Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Is that a rhetorical question I see before me?

Here I've probably been writing polyptotons much of my adult life and never knew it. And would not have known had I not read The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase by Mark Forsyth.

Forsyth is the creator of The Inky Fool, a blog around words, phrases, grammar, rhetoric, and prose. He attended Winchester College in Winchester, Hampshire, England and studied English language and literature at Lincoln College, Oxford University. His earlier books—both worth perusing—are Etymologicon, "the meanings and derivations of well-known words and phrases," and Horologicon, "weird words for familiar situations."

The Elements of Eloquence concerns itself with the figures of rhetoric, "which are the techniques for making a single phrase striking and memorable just by altering the wording." Most chapters are short, an explanation of the rhetorical element with examples.

For example, a polyptoton is "the repeated use of one word as different parts of speech or in different grammatical forms." To demonstrate, Forsyth explicates: "Please Please Me is a classic case of polyptoton. The first please is the interjection, as in 'Please mind the gap.' The second please is a ver meaning to give pleasure, as in 'This pleases me.' Same word: two different parts of speech." Shakespeare did it all the time.

The 39 chapters cover everything from Alliteration to Zeugma with stops along the way at Anaphor, Anthesis, Merism, Synaesthesia, Aposiopesis, Hyperbation, Diacope, Metonymy and Synecdoche, and more. And more. And more. (Which is an example of Epizeuxis.)

I am afraid that by listing these elements by names you're never going to remember (except maybe Alliteration, Rhetorical Questions, Paradox, and Hyperbole), I am misrepresenting the book. Making it sound academic and dull. Au contraire!

Forsyth is clear, informative, engaging, and fun. The examples are apt and useful. It's a book serious writers should look into every year or so to recall just what Isocolon is and how to use it in their own work. And for word lovers, The Elements of Eloquence is a treasure. Not to mention a hoot. Which is an example of something else, but I'm too lazy to look it up.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Bones of the Earth: Corruption in high places

Bones of the Earth is Eliot Pattison's tenth Inspector Shan Tao Yun mystery, the second this blog has reviewed. I reviewed first in the series, Skeleton God about two years ago.

Inspector Shan is Chinese, but he was too diligent and honest for his own good in a Beijing investigation and ended up in a work camp in Tibet where he added Tibetan to his native Mandarin Chinese and English. Over the course of the series, Shan has gained the protection and grudging respect of Colonel Tan, the Chinese Army officer who essentially rules Tibet. As a result, Shan has not only been released from the gulag, but been appointed the constable of a backwater village.

Bones of the Earth gets underway when Shan is required to witness the execution of a corrupt Tibetan   engineer. But was it an execution or was it judicial murder? The dead man had been working on the Five Claws Dam, a huge hydroelectric project in Colonel Tan's territory. When something does not seem right and Shan looks at the case file, it's obvious to an experienced investigator that the dead man was framed. And Tan, concerned that something he does not control is being built in his fief, not to mention a dead man found in a train car carrying military material, appoints Shan Special Inspector  to inspect matters.

It becomes clear almost immediately that the Five Claws project is problematic. The valley the dam's water will flood is sacred to Tibetan Buddhism. An American religious archeologist and her Chinese professor have died in a dodgy car accident. The project is destroying a couple thousand years of Tibetan history--and the site's geology is not ideal for a dam anyway. What's going on?

Shan has to figure that out while dealing with the Five Claws project director and his assistant, with the Public Security Bureau (the police), with the Bureau of Religious Affairs (charged with protecting indigenous religious artifacts), with the People's Liberation Army, with the 404th People's Construction Brigade (Shan's former prison unit and currently his son Ko's), with Tibetan patriots, and more and more. Shan has Colonel Tan's support, but given all the currents and cross currents in his world, that may not be enough to bring villains to justice.

Pattison says he first traveled to China less than a month after relations were normalized between Washington and Beijing. He worked as a lawyer helping companies understand how to invest there. "My work became a platform for me to meet people at all ranks in the government, from ministers on down, as well as a chance to mingle in the streets of cities and towns throughout China and traditional Tibet."

He says Shan became an amalgam of many people he met, "people who have endured, preserving traditions, family, and integrity despite tremendous, sometimes violent, pressures to abandon them. These include professors sent to prison for possessing Western literature, officials whose lives were ruined because they declined to be cowed by the Communist Party, herders who were forced into factory jobs, then eventually, often illegally, found ways to return to their beloved pastures, and, of course, monks who survived incredible adversity to maintain their faith and identity."

Pattison probably cannot return to China—or Tibet—given his descriptions of the Chinese depredations. Here, from Bones of the Earth, is Shan regarding a cache of illegal texts: "Tibetan books were all hand-printed, their carved wooden printing plates carefully guarded and treasured by generations of monks. Religious Affairs had not only destroyed millions of such books but also scores of thousands of printing plates, making bonfires of the often centuries-old carvings, which meant that there were probably books on Tserung's shelves that were the only one of their kind surviving, never to be printed again . . ."

One pleasure of Bones of the Earth is the incidental information the book conveys about Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism, and the texture of daily life. But the main pleasure is to follow Shan as he tries to maintain his own integrity in a broken, corrupt, and dangerous world.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Read "Early Work" for the language, not the story

Andrew Martin's novel Early Work was a New York Times "Notable Book of 2018": "This marvelous debut novel, about a male writer's romantic entanglements, is like a restaurant dish that presents multiple preparations of a vegetable on the same plate—'beets, three ways'—to capture its essence. Early Work is books, three ways."

The narrator, Peter, an MFA graduate in his early 30s, has followed Julia his girlfriend of five years to Charlottesville where she is attending the University of Virginia's medical school. They'd met as undergraduates at Columbia, and Martin's description of her is a nice example of his writing and an illustration of the narrator's perceptions and attitudes:

". . . she was brilliant, the smartest person in the class, the smartest person I'd met at school, the smartest person I'd met. She was five foot nothing but looked taller because of her long neck and excellent posture. Under that neck, she was all breasts and hips—there was no room for anything else. She had long, curly blond hair, colored, I learned later, a few shades lighter than it was naturally, and defiantly puffy cheeks that went from a default rosy pink to bright red when she was even mildly embarrassed or drunk. She sang in an early music group, despite the fact that she was a half-Jewish atheist. She was in it for the tunes."

Peter and Julia have rented a house in Virginia, acquired a dog, and Peter has found a job as an adjunct writing instructor in a community college with an extra gig, teaching a class in a woman's prison. They have a companionable sex life, watch television, go to the movies, live almost like young (childless) marrieds. Julia works six days a week; Peter tries half-heartedly to write.

In Chapter 1 they go to a party at the gigantic house in horse country of a recent acquaintance where on page 4 he meets Leslie: "In that first long look couldn't help but notice that she didn't seem to belong in her delicate flowered sundress, that her strong, tanned arms and shoulders were positively bursting out of it . . . She looked like a wild creature that had been hastily and not entirely consensually bundled into something approximating midsummer southern chic." On page 93 he and Leslie finally have idyllic, romantic sex.

With the casual sex, the drinking, the vaping of pot, the irony, the knowingness, I suspect Early Work is a faithful picture of a certain slice of young America and their attitude toward life: " . . . the gaping maw of the future suddenly [was] before me. I spent so much time on the daily logistics of just staying alive that I often went weeks without remembering that I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I knew, because I'd been told, that passivity was not a quality to aspire to. But I thought it was possible that there was some secret nobility, a logic, in letting the tides of life just knock one around, in keeping the psychic ledger balanced."

I've quoted so much of the text because Martin's sentences, paragraphs, and dialogue (take my word on the dialogue) are so apt—intelligent, astute,  clever. The novel held my interest all the way through and I enthusiastically recommend it for the language and perceptions. The story, not so much: boy cheats on his long-time girlfriend, takes up with a provocative if vexing woman, and follows her to Montana. One could read Early Work as the narrator's 240-page justification for his actions, actions that many readers will find inexcusable anyway.

I was also struck by the fact that Julia is the only character in the novel who seems to have a goal or a direction in life. She wants to be a doctor and, from what we're given, we believe she will become one even if it means graduating with a mountain of debt. Peter, as quoted above, has no idea what to do with his life other than drink, get stoned, have sex. Leslie, like Peter, is an author manqué, although by the end of the book, Martin hints that Leslie in Montana may actually be able to publish something. Conceivably, it's the book we've just read.