Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage, by Kingsley Amis

This is a curiously titled tome by Kingsley Amis—curious because it was released in 1997. Should it not then be called “The Queen’s English”? Of course, the title is a play on Amis’ first name: this book, published posthumously two years after the author’s death, is very much a collection of Kingsley’s English, his sense of what the language is and should be, and a grumpy guide to its spelling, pronunciation and overall usage.

Those expecting a farrago of anachronism, snootiness, misogyny, class obsession and good ol’ arbitration, all delivered with tongue placed lightly in the cheek, will not be disappointed. Unlike the other Amis collection I recently read and reviewed, Everyday Drinking, The King’s English doesn’t exactly wear its humour on its sleeve. This book takes as its key antecedent the Fowler brothers’ seminal text The King’s English (1906) and wishes to expand and contemporize their rules surrounding the modern usage of English. The problem is that reading this book in 2013, one can’t help but feel that Amis’ observations aren’t very contemporary at all. And we’re not just talking about his rant about how useless word processors are compared to typewriters.

Take, for example, his section on the proper pronunciation of the word “either.” We all know that “eye-ther” and “eee-ther” are both generally accepted, though we may have our individual preference. Me, I favour the former and agree with Amis that it sounds more officially learned. Yet, that’s not how he puts it. Instead, he takes a gentle dig at lingering class distinctions, saying that eee-ther comes off sounding a bit “underbred.” Of course, there is humour in the audacity of such a statement, and yet I still mistrust the voice saying it.

The King’s English is also not a particularly helpful book to read if you happen to be female. Amis goes to great length outlining the regrettable trend of allowing gender neutral terminology to creep into the language, as if it were a necessary but annoying change on par with, say, no longer being allowed to smoke in bars. He has a whole section on what he calls “womanese”, and states, inaccurately, that malapropism is almost exclusively the domain of the female sex. “I had better take refuge behind the rock-hard factual observation that, unlike most men, women are always getting set phrases wrong.” Is the tongue in the cheek when he writes this? It’s hard to take any of it seriously, especially when it’s coming from someone who considers equality between the sexes to be nothing more than a chimera we should all just give up on.

There are other problems, of course. For a man who published several volumes of poetry, Amis appears to have a rather loose grasp of what it means to speak or write metaphorically. How else would we explain, for example, his chastising us for using words like “panacea” or “crescendo” for anything other than their literal definition? Even when Amis is inarguably right about something, he doesn’t quite get it completely right. He should, for example, be applauded for saying that the rule around split infinitives is nonsense. But he doesn’t go on to say, as Bill Bryson does in his far superior book Mother Tongue, exactly why the rule is nonsense: that it originates out of the fact that, in Latin, the infinitive cannot be split because it is a single word (example: “to love” is amare) and English simply transmuted the rule from that.

Still, there are a few joys coming out of this book. Amis is always engaging and knowledgeable, and he’s able to bring a breadth of knowledge to bear on various elements of our language. The split infinitive rule notwithstanding, his exploration of Latin’s influence on English is thorough and very much worth reading. His guide to common errors between similar words – example: alternate(ly) and alternative(ly) – can also be a great refresher for those of us who learned about them elsewhere.

But the book overall has a mildly dated feel and doesn’t have nearly as much pluck and re-readability as Everyday Drinking. For me, The King’s English will no doubt be a (very) occasionally used reference guide to usage, and little more.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Review: Li’l Bastard, by David McGimpsey

Ah yes, the ‘chubby’ sonnet—David McGimpsey’s innovative retrofit of two extra lines onto this traditional poetic form, plaything of Shakespeare and Milton Acorn, confounder of high school students and other haters of poetry. So instead of the typical 4-4-4-2 breakdown, McGimpsey’s final stanzas get two extra lines, for a total of 16. This affords the pieces in his 2011 collection, L’il Bastard, some additional wiggle room, but it also establishes an air of the unconventional, a bald statement that says, No, this ain’t your daddy’s sonnet.

Even this feels like an understatement. The poems in Li’l Bastard take us to places we rarely go in Canadian verse: part picaresque, part ribald exposé of the middle-aged self, part send-up of the ubiquity of pop culture, McGimpsey’s work is unafraid to explore both the high and the low aspects of our ultramodern world. The book’s 128 sonnets are divided into eight sections, mostly geographic in nature (spanning Montreal, Texas, and other locales that have played a role in the poet’s life) but also includes a flight of ventriloquism involving the 1970s detective show Barnaby Jones. If there is a unifying refrain to this collection, it is that of the poet having to return over and over again, for financial necessity, to the role of teacher. As McGimpsey puts it in sonnet 49, one of the many references to this reality:

In the end, I had to go back to teaching.
I missed the apartment buildings and bookstores,
and by that I mean I needed the money.

One imagines various poetic exploits coming to an end after some prize money or grant funding runs out. But to focus on this binary—of poet as free spirit vs. poet as participant in the work-a-day grind—would be to do Li’l Bastard an injustice. McGimpsey writes with smash-mouth intensity about how even a writer deeply committed to the rich tradition of poetry cannot escape the relentless chatter of popular culture in every aspect of our Western world. He doesn’t critique this noise; he relishes it, finds musical verve in references that span everything from Twitter and The Flintstones to Major League Baseball and the Robin Williams film Mrs. Doubtfire. It shouldn’t work—in lesser hands it wouldn’t work—but the author’s grand vision wins us over.

McGimpsey can be comic and serious, silly and condescending, a prankster and cool observer, all in a single 16-line poem. The success of Li’l Bastard—if I may pay it a slightly backhanded compliment—is that McGimpsey is able to perform his antics on the page without the book growing tedious or predictable. He skirts pretty close to that line in several pieces, especially near the end of the book, but he thankfully has the talent and good sense never to cross it. The result is a poetry collection unlike most you’ll find in Canada, a book as loud and unapologetic as it is clear-eyed and insightful.    

Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Q&Q review of Under Budapest, by Ailsa Kay

is now posted on Quill & Quire's website. It's been a while since I've read a book that started out so iffy but then turned into such an engrossing and satisfying read. Kay's exploration of the lingering effects of Soviet aggression in Hungary is well worth checking out. Also, she's guest writing the National Post's Afterword blog this week. Here's the latest post.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Toronto Poetry Vendors poem is out!

Got word today that my poem "Dressing in Layers" is now out in the spring issue of Toronto Poetry Vendors. As mentioned when I posted about the acceptance, TPV is a really cool concept and I'm pleased to be included in it with so many fine poets. Currently you can find these poetry-dispensing machines in four venues here in the city: the Terragon Theatre, TYPE Books, Saving Gigi, and 3030 Dundas West. So go pop in, buy a poem (they're only a toonie each) and then come back here and tell me what you think.


Review: Flip Turn, by Paula Eisenstein

Stories about competitive sports enjoy a well-earned place within the pantheon of Canadian fiction and poetry. We’ve seen stellar contributions over the years on everything from boxing (Steven Heighton, M.T. Kelly) and the Winter Olympics (Priscila Uppal) to running (Alexander MacLeod) and our ubiquitous national sport, hockey (Mark Anthony Jarman, Cara Hedley, Lynn Coady, Jeffery Donaldson, among many, many others). Why athletic competition lends itself so well to creative writing, I would argue, is that there is often a built-in tension already there for the author; sports can provide a clearly defined set of characters we can root for and an arc that mirrors the tenets of traditional storytelling.

Which makes Flip Turn, the debut novel from Toronto writer Paula Eisenstein, such a curiosity. The sport in question is competitive swimming—an activity that requires intense focus, rigorous diet, and an endless regimen of early-morning practices—and Eisenstein overlays her examination of this sport with a story about a murder committed by the brother of our nameless narrator. Yet despite these promising elements, Flip Turn is almost completely devoid of tension or anything resembling a narrative arc. Eisenstein has instead written her novel as a set of murky, vaguely defined fragments, as if recited to the reader under water. She may very well be trying to subvert our expectations as to what a sports novel can be; but having reached the end of the book, I wondered what she thought she was replacing those expectations with.

A big part of the problem is the awkward and stilted sentences with which much of Flip Turn is written. There were many opportunities with both the swimming and the story of the murder for Eisenstein to use sharp, evocative descriptions and poignant internal monologue. Instead, the book provides passage after passage that left me baffled by what the author was attempting to evoke. Sentences like “Our class feels quiet in an effective, superior way” or “But Julie said she couldn’t be best friends with me because she was already best friends with Donna Snowden so then I wouldn’t be friends with her anymore because it wasn’t good enough for me” had me scratching my head. How am I to imagine a class being “effective” in its quietness? What, exactly, wasn’t “good enough” for the narrator? (That “it” just sort of dangles there.) The worst of these passages came near the end when the narrator is describing her French class. She says, “At least in French I can feel the dark closing in around me, like I have a chance to survive. Math is like the brightness of already being on the other side.” In the margin below this, perhaps channeling Mordecai Richler, I wrote: I have no idea what the author is expressing here. Does she?

But the real issue with Eisenstein’s book is how it overdoes the elusive and elliptical approach to its core story. The narrator’s brother Cal sexually assaulted and murdered a young girl named Selena at the local YMCA, and is now doing time in a psychiatric prison. The narrator takes on the improbable obsession of using her victories in the pool to clear her family name—or at least induce a different response when the public sees it printed in the newspaper. But Flip Turn never fully explores the impact of Cal’s crime on the community, and his actions’ influence on the narrator’s family remains frustratingly obtuse. What’s worse, there are other horrible things going on with our protagonist: she and her swimmates are sexually abused by more than one of her swimming coaches, and yet these encounters are given but a cursory mention. (The narrator seems to have a warped sense of sexual boundaries anyway, to the point of even indicting Selena in her own assault. She says, “Like being that way was Selena’s fault, what she did wrong, for attracting Cal. Not a fault she could be blamed for, just a fault.”)

What Flip Turn does explore, inexplicably, is an array of petty relationships that the narrator has with other girls at school and at the pool. A motley assemble of vague, poorly drawn female characters are marched out, given some kind of trivial interaction with our protagonist, and then scarcely heard from again. This approach goes on for dozens of pages, and left me wondering what all these relationships would amount to, what sort of jouissance they would instill by the end of the story. The answer, sadly, was nothing and none.

Sill, Eisenstein does have her moments in this novel. There are times when she does get the balance of elusiveness and detail just right to create little sparks of pleasure in the reader’s mind. Here’s a passage, of the narrator describing womanhood, that stunned me with its off-kilter beauty:

The reason the moon is a woman and your mother and one day you is because of its pulling power. Your mother pulls you into doing things for her all the time. Like being a great swimmer. Like not being a problem. The reason there’s a man in the moon is the man represents men getting sucked up into her.

Yes, that first sentence is grammatically awkward and yes, there's a lot of jarring repetition in this passage, but it all works. It has the spirited cadence of a fully formed thought.

Sadly, there just isn’t enough of this kind of writing in Flip Turn. The book feels so bogged down with the need to challenge our assumptions about narrative that it undermines itself and misses opportunities for emotional impact. There may be a better story buried somewhere in there, full of tension and well-formed characters and little moments of catharsis. But Eisenstein doesn’t seem interested in running that race. Instead, she’s happy to have her book just do practice laps over and over again in the pool, in the hopes that we’ll still watch even though nothing appears to be at stake.