Friday, August 11, 2017

Excess and Hyperbole

No one who reads or listens can have missed some of the changes in our language that have occurred over the last few months as well as years. The current POTUS isn’t one for moderate or measured speech, but he isn’t the only one for whom words of excess and extravagance are the first choice in a vocabulary. Alas, I too am guilty.

I have learned to ignore the blurbs on the back covers of books I’m considering reading because they are usually all praise and no insight. I learn nothing about the book that will tell me what it is about; instead I learn how much the writer of the blurb liked it. I’m glad she liked it, but that doesn’t mean I will. The same is true of much of what is written about movies and plays, bicycles and new cars, clothing and lawn equipment. Everything is great, excellent, the best, fabulous. Whatever happened to “good enough” or “it’ll do the job”? Is every event great? Or, the best ever? Are we really on an unbroken upward trajectory? I doubt it.

Some years ago I came across a vintage ad selling soap that was of three grades—good, better, best. Each grade has its specific use, and there was no shame in using the lowest grade for its appropriate purpose. I like that. Why buy the absolute best mustard when it’s buried under onions and smoked ham when the lesser kind will suffice? Why buy the most expensive cleanser when vinegar and water will do?

I miss the quiet voice of reason in ordinary conversation, especially now as political rhetoric heats up over events that should make rational men and women lower their voices and think harder, not less. It’s easy to be swept up in the “enthusiasm” of touting this or that, but it’s not more beneficial than choosing to be accurate in our evaluations. Here I was about to write “I might love a particular book” when I realized I was doing it too, falling into the bad habit that has spread insidiously in our speech and writing. As a Brazilian friend pointed out, Americans claim to “love” just about everything. So here is my correction: I might enjoy a particular novel, find scenes in it that seem especially perceptive or moving or startling, but I don’t really “love” the book. Once again, if I remove the hyperbole I can look more closely and describe more accurately the reading experience I did have.

Since I can only speak for myself, here is my pledge: to be more mindful of my language so that instead of hyperbole I present a more accurate depiction of the experience or object or idea. That sounds so simple.

And because this blog is about writing and my life as a writer (or something like that), I’m pleased to report that my next Anita Ray short story, “A Slight Deviation from the Mean,” will appear in the November/December 2017 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

You can find more Anita Ray fiction here:

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Pet Peeves of Word Usage and Misusage

I keep a list of examples of less than perfect writing that I come across in my reading. Unlike many other readers, however, I don’t find a lot of the apparent errors annoying because I understand that language is fluid; it is always in the process of change and development. That said, a few things do stop me when I’m reading because I have to reconstruct the sentence in my head in order to capture the intended meaning.  When the list becomes unwieldy, I select a few to comment on. Here are a three of my favorites.

First, the word unique does not take a modifier. This word refers to something that is one of a kind, in a category all its own, without any other item of the same sort to which it could be compared. It cannot be more or less unique than something else; nor can it be very or somewhat or a little unique. It is either one of a kind or it isn’t. The word means “single, sole . . . having no like or equal; unparalleled.” Some dictionaries now include the increasingly common understanding of the word to mean “highly unusual, extraordinary, rare,” with the caveat “a common usage still objected to by some.” And yes, that would be me. I object—strenuously.

Second, I feel jolted when I read a sentence like this: “George shouldn’t be upset at Ellen’s tepid response; he’d long known of her disinterest in baseball.” The word disinterest does not mean “lack of interest.” Disinterest means “lack of personal or selfish interest,” but here again disinterest has absorbed the meaning of uninterested, or “lack of interest or concern; indifference.” Two distinct views of the quality of a person’s attention to something have been conflated so that now one word is used for both, leaving the reader combing through the sentence for a context to clarify the intended meaning. With greater care, the writer could avoid frustrating the reader and have a richer vocabulary. Consider this example: “George, the defendant, hoped the judge would prove to be disinterested, and also hoped the jury wouldn’t be so uninterested as to fall asleep.”

Third, a perennial favorite, is the distinction between that and which. That is used, among other reasons, to introduce a restrictive clause. Which is used to introduce a non-restrictive clause. Consider this example: Ellen rummaged in the trunk of her car for the knife that had blood on it. (She seems to have lots of knives in the back of her car but only wants one in particular.) Or this example: After dinner, Ellen washed the bloody knife, which she left in the dish drainer. (Where Ellen left the knife doesn't matter; she could have dried it and put it away in a drawer.)

No writer is going to know every rule of English (or whatever is the native tongue), but I admire writers who are precise in their use of language while also telling a good story vividly, or explaining a scientific breakthrough in accessible language.

All definitions quoted above can be found in Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition.

And now a moment of silence for George, wherever he may be, and all the words in English that have strayed from their original meaning.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

My Grandfather's Photographs

After months of tripping over boxes of photographs, moving them from one closet to another—despite the warning, “moving them is not de-cluttering”—I have at last managed to get most of my grandfather’s photographs digitized. Because my grandparents divorced in the 1920s, when my mother was still a teenager, I hardly knew my grandfather. Now I feel I’m getting to know him for the first time, through his photographs. He lived in Washington, DC, and enjoyed showing visitors the sights when he wasn’t working. His dramatic shots of a monument are among his best, each one hinting at a story and reflecting the Art Deco style he loved.

He came of age at the beginning of the twentieth century, served in World War I, and built a career in the 1930s, working in various aspects of the dairy industry, such as “electro freezer” sales and management. He rarely photographed the typical farm, preferring instead the industrial end of the business, such as large-scale kitchens. (Who wears a fedora in a kitchen? A salesman?)

 The new automobile landscape offered many opportunities, and he left a record of the popular signs outside highway restaurants. From the looks of his collection, he did a lot of driving. I’ve never heard of some of these roadside food joints, but the names fit the post World War II mindset.

 He had a sense of humor as well. He took photos of the pets in the apartment buildings where he lived, as well as portraits of a number of neighbors and friends as well as relatives. He loved the ducks on a nearby pond and also, apparently, the neighboring deer.

I’m working on his film library for two reasons. I’m curious about what kind of photographer he was, and I’m drawn to photography in my own life. He liked to explore camera techniques, and tried various composite images, including one of himself in a striped shirt arguing with his twin over a set of cameras. I haven’t found the negative for that one yet. (Yes, the photo below is of a hand holding a wrecked car.)

But I learned something else from exploring his work. His best images are modern but also hint at a story. Even the photo of an empty room in the evening, with a book lying on a footstool and a newspaper mounding on the floor, hints at more than is captured in that one image. Along with the images, I now carry the suggested story ideas.

I have used photography as a catalyst in at least one mystery. In When Krishna Calls, Anita Ray is drawn into the disappearance of a hotel employee and the death of her husband when she discovers a message wrapped around the battery in her camera. She discovers another clue on the memory card. In other Anita Ray mysteries, she filters information from the tourists who visit her photo gallery in the resort.

There are a number of ways to use a camera and photography in crime fiction. Thanks to my grandfather’s collection (and my own and those of other relatives), I have a wealth of material to work with.

To find the Anita Ray and Mellingham novels go to:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Eye to Eye with Nature

I’m not sure what this post is about, but my experiences of being eye to eye with nonhuman creatures have been accumulating. Here are some of them.

From Alexas-Fotos, Pixabay
During my first visit to Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala in South India, I took a walk through the city-owned zoo. I was alone, with Indian families walking in front and behind me. When I came to the gorilla enclosure, which was no more than a concrete cage with bars on three sides, the animal rested in a small niche in the center of the back wall. All of a sudden, the animal rushed to the bars and stared at me. I wasn’t alarmed because there were those bars between us. As I walked on the animal followed me, moving from bar to bar until I disappeared around the corner. His face was barely three feet from mine, and he watched me every step of the way. Perhaps I smelled different or looked different. His curiosity was palpable, and I kept wondering what he was thinking.

From Stux, Pixabay
I often encountered goats during my visits in India and at farms here in New England. Their eyes, close up, are creepy. That’s the only word for it, from a human perspective, but the design has a purpose. The black slit in a yellow iris gives prey, like goats, a wider swath in which to spot predators but for the human the eye of a goat looks strange and weird. It’s hard to know what a goat is thinking when you’re eye to eye with it.

The eyes of parakeets don’t seem especially unusual, but I found myself eye to eye with an immature grackle when the bird managed to get inside the house through a tear in a screen window. It then somehow got between the upper sash and the half-opened lower one. And it couldn’t get out. As I tried to lower the sash to let it fly free, the bird struggled and made things worse, leaving me staring in the young bird’s black eye. Did it know I was trying to help? Somehow the bird managed to get out and found itself sitting on the windowsill before a now open window. It ruffled its feathers, and flew off into the back yard, its moment of terror forgotten.

One of the most moving encounters occurred in 2014, on my last visit to South India. On the way to a concert I stopped with friends to offer the temple elephant, Dakshini, some treats, carrots and apples. I'd done this a few times with these friends. The mahout allowed us into the enclosure, and the elephant, a female entering her senior years, is tolerant after serving in hundreds of temple festivals and rituals. I found myself next to her feeding her carrots and looking into her eye, as large as the palm of my hand. I felt both compassion for her living a life with a chain around her ankle and wondering if I should fear her. After all, I might have edibles but why would she trust me? I don’t know what she was thinking, but she watched me without blinking or lifting a foot or leg. Perhaps she sensed what I was thinking. She took the gifts from my hand with her trunk and also let me put them to her mouth.

Mahabalipuram, Tamilnad, India
I think of Dakshini often, wondering how she is and if someone else is giving her treats. I’m not one to anthropomorphize animals, but I do believe they have their own world with feelings and worries and attitudes. I won’t speculate on what she was thinking, but I will remember looking her in the eye and feeling the stillness in her as I stood only inches away, one hand on her neck and the other holding fruit. 

Throughout the centuries artists in India have depicted the elephant as a light and graceful animal. When I stood close to Dakshini, I could understand the feelings behind the art.