The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker (St. Martins, 2015), 361 pages.

TSG Barker

The Scarlet Gospels cover

I’m posting this early (on 27 May) because I’ll be in London, Paris, and Rome the next two weeks. So this is a new record: writing up a book 8 days after it was released (on 19 May). I didn’t mean to do it: it just happened. I was all ready to write about octopuses (not octopi) but that will have to wait. I started reading this book Saturday and I just finished it (see: and people think I read all the time…I pace myself).

Clive Barker is one of the few authors of whom I have read almost every word (note the correct grammatical form). Yes, even the plays. I started with the Books of Blood short story collections in the 1980s and, I have to say, saw that the stories were different right away. They did, and still do, give me nightmares (especially the one where the girl turns the rich guy into a bulldog (don’t ask) and how the people of two towns make themselves into living towers and fight (probably shouldn’t ask about that one either). I loved the Hellraiser movies, and not only because Pinhead reminded me of an old boss I had.

This book combines Pinhead (played in the movies by Barker’s friend from high school in Liverpool, Doug Bradley) and a kind of “psychic detective” from a couple of other Barker stories and books named Harry D’Amour. (Interesting factoid: I grew up a block from a man named Armand D’Amour, who everyone Americanized to pronounce “Armin Day-more.” It was only when I took French that I realized what had happened.)

Speaking of Doug Bradley, I met him in Baltimore at a horror convention in 2004. I was displaying my car with a story about dead people etched into the paint. He was a big smoker so I saw him constantly out in front during his breaks from his photo sessions. I had no idea who he was at first until I realized this was the guy who was charging 60 bucks to have your picture taken with him. He was shorter than I thought he would be, not much taller that I am, and we had some great talks about my horror car (which he pronounced “very cool”) and other stuff. He offered to take a picture with me for free, and I, to my everlasting regret, said no because I felt slimy short-circuiting the conference. By the way, Doug Bradley has a book out about horror and masks and makeup called Behind the Mask of the Horror Actor and everyone should buy a copy and read it.

To create The Scarlet Gospels, Barker had to ignore a lot of plot points that the eight or so Hellraiser movies had made. But Barker didn’t write those, and they were getting a bit desperate in any case (I mean, Pinhead in outer space? Really?). You don’t have to know much about Pinhead and Harry to appreciate this book, but it certainly helps.

The plot of this book is easy to outline. Pinhead the Cenobite, called the “Hell Priest” in this novel, kills a bunch of very adept magicians to claim their magic and challenge Lucifer himself for the Overlord-ship of Hell. Harry and a few close friends have to stop Pinhead, although all they really know is that the Hell Priest has kidnapped one of Harry’s friends and they have to penetrate the bowels of hell (this sometimes seems literal) to rescue Pinhead’s victim.

Barker’s hell is not Dante’s hell. No sinners are roasting on a spit, and what demons there are have problems of their own to worry about. The demonic inhabitants of hell actually seem like “jus’ folks” in a sense: they even have guards and bosses and so on. Even when Pinhead’s revolt threatens the natural order, I imagined a family of demons loading up the HellWagon SUV for a vacation to Hellowstone Park: Pop is trying to get Junior to help pack up the van while Mom is frantically searching for their daughter, who might be dallying in the Chamber of the Unconsumed, drawn by the unending flames.

Somehow, Barker’s visions of mayhem and blood and vomit and other bodily fluids did not seem as unsettling to me this time as they did in the 1980s. Now that my kids are grown and on their own, is the world less threatening and me more secure in my life? Have the horrors of the world, especially in the Middle East, overtaken what even a twisted mind like Barker’s can conjure? Or have I just grown up?

Today, descriptions of barren wastelands and twisted guts leave me kind of cold. How is all this very much different than the scenes we see on the nightly news or on the Internet? Hateful monsters destroying priceless cultural treasures, and people wandering around in a stupor, waiting to be beheaded, not sure what they did to deserve their fate. Perhaps the next drone strike will end their suffering. Horror is not what it used to be.

Barker’s prose is certainly everything it used to be. You can’t read book after book by the same author unless you can follow the rhythm naturally, almost letting the sentences finish themselves in your head before you read them. I can do that with Barker, Pierce Brown, Lincoln and Child, and not many others. Other authors I can read, but with effort, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Some authors I have to abandon, mainly because what I am putting into their story is more than I am getting out of it. Fortunately, the world of reading material is vast. (I just realized I left Stephen Baxter off this list, but I have to say, I read him more for his ideas and themes than for his prose. For me, Baxter can be a compelling read, but not an easy one.)

I think only Barker can write something like this, a back-and-forth dialog concerning two angels of the Lord, Bathraiat and Thakil, contemplating the fall of Hell and the demise of Lucifer (pages 328-329):

“They had a leader. Some rebel. Shite! I don’t remember his name. You know me and names. He was a dickhead and everyone says so. And old Bitch Tits kicked him down here. He started some rebellion.”

“Lucifer?”

“That’s the one. Lucifer. They prayed to Lucifer.”

“Why?”

“Didn’t he build this place?”

“So? Who cares?”

Shortly thereafter, Lucifer wakes from the dead and kills the two angels by “counting them among the dead.” To me, this is classic Barker. Foul mouthed, irascible holy angels, forgetful and irreverent. Then killed by the devil. I loved it.

After devouring The Scarlet Gospels, I can wait for the two remaining volumes of Abarat with a smile on my face.

 

Deep Violence by Joanna Bourke

Deep Violence: Military Violence, War Play, and the Social Life of Weapons by Joanna Bourke (Counterpoint, 2015), 312 pages.

DV Bourke

By some strange alignment of planets, tomorrow is Memorial Day in the United States…not the REAL Memorial Day like when I was a kid, but the 3-day holiday they made it into. So it seems appropriate that I examine this book, a book about how we came to live—especially in the United States—in a state of perpetual war.

I am old enough to remember my father putting out the American flag for Memorial Day…it flew then and on the Fourth of July and Veterans Day. The rest of the year it stayed rolled up in the hall closet (“I know what country I live in,” he told me once). My father had enough of flags and war on Guam and Okinawa (he was nearby when Ernie Pyle was killed). Until the day he died, not only would he never buy a Japanese car, he would never *ride* in a Japanese car. But he worked on the Rockefeller estate with imported Japanese architects to do the stonework for Nelson’s tea house. Remembrance was fine, he thought, but a man’s got to work. After all, the completely militarized societies of Nazi Germany and Tojo’s Japan were what we fought against.

We had troops stationed oversea back then, naturally. In Germany, in Korea, and other places. But my cousin, who was in Korea, told me that the most danger they encountered along the North Korean border was a bar fight or when an irate local husband came looking for a certain marine.

“Remembering the troops” is something we do constantly today, as if they might vanish without incessant reminders of their presence. I suspect some of it has to do with how poorly we treat our veterans once they will not or cannot be of further use.

This is a long preamble to a book essay, but I want to show that the current state of affairs is not normal (historically, a stridently militarized society, besieged by enemies within and without, is the mark of a nervous elite). Bourke knows it too, and although British (the book was published in England in 2014), she navigates the military-industrial-political complex with great authority.

I am not a pacifist, and I have had an article published in Military History magazine. But I do not recognize the country that perpetual war (page 214) has created, either among our leaders or our citizens. And perpetual war has nothing to do with respect for the military. As Bourke points out on page 7, 45% of American adult males were veterans in 1969, after the drafts of WW I, WW II, Korea and Vietnam. Today’s volunteer forces draw recruits from a much smaller pool, with repeated combat tours until a breakdown physically or mentally halts the cycle. There is a sense of “well, they knew what they were signing up for,” but the draft at least made representatives wonder how many of their relatives would be dead or destroyed in a few years. Today, we mainly send the poor to wage our wars, and they seem endless (yes, I mean both).

Today we don’t even call them “soldiers fighting enemy soldiers,” terms which impute valid, but different, motives to our opponents. They are “warfighters” against “insurgents” (page 30) and, in an Orwellian twist, heavily armed ground forces and bombers are called “peace keepers.”

Bourke cites Nurse Vera Brittain (page 39: there is a new movie about her) who became a pacifist when she saw the carnage of WW I, trying to comfort “men without faces, without eyes, without limbs, men almost disemboweled, men with hideous truncated stumps of bodies.” The photo on page 226 is very hard to take, and not for everyone. If we were honest and faced the truth of war, we’d have the color guard at the football games made up of the lame, the halt, and the blind, assisted by amputees and the emotionally shattered.

I do appreciate Bourke’s book for offering a balanced view. She includes long sections presenting the words of Gen. Curtis Lemay, father of strategic bombing (another word for “killing workers and civilians”) and vice presidential candidate with Barry Goldwater in 1964. (Never forget that Lyndon Johnson, who bombed Southeast Asia mercilessly and poured 500,000 troops into Viet Nam, could portray Goldwater and LeMay as out-of-control “war mongers”!)

LeMay pulled no punches. His warriors were not peacekeepers, they were widow-makers and worse. Churchill, knowing that Britain alone could not out-produce Germany with most of Europe pumping out war goods, decided to bomb the factory workers instead of the factories (page 121). Arthur Harris, Marshall of the Royal Air Force, wrote to General Ira Eaker, head of the Army Air Force, and said “You destroy a factory and they rebuild it. In six weeks they are operational again. I kill all the workmen and it takes twenty-one years to provide new ones” (also page 121).

On page 66, LeMay is quoted as saying “To worry about the morality of what we’re doing—Nuts. A solider has to fight. We fought.” LeMay lost no sleep over using the atomic bomb on civilians (page 78). Neither did my father: after being wounded by a sniper on Okinawa and still delivering the ammunition he had volunteered to fetch, earning him a Bronze Star for Valor, he and the 77th Division were in training to hit Japanese beaches when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was part of a BAR fire team and told me that I would not be here except for the atomic bomb.

“No matter how you slice it,” LeMay says on page 118, “you’re going to kill an awful lot of civilians.” On page 5, Bourke points out that in modern wars, such as those fought “to save Afghan women from the Taliban” (!), 90% of those killed are not enemy combatants, but civilians.

Bourke covers another key area: drones and video games. Now we can kill civilians (and, in fairness, a lot of really bad people) from an air-conditioned office.  Video games are a training ground, and the drone controllers can be modeled on PlayStation controllers (page 205). This is the future of perpetual war: the US military had 50 drones in 2000, 6800 in 2009, and many more today (page 151).

Drone carnage is easy to keep at arm’s distance (page 216), unlike bombers pilots who often wondered what the people under their wings were going through (page 118). Drone pilots can feel like “God hurling thunderbolts from afar” (page 219). Isaac Asimov’s robots were forbidden from harming humans. Perpetual war robots exist only to harm humans. Of course the argument is made that the horror of these new weapons shortens war and prevents new conflicts. That same thing was said about gunpowder, dynamite, the machine gun, the atomic bomb, and so on (page 38).

In perpetual war, we somehow imagine that killing people is the best way to make them like us. The point is, Bourke says on page 250, not that a tragedy like 911 should not happen here in the US, but not happen anywhere.

As I write these words, SSgt. Barry Sadler’s Ballad of the Green Berets (the #1 song of 1966, by the way) is playing as part of the excellent 13 CD Next Stop Is Vietnam collection: http://www.amazon.com/Next-Stop-Is-Vietnam-1961-2008/dp/B003EXVU0O. I lost 5 close friends in Vietnam, and I’ve never met anyone who lost more.

In a state of perpetual war, every day is Memorial Day. Think about what you really want Memorial Day to be like.

 

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown, 2015), 617 pages.

TFH Simmons

In the great cycle of these book essays, we’re due for another science fiction book. I have Pierce Brown’s Golden Son ready to go, but for some reason I’m not ready to post that. In the meantime, here is the latest book by Dan Simmons, who is a writer of science fiction (among other things) and has written this book, which is fiction and includes much about science (how’s that for “shaping the question to fit the answer”?). (Someday I will see how many consecutive punctuation marks, or at least non-letters, I can stick at the end of a sentence: that’s four.)

Before I say really nice things about this book, there is a full disclosure to make. Every year that Dan Simmons comes to town, my friend Jacques and I make our way to the Poisoned Pen book store in Scottsdale to the talk and signing for his new book. Jacques is a good friend of Dan’s, and he has even been thanked in the book Black Hills. However, I can be impartial without much effort, because even after 5 years or more, Dan Simmons has no idea who I am. Perhaps he imagines I am Jacques’ driver. But that’s really okay, because I am there for Jacques, not me.

Anyway, about this book… it’s about Sherlock Holmes coming to Washington D.C. with author Henry James to investigate the (suspicious?) death of Clover Adams, wife of write and politically well-connected Henry Adams. But because this is both a mystery (the crime is a done deal, but who did it?) and a thriller (the crime must be prevented, but how to do it?), there is much more going on in the book besides this surface investigation. Also, Clover Adams was one of the “Five Hearts” literary salon meeting at 5 PM in the Adams’ plush mansion on Lafayette Square, opposite the White House. So there is lots of investigation into literature, featuring not only Henry James and Henry Adams, but Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt as well. Roosevelt, who still has books in print today, is an under-appreciated writer who supposedly read a book a day, even while president.

Anyone who has dabbled in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and went “these really aren’t that good, or even consistent” will enjoy Henry James’ analysis of the inconsistencies in those tales, starting on page 121. There’s lots to dislike about these patricians (several dinner parties are described with loving detail, but books of the day that kind of thing), and not much that working folks today can relate to (didn’t these people have jobs?).  Of course, the upper classes have been much the same since the days of ancient Rome—ancient Roman historian and senator Tacitus thought that only about 1000 people in the world really counted, and they were all in Rome.

When I finished the book, I rushed over to the book review web sites to see what other people thought of the wonderful things I had discovered…and found that the wonderful things I discovered were not mentioned at all in the comments I read. It was almost as if these people were reading a different book. How could that be? I have an idea, but I’ll tell you about that later.

Before telling you more, let me give you an example that is going to play a role in what I am going to say.  Most people are at least passingly familiar with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In that work, a group of pilgrims take turns telling each other stories as they walk to Canterbury. Now, suppose I were a modern author writing a book about Chaucer. We know a lot about royal servant Chaucer, who spent a large part of the summer of 1381 hiding from the peasant army stirred up by Wat Tyler, so maybe that’s what this book is about: Chaucer in hiding. (Wat is short for Walter, by the way.) The chapters on Chaucer are narrated by a miller, a wife from Bath, and so on, all characters who tell stories in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This, I think, is a much higher form of storytelling than an author who just made up some characters who tell the readers tales about this mysterious Chaucer fellow.

Now let’s look at what Dan Simmons has done in The Fifth Heart. It’s a book about a salon of five people written in four parts plus an epilogue (giving 5 parts in all). Each of the four main parts has chapter titles in different styles, just like books written by the authors in the real, historical salon.

So essentially we have a book about the great authors of 19th Century America and England written in the style of the great authors of 19th Century America and England.

I’m not sure why reviewers haven’t commented more on this aspect of the book. Or the nice touch on having Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture from the tomb of Clover Adams, whose death Sherlock Holmes in town to look into, on the back of the book’s dust jacket. Nothing calls attention to that fact, and only when you read the description of Clover’s final resting place in the book do you go “Hey, that sounds familiar…”

That’s not to say the book is perfect. There is a puzzling duplex of cat puns on page 57 and page 306 and 307, which could be the sign of poor editing, or there for a reason I have not yet fathomed.  Also, on page 101, Holmes injects heroin and has time to disassemble his syringe and other paraphernalia away before the text says that the drug “hit his system almost at once.” Anyone who has lived near or with police officers knows that injected heroin can hit so fast that addicts are often found with the needle still in the vein (they probably had only enough time to think “that probably wasn’t a great idea…”).

Paha Sapa from Simmons’ book Black Hills shows up at the Chicago World’s Fair White City (page 582) but I do not consider this a flaw. He’s there to convince Sherlock Holmes that he can “sing himself” into existence, and if anyone could do that, Sherlock Holmes could. Readers, I think, like that kind of cross-reference and might come to expect it. Success is a snare few of us struggle very hard to escape, I suspect.

Even so, why are the details I’ve examined here overlooked by reviewers?  I can only surmise, but I think it has to do with the lack of “deep reading” in our culture today. People don’t want to linger over a dense text as they did back then (and even then it varied: Melville’s Moby-Dick was considered a failure, as I mentioned two weeks ago).

No, people today with their e-readers and audio books are at a different level than those who scribble in the margins of their books with wild abandon. Lord Acton supposedly read each of the 60,000 books in his library and annotated many of them. You can see them at Cambridge University, by the way, still with his marginalia.

T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) once wrote to a friend and said essentially, “Well, I had some time to really read today…not an hour here, an hour there, but from dawn to dusk.”

May you all have a day like that once in a while.

The China Mirage by James Bradley

The China Mirage by James Bradley (Little,Brown, 2015), 417 pages

TCM Bradley

I love books like this, the kind that take something you learned in high school (“Mao took over China and chased those others guys to Taiwan or Formosa or whatever…”) and expand on it until you realize that you really knew nothing about it at all. I knew it would be good because I had read Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise about how Teddy Roosevelt more or less gave Asia to Japan because Teddy thought the Western-suit-wearing  Japanese much more enlightened than the dress-wearing, pigtailed, opium-addicted “Chinks.”

The book starts with the opium trade and how way too many East Coast rich-folks families got their money in China in the 1800s thanks to the opium trade. Grown in India, the sale of opium in China (page 17) helped to address the flow of Western wealth to China as Europeans and Americans grew to love tea and silks and other products, while the Chinese mainly shrugged at the goods the “sea barbarians” offered for sale.

Americans, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather Warren Delano (page 19), made their way to the few places in China like Canton where foreigners were allowed to live and trade, relying on local corruption to smuggle opium past the emperor’s guards and sell it to peasants. Once their fortunes were made, $100,000 being the minimum “competence” profit made before age thirty, they returned to American and invested the funds in railroads or other legitimate business ventures. FDR’s granddad had the misfortune to lose his million or so and had to return to the dirty business of the “China trade” to make another million. Fortunately, the Opium Wars (pages 25 and 32) made it safe for outsiders to encourage drug use among the Chinese without worry.

Where Americans traders went, in Africa or Asia, missionaries followed. Most of them were restricted to the enclaves where foreigners lived a Western lifestyle in Western houses and strolled Western streets. Their converts—what few there were—consisted mainly of servants living among them (many of them placed there to keep an eye on the suspicious foreigners).

This set the stage for the China mirage, which is this: missionaries in China, mainly from America (although Lawrence of Arabia’s mom was there as well), sent home dispatches playing up their conversion success and representing everyday Chinese as eager to Westernize/Americanize and trade the Emperor and Mandate of Heaven for modern town-hall democracy. The missionaries did this mainly to raise money, and in this they were spectacularly successful.  But, as Bradley details, the truth was very different.

On page 21, Bradley outlines the way that raw Chinese culture appeared to Americans like Delano. In China, honored guests sat on the host’s left and ate food from bowls with chopsticks as they drank warm wine. Incomprehensible letters ran from up to down and right to left. They put family names first, let servants walk before them instead of trailing, and their compasses pointed south. Perversely, the men wore gowns and the women wore the pants in the family.

However, China’s culture, as mature as any in the world, could match Western culture point-for-point, technology-for-technology, writer-for-writer, artist-for-artist, right down the line. Not many Chinese were going to buy into America’s and Europe’s posture of superiority, not when things like gunpowder and spaghetti and paper had started there and then looped around and returned as great innovations. Especially when their big breakthrough (Christianity) playing up original sin and the need for saving. Most Chinese could not grasp what was sinful about living why a foreigner had to save them (page 40).

The missionaries, instead of converting whole tribes as they did in Africa, had to admit that they had little to no success in China. Reverend Sydenstricker, who went to China with Henry Luce, the father of Time magazine’s founder, admitted he had made only 10 converts in 10 years (page 41).

The book moves on the detail the rise of the “China Lobby” in the United States, a group of well-meaning Americans, many of whom had been born in China of missionary parents, who felt that China just needed one more little thing, such as more Bibles, to convert the whole nation into good members of a democracy and consumers of American goods. A man named Charlie Soong (note the Americanized name) came to America as a laborer and ended up at Duke University, where the young entrepreneur convinced missionaries that it would be more efficient to print the Bibles in China instead of shipping them over from the US (page 87). Most of the money went right into Soong’s pocket.

The bulk of the book follows the Soong family as he and his daughters form alliances and marriages with Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, and even Mao Zedong. One of the great missed chances in history concerns America’s WW II backing of the (barely) Christianized Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife, Soong Mai-Ling, instead of the more well-liked Mao. While Chiang’s “locust army” always needed $100 million more to fight the invading Japanese (money spent futilely chasing Mao), Mao was busy gaining the trust of the peasants (their landlords backed Chiang) and inflicting losses on the Japanese with next to nothing.

Bradley makes another point few authors do: the Japanese did not view the attack on Pearl Harbor as a sneaky surprise. Americans in Chinese service with the “Flying Tigers” had been attacking Japanese for years, according to them, and the oil embargo in late 1941 (done without FDR’s consent) was seen as the last straw. Pearl Harbor was a side show for the real Japanese target: the oil in the Dutch East Indies (page 286). There’s lots more, but I’ve run of room. ..

You know, it’s Mother’s Day (Bradley dedicates this book to him mom), so I look back at how many things my mother told me that I took as gospel as a child. She loved FDR and told me that if he had lived to be 100, the people of American would have voted him president as long as he liked. I’m not sure about that, because Churchill did and they got rid of him quick enough once he had won the war. In any case, I will never forget Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Soong Mai-ling) for two reasons. First, she lived to the age of 105 (1898-2003), and second, my mother thought she was a nasty, evil woman (she brought her own silk sheets to the White House). And my mother told me solemnly that Generalissimo Chiang guy wasn’t any better (Churchill and Truman both called him “General Cash My Check”: page 306 and 336). In fairness, mom considered Mao Zedong (Tse-Tung back then) a dog-eating murderer.

Although the book goes up to the end of the Vietnam War (it used to be Viet Nam, remember?), the bulk of it takes place from about 1900 to the end of World War II. (Oddly, the Boxer Rebellion, when the Chinese tried to drive out the “foreign devils” once and for all, is barely mentioned on two pages: 65 and 93.) The Korean War breaks out on page 346 and Vietnam on 357 (the main narrative ends on page 371).

That said, there are plenty of books on the details of Korea and Vietnam. Bradley’s point is that once Joe McCarthy started asking “Who lost China?” around 1950 and costing Harry Truman any chance at re-election, the die was cast for future. We HAD to stay in Asia! And the “don’t trust China” lobby is still around today.

Between You and Me by Mary Norris

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (Norton, 2015), 228 pages

BYAM Norris

Ah, now, this is the kind of book I like to read between books: short, lively, interesting…at least to those who worry that the people who say “between you and I” will take over the world and use grammar to enslave the rest of us. OK, that’s silly, but to authors and magazine editors like Mary Norris of the New Yorker magazine, grammar and punctuation are the only things that stand between them and unemployment. Of course it’s important to them, but I’m not sure the rest of us lose much sleep when someone says “Just between you and I, this stuff is not that important.”

But it sort of is. I know language evolves, and what I just wrote is a product of the evolution. Not long ago, I would have written “But, in a way, it is.” Now using “in a way” seems to me pedantic, a bit fussy, sort of old-fashioned. Using “sort of” seems to me friendly, informal, and, in a way, contemporary.

I just wrote somewhere else this week that every day we teach people how to treat us. We do this by how we dress, how we talk, and how we write. Our texts and speech reveal a lot about our economic and educational level. In the United States, where we do not have a strict class system established by birth, we get to self-declare our status, but only to the extent that we fit in well within the group.

This book shows how you can move up from the “between you and I” class to the “between you and me” class, and it’s a fun read along the way. (Take that last sentence as less than serious, okay?)

What? How can a book about grammar and punctuation be in any way fun? (Note what I did there: “be sort of fun” just did not seem to strike the right note I was going for there. This is that kind of thing that editors do for authors, except I’m on my own here in these essays.)

Norris makes it fun because, during her exploration of the rules, she works in stories about the editors at the New Yorker and the authors she worked with as she delimits her set of rules about commas, hyphens, and so on. Near the start we meet Lu Burke (page 45), a crusty old editor who brandishes a “comma shaker” (and old cheese shaker from an Italian restaurant) to add commas to sentences to enhance their clarity.  (As a technical writer, where absolute clarity is paramount, commas are an essential, and indispensable, part of my job.)

The New Yorker uses the “Oxford comma” (page 95), which Norris calls the “serial comma” because she doesn’t think Oxford did enough for language to deserve to have their name attached to this comma. (She felt “alienated” on a trip to Oxford.) The New Yorker, it should be noted, in spite of the success of the Oxford dictionary, is a Merriam-Webster dictionary shop, and Norris makes many references to the “Big Red Web” as the go-to reference for the magazine.

The serial comma is part of the book’s emphasis on the magazine’s “close” punctuation usage, which tends to put commas everywhere and anywhere there is even a chance, however slight, of reading the sentence the wrong way. By now, it should be obvious that I am a “close comma” devotee.  On page 101, Norris mentions the sentence “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret…” as a “close comma” example. She points out that writing “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991…” implies that Atwater has died in other years, and of something other than brain cancer.

There are others who use a more “open” style for a number of reasons. One is space: taking the serial commas and close commas out of a huge multi-volume work can save hundreds of pages. But without these commas, you can get some odd meanings. On page 93, Norris offers “We came with the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” Page 94 has “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

I don’t mean to get stuck on commas. Norris has gems in every chapter. She thinks of parentheses, rare in fiction, as “giant commas” (page 103) and commas as “tiny parentheses.” She considers rendering Atwater’s demise as “Before Atwater died (of brain cancer in 1991)…” but rejects the implied whisper over the reverent tone.

She points out how the apostrophe possessive is slowly disappearing (page 152), and how it had been legislated out (in 1906) of place names like Pikes Peak or Harpers Ferry (or Times Square). Only the blue-bloods of New England prevailed with names like Martha’s Vineyard. She has a lot of howlers in this category on page 154: “Taxi’s Only,” “Don’t Judge a Book by It’s Movie,” and the mind-boggling “Toilette’s Are for Customer’s Use.”

Norris has a nice chapter on the correct use of the em dash, the en dash, and the hyphen, which I constantly confuse and drive my editors sort of nuts (or nuts, in a way: take your pick). I like her typesetting software stories about splitting words across lines as “En-gland” (yes, the second line starts with “gland”). I learned that “Moby-Dick” with the hyphen refers to the book itself and that “Moby Dick” without refers to the whale. And that Melville did so poorly with Moby-Dick that he could no longer make a living as a writer and had to take a day job on Wall Street.

This is not to say that everything is cut and dried. Should it be “Writer’s Roundtable” or “Writers’ Roundtable” or “Writers Roundtable”? It’s nice to know that we haven’t done it entirely wrong for more than 15 years. Famous author’s (authors’?) works are filled with “solecisms,” which Norris helpfully defines as “a fancy word for mistake” (page 79). Dickens was fond of putting commas in weird places: “But what principally attracted the attention of Nicholas, was the old gentleman’s eye…” (page 96). This usage seems only to have to do with where Dickens took a breath when reading aloud.

I don’t agree with everything Norris says. She is disdainful of prose authors who mention the “rhythm” of their writing unless they write poetry (page 108), but I think rhythm essential to all prose. She has an entire chapter on curse words and how they should be handled, but got so tied up in knots that I wrote on page 166 that her issues were entering the arena of angelic pin-dancing.

There’s more in the book, a lot more. There are nice bits about pencils, pencil sharpeners (there’s a pencil sharpener museum: no electric ones allowed!), gender pronouns (she’s against the plural “their” to mean the same as the singular “he or she” but considers constructs like “heesh” no better), and the legacy of Lu Burke, the comma shaker lady. It turns out that Lu Burke saved a lot of her salary and died a millionaire, leaving her whole fortune to the Southbury Public Library in Connecticut, fittingly located at 100 Poverty Street. Norris travels to the dedication of the “Lu Burke Circulation Desk” with the comma shaker, and learns that her mentor’s real name was “Lulu.” If there is a better way to end a book—and an essay—on editing with this story, I am not aware of it.