Grammar police take on Twitter

April 28, 2010 at 8:36 pm (read)

I love grammar and punctuation. In high school, I thought the standardized tests that asked you to correct sentences were fun. I use semicolons in text messages. My job involves proofreading. I have a visceral reaction to mangling of the English language. I don’t understand what is so damn difficult about distinguishing its and it’s, your and you’re, their and there and they’re, and I admit to judging people who seem incapable of doing so or simply don’t care.

For these reasons, the internet often pains me.

So imagine my delight in reading today’s New York Times article about people who troll Twitter for grammar and spelling mistakes and publicly chastise the guilty tweeters. I’ve had to rein in my tendency to correct or point out errors (not on Twitter, just in general), because nobody likes a critic. Luckily, fearless linguistic leaders such as Grammar Fail, Grammar Hero, Your Or Youre and CapsCop are trying to clean up the website. (Grammar Fail and Grammar Hero actually aren’t very good–i.e., as often happens, the style section may be exaggerating a trend–but I’m more jazzed about the fight than the individual sites.)

One complaint. In a piece about valuing correct English, there is no room for this sentence:

“They see themselves as the guardians of an emerging behavior code: Twetiquette.”

Barf. Unlike “twitterati,” “tweetup,” “twitterature” and all the other obnoxious fake combination words, “twetiquette” isn’t even a clean rhyme.

The article mentions a couple of celebrity offenders, John Cusack and Kirstie Alley. I love this exchange and little zinger from the writer, John Metcalf:

“GrammarCop, one of several people who seem to exist on Twitter solely to copy-edit others, recently received a beatdown from the actress Kirstie Alley, to whom he had recommended the use of a plural verb form instead of a singular. ‘Are you high?’ Ms. Alley wrote back. ‘You really just linger around waiting for people to use incorrect grammer? you needs a life.’ (One of Ms. Alley’s people said that the actress was too busy to comment for this article.)

A life, indeed. While some of us may live to host weight-loss shows, others find solace in pedantry.”

In the comments on the article, “get a life” is a predictable refrain. “They literally need a life,” writes one reader. Uh huh. Because they are dead. And trolling Twitter from beyond the grave.

A few people express relief that at least they’re not alone, and that someone else out there still cares about grammar. (I should mention that I wrote this post in Microsoft Word first, and the grammar check suggested that I change “there” to “their.”) Brooke from San Francisco is especially eloquent:

“Do people tell mathematicians to stop being all fussy about numbers? I cringe at bad spelling, grammar, punctuation – and I’m an editor. Some people dig that precision, and we become editors. And editors are important! … No one makes fun of precision in accounting, or architecture, or carpentry — but language? Apparently we need to ‘get a life.’ I object strongly to this derision of what I take seriously. A world without editors = the New York Times reading like a Cusack tweet.”

But perhaps the most useful comment was this: “It is sad that the New York Times has given credence to self-righteous twits like these jr. grammar cops. If these ninnies want to change the world, they might consider becoming real teachers rather than simply running amok with virtual rulers.”

Good idea. If people who rant about terrible grammar (that includes me) put that energy into volunteering at an after-school program or tutoring kids, that would probably have more of a real, positive impact than adding to the cacophony of 50 million tweets per day.

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Talking politics and unicorns with author J. Robert Lennon

April 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm (read, Uncategorized)

Some books just grab me, and I become one of those well-meaning, perhaps sometimes annoying, literary evangelists who tells everyone I meet, “You have to read this!” Such was the case when I discovered J. Robert Lennon‘s brilliant story collection Pieces for the Left Hand several years ago. Set in upstate New York and made of up 100 “anecdotes,” each about two pages long, the book is funny, unsettling and simply mesmerizing. I’ve been a huge fan since.

Lennon’s most recent novel, Castle, which comes out in paperback on Tuesday, similarly blends matter-of-fact style and morbid spirit, but is much more ambitious in its themes. It is about Eric Loesch, a middle-aged man who returns to his hometown in rural New York to buy 612 acres of land. When he discovers that a small portion of the land does not belong to him, and finds a castle built on that plot, details of his traumatic childhood and military service begin to resurface. (Both Castle and Pieces for the Left Hand received an enthusiastic review from the New York Times.)

Early in the novel, Loesch says: “People, in my long experience, want to talk. They may believe they wish to keep secrets, and they may believe that they are capable of doing so. But the truth is that secrets exist to be revealed; and it is usually very easy to find the combination of words that will cause them to emerge.” By the end of the book, the ominous undertones of this statement come to the forefront, and readers may be left with a bit of PTSD.

Though Lennon keeps busy teaching at Cornell, blogging, rocking out as Inverse Room and, of course, writing, he kindly answered a few questions via e-mail about the book–and unicorns!

Q: Of your works that I’ve read, this book is the most political. Did Castle come specifically out of the Bush Administration and its torture policy, or had you previously been interested in the military and the psychological wounds that it can inflict?

A: No, I used to be pretty apolitical.  I’m a Democrat, but I never got particularly angry at Reagan and Bush 1, though I didn’t like their policies.  Then, like a lot of people, I got kind of radicalized by the Bush years, and was quite worked up about the war.  I tried several approaches to writing about it, most of which failed miserably.  It’s hard to write about political things in a literary way. Even now, when people don’t like Castle, it tends to be because of the political content.  But I had to do it.

You get into the head of protagonist Eric Loesch, writing a minutely detailed first-person account. But as the story progresses, the reader realizes that Loesch has concealed or repressed some vital information. What were the challenges of writing in the voice of an unreliable narrator? Did you struggle over how much to reveal, or when and how to do so?

It was tricky–he started out as an amnesiac, then evolved, over many drafts, into a liar, and then simply a guy who was telling himself a story that he needed to hear.  The narrative is self-serving; it leaves out a lot and accidentally reveals a lot more.  Loesch has a pedantic, almost infantile way of speaking–it was a challenge to strike the right balance.

I think it’s funny that the cover of Castle features the silhouette of a mysterious white deer (an animal that figures prominently into the novel), and in the author photo on the back flap you’re wearing a shirt with the silhouette of a white unicorn. Do you have a special fondness for mystical white creatures? Is there any story behind the shirt?

The shirt is an in-joke for some internet friends–I spend a lot of time on a private messageboard for off-duty musicians, fooling around and telling jokes.  And that’s our t-shirt.  But, believe it or not, I never noticed the connection between the unicorn and the deer!

This may be an impossible question, but what is your favorite sentence that you have written? It can be fiction, essay, love letter, whatever.

I think maybe that is impossible.  The most important sentence I’ve written must be the text I sent last week to the Joint Chiefs of Staff; I believe the exact wording was “The leaves are turning. Omar is at large.  Execute Project Sigma Tangent.”  If this sounds like nonsense, just wait a few weeks.  Events will make everything clear.

What is your favorite sentence that someone else has written?

A line from my wife’s [Rhian Ellis] novel After Life: ” ‘I love cake,’ I lied. ”

What are you currently working on?

I finished a novel about a documentary filmmaker, then shelved it.  It didn’t work.  Now I’m writing a book that involves a parallel universe. What with Lost wrapping up, somebody has to fill the gap.  I have some new short stories coming out, too, in The Paris Review and Salamander.

You can read his new story, “The Impossible Man,” from The Paris Review‘s Spring 2010 issue, here. Enjoy!

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In good Company: Stephen Sondheim and his fans

April 23, 2010 at 12:37 am (Uncategorized)

Stephen Sondheim is having a heck of a birthday party. The titan of musical theater turned 80 last month, and tributes to his work—which includes West Side Story, Company, Follies and Sweeny Todd—have filled New York with a little night music. The Philharmonic celebrated with performances by Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Elaine Stritch; it was announced that Broadway’s Henry Mill’s Theater will be renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theater; and yesterday marked the opening of a new Broadway review, Sondheim on Sondheim.

For all the respect they command, and the revolutionary impact they had on the genre of musical theater, Sondheim’s shows are not easy, friendly blockbusters. As a composer and lyrisist, he took risks in both style and content, favoring striking arrangements and dissonant chords over catchiness (this is a man fascinated with murderers and assassins, after all). He aimed beyond comfort and familiarity, striving for something new, dark, clever, funny, moving, bitter, longing. As he says in a Fresh Air interview from earlier this week,

“The problem with so much music… was that you went into the theater humming it. You know, if you hum something on first hearing it, it might be because it is so immediately memorable, but more likely, it’s because it reminds you of something else.”

Sondheim developed a sound that was recognizably his own. His success, and resulting stature, didn’t make him world’s cuddliest composer; as this New York magazine article reveals, some theater stars have been terrified to work with him. But the best quote comes from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote In the Heights and did the translation of West Side Story for its recent bilingual revival:

“You know, he could seriously just, like, smack people around all day and just be like, ‘I’m Sondheim; cook me a steak.’ But he’s actually still really nice and really generous and really generous to younger artists.”

In honor of the huge influence Sondheim’s work has had on younger artists and musical theater fans, here are a few of my favorite Sondheim homages and pop culture moments.

Camp (2003)

Set at a musical theater summer camp for teenagers, this movie is predictably packed with show tunes and theater trivia. Sondheim gets a nod early on, when the hot new guy sees a photo of an older man on the nightstand by his roommate’s bed.

“Is that your father?” he asks. The roommate is aghast—how could you not recognize Stephen Sondheim?

But the showstopper comes when mousey Fritzi, who has spent the summer slaving for her bitchy, spotlight-hogging roommate Jill, poisons Jill before the performance of Company. As Jill pauses during “Ladies Who Lunch” to vomit, Fritzi (played by Anna Kendrick, now an Oscar nominee for Up in the Air) swoops in for a biting, fiery performance. I’ll drink to that.

Tick, Tick…BOOM!

In Tick, Tick…BOOM!, an early musical by Jonathon Larson of Rent, the main character is, like Larson, an aspiring musical theater composer who idolizes Sondheim. The song “Sunday” is a clear parody of the song of the same name in Sunday in the Park with George, inspired by pointillist Georges Seurat.

But while Sondheim’s song evokes a painting, Larson’s is about brunch, at the diner where he works to pay the bills.

Sondheim’s lyrics:

Sunday, by the blue purple yellow red water

On the green purple yellow red grass

Let us pass through our perfect park

Pausing on a Sunday

By the cool blue triangular water

On the soft green elliptical grass

As we pass through arrangements of shadow

Toward the verticals of trees

Forever

—–

Larson’s lyrics:

Brunch

Sunday

In the blue, silver chromium diner

On the green, purple, yellow, red stools

Sit the fools

Who should eat at home

Instead, they pay on

Sunday

For a cool orange juice or a bagel

On the soft, green cylindrical stools

Sit the fools
Drinking cinnamon coffee

Or decaffeinated tea

Forever

In the blue, silver chromium diner

A performance of Sondheim’s “Sunday”:

And a recording of Larson’s:

Desperate Housewives

The show’s creator Marc Cherry (who has been, um, a little busy lately) is a huge Sondheim fan. Nearly every episode of the show, which is now in its sixth season, takes its title from a Sondheim song name or lyric. Some examples:

Episode 1.12, Every Day a Little Death (from A Little Night Music)

Episode 3.11, No Fits, No Fights, No Feuds (a lyric from Gypsy)

Episode 4.9, Something’s Coming (from West Side Story)

Episode 6.5, Everybody Ought to Have a Maid (from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)

This Sunday’s episode is called Epiphany, after the Sweeny Todd Song.

What are your favorite Sondheim songs, references or memories?

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Living and Writing in Spanglish

April 11, 2010 at 11:39 pm (read)

When I browse amazon.com, read book reviews or go into bookstores, I’m always struck by the sheer volume of volumes out there in the world. “How can there be anything left to write?” I think. “How is there any story left to tell, or any new way to tell it?”

Then I find a writer like Susana Chávez-Silverman. To be honest, I didn’t have to look that hard—she was my Spanish professor in college, for three semesters of literature and poetry. But equally as interesting as the stories and poems on the syllabus was Chávez-Silverman herself, a fiesty cultural omnivore with a passion for language and all its possibilities, and author of the new book Scenes from la Cuenca de Los Angeles y otros natural disasters.

Chávez-Silverman was raised bilingually, living in California, Spain and Mexico, but her experience with language is far from the “Spanish on the left side, English on the right” layout of bilingual textbooks. She has written of the “otredad that has dogged/blessed me toda la vida,” and that perpetual otherness—of not being able to pick, and belong to, one language/country/side or the other—led to the choice to not choose. Instead, she works in Spanglish (academics call it “code-switching”), peppering the combined languages with her own ticks and quips.

Like her previous memoir, Killer Crónicas, Scenes is composed of personal missives, which began as gossipy, funny, heartfelt, descriptive and/or contemplative e-mails, letters or diary entries and are usually addressed or dedicated to friends and family. This style draws from the epistolary tradition, as well as from the chronicles written from and about the newly “discovered” Americas.

The February issue of The Believer includes a roundtable discussion among three Latino novelists about writing in Spanish versus English. The moderator, Daniel Alarcón, says that the language he loves most is Spanish, but specifically its spoken form:

“It is impossible not to be awed by the inventiveness of language as it exists all over Latin America and Spain, the breadth and diversity of it, the way each local and regional vernacular traces a particular history, honors it, then subverts it, transcends it.”

Eduardo Halfon agrees, adding that while “spoken Spanish is eclectic and thrilling and beautiful[,] written Spanish or Literary Spanish is obedient and proper and cautious.”

In her books, Chávez-Silverman breaks out of “proper” language and writes the way she speaks and hears language spoken. She traces her own history from Guadalajara to South Africa to California to Buenos Aires to Madrid to Australia (not necessarily in that order), bringing along favorite phrases (chévere!), invented spellings (“shuvia” for “lluvia”—rain—to capture the accent in Buenos Aires) and fake translations (“Pero anygüey” for “but anyway…”). She respects language, but isn’t afraid to have a little fun.

Now I’ll stop talking and just let you read something she wrote. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of her new book, describing a walk through the grounds of a northern California arts center, where she was an artist-in-residence. It encompasses her special fondness for flora and fauna, astrology and memories:

“I did find, sin embargo, como engarzadas en las ramas muertas del bottlebrush, a cache

of those little round, spiny, sea urchiny, hollow, stemmed pods. Se habían caído de un

árbol vecino, and gotten lodged in the lower thicket of bottlebrush branches. Hot tears

saltaron, instant and automatic, as I reached up for one. These pods were, quizás,

Mom’s most idiosyncratic (bizarre, perfect for a Scorpio) Christmas decoration: we’d

collect them for her, in the Valley, y luego los hacía spray paint con esa laca. Silver and

gold. Y luego los metía entre las ramas del Christmas tree.”

It helps, of course, to speak both languages. But, though she might lose a few readers, Chávez-Silverman’s refusal to conform to one “correct” language is an act of carving out a space for herself between the two worlds. There is a growing culture of inbetweeners with whom this resonates. For my college thesis, a video about middle schoolers and reading, I gave Killer Crónicas to a girl of Mexican heritage, living in LA. She read a few sentences, looked up and smiled. “This sounds like me,” she said.

To translate into a single tongue would be to lose something essential about Chávez-Silverman’s voice, and her identity. Even if you can’t parse everything, I hope you think it’s chévere.

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