17-grammar-guides-lede.w700.h467Against Style Guides…Sort Of | Vulture

The notion of being taught language has always been oxymoronic because language is in a constant state of flux, a restless, malleable, impatient entity that, like the idea of now, can never be fixed in place. Take, for instance, the journey of the semicolon as chronicled in the delightful, enlightening new book by Cecelia Watson, Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark. The twisty history of the hybrid divider perfectly embodies the transience of language, the ways it can be shaped by cultural shifts that have nothing to do with correctness or clarity. Invented by the Italian humanist and font pioneer Aldus Manutius in the late-15th century, the semicolon was originally “meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon” (hence its design). Continue reading…

97803165602211Big Bang by David Bowman | Publishers Weekly

“Where were you when you first heard President Kennedy had been shot?” asks Bowman (1957–2012) in the opening of his big, bold, and brilliant posthumous novel, and for the next 600 pages, he investigates what occurred in the years leading up to that monumental event in American history. Through the lives of such iconic figures as Norman Mailer, Elvis, William de Kooning, Marilyn Monroe, Dr. Spock, Ngô Dihn Diem, the Kennedys themselves, and dozens of others, Bowman conjures an enormous narrative out of the troubled years from 1950 to 1963. Continue reading…

Books-About-BooksThe Best Books About Books, Part 3 | Literary Hub

My 3rd annual Books About Books piece over at LitHub!

Books about books might seem like an insular category designed only for those predisposed to such subjects…but it’s also an important genre. Our writers can tell us not only how another writer may have accomplished X or Y achievements, they can also reveal, by their very focus and attention, those authors whose work has influenced them and others as they’ve navigated the literary landscape. That is, their choices alone count for something. Continue reading…

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Strange Gods, Odd Ducks, & Other Unreliable Narrators | Read It Forward

Obviously though Talese fully intends the reader to take Foos’s story as true: from the no-frills candor (what one might call a Talesean trademark) of the opening line—“I know a married man with two children who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur”—to the implied ickiness of Foos’s manuscript, the book practically drools over Foos’s every illicit description, a creepiness that is only palpable if the reader 100% believes that Foos actually saw (and, sometimes, did) the things he wrote about. My point isn’t to defend Talese here (though nor is it to decry him either) but to point out that The Voyeur’s Motel wouldn’t have been that different, content-wise, if instead of taking Foos’s claims for gospel they had been explicitly doubted throughout—but doubted with a growing and gross sense that he actually did do a lot of the shit he said he did and can to a certain degree prove it. The discreetly camouflaged vents Foos claimed to use for his purposes really exist, for instance, and Talese even joins the voyeur on one of his invasions into his guests’ privacy. Knowing these facts, his inconsistencies and half-truths wouldn’t be detractions from the efficacy of the narrative but a pivotal component its very vitality, as it doesn’t really matter if we believe that Foos spied on these particular people doing these exact acts—what matters is that we believe that Foos saw things like those. Our imaginations will do a far better job than reality, anyway. Continue reading…

cover_audinThe Mathematics of History: On Michèle Audin’s One Hundred Twenty-One Days | Kenyon Review

In 1960, the writer Raymond Queneau and the engineer François Le Lionnais founded Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (“workshop of potential literature”), which came to be known by the shorthand Oulipo. It was a literary movement principally focused on restraints—e.g., member Georges Perec’s 1969 novel A Void is a lipogram, a work that deliberately excludes a letter or letters, in Perec’s case the letter “e.” Other members of the distinguished group—which also included many mathematicians and engineers—were Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp, and the cartoonist Étienne Lécroart. Thus it was not something one could simply join.

“And then, one day,” the mathematician and writer Michèle Audin wrote recently, “the Oulipo becomes a reality for me: ‘it’ invites me to a meeting.” So Audin became one Oulipo’s few female members, and with the publication of One Hundred Twenty-One Days, she becomes only the second female member to publish a book in English (the first was Anne F. Garréta, author of Sphinx). She does not disappoint Oulipo’s legacy: One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a remarkable novel, a brilliant pastiche of varying styles and forms, elegantly crafted and intricately structured, but also one that never neglects the humane emotions and drama of which great novels are made. Continue reading…

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7 Big, Fat Epic Nonfiction Books That Are Totally Worth Your Time and Energy | 
Read It Forward
So in the interest of narrowing down the hoard of door-stopping tree-killers, I’ve compiled a list of 7 recent mammoth nonfiction books that stretch from the beginning of time to the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, and that cover comedians and filmmakers, heroes and—my personal favorite—heretics. Each one is really, really long, I’m not gonna lie—the shortest on the list is 425 pages while the longest clocks in at 820—but trust me when I say that they are extremely well-written and also just fun to read, richly absorbing and endlessly edifying. They plunge you into the depths of fascinating figures and revolutions both social and intellectual, from the complex savagery of mass murder and those who commit it, to the vagaries of humor and those who make it, from that which destroys us to that which heals us.