Short Saturday: My Dictionary Has Always Been Hot

You know how I feel about my dictionary. It’s the first place I go, not just for spelling but even for fact-checking. Everything starts at the dictionary (here’s just one example). Even the Chicago Manual of Style tells editors to defer to the dictionary.

So I was delighted to see this headline in the New York Times: “Move Over, Wikipedia. Dictionaries Are Hot Again.” Why? Because, it seems, people still trust dictionaries.

At a time when many are questioning the definition of common words they thought they understood, after years of the English language being degraded by text messages and hashtags, dictionaries have made a surprising comeback in the United States.

On dictionary apps and websites, “lookups” (which, according to Merriam-Webster, is one word) of words or phrases related to news events have precipitously increased. Bibliophiles are becoming social media stars. Sales of print dictionaries remain brisk and are a profit center for some publishers.

“Dictionaries are not regarded as sexy or interesting, but what dictionaries are known for is telling the truth,” said Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and past president of the American Dialect Society. “Right now there are a lot of questions about what is true. We want clear statements about what things are, and dictionaries provide that.”

Some dictionaries are better than others (you can read my recommendations here), but you just can’t go wrong with a looking up words and definitions and etymologies. Remember that spellings and definitions change over time, so bookmark your dictionary and refer to it often!

Have at it, y’all!

Tweet: Dictionary: my handy-dandy argument settler and first source for fact checking!
Tweet: Dictionaries are making a “surprising” comeback in the United States. About time!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Words & Language | Tagged as: , , ,

#WhatImReadingNow : A Gentleman in Moscow

Five days later, the Count was pleased to accept a formal invitation to tea from his new acquaintance, Nina Kulikova. The engagement was for three o’clock in the hotel’s coffeehouse at the northwest corner of the ground floor. Arriving at a quarter till, the Count claimed a table for two near the window. When at five past the hour his hostess arrived … the Count rose and held out her chair.

“Merci,” she said.

“Je t’en prie.”

In the minutes that followed, a waiter was signaled, a samovar was ordered, and with thunderclouds accumulating over Theatre Square, remarks were exchanged on the bittersweet likelihood of rain. But once the tea was poured and the tea cakes on the table, Nina adopted a more serious expression—intimating the time had come to speak of weightier concerns.

Some might have found this transition a little abrupt or out of keeping with the hour, but not the Count. Quite to the contrary, he thought a prompt dispensing of pleasantries and a quick shift to the business at hand utterly in keeping with the etiquette of tea—perhaps even essential to the institution.

After all, every tea the Count had ever attended in response to a formal invitation had followed this pattern. Whether it took place in a drawing room overlooking the Fontanka Canal or a teahouse in a public garden, before the first cake was sampled the purpose of the invitation would be laid upon the table. In fact, after a few requisite pleasantries, the most accomplished of hostesses could signal the transition with a single word of her choosing.

For the Count’s grandmother, the word had been Now, as in Now, Alexander. I have heard some very distressing things about you, my boy. … For Princess Poliakova, a perennial victim of her own heart, it had been Oh, as in Oh, Alexander. I have made a terrible mistake. … And for young Nina, the word was apparently Anyway, as in:

“You’re absolutely right, Aleander Ilyich. Another afternoon of rain and the lilac blossoms won’t stand a fighting chance. Anyway …”

Suffice it to say that when Nina’s tone shifted, the Count was ready. Resting his forearms on his thighs and leaning forward at an angle of seventy degrees, he adopted an expression that was serious yet neutral, so that in an instant he could convey his sympathy, concern, or shared indignation as the circumstances required.

“… I would be ever so grateful,” Nina continued, “if you would share with me some of the rules of being a princess.”

“The rules?”

“Yes. The rules.”

“But, Nina,” the Count said with a smile, “being a princess is not a game.”

Nina stared at the Count with an expression of patience. “I am certain that you know what I mean. Those things that were expected of a princess.”

“Ah, yes. I see.”

The Count leaned back to give his hostess’s inquiry a more appropriate consideration.

“Well,” he said after a moment, “setting aside the study of the liberal arts, which we discussed the other day, I suppose the rules of being a princess would begin with a refinement of manners. To that end, she would be taught how to comport herself in society; she would be taught terms of address, table manners, posture …”

… “Go on.”

The Count reflected.

“A princess would be raised to show respect for her elders.”

Nina bowed her head toward the Count in deference. He coughed.

“I wan’t referring to me, Nina. After all, I am practically a youth like yourself. No, by ‘elders,’ I mean the gray haired.”

Nina nodded to express her understanding. “You mean the grand dukes and grand duchesses.”

“Well, yes. Certainly them. But I mean elders of every social class. The shopkeepers and milkmaids, blacksmiths and peasants. … The principle here is that a new generation owes a measure of thanks to every member of the previous generation. Our elders planted fields and fought in wars; they advanced the arts and sciences, and generally made sacrifices on our behalf. So by their efforts, however humble, they have earned our gratitude and respect.”

As Nina still looked unconvinced, the Count considered how best to make his point. … “An example,” he said.

Thus commenced the story of Princess Golitsyn and the crone of Kudrovo:

One stormy night in St. Petersburg … young Princess Golitsyn was on her way to the annual ball at the Tushins’. As her carriage crossed the Lomonosov Bridge, she happened to notice an eighty-year-old woman on foot, hunched against the rain. Without a second thought, she called for her driver to stop the carriage and invited the unfortunate soul inside. The old woman, who was nearly blind, climbed aboard with the footman’s help and thanked the Princess profusely. In the back of the Princess’s mind may well have been the presumption that her passenger lived nearby. After all, how far was an old, blind woman likely to journey on a night like this? But when the Princess asked where the old woman was headed, she replied that she was going to visit her son, the blacksmith, in Kudrovo—more than seven miles away!

Now, the Princess was already expected at the Tushins’. And in a matter of minutes they would be passing the house—lit from cellar to ceiling with a footman on every step. So, it would have been well within the bounds of courtesy for the Princess to excuse herself and send the carriage on to Kudrovo with the old woman. In fact, as they approached the Tushins’, the driver slowed the horses and looked to the princess for instruction. …

Here the Count paused for effect.

“Well,” Nina asked, “what did she do?”

“She told him to drive on.” The Count smiled with a touch of triumph. “And what is more, when they arrived in Kudrovo and the blacksmith’s family gathered round the carriage, the old woman invited the Princess in for tea. The blacksmith winced, the coachman gasped, and the footman nearly fainted. But Princess Golitsyn gracious accepted the old woman’s invitation—and missed the Tushins’ altogether.”

His point expertly made, the Count raised his own cup of tea, nodded once, and drank. …

Preferring to preserve his success, [he] opted not to share his normal coda to this delightful bit of St. Petersburg lore: that the Countess Tushin had been greeting guests under her portico when Princess Golitsyn’s bright blue carriage, known the city over, slowed before the gates and then sped on. This resulted in a rift between the Golitsyns and the Tushins that would have taken three generations to repair—if a certain Revolution hadn’t brought an end to their outrage altogether.

—Armor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, 2016)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • Here is the setup: In 1922, after a bloody revolution that dismantles the peerage and monarchy of Emperor Nicholas II, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, age thirty-three, is sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest (for life) at the Metropol, a prestigious hotel in the theater district of Moscow. He has been living there for some four years—in a posh suite surrounded by family heirlooms and antiques brought from his grandmother’s dacha—so this doesn’t seem like too much of a hardship until the Party apparatchiks have him moved to what was once a maid’s room on the top floor. The room is tiny, and the Count must choose carefully what to keep … Although the entire story is set within the confines of the hotel, this is a richly detailed historical novel.
  • I can say that because I started reading Russian fiction and nonfiction when I was twelve (Doctor Zhivago to start, of course). These were the Cold War years, the time of Anastasia imposters, spy scandals, and political and artistic defections; Russia held a fascination for Americans back then, and the publishing world did not disappoint us. John LeCarré started publishing spy thrillers in the early ’60s and really hit big with The Spy Who Came In From the Cold in 1963. I loved the George Smiley character, and I particularly loved The Russia House (1989), which remains one of my favorite novels ever. Robet K. Massie’s biography Nicholas and Alexandra was published in 1967 and I devoured it. I read Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and Tolstoy (the novellas, primarily) in high school, and that was about the time that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which set me on the Great Solzhenitsyn Lit Wallow of the 1970s (August 1914, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, Cancer Ward, The Gulag Archipelago, probably others). I even read the Arkady Renko mystery novels by Martin Cruz Smith (which began with Gorky Park). I could go on and on.
  • The person who copyedited this manuscript for Viking doesn’t understand the proper use of may/might. Might is the past tense of may, and this was consistently done wrong throughout the book. That’s my only criticism, but it’s a big one to me.
  • Read carefully. One reviewer I read said, “This story is a masterpiece of cleverly woven details.” And oh, yes, that’s it. I feel comfortable saying that every single thing in this novel has meaning. There are many twists.
  • If you want to read more about this novel, here’s an interesting interview with the author.

Tweet: Although the entire story is set within the hotel, this is a richly detailed historical novel.
Tweet: Read carefully. Every single thing in this novel has meaning. There are many twists.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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A Lighter Shade of Pale (#WordUse Series)

We’ve got exciting times goin’ on here in the good ol’ US of A, with one political party making some pretty interesting claims and the opposing party reacting with outrage. (See how I did that?) My Irish immigrant husband has spent hours watching debates and newscasts and commentaries on the television. He also follows the news online, where he saw a tweet remarking that something a candidate had said was so outrageous it was “beyond the pale.”

The Irishman was surprised to hear it.

“Have you ever heard the phrase beyond the pale?” he asked. “Do you know what it means?”

Of course I do. My parents were wordies, remember? This is one of those phrases I grew up with. It means “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” Synonyms might be: unacceptable, unseemly, improper, unsuitable, unreasonable, unforgivable, intolerable, disgraceful, deplorable, outrageous, scandalous, shocking, exceptionable, uncivilized. You might say someone was out of line. You might say it just isn’t done.

The Irishman persisted. “Yes, but do you know what it really means?”

Oh, honey. I married a Dubliner, didn’t I? (I’ve made quite a study of Irish history, aided by the magnificence and sheer number of Dublin bookstores and my husband’s willingness to indulge me in them.) Yes, I know what beyond the pale really means.

It means, put simply, anything outside Dublin. Americans do know the phrase as “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior,” but I suspect many of you may not know from whence it came.

It all starts with the dictionary (as so many things around here do). Pale is most commonly used as an adjective or a verb, but there’s an older meaning, a noun:

1 a archaic : a palisade of stakes : an enclosing barrier : paling
b obsolete : a restraining boundary : defense
2 a : a pointed stake driven into the ground in forming a palisade or fence
b : a slat fastened to a rail at top and bottom for fencing : picket
3 a : a space or field having bounds : an enclosed or limited region or place : enclosure
b : a territory or district within certain bounds or under a particular jurisdiction
4 : an area (as of conduct) or the limits (as of speech) within which one is privileged or protected especially by custom (as from censure or retaliation)
<conduct that was beyond the pale>
5 a obsolete : a vertical stripe (as on a coat)
b : a perpendicular stripe in an escutcheon

The word is Middle English, from Middle French pal (a stake), from the Latin palus. It dates from the 1300s, and is a doublet of the word pole, which has the same Latin origin. So a pale, in the Middle Ages, was a wooden stake, often sharpened on the top, meant to be driven into the ground, often to be used (with others) as a fence or a boundary. Impale, you see, also stems from this word. (As a side note, the adjective pale, while just as old a word, comes from the Latin pallidum [pale or colorless], from which we also get the word pallid.)

So what’s that “anything outside Dublin” business? It’s history. The Norman invasion in 1169 brought Ireland under the control of English kings, but as time went on and the Anglo-Normans assimilated with the Irish locals, this control waned. (The English had a lot of infighting to look after on their own island.) By the Tudor era in the 1500s the English crown really only exerted power in and around Dublin—and they’d built a fence to protect it. Really, it was just a fortified ditch. A pale.

And the language, the vernacular, reflected that: the pale was “a defence, a safeguard, a barrier, an enclosure, or a limit beyond which it was not permissible to go.”

Beyond the pale, then, was anything outside the boundary. Wikipedia says,

Within the confines of the Pale the leading gentry and merchants lived lives not too different from those of their counterparts in England, save for the constant fear of attack from the Gaelic Irish. The idea of the Pale was inseparable from the notion of a separate Anglo-Irish polity and culture. After the 17th century and especially after the Anglican Reformation and the Plantation of Ulster, the “Old English” settlers were gradually assimilated into the Irish population … The term continues to be used in contemporary Irish speech to refer to County Dublin and its commuter towns, generally critically—for example, a government department may be criticised for concentrating its resources on the Pale.

See? My husband was a little surprised to find the phrase common parlance in this country, but he’s forgotten that the phrase came here with English settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—when the Pale would have been a thing—and it stayed here.

Tweet: Beyond the pale. It means “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.”
Tweet: There’s an interesting linguistic history to the phrase beyond the pale.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Short Saturday: Don’t Worry about Piracy

Are you worried about someone pirating your work and selling it as his own? Plagiarism exists, for real. But I think this article—a guest post on the brilliant Joanna Penn’s website, The Creative Penn—has a great point: The biggest challenge facing a new author isn’t piracy; it’s obscurity.

Think about it.

Imagine a genie appears and tells you that he can magically make your book appear on a million e-readers tomorrow morning—but that you won’t make a dime on any of them. Would you do it?

If you’re smart, you would, because if even if one tenth of those people read the book, and one-tenth of the people who read it become regular readers of your books, you’ve just picked up ten thousand new readers. Having your books distributed widely is a good thing, whether or not you make any money immediately.

There’s lots more in this article, so click through and read it.

*Note that I’m going to be traveling next week, and rather than stressing myself trying to get posts scheduled, I’m just going to take a break. I’ll be back on 20 March 2017. Have a great weekend!


Tweet: Are you worried about someone pirating your work and selling it as his own?
Tweet: “The biggest challenge facing a new author isn’t piracy; it’s obscurity.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , , , ,

#WhatImReadingNow : You Are Now Less Dumb

The Backfire Effect:

Wired, The New York Times, Backyard Poultry Magazine—they all do it. Sometimes they screw up and get the facts wrong. Via ink or in photons, a reputable news source takes the time to say “my bad.”

If you are in the news business and want to maintain your reputation for accuracy, you publish corrections. For most topics this works just fine, but what most news organizations don’t realize is a correction can further push readers away from the facts if the issue at hand is close to the heart. In fact, those pithy blurbs hidden on a deep page in every newspaper point to one of the most powerful forces shaping the way you think, feel, and decide—a behavior keeping you from accepting the truth.

In 2006, researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler created fake newspaper articles about polarizing political issues. The articles were written in a way that would confirm a widespread misconception about certain ideas in American politics. As soon as a person read a fake article, experimenters then handed over a true article that corrected the first. For instance, one article suggested that the United States had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The next article corrected the first and said that the United States had never found them, which was the truth. Those opposed to the war or who had strong liberal leanings tended to disagree with the original article and accept the second. Those who supported the war and leaned more toward the conservative camp tended to agree with the first article and strongly disagree with the second. These reactions shouldn’t surprise you. What should give you pause, though, is how conservatives felt about the correction. After reading that there were no WMDs, they reported being even more certain than before that there actually were WMDs and that their original beliefs were correct.

The researchers repeated the experiment with other wedge issues, such as stem cell research and tax reform, and once again they found that corrections tended to increase the strength of the participants’ misconceptions if those corrections contradicted their ideologies. People on opposing sides of the political spectrum read the same articles and then the same corrections, and when new evidence was interpreted as threatening to their beliefs, they doubled down. The corrections backfired. …

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. … Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect shields you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. … Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs as true and proper.

—David McRaney, You Are Now Less Dumb (Avery / Penguin Random House, 2013)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • Kind of depressing, isn’t it? This means I will never again be able to have a conversation with that relative of mine who is in thrall to the fake-news websites. Or, as the author says, “What should be evident from the studies on the backfire effect is you can never win an argument online. When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel even surer of his position than before you started the debate.” (Emphasis mine.)
  • People who have a personal philosophy of learning, inquiring, and skepticism are less susceptible to this phenomenon, I think. I’m not saying I don’t have confirmation bias, but I do, actually seek out and read a wide range of information when I am researching. I have a hairtrigger skepticism meter.
  • Sadly, the author goes on to say the backfire effect has always been a thing, “but the Internet unchained its potential, elevated its expression … As social media and advertising progress, confirmation bias and the backfire effect will be more and more difficult to overcome.” Oh boy.
  • So what can we do about it? That’s a much longer answer than I can get into, and, in fact, the folks who study this aren’t completely sure themselves. This article (“How to Convince Someone When Facts Fail”) from Scientific American offers ideas you already know instinctively: be nice, don’t get emotional, listen carefully … and “try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews.” (Good luck with that.) David McRaney has some ideas, too, which you can hear in this podcast. Go ahead and check out all his stuff while you’re there.

#MyReadingYear #WhatImReadingNow

Tweet: The Backfire Effect: Convincing folks with facts doesn’t always work.
Tweet: #WhatImReadingNow? You are Now Less Dumb, by David McRaney.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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A Teachable Spirit

A couple-three years ago, I had lunch with an author friend who was in town for a conference. She is a speaker who often counsels beginning writers about craft and process, and that day we were discussing the finer points of teaching/editing grownups.

“It’s all about having a teachable spirit,” she said. “You should write a blog post about that.”

Kids generally have what we’d call a teachable spirit. They’re willing to acknowledge that the teacher knows more about a particular thing. Sometimes adults have a hard time with that.

Blog about teachable spirit. I wrote that in my notes, but I needed a story to illustrate it. At long last, here it is.

Several months ago I had interesting back-to-back experience with two authors, both of them with nonfiction manuscripts. (I love working on fiction, but I also love living in this house, so I work on nonfiction frequently to make sure the mortgage gets paid.) What was interesting, though, was the juxtaposition of two authors—both alike in dignity, as they say—and the work experience I had with them. I am the same person, the same editor, with every author: friendly, professional, on the team. (I expect the same treatment from the authors too. This is business.*)

Specifically, this was developmental editing—I worked on the content. What I bring to the content of a nonfiction book, initially, is the reaction of a first reader. Is everything clear? Is the author actually making his/her point? Other things that are important in nonfiction writing are organization (does the topic unfold in the right order?), flow (does the narrative move logically from one topic to another?), and even completeness (are there unanswered questions?). I also bring knowledge of what the publisher is looking for, either because the managing editor has advised me explicitly or simply because of my experience working in the industry.

I found both manuscripts interesting and clever. Both authors used true stories—both personal and from historical sources—to illustrate their points. Both authors knew their material.

Piece of cake, right? Not so fast. There’s one more piece to this puzzle. It’s the receptivity of the person on the other end. The teachable spirit.

When I’m introduced—via email—to an author, the managing editor usually says nice things about me and points him or her to my website, which has even more information about me. But I’m on my own for information about the author. I just have to wade in and see what happens.

In my correspondence with the first author (the nice-to-meet-you email and later the I’ll-have-your-editorial-notes-next-week email), this fellow was a bit brusque. Uh-oh, I thought. But people are busy, I get that. We’ve got a job to do and a lot of folks just want to get to work without small talk.

I’m always a little bit nervous when I send off the editorial notes to someone I don’t really know. Sure, I’ve Google-stalked him, but … I don’t know him. And it’s his first book. He doesn’t know how this process works (my ed notes do spell it out, though), and may have expectations of which I’m unaware and am unprepared to fulfill. You just don’t know.

Twenty-four hours later I got this:

Wow! You’re a pro! I read through all of your notes and they are very helpful. Thank you for paying close attention to all the detail. I know the book will be much better when WE (I like the “relationship” focus you shared) get through this. I’m on it.

That went well. :)

Now that the first manuscript was “out” (with the author), I began work on the second manuscript. This author has published a few books already, so I knew he’d know the drill. He has a very polished website from which his big smile radiates. That was reassuring. His first correspondence with me was very hail-fellow-well-met. And his manuscript was polished and “clean”—a good manuscript, really. I made a few suggestions, noticed a few unanswered questions, a few places with clarity issues, and—as I had in the previous manuscript—I fact-checked the historical stories, where I found a few little glitches. I made some corrections using track changes, left notes in the margins, and sent off the (much shorter than the first) editorial notes.

Twenty-four hours later I learned I’d been working on the (ahem) Perfect Manuscript. The author rejected every single one of my suggestions. He sent an email that said, essentially, NO, and didn’t bother to return the manuscript at all. Instead, he typed up a list of every change he was rejecting (“On page 54 in the second paragraph …”), and expected me to do it. (And I did.)

Don’t get me wrong—he was “nice” about it. Distant, but polite. I suspect he didn’t use the editorial function in MS Word to accept or reject the things I’d done because he doesn’t know how to use track changes. (Although I always send a link to this and encourage questions.)

In the meantime, I was finishing up with the first author. He’d probably been a little nervous in those days waiting to hear from me, but … then he saw what an editor brings to the equation. I’m not kidding when I say he was genuinely delightful to work with. We exchanged a lot of fun emails while we were winding up the project.

The second project was finished a lot more quickly, of course.** I did consult with his publisher about the Perfect Manuscript, who laughed and told me he’d expected as much, so I cleaned it up and sent it in.

I tell folks all the time I learn something from every project I work on, and these projects were no exception. I expected, I think, a little newbie resistance from the first and polished professionalism from the second—instead, I got precisely the opposite.

You see what I mean about a teachable spirit? Some people have it, some people don’t. And you can’t tell by looking.

* I’ve written about this before.
** Though not before someone on the author’s staff added my email address to his mailing list, so that I got five—five!—unsolicited advertisements to buy things from his organization in the first thirty-six hours before I realized what had happened and unsubscribed. I prefer to be asked about these sorts of things, y’all.


Tweet: Teachable spirit: Some people have it, some people don’t. And you can’t tell by looking.
Tweet: Teachable spirit? A willingness to acknowledge that the editor has something to teach you.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Short Saturday: May You Live in Interesting Times!

One looks for the good, I think. So recently some of us have been repeating that old saw, May you live in interesting times.

A Chinese curse, we’re told. Or a blessing. May you live in interesting times.

But … it’s not Chinese. :)

I know, I know, I’m a wet blanket about these things—but it’s what I do for a living. I’m an editor. I check things. Fortunately I didn’t have to do the footwork on this one: Garston O’Toole over at Quote Investigator has the straight poop:

The British statesman Joseph Chamberlain was the father of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and future diplomat Austen Chamberlain. As noted previously, Austen asserted in a 1936 speech that “living in interesting times” was considered to be a curse in Chinese culture. Curiously, Joseph [also] used the same distinctive phrase during addresses he delivered in 1898 and 1901.

There’s a lot more to read at QI, which traces usage of the phrase from 1898 right up to modern times. You can also read about it at Wikipedia.

Bottom line: You can’t blame the Chinese for this, friends! But may you have an interesting year nonetheless. :)

Tweet: May you live in interesting times. From the Chinese, right? Nope.
Tweet: I know, I’m a wet blanket about these things—but I’m an editor. I check things.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Miscellany, Words & Language | Tagged as: , , ,

#WhatImReadingNow : Eligible

After the flurry of greetings, Liz found herself talking to Keith, who was congenial and, she quickly discovered, engaged to a woman finishing her medical residency in San Diego. By the time the chicken breasts had been grilled, and the potato salad, coleslaw, and rolls set out, Liz and Keith had covered the topics of San Diego’s climate, Cincinnati’s climate, and Cincinnati’s famous chili, which Keith had not yet sampled. As Liz and Keith moved on to Keith’s interest in golf, Liz was gratified to observe that Jane appeared to be deep in conversation with Chip Bingley; that conversation continued as Jane and Chip procured food and took seats side by side on a mortared stone retaining wall, soon joined by Chip’s sister Caroline.

When Liz had prepared her own plate of food, she walked to the four-person patio table where Fitzwilliam Darcy was sitting with the husband of the intern and one of the older doctors. The older doctor and the husband were discussing how the Reds were faring this season, and, addressing Fitzwilliam Darcy (or, Liz reminded herself, just Darcy), Liz pointed to the empty chair. “Is this seat taken?”

“It is,” Darcy said. He didn’t temper his rebuff with any apology, and Liz assumed he must have misheard her; he must have thought she’d asked if the seat was free.

She said, “It is taken?”

“Yes,” Darcy said, and he remained unapologetic. “It is.”

In spite of Charlotte’s warning about Darcy seeming standoffish, Liz was so disconcerted that she was tempted to say, Forgive me for imagining I was worthy of sharing your table. So he had gone to Harvard Medical School; so he was a neurosurgeon—neither fact gave him carte blanche to be rude. Before moving away, she smiled in a manner she hoped he understood was fake.

Spying Kitty and Lydia nearby, Liz walked to them and perched on the cushioned ottoman by Kitty’s knees. Her younger sisters were debating the ideal time to arrive at their next gathering, which apparently would be hosted by the owner of their CrossFit gym. Lydia pointed toward the roll on Liz’s plate. “Don’t carbs make you feel sluggish?”

“Everything in moderation,” Liz said. There were many reasons she found her sisters’ enthusiasm for CrossFit and the Paleo Diet irritating, including that Liz herself had been familiar with both long before they had, having written an article about CrossFit back in 2007. Another source of irritation was that her sisters looked fantastic; they had always been attractive, but since taking up CrossFit, they were practically glowing with energy and strength.

[Liz] was almost finished eating and even more insulted by Darcy’s snub than she’d been at first, because the chair beside him had remained empty all this time. She took the opportunity to go inside, wash the barbecue sauce from her hands at the kitchen sink, and check the message. …

Standing just inside the back door, looking down at her phone, Liz gradually became aware of a conversation occurring on the screen door’s other side; after focusing for a few seconds, she realized the speakers were Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy.

“—much better than I expected,” Chip was saying. “When I told people I was moving to Cincinnati, I was practically getting condolences, but it’s not bad at all.”

“Said like a man who’s just spent an hour talking to the only good-looking woman at the party,” Darcy replied. “Not counting your sister, of course.” Liz could hear the rattle of ice cubes, then Darcy added, “I’m sure they do their best, but Cincinnatians are painfully provincial.” Inside the kitchen, Liz smiled. It was oddly satisfying to receive confirmation of Darcy’s snobbishness.

In a friendly tone, Chip said, “In your first year here, you didn’t find any lady Buckeyes who met your exacting standards?”

“I can hardly think of anything less tempting,” Darcy said.

Chip chuckled. “Someone told me Jane’s sister Liz is single, too.”

“I suppose it would be unchivalrous to say I’m not surprised.”

Liz’s jaw dropped; abruptly, the eavesdropping had ceased to be satisfying. Who did this man think he was, and what did he have against her personally? When being introduced, they hadn’t exchanged more than 10 words.

“Here’s what I’ve learned about the people in this city,” Darcy was saying. “They grade their women on a curve. If someone is described as sophisticated, it means once during college she visited Paris, and if someone is described as beautiful, it means she’s 15 pounds overweight instead of 40. And they’re obsessed with matchmaking. They act like they’re doing you a favor by conscripting you to have coffee with the elementary-school teacher from their church during the two free hours you might have in an entire week. I’ve lost count of how many of my colleagues’ wives have tried to set me up. With your having been on TV, they must be licking their chops.”

“You know what?” Chip said. “I’m making it my mission to get you a social life in Cincinnati, and don’t try to tell me that’s an oxymoron. If all you have is two hours a week, let’s make them a great two hours.” His affectionate tone was, Liz thought, no particular credit to him— not only was Chip apparently unmoved to defend her from Darcy’s aspersions, but it hadn’t even seemed to occur to the former that his friend’s words were offensive.

“Good for you if you like it here now,” Darcy said. “And I don’t mean that facetiously. But I’ll be curious what you think this time next year.”

As Chip began speaking, Liz pushed open the screen door and, in an emphatically friendly tone, said, “Hi!” She glanced from Chip’s face to Darcy’s and, making eye contact with Darcy, held his gaze for an extra beat. “I was just inside thinking what grade I’d give myself,” she said. “I realized it would be an A-plus, but I’ve heard we grade on a curve here, so I’m probably what—more like a B for the coasts? Or a B-minus? If you have a minute to figure it out, be sure to let me know.” Without waiting for either to respond, she walked past them, eager to repeat Darcy’s comments as widely and quickly as she could.

—Curtis Sittenfeld, Eligible (A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice), Random House 2016

Some thoughts about this book:

  • The only thing I regret about reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s delightful Eligible is not taking a romp through the original Pride and Prejudice first. But just for fun—because I had no trouble recognizing the characters, the situations, the places, even though they are updated by two hundred years and moved to the United States. Some purists won’t care for it, but whatevah! I thought it was delightful.
  • I love literary fiction, and Sittenfeld does not disappoint. Sure, there’s a romance at the heart of it—and it’s very satisfying, even though you know what the outcome will be, having read Pride and Prejudice. (Because you have, yes?) The writing is excellent and feels very Austenish, though it, too, is updated for this century.
  • This book is one of several suggested (commissioned?) by the Austen Project. I haven’t read others, but I might. :)
  • The theme here has to do with the obligation we have toward others—kindness, compassion, empathy—and where we must draw the line in terms of those responsibilities.
  • One forgets how much an unlikable character (or several!) can do for a story. Writers, don’t be afraid to consider this.


Tweet: An unlikable character (or 3) can do wonders for a story. Writers, don’t be afraid to consider this.
Tweet: This is Pride & Prejudice updated 200 years and moved to the United States! I loved it!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Study This: The Fools Have It

I spent a good little chunk of time reading Richard Russo last summer. (You may or may not be aware that I’m a Russo fan. So much so that I may have just this second talked myself into rereading Empire Falls, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.)

But we were talking about my summer reading program.* This is what happened. I heard that there was a new book out, Everybody’s Fool. It’s a sequel to Russo’s 1993 novel Nobody’s Fool, which you may know because, well, they made a movie of it and Paul Newman starred in it (along with Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Dylan Walsh, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among others).

I loved the movie.** But when I ordered Everybody’s, I also purchased Nobody’s and read it first. I like things to happen in order.

As it turns out, Nobody’s was too long. (You’ll read in reviews, even, “overwritten.” I got past my impatience eventually and now recognize that Russo is just a writer who works everything—every single thing—out on paper, so to speak.) It was ultimately engaging for reasons I’ll discuss, and I’m glad I read it, particularly because I can see how he improved as a writer. But I loved the sequel. And the writing transformation is complete. Everybody’s is not too long; it is just right. Russo is at the top of his game.

Which leads me to the reasons you might these books to learn about craft:

  • Humor
  • Milieu
  • Characterization
  • Write what you know

The novels are shot through with wry humor—humor that is never mean or self-pitying. In his review for the NY Times, T. C. Boyle says “the humor is essentially benign, genial, and it works in service of the characters”—and that’s it exactly. The humor is organic to each character, and it doesn’t call attention to itself. That said, Russo is not above a little slapstick either. Kinda like life. :) Both books are comedies; Ron Charles of the Washington Post declares that “Russo is probably the best writer of physical comedy that we have.” Amen.

The small-town, working-class milieu is something that feels very familiar—there are the straight-man characters, the kooks and the cranks, the troublemakers, the people just trying to get by, all in this little village. North Bath is, in some ways, a character in the novel; it is well observed.

Russo’s gift, really, is characterization. People are complicated, and life is messy—and he has an ear (and a heart) for that. I particularly loved watching Russo take a minor character from the first Fool and give him his own tale in the second Fool, filling in the background and tying him into the bigger picture.

Yes, there are a lot of male characters; actually, it’s a thing I particularly like about Russo’s novels.*** They’re real and alive and I get to live inside their heads in a way that’s accessible and endearing. Ron Charles says Russo is “sensitive to the mingled strands of poignancy, affection and bluster in male friendships.” Agreed. I know these guys.

And I think the reason this place and these characters are so appealing is because Russo knows them too. Which is to say: he writes what he knows. He was born and raised in upstate New York, and has used this venue for several of his novels, not just the Fools. In fact, a lot of Russo’s work is semi-autobiographical. (Straight Man surely was inspired by his experiences in academia, for example.) You can see his life’s fingerprints all over his work.

Have a look. See what you think. I’m still convinced that Nobody’s was too long (all the great lines from the book did make it into the movie, if that tells you anything: it could be edited without losing what made it special)—but even that is a learning experience. How would you edit it? What would you cut? Think about that.

* I had a copy of Russo’s Straight Man (1997) on my TBR shelf, and I polished that off next. :)

** And now, having read the book, I’ll add it to my short list of movies that was as good (perhaps better) than the book.

*** He does just fine with the women too.


Tweet: I spent a good little chunk of time reading Richard Russo last summer.
Tweet: Write what you know: You can see Russo’s life’s fingerprints all over his work.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WhatImReadingNow : How to Be a Cat Detective


A natural diet would require hunting for several hours a day and the consumption of as many as a dozen small rodents. How many cats living naturally eat twice a day from a predictable source? Cats spend up to six hours a day hunting, foraging, stalking, catching and consuming prey. The availability of food twice a day, or even “ad lib,” in a food bowl in the kitchen, does not represent any kind of challenge whatsoever. The normal feeding regime for the average pet cat potentially leaves a void of five hours and fifty minutes that it needs to fill with other activities. The time is often filled with sleep in an otherwise static and uninteresting environment. Exciting and stimulating challenges utilizing moist or wet food is going to be difficult since I wouldn’t suggest for one moment that you secrete a bowl of canned food in the bottom of your wardrobe for your cat to “hunt.” The possibilities, however, are endless if you are feeding a dry preparation. The idea of “food foraging” works on the principle that obtaining smaller amounts of food more frequently in a variety of locations represents a more natural way of feeding for a top of the food chain predator like Tiddles, Felix and company.

It would not be unreasonable to expect our cats to work a little harder for the food they obtain throughout the day. After all, it wouldn’t come easily in the natural life of a predator. They should be able to obtain food in locations throughout the house, both on high and ground level. When you first endeavor to secrete the biscuits in various hiding places your cat will probably follow you around and gobble up the stash in the usual five minutes. This is not the object of the game despite its being another example of how incredibly opportunistic cats are at conserving energy. It is always difficult to be one step ahead of even the average cat but, in this instance, it may be necessary to shut your cat away or have airtight containers in various locations rather than one place where food is always stored. …


If you are utilizing the dry-diet food-foraging approach it is essential that there is every opportunity for your cat to drink. While most commercial wet foods contain 85 percent moisture, the dry formulations require extra drinking to maintain a good hydration balance and unrinary tract health. The majority of owners (me included until a few uears ago) always provide water in the same location as the food bowl. We like to have a glass of water with our meal so why wouldn’t Tigger? It doesn’t work that way for cats, who naturally hunt for food and search for water on separate occasions to satisfy either hunger or thirst. The presence of water near the food can actually deter some cats from drinking sufficient fluid and this could be dangerous on a dry diet. Finding water elsewhere can be extremely rewarding: how many times has your cat drunk from the glass by your bedside table? There should be at least “one water container per cat in the household plus one” in varius locations completely away from the food. Some cats object to the chemical smell from tap water so filtered or boiled water can be used.

—Vicky Halls, How to Be a Cat Detective: Solving the Mystery of Your Cat’s Behavior, Gotham Books 2005

Some thoughts about this book:

  • Who knew about the water bowl? Those of you had heard me talk about the Mystery of the Water Bowl in the Master Bathroom—the cats prefer this one above all others, even though it’s a hike through the house to get to it—will see why I believe I’ve solved that puzzle.
  • We have three middle-aged cats (two males and a female) who are individually delightful and good-natured. However, once we were two, and when I rescued the third, I upset the feline applecart. I have always had multiple cats, though, and while things are significantly better than they were in the beginning, I still spend too much time picking up apples. When I mentioned this to a visiting friend, she recommended this book. It’s been eye-opening.
  • It’s also reassuring to know I’ve been doing a lot of things right (instinctively—after years of owning cats—and from previous study and research), and that I was on an appropriate path to solving much of my own problem. I know who my troublesome cat is. (Boy, is he mad at me.) That said, I’ve learned many more tips and tricks and am implementing them.

Tweet: Cats are a mystery you can solve when you learn How to Be a Cat Detective.
Tweet: I know who my troublesome cat is, & I’m learning to psych him into better behavior.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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