Nightstand Reads: Martha Brockenbrough’s essential books for writers

It’s a little daunting to write a proper introduction here about Martha Brockenbrough. She is the founder of SPOGG, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, as well as National Grammar Day (which received quite a lot of press attention). Her new book, Things That Make Us [Sic], which just came out today, takes a sharp-eyed look at bad grammar in public spaces. People who die a little bit inside when they see a misspelled word or misplace apostrophe will find hope—and humor—here. We’d like to introduce Martha to our readers, and have her share a few of her favorite books about writing and grammar.

My husband said a few weeks back, “You know what I find really endearing about you? The way you leave stacks of books all over the house.”

Translation: You and your book heaps are sort of driving me nuts, but I am too nice to complain. I will take my revenge on you by playing another game of XBox.

My husband is absolutely right, of course. Things have gotten out of hand with me and the reading matter. My shelves are stuffed. The windowsills are probably a fire hazard. There’s hardly room under the bed for dust bunnies to breed, let alone breathe. The books are everywhere.

But in my defense, we live in a crooked house and there’s nothing like a stack of novels to help keep a door propped open.

I’m no librarian, but I’ve organized the stacks somewhat.

In the writing stack
The Elements of Style 
by William Strunk and E.B. White (illustrated by Maira Kalman)
This book will always be one of my favorites, because it was in reading it in eighth grade that I discovered the concept of a writing style. That’s when I started to hone mine, with varying results. “Juvenile!” said my high school English teacher (and honestly, he probably still does, which is why I am working on a novel for teenagers).

I really love the illustrated version by Maira Kalman. Her paintings add a certain moody whimsy to the experience. My own copy of this book is signed, which makes it a double treasure.

On Writing by Stephen King
Honestly, I haven’t read much Stephen King since high school. That was the last time I willingly subjected myself to a scary book. Ever since, life has been plenty scary on its own. But my dad gave me a copy of this he’d picked up at the airport, and I’ll never let it leave my collection. Neither of my parents was ever really thrilled about the idea of my becoming a writer. They would have felt much more certain I’d have a solvent future, free of alcoholism and suicide-by-oven, or whatever demons haunted authors in my parents’ nightmares. When my dad gave me the book, it felt like he was giving my dream his blessing. It’s the same thing the book does for writers. No matter what your style or shortcomings, you’ll find in this book an invitation to the table.

Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott
There are many gleaming gems in this book, but my favorite is the idea of getting just a postage-stamp-sized bit of work done every day. Most people can’t set aside everything to write. We have kids, outside jobs, volunteer commitments and sick hamsters, to name a few distractions. Lamott unlocks the secret to writing so simply. Just a little bit every day. Everyone has time for that, and if you want to be a writer, you’ll do your postage stamp today.

Novel Metamorphosis by Darcy Pattisison
I met Darcy last year at a retreat, and she just dazzled me. This book is for people who have a draft of a novel done, and who want to make it better. She has developed a science for revisions, and for those of us who weren’t born knowing how to write a great novel, Darcy lays some helpful groundwork.

The Elephants of Style by Bill Walsh
Bill is a copy editor at the Washington Post. If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting a newspaper copy editor, well, you’re missing out. Copy editors know the issues of the day. They have no patience for sloppy, flabby writing. And they can tell you without hesitation that Jell-O has a capital J and a capital O, which is preceded by a hyphen (which itself is different from an en-dash and an em-dash). They know so much, and this book (along with Lapsing into a Comma) will help make the professional writer as possible.

Editor’s Note: Martha will give us some fiction suggestions later, right here on Shelf Talk. In the meantime, she will be reading from Things That Make Us [Sic] at the Secret Garden Bookshop on Thursday, October 16, at 7 p.m.

Nightstand Reading: Eric Liu

Editor’s note: Whether he’s interviewing Daniel Schorr at Town Hall, inspiring leadership or talking about patriotism, local author Eric Liu manages to get us thinking—and to get the conversation going. In The True Patriot, a book written in the pamphleteering style of Thomas Paine, Liu and co-author Nick Hanauer offer a lively challenge to look at civic ideals and what it takes to be a modern-day patriot. Liu (who, we should mention, is also president of The Seattle Public Library Board) is the kind of writer who makes you want to know more—including knowing what he’s reading. Here’s a look at Eric Liu’s nightstand reading:

Paradise Lost by John Milton; edited by John Leonard. I read a piece in the New Yorker this summer about Milton and how the politics of his time shaped his literary imagination, and was led to read, for the first time, this epic and convention-shattering poem. For over two months, it has been the last thing I read before bed. Every night I read three or four Continue reading “Nightstand Reading: Eric Liu”

Nightstand Reading: Matt Ruff reads the gamut, from War to Pie.

Editor’s Note: Matt Ruff will be reading from his 2008 PNBA Book Award-winning book Bad Monkeys, freshly released in paperback, at the Ballard Branch Library this Thursday, August 21at 6:30 p.m, in conjunction with Secret Garden Books.  (Matt will also be reading at Queen Anne books on Tuesday, and coming up in October he will be reading from a new work at the Richard Hugo House).
If you haven’t had a chance to read Matt Ruff’s Bad Monkeys yet, do yourself a favor and get it into your To Be Read pile now. It is that wonderful combination of a book that you cannot stand to put down, even though it is actually exploding your head into happy little shards. It is no surprise, then, that Matt has a diversity of interesting reads on his nightstand, and we thank him for offering us a glimpse of what keeps a mind like Matt’s supplied with creative fodder:

In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq by Steven Vincent – Vincent is a former artcritic turned war journalist who was killed in Basra in 2005. This book, published just months before his death, describes his first trip to post-Saddam Iraq. I’m reading it as part of the research for my next novel.

Watchmen by Alan Moore – A highly praised DC Comics series by the author of V for Vendetta. There’s a movie version due out next year which has been generating lots of Internet buzz, so I decided to pick up the collected edition of the original books and Continue reading “Nightstand Reading: Matt Ruff reads the gamut, from War to Pie.”

Nightstand Reading: Artist Margaret Chodos-Irvine dives into teen lit this summer

Editor’s note: We love Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s vivid mixed-media prints and innovative linocuts, which can be found in award-winning children’s books such as the charming Ella Sarah Gets Dressed (a 2004 Caldecott Honor Book) and Buzz (where her collages seem to move across the pages), and in the posters, brochures and book bags that celebrate reading at The Seattle Public Library this summer.  What’s this local artist toting around in the Library book bag that sports her artwork? Here’s a look at Margaret’s own summer reading “program”:

I’m been reading a lot of young adult fiction lately. I kept recommending books to my daughter (To Kill A Mockingbird, A Wrinkle In Time, The Lord of the Rings…) that she would sometimes begrudgingly read, sometimes not. And she kept saying “Mom, you should read this book, it’s really good…”  So I decided to set a proper example and read her recommendations for a change. What better way to find out why my suggestions weren¹t good enough for her, right?

I’m mid-way through The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Enjoying it so far— Continue reading “Nightstand Reading: Artist Margaret Chodos-Irvine dives into teen lit this summer”

Nightstand Reading: Author Garth Stein and a special guest

When we asked Garth Stein to share his nightstand reading, the Seattle author of The Art of Racing in the Rain sent us a photo of a rather intriguing tower of books in his to-read pile. Here are his comments on the next four books he’ll be reading:

Bonk by Mary Roach
It’s got a great title. I heard Mary Roach on NPR and she sounded fascinating.

Flight of the Goose by Lesley Thomas
This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time because of my Alaskan roots. I hope to get to it before the end of the summer!

Fast Guys, Rich Guys, and Idiots: A Racing Odyssey on the Border of Obsession by Sam Moses
I am looking forward to reading this classic racing memoir. Now that I know Sam, I hope I can keep a straight face while hearing his stories!

Angels in America by Tony Kushner
I have an idea for a story and I think there may be something relevant in here. I’ve seen the play, seen the TV movie, now I want to read the play to catch all of Kushner’s writing style….

Editor’s interruption: Okay, it might be corny, but since this fabulous author was being so helpful and sent us a photo and everything, we asked him what Enzo, the canine narrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain, would be reading:

Enzo’s stack (recently read):

Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech
I loved Love That Dog, also by Creech. Hate That Cat continues with the goodness!

Animal Farm by George Orwell
A true classic. Everyone knows that pigs glorify themselves. Perhaps Orwell was, himself, part pig.

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Rousseau’s thesis that we must all sacrifice certain of our liberties for the greater good is very relevant in today’s society.

Song of the Crow by Layne Maheu
A beautiful story told, unfortunately, by a crow. Still, even I can put aside my personal prejudices when needed; this is a special book!

You can catch Garth Stein reading from The Art of Racing in the Rain this fall at the Ballard Branch: Thursday, September 25, 6:30 p.m.