers, like strong perfume," says Germano after throwing a fine chunk of M. F. K. Fisher our way, "should be used with great care. Comparison with your own prose will be inevitable." Indeed. I like to think I have a pretty good prose style, but its best examples are not to be found in everything I write. You are not finding my best style in this blog post, nor will you find it in most of my dissertation, despite the compliments I have had on the latter.
The overuse of the passive voice is not, I think, one of my major sins, but I very much like it when Germano says "Some passives we're glad we haven't had to see:

In the beginning the heavens and the earth were created by God.
Arms and the man are being sung by me.
Ishmael is what I'm called."


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Toyen (the band)

I've known for quite some time that there was a Czech band named after Toyen, but it was no longer recording while I was living in Prague, so I never ran across any of the group's albums.
The band has a MySpace page, however, so I've finally had a chance to find out what they sound like. While I'd hardly say they are the musical equivalent of Toyen's art, they're quite listenable.
According to the MySpace page, they began in fall 1988 in Prague, but were officially founded in March 1989. Audiences and critics were apparently looking forward to their debut, because most of the band had been in "the legendary band Letadlo" [Airplane], which was suppressed by the Communist regime in the early 1980s. According to the MySpace page,
"The band TOYEN were in the right time on the right place. The guys had good infos from the world, good timing –after „Velvet revolution“ and the main-good songs,image and they have own material with Czech lyrics, but they could sing the songs in English and it was very important for their future."
In fact, the band toured in the US, including a concert at CBGB's, and also in the UK and Austria. At one point they apparently were opening for Depeche Mode. However, before long Toyen experienced some changes in personnel and did not last long despite its success at home and abroad.
I like the idea of a band named after a surrealist, but I think I'd have preferred the group to have borne a closer resemblance to the artist. Then again, I don't think we can exactly say the Manchester band Durutti Column is all that similar to the anarchist anti-Franco contingent that fought in the Spanish Civil War under Buenaventura Durruti, either.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Napping Rabbits

"So stretched out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay" (Milton, Paradise Lost)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Mysterious Scrapbook of Dayton

The other day I finally ventured into the antique mall housed in the county fairgrounds, which is perhaps a mile from home. My plan was to seek lamps, and possibly other useful items of furniture.
Well, there were indeed some tolerable lamps at reasonable prices, and there were some very tempting items of furniture, but it was raining and I didn't have a lot of space in the car, so I put off buying any of those things.
Well, what did I find instead? I found a very odd scrapbook, which I felt strangely compelled to buy.
The compiler of the scrapbook is anonymous, and she (I am sure it was "she") did not divulge her purpose in creating the thing. It is basically a collection of collages of magazine pictures, mostly of babies, but they get older as the series goes on.
Now, those who know me well are aware that I'd rather look at pretty much anything other than baby pictures. Pictures of centipedes, bats, garbage cans, and paramecia will just about always catch my interest above pictures of babies, although I would certainly far rather look at pictures of babies than at pictures of politicians or plutocrats. It's not that I have anything against babies, I just don't care for their appearance, and I prefer to deal with children who can say a few words. (I am, however, fascinated by the mental world of babies. I'd rather see through their eyes than look at them.)
That said, what on earth prompted me to pay for a whole scrapbook of baby pictures?
I'm still trying to figure this out, but it has something to do with the layout. Whoever put this thing together had a good sense of design and page layout. There's also something increasingly odd about it as one pages through. Initially it just seems like a lot of "cute" babies in conjunction with some flowers and animals (mainly doggies, especially poodles). Yet by the end I was being strongly reminded of Hannah Hoch's scrapbooks, which are considerably more mainstream-looking than her other collages. The unknown collagist compiles her images in ways rather like Hoch, and like Hoch, even uses the same pictures in more than one collage.
The images all seem to come from about 1959 to 1969. Some might be earlier but I don't think many can be much later. In fact, I not only recognize some of the sources (Healthtex, Borden, Rice Krispies) but I am just about certain that the artist who drew the pink-cheeked elephants (not shown here) designed one of the baby shower cards my mother received before I appeared in the world.
I'm really curious what the Unknown Collagist was getting at. Did she just want to put together a book of cuteness and not quite succeed? Was it a school assignment of some sort? Was she attempting an Ernstian collage novel about childhood that doesn't quite come off? Inquiring minds want to know.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Maximal Floral

I try to make it down to the Dayton market every weekend. It's in easy biking distance, but I've discovered that it makes sense to drive: the flower vendor there sells ten bunches for ten dollars, and if you buy ten bunches, he throws in four or five more bunches. I'm not sure exactly what's going on with this floral extravaganza, but this is what I ended up with the first time around.

My most recent purchase got me so many gladioli that I had to use my blender as a vase. I'm now looking for cheap large vases suitable for glads.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Heller plates

Back in my early youth (as I look upon it from my crochety and occasionally dyspeptic present), I bought some handsome plastic plates and mugs at the local Crate and Barrel store, which in those days was a pretty fine place to shop. Leading as I did a rather maritime life, I didn't want too many breakables.
The said plastics, in an orange-tinged red and a cobalt blue, have been my main plates ever since. Unfortunately, while I'm not sure just how many I originally bought, their numbers have dwindled over the years. I know that a small blue plate, and I believe the blue mug, got smashed by wild airline baggage handlers (my first scanner also bit the dust on that flight). More recently, it seems I must have lost several plates moving, as I know quite well that I had at least five of the large plates in Pittsburgh and somehow only had three when I unpacked. (Where can they have gone?) I really felt that three large plates remaining of what must originally have been six or eight, and two small plates plus two mugs, could not be called a proper supply.
It occurred to me that these fine items--Heller by brand--must still be available somewhere out there. I took to Google and discovered that indeed they are. In fact, they are invariably described as a classic design. They were designed by Massimo Vignelli in the 1960s (no, I did not buy them that long ago) and you can see a fine photo of some of the colors here. They were recently reissued in white (white? how boring) but I was able to find some red ones on Etsy, which arrived today and are in newer, glossier condition than the ones I originally bought long ago. See how splendid they are?

In a fit of enthusiasm, I have now just found and ordered some blue ones on Ebay. While I dislike much mid-twentieth-century design heartily, the Vignelli Heller plates are absolutely divine.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Rabbits Like Stairs

The attempt to keep rabbits downstairs and out of the office (since its door doesn't close and it is full of tempting papers and boxes):

How Ms. Spots turns barrier into ramp for early-morning explorations of the upper realms:

Baseboards here are too thick (about an inch) for proper deployment of the barrier. It's easy for rabbits to knock over the barrier and bound up the stairs. Calypso Spots knows she's not supposed to do this, but the temptation is too great. After all, she's found packages of stale airline cookies lurking in tote bags up there. What rabbit could ask for a more exciting breakfast?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Of Mice and Lights

Just the other day, My Sibling remarked that perhaps the days of Lots of Weird Stupid Things Going Wrong were over and I could settle into enjoying life and my teaching and all that sort of thing.
Well, the lights in the bedroom closet have ceased working (again, after a respite--keep in mind the bedroom has no overhead light), and a mouse just ran across the dining room floor. The latter was quite the distraction from my attempts to put together a Powerpoint on ancient Roman art. Is this mouse just passing through, spending a rainy day indoors, or does it live here? How did it get in? Does it have fleas or any unpleasant diseases that it could pass on to Ms. Spots and Orion? Inquiring minds want to know the answers to these questions.
Inquiring minds would also like to know when the temperature in the Creative Arts building will rise a bit. It was not pleasant wearing a turtleneck, jacket, and coat indoors most of yesterday. Still felt bone-chillingly cold in there.