Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences

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The Millions Top Ten: August 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - Inherent Vice 1 month 2. 5. Zeitoun 2 months 3. 4. The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker 6 months 4. 2. Infinite Jest 6 months 5. 6. Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste 6 months 6. (tie) 7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 6 months 6. (tie) - The Skating Rink 1 month 8. 8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 2 months 9. 10. Netherland 2 months 10. 9. Felonious Jazz 3 months Thomas Pynchon staged an impressive debut in August, hitting number one in The Millions Top Ten as Inherent Vice hit shelves. Garth, our resident Pynchon expert, shared his thoughts on the post-modern detective story just this week. Also debuting on our list in August is yet another title from Roberto Bolaño. Out of the gate, The Skating Rink is looking less like a footnote in Bolaño's prolific career and more like another Bolaño masterpiece, receiving impressive notices from the likes of Wyatt Mason in The New York Times (a "short, exquisite novel") and Scott Esposito in The Quarterly Conversation ("well worth your time"). The book was also on our most recent "Most Anticipated Books" list. Graduating to our Hall of Fame (after being on our list for 6+ months) are two books that have been surprise Millions favorites. Kitty Burns Florey's Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences was the jumping off point for a grammar rodeo that Garth put on analyzing a snippet of a speech by President Obama. The upshot? A Venn diagram of Millions readers and grammar lovers would show quite a lot of overlap, I now suspect. Also newly honored in our Hall of Fame is prizewinner Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which inspired Edan to pen her much discussed "Mom Book" essay. Other notable action: Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, recently reviewed around here and generally getting outstanding notices, shot to the number two spot in its second month on the list. Next month should be quite interesting as we're poised to have four titles join the Hall of Fame, freeing up room for lots of newcomers. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2009 – And Introducing the Hall of Fame

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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. This month we're also introducing our Hall of Fame. Any book that's been on our list for six months graduates to the Hall of Fame both to designate those books as all-time favorites of Millions readers and to make room for new books on our list. Our Hall of Fame begins with two inaugural inductees. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences 6 months 2. 5. Infinite Jest 5 months 3. 3. Olive Kitteridge 6 months 4. 6. The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker 5 months 5. - Zeitoun 1 month 6. 4. Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste 5 months 7. 7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 5 months 8. - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 1 month 9. 10. (tie) Felonious Jazz 3 months 10. - Netherland 2 months Graduating from our list to our Hall of Fame are Roberto Bolaño's 2666 and Elaine Dundy's Dud Avocado, two very worthy books to inaugurate this new feature. Also disappearing from the list are Bolaño's The Savage Detectives and Donald Ray Pollock's Knockemstiff. Joining our list for the first time is Dave Eggers' new book Zeitoun, an immigrant's story in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. The book was recently featured on our "Most Anticipated" list. Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is our other debut. The Swedish writer's series of posthumously published mysteries have gained quite a following in the States. The book's only appearance on The Millions was to kick off a Book Question piece about "closed-room mysteries." Millions readers, if you've read Larsson, let us know what you think. Meanwhile, Joseph O'Neill returns to our list after appearing on our initial top-ten list at the beginning of the year and then getting bumped off. Maybe President Obama's mention of the book a few months back is continuing to generate sales. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2009

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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for June, the list is also in our sidebar.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences5 months2.2.26666 months3.4.Olive Kitteridge5 months4.6.Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste4 months5.7.Infinite Jest4 months6.3.The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker4 months7.10.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao4 months8.5.The Dud Avocado6 months9.8.Knockemstiff4 months10. (tie)9.Felonious Jazz2 months10. (tie)-The Savage Detectives2 monthsAs summer set in, the titles on our list stayed mostly static. Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives returns to the list. Meanwhile, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is seeing some interest, probably from folks wanting to participate in Infinite Summer, a TMN sponsored group read of the book. Junot Díaz's Oscar Wao may be getting a boost from its inclusion in the higher reaches of our Prizewinners list last month. Finally, Olive Kitteridge continues to be a favorite among Millions readers, and Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog is still at the top thanks to the enduring interest in Garth's essay on the grammatical proclivities of our current president. Look for some changes to the list in the coming months as an impressive slate of new titles hits bookstores.Have you been reading any of the books on our Top Ten list? Let us know what you think of them.See also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for May, and we update the list in our sidebar each month.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences4 months2.2.26665 months3.3.The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker3 months4.5.Olive Kitteridge4 months5.6.The Dud Avocado5 months6.4.Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste3 months7.-Infinite Jest3 months8.7.Knockemstiff3 months9.-Felonious Jazz1 month10.-The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao3 monthsWe had one new arrival on our list for May and two titles that returned. Readers were curious enough to try out Bryan Gilmer's Felonious Jazz after he wrote about his experiments with pricing the ebook version of the novel. Returning to our list after a one month hiatus are two classics of contemporary literature, Infinite Jest and The Brief Wondrous Live of Oscar Wao. Departing from our list are Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, The Lazarus Project, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and The Savage Detectives.Also notable is the continued strength of Olive Kitteridge, which appears to have many fans among Millions readers. If you've been reading any of the books mentioned above, we'd love to hear about it in the comments.See also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for April, and we'll be updating the list in our sidebar each month.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences3 months2.2.26664 months3.3.The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker2 months4.4.Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste2 months5.5.Olive Kitteridge3 months6.7. (tie)The Dud Avocado4 months7.7. (tie)Knockemstiff2 months8.-Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned1 month9.9.A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again4 months10. (tie)-The Savage Detectives2 months10. (tie)-The Lazarus Project1 monthWe have two debuts on our list this month. Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project and Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Max wrote about the former in connection with his Tournament of Books judging duties in March and wrote up the latter late last month. Anne also wrote about Lazarus late last year.Meanwhile, Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives returns to the list after initially appearing on our inaugural list and then disappearing.The top-five books in April remained unchanged from March, with Sister Bernadette still putting in a strong showing on the continued popularity of Garth's Presidential sentence diagramming post.Disappearing from the list this month are two standout works of contemporary fiction, Infinite Jest and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.Let us know if you've been reading any of our "top ten" books. We'd love to hear about it.See also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2009

Time again for another installment of one of our newer features, The Millions Top Ten. Check out the original introduction for an explanation of how it works. The new list:ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences2 months2.2.26663 months3.-The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker1 month4.-Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste1 month5.4.Olive Kitteridge2 months6.3.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao3 months7. (tie)-Knockemstiff1 month7. (tie)7.The Dud Avocado3 months9.8. (tie)A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again3 months10.5.Infinte Jest3 monthsWe have three debuts on our list this month.The Rejection Collection is a book edited by New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee that, as its title suggests, collects cartoons that didn't quite make it into the New Yorker. And it's not that these cartoons weren't good enough to get in, it's that they were just a little "off," too weird or even off-color to grace the magazine's hallowed pages. We wrote about the book when it came out in 2006, and we also wrote about its sequel, The Rejection Collection Vol. 2: The Cream of the Crap when it appeared in 2007.Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is another quirky addition to the top 10. It's a part of the 33 1/3 series of books about songs. Carl Wilson's entry, about a Celine Dion song, was singled out by Dan Kois in his Year in Reading post in December. Reading the book, Kois said, "was to be both inspired and filled with despair."Finally, we also add Donald Ray Pollack's collection Knockemstiff, newly out in paperback. Knockemstiff was another Year in Reading selection. Kyle Minor described the book as "Eighteen wild and wooly stories from southern Ohio, in which a lifetime's experience is distilled to nine or twelve pages of the most thrilling sentences I've ever read." And he compared it to Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son.Meanwhile, sentence diagramming tome Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog remains at the top thanks to the enduring quality of Garth's recent post parsing President Obama's sentences.Dropping from the list are Susan Sontag's Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle, and J.K. Rowling's work of Potter lore The Tales of Beedle the Bard.See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2009

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Time again for another installment of one of our newer features, The Millions Top Ten. Check out last month's introduction for an explanation of how it works. The new list:ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.-Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences1 month2.1.26662 months3.2.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2 months4.-Olive Kitteridge1 month5.3.Infinte Jest2 months6.-Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-19631 month7.4.The Dud Avocado2 months8. (tie)5.The White Boy Shuffle2 months8. (tie)6.A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again2 months10.8.The Tales of Beedle the Bard2 monthsDebuting on the list this month in the top spot is Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog, fueled by a huge amount of interest in Garth's post diagramming one of the president's sentences. With that post still quite popular, don't be surprised if this quirky title stays on our list for quite some time.Another debut is Susan Sontag's Journals and Notebooks. This collection of writing from Sontag's younger years was highlighted in a recent post by Anne that got some attention.Also new on the list is Elizabeth Strout's collection Olive Kitteridge, a National Book Critics Circle finalist and a Year in Reading pick from Manil Suri. Those two mentions were quite brief, however, and the recent interest in the book by Millions readers intrigues us. If you've read Kitteridge, let us know what you thought of it in the comments.Finally, dropping off the list this month are The Savage Detectives, The Northern Clemency, and Netherland.See Also: Last month's list

Diagramming the Obama Sentence

In a Slate piece published back in the fall, Kitty Burns Florey took on the unenviable task of diagramming the utterances of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Florey, the author of Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog, clearly has a unusual predilection for sentence diagramming (which I'm pretty sure the Army Field Manual prohibits as a form of torture.) Nonetheless, her project was more journalistic than aesthetic; she suggested that diagramming a sentence "provides insight into the mind of its perpetrator."In honor of Presidents Day, I thought I'd return to the "lost art" of diagramming - last practiced (by me) in the Seventh Grade classroom of Mrs. Brenda Wooten - to see what I could learn about the mind of President Barack Obama. I selected a representative, and widely quoted, sentence from last week's primetime press conference. The topic was the malfeasance of Bush Administration officials. Obama told Huffington Post blogger Sam Stein this:The basic lucidity of this response, and its analytical ambition (this is the quality Obama critics, and some fans, call "professorial"), may be clearer in the transcript. (With apologies to the HuffPo, I've turned the period between "citizen" and "but" to a comma; Obama's answer is a single, complete sentence, rather than a complete sentence plus a fragment):My view is also that nobody's above the law, and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.The diagram, though, offers several insights. First, the elegant balance of the central construction (My view is that x, and that y, but also that z) shows that Obama has a good memory for where he's been, grammatically, and a strong sense of where he's going. His tripartite analysis of the problem is clearly reflected in the structure of the sentence, and thus in the three main branches of the diagram. (Turn it on its side and it could be a mobile.) The third "that" - thrown in 29 words into a 43-word sentence - creates three parallel predicate nouns. And then there's a little parallel flourish at the end: "I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back."Nothing feels tacked on; the "ums" and "ahs" Obama sometimes inserts into his speeches are not meant to buy time to think about substance, or to long for a teleprompter (sorry, conservative bloggers), but to make sure his long sentences stay on solid grammatical terrain. At the same time, Obama's confidence in the basic architecture of his sentences allows him to throw in some syntactically varied riffs and qualifiers: an absolute phrase here, a correlative conjunction or comparative adjective there.By contrast with the syntax, the diction is quite straightforward, which may account for why the majority of Americans, unlike their pundit overlords, don't seem to feel that Obama is talking down to them. The verbs here are all "to be" verbs, given weight by participles like "prosecuted" and "interested," and by the muscular commonplaces, "above the law," "looking forward" and "looking back." The only superfluous adjective is "clear," which sounds positively Bush-like, even as it serves to qualify the clause it's attached to. Even more remarkable: by virtue of the third "that," this is a complex sentence, but not a compound one. Like "I'm the decider," it has a single, copulative predicate.This may be the essential Obama gift: making complexity and caution sound bold and active, even masculine... or rather, it may be one facet of a larger gift: what Zadie Smith calls "having more than one voice in your ear." Notice the canny way that the sentence above turns on the fulcrum of what may be Obama's favorite word: "but." What appears to be a hard line - "My view is... that nobody is above the law" - turns out to have been a qualifier for a vaguer but more inspiring motto: "I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back." The most controversial part of the sentence - "people should be prosecuted" - gets tucked away, almost parenthetically, in the middle.It is possible - mistaken, I think, but certainly possible - to dismiss this sentence as a platitudinous non-answer, and if comedians ever overcome their Obama anxiety, this may be his Achilles heel: "The beef, assuming it's in a port wine reduction, sounds, uh, amazing, but on the other hand, given that the chicken is, ah, locally grown, I'd be eager to try it." But to underrate the subtlety and appeal of Obama the communicator is to be out of touch with Americans' hunger to be addressed as adults. Indeed, after "You're with us or you're against us" and "Putin rears his head," such thoughtfulness seems positively worth celebrating.
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