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'Comma Queen' creates fun reading

“Toe-may-toe ... toe-mah-toe ... Poe-tay-toe ... Poe-tah-toe. Let’s call the whole thing off.”

Those are the lyrics of a popular song from yesteryear.

“Let’s call the whole thing ... confusing” is how Mary Norris would have written the lyrics. Norris is a 30-year veteran copy editor for “The New Yorker” magazine. Her recently published book “Between You & Me — Confessions of a Comma Queen,” (not to be read as coma queen) explores the trials and tribulations of punctuation and grammar that constantly plague writers of all genres.

This comedic book’s chapter titles include: “Spelling is for Weirdos,” “Comma, Comma, Comma, Chameleon,” “A Dash, a Semicolon and a Colon Walk into a Bar” and “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie.”

Norris says her writing is funny, and so is the journey that lead to her employment at “The New Yorker.” She claims, “I didn’t set out to be a comma queen. The first job I ever had when I was 15 was a foot checker at a public pool in Cleveland. I think Cleveland is the only city in the U.S. where people had to spread their toes so I could check for athlete’s foot before they entered the pool.”

After graduation from Douglass College on the Rutgers University campus, Norris worked for the Cleveland Costume Company where she learned to repair animal heads made of papier mache. From there, she went to work at a dairy driving a milk truck.

She describes driving the milk truck as “if I were on some disorienting amusement park ride. One of my first days driving the route I had my foreman with me. I lost control of the truck, ran a red light, and crashed into a concrete barrier. The foreman was thrown into the ice cream freezer. I landed on the floorboard with a badly bruised ego.”

Norris gave up the milk route and went to work in a cheese factory packaging and labeling bricks of mozzarella after completing her master’s degree in English at the University of Vermont. It was while doing research for her thesis on James Thurber that she started reading “The New Yorker” and eventually, through her brother, met Peter Fleischmann, chairman of the board of “The New Yorker.” Norris went to work for “The New Yorker” in 1978.

I was reading the book while waiting for my car at Les Schwab. Two sections that made me laugh out loud were about autocorrect and spell check, and Noah Webster. She said “I would never disable spell-check but autocorrect I could do without. It thinks I am stupid and clumsy, and while it’s true I don’t know how to disable it and can’t text with my thumbs why would I let a machine tell me what I want to say. I text someone good night” in German, and instead of “gute nacht” I sent “cute nachos.” I type “adverbial,” and it comes out “adrenal,” which is like a knife thrust into my adverbial gland.”

The section about Noah Webster is too long to include here, so you will have to read the book.

Norris states “An editor once referred to me as a prose goddess. What I love about my job is that it draws on my entire person not just my knowledge of grammar and punctuation but my experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey.”

Nancy Dunis is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center’s Jottings group.

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