Monday, January 22, 2007

Doing Our Own Thing: the degradation of language and music and why we should, like, care

by John McWhorter

First of all, I didn't finish this book. I didn't even get to the part about music. I first noticed this book on the shelf when I started working at the library six and a half years ago, but I didn't check it out until about a year and a half ago. Then it sat on my shelf, getting renewed again and again, for almost a year before I actually picked it up and started to read it.

I've been accused of being a grammar geek, a purist, too conservative when it comes to language — and worse. But I'm really not as conservative as some have made me out to be; I'm more than willing to allow for casual usage, new terminology, and the like. What I cannot abide are changes in language that are nothing more than accommodations of lazy, careless, sloppy usage. Yes, rules are made to be broken, but one ought to know the rules first.

That said, I'm absolutely thrilled by this book. The author is not insisting on correct grammar at all times; indeed, he has many positive things to say about the richness and usefulness of casual expression. The point of the book is that we're losing out when we fail to take advantage, in appropriate situations, of the rhetorical power of formal speaking.

A perfect example is President George W. Bush, whose choppy sound-bite style of speaking actually appeals to many people, in part because it doesn't sound like a speech; it sounds like he's just talking. On the other hand we have the endangered breed of speakers, such as Al Gore, whose speeches are more like written words read aloud (which they essentially are) and therefore can use structures, styles, and rhetorical techniques that are difficult to employ spontaneously.

Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, this dumbing-down is a very recent trend. Used to be that people of all education levels could appreciate and understand oratory in a style that seems to most people today to be old-fashioned, baroque, snobbish, brainy, etc.

Now, I really need to just wrap this up. It took me forever to read the book, and I didn't even finish, and somehow I've gotten bogged down in writing this. I haven't been adding to my blog nearly as much as I'd like, so I need to move on!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Vernon God Little

by D.B.C. Pierre

This is another one of those books that I passed up when I first heard about it. Reviews were pretty good but not raving, and the whole school shooting theme turned me off. Then I read another review, where the reviewer decided that instead of writing about his top ten of 2006, he'd rather talk about this book, which was published in 2003.

I wish I had saved the link to that review, because what hooked me was the description of the protagonist's unique voice. Books in which the hero is of a certain age inevitably invite comparisons to Catcher in the Rye; but where Catcher is all angst and omphaloskepsis, Vernon God Little is satire at it's best: at once hysterically funny and deeply philosophical in its critique of the "reality show" that passes for culture in the '00s. Consumerism, therapy, consumerism as therapy; media, celebrity, and "info-tainment"; fatness, fast food, and irritable bowel syndrome; porn, perversion, and punishment — nothing escapes the searing sarcasm of a young man world-weary and wise before his time and on the run from inept law enforcement and the court of popular opinion.

There were so many quotes I wanted to use here as an example of the character's voice, or just to keep for posterity, but I was reading the book poolside with a pina colada in one hand, and I absolutely abhor dog-earing, so I was only able to mark one:

"There's the learning, O Partner: that you're cursed when you realize true things, because then you can't act with the full confidence of dumbness anymore."

Pithy, man, pithy.

P.S., I've always thought Holden Caulfield is a whiny bitch.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Don't Worry Mama

by Narise Konohara

As I did in one of my earliest posts, also for a yaoi book, I'll let the book speak for itself. From the back cover:

"Hey, I'm not a chubby chaser." His head was filled with dangerous thoughts. Was he insane? Who did he think this man was? This was Imakura. The obese monster Imakura. How could he even think about lusting after him?

How can you not read a book with that on the cover? I enjoyed this book very much — which is saying quite a bit, really, since most of the time I was reading it I was gravely ill. (Alright, maybe not gravely, but it certainly felt grave; I did hallucinate, and I did wonder if I were dying.) In any case, the gripping storyline and the realistic portrayal of emotions certainly took my mind off the pain and dizziness.

Since this is a novel with some illustrations (as opposed to an actual graphic novel) it's not as sexually explicit as some other yaoi. On the other hand, it spells things out quite a bit more than Only the Ring Finger Knows, and the very last illustration is more risque than it appears at first glance. Guess that's why the Ring Finger series is cataloged as young adult fiction and this one's adult fiction.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Black Swan Green

by David Mitchell

Mitchell is a freakin' genius. His last book before this one was Cloud Atlas, which is firmly in my Top 10 Best Books Ever. Critics gushed over it too, and it was a finalist for the prestigious Booker Prize.

This, his latest, did not fare so well with the reviewers. Not one of the reviews I read, however, actually reviewed the book on its own merits. The critics seemed blinded by disappointment that Black Swan Green isn't as bold and complex and breathtaking as Cloud Atlas — which really surprised me. Normally it's the public who feel betrayed when an artist doesn't copy himself. Usually the critics have enough experience to realize that artists must be allowed to grow and experiment and change. I guess they were annoyed he hadn't already done his compulsory semi-autobiographical, first-person-narrative coming of age novel. (Every novelist is allowed one, but most get it out of the way earlier in their careers.)

In any case, Black Swan Green is a charming and funny tale of boyhood adventures and travails, navigating social hierarchies and familial decay. It's easy and comfortable to slip into the protagonist's world, which is, in a way, simpler than Mitchell's other work, but possesses a subtlety and intricacy of its own — a different, more intimate type of complexity. I really enjoyed reading it, and I laughed out loud several times. It's sort of a "beach book" for those who normally disdain such things, and accessible enough to be enjoyed by teens.

[Disclaimer: I am an Anglophile, which no doubt contributed to my enjoyment of this book. In fact, it inspired one of my new year's resolutions: to incorporate more Britishisms into my speech. Cheers, then!]