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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


Books by Debra Hamel:

THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


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READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
By Debra Hamel


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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
By Debra Hamel


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TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Debra Hamel


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SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
By Debra Hamel


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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
THE LIBERATION OF THEBES AND OTHER ACTS OF HEROIC TRANSVESTISM
By Debra Hamel


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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
By Debra Hamel


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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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Florey, Kitty Burns: Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog

  Amazon  

3 stars

Kitty Burns Florey hits on a number of topics in her brief exploration of sentence diagramming, Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog. Her reminiscences of parochial school diagramming are hitched up against a thumbnail history of the exercise as well as discussions of Gertrude Stein's over-the-top takes on grammar and punctuation, the limitations of diagramming as an educational tool, and the descriptivist-prescriptivist divide. Florey includes a good many diagrams in the book and a number of notes which, thank the gods, are given in the margins rather than relegated to endnotes.

It would be impossible to overemphasize the shelf appeal of an accessible, diagramming-related book to the likes of me. Like the author, I was taught diagramming in the sixth grade by a nun, and I took to it with glee. I am, if not a pedant, certainly grammatically aware--though demonstrably less knowledgeable than the author, whose discussion of "ain't" was an eye-opener for me: it had never occurred to me that ain't (as a contraction for "am not") is arguably grammatical when used with a first-person singular subject, so that "I'm right, ain't I" is to be preferred to the ungrammatical "I'm right, aren't I?" Whoda thunk it? But the point is, there are few topics that could interest me as immediately as sentence diagramming, and I would have pined for this book had more time passed between my learning of its existence and getting a copy into my trembling hands. So I should have loved Florey's book. I was disappointed to only like it.

Florey doesn't actually provide very much information in the book. Her chapter on the history of diagramming--from the system of balloon diagramming created by S.W. Clark in the mid-19th century to the more familiar linear diagrams of Reed and Kellogg--tells us nothing more than you might find in a decent encyclopedia article. One leaves the chapter wondering, at a minimum, how Reed and Kellogg's method differed from its predecessor, other than aesthetically. Nor should one come to the book expecting to learn the principles of diagramming. You can follow along nicely enough if you are already comfortable with diagramming, if, say, you need no further explanation for a sentence like this: "The gerund gets yet another kink in its line so that it seems to fall clumsily downatairs, which may be appropriate for a verbal noun...." But the book is by no means a primer for the grammatically challenged.

Florey's style is informal, which is fine except that her joviality sometimes feels forced:

"Reed and Kellogg began with a straight line: The expressway on which the sentence's most important elements ran as smoothly as a Jaguar tooling along Route 80."

Also grating are the author's numerous references to George W. Bush, which are distracting and will date the book, at the least, and may alienate some of Florey's audience.

A final and minor complaint. You would expect a title as unusual as Florey's to have some real-life story behind it. This one does, sort of: Florey's sixth-grade nun was indeed a Sister Bernadette who was, we are told in chapter four, "obsessed with dogs." The only other explanation for the title comes at the book's beginning:

"Sister Bernadette: I can still see her, a tiny nun with a sharp pink nose, confidently drawing a dead-straight horizontal line like a highway across the blackboard, flourishing her chalk in the air at the end of it, her veil flipping out behind her as she turned back to the class. "We begin, she said, with a straight line. And then, in her firm and saintly script, she put words on the line, a noun and a verb--probably something like dog barked."

"Something like"? "Probably"? The title's genesis story is wanting, the barking dog ostensibly an arbitrary selection. The book might as well have been called Sister Bernadette's Throbbing Ulcer. I feel a little cheated.

Sister Bernadette is still worth reading by the crowd that thrilled to Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but don't expect to come away with more than a few hours of pleasant diversion.

Comments

1.

I'm so glad to have found a review of this book. I have quoted you and linked to your post on my Top Ten Tuesday for this week. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the book and I'm happy to have found your blog.

2.

Thanks very much, Laura! :-)

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