COMPLETE AND UTTER FAILURE

A CELEBRATION OF ALSO-RANS, RUNNERS-UP, NEVER-WERES, AND TOTAL FLOPS

Readers expecting an antic appreciation of laughingstocks through the ages will be justifiably disappointed by this wry, selective, and self-absorbed compilation. Steinberg, a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, offers seriocomic perspectives on would-be winners consigned to history's dustbin by virtue of their second-best or unavailing efforts to reach their objectives. Cases in point range from the unsung mountaineers who stopped short of Everest's peak through Elisha Gray (whose telephone patent application was filed hours after Alexander Graham Bell's); prodigies who outlived their youthful achievements (Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Orson Welles, Thomas Pynchon, Michael Jackson, et al.); and commercial products that proved to be drugs on the market (butane candles, Corfam shoes, the Edsel, SelectaVision, the smokeless cigarette). Covered as well are impossible dreams like cold fusion and perpetual-motion machines, as well as the 1993 National Spelling Bee, which produced nearly 9 million losers. While combing the Global Village's archives for evidence of ill-fated institutions and individuals, the 34-year-old author gives himself almost equal time. Indeed, Steinberg's consciously rueful accounts of his own life and career amount to a stealth autobiography. In certain instances (e.g., when he recalls climbing the television tower of the Windy City's John Hancock Building on assignment for his newspaper), the personal recollections afford a resonant point of reference for briefings on the hapless ones who could not make it up some slippery slope or other. On balance, unfortunately, the author's inch-deep reflections on his own experiences do precious little to complement, let alone illuminate, discursive takes on the forgotten strivers whose setbacks have helped define success. Droll rather than hilarious, and more elegiac than celebratory: a dispensable example of vaulting ambition that o'erleaps itself. (First serial to Granta; Quality Paperback Book Club selection)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1994

ISBN: 0-385-47291-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1994

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Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis...

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Privately published by Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and revised by his student E. B. White in 1959, that "little book" is back again with more White updatings.

Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis (whoops — "A bankrupt expression") a unique guide (which means "without like or equal").

Pub Date: May 15, 1972

ISBN: 0205632645

Page Count: 105

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1972

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Analyzing his craft, a careful craftsman urges with Thoreauvian conviction that writers should simplify, simplify, simplify.

SEVERAL SHORT SENTENCES ABOUT WRITING

New York Times columnist and editorial board member delivers a slim book for aspiring writers, offering saws and sense, wisdom and waggery, biases and biting sarcasm.

Klinkenborg (Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, 2006), who’s taught for decades, endeavors to keep things simple in his prose, and he urges other writers to do the same. (Note: He despises abuses of the word as, as he continually reminds readers.) In the early sections, the author ignores traditional paragraphing so that the text resembles a long free-verse poem. He urges readers to use short, clear sentences and to make sure each one is healthy before moving on; notes that it’s acceptable to start sentences with and and but; sees benefits in diagramming sentences; stresses that all writing is revision; periodically blasts the formulaic writing that many (most?) students learn in school; argues that knowing where you’re headed before you begin might be good for a vacation, but not for a piece of writing; and believes that writers must trust readers more, and trust themselves. Most of Klinkenborg’s advice is neither radical nor especially profound (“Turn to the poets. / Learn from them”), and the text suffers from a corrosive fallacy: that if his strategies work for him they will work for all. The final fifth of the text includes some passages from writers he admires (McPhee, Oates, Cheever) and some of his students’ awkward sentences, which he treats analytically but sometimes with a surprising sarcasm that veers near meanness. He includes examples of students’ dangling modifiers, malapropisms, errors of pronoun agreement, wordiness and other mistakes.

Analyzing his craft, a careful craftsman urges with Thoreauvian conviction that writers should simplify, simplify, simplify.

Pub Date: Aug. 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-26634-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2012

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