Friday, January 30, 2009

Mortal Syntax, by June Casagrande

There are a few things in this world that I'm guaranteed to love. I believe, medically speaking, you would say I'm a sucker for them. Near the top of the list are post-Apocalyptic movies, but only slightly lower are grammar books.

I don't think I'm particularly a grammar "snob," as Casagrande would say. (However, there is a certain blog written by a girl with whom I went to high school, and in the blog title she, in one fell swoop, demonstrates an inability to both pluralize her last name AND use apostrophes correctly, and as a result I have moved her down my ladder of esteem to a rung just below the bemulletted Confederate-flag-shirt-wearing yokels found in a Wal-Mart parking lot in London, Kentucky at 11:30 on a Tuesday night. But I don't think that makes me a snob; if I were a snob I would link to her blog here, and I won't, so there. (But you can get to her blog with only three clicks from my main blog.))

Past grammar books I've read were written by professional editors, or crusty curmudgeons of writers. Casagrande's credentials, as far as I can tell, are that she needs a job and doesn't mind writing about grammar. Which is fine; again, I'm not being a snob. But I'm used to grammar writers who seem like they've been declensioning in their sleep since they were weened, while Casagrande has several sections that basically start with, "Last year I made this grammar mistake in a major publication." Refreshing honesty, perhaps intended to set the reader at ease, but also possibly undermining her authority. The reader is already going to respond to most "rules" he doesn't already obey by thinking, "Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man," and since Casagrande is basically saying, "I've made grammar mistakes right up to press-time," it seems easier to mentally dismiss her claims.

Another thing that made this book more difficult to read was the format: each "rule" isn't necessarily something that Casagrande thinks should BE a rule. She gives a usage that the grammar snobs would dislike, and then tells you whether she thinks their opprobrium is warranted. Sometimes that was a few too many negatives to keep track of. But I understand her wanting to come up with a grammar book format that is slightly different from the standard William Safire "these grammar usages piss me off" style.

Casagrande is a cat-lover, which is a strike in my book, but she is also a fan of The Simpsons, and that means she nearly qualifies as a godparent for my children. It seems to me that she too easily dismisses grammar rules that "nobody" is following anymore. I dare say she's the type of person who would allow you to make the name Gonzalez possessive with just an apostrophe, as I once saw in a high school English text shortly before I decided to home school my children. This "is everyone else doing it?" type of grammar Prime Directive is worrisome because there were legitimate reasons for the creation of the grammar rules we've received. Ancient Englishmen didn't invent the verb "to lay" because they thought it would be a funny joke on everyone who would confuse it with "to lie"; they did it because they have two distinct meanings. Most people use them interchangably now, and if you were to say "I had lain on this bed before," most listeners would think you'd temporarily slipped into pig Latin, but when we allow distinct usages to become muddled, we lose some of the versatility of our language. There is a school of thought called language determinism, which argues that the ability your language has to convey particular meanings limits your thinking within only those meanings. Thus Russians, who supposed didn't understand what "constitution" meant during the Decembrist revolt, would not spend a lot of time thinking about a constitution. Allowing grammar usages to blend and die limits the scope of our possible thought. Now, I admit I don't always use "to lie" and "to lay" correctly, but I have a Post-It note reminder of their conjugations on my computer monitor and I'm trying to learn.

If all you want to know is how to get through life without embarrassing yourself when you speak, this book is a useful guide. But if you think rules should have some force behind them aside from "do most people around me think they are useful?", you might find yourself in frequent disagreement with Casagrande.

Rating: 3 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Post-Script: At no point in my reading did I think Casagrande was anything other than a great person, and now that I've looked around the Internet for a picture of her book cover I can steal for my blog post, I've found her blog and read about how she had been hurt by negative user reviews on Amazon back in 2006, and I feel bad that perhaps this review might be too harsh. Maybe I should bump up the number of inflatable monkeys she earned. Her new, nice-person-adjusted rating is 4.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ivy and Bean, by Annie Barrows

I have a six-year-old daughter, which, ten years ago, would have been the death of me. I would have been reading Babysitters Club or Mary-Kate and Ashley books until I died from stupidity. (Our library still has Full House-based chapter books. Do girls that age even know who Stephanie Tanner is?) The good news for me is that my high school girlfriend made me wait ten years (and a wedding) before knocking her up, and in that time young girl literature (or, as I'm sure all the trade publications are about to start calling it once it's featured on my highly-influential literary review blog, pre-tween lit) has become down-right tolerable. I've read (or listened in the car to) Sara Pennypacker's Clementine books, Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones books, Megan McDonald's Judy Moody books, Nancy Krulik's Katie Kazoo books, and a lot of Beverly Cleary for old times' sake. Now we've begun Annie Barrows's Ivy and Bean series, and both my daughter and I like them.

Bean is a girl named Bernice who has a new girl move across the street. Although at first she distrusts this stranger, they end up meeting and discovering that they like each other. Not that they have much in common, because they don't, but it seems more like each is attracted to the character traits that the other has more of. They devise a plan to get revenge on Bean's older sister Nancy, who is mean to Bean.

What my daughter liked about this book was that Bean was funny and Ivy was crafty. My daughter's got a soft spot for kid detectives and kid spies. Ivy specializes in potions from a secret book. My daughter wanted to divide her room into several smaller stations, like Ivy's room, but I talked her out of it when I pointed out how much larger Ivy's room is. (Thanks to the illustrator, Sophie Blackall, for drawing Ivy's room incredibly large on pages 58-9.)

What I liked about this book was that the girls didn't say any "bad" words, the writing was pretty funny, and the book managed to have a message without beating you over the head with it like an after-school special. I remember wanting to read Louis Sachar's There's a Boy in the Girls Bathroom only to realize it was about a kid with self-esteem issues and thinking, "What the crap is all this for?" The same thing happened when my sister bought Paul Zindel's Pardon Me, You're Stepping on My Eyeball for me because she thought the title was funny and I ended up having to read about a boy with depression. Ever since then, I've been wary of the kids book with a message.

Ivy and Bean, though, which I took to be about making friends with new kids and appreciating kids with very different interests, was confident enough that it didn't need to hit you over the head with its point. I don't imagine I'll be reading many more of these, though, because my daughter has become good enough of a reader to get through them on her own, and she doesn't want to wait for me to work them into our chapter book schedule.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Heavy Weather, by P.G. Wodehouse

Originally I wanted to read all the Jeeves and Wooster books, in order, before moving on to the Blandings Castle books, but last year I read Blandings Castle and I really enjoyed it, so now I feel free to read more.

Galahad is going to publish his memoirs, naming his cohorts in the crazy adventures of his youth. Evidently he was a Drone before there was a Drones Club. The problem is that many of his youthful pals are now peers, and have a great deal to protect. Included in the group that want to snuff out the volume is his sister, who doesn't want to disparage the family. If these detractors can't bribe him into stopping, and they can't bribe the publisher into not printing it (since the publisher stands to make a good deal of money from it), they can steal the manuscript and destroy it.

Galahad's friends and family all end up with various reasons to either see the manuscript destroyed or keep it safe. In typical Wodehouse fashion, plots are hatched and subterfuge undertaken. All comes out right in the end. I find it difficult to write reviews of Wodehouse books and give examples of the best parts, because they are so intricately set up. When I reviewed The Alphabet of Manliness I could throw in the one-liners I liked best, but with a Wodehouse book, the one-liners are meaningless without the five pages before. Rest assured, however, that Wodehouse is wonderful. With just about any other humor novelist I read, I find myself thinking, "I've come up with stuff just as funny before," but with Wodehouse, I regularly marvel at his skill and humor.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.