Sunday Salon – February 7, 2010

February 7, 2010

9:00 AM

Good morning and happy Sunday Salon! Today is a clear, crisp winter day with cerulean blue skies and a bit of frost on the ground. We’ve got the coffee on and a fire in the wood stove – a perfect morning for catching up on my reading. Later today we’ll be working on our bedroom. While I was gone to New Hampshire, my wonderful husband tore out the old, ratty carpets in our bedroom and put in hardwood flooring. Yesterday we started painting the walls a nice, soft sage green; then we’ll install some white 6″ baseboards and a little crown molding. And I’m also getting a new closet overhaul (we’re going into Home Depot later today to pick up some pre-forms for that). Yay!

Last week I told you about Keeping the Feast by Paula Butturini (read my review). I really enjoyed this book which was full of good food and wonderful stories – all a part of showing us how our traditions around food can help us heal in times of crisis. If you have read the book, you might be interested in Lisa’s discussion of it on her blog for the Winter Reading Series…and don’t forget to catch the author there for a live chat on Monday, February 22nd at 5:00 PM PST.

I also finished The Last Surgeon by Michael Palmer last week (read my review). If you love suspense-thrillers, you probably should read a book by Palmer sometime. He knows how to write this genre well, keeping the story moving forward at warp speed and filling it with enough violence to keep most fans of the thriller happy.

My current read is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel who won the Booker Prize this year for this historical fiction set in 16th century England and focusing on Thomas Cromwell. I have mixed feelings so far about this doorstopper. Mantel uses the present tense, which is not my favorite tense…but it works surprisingly well for this novel by putting the reader firmly into the story and making things feel immediate and contemporary. But Mantel is also having a little fun playing with the rules of grammar in her book – and that style is not sitting as well with me. Mantel is using an ambiguous pronoun (specifically “he”)…and she does not seem to care if the pronoun matches the subject of her sentence or not. Let me give you an example:

Once the boy has gone to bed he sweeps his papers out of the tidy stack he has made. – from Wolf Hall, page 143 –

Notice that Mantel has two instances of the pronoun “he” in this sentence. The subject of the sentence is “the boy”…so as a reader we at first read this sentence as “the boy sweeps his papers out of the tidy stack the boy has made.” But that would be wrong. Actually the first “he” relates to Thomas Cromwell, whereas the second “he” relates to the boy. It is a convoluted sentence…and the book is full of these kinds of sentences. Sentences which make the reader stop, think, back up and figure out who is acting or speaking. I find it mostly annoying as it breaks the flow of the reading.

I’m discussing this book in a book group, and some people don’t mind this butchering of English grammar. They feel that it is creative and effective, and done purposefully to make the reader pay more attention to Cromwell. One poster said that this is a new trend in modern literature – that teachers are telling students now to disregard grammar in their writing and be more creative in sentence structure. Really? I have to say, if that is so, I am going to pull my hair out.

Here’s my opinion: Most grammar is there and universal so that communication is clear and effective. As a reader, if I cannot understand what the author is trying to say, how can I understand the story I am reading? I suppose a writer could write every sentence in a book backwards and eventually the reader would probably figure it out and begin to understand…but would the book be enjoyable? I don’t think so. I read because I love characters and story. I don’t read to be necessarily challenged in my ability to figure out what the author is writing on the most basic level. I hate to feel like I’m reading – I want to be IMMERSED in the story, not constantly having to perform an analysis on the structure of the sentences. I don’t like experimental fiction for just that reason.

So what do you think? Do you want more writers to do what Mantel is doing? Do you think grammar is something we should toss into the wind? Do you like books which make you constantly have to think? Or does this kind of writing make you feel manipulated as a reader? Have you read Wolf Hall yet? If so, did this style bother you or not?  Inquiring minds want to know!

I hope to finish this book sooner rather than later (although it is going incredibly slow for me at the present). And then I’m picking up another chunkster: The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt.

What are you doing today? Whatever it is, I hope it involves a great book!

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    • Lu on February 7, 2010 at 09:30

    I don’t think grammar is necessarily something we should throw to the wind as you say, but there is certainly room for improvement and changes. Languages naturally change and evolve over time to be more efficient and we shouldn’t necessarily stop those changes. Does that mean that we should stop teaching grammar all together and let people do what they want… no, not at all. Like you said, if you can’t understand what someone is saying it’s not worth it. But sometimes deliberately breaking a grammar rule to some effect is useful. Every sentence? No way. I noticed when I was reading Fire there were some serious comma issues going on. I’m not a grammar stickler, but it can get really frustrating when you notice it and doesn’t seem to be purposeful.

  1. I am definitely NOT in favor of ignoring grammar rules to the extent that the reading is unclear or takes so much effort that the book loses its appeal.

    So I’m guessing that I will not add Wolf Hall to my list!

    • JoAnn on February 7, 2010 at 09:48

    I love sage green – a perfect, relaxing bedroom color! Thanks for the warning about the pronoun “he” in Wolf Hall. I’ll be starting it soon and will pay close attention to avoid confusion. Grammar is pretty important to me, so I hope it won’t be too distracting.

    • carolyn on February 7, 2010 at 09:57

    I, too, am annoyed with Mantel’s indiscriminate use of pronouns. Maybe that isn’t fair, though, because it does seem like a conscious effort on her part to obfuscate. This seems like a gimmick to me, like being different for its own sake. Maybe this is supposed to be some sort of “new wave” writing style (akin to Le Nouvelle Vague in film) where the reader is alternately drawn into the story and then pushed back at arm’s length to realize she is in the “audience”? At any rate, she obviously has an interesting story to tell, with fascinating characters, and I find this obtrusive. Just wish she’d get on with it.

  2. “So what do you think? Do you want more writers to do what Mantel is doing? Do you think grammar is something we should toss into the wind? Do you like books which make you constantly have to think? Or does this kind of writing make you feel manipulated as a reader? Have you read Wolf Hall yet? If so, did this style bother you or not?”

    No, no, no! Thanks for the warning. I’ll take a pass on this book.

    • EL Fay on February 7, 2010 at 10:08

    I love experimental fiction. I just had a bit of a Surrealist theme going on at my blog with Philippe Soupault, Louis Aragon, and Michal Ajvaz.

    I agree with Lu: grammar isn’t static. It’s constantly changing and sometimes it’s great when an author shakes things up a bit. Experimental literature certainly isn’t for everyone, but there’s a reason it exists. A lot of novels today that we might think of as “traditional” novels incorporate literary devices that were once considered avant-garde – for example, stream-of-conscious, non-linear plot progression, intertextuality, and so forth. Language, literature, and the ways by which we perceive the world and communicate our ideas are always evolving.

    Sure, experimental literature can be difficult, but the results, I think, are satisfying in a very different way than traditional literature. I finished Ajvaz’s The Other City feeling, in the words of Emily Dickinson, “as if the top of my head were taken off.” Gert Jonke’s The System of Vienna was positively mind-bending, but introduced a lot of great concepts on chaos, entropy, and the function of narrative and biography. But I can also imagine a lot of people throwing poor Jonke across the room.

    • Jeanie on February 7, 2010 at 10:50

    Hi, I just wanted to let you know that I have awarded you the ‘One Lovely Blog Award’ at It’s well-deserved!

    Check it out and pass it on if you like.

    • Megan on February 7, 2010 at 12:04

    It is frustrating to see more and more authors toying with the standard rules of writing. For some authors, if their stories are good enough and the disregarding of the rules is to some purpose, I’ll let stuff like this slide. With others it just seems like a pretentious way to stand apart from “the establishment” that, for me, falls flat. I’m often not as frustrated by toying with grammar as I am with writers who decide to do things like not use quotation marks or even not start a new paragraph when a new speaker starts. I’ve had this stuff beaten into me in english class from such a young age that it’s terribly jarring and confusing when authors choose to abandon the rules and write however they please. If it’s a good enough story to make me forget that quotation marks are missing or grammar is ambiguous, then, I suppose, the more power to that author for writing something captivating enough that they can take the would-be laws of writing out to play, but if not, as is often the case, such things just stack the odds more and more against my enjoying a book.

    • Laura on February 7, 2010 at 13:00

    Well … you know I’m a stickler for proper grammar. Reading Wolf Hall, the “he” thing bugged me for a while but when I realized that almost every time “he” referred to Cromwell, I just stopped thinking about it. And I enjoyed the book!

    Have a great day Wendy!

  3. The illusive ‘he’ in Wolf Hall tripped me up more times than I care to remember. It makes me wonder how much I missed because of it. I enjoyed it as a whole, but I read it in short spurts.

    I wanted to let you know that I’m currently reading my first Random Reading Challenge book. It was a lot of fun letting the number lead me. 🙂

    • Teresa on February 7, 2010 at 15:18

    I had the same issues with Wolf Hall that you’ve had, but in the end, they proved to be minor issues when weighed against the excellent characterization.

    As for grammar experimentation, I’m a professional grammarian (well, an editor), so I have opinions on this one. I agree with Lu that rules shift over time, and that’s fine, as long as meaning doesn’t get lost. And some writers can throw caution to the wind to great success–Jose Saramago (and his translators) being an excellent example. The writing is so good that you get used to it. With Wolf Hall, I’m afraid meaning very nearly got lost.

    And the teaching of grammar is important. I suspect the writers who break the rules most skillfully know that they’re doing it, so good rule-breaking isn’t about ignorance.

    • diane on February 7, 2010 at 15:28

    I haven’t read Wolf Hall yet, but have read several reviews. Many people mentioned that it is a book to be read very slow, but this is the first I’ve seen mentioned about the grammar usage –it seems that would be very distracting for me as well. I’ll be waiting to see what your group thinks and also looking forward to your review. Thanks Wendy

  4. Tonight I’m reading and enjoying (WHAT??? NO SUPERBOWL?) Keeping the Feast. Food, friends, laughter…all good ways of dealing with trauma.

    • Kathy on February 7, 2010 at 17:02

    I think that grammar would bother me. I don’t think I’ll read Wolf Hall – I feel like it’s probably over my head.

  5. What a delightful day! I have to wonder, sparked by your thoughts above, whether there is a particular convention urging the use of the present tense in historical fiction. I will have to pay better attention to this in future.

    Meanwhile, on the subject of grammar, I will never forget being challenged by one of my first students after I had corrected her grammar on a paper (and given her – gasp!- an A- rather than an A). “Do you seriously think I don’t know these rules?,” she demanded, incensed. Well, I thought, I don’t know. Plenty of people don’t. So if you are going to break the rules, break them infrequently, with good reason, and after establishing your authority with your readership. I love carefully wielded grammatical ambiguity when it enhances or multiplies the possible meanings of a passage (like in that weird paragraph we all debated from McCarthy’s The Road), but I want to feel confident that the ambiguity is intentional and carefully controlled, and I feel exhausted if the device is used too often.

    • Lisa on February 7, 2010 at 18:36

    I’m sure I’ll read “Wolf Hall” at some point but the grammar issues are going to be a major problem for me. I have heard other people mention this. It seems odd to make it even harder for the reader when you’ve already got them pushing through a tome this long.

    • Jenners on February 7, 2010 at 18:37

    Your bedroom makeover sounds lovely. Isn’t it fun to do things like that? It is like getting a whole new place.

    And I think grammar matters. It can be very distracting. Spelling errors or using words wrong make me crazy.

    • Kim on February 7, 2010 at 20:56

    Like Les in Nebraska-my answer is No, No, and No! Without rules we have chaos–on every level. I don’t think Wolf Hall will be on my list any time soon. I too, do not enjoy the feeling that I am reading–I want to just find myself lost in the story.
    Your bedroom sounds like it will be simply lovely-sage green is a favorite color of mine.

  6. I had real trouble with Wolf Hall! I got very frustrated with it and ended up not finishing it. Sometimes grammar doesn’t matter (Saramago’s lack of punctuation doesn’t bother me) but Mantel’s confusing grammar issues really annoy me. I look forward to seeing what you think of the book once you’ve made it to the end.

  7. That bit of grammar play bothered me in Wolf Hall…I do recognize the reason she did it, but think we need to be awfully careful about throwing grammar rules to the wind.

  8. Hmmmm . . . very interesting in regards to Mantel’s grammar. I haven’t read the book yet, but I have it and I plan to. It will be interesting to see how I respond to her writing. Stylistically, I am not opposed to bending the grammar rules a bit–like Jackie mentioned, I almost never mind punctuation issues but it has to be done well and lend the the story itself.

  9. I’d heard about Mantel’s use of pronouns from other readers, and as long as she’s fairly consistent about it (as Laura mentioned, my understanding is that most of the “he”‘s refer to Cromwell) I don’t know if it would get in my way all that much.

    Speaking more generally, on the topic of grammar, however…I understand that it evolves. Spoken usage has always been less formal than written, and practices once frowned upon (split infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions) may become accepted conventions over time. The basic rules still matter, though, and one reason that they exist is to help make communication clearer and more effective. When creative or improper grammar gets in the way of the story, I think it’s a problem.

    Great question, Wendy!

    • Wendy on February 15, 2010 at 10:30

    Lu: Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the grammar issue…I agree that language changes and evolves…and I don’t mind that; but I do have a problem when grammar is changed so much that it leaves the reader feeling confused about who is talking or acting. Some grammar, in my opinion, should be left alone!!! I know what you mean about commas – that is one of my pet peeves too…If I’m noticing them, then they are being overused 🙂

    Laurel: *nods* I do think Mantel crossed the line between clarity and confusion. I am STILL slogging through Wolf Hall and not really enjoying the journey anymore *sighs*

    JoAnn: I will be really interested to see what you think of Wolf Hall…will have to get caught up on my google reader soon so I don’t miss your review! By the way, the sage green looks great on the walls! I am loving it 🙂

    Carolyn: I agree totally – it seems a gimmick and like you, I find the characters interesting and I like seeing things from a different perspective, but the arbitrary use of “he” is definitely distracting to me.

    Les: *laughs* I think you would hate this book! I am still not done with it, and really just want to heave it against a wall at this point. Grrrrrr!

    El Fay: Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this subject…you make some good points. I guess I am more of a traditionalist when it comes to literature…although I have loved some novels which could be classified as experimental (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas comes to mind…and that one is right up there among the best books I’ve read). I just don’t think Mantel’s experiment with grammar was successful (for me anyway). It made the reading so slow, and confusing at times. I know some people love it…but that said, many people mention it as a distraction too.

    Jeanie: Thank you! I am so behind in responding to emails, etc…but I promise, I’ll be by later today 🙂

    • Wendy on February 15, 2010 at 10:45

    Megan: You expressed why I am irritated with Wolf Hall much better than I did. Toying with grammar like this *is* jarring…and does seem a bit pretentious. I haven’t yet finished the book…but her choice to overuse the pronoun “he” … and neglect to connect it to a subject in the sentence will definitely taint my feelings about the book…which is a pity since I think she had an interested story to tell.

    Laura: This may be one book where we disagree (*gasp*). I am still largely irritated by this part of the book…the “he” thing is driving me mad!!! And I can’t seem to finish this book either. At this rate, I may still be reading it into March.

    Literate Housewife: Thanks for sharing with me that you also struggled with the pronoun use in Wolf Hall. I do feel like I am missing a lot on the book because of it – and like you, I can only read this in small amounts at a time which is aggravating me to no end. Congrats on finishing your first Random Read 🙂 Glad you are enjoying the challenge!

    Teresa: thanks for weighing in on Wolf Hall and grammar. I agree, Mantel’s characterization is very good…but I do think her use (or misuse) of grammar is more a distraction than anything. I believe Mantel intentionally changed things ups grammatically…but I don’t think it works.

    Diane: I’ll be interested to get your opinion on the book once you’ve read it. This is one of the slowest reads I’ve had for a very, very long time. It is taking all of my perseverance not to quit reading it.

    DebNance: Glad you liked Keeping the Feast – food, friends, laughter…sounds like a great night to me!

    Kathy: I mostly feel over my head in Wolf Hall. This is one of those books which I think will not resonate with many readers.

    Ariel: Hope you get this comment! I actually like the use of present tense in Wolf Hall…but the grammar – URGHHHHH! Mantel is deliberate in her changing up the grammar, but in my opinion it is way overdone and irritating. I hope you’ll read this book so I can see what you think!

    • Wendy on February 15, 2010 at 10:50

    Lisa: Can’t wait to see what you think of it…I agree, a book this long (and complex) should not be made even more difficult with grammar issues.

    Jenners: I am loving my “new” bedroom. At some point, I’ll post some photos. Glad to see you agree with my position on grammar!

    Kim: If you agree with Les and me, yes, steer clear of Wolf Hall!!! The sage green in the bedroom has turned out very well, if I may say so myself!

    Jackie: Now I feel completely redeemed in my opinion of Wolf Hall since you and I nearly ALWAYS feel the same about books! I don’t know if I am ever going to finish this book *sighs*

    Ravenous Reader: Yes, I agree …

    Stephanie: I will be watching for your review of Wolf Hall …

    Florinda: Although Mantel’s “he” almost always refers to Cromwell, sometimes it doesn’t (and sometimes she uses it in the same sentence more than once where it refers to Cromwell AND someone else)…which I find totally annoying and confusing. I hate having to re-read sentences to clarify. I will be interested in your review of this book at some point.

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