First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing . . . and Life is an opinionated book about writing, more of a reflection of writing than a self-help book, for the most part, and often not welcoming to the casual writer. What should we make of, “A long sentence should feel like it is pushing at its edges while still keeping its shape.”? There are some very helpful tactical tips near the end, as in pressing enter after each sentence to immediately see that there is an appropriate mix of long and short sentences, but the overall book was a slog, for me casual writer.
Writing to Persuade: How to Bring People Over to Your Side attempts to mix suggestions on writing persuasively with tidbits from the author’s life–and, as is often the case, I much preferred the life story to the advice, starting with the startling realization that her mom may not have liked her much because she reminded her of her absconded husband. The advice is fine, really, albeit sometimes hackneyed, and hectoring. The author does include wonderful examples of before- and after-editing prose, which show the awesome power of good editing.
The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography is an impressionistic memoir consisting of discrete moments of the author’s life, in no particular order, with some gems, as when a store owner belatedly realizes that he ran out of the only kind of popsicles her dying mother liked or when she finds, in an emergency, “I had no choice but to have energy”. But it will probably appeal especially to readers and writers, as she mixes in many reflection about writers that can only make sense if you have experience with the writers yourself.
Unlike the author of A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age, I find “whom” to be a perfectly good and useful word, albeit often a misused one. But that is not my beef about the book. Under the veneer of hipness, the first half is a very standard, borderline boring usage manual, and the entire book is peppered with exchanges of texts between the author/BuzzFeed editor (she says slashes are ok!) and her coworkers, rather lame texts that do not add much to the contents.
Where she shines is her nuanced explanations of hipper words and punctuation marks in the context of text, tweets, and other modern modes of communication.
I found Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing to be frustrating to read because it lacks a unifying purpose. Instead, each chapter focuses on a single idea (for instance, is there a connection between using a lot of adverbs and overall quality of writing) and shows how big data — counting words, phrases, or more sophisticated literacy devices — can inform the study of literature.
I have some quibbles with the way the author presents his information. He likes big charts where I would prefer to see charts, for example, but I was astounded to see how far one can get with this kind of approach.
Written by a former editor of The Times, Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters is an uneasy mix of memoir and writing prescription, and my thoughts as I was reading it were: Why do books about writing have to be so prissy and boring? And, in this case, so cluttered? We get many pages listing cliches to avoid and bloated words with alternatives. All very useful but it does not add to the readability of the book.
The author seems to delight in showing us samples of bureaucratic and legal writing, which are indeed absolutely awful — but does he really believe that bureaucrats and lawyers want to be understood? I’m thinking it may not be pure incompetence, but perhaps a penchant for obfuscation.
Although The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story starts with the moving story of the author’s death, it consists almost exclusively of analyzing other writers’ works about death, which makes the book feel like an exclusive, even exclusionary club if one has not read the texts — or if one cannot remember them (guilty as charged). I would like a little more emotion and a little less intellectualism.
I do remember the author’s excellent Claire of the Sea Light.
Dimestore is a memoir told in a series of essays, which overlap pleasantly and occasionally not so pleasantly, recycling the exact same paragraphs. The author describes the small town where she was born, in coal-country Virginia, her early writing stints on the school newspaper, and, more somberly, her parents’ and son’s mental illnesses. Her account of becoming a professional writer is interesting, but the family stories were the best part for me.
Townie is the memoir of the talented author of the excellent House of Sand and Fog and it’s certainly an eye opener, with the author growing up in a succession of tough neighborhoods with his impoverished mother, while his college professor father leads a poor (but not as poor) and kids-free life on the nearby bucolic campus of a small liberal arts college. At first, I felt for the poor kid who, along with his three siblings, is left adrift, allowed to skip school as much as he wants and barely fed or care for in any way. Then, I grew tired of the fights, the drugs, the general violence and decay. It’s really a miracle that neither he nor his siblings is left dead, drug-addicted, or imprisoned (although they do have brushes with such problems along the way). I guess good parenting is important, after all.