Tag Archives: literary terms

Shelf-Life

As I prepare to donate many many many of my books, I wanted to pay tribute to some of them before they disappear from my bookshelves.

tidyActually, it was our most recent book club selection that inspired me to reduce my collection of books, which, I admit, is plentiful. A short and irritatingly cutesy book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo managed to motivate me to let go of hats, shoes, bags, and all sorts of clothing. The book has ignited conversation about our need for “stuff,” though author Kondo is clearly young, single, and comfortable financially, as evidenced by her naive and sometimes simplified attitude (“…if you find you’ve discarded something you really need later, you can always buy it again…”) And while I took into consideration the fact that the book was written with the help of a translator, I still found the writing awkward and at times, downright silly. But, then again, I have filled several bags and boxes with items for the local homeless shelter, family kitchen, and library (70 books to date; barely a dent).

Another book club choice, Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names: A North Koreangirl 7 Defector’s Story, was also translated, though the book’s tone was definitely more serious and “important.” Lee’s struggles as a teenager living under a brutal Communist regime … and her strength at such a young age to be able to escape and travel and manage to not only survive but thrive… reminded me again of how little one really needs to lead a happy, fulfilling life.

We also read Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Don and Petie Kladstrup, a continent and several generations earlier than the previous two selections. The dedication and perseverance of the French to protect their wines — wine and wartheir heritage — was not only heroic, but frightening. Whether you drink wine or not, the history and stories were remarkable testaments to the cruelty and stupidity of war. Unfortunately, while I gained a greater appreciation for the grape, I was disappointed in the storytelling. Repetitious and a bit flat. A book that I was glad to have read but wouldn’t recommend.

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls propelled us even farther into the past … late 1800s Paris. The story was aspainted girls beautiful as Degas’ work upon which the novel was based, and with as much painful description of a ballerina’s life at the time. Author Buchanan’s diligent research added exquisite detail to create a moving and touching book. After reading this, I wanted to paint and dance!

 

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En-TITLE-ment

Recent chatter about copyright infringement concerning music (see Spirit’s “Taurus” vs. Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams “Blurred Lines” vs. Marvin Gaye’s “Gotta Give it Up”) has reignited discussion of copyright issues in the literary world.

According to the Berne Convention (the international source for copyright law), your original manuscript is protected by copyright as soon as it is fixed in tangible form. That is, the moment your great American novel is written—on paper or your computer—you’re copyrighted. For how long, you ask? In the USA and much of Europe, it’s the creator’s lifetime plus 70 years.

But here’s the funny thing; book titles are not protected by U.S. copyright laws.

grace 4To qualify for such protection, a work needs to possess “a significant amount of original expression” and the courts have ruled that expressions as short as book titles do not qualify. (That’s why, when my book club pals had heard about a great book with the words “Ordinary Grace” in the title, we had to get more specific; there are almost 2,500 books to choose from!)

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can name your book Fifty Shades of Grey. Some titles qualify for trademark protection (series titles like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Twilight, etc.) if the grace 3books become successful enough to be considered recognizable brands. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs that identify the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguish them from others.

So, while it would so clever to title your new cookbook, The Hunger Games, you can’t. But if you name it, A Place at the Table, nothing’s stopping you, except for the fact that 6 other writers have already done so. (Our book club read the version by Susan Rebecca White, if you’re interested.) I’d recommend coming up with some other imaginative wording – it avoids confusion. What if your fans buy the wrong book? Why help someone else have a best seller?grace 1

By the way, our book club chose the Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Thumbs up.

 

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Oxy Moronic

You’ve probably seen the sign for “jumbo shrimp” and laughed at the obvious incongruity, but have you paid attention to the oxymorons in stories you read … or stories you write?

I’ve been keeping a list as I run across these wacky word combos, and thought it was time to share. They are in random order, which, I hope you can see, is exactly my point. While they’re entertaining, I suggest NOT using them in your literary masterpieces.

For instance, if your bank robber is brandishing a dangerous weapon, I ask you (gently), is there such a thing as a weapon that is not dangerous?  Your star-crossed lovers get an unexpected surprise; tell me, isn’t a surprise supposed to be unexpected? Wouldn’t an expected surprise defeat the purpose?

Mysteries and horror stories often have an uninvited guest (stomping about in the attic). Help me understand this; a guest is invited, yes? I think uninvited is an intruder!

giftIs your hero on an adventure or involved in a secret mission and finds him or herself in a tight squeeze? I wonder what other kind of squeeze there could be. Of course, your character could be clearly delusional. How about strangely delusional or clear and coherent… but not both, eh?

Should you be writing a cookbook or diet book, perhaps you can explain diet ice cream, Kosher ham (really?) and in the section on portion control … the bigger half. If you can, you are eligible for a free gift.

 

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Murder by Contract(ion)

Imagine my surprise when one of the detectives on the new TV show Murder in the First (TNT) realizes that a suicide note is a fraud based on an unusual use of an apostrophe! Punctuation meets Prime Time!

apostrophej

 

Noticing that “shouldn’t’ve” (as in “I shouldn’t’ve killed that girl…”) in the supposed typed confession was—coincidentally—exactly the same as in a workplace email communique, the ace detective (as in A+ in English!) researches the statistical commonality of the double contraction … checking with UC Berkeley’s linguistics department (a nice plug for my own alma mater!) and voila! a killer is identified. (In case you’re interested, according to what the detective told the suspect, only 1 in 800,000 use this particular double apostrophe.)

Enough of DNA matches, fingerprint comparisons, text message threads, bloody footprint trails. This is true detective gumjwork. Which gives me an idea; rather than referring to myself as an editor, I think I will now consider myself a grammar gumshoe.

 

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Of golems and jinnies

A benefit (or challenge) of being in a book club is that book selections are not always ones that I would choose, though they are often ones that I am glad to have read.

golemSuch is the case with The Golem and the Jinni. A story filled with fantasy, yet steeped in religion and reality. I was expecting to be entertained by a cast of wizards and mythical creatures (definitely not my thing), but instead, I was mesmerized by Helene Wecker’s ability to blend Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction, and mysticism into a compelling and unconventional love story.

While at first I had no clue what a golem was (a being created from stone or clay, according to Jewish lore), and had no interest in jinnies (otherwise known as genies … from the iconic magic lamp),  barely into the story, I actually forgot that these two main characters were not real; that is, human.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Too often I get fixated on fact and refuse to let my imagination run free; too willing to stay within my comfort zone. The Golem and the Jinni was definitely a departure for me … almost like taking a little vacation from reality, from myself. It was a lot of fun.

 

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So Much For That

In between editing jobs, I try to reward myself by reading just for fun. And how rewarding it is when I get to rediscover one of my favorite authors!

Several years ago I read Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was riveting, heart-stopping, gut-wrenching… you name it. It took me a long time to stop thinking about this book and then even longer to think I could read another Shriver work, or really, that she could write something else that I would love as much.

so muchBut she has. I won’t entertain (or bore) you with a middle school book report of So Much for That; the story’s summary can be easily accessed at any of your online retailers. I can say that it is rich with sensitive topics and deeply personal issues—though Shriver refuses to wallow in any of them—as well as larger, more global concerns that she skillfully weaves into the background.

Her characters felt real, relatable; their dialogue sounded natural; their lives seemed believable. I could see what was coming but couldn’t stop it, no matter how much I wanted things to turn out differently.

It was a painful read, but one that transfixed me; in the author’s own words, “a black but improbably jubilant novel about illness, death, and money.” Once again, Shriver has encouraged her readers (well, me) to wonder: what would I do?

One thing I know I will do is read another Shriver novel.

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Heart-less

As we near Valentine’s Day, I see the word “heart” everywhere. Which is fine, because all the heart-shaped necklaces, decorated cakes and candies, socks and undies, postage stamps and pretty lattes will disappear soon – in time for the Easter parade.

heartThe “heart” to which I am referring is the veritable plethora of “heartwarming,” “heart wrenching,” “heartrending” words that proliferate book reviews. Is there no other way to describe a tragic love story or a nostalgic memoir? I know I spend way too much time on my own little book commentaries, but my goal is to find some other way to express my opinion. True, it makes the writing more challenging, but that, actually, is a good thing!

If I see that word again, I think I’m going to have a heart attack.

 

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