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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Turn the page

I spent yesterday evening talking with a friend about the first draft of his Sherlock Holmes-inspired novel. We had gone over some stuff about adverb nervousness, why the villain drops out of the story part of the way through, and whether the British Library has open stacks. Finally I got to the end of the pages I had dog-eared and asked about the ending: "The final sentence doesn't sound like anything else in the book," I said.

"That's not the final sentence," my friend said. "Are you missing the last page?"


"Wait, you're missing the last page of a mystery novel? You think my villain is cliche, but you're somehow missing the final page of a mystery novel?"

So he e-mailed it to me as we spoke, and indeed many things looked different with a few additional paragraphs.

My mom reads so many mysteries that she often forgets whether she's read them. Sometimes, she reads the last few pages to remind herself... but of course that method of checking has its own perils.

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Anonymous Alice's mom on Thu May 28, 02:47:00 PM:
Alice, it's not quite like that. To find out whether I have read a mystery, I read the beginning few pages and then dip into the middle.

I wouldn't look at the end if I were not sure.

While it is true that I occasionally forget who actually committed the crime(s), the identity of the culprit is not the most important thing in a mystery. What matters is the changed view of the narrative world that we come to as we read.

So I think you need to qualify your 'the ending changes things' view. When order is restored to the narrative world by catching the culprit, a good mystery will suggest that the world is probably a little different than what it seemed at the beginning.

Less orderly, of course, and changed by the criminal's place in that world.

But also just different. The process of living through finding the culprit is what has changed the hero's and our view of the world. You always find out more than just the identity of the culprit and usually more than you wanted to know.

So if, after assuring myself that I have indeed read a particular mystery, I then look to the end to find out who did it, that look is just a refresher to remind myself of how things have changed.

The technicality of who done it is what keeps me reading, but it's oddly peripheral to what makes the mystery interesting.

Blogger Katy on Thu May 28, 03:10:00 PM:
I'm pretty sure the British Library has closed stacks. I just checked, and for what it's worth, they use DDC.

When I took that really awesome course about print culture at UCD, the professor told us a funny story about being sent to the library as a kid to check out romance novels for her aunt. The aunt would make a small pencil mark on a certain page (64, I think) in each book so she would know whether she had read it. When the kids went to the library to get books for her, they had to open each one and check for the pencil mark on that page.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

More checking needed in hockey

Great WSJ story about engraving errors on the Stanley Cup (the graphic history of the typos is especially cool--you can roll over the image of the winners to see the engraved errors corrected):
This iconic silver trophy, which is handed out each year to hockey's champion, carries with it the marks of another, quieter history -- decades of botched spellings, spacing gaffes, repeated words and the unsightly results of attempts to fix them.

Over the years words like "Ilanders" (Islanders), "Leaes" (Leafs) and "Bqstqn" (Boston) have found their way onto the cup, while more than a dozen players and coaches have had their names butchered. Former Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante had the misfortune of having his first name spelled four different ways in the span of five years.

(thanks to Neil for the link)

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Tom Hanks' inimitable sentences

I could listen to Tom Hanks enthuse all day--about anything except symbology. His speech patterns have carried over to his writing in the latest letters section of the New Yorker, where he has a great letter about his electric car. He's got a real talent for the long sentence, and you can hear his voice so clearly:
Peter J. Boyer, in his otherwise spot-on piece about the car industry, assumes that I once leased G.M.’s sadly fated EV1 electric car and, like other drivers of that twin-seat rocket of a vehicle, watched the emission-free car be wrested from my garage, towed away, and busted up into pieces of metal, glass, and rubber smaller than razor blades (“The Road Ahead,” April 27th). Luckily, I did not.

I like the pacing of these sentences:
It had four doors, a rear hatch, room for my family, including a dog in the back, power windows, A/C, a great sound system, and the fastest, most effective windshield defroster known to mankind. When the car companies collectively, and, to some, diabolically, decided to take these cars back, the electric vehicles disappeared. But not mine. I have the pink slip. I own that car, and it is still driven every day, albeit by one of my crack staff of employees. My electric car recently crossed fifty thousand miles on the odometer with its original battery but without so much as a splash of gasoline.

I've listened to Tom Hanks' amazing tribute to the Dave Clark Five at the 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony several times (Thomas Kyd gets name-checked?!) and smile every time. I assume he wrote it. So so good!

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

The torture creative class

Devastating column from Katha Pollitt:
I should have been a torturer. You too, reader. Well, maybe not an actual physical torturer, because then there'd be a small chance I'd go to prison like Lynndie England or Charles Graner. My picture might be in the paper doing nasty things to naked men with a goony smile and a thumbs-up. I might even have disturbing memories and bad dreams, because surely, unless one is a sociopath, throwing people into walls and hanging them from the ceiling all day is likely to have its troubling moments. What I mean is, I should have been a member of the torture creative class--a conceptual torturer, a facilitator of torture, perhaps an inventor of torture law, an architect of the torture archipelago, a dissimulator, concealer, denier, rationalizer, minimizer and pooh-pooher of torture. As a word person, I could have come up with circumlocutions to confuse the media, bureaucratic phrases like "special methods of questioning" and "enhanced interrogation techniques." According to New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt, just figuring out whether to call a given action "harsh" or "brutal" has kept editors busy for years! Or I could have written copy for the CIA. For example, I could have suggested they call putting people in coffinlike boxes full of insects "studio picnics," because studio apartments are small and picnics have bugs, and I could have nicknamed waterboarding "drinking tea with Vice President Cheney," although come to think of it, waterboarding is a euphemism already.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Whitby jet, vulcanite

Ben's and my friend Tove has a great blog, Thread for Thought, about the history of fashion. I was particularly moved and interested by her post about mourning:
Queen Victoria’s obsession with the public mourning of Prince Albert resulted in a great demand for fashionable and affordable black jewelry, and jet became a popular material for jewelry and buttons. It is an incredibly dense, dark mineraloid derived from decaying wood, appropriately enough. It has been imbued with a religious significance too, as it is a traditional material for monks’ rosaries. Queen Victoria sported and popularized Whitby jet, which initially created a boom in the industry but hampered its long term usage as people associated the stone with death. Vulcanite was another material of similar properties commonly used for mourning jewelry.

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