I recently read Extra Innings by Doris Grumbach. This is the second of five memoirs that she’s published (though I found an article in The American Scholar that included an essay, “The View from 90” by Grumbach, which noted that the essay is part of a larger memoir, Downhill Almost All the Way, so hopefully the future holds at least one more memoir from this lovely, occasionally irascible woman).
For some reason I did not bother to read these in order, which is often a liability with memoirs. If I remember correctly, it is because I first stumbled upon her book Fifty Days of Solitude which I absolutely loved. I then read Life in a Day, which I also loved, and I’m not sure where in there I read Coming into the End Zone, which was her first memoir.
Extra Innings follows up two years later, and a bit of the book is about the reviews and responses to her first memoir. The overwhelming response that she noted was reviewers calling her grumpy or cranky, suggesting that perhaps she was not growing old as gracefully (or thankfully) as she should. I was surprised, because I didn’t remember having that feeling at all after reading any of her books. Certainly she’s not all chipper and spice; she’s direct and to the point, and calls shit shit (though not in such a vulgar manner). And she has a fine, sardonic sense of humor. I loved where relatively early in Extra Innings, a friend writes to say that she went to a bookstore to get her (previous) memoir, Coming into the End Zone, which they had in stock but couldn’t find on the nonfiction shelf. Her friend finally found it in the Sports section. A friend from New York sent her a postcard: “Loved your football book.” Grumbach muses:
There is a lesson in all this. Mary McCarthy once told me she was very good at naming books, as indeed she was: she provided me with the name for the biography I wrote of her, The Company She Kept, to echo the title of her own book, The Company She Keeps. On the contrary, I have a genius for misnaming books. Chamber Music [a novel] found itself on the Music shelves of bookstores, The Missing Person, a novel about Hollywood in the silent days, ended up among the Mysteries, and now there is my new football book. . . .”
This made me laugh out loud.
Another thing I love about Doris Grumbach: She loves words. Reading the recommendations in a book, Plain Words, first published in 1954, she notes that one is advised to use ‘get’ or ‘buy’ or ‘win’ rather than ‘acquire’; ‘rich’ rather than ‘affluent’; and ‘near’ rather than ‘adjacent.’ I couldn’t disagree more! For one thing, there is more at stake here than plainness, there is detail and accuracy, the conveyance of information. I have two neighbors adjacent to my house, but I would call at least 10 additional houses ‘near.’ The two words convey different information. Plainness is not a virtue if you lose detail and depth. Grumbach is not convinced that plain words are the answer, as you can tell in her writing—rich and diverse, with many words that call for a dictionary at hand.
Also in the world of words, later in the book she makes note of mistaken definitions—words that you thought you knew the meaning of, and then find out they mean something completely different. (I find this experience both embarrassing and exhilarating.) Two examples she gives: ‘pericope’ (which she thought was a variation of a word for a sea instrument, but instead it is an extract or section from a book); and ‘alewife,’ which she knew was a woman who ran a pub, but it is also a type of fish.
I have similar word experiences as I expect we all do. I always think ‘laconic’ means slow and/or lazy; lackadaisical. A laconic speech would be a slow,
meandering one. Wrong! Laconic means brief, concise, terse, or short. The exact opposite! And I always think ‘limpid’ means limp and having no depth, but in fact it means perfectly clear or transparent. I recently found out that ‘sartorial’ has nothing to do with goats or celebrations involving wine, but refers to tailors and clothing.
And this is why I loved Extra Innings. Grumbach always sends me down some garden path or another.
Any other examples of mistaken definitions out there?