Sunday, May 17, 2015

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

18.  A book published this year

This book came onto my radar when the author published a short article about her 30 year career as a copy editor at the New Yorker. The article was so charming that I requested her book from the library before it was even out.  By the time I got to the queue there were already 3 people on it.

This is such a charming book, I don't know where to begin with my praise: her explanation of her job as a copy editor at one of the most prestigious and highly regarded magazines in history replete with anecdotes about authors, and how customs came to be, and how she views various punctuation conundrums; her story about finding her first major error (flour instead of flower) just before the magazine went to press and getting thanks and praise for it and taking herself out for a beer to celebrate; the story of which dictionaries they use and why; or her love of a good pencil, and eraser and pencil sharpener. The epilogue is especially poignant.

This book is a word lover and readers delight.  I smiled throughout, laughed audibly multiple times and read many passages aloud to my husband who is a language and word maven.  Yes, there are times when her discussion of the use of the dash got a little too detailed for me, but those small parts paled in comparison to the whole book which was a fascinating discussion of writing, usage, the great New Yorker magazine and the evolution of language in all its beauty.  

It made me smile thinking of all my editor friends who spend a great deal of time, as Ms Norris does, mulling over the proper placement of dashes and commas and semi-colons.  Auto-correct be damned!

You already know if you are word maven enough to enjoy this book.  Check it out.  (Ann Hicks, if you read this, I think you will love it.)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

17. A Book Set in Another Country

In a facebook post, author Elizabeth Berg told a story about her coming novel, a work of historical fiction about 19th century writer George Sand. She said that she had read about George Sand's life, she was fascinated, and implored a writer friend who wrote historical fiction to write a novel based on the life of George Sand. The friend said, "It sounds like your book, you write it." So she did.

So when the book when it came out a few weeks ago, I bought a birthday present for myself. I was interested in the writing process.  How does a writer study history and then fill in the gaps to create a work of fiction?  I felt that this novel would teach me something about writing and about history.

George Sand was a pseudonym for Aurore Dupin a 19th century French writer and bon vivant living and writing in Paris and the French country town of Nohant where her family home was located. Aurore took the name and began dressing in men's clothes when she understood that she could get cheap seats at the theater as a man. She found she liked the freedom men's clothing and masquerading as a man could give her. George Sand kept company with all the famous writers and artists of the day: Chopin, Liszt, Dellacroix, Balzac and Flaubert. She desired to live a life on her own terms and was probably as famous for that as she was for her many many novels, articles and plays.

Berg painted an impressionistic portrait of George Sand from her birth and the origins of her family through to her death. We come to know her complex feelings about her mother, her grandmother, her children and her chosen life as an artist and lover to many of the artists of the day. I was immersed in a French artists life for the week it took me to read it.  I dreamed of Paris and the seine and laughing around a table of french artists.  It made me want to go to Paris.

I was amazed again and again at how progressive and modern this woman seemed. In fact, I kept wondering how Berg might have made the reader more aware of how unusual Sand was for her gender and during the time. She seemed to be perfectly normal in the context of the book, yet she was so different than other women. This perhaps was my main criticism of the book. How can it be made clearer what an unusual person this was? Or perhaps she was not.

This all was such a stunning stunning portrait of a life and a time.  I felt like Ms Berg did a tremendous job at recreating Sands life. I kept reading her prose and wondering how easy or hard it was to turn this real life into the portrait on paper that I experienced. I am looking forward to reading her earlier novels.