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Unlearning grammar
September 07, 2018
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For anyone who has done battle with a traditional grammar guide, this book is deliciously heretical. Selwood begins by re-punctuating Shakespeare, then invites you to do the same. His message is simple: forget the rules. Do whatever makes your writing clear. Be creative. Enjoy it. English teachers of a certain sort will not be amused.

The fact is that most people who try to follow the old rules have some degree of punctuation anxiety. This is probably because the average education did not demystify grammar. Most of us left school with fuzzy recollections of split infinitives, hanging participles, and other constructions that seemed as irrelevant as they were incomprehensible.

Selwood’s approach is the opposite. Get to grips with a few basics, he says, avoid the most painful howlers, and relax as you develop confidence and fluency. It’s a tantalising pitch.

Punctuation Without Tears keeps the tone light and practical. After a brief chapter on the purpose of punctuation, followed by another setting out three golden rules, the book devotes a short chapter to each punctuation mark, explaining how it should and should not be used. The examples it gives throughout are a funny and irreverent mix of cartoon princesses and sci-fi/fantasy characters wrestling with life, heavy weaponry and bad attitudes.

The enthusiasm and sense of fun in the book is infectious, and it turns out to be effective. Selwood has tried hard to make it an enjoyable read, and it works.

Overall, this is a powerful little book: it is sure-footed, simple, feisty, funny, and profoundly helpful. A book on punctuation is never going to be as popular as a cracking novel, but, after reading it, you might just have the confidence to write one.

The Independent

MEG, JO, BETH, AMY: THE STORY OF ‘LITTLE WOMEN’ AND WHY IT STILL MATTERS

by Anne Boyd Rioux

In your memory, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women may linger as a charming, occasionally heartbreaking story of four sisters growing up in the years during and after America’s Civil War, guided by a generous, loving mother. But the story of the March girls isn’t so simple, according to author Anne Boyd Rioux. The book is about young women coming of age at a time when a woman’s appearance is valued more than her mind. It doesn’t reflect a perfect family but one on the verge of being torn apart. And if this story is a celebration of the joys of girlhood, Rioux asks, why does it focus on “a girl who doesn’t want to be one at all?” It’s an excellent question, one Rioux considers with intelligence and insight in the book. With impeccable research and genuine affection, she charts the history of the beloved (and sometimes reviled) novel.

THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER
by Shaun Bythell

If you like your bookstores warm and cosy and your booksellers chatty, you might not like Shaun Bythell or his shop. You might, however, like his memoir, which is entertaining and dryly humorous, despite Bythell’s apparent loathing of most humans. In particular, he loathes his customers: those who want to chat; those who hang around for hours but don’t buy anything; those who try to bargain down prices, and — understandably — those who check their phones to see if they can get the books cheaper on Amazon. The ideal customer, he tells us, is the steadfast Mr. Deacon, who “never browses and only ever comes in when he knows exactly what he wants.” Even better, Mr. Deacon never chats. Bythell’s misanthropic memoir covers one year in the life of the bookshop, his used-bookstore in a drafty, leaky stone house in Wigtown, Scotland.

THE HAZARDS OF GOOD FORTUNE
by Seth Greenland

It used to be bad enough that the tabloids downgraded people to types and real life to melodrama. Now social media has compounded the problem, further shredding context and nuance, tempting its users to turn current events into morality plays with whatever good guy/bad guy/victim scenario fits their political formulas. One can easily imagine the outrageous only-in-New-York events chronicled in The Hazards of Good Fortune as the kind of racy and race-inflected scandal that summons wave after wave of incredulous posts and self-righteous tweets. Seth Greenland’s droll, multifaceted page-turner has already been compared in scope and subject matter to Tom Wolfe’s 1987 bestseller, The Bonfire of the Vanities. But Greenland shows far more heart than Wolfe-ian snark in conducting his own grand tour of the upper tier of New York society, set somewhere in the middle of the Obama years.
 

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