Stet: An Editor’s Life

Stet coverStet: An Editor’s Life
Diana Athill
Grove Press (October 15, 2014), 260 pages
Kindle edition $8.63, Amazon paperback $16.00
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $2.99

This memoir was a delightful diversion.

The second world war played a lot of havoc with the lives of many people in England. (There’s a serious understatement.) André Deutsch was a Hungarian who was stranded there at the outset of the war. After the war he started a publishing house with an absurdly small amount of capital. Warned against giving the firm a foreign-sounding in the wake of the war, he called it Allan Wingate. Stretched thin financially and having alienated his investors, he ceded the firm to them and founded André Deutsch Ltd.

With him from the very beginning was Diana Athill. The circumstances of wartime employment and the oddities of wartime personal relationships brought the two of them together and she continued to work for him in spite of his difficult personality and eccentricities.

While the two firms were tiny compared to the U.K.’s big publishing houses, Deutsch and Athill recruited a significant portfolio of distinguished authors, including Terry Southern, V. S. Naipaul, Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, and Simone de Beauvoir.

Those of you who enjoy “inside publishing” memoirs will not be disappointed by Athill’s recollections.


Dreyer’s English

Dryer's EnglishDreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
Benjamin Dreyer
Random House (January 29, 2019), 284 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $15.00

Being the word nerd that I am, I found this book delightful.

Benjamin Dreyer is a seasoned copy editor, and this book is based on his experience in that role. His guidance and recommendations are based on the errors in grammar, punctuation, and style that he has seen over his decades.

He writes about rules that make sense and arbitrary rules that exist for no reason. He discusses the proper use of numbers and traps in grammar to avoid. His writing style is engaging and entertaining. His footnotes are not used to cite his sources, but rather to provide additional anecdotal, amusing, or entertaining information or commentary. Do not overlook them; savor and enjoy them.

The second part of the book is made up for the most part of lists: his own pet peeves, words that are often misused, and people and places whose names are often gotten wrong. Not as entertaining as the first part, but full of useful information.

If you love to write or appreciate good writing Dryer’s English is well worth your time.


Figuring

Figuring coverFiguring
Maria Popova
Pantheon (February 5, 2019), 554 pages
Kindle edition, $14.99, Amazon hardcover $19.49

I’m not sure what this book is trying to be and the lack of a subtitle doesn’t help.

The book opens with the story of the young Maria Mitchell on Nantucket in the nineteenth century, with her passion for astronomy supported by her Quaker father. In a world where such opportunities are mostly closed to woman she makes a name for herself in the field and goes on to teach astronomy at the newly-founded Vassar College.

We then see a glimpse of Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and frequently credited as co-inventor of the computer. We see a lot of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and then back in the United States there is a discussion of the Transcendental movement with Ralph Waldo Emerson and the bunch. In particular we learn a lot about the innovative, progressive Margaret Fuller.

From Fuller we are introduced to the early history of photography, and then the poet Emily Dickinson, after which we abruptly are presented with a discussion of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan regarding their work on the plaque and sound recording placed on the Voyager spacecraft. From there we are treated to a long discussion of Rachael Carson.

I’m leaving a lot out here.

Popova is trying to tell us something, but I’m not sure quite what.


Creation

Creation coverCreation
Gore Vidal
Vintage, 587 pages, August 22, 2018 (2002 reprint)
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $17.95

Back in the 1980’s I tried to get going with Gore Vidal’s then-new book Creation. It is a novel narrated by a fictional grandson of Zoroaster, and is presented as a rebuttal to the Histories of Herodotus from a Persian perspective. I remember having a hardcover copy and trying to read it. I just couldn’t get excited about it.

Recently, however, I had been reading some nonfiction and I wanted a change. I downloaded the Kindle sample of Creation and found the book quite book quite interesting. It turns out that this is an expanded version published in 2002. It seems that an overzealous editor underestimated the interest of the average Vidal reader (or perhaps the average fiction reader) in the details of life, ritual, and philosophy in the ancient world and cut a good deal of what he considered to be minutia. That’s all restored in the 2002 edition.

The narrator is Cyrus Spitima, the fictional grandson of the Persian prophet Zoroaster. He is portrayed as being part of the royal family and a close friend to and the same age as the eventual emperor Xerxes. He is sent to India by Xerxes’s father Darius and to China by Xerxes. In the course of his travels he meets the Buddha, Lao Tze, and Confucius. Now of course it’s not entirely clear that the three actually lived at the same time, or in fact, that the first two existed at all. But this Vidal’s way of incorporating Eastern religion and philosophy into an entertaining novel.

In the end the book was probably over-long and in fact I ended up skimming the last quarter of it. Ultimately, though, I believe it was worth my time.


changing tastes in reading

It’s interesting how one’s tastes in reading (and other things) change over time.

When I was in my twenties and thirties one of my favorite books was Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins. I can’t tell you how many times I read it. It was a favorite of many of my generation. But when I tried to get interested in books that Robbins wrote in later decades I simply couldn’t become engaged. If fact, when I downloaded a Kindle sample of Another Roadside Attraction a couple of years ago I discovered that I just wasn’t into it.

On the other hand, back in the 1980’s I tried to get going with Gore Vidal’s then-new book Creation. It is a novel narrated by a fictional grandson of Zoroaster, and is presented as a rebuttal to the Histories of Herodotus from a Persian perspective. I remember having a hardcover copy and trying to read it on my first honeymoon. Yes, I know you’re supposed to have other things on your mind on a honeymoon, but it was a Hawaii cruise, it was raining, and my first wife would take afternoon naps. So I was out there on an enclosed deck reading Vidal. I just couldn’t get excited about it.

Creation coverRecently, however, I had been reading some nonfiction and I wanted a change. I downloaded the Kindle sample of Creation and found the book quite book quite interesting. It turns out that this is an expanded version published in 2002. It seems that an overzealous editor underestimated the interest of the average Vidal reader (or perhaps the average fiction reader) in the details of life and ritual in the ancient world, and cut a good deal of what he considered to be minutia. That’s all restored in the 2002 edition.

I’m currently reading and enjoying the book and not getting bogged down in anything that looks like minutia. (Fun fact (at least I assume it’s a fact): A eunuch who is castrated after achieving sexual maturity can still have an erection. Therefore the ladies of the harem, many of whom probably did not have a great deal of fondness for their husbands (who had most likely been chosen for them), and in fact most likely rarely even saw them, were perfectly happy to have the attention of the better-looking eunuchs, who were, after all, there to look after them. And besides, sexual faithfulness was not the issue. What was really at stake was that any children born to the wife were actually the king’s offspring. But I digress.)

So yes, our tastes do change over the decades.


Wasn’t That a Time

Wasn't That a Time coverWasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America
Jesse Jarnow
Da Capo Press (November 6, 2018),  297 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Hardcover $15.43

If you are interested in the history of folk music in America this is fascinating reading.

The Weavers were a highly influential folk group in after World War II and throughout much of the 1950’s. The book discusses the background of each member of the group and how their paths led them to form the Weavers. A large portion of the book discusses the group’s struggle with the blacklist. It was interesting to learn that blacklist pressure came not only from the House Un-American Activities Committee but from private organizations intent on rooting out people they suspected to be Communists or Communist sympathizers.

The author describes how the driving force behind the Weavers, the great Pete Seeger, left the group when the group consented to do a commercial jingle, which, ironically, never aired. Jarnow even describes the collaboration of the only female in the group, Ronnie Gilbert, with the next-generation activist singer Holly Near. In fact it was on Holly’s CDs that I first became familiar with Gilbert.

If the era and the subject matter interest you this book is well worth your time.


Silences

Silences coverSilences
Tillie Olsen
Feminist Press, City University of New York
Anniversary edition, July 22, 2014, 370 pages
Kindle edition $9.99
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $1.99

The book Silences was originally published in 1978. This edition is a 2003 reprint with a long introduction that page homage to Tillie Olsen and gives her credit for broadening the scope of reading lists in college curriculum.

The book is a strange hodgepodge conglomeration. The first two pieces are reconstructions of talks Olsen gave in which she calls out the marginalization of women authors and writers of color. Points very well and clearly made.

This is followed by Olsen’s very long afterword to the 1972 reprint of the nineteenth century expose, Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis, a marginalized writer writing about marginalized men and women and their horrific working conditions.

The book then includes excerpts from a variety of authors, many of whom were not at all marginalized. Olsen also writes about the poor pay authors receive and the lack of recognition given women writers.

This is a book of the 1970’s. I was in the book business in those days and when Olsen writes that most publishing houses “are now owned by” conglomerate corporations I can only think that is nothing at all compared to the consolidated state of publishing today.

If nothing else Silences captures one worldview in the 1970’s and for that it is worth preserving.