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in brief

‘Animal Madness,’ ‘Bad English,’ ‘The Polygamous Wives Writing Club,’ ‘Beloved Strangers’

BAD ENGLISH: A History of Linguistic Aggravation

By Ammon Shea

Perigee, 272 pp., $24

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Writing about grammar is dangerous. As Ammon Shea recounts, every time he spoke publicly about dictionaries (the subject of his previous book), he received “letters from concerned citizens who felt I was contributing to the decline of the English language.” The experience sparked a new project, one that catalogs and reclaims the words, phrases, and syntactical maneuvers that most upset the sort of people who worry about the decline of the English language.

For every hated word or usage, Shea chronicles a complicating history of its previous acceptance. Those upset about the muddling of “disinterested” and “uninterested” may find themselves calmed to learn that the words have traded meanings several times over the centuries. Writers from Thackeray to Brontë to Orwell prove his point, Shea argues; good writing is clear and elegant, despite — or even because — it breaks the rules at times. For those who still fret over semantic shifts, Shea counsels calm: “Relax. English is not dying. It is behaving exactly as it should, which is to say it is changing.”

ANIMAL MADNESS: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves

By Laurel Braitman

Simon and Schuster,

384 pp., $28

“Humans aren’t the only animals to suffer from emotional thunderstorms,” observes Laurel Braitman, who found herself facing just such a tempest when her emotionally disturbed dog jumped from her fourth-floor apartment; he survived. It was Oliver — a Bernese mountain dog with crippling anxiety — whose plight inspired Braitman’s inquiry into animal mental health. Along the way, she introduces rambunctious young elephants, pugnacious bonobos, onanistic dolphins, and the Franklin Park Zoo’s escape artist, Little Joe.

Charming as the sketches of individual animals can be, the book is at its best in plumbing the history of how we humans have understood the emotional and mental lives of other animals. From Darwin, who wrote eloquently about his dog’s facial expressions, to mid-20th-century behaviorists who disdained anthropomorphism, scholars have argued about the capacities of animal minds, a process Braitman compares to “holding up a mirror to the history of human mental illness.”

Scientists exploited cross-species similarities when they performed experimental lobotomies on apes and dosed rats with psychiatric drugs; years later, a rising number of pets have their own Prozac prescriptions. Medication aside, it’s clear that what soothes troubled animals — patience, sympathy, consistency — helps humans, too. After all, as a Thai monk who ministers to elephants tells Braitman, “In order to understand other animals, first you have to understand yourself.”

THE POLYGAMOUS WIVES WRITING CLUB: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Woman

By Paula Kelly Harline

Oxford University, 256 pp., $29.95

The political and religious history of plural marriage is well known; less fully explored, according to Paula Kelly Harline, is the lived experience of polygamy from the point of view of the wives themselves. Harline, who teaches at Brigham Young University, brings an extraordinary blend of scholarship and empathy to the letters and diaries of nearly 30 such women.

Some of the scenarios, tales of thwarted love, long-nurtured envy, or hard-won loyalty, would not be out of place in an Alice Munro short story. Many of the wives Harline profiles mourned the lack of monogamous marriage; they felt lonely and hurt when displaced by a new wife. For those forced to share a house with fellow wives, life could be excruciating; “it was almost more than I could endure,” one wrote. But others, especially those who had their own homes, thrived. One wife, Ellis Shipp, left Utah at 28, leaving her sister wives to care for her three children, so she could attend medical school in Philadelphia. These women’s writings surprise and challenge us, as we watch them grapple with their fervent wish to please God and their skepticism about the role they were forced to play.

BELOVED STRANGERS: A Memoir

By Maria Chaudhuri

Bloomsbury, 208 pp., $26

“The story is never as simple as the plot,” writes Maria Chaudhuri in her debut memoir. Her own book’s plot is deceptively simple: girlhood in Bangladesh, college days in the United States, an adult life trying to knit together two cultures and places. But Chaudhuri’s story is much more intricate, a tapestry of love and shame, bound by her mother’s fears and her father’s sadness, her own intense curiosity and the certainty that she will be punished for it.

As she gains the courage to ask questions, Chaudhuri learns the stories of her female ancestors — among them, her great-grandmother, married at 13 and widowed at 17 — and understands a painful inheritance. “I came from a world where apologies were a way of life,” she writes; but there was little in the way of forgiveness or absolution. The brilliance of this big-hearted book is in its acceptance, clear-eyed but without bitterness, of all the sad tales that make up her own.

Kate Tuttle can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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