Reveiw: American English, Italian Chocolate: Small Subjects of Great Importance

I am a sucker for a great essay collection. There is an art to crafting short writing, fiction or otherwise, that I admire in others and wish I could cultivate for myself. Incidentally, despite my struggles with brevity, I am absolutely ruthless when it comes to editing other people’s short writing. I have a friend on a short story kick who can attest to the extent of my cuts (and actually, you’ll blog-meet him soon enough). But the only way to get better at short-form writing is to read a lot of it, right? So when this collection turned up on NetGalley, how I could turn it down?

American English, Italian Chocolate is a memoir in essays beginning in the American Midwest and ending in north central Italy. In sharply rendered vignettes, Rick Bailey reflects on donuts and ducks, horses and car crashes, outhouses and EKGs. He travels all night from Michigan to New Jersey to attend the funeral of a college friend. After a vertiginous climb, he staggers in clogs across the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In a trattoria in the hills above the Adriatic, he ruminates on the history and glories of beans, from Pythagoras to Thoreau, from the Saginaw valley to the Province of Urbino.

Bailey is a bumbling extra in a college production of Richard III. He is a college professor losing touch with a female student whose life is threatened by her husband. He is a father tasting samples of his daughter’s wedding cake. He is a son witnessing his aging parents’ decline. He is the husband of an Italian immigrant who takes him places he never imagined visiting, let alone making his own. At times humorous, at times bittersweet, Bailey’s ultimate subject is growing and knowing, finding the surprise and the sublime in the ordinary detail of daily life.

Author: Rick Bailey

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars

Average Goodreads rating: 4.22 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Those interested in short-form nonfiction writing, whether for its own sake or for the sake of improving their own.

In-depth thoughts: Essays! Cross-cultural marriages! Everything I should love! But this collection fell a little flat for me. There was no “surprise” or “sublime” for me in these rambles through the details of the everyday; just a sort of mild interest. The only essay that really got close to something for me was “For Donna, Ibsen, Pepys, Levitation,” which touches on one of his “non-traditional” (read as: single mother returning to school after a long absence) literature students who was trying to balance her passion for the class with raising her kids and trying to stay safe from her abusive ex-husband. But even that doesn’t hit the mark entirely. After a seemingly innocent lefthand turn into levitation, Bailey fails to bring it back around to the central moment in the essay: Donna, the mother and abused woman and eager literature student. Here’s the jump Bailey makes, once you take out the long, extended aside on levitation:

“I saw Ghosts on the syllabus, you know what I thought of?”

It’s my turn to laugh. “Patrick Swayze?”

“In school, like in ninth grade, we did this thing called levitation.” She gives me an embarrassed look. “Did you ever levitate?”

Seeing Donna in class, reading and thinking and sharing, was like witnessing a levitation.

There’s probably over twice as much material spent on the history of the parlor trick, dead Englishmen’s thoughts about it, and Bailey’s memories of it than on the living, breathing human in front of him, and it just feels off. While none of the other essays were this off for me, they were all equally detached and disinterested from their subject matter, except when it concerned Bailey’s own reminisces. Maybe he should have just written a straight-up memoir?

I was also a little confused over the title, or rather the title in connection with the description. I went in expecting a lot more about cross-cultural marriages, about immigration, about adapting to new cultures (or being around those who have to adapt to a new culture), and everything else that comes with those huge life milestones. And yet, nothing.

I majored in English in college, specifically creative writing, and sometimes I wondered if I should have taken myself and my writing a little more seriously by pursuing an MFA afterwards. But the writers my professors brought to campus to give readings or to guest lecture, and even what they wrote themselves, had an American University Workshop-y sameness to the writing (even if it was good) that I could maybe pretend to like but never be able to bring myself to write. There were ideas in here that I liked, but they were painted over with that workshop-y sameness to the point where it was hard for me to maintain my interest.

While I might be tempted to point to one of these essays if I ever tackle personal essays or memoirs in a lesson, American English, Italian Chocolate was just not my cup of tea, and I don’t know if I would necessarily recommend it to EFL students.

Quick Tips for Using Quotes in Essays: Entire Sentences

Last time I brought up quotes, I talked about how to incorporate short phrases and clauses into your writing. Generally speaking, I would say that using a handful of words here and there is a more elegant solution than quoting an entire sentence wholesale, but sometimes nothing but a copy-and-paste job will do.

If you want to include an entire sentence from the source, rather than just selection, things are a little simpler. (A little.) You no longer have to worry about ellipses, brackets, or grammatical correctness. Your biggest issue is punctuation.

If you are introducing the quote with a complete sentence (“Abrams described the results of a recent quantum physics experiment in his latest paper.”), you should introduce the quote with a colon (:).

Abrams described the results of a recent quantum physics experiment in his latest paper: “Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.” (2016)

If you are introducing the quote with a short introductory phrase (“According to Abrams . . . “), you should introduce the quote with a comma (,). Something like this:

According to Abrams, “Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.” (2016)

Be careful not to mix the two together. Something like this:

Abrams described the results of a recent quantum physics experiment in his latest paper, “Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.” (2016)

or this:

According to Abrams: “Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.” (2016)

would be incorrect.

The trade-off, in my opinion, is the quality of the writing. There are certainly instances where quoting the entire sentence is effective (or even necessary), but there are many instances where it’s much more appropriate to highlight a phrase or a couple of words, or to simply paraphrase or summarize the original source. Regardless, make sure to cite the source! You wouldn’t want to be accused of plagiarism, after all.

Quick Tips for Using Quotes in Essays: Short Phrases

An essential part of high-level academic writing in any field is properly citing and quoting your research. There are lots of great resources already out there on different citation methods and how to avoid plagiarism; today I want to talk about how to properly integrate quotes into your writing. This entry will focus specifically on quotes that short phrases and less-than-complete sentences and clauses. Longer selections require slightly different strategies; I’ll be covering them in later posts.

Writers, both native and non-native English speakers, seem to struggle with how to include short selections into their writing. Hopefully this post will demystify the process a little bit — it’s actually quite simple, once you get the hang of it.

By far, the most common problem I see is something like this:

Scientists on the project were excited that “some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speed.” (Abrams, 2016)

Can you spot the problem here? What’s the grammatical misunderstanding the author has that’s led to the problem?

Scientists on the project were excited that “some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

Here’s the big secret: when you want to integrate part of a sentence from your source into your own writing, you need to make sure that your entire sentence still works grammatically. One little word, like the above “which,” can throw a monkey wrench into things and turn what you thought was a proper sentence into something else (here, it’s a non-restrictive clause). You’ve probably already figured out how to fix this little boo-boo:

Scientists on the project were excited that “some photon wave-particles . . . traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

Sometimes, authors (correctly!) alter the original quote, but they fail to indicate that they have made alterations. This is a no-no; you should always let the reader know that you’ve made changes, even small ones, to the original material. A quick refresher on the two tools you need for this job:

  • ellipsis: used to indicate words or phrases omitted from the original quote, whether for brevity or for grammar; consists of three periods with  a space between each one. ( . . . )
  • square brackets: used to indicate characters, words, or phrases altered or added to the original quote for the sake of orthography, grammar, comprehension, or readability. ([])

For example, let’s say that the original quote from that Abrams paper was something like this:

Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.

(I know it’s not the most elegant example. Sorry.)

To do things 100% by the book, our citation would have to look something like this:

Scientists on the project were excited that “[s]ome photon wave-particles . . . traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

Or like this, if you’re not a fan of the square brackets look:

Scientists on the project were excited that some “photon wave-particles . . . traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

There is an aesthetics argument for avoiding square brackets as much as possible, as they have a tendency to slow the reader down. Here, the sentence can be recast without them, but sometimes that’s not possible.

If you’re not comfortable with omitting text in this way, or if doing so somehow significantly changes the meaning of the original, then you need to reword your writing. Sometimes this is tricky; in my fictional example above, however, it’s pretty straightforward:

Scientists on the project were excited about some “photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

There are usually two or three different ways to recast a sentence in this way. If you’re having trouble figuring out how, a colleague (or professional editor) can often have the distance and perspective needed to see how to proceed.

Mystery solved! Hopefully, anyway. If you have any questions about this, or would like me to look over your work to check for these kinds of errors, you can contact me on Twitter or with the form over there on the right.

Happy citing!

Run Out of Ideas in the Middle of Your Essay?

Image courtesy spydermurp at
Image courtesy spydermurp at

Essays are one of the most common ways to evaluate a student’s capacity for the written language, but when misapplied they can be unfair. You can have a thorough knowledge of grammar and even a sense of style, but time and again I find that some students struggle with essays because they don’t know what to say–in any language. Is it really fair, then, to judge their foreign language writing ability by the fact that they ran out of ideas?

I’ve seen this happen with students working on short-form writing assignments. They might ask me for a word here or there, or ask me if a particular sentence is okay, but I would say 80% to 90% of our discussion during writing practice is based on the problem of “I don’t know what to say.” My job, at that point, is no longer about providing the right vocabulary or grammatical structure. My job is to help students think: to organize and isolate particular arguments or reasons; to look at things from another perspective; to help them cultivate and express their opinions, knowledge, and experiences.

If you often feel “stuck” on essay prompts, try these tips on for size.


Prove it! / Image courtesy and Miguel Ugalde.
Prove it! / Image courtesy and Miguel Ugalde.

1. Why? So what? Can you prove it? Those are the questions you should be answering every paragraph. I find people most often get stuck when they think that what they’re saying is self-evident. This is rarely the case! If you’re writing an analytical essay about a novel or short story, for example, you obviously shouldn’t explain the basics like the plot or characters. You’re writing for someone who’s read the same book as you, but who can’t read your mind. You think that the black pearl in the eponymous John Steinbeck story symbolizes wealth; you think it’s so obvious it doesn’t require explanation. But maybe your reader thinks it represents greed, or capitalism.

Good critical thinkers know how to play devil's advocate.
Good critical thinkers know how to play devil’s advocate.

2. Play devil’s advocate. If you’ve thoroughly explained your case but still find yourself coming up short, take a moment to argue against yourself. Where are the holes or inconsistencies in your interpretation? If someone wanted to prove you wrong, what would they say? Build those arguments as well as you would build your own, and then take the time to address them.

You can even take this method to the extreme by writing an essay that you actually disagree with. This is naturally more difficult to do (unless you’re trying to write something satirical, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”), but it can be a rewarding exercise.

It’s the little differences.

3. Use details. Similar to #1, I find students get stuck when they think that details would be boring or nonessential. Taken to an extreme, this is true. Your reader is going to know your game if every time they read about “the issue” it’s “the pressing, complicated, and difficult issue.” But proving an assertion requires details. For example, it might be tempting to summarize Cinderella’s life prior to the intervention of her fairy godmother like this:

Cinderella had a difficult life until she married the prince.

Sure, this is true, and we’re all familiar enough with the story of Cinderella to be able to fill in the gaps ourselves. But specific details can flesh out your writing, remind the reader of things they’d forgotten, and maybe even bring a fresh perspective to things.

Cinderella had a difficult life until she married the prince. Her stepmother and stepsisters browbeat her into submission. In some versions of the story, her father still remains as a comfort, but in others he dies soon after his second marriage, leaving Cinderella a defenseless orphan. She has no quarters of her own and spends most of her days hard at work, covered in soot. Not only that, but after she meets the prince, her stepsisters do all they can to keep the two from marrying.

This refreshes the reader’s memory, but from a teaching perspective, it also demonstrates that you’ve actually read the assigned text(s). From a language teaching perspective, it gives us more more opportunities to see you actually use the language.

Watch out! When using details to support an argument, make sure to only choose details relevant to your argument. In other words, resist the urge to summarize the entire novel or essay.



4. Lie. I had a student in my South Korean hagwon days who was usually sullen and unresponsive. Then, one day, after I asked how their weekend was, he started telling me the most ridiculous whopper about having to turn down dates from Beyonce and piloting an aircraft into a crash landing and more that I, sadly, no longer remember. It made my week.

As a language teacher, I don’t care if what you’re writing (especially in a personal essay) is true. Unless we’re doing a unit on research or writing nonfiction, or unless you’re writing a personal essay for admittance to a university or postgraduate program, accuracy is not of primary importance. I just want you to use the language and be comfortable and confident in it.

One thing at a time. / Image courtesy Ryan McGuire.
One thing at a time. / Image courtesy Ryan McGuire.

5. One thing at a time. Your sentence should be about one idea. Your paragraph should be about one idea. The more you narrow your focus on one sentence or paragraph, the more material you can gather for another sentence or paragraph. When you first start writing, especially during a timed assignment, you’ll probably just start to write whatever comes into your mind, in whatever order. It’s important to get it all down first, but you should spend a few minutes to make sure it’s all organized. If your first body paragraph is about the causes of World War I (Franz Ferdinand, secret treaties), there shouldn’t be a stray reason (budding nationalism in the early 20th century) that crops up in paragraph three. If your entire essay is about the causes of World War 1, then give the treaties, the Archduke, and the nationalism each their own paragraph. And so on.

That’s it for my tips on what to do when you run out of ideas in the middle of your essay. Do you have any more tried and true “essay hacks”? Share in the comments or Tweet at me!