An American Editor

August 15, 2016

On Books: Visions and Revisions (Part II)

by Alison Parker

Aristotle was obsessed with aha! moments. Metaphor, he tells us in his Rhetoric, is superior to simile because simile goes on too long and detracts from the drama. Perhaps like adverbs in dialogue tags in modern fiction? No, the old philosopher didn’t say that. But he did say that metaphor can light up the synapses. “Oh!” the listener or reader will say to himself. “This is that!” See, for example, Aristotle’s Rhetoric 3.10.

And the recognition or revelation scene in drama — the anagnorisis — satisfies Aristotle even more. Here we come to the point in the plot at which a character or characters recognize their or someone else’s true identity or motives, or even the nature of their situation. Eyes are opened, either for good or for bad. And everything changes after these revelations.

The classic example in Aristotle’s Poetics is Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannos/Rex (Tyrant is a better title word than King historically, because Oedipus isn’t considered a king in lawful succession from father to firstborn son until the end of the play). In this pioneering whodunit (except that the audience knows who did it, though not how it will be discovered in this play or what will happen afterward), the protagonist plays sleuth to find out who killed the former king of Thebes, the first husband of Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta. Oops.

Other great examples include Othello — don’t forget that Iago’s wife has her light bulb moment, if you’ll forgive the anachronism, just before her husband stabs her and shuts her up in Othello’s presence. And check out the plot of the Hildebrandslied, when father and son meet in battle.

Recognition scenes in ancient comedy are often more mechanical, relying on tokens like rings or necklaces. See, for example, Terence’s Hecyra (“The Mother-in-Law”). While her new husband is out of town for some months, a young woman starts shunning her mother-in-law, and when the husband returns, he finds his wife in childbirth. The baby can’t possibly be his! Things look dire for a while. But a ring that the hero stole from a girl he raped during a drunken spree reveals that his wife was his victim and the child is his. Everyone is happy.

Aristotle considered tragedy superior to epic and more philosophical than history. (The novel is a later literary development.) But Homer’s Odyssey has a bang-up set of recognition scenes when Odysseus returns to Ithaca after twenty years: Odysseus’s poor dog! The scar! The bed! Aristotle thinks of this epic as appealing to a lower audience, and the best drama of Sophocles to a higher one, but to heck with Aristotle. When drama is properly injected into narrative, the synapses still fire up. And I’d suggest that this goes for all genres, fiction and nonfiction alike.

Granted, with A Little Princess we find ourselves in fairy tale territory. But Frances Hodgson Burnett has set up her revised Cinderella plot to make almost perfect sense within the parameters of fantasy and romance. Every incident follows by probability or necessity from the scene before.

In Sara Crewe, the precursor to A Little Princess, Burnett gives the reader an impressive recognition scene. After the monkey belonging to the ailing gentleman next door escapes over the roof, Sara catches the monkey and returns it. She meets the gentleman, Mr. Carrisford, and — whoa! — after he asks her an idle question to which he already knows the answer (“You live next door?”) and then follows it up, he discovers that she’s the daughter of his dear departed business partner. We will soon learn that Mr. Carrisford has been searching for Sara for years, eaten up by guilt for the way he seemed to have defrauded her father when an investment looked bad. Quite the surprise to the reader, especially because the gentleman had been mentioned only once before at any length in the short story, and Burnett has to use most of the rest of the tale to tell the reader the backstory, almost all in basic narrative.

When Burnett revisits the story in her novel, she doesn’t go for a cheap surprise ending. We’ve already come to know Mr. Carrisford, the supposedly false friend, and heard his anguish over the disastrous fallout from investment in diamond mines. And we know how assiduously he has tried to find the little girl. His lawyer has been searching for her in France and in Russia, from which he has just returned with disappointing news.

We have also seen Mr. Carrisford take an interest in the poor little girl next door, as does his manservant, and her brutal attic room becomes a fairy tale of delights because the gentleman wants to make at least one little girl happy, and suddenly Sara is warm and full fed because of his “romantic” actions. Instead of surprise and fireworks, we have suspense that leads up to the anagnorisis.

And when Sara enters his room, she says something particular that offers the man a clue of her identity.

“Your monkey ran away again,” she said, in her pretty voice. “He came to my garret window last night, and I took him in because it was so cold. I would have brought him back if it had not been so late. I knew you were ill and might not like to be disturbed.”

The Indian gentleman’s hollow eyes dwelt on her with curious interest.

“That was very thoughtful of you,” he said.

Sara looked toward Ram Dass, who stood near the door.

“Shall I give him to the Lascar?” she asked.

“How do you know he is a Lascar?” said the Indian gentleman, smiling a little.

“Oh, I know Lascars,” Sara said, handing over the reluctant monkey. “I was born in India.”

The Indian gentleman sat upright so suddenly, and with such a change of expression, that she was for a moment quite startled.

“You were born in India,” he exclaimed, “were you? Come here.” And he held out his hand.

The word Lascar is a little less than apt here. Burnett earlier defines it as meaning a sort of manservant, probably to simplify matters for her children’s audience, but she had to know a lot more about Lascars from growing up in a port city with a Lascar problem. The OED defines the word as an East Indian seaman or an inferior infantryman, and Merriam-Webster adds army servant. But outside of dictionaries, the word is sometimes used in a more ethnic sense. We’ll address this difficulty in a later essay on the expanded role of servants in A Little Princess. But Sara’s unexpected use of the word here is what triggers the aha! moment.

And Burnett doesn’t leave us with a simple and single recognition scene. In the chapter “It Is the Child!” Mr. Carrisford slumps back in his chair because of the weight of the recognition. Is he dying?

Sara, led out of the library, now thinks of the Indian gentleman as the “wicked friend” whose actions killed her father! But when she learns the whole story, and particularly the fact that the man on the other side of the row-house wall from the cold, hard school for girls was the one who supplied her with her fairy tale room — out of the goodness of his heart and because he was worried about her! — she rushes back into his house and we have a lovely reconciliation. The lawyer, Mr. Carmichael, and one who has become an important character in Burnett’s revision, and with his large, happy family a symbol of all Sara wants, lets her back in:

She went and stood before his [Mr. Carrisford’s] chair, with her hands clasped together against her breast.

“You sent the things to me,” she said, in a joyful emotional little voice, “the beautiful, beautiful things? YOU sent them!”

“Yes, poor, dear child, I did,” he answered her. He was weak and broken with long illness and trouble, but he looked at her with the look she remembered in her father’s eyes — that look of loving her and wanting to take her in his arms. It made her kneel down by him, just as she used to kneel by her father when they were the dearest friends and lovers in the world.

“Then it is you who are my friend,” she said; “it is you who are my friend!” And she dropped her face on his thin hand and kissed it again and again.

“The man will be himself again in three weeks,” Mr. Carmichael said aside to his wife. “Look at his face already.”

A lawyer with a heart. Now that’s a fairy tale!🙂

And it gets better in the novel with the humiliation of the evil schoolmistress in a secondary recognition scene. In the original story, the drama here is nonexistent. Miss Minchin learns of Sara’s change in fortune in this fashion: “First, Mr. Carmichael came and had an interview with Miss Minchin.” We learn much later, in a one-sentence flashback in the pluperfect, that Miss Minchin had tried unsuccessfully to win Sara back.

It was rather a painful experience for Miss Minchin to watch her ex-pupil’s fortunes, as she had the daily opportunity to do, and to feel that she had made a serious mistake, from a business point of view. She had even tried to retrieve it by suggesting that Sara’s education should be continued under her care, and had gone to the length of making an appeal to the child herself.

The novel tightens and intensifies the scene, now set right after our little princess becomes fast friends with Mr. Carrisford. Miss Minchin, driven by anger, comes over to confront her annoying and too-smart drudge. The schoolmistress starts by threatening the girl with severe punishment, and ends up being reprimanded herself in various ways by the lawyer, by Mr. Carrisford, and even by Sara.

Things will go from bad to worse for Miss Minchin. Her sister, the timid Miss Amelia, falls apart and still ends up cowing her older sister. The following tertiary recognition drama isn’t in the original story:

“She saw through us both. She saw that you were a hard-hearted, worldly woman, and that I was a weak fool, and that we were both of us vulgar and mean enough to grovel on our knees for her money, and behave ill to her because it was taken from her — though she behaved herself like a little princess even when she was a beggar. She did — she did — like a little princess!” And her hysterics got the better of the poor woman, and she began to laugh and cry both at once, and rock herself backward and forward.

“And now you’ve lost her,” she cried wildly; “and some other school will get her and her money; and if she were like any other child she’d tell how she’s been treated, and all our pupils would be taken away and we should be ruined. And it serves us right; but it serves you right more than it does me, for you are a hard woman, Maria Minchin, you’re a hard, selfish, worldly woman!”

You’ll read in the dénouement a string of dramatic delights not offered by the original story. Books are remembered principally for their climaxes and their endings — at least with a well-handled climax. And recognition scenes serve as the most memorable way to move a book toward its end. But the author needs a good conflict to keep the reader from closing the book early, and we’ll discuss that in the next essay.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

August 3, 2016

On Books: Visions and Revisions (Part I)

by Alison Parker

Most people in fiction editing have trotted out the line “Show; don’t tell.” But how often does that line by itself make authors or editors improve in their craft?

I’m not denying that the line is great in theory. There’s a lot of great theory out there — start with Aristotle’s Poetics. Heck, if you deal with fiction, you have doubtless amassed quite a number of practical books on plot, character, emotion, description, and so on. I certainly have, but when I try to read these books, my eyes usually glaze over. The ideas might be practical, but they’re too often neither engaging nor inspiring. And that’s a big “fail.” It is important for authors and editors to understand how to create excitement in a reader, and how to make a reader want to continue to the end, whether the end is the end of the single book or the end of a twelve-book series. And it’s important to make authors and editors see and feel the principles and not just think them.

How to Teach Fiction?

If I ever found myself in front of a creative writing class, I’d use the old high school English teachers’ method of “compare and contrast” and make the students look at one of my favorite children’s books: A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who was once considered a leading light in realist fiction for adults and whose book The Secret Garden is still frequently taught in children’s literature classes. What should make that exercise interesting is that the book, which was published in 1905, started out as a magazine novella in 1888. And the original grew immeasurably over those intervening years. It’s not easy to find published books or stories that change so radically, and for the better, in less than two decades.

Major Changes: Character and Drama

You’ll find two major differences between the novella — Sara Crewe, or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s Boarding School — and the novel that it became seventeen years later. First, the heroine is much more sympathetic in the later telling. Second, and more important, the book has incorporated a lot more drama in the course of its expansion. Why? The author was asked to turn the initial story into a play, which began its run a couple of years before she expanded her story into a novel. In the three-act play (for a description, see Roderick McGillis’s A Little Princess: Gender and Empire, 5–7), new characters are added, principally little girls as friends and foils, and the rat that Sara tames in her dingy attic makes its debut. And scholars have pointed out that writing it helped Burnett to change the bare-bones tale of Sara’s growth and salvation into something much more gripping.

In the 1888 story, the heroine is a spoiled little princess, so to speak, with all the advantages of youth and wealth. In fewer than a thousand words, we read mainly dry narrative about her privileged childhood and her obscenely rich and doting but feckless father, Captain Crewe, who takes her reluctantly to Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in London because the climate in India can be brutal and Sara’s mother died long ago. Not many years later, he dies destitute, seemingly betrayed by his best friend. And so his beloved daughter is left to the mercy of the schoolmistress, who shows her no mercy once the money is gone. Those thousand words that open the original story run to less than a sixteenth of the whole. Only two times in the beginning narrative does anyone say anything, and those quotes can’t be called dialogue as no one responds.

When Burnett rewrote her tale, the beginning of the original story expanded to a third of the novel. And the space isn’t wasted. Though much of it is still expository, and with an omniscient narrator to boot, the narrator throws herself into the action.

The Princess Learns Politeness

Let’s consider the study of French, an important subject for all young ladies who wished to snare respectable husbands. In the novella, we hear almost nothing about the subject until the evil Miss Minchin says that Sara will soon be earning her keep by teaching the language to the youngest pupils. The newly impoverished princess is pissed off:

“I can speak French better than you, now,” said Sara; “I always spoke it with my papa in India.” Which was not at all polite, but was painfully true; because Miss Minchin could not speak French at all, and, indeed, was not in the least a clever person.

That’s not nice, and in the revision, we see the information dramatized in the second chapter, “A French Lesson.” We’re now in Sara’s first day of school, and the other students are fascinated as the show pupil, the little girl dressed up in absurd clothes by her indulgent father and whom Miss Minchin intends to trot around as proof that this seminary is higher class than it is, comes into the schoolroom and is seated in the place of honor. Lavinia, who once had that honor (and who had no name in the novella), is angry, of course, and that will play out later. But for now, the rigid schoolmistress makes unfortunate assumptions about Sara, and when Sara tries to say something, she’s shut off and forced to read an elementary French grammar. She doesn’t want to be nasty to Miss Minchin. But when the language teacher arrives, Sara speaks to him in fluent French in a desperate attempt to explain that she doesn’t have what Miss Minchin claimed was a childish prejudice against the language. Other pupils titter, and Miss Minchin, who had been afraid that everyone would learn about her inability to speak French, now starts to despise her prize pupil. And when Sara no longer appears to be a prize — Miss Minchin views everyone in terms of money — the schoolmistress’s anger increases the drama, and the conflict between her and her former show pupil keeps growing.

From Greed to Giving

Another striking difference in scene styling and in the heroine’s nature shows up in the character of Ermengarde. In the 1888 story, when Sara meets the overweight and introverted Ermengarde, our heroine thinks of the girl with contempt — until she sees the nice books that Ermengarde had received from her brilliant but pushy father.

There was also a fat, dull pupil, whose name was Ermengarde St. John, who was one of her resources. Ermengarde had an intellectual father, who, in his despairing desire to encourage his daughter, constantly sent her valuable and interesting books, which were a continual source of grief to her. Sara had once actually found her crying over a big package of them.

“What is the matter with you?” she asked her, perhaps rather disdainfully.

And it is just possible she would not have spoken to her, if she had not seen the books.

But in the novel, Sara is outraged at the bullying that Ermengarde has been subjected to, and the heroine takes the poor girl under her wings. The third chapter of the book is named “Ermengarde,” and Sara is all sweetness and sympathy to her unfortunate classmate, who can’t pronounce French to save her life.

When lessons were over and the pupils gathered together in groups to talk, Sara looked for Miss St. John, and finding her bundled rather disconsolately in a window-seat, she walked over to her and spoke. She only said the kind of thing little girls always say to each other by way of beginning an acquaintance, but there was something friendly about Sara, and people always felt it.

“What is your name?” she said.

To explain Miss St. John’s amazement one must recall that a new pupil is, for a short time, a somewhat uncertain thing; and of this new pupil the entire school had talked the night before until it fell asleep quite exhausted by excitement and contradictory stories. A new pupil with a carriage and a pony and a maid, and a voyage from India to discuss, was not an ordinary acquaintance.

“My name’s Ermengarde St. John,” she answered.

“Mine is Sara Crewe,” said Sara. “Yours is very pretty. It sounds like a story book.”

“Do you like it?” fluttered Ermengarde. “I—I like yours.”

The original story has excellent moments — without them, it wouldn’t have been published in the first place — but it doesn’t give us a suspenseful buildup to Sara’s second reversal of fortune, which the novel slices and dices up, and juices for all it’s worth. Instead, the novella puts this essential part of the plot, like the beginning, into narrative, not drama.

Although the “princess” story in its original form remains fascinating, rather on the order of tales someone just rattles off — “… and then she … and then she …” — it doesn’t engage your heart and your brain in the way the play-influenced revision and expansion does.

In this essay, I’ve focused mainly on the way Burnett increased the drama within scenes and helped turn a magazine story into what is considered a children’s classic. Next time we’ll treat something more important to the book’s reputation, effective plotting. After that, we’ll get back to the problem of character, both in Burnett’s works and further afield.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

June 11, 2016

Worth Reading: Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer

Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer” by Christopher Jencks (The New York Review of Books, June 9, 2016, pp. 15-17) is a review of the book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer (2015, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Jencks is the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard and author of Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass and The Homeless.

I found the essay both interesting and disturbing. It illustrates the problem of political social thinking since the 1990s. If you combine that thinking with how politicians today, especially Republican politicians, want to reduce social welfare programs, you can see how the thinking is to shift from a “War on Poverty” to a “War on Those in Poverty.”

Regardless of how you view social welfare programs, this essay is worth reading. It provides a different way to look at how social welfare policy has evolved since the 1970s. I know I hadn’t looked at social welfare programs from quite the same perspective — not even when I was a social worker.

Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer
by Christopher Jencks

After reading the essay, I have added Edin and Shaefer’s book to my To-Buy list.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 28, 2014

On Books: Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business

What is the one thing that every freelancer needs to do but most don’t do? Self-marketing!

Many freelancers have websites or participate in social media, but their marketing efforts are more passive than active. We are uncomfortable with active marketing largely because we do not know how to do it.

Years ago I taught marketing to editors and writers. It was an all-day course and I was surprised at how few people attended and, in follow-up, how few of the few who did take the course actually implemented what they learned. I suspect that in those pre–social media days, we believed that our community was small enough that personal relationships were more important and “marketing” was an unnecessary evil. (This view was often stated on editor forums.)

I admit that my view was different and for many years, I dedicated at least 10% of my gross income to marketing my services. My experience convinces me that smart marketing was and is necessary. Over the years I would read in online forums complaints from colleagues about having too little work, too long between jobs, too low an income, etc. These were phenomena with which I was unfamiliar and I attribute that to marketing. But I was preaching to the deaf.

It appears that the new generation of freelancers recognizes the need to market but needs direction on how to do it. At long last, there is a starting point for learning how to market. Louise Harnby has written Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, a guide for freelancers through the labyrinth of self-marketing.

Harnby’s book is not perfect and I have some disagreements with some of her statements, but then I look at marketing through much different glasses. For example, early in her book (p. 6), Harnby writes: “The truth is this — there are no rules.” Yes, there are rules. What there aren’t are limitations to what can be done — marketing is limited only by your imagination and pocketbook. But there are fundamental rules to successful marketing.

One such rule is that to be successful you must repeatedly market to the same audience. You cannot, for example, send an inquiry once to a prospect and leave it at that, even if the prospect says no or ignores you. If you want to work for that prospect, you must repeatedly remind that prospect of your interest and availability. Harnby both makes and skirts this point in Chapter 10, “Regular Marketing.” She emphasizes the need to keep marketing but doesn’t point out directly the need to keep marketing to the same group.

One of the great strengths of Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business is its “case studies.” I wish more detail was given in some instances, but every case study was enlightening. Importantly, the case studies reinforce the idea that what Harnby suggests is both doable and worthwhile. I particularly liked her sample marketing plan. If you read nothing else in the book, you need to read this because it is a good introduction to preparing a marketing strategy.

Another exemplary chapter is Chapter 20, “Going Direct.” When I worked in advertising and marketing in the very early 1970s, going direct was a cornerstone of a marketing plan for a small business. With the growth of the Internet and social media, going direct declined greatly or turned into spam. Harnby explains both how to go direct and why to go direct, making the case for its use even in the age of social media.

Not talked about in the book, but something that should be included in any revision, is the marketing calendar. Creating and maintaining a marketing calendar is important and a key to marketing success. Marketing is about timing as well as content. Great content that is used at the wrong time loses impact. A marketing calendar lets you focus on creating a marketing tidbit around a specific time or event. For example, I used to send out special gift packages for Halloween with my marketing pitch, which pitch was also Halloween oriented. Next up on the calendar was Thanksgiving. Because I kept a calendar, I knew when I had to prepare the material for each of these marketing events and when I had to mail the items. It would do little good to send something for Thanksgiving and have it arrive after the holiday or when no one was likely to be in the office to receive it. In addition to the detailed marketing plan that Harnby discusses, the detailed marketing calendar is also important.

Another item that should be included in a future edition is the marketing budget. How to create one, how to fund one, how to spend one — these are all important issues that need addressing when dealing with any marketing effort. For example, an issue that would fall under the budget category is should you design your own website or hire a professional? How do you make the budgetary analysis?

Harnby’s book, Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, demonstrates that any of us can do successful marketing. All we need is a little help and guidance, which Harnby’s book provides. It is the first book on marketing for freelancers that I would whole-heartedly recommend. It covers the essentials in sufficient detail for any freelancer to start a successful marketing campaign.

Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business is a must-have book in my library. I learned quite a bit that I was unaware of and that I am not taking advantage of in my marketing efforts, which I will think about rectifying. I am convinced that freelancers who follow Harnby’s advice — and persist in their marketing efforts — will ultimately find themselves overwhelmed with offers for work. For more information about Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, click this link.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 26, 2014

On Books: Dictionary of Untranslatables

Over my career as an editor, I have observed that no matter how much I know about language and usage, I know very little. Consequently, I am always on the lookout for books to add to my collection that I can also use in my work as an editor.

Regular readers of An American Editor know that my primary rule when editing is that the message from the author must be unmistakably communicated to the reader. Should there be any possible doubt about the message, then the language used is questionable.

In that light, I have always assumed that certain words that are used in American prose have clear and precise meaning when used to convey an author’s thoughts. In most instances, I, like many editors and readers, failed to consider the broader concepts that certain words convey; I understood, or so I thought, the common, everyday meaning and assumed it was that meaning that the author was using.

Words, however, can be philosophical in the sense that a word can be both specific and can be used as a substitute for a broader, more conceptual perspective. In my early years, I learned, for example, that the Russian word pravda, which was used as the name of a Soviet Russia newspaper (Pravda), was translated as “truth” — read Pravda and learn the truth about what was happening in Russia and the world.

Unambiguous words — truth, vérité, Warheit — are used to translate the word pravda but, as the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (Barbara Cassin, editor, Princeton University Press, 2014 [English translation]; originally published in France as Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionaire des intraduisibles, 2004) notes, pravda also means justice. And the scope of its meaning as truth is limited: according to the Dictionary, “Pravda is never used to designate scientific truth.”

What the Dictionary does is trace the origins, usage, and conceptual meanings of a selection of words that are important in the worlds of literature, philosophy, and politics, yet which are not easy to translate (and sometimes are wholly untranslatable) from one language to another. The Dictionary illustrates that those words that seem translatable, such as pravda, actually have meanings and nuances that are important to understanding the concept of the word, which concept leads to a different definition than the standard translation implies as being the correct definition.

In its exploration of words, the article authors delve into the cross-linguistic and cross-cultural complexities of the words and their meanings. The terms chosen for exploration have had a great influence on thinking over the ages. The Dictionary cites a word’s contextual history and usage to give additional meaning to the discussion.

Consider the entry for “matter of fact, fact of the matter.” The discussion is of the expression “matter of fact,” which is “found in English philosophy, notably Hume.” The discussion dissects the expression in an attempt to establish its origins and meanings. Following a several-page discussion, the article ends with a bibliography. The bibliographies that follow each entry are interesting in their own right.

The idea of the Dictionary is to elucidate the differences the concepts of the included words and expressions have based on the language in which a word or expression is used, both originally and in translation. The languages are Arabic, Basque, Catalan, Danish, English, French, German, Greek (classical and modern), Hebrew, Hungarian, Latin, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish.

The terms are often transferred from one language to another without change. For example, praxis and polis are used in a variety of languages without translation; they have become part of a second language’s lexicon as if they were original to that language. Other terms are often mistranslated, even if just in the sense that the translation doesn’t express the breadth of the word’s meaning in its original language (e.g., pravda).

The essays make for some interesting reading. Even if a particular word is not one that I would encounter in my daily editing, reading the essays makes me think about the words I do see daily. In other words, not only are the essays interesting in what they have to say about a particular word’s origins and meanings, but they help reshape my approach to words as an editor.

The Dictionary of Untranslatables is wonderful addition to my language library. I view the Dictionary in the same light I view Steven Pinker’s books on language: not as resource that I will daily open as I would my Webster’s Collegiate, but as a book to savor and think about and to learn in the broader sense of learning. For anyone interested in language, in words, and the scope of meaning that a word can encompass, I recommend the Dictionary of Untranslatables.

If you would like to see a sample entry, Princeton University Press offers a few samples. This link will take you to the page where you can view online, in PDF format, a few entries. You might find the kitsch entry particularly interesting.

July 24, 2013

On Books: A World on Fire

It has been a long time since I last reviewed a book. It is not that I haven’t been reading; rather, it has been a long time since I read a book worthy of my expending the effort to write a review. Most of what I have been reading would fall into the 3- to 3.5-star category at best. The remainder generally would be 4 stars with a few pushing 4.5 stars. (For a refresher on my rating system, see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I).)

At long last, however, I have hit the jackpot with a genuine 5-star book: A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman (2011; ISBN: 9780375504945).

As long-time readers of this blog know, I like to read nonfiction as well as fiction. Each serves its own purpose for me. Fiction’s role is primarily to entertain me. A particularly well-written novel may stay with me (two good examples are the mystery novels by Vicki Tyley and the historical fiction by Shayne Parkinson, both of whose books I have reviewed; just do a search on their names. Other excellent writers whom I have reviewed can be found by searching for the On Books tag), but its most important function is to be entertaining.

Nonfiction’s purpose, on the other hand, is primarily to educate me. It is a bonus when a nonfiction book not only educates me but entertains me. Such is the case with A World on Fire.

America’s Civil War has been the topic of thousands of books. One would think that, as one would also think true with books about World War II, that by now there was nothing new to discover or learn about the Civil War. But Foreman shows that there is still more to learn about the Civil War.

Rather than repeat the stories of the various battles (was this one more important than that one?), Foreman tackles the diplomatic front, concentrating on England. At the time, England was sympathetic to the Union cause but economically bound to the South. The economic ties were such that it was accepted wisdom that once the Confederacy declared itself an independent nation, it would become one on the world stage because the world powers — primarily Britain, France, Russia — would extend recognition to the Confederacy.

This belief, which was held in both the North and the South and even privately by Lincoln, was based on Britain’s need for the South’s cotton and France’s Southern leanings. More than 4 million Englishmen were economically dependent on Southern cotton (which is what led to Southerners declaring that “cotton is king”. The declaration came about in response to the question of whether Britain would recognize the South as an independent nation or remain neutral). The failure to maintain steady access to cotton would cause a major economic disruption in Britain.

But Britain abhorred the South’s commitment to slavery. It also did not want to encourage rebellion for fear it would encourage rebellion in its own colonies. England was in a diplomatic predicament. It is this story that Foreman tells.

Interestingly, Britain and France had agreed that they would only recognize an independent South together; neither would act on its own. It was this agreement, coupled with Britain’s unwillingness to take sides that kept the South from gaining international standing as a separate country.

What the South wanted was for Britain to break the North’s blockade of Southern ports. Britain was the undisputed naval power and probably the only country that could do so. That could only occur if Britain was not neutral. Britain feared getting involved for many reasons, not least of which was a fear of losing Canada and possibly the Caribbean in a war with the North.

Foreman tells of England’s struggle to remain neutral, and why it was such a struggle. It was not just a struggle philosophically; it was a struggle also because of the ineptitude of William Seward, America’s secretary of state, and Charles Francis Adams, America’s ambassador to the Court of St. James — and because of the South’s refusal to state publicly that slavery would end. Of course, Lincoln hadn’t yet so declared, which posed a quandary for Britain.

Seward believed that if he could make Britain an enemy of the United States, the Southern states would give up their secession to return to the fold and make a unified fight against Britain. Seward also believed that Canada should be part of the United States, not a British colony. Consequently, Seward was always threatening Britain with war and conquest of its North American colonies. The British struggled to deal with him. Adams, who was part of the Adams presidential dynasty, also disliked Britain and let his dislike color his actions.

Seward was also arrogant in his belief of America’s superiority. Contrary to reality, which was that America was, at best, a fifth rate military power, Britain was, by world agreement (except for Seward and much of the anti-British American press), the first-rate military power. Seward’s egotism, arrogance, and belligerence strained British-American relations.

Britain was also crucial to the South. Not only was Britain a primary market for Southern cotton, but the South had neither weapons manufacturing plants (they were all in the North) nor warship-building capability or expertise. Britain had both, and the South wanted access to them; Britain could be a help or a hindrance to the South.

The South also was arrogant. It was the common belief in the South that Britain would do whatever the South wanted because “cotton is king.” The South did not reckon with Britain’s keen antislavery beliefs and how much they shaped British policy toward the Civil War. Even those of the working class who were losing their jobs because of the cotton shortage were disinclined to support the South because of slavery.

Foreman’s coverage of the history of British-American relations during the Civil War is thorough and eminently readable. She writes as if she were a novelist. The prose is fluid and fact-filled. She makes the frustrations of the British, the Union, and the Confederacy seem alive. A World on Fire provides a new-to-me perspective of the Civil War. I found the book hard to put down. I also found it fascinating how much effort Britain and its citizens put into getting Lincoln to view the war as a war of emancipation and how much they pushed the South to give up slavery as a pariah institution.

If you are looking for a different perspective on the American Civil War, this is the book to read. If you are looking for a well-written history, this is the book to read. If you are just looking for a well-written book to read, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War is highly recommended.

August 6, 2012

The Uneducated Reader

I’m not an admirer of anonymous reader reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other forums where “readers” can anonymously “critique” a book. Occasionally I will look at these so-called reviews, not for information purposes but for their amusement value.

What struck me during a recent perusal of reviews of a book that I think highly of, Shayne Parkinson’s Sentence of Marriage (for my review, see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet) were two particular reviews. The first review gave the book a 1-star rating, anonymously, of course, with the statement that the reviewer hadn’t yet read the book. The book wasn’t discussed in the review and if the reviewer’s words are taken as true, he/she had yet to read the book but still rated it, giving a rating that was deliberately designed to lower the overall rating of the book. If you didn’t read the book, why rate it? And why give it a 1-star rating?

The second review that caught my eye was one that several other readers found “helpful.” This review raked the book over the coals. The review gave the book a 1-star rating and was titled “Disturbing, sick, just plain bad.” Rather than summarize the review, I reprint it here:

The main character is stupid, for lack of a better word, and her innocence and lack of instinct when it comes to “Jimmy” is unrealistic, she’s 15, not 8, just clearing that up. This is one of the most disturbing, sad books I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading. I only got about 600 pages in before I skipped to the ending to confirm my suspicions; It doesn’t get any better, in fact, it gets worse. I’m not referring to the writing, that was good enough, but the story in general is just depressing and it serves no real purpose that I could find. This is a Warning, this book was just sad, it helps you fall in love with the characters and then it screws them over in the worst possible way, it’s [sic] doesn’t even have the benefit of being a horror story. There’s no suspense, no action, just plan [sic] and clear depression, it kind of made me want to kill myself….and the characters….

The above review was immediately followed by what amounts to another 1-star anonymous review, this one titled “This author is a sadist.”

To me, these reviews illustrate the problem of what I call the uneducated reader. The reviewers are upset because there is no suspense, no action, no Batman coming to the rescue. The reviewers think that 15-year-old girls in 1890s New Zealand were as streetwise as 10-year-old girls in 2012 New York City. The reviewers apparently lack familiarity with either the genre of the book (not all historical fiction is Vikings on a rampage raping and murdering innocents) or the social mores of the time depicted in the setting of the story.

These reviewers are the type of reader that is the bane of authors — the reader who is clueless and draws baseless and unwarranted conclusions and loudly trumpets his or her uninformed opinion on the Internet. More amazing and sad is that other readers claim to find these “reviews” helpful!

A scan of other anonymous 1-star reviews of Parkinson’s Sentence of Marriage convinces me that either these people never read the book or do not understand what they read or have no familiarity whatsoever with history. If they are writing about a book that they actually read, then they certainly read a book that was much different from the one I read. This is not to say that every reader of Sentence of Marriage has to agree that it is a 5-star book. But at least be honest and fair with any criticism.

Complaints about poor editing, for example, which was the subject of several 1-star anonymous reviews, simply isn’t true. You may find the characters standoffish, the story not compelling, or myriad other things wrong that are important to you as a reader, but in this instance, it is not legitimate to complain about the editing, which is excellent.

Although I have focused on the reviews given Parkinson’s book, the problem isn’t limited to her books. As I said before, the problem is giving free rein to anonymous reviewers who are unknowledgeable about the book being reviewed. This is not to suggest that to review 19th century historical fiction one must have a doctorate in 19th century history; rather, it is to suggest that a reader should be familiar enough with the general subject matter and history so as to not make false comparisons and thereby draw incorrect conclusions — or, if you insist on making comparisons, state what the comparators are.

I have often wondered about the need some readers have to “review” a book. It is not that I think if you have nothing good to say you shouldn’t say anything. Some books deserve negative reviews, but when you give one, be constructive, not just negative, and be factual, don’t make up false reasons.

Personally, I think anonymous reviews and reviewers whose identity cannot be verified should not be permitted to post reviews. I also think that negative reviews that are negative simply because of price should not be permitted. I also think that reviews that state upfront that the reviewer hasn’t read the book should be deleted because they unfairly distort a book’s rating.

Reviews serve an important purpose and reviews that are clearly unfounded or that are based on superfluous items, such as pricing, undermine the credibility of the review process. Perhaps this is why I so admire and enjoy the reviews I read in The New York Review of Books. They have credibility in a world that doesn’t seem to care too much about credibility (this is the disease of the Internet — the demise of the value of credibility).

The online reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the like should be challengeable by other readers and by authors. For example, one should be able to challenge a review that gives a rating and the comment that the reviewer hadn’t even read the book. If the challenge is upheld, the review should be removed, especially if the review is anonymous. It is unfair to prospective readers and to authors to let such reviews remain.

The review quoted above that some readers found “helpful” is so far off target that it is ludicrous, yet some, if not all, of the readers who found the review “helpful” won’t have bought the book and read it, thus missing out on what they well may have found, as so many others did, to be a compelling, well-written novel. Such reviewers should be challenged and made to defend their review. More importantly, reviews should be only accepted from verifiable sources, sources that can be flagged if they abuse the review process. These uneducated readers who write anonymous, scathing reviews that bear no relation to the book being reviewed make it difficult, if not impossible, to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to indie-authored books.

What do you think?

July 9, 2012

On Books: The Agony of Reading Franz McLaren’s Clarion of Destiny

One thing I hate about article titles is that they are length limited and thus tend to sweep with broad strokes. Such is the case with this title.

This is the partial saga of my encounter with an 8-volume fantasy series called “Clarion of Destiny,” written by Franz S. McLaren. The series begins with Home Lost, which is available free at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble, as well as at other ebooksellers. I admit that I enjoyed Home Lost. I found the characters interesting and the story engrossing. Alas, I also found the repeated misuse of words distracting and annoying. But given that the book is free, it is still worthy of 4 stars.

The agony arises with the second volume, To Save Elderon. As soon as I finished Home Lost, I logged into my B&N account and looked for the next book. I found To Save Elderon, but was a bit taken aback by the price — $3.99. It is not that the price is high; rather, it is that it is high if this volume suffers from the same problems that the first volume did. The higher the price of the book, the less tolerant I am of fundamental spelling and grammar errors, errors that would have been caught and corrected by a professional editor.

Yet I had enjoyed the first book enough that I really did want to continue with the story, so, after hesitating over the price for a few seconds, I took the plunge and bought the book. After having read the second volume (which I rate at 2.5 to 3 stars), I was simultaneously sorry and pleased — the all-too-often agony and ecstasy of the indie book. Again, the story is intriguing, the characters interestingly developed, and I want to go on to the third book — yet I am not. I have decided that at $3.99 I should not be continuously insulted by language misuse.

How do I know I will be so abused? Smashwords offers sample previews of each of the volumes. Every volume suffers from the same illness: an author who seems not to know what either a dictionary or a grammar guide is for or how to use it. The only thing that could make this worse is if it turned out that McLaren was a public school English teacher.

How many times can I accept, for example, forth for fourth, there for their, were for where, then for than? McLaren writes disburse when he means disperse, to long ago when he means too long ago, that when he means who, cloths when he means clothes. And the list goes on, almost without end. I’m not convinced that he knows what purpose the apostrophe serves, because so many possessives lack one (e.g., the mornings work rather than the morning’s work) — perhaps a better way to say it is that too few (what should be) possessives include an apostrophe. And let’s not delve too deeply into the missing hyphenation in compounds or the missing commas, both of which ensure a struggle for readability and comprehension.

I need also mention that the author does a sloppy job of remembering his own characters’ names. The fairy Uwi becomes Renee before returning to Uwi; Niki becomes Nike and then Niki again. This problem of getting character names wrong happens several times with several characters throughout the series.

This is a case study of a good series that desperately needs attention from a professional editor. The story is intriguing and for a fantasy buff like me, even compelling, except for the necessary slogging through illiteracy. For free or 99¢, I can accept a lot of insult; for seven volumes at $3.99 each, my tolerance is very limited.

I grant that for a good story, $3.99 is not a lot to pay. I wouldn’t hesitate to pay it, but there has to be a convergence of good writing, good editing, and good story for me to shell out $3.99 seven times just to get a complete story. (It is not that each of the first two volumes cannot stand on their own; they can. Rather, it is that each tells only a part of the adventure and all eight volumes need to be read to get that complete adventure.) Those of you who have been reading An American Editor for a while know that I praise the writing of some indie authors, such as Vicki Tyley, Shayne Parkinson, and L.J. Sellers. I would not hesitate to buy one of their books at $4.99, let alone at the $2.99 that they charge, because their books are well-written, well-edited, and well-told stories. They use the correct words and understand the importance of punctuation.

It is the well-edited that is the missing leg in McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” series, which, when combined with a “high” price, causes the discerning reader to agonize over whether or not to read indie books. Unfortunately, it is books like McLaren’s that give a bad reputation to all indie books — at least among readers who care about grammar, spelling, and word choice. The most common statement I see on various forums regarding indie books is that the commenter won’t buy them because the quality too often is poor. I buy them knowing that of 10 indie books, only one or two will be readable or worth reading. I don’t mind having to separate the wheat from the chaff, but that is also why I won’t spend more than 99¢ on an introduction to a new indie author and I prefer that the first book from an unknown author be free.

What I do mind, however, is to find an author who spins a good story — a story worth reading and recommending — but who is so careless with language, yet wants a higher price for his or her stories, that the story cannot overcome the barrage of insults the reader needs to absorb. The point is that the lower the price the author asks, the more tolerant the reader should be; conversely, the higher the price the author asks, the less tolerant the reader should be!

So, now I am in a quandary over McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” series. I am inclined to reward the author for writing a good story, one that holds my interest. Simultaneously, I am disinclined to reward the author for his apparent indifference to the fundamentals of good writing — correct language use and grammar. The asking price of $3.99 is probably the fulcrum point where the competing inclination and disinclination are at balance. I am certain in my mind that were the asking price $4.99, I would not have even considered buying the second book in the series; at $3.99 it was an OK gamble, albeit a gamble that I lost as the misuse got worse. It is also clear to me that because the story is as good as it is, were the price $1.99, I would hesitate but I would buy.

I am aware that $2 is not a lot of money in the scheme of things. For me, it is not so much about the $2 as it is about the message I send when I spend that $2. Buying the seven books at the $3.99 price tells the author that his misuse of grammar and language is OK. Is that really the message I want to send?

As I said, $3.99 is, for me, the point of balance between inclination and disinclination. I am undecided as to what I will do. For now, I will set aside McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” and move on to other books and series. In a month or two, if I still remember the series, I’ll revisit the issue. If I remember the series, it will be a sign that I should spend the money; if I forget about the series, my not spending the money was a wise decision for me.

Regardless of what I ultimately do, I think the time is rapidly coming when indie authors who do not want to simply give all their work away for free need to encourage readers to buy their books by ensuring that they are well-written, well-edited, and have a compelling narrative — the three legs that form the support for success.

May 14, 2012

On Books: Rebecca Forster — Legal Thrillers

As I have mentioned in other posts, I began my serious adult work career as a lawyer (between college and law school, I tried a lot of different jobs, none satisfying). I was a trial attorney in the U.S. Midwest for a number of years before moving back to the East Coast and becoming an editor. My experience as a trial attorney, especially my experience defending persons accused of committing a crime, has always interfered with any enjoyment I might otherwise have gotten by reading lawyer-centric legal thrillers.

For example, it stretches my credulity beyond the limits to read about a first-year associate at a major law firm discovering a plot by the firm’s senior partners against America and then single-handedly saving the day, fighting off experienced, special forces-trained security personnel. Especially when dragging along another person who is even less-well prepared for the rigors of the fight than the associate. The point is, my experience prevents me from wrapping my head around the prose of the standard legal thriller, so I just don’t read them.

But as I have also noted numerous times, I like to explore indie-authored ebooks and am willing to give a free legal thriller a try, even though I have low expectations.

Imagine my surprise when I read Rebecca Forster’s Hostile Witness, which is free at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. This book rates 5+ stars on my rating scale (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I) for information on how I rate ebooks). It is not that this book doesn’t have some of the flights of fancy that simply do not occur in legal practice; rather, it is that this book more closely tracks how a trial occurs, how a case unfolds, and what a good lawyer really does.

Our heroine is Josie Baxter-Bates, a lawyer with personal issues, but one who is quite good at her job. In Hostile Witness, she is hired to defend a teenager who is accused of murdering her stepgrandfather. The evidence is clear — or is it? The storyline is not that of a lawyer who suddenly becomes a superinvestigator and can perform miracles that the finest police officers and detectives — short, perhaps, of Sherlock Holmes — cannot do. Instead, it is the story of a highly competent lawyer and the courtroom scenes (at least most of them) reflect what really can occur, not just what is needed to occur to move the story along.

The characters are well-formed and believable. The lawyers are reflections of real lawyers. The sequence is much like a real legal case (there is some exaggeration and skipping over fine points, but then this is a novel and should be expected). The writing is crisp, with only a few errors scattered throughout the book.

I found myself thoroughly enjoying a legal thriller for the first time since I read John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, published in 1993 — a very long time ago when it comes to reading. (This was the only Grisham legal thriller that I thought reflected the real practice of law and the only one of his books I thought worth reading, although I did try a couple of others.) I found that I couldn’t put Hostile Witness down; I wanted to read it in one sitting.

I was so impressed with Hostile Witness, and so enamored with how well the characters were created, that as soon as I finished it, I went searching for more ebooks by Rebecca Forster. Turns out that Hostile Witness is the first book of a quartet of books starring Josie Baxter-Bates. I purchased, for $3.99 each, books 2, 3, and 4 in the series: Silent Witness, Privileged Witness, and Expert Witness. Each is also available at Smashwords and at Barnes & Noble.

I have read Silent Witness, and although it is well-written, this book is a 5-star book rather than a 5+-star book. Again the courtroom scenes are spot on, but I always have trouble with stories about lawyers defending their lovers, which is what this one is about. The focus shifts from the less emotional to the more emotional because of the relationship, yet I must also admit that I had difficulty setting this book aside for such daily tasks as work, eating, and sleeping.

Immediately following Silent Witness, I read Privileged Witness. Like the preceding two books, this one is well-written, but is beginning to join the formulaic. In this story, the villains are a politician — and a former lover of our heroine — and the politician’s sister. There is a subplot involving a battered wife and her homicidal husband, which I think would have made a better story. Unfortunately, in Privileged Witness, Josie Baxter-Bates begins to look like a typical action hero rather than a competent lawyer. I found the story less compelling, but still a very good read. I’d give this book just under 5 stars because it is moving closer to the Scott Turow-John Grisham type of legal thriller that I do not like.

I am now in the midst of reading the last of the quartet, Expert Witness. This book starts out with our heroine having been kidnapped. I am about a third of the way through the story. Like its predecessors, it is well-written and a hard-to-put-down read, but the story, so far, centers on the efforts of Bates’ lover and ward (she is legal guardian of a teenager) to find her. Based on what I have read so far, this will also be a slightly less than 5-star rating, with the lowered rating solely because of the plot, not the execution. However, a final rating awaits my finishing the book.

If you like legal thrillers, or even just a well-constructed, well-written story with believable characters — characters that could have been taken from your neighborhood — then this quartet of books by Rebecca Forster is meant for you. These books belong in the pantheon of indie books worth reading.

April 2, 2012

On Books: Eden by Keary Taylor

Filed under: Book Review,Books & eBooks,Indies Worth Reading — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , ,

It has been a long time since I last recommended an indie book. It is not that I haven’t been reading them these past 5 months, rather, it is that none have been particularly exceptional. All that I have read have been 3- to 4-star books — until today.

I recently completed reading Eden by Keary Taylor. Eden is a postapocalyptic America novel whose story centers around a young woman named Eve. I grant that the lead character and the book title are a bit trite, but setting that aside, the book is very well written (a few grammar errors) and interesting.

In this new world, which was created by mad scientists who thought they could create nano machines that would cure all disease but which, instead, turned humans into machines (the “Fallen”), the few humans who have survived are on the run. Eden is the story of a small group of humans trying to avoid contact with the Fallen because a simple touch by a Fallen can turn a human into a machine.

It may seem that I’m giving away the story in the previous paragraph, but I’m not. Although I have described the background, the story really centers around months in the life of a teenage Eve, a young woman who doesn’t understand who she is or many of the emotions she is beginning to experience. She is different from the others in her band, yet she is considered a leader and an integral part of the community.

I found that instead of working, I wanted to simply continue reading Eden until I finished. I wanted to know more about Eve; I wanted to see her conflicts resolved.

I know that many people avoid science fiction, especially postapocalyptic fiction, but you should not be dissuaded from reading this novel by either. This is more of a coming of age book that happens to be set in a postapocalyptic future than it is a postapocalyptic book. You are not inundated with battles between humans and machines; rather, the struggle between the two simply provides the mechanism for spurring Eve’s growth and the events that force her to make decisions and take growing-up actions.

Above all else, Eden is a love story. It is Eve’s discovery of love that propels the novel as she must decide between two men. But before she can decide, she has to learn what love is, what it means. Eve is a woman with tight control of her emotions, a woman who doesn’t feel, but whose emotions are starting to awaken. Eve simply doesn’t understand these awakening emotions and it is this personal struggle that captivates the reader.

This is an indie book worth buying, although the price is high for an unknown author ($4.83). However, a sample is available. Eden has been optioned by Black Forest Film Group (Mark Morgan [“Twilight Saga”], Kami Garcia [“Beautiful Creatures”], Brett Hudson [“Cloud 9”], and Eric T. Thompson [“Rites of Spring”]) for a major motion picture.  If well-cast, this could be an excellent movie.

I give Eden 5 stars based on my rating system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I) for an explanation of my system).

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