Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: A Dash of Style

Lukeman, Noah. A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. New York: Norton, 2006. Paperback. +201 pages. $13.95.

I should, up front, note that this book did not cost me $13.95. Rather, I got a free copy of it from the local Norton rep. I'd looked at the back and thought that perhaps this book might give me some good ideas for teaching grammar in my composition classes. The book is mostly designed for creative writing classes, but I thought that I could perhaps adapt some of the exercises for my comp classes.

I doubt that I will do this however. There are some brilliant pieces to this book and some not-so-brilliant pieces. Here's the rundown.

The Good:

As a creative writer, the sections on quotation marks and paragraph and section breaks were great. It helped underscore some concerns I've had about my own writing recently--one, that I was incorporating too much dialogue and not enough introspection and other actions. Lukeman identifies an over-reliance on dialogue as a problem with pacing, and while I'm happy with the first chapter, as far as dialogue goes, I'm much less happy with the second chapter.

The section on paragraph breaks may end up getting copied and taken to my students, because many of the lessons there can be applied to academic writing. This is really the only section of the book that I think can be adequately applied to a composition classroom, rather than a creative writing classroom. It also helped with some thoughts I'd had about changing viewpoints between scenes. While I'll still use section breaks to delineate a break in time and place--in the morning at the gym to the afternoon at the library--I'll stick with one point of view per chapter if possible.

This flipping points of view has always been a problem for me, and it was something I didn't notice until several years ago when my friend Carmen was kindly betaing a short story for me and pointed out that I was switching points of view between paragraphs. It was something I'd never really picked up before, and I am so grateful that she pointed it out to me. It's a lesson that I've kept in mind ever since (so thank you, once again, Carmen!). Lukeman suggested that I not flip point of view even between scenes and save that for chapters instead. I think he's probably right.

The Bad:

The first sections on the most often used punctuation marks: period, comma, and semi-colon, felt a little unnecessary. Here's the thing--if you're going to be a creative writer, there's one thing you should be doing.


I'm not saying that Lukeman is downplaying this point--he's definitely not. What bothers me about this book is that it seems to have two audiences in the newbie creative writer and the experienced creative writer. The first half of the book, focusing on these base punctuation marks, is for newbies, and I can't help but feel that newbies would be better served by reading examples of what they want to write in order to pick up punctuation rules than they would this book. The second half, which goes into colons, dashes (which I overuse, I know), parentheses (lookit here), and the aforementioned quotation marks and paragraph and section breaks (and I do think referring to paragraph and section breaks as part of punctuation was freaking brilliant). There's also a brief chapter on less used punctuation marks--exclamation points, question marks, ellipses, brackets, etc.

This was what I found useful. The stuff about periods, commas, and semi-colons I found heavy-handed and too much for an experienced writer, but I felt that latter half of the book would overwhelm a newbie. But if you're using it as a reference book? That's different, but it's not set up as a reference book, which makes it odd.

The Ugly:

If you go to the book's website, you'll find that there's a list of the universities that use A Dash of Style in their creative writing programs. My objection here is really to the way that creative writing is taught (though Lukeman is complicit in this).

Creative writing is taught in American universities as "literary" creative writing. Genre writing is looked down upon by the academic establishment, unless you are so lucky as to be in a program like mine which focuses heavily on pop culture, and even then, I can't speak to the way creative writing is taught. What I do know is that at some universities (I have heard of several through some of my friends), creative writing is expected, oddly enough, to conform to some academic notion of non-conformity.

Horse hockey. Genre writing can be just as influential, if not more so, than anything that will end up in the canon in fifty years. Harry Potter is never going to end up in the "literary" canon (nor would I argue, should it. For example, it ignores many of Lukeman's punctuation rules!), but to ignore the impact that it has had on the last two generations of readers would be idiotic. The same could be said of Twilight as a cult phenomenon, despite all of the objections that I have to it.

Lukeman is complicit in that all of his examples are drawn from literary fiction, and the general tenor of the book suggests that he's expecting his readers to write literary fiction. Well, some of us don't. Some of us write genre fiction very happily, and one thing that Lukeman fails to acknowledge is that some of these genres have conventions of their own. He's so busy focusing on how some writers have distorted the use of certain punctuation marks (Hemingway used emphatic periods! Joyce exiled the poor defenseless quotation mark!) that sometimes I felt that standard conventions were getting overlooked. This is probably not fair, because he does make note of the standard ways some punctuation should be used.

Anyway, back to my point. We need a more expansive definition of creative writing (perhaps one that recognizes that all writing, academic, fiction and non-fiction is creative?) both in and out of academia, and books like this aren't helping.

Everything else:

All this said, it's a good book to read. I wouldn't use it in a beginning creative writing class, I don't imagine. (Of course, I would rather not teach a creative writing class at all.) But it's interesting, and it has some good reminders for more experienced writers. And I would very much like to pick up one of Lukeman's previous books, The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile. But I'd like to know what Lukeman, as a literary agent, tends to buy himself first. If he's not buying genre fiction, then I don't know that all of his advice would work.

A Dash of Style: B-

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Book Review: No Mercy

Kenyon, Sherrilyn. No Mercy. New York: St. Martin's, 2010. Hardcover. +352 pages. $24.99

I hate it when I feel like I need to start out a review with a disclaimer. But here I am doing so once again.

I really like Sherrilyn Kenyon. I've been reading her Dark-Hunters series for years. I've met her once, and she's a really, really nice person - trust me, it takes a really nice person to deal with her crazy fans. At a small bookstore far enough outside Nashville to no longer be in the metro area, there were some insane women complete with fangs lined up. She's also the author of the Writer's Digest Guide to Character Names, which is an amazingly useful tool.

But this story? Well, I think I've read it before.

Samia is an Amazon who was gifted with psychometry as a Dark-Hunter power. Dev Peltier is a Werebear, who just happens to appear completely blank to Sam. Stryker is after Sam so she can tell him what Apollo's weakness is (intending to kill Apollo, who is his father). There's a chase for Hippolyta's girdle (no joke), which, of course, they find, and all involved kick ass. Except there's a new problem which will probably show up in future books that has to do with the fact that Daimons can now walk in sunlight, which they couldn't do before.

Anyway. To the "I've read this before" point.

This remind anyone just a wee bit of, well, our other favorite vampiresque series? The one written by that other really nice Southern lady and also set in and around New Orleans? The one with the telepathic girl who has problems with relationships until she hooks up with the vampires who she can't hear telepathically? You know, Sookie Stackhouse?

I am not accusing Kenyon of plagiarism here. But I am wondering just a little if perhaps she's beginning to stretch the Dark-Hunter series further than it can keep going. She's got a compelling overarching storyline that keeps getting more and more interesting (and is there going to be an apocalyptic ending one of these days to this series). But she's got to inject something new into it, because it's starting to get old.

I think that's what she's trying to do with Retribution, the newest novel which has just been released. According to reviews, it's bringing in the Native American pantheon (hey, if you've got the Greek gods and the Atalantean gods, why not Native American gods?). The reviews have also not been stellar on Amazon, but people don't do well with change. I'll be interested to see if it does any better.

There was one more strike against No Mercy for me, and please keep in mind that I was reading it last night, completely and utterly exhausted from trying to get our house ready to be shown to a potential buyer (who I really hopes buys the duplex, because he would like for us to continue to rent if he chooses to invest in the property), so the fact that I noticed this at all is incredible in and of itself. Whoever was doing the copy editing for the hardcover edition seriously dropped the ball. There were so many typographical errors that it was almost dizzying, and they were the kind of simple errors that I try to teach my freshman to look for--were instead of where, your instead of you're (or the other way around), and most egregiously, confusion of there, their, and they're.

Guys. I read fiction to escape the humdrum proofreading of my daily life. Don't make me do it on my time off too.

No Mercy - C-

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Reading Roundup and Reviews

1. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin.

One of my expat novels--this was so beautiful. It shows a man struggling with and trying to come to terms with his sexuality in 1950's Paris in the most beautiful, elegant prose. I don't even have words to describe how hauntingly beautiful this novel is, but it's absolutely amazing. A.

2. Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin.

Dude. WTF. This book is best described by one word: dissonance. The first and third sections of the book are absolutely beautiful (though Ervin's agenda is bothersome in places, as I have a hard time believing that a Holocaust survivor would compare Gitmo to a concentration camp. Yes, the United States has done some horrible things in the course of the War on Terror, but comparing it to the wholesale extermination of Jews during World War II is beyond the pale.). When Ervin sticks to music, the book is, in fact, musical. The second section, which follows a young, black Marine through Budapest as he delivers illegal weapons for his CO in order to keep from being booted out of the military through trumped up DADT charges, doesn't fit. It has no real linkage with the first and third pieces.

One of the reviews my professor read had to do with the fact that the links between the three novellas seemed contrived. Well, he's right. Linking the first to the second and the second to the third are completely contrived, while the first and third are perfectly done. Apparently, the second novella had been a story the author wrote during college and admitted was bad--in which case, it should have been left out and he should have written something else for the middle section. C-.

3. Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris

I took a break from expat reading to have some fun with Sookie Stackhouse--and was fairly disappointed by it. It felt like nothing happened. The only real action took place in the last twenty pages or so, and the rest of the novel was really not that great.

I hate saying things like this about authors that I enjoy, and I really hate saying it about someone like Charlaine Harris, who from all accounts is one of the most genuinely nice people you'll ever meet (according to Jim Butcher). Now, is it as bad as what has been made of the most recent season of True Blood? Well, not if I take my favorite Snarky Writer's word for it (as I don't watch the show, but she does), and her own blog posts on the subject have been hilarious. And I should be fair--1. I haven't re-read the book before this one in quite a while, so it did take me a while to get into the book and try to remember what was going on. Since I typically borrow the books from SW, I didn't have it handy. 2. Sookie, Eric (yay, Eric!) and Bill (boo, Bill) were all still recovering from fairly severe injuries from the previous book, so an action-packed novel isn't necessarily realistic. (Although, I should mention that I'm glad that Bill's 'sister' has showed up, because if he's with Judith, then Sookie can stay with Eric, which I heartily approve of.) Anyway, the book had so little going on that I can't really summarize the plot, as I'm not dead sure of what it was, other than a fairy trying to make Sookie's life miserable and some problems with the Were's leadership. Also the government trying to make Weres miserable. B-.

Up next, Sherrilyn Kenyon's No Mercy, as well as the first batch of reading for my directed reading, which includes Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (which I've read before) and Roxana. It's almost time for school to start back (and yes, I am wishing that there was more than two weeks between now and then and that one of those weeks wasn't taken up with TA orientation, but that's a problem with the university's scheduling. *shakes fist*).

One last note--I was reviewing blog stats, and as I was looking through where posts came from, I found that I had a reader from Germany and one from India. Now, either I have readers in other countries, or someone is using Tor to send their IP address around the world. Whichever it is, please leave me a note! I love meeting new people. :D

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Help

My mom has started reading Kathryn Stockett's The Help and is planning on going to see it this weekend. She's loving it, and as I mentioned this to my boss today, she remarked that she had also given a copy of it to her mother, and that they were going to see the movie together this weekend.

Anyway, between that, seeing the commercials, and hearing interviews on late night talk shows, I've been interested, and Mom says she'll loan her copy to me. It was this that caused me to click on a link about the book from Yahoo! tonight about the 60 rejections Stockett had before someone finally bought the book.

Despite the fact that I have yet to send anything out--I actually find this encouraging. I can't really tell you why, but I do. Any ideas?