Support your local library!

One of the things I’ve learned from moving around a great deal is that the best way to meet new people is to get involved with a group. I’ve volunteered for the alumni associations for both my university and my sorority, and immediately signed up to volunteer at my son’s school library when he started kindergarten here a few weeks ago.

Little did I know that it would lead to an even bigger position. I was contacted last week about getting involved with the Friends of the University Park Public Library. They needed board members, and did you say you work in marketing? So I’m now the communications co-chair, responsible for reviving a newsletter to dues-paying members and overall support of the local library. I’m excited to get started!

elle readers’ prize: july 2016

I was pleasantly surprised to be contacted by Elle to read books for the June and July panels this year. However, the excitement was short-lived — the July column is a web-only feature, and I’m sensing that they are phasing this column out.

I enjoyed the June memoirs, and agreed that Approval Junkie was particularly good. While I wasn’t cited in the blurbs for the online edition, I was flattered that they quoted me about Ms. Salie’s book in the print edition, saying “Salie’s succeeding despite the so-called impostor syndrome that many women unfortunately feel is, as one reader noted, a much-needed reminder to ignore ‘that doubting voice inside your head.'”

The July books were fantastic; I particularly liked The Hopefuls, a novel about two couples in their late twenties starting to make their way in D.C. politics. You can read our panel reactions at the Elle magazine website.

elle readers’ prize: october 2014

The non-fiction selections I read for October for Elle magazine’s readers’ panel were quite challenging; the theme this month was triumph over early trauma. I found all three difficult to read, and I only would recommend one of them. Here’s what we read:

This is the only book I’d recommend out of the three. I liked the non-chronological order of the book, setting up our knowledge of the loss of his family — and the addition of two new half-siblings — rather quickly, while filling in the background on his childhood and the tumultuous years during high school and college. I also enjoyed his stories of the first few meetings with his new siblings; rather than ending with such a revelation, Mr. Boast’s discovery was a new beginning for him.

North of Normal
While I admire that Cea Sunrise Person somehow became a successful model and grew beyond her eccentric childhood, most pages were filled with such revolting behavior from her mother (I still don’t know what bothers me more, her near-constant pot-smoking or the fact that she’d have sex with a variety of men mere inches from her daughter’s bed) that I had to fight to finish the story. And while I appreciate that she finally found a stable, loving relationship with her current husband, I wish that more of her modeling and all three of her marriages had taken up more space than the wilderness years — the older she got, the less we learned about her experiences, and her epiphany about her past affecting her current relationships, and her current marriage, both felt like footnotes to the rest of the story.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones
For a memoir written by a journalist, I was disappointed by this book. First, the tone felt almost monotonous — his writing felt detached, which would be fine for a piece in a newspaper, particularly when short in length, but did not help to build empathy for the narrator in such a long-form piece. And secondly, his revelation that he was bisexual felt completely hollow. I understand that his near-molestation by multiple family members would be awful/confusing/therapy-inducing. But when he explained that he never felt comfortable in a relationship with a man, it felt much more like he simply found some men beautiful or attractive, which is more human than sexual. I understand that he would have been taught that seeing men that way was completely unacceptable, but after growing up and leaving his small town for New York, I’d expect a broader understanding of human sexuality than what he concluded.

elle readers’ prize: july 2014

I had a pleasant surprise this spring when I was contacted to join a fiction panel for Elle magazine’s readers’ panel; I had only done non-fiction reviews up to this point. The books that we read were quite varied, covering stories about early 20th-century anthropologists in Africa, a musician touring Europe, and a pair of brothers living in present-day New York.

My own rankings mirrored the selections of my fellow readers — Lily King’s Euphoria was certainly the best-written book of the three. (The Snow Queen, which came in last place, was a big disappointment from the author of The Hours; his central conceit of a vision in Central Park really did not make any sense in relation to the rest of the book.)

The one downside to Ms. King’s novel is that it is based on the anthropologist Margaret Mead. While I knew this going in, it wasn’t until after I’d submitted my votes that I found how similar the novel was to her life — from the love trapezoid that enmeshes the characters to the discoveries the three main characters make and publish. It sadly colored my whole experience of the book and, while it still is a good read, does not rate as highly with me as it did before I’d learned more about Ms. Mead.

elle readers’ prize: 2013 grand prix

As part of the jury for the Elle magazine Readers’ Prize, all reviewers get to vote on the top book of the year, either for fiction or non-fiction. Since I’ve been reading non-fiction titles for them, I voted on six memoirs that had been picked as “best of the month” throughout 2013.

It was easy to set aside those that I wouldn’t select for the top prize, but my two favorites were both great for different reasons. I ended up going with Richard Russo’s memoir Everywhere, which was selected as best of the month last December. My 2nd place book, Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde, was one that I had liked last February. It ended up getting the top honors for 2013. I’d highly recommend them both.

See the full end-of-year reviews at here.

elle readers’ prize: june 2013

I was able to fit in one more reading panel for Elle magazine before the baby came; I sent my reviews during the last week before my due date. To my surprise, they said the results were quite close. I had to send in a weighted preference to help them rank the three books because they said there was a 3-way tie for first after they’d received the reviews.

As usual, the book that I much preferred to the other two, She Left Me the Gun, came in second in our panel. (But it looks like other publications agree with me: Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A” and put it on their Must List a few weeks ago.) I was struck by the author’s story of piecing together her mother’s past, traveling to another country (South Africa) to find out why she’d run away to England in her youth. Both the author’s journey and her mother’s narrative were equally compelling, and kept me turning the pages quickly.

As for the other two books, I can’t say I recommend either one. Both tales meandered and I felt that there wasn’t much narrative force or hindsight that tied anecdotes together.

elle readers’ prize: february 2013

Now that I’m six months pregnant, I’m trying to read as much as I can before the baby comes. These reviews were submitted before the holidays, and I’m looking forward to fitting in at least one more jury before my due date in April.

  • While this was my second pick out of the three (not the first as picked by majority), I would still recommend Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde. While I never lived in an Orthodox neighborhood, I loved her descriptions of her neighbors and their way of life, and I certainly empathized with both her (non)gefilte fish out of water experience and the depth of her frustration after her breakup.

  • I wasn’t surprised that the jury put Vow at the bottom of their picks. I personally thought her viewpoint of being both the cheater and the cheated upon at various points gave her a unique perspective that enriched the narrative. But I know that many women would find the narrative self-indulgent, or at least difficult to empathize with.

  • I’m not surprised that they did not cite me on my least favorite book, The Feminist and the Cowboy. I wrote that the book not only felt too long, but that the author seemed “compelled to create — or at least exaggerate — the typical ‘boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl’ structure so popular in chick lit and romantic comedy movies, in order for the reader to hope that she would be able to regain the cowboy’s trust.”

grammar lessons from david foster wallace: twenty-four word notes

As my favorite contemporary author DFW died more than four years ago, it’s difficult to find new pieces from his body of work that I have not yet read. So after reading his posthumously published collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, I was surprised to find a few included essays that I had never seen before, and a couple more that I was happy to finally have in print rather than scanned a PDF of a 15-year-old magazine.

The most pleasing surprise was the inclusion of multiple essays that discussed writing: what it is like to be a fiction writer, the art of reviewing others’ works, and, my favorite, errors to avoid in writing. I often forget that he guaranteed his writing career by teaching for a number of years, and it is pleasing to see that his writing lessons for others are just as amusing and instructive as his fiction and non-fiction pieces.

The one that jumped out at me was the piece titled, “Twenty-Four Word Notes.” As these were notes that he wrote for inclusion in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, they had never before been published as a stand-alone piece; even now, you can only pick his notes out of the Thesaurus (if they are still included), or by scanning through this PDF, which includes 85 pages of definitions and word notes from a variety of authors.

While I won’t include the entire text published in the book, I had to share the top four lessons I learned from his word notes.

  • The distinction between “if” and “whether.”
  • Most dictionaries’ usage notes for if are long and involved; it might be English’s hardest conjunction. From experience born of humiliation, I inform you that there are two main ways to mess up with if and make your writing look weak.

    The first is to use if for whether. They are not synonyms — if is used to express a conditional, whether to introduce alternative possibilities. True, abstract grammatical distinctions are hard to keep straight in the heat of composition, but in this case there’s a wonderfully simple test you can use: If you can coherently insert an “[or not]” after either the conjunction or the clause it introduces, you need whether. Examples: “He didn’t know whether [or not] it would rain”; “She asked me straight out whether I was a fetishist [or not]”; “We told him to call if [or not? no] he needed a ride [or not? no].”

    The second kind of snafu involves a basic rule for using commas with subordinating conjunctions (which are what if is one of). A subordinating conjunction signals the reader that the clause it’s part of is dependent — common sub. conjunctions include before, after, while, unless, if, as, and because. The relevant rule is easy and well worth remembering: Use a comma after the subordinating conjunction’s clause only if that clause comes before the independent clause that completes the thought; if the sub. conj.’s clause comes after the independent clause, there’s no comma. Example: “If I were you, I’d put down that hatchet” vs. “I’d put down that hatchet if I were you.”

  • “Myriad” can be used with “of” as a modifier when used as a noun. (I always thought only “plethora” could be used in this manner, in line with his authorities mentioned in the second paragraph.)
  • As an adj., myriad means (1) an indefinitely large number of something (“The Local Group comprises myriad galaxies”) or (2) made up of a great many diverse elements (“the myriad plant life of Amazonia”). As a noun, it’s used with an article and of to mean a large number (“The new CFO faced a myriad of cash-flow problems.”)

    What’s odd is that some authorities consider only the adjective usage correct — there’s about a 50-50 chance that a given copyeditor will query a myriad of — even though the noun usage has a much longer history. It was only in nineteenth-century poetry that myriad started being used as an adj. So it’s a bit of a stumper. It’s tempting to recommend avoiding the noun usage so that no readers will be bugged, but at the same time it’s true that any reader who’s bugged by a myriad of is both persnickety and wrong — and you can usually rebut snooty teachers, copyeditors, et al. by directing them to Coleridge’s “Myriad myriads of lives teemed forth.”

  • The incorrectness of the phrase “all of.”
  • Other than as an ironic idiom for “no more than” (e.g., “Sex with Edgar lasted all of a minute”), does all of have any legit uses? The answer is both complicated and personally humbling. An irksome habit of many student writers is automatically to stick an of between the adjective all and any noun that follows — “All of the firemen slid down the pole,” “She sent cards to all of her friends” — and I have spent a decade telling undergrads to abjure this habit, for two reasons. The first is that an excess of of‘s is one of the surest signs of flabby or maladroit writing, and the second is that the usage is often wrong.

    I have promulgated the following rule: Except for the ironic-idiom case, the only time it’s correct to use all of is when the adj. phrase is followed by a pronoun — “All of them got cards”; “I wanted Edgar to have all of me” — unless, however, the relevant pronoun is possessive, in which case you must again omit the of, as in “All my friends despise Edgar.”

    Only a few weeks ago did I learn (from a bright student who got annoyed enough at my hectoring to start poring over usage guides in the hopes of finding something I’d been wrong about that she could raise her hand at just the right moment in class and embarrass me with [which she did, and I was, and deserved it — there’s nothing more ridiculous than a pedant who’s wrong]), however, that there’s actually one more complication to the first part of the rule. With all plus a noun, it turns out that the medial of is required if that noun is possessive, as in “All of Edgar’s problems stem from his childhood,” All of Dave’s bombast came back to haunt him that day.” I doubt I will ever forget this.

  • There are endless variations on how to describe someone as hairy. (I already knew this, but the last definition that the editors placed in the piece was too good to not include.)
  • There are maybe more descriptors for various kinds of hair and hairiness than any other word-set in English, and some of them are extremely strange and fun. The more pedestrian terms like shaggy, unshorn, bushy, coiffed, and so on we’ll figure you already know.

    The adj. barbigerous is an extremely uptown synonym for bearded. Cirrose and cirrous, from the Latin cirrus meaning “curl” or “fringe” (as in cirrus clouds), can both be used to refer to somebody’s curly or tufty or wispy/feathery hair — Nicolas Cage’s hair in Adaptation is cirrose. Crinite means “hairy or possessed of a hair-like appendage,” though it’s mainly a botanical term and would be a bit eccentric applied to a person. Crinose, though, is a people-adj. that means “having a lot of hair,” especially in the sense of one’s hair being really long. The related noun crinosity is antiquated but not obsolete and can be used to refer to somebody’s hair in an amusingly donnish way, as in Madonna’s normally platinum crinosity is now a maternal brown.

    Glabrous, which is the loveliest of all hair-related adjectives, means having no hair (on a given part) at all. Please note that glabrous means more baby’s-bottom-hairless than bald or shaved, though if you wanted to describe a bald person in an ironically fancy way you could talk about his glabrous dome or something.

    Hirsute is probably the most familiar upmarket synonym for hairy, totally at home in any kind of formal writing. Like that of many hair-related adjectives, hirsute‘s original use was in botany (where it means “covered with coarse or bristly hairs”), but in regular usage its definition is much more general. Not so with the noun hirsutism, though, which is still semi-medical and means having a truly pathological amount of hair and/or hair that’s unusually or unevenly distributed — the point is that the noun’s not really a synonym for hairiness.

    Hispid means “covered with stiff or rough little hairs” and could apply to a military pate or unshaved jaw. Hispidulous is mainly just a puffed-up form of hispid and should be avoided. Lanate and lanated mean “having or being composed of woolly hairs.” A prettier and slightly more familiar way to describe woolly hair is with the adjective flocculent. (There’s also floccose, but this is used mainly of odd little hairy fruits like kiwi and quince.)

    Then there are the pil-based words, all derived from the Latin pilus (=hair). Pilose, another fairly common adj., means “covered with fine soft hair.” Deceptively similar-looking is pilous, which is a more hardcore-science adj. that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “characterized by or abounding in hair, hairy,” citing as an example the following (unexplained, thus kind of troubling) sentence: It is covered with a rough pilous epidermis. Pilous‘s own similarity to pileous is not deceptive, since the latter, a medical adjective, means “consisting of or pertaining to hair”; e.g., certain hair-intensive cancerous growths are classified as pileous tumors. On the other hand, pileous tumors are sometimes also called piliferous tumors, wherein the latter adj. means “having or producing hair” (in botany, piliferous means “tipped with a hair,” as in certain weird leaves). There’s also piligerous, which means “covered or clothed in hair” and is used primarily of animals, and piliated, which comes from the plural of pilus and is used to describe certain kinds of hairy or fringe-intensive bacteria. Last but not least is the noun pilimiction, which names a hopefully very rare medical disorder “in which piliform or hair-like bodies are passed in the urine.” Outside of maybe describing some kind of terribly excruciated facial expression as pilimictive, however, it’s hard to imagine a mainstream use for pilimiction. (One pil-word N.B.: It so happens that the adjective pubescent literally means “covered with soft downy hairs,” so technically it qualifies as a synonym for pilose; but as of 2004 almost no reader will take pubescent this way, so I’d stick with pilose.

    Tomentose means “covered with dense little matted hairs” — baby chimps, hobbits’ feet, and Robin Williams are all tomentose. Ulotrichous, which is properly classed with lannate and flocculent, is an old and extremely fancy term for “crisply woolly hair.” Be advised that it is also, if not exactly a racist adj., certainly a racial one — A.C. Haddon’s Races of Man, from the early 1900s, famously classified races according to three basic hair types: leiotrichous (straight), cymotrichous (wavy), and ulotrichous.

    Now go and do the right thing.

    N.B. If you’re thinking of using any of the more esoteric adjectives here, you’d be well advised to keep an OED close at hand. This is not simply a gratuitous plus of another Oxford U. Press product. The fact is that some of these hair-related terms aren’t in other dictionaries; plus, the terms are often specialized enough that you’re going to want not just an abstract definition but a couple sample sentences so that you can see how the words are actually used. Only the OED has both defs. and in-context samples for just about every significant word in the language. Actually, why not screw appearances and just state the obvious: No really serious writer should be without an OED, whether it’s bought or stolen or hacked into the online version of or whatever you need to do. Nothing else comes close.

If you actually made it through all of this entry, and you’re intrigued by DFW’s writing and somehow have never read much of his writing, I would highly recommend skipping over to Amazon and buying any of his essay collections, especially A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again or Consider the Lobster. As he says above, nothing else comes close.

elle readers’ prize: december 2012

While there are times that I’m disappointed to be on the non-fiction panel for Elle magazine’s reader’s jury, the December books this year were completely engrossing. Better yet, they cited my reviews for all three books this month on the website — and I think this was the first month that I’ve contributed where my rankings matched the status quo.

  • I would highly recommend the memoir by Richard Russo, Elsewhere. Like many writers, he had a difficult childhood, but I was impressed that the scope was wide (covering his childhood through the last couple of years), yet never overwhelmed me as a reader.

  • The memoir by Melissa Francis, Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter, was impossible to put down. Whether you were stunned at her mother’s actions or impressed by her fortitude, it was a compelling tale.

  • The last book, The Girl Who Fell to Earth, was my least favorite by far. As I mention in the review, I was left wanting more analysis of her experiences and a better ending to tie the book together.

elle readers’ prize: september 2012

I have been enjoying the fact that, about a year ago, I was accepted to be a member of Elle magazine’s readers’ jury, a group of the magazine’s readers that are invited a couple of times a year to read 3 books and rank them from favorite to least favorite. As an avid reader (and writer, of course), it’s always fun to read advance copies and to compare how my rankings stack up to others that read the books.

I was happy to see that I was cited twice this month, on my favorite and least favorite books:

  • As I mention in the excerpt from my review on Happier at Home, I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy this book. It was full of lots of little ways to focus on the positive and live a more fulfilled life.

  • At least the 15 readers agreed on my least favorite book of the three, Why Have Kids — and not, as a non-parent, for the reasons you’d think. In addition to the quote they used on the website about its content, I was also incredibly frustrated with the book’s structure. The book is sloppily put together, she often repeats points, and she rarely shows the other sides of her arguments.

Speaking of the jury, I must go read some more; I have to finish one more book before submitting my reviews for their end-of-year rankings…