Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Two Memoirs About Writing

The last two print books I've read have been memoirs. Or maybe partial autobiographies. Or both. They're both about writing, too. They're way different from each other, but I enjoyed them both. I like reading about writing, and memoir is one of my favorite genres.


I've been a Lee Smith fan for years, ever since I found her novel Family Linen at the Roanoke County Library back in the late-1980s. I remember picking it up to read the first few pages and found "Roanoke, Virgina," on the first page. Roanoke? Books could be set in Roanoke? Who knew. . . ? Anyhow, that got me hooked on Lee Smith's books. Her novel Fair and Tender Ladies, which I've read at least three times, is one of my favorite Appalachian novels.

Last month I read her new book, Dimestore: A Writer's Life, which consists of fifteen essays about various parts of her life. I especially enjoyed the stories about when she was a child in Grundy, Virginia, and how she helped out at her father's Ben Franklin dimestore (where she took charge of the dolls—arranging them, naming them, etc.). The book gave some insights into a writer's life—where she got some of her ideas and how she wrote. For more info about the book, check out the Kirkus review, a segment of the Diane Rehms Show, and this article in Writer Mag.


Last week, I read Mary Norris's Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. This book also gave me some insights into a writer's life. Norris was a copy-editor for the New Yorker for thirty years, and her book was a blend of memoir and grammar book. She went into great detail about why some words or punctuation marks were used the way they were. And she pointed out a lot of grammatical errors that writers make and told how to fix them. Parts of the book are downright funny! But you'll learn a lot from reading it.

So why isn't Between You & Me a staple in every high school classroom? Probably because of Chapter 9—"F*ck This Sh*t"—in which she explains how to deal with naughty words (including the seven that comedian George Carlin said you couldn't say on TV—and a few more).

ARLO: "This yellow book uses naughty words!"

For more information on Norris's book, take a look at her essay "Holy Writ" (which appears in her book), the New York Times review, the Guardian article, and the NPR review. The NPR review sums up the book thus: "Between You & Me, Norris' first book, is part memoir, part guide to the mind-bending nuances of English grammar, and part homage to The New Yorker's legendary writers and copy editors. It brims with wit, personality—and commas." That pretty much nails it.

Mary Norris has a "Comma Queen" series of short videos, in which she covers many of the grammatical and punctuation problems she addresses in Between You & Me, such as how many spaces after a period in "Space: The Final Frontier" (Answer: one);  she explains how to use who or whom in "Who/Whom for Dummies"; and she explains what restrictive and non-restrictive clauses and phrases are in "Let's Get Restrictive." (No, she doesn't mention Chapter 9, so these videos are safe for all ages.)

I thoroughly enjoyed both Dimestore and Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, but then I'm a former English teacher as well as a writer-wannabe, so I might be a bit partial to the subject matter of both.
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