The Mother Tongue

Bill Bryson

Hardcover, $14.99

1990

William Morrow

245 pages

Bill Bryson is a journalist and, apparently, amateur comedian.  His own website describes him as “one of the most beloved authors of our time.”  Really?  Have YOU ever heard of him?  Even if you have, it’s pretty unlikely that you love him.  My personal feelings about Bill are mixed–after all, he wrote a book on a fascinating subject, but he didn’t write it to my satisfaction!  Bill, I’m gonna give you “one of the most mediocre and not entirely terrible authors of our time.”

First, I have to make some editorial remarks about this book.  It has one of the worst jacket designs I’ve ever seen.  Shakespeare I get, but random purple ink splotches?  Come one.  Second, when you’re writing any book, but especially one that has chapters on grammar, usage, and spelling, you should get a great copyeditor.  It’s one thing to rebel against ridiculous rules of grammar, but quite another to construct sentences in which clarity is lost.  (In explaining the different meanings for number words in the U.S. and Britain, Bryson says, “a decillion in America is one plus thirty-three zeros.”  But any mathematician can tell you that one plus any number of zeros is still going to be ONE, not the number Bryson is trying to reach.)  And Bryson has a tendency to contradict himself, as in two neighboring paragraphs that begin “English is the most important language in the world” and “English is not always spoken as widely or as enthusiastically as we might like to think,” respectively.  (Disclaimer: Bryson freely admits that he has little respect for the grammarians who impose rules on us such as: don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction or end with a preposition.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if mistakes are on purpose or not.)

And now for Bryson himself.  Arrogance and a strange, geeky sense of humor are what I got out of his writing.  He spends 2 pages giving examples of grammar mistakes made by eminent English usage authorities.  This only serves to make Bryson sound like a jerk.  He also has a propensity for using unnecessarily obscure words and for making broad statements that don’t really hold water.  E.G.: “We tend to regard other people’s languages as we regard their cultures–with ill-hidden disdain.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel any disdain toward (or is it towards?) other languages or cultures.  Bill Bryson, on the other hand….Or how about his suggestion that “the Italians even have a word for the mark left on a table by a moist glass” and English-speakers don’t.  I’ve always known that to be a “ring.”  Apparently Britons say “shoelace” and Americans say “shoestring.”  Sorry, guys, I’ve got to stop and tie my shoestring.  Really??  Bryson also seems to think the L in words like “folk” and “alms” is silent…is that true?  I pronounce those L’s!  “Bollix is commonly used in America…”  If any American has ever seen or heard this word used in America, please let me know.

However, Bill does make a few good points, most notably that it’s annoying when New Yorkers say they stand “on line” and take their coffee “regular” (meaning with milk).  And his information, minus all the editorializing and dumb jokes, is actually very interesting.  The sad truth is, though, that none of Bryson’s book seems to be based on original research.  He sites other writers on nearly every page and has little or nothing in the way of primary sources.  One might do better with one of the titles listed in Bryson’s extensive bibliography.  Or better yet, try a quick search on Amazon.  This book, through no fault of the author’s, was written 20 years ago.  Though nothing in the history of English has changed in that time, certainly new research has come to light and statistics have changed.  An updated version of The Mother Tongue would require at least one chapter on George W. Bush.

Everlasting

Angie Frazier

Hardcover, $17.99

Scholastic Press

June 2010

336 pages

I’ve officially embarked upon my Summer of YA Fiction.  Everlasting started out with a lot of promise but then became so, so strange.

First–the good part.  1853: Camille sets sail with her father on his ship, her last trip with him before her impending marriage.  The ship wrecks, her father dies, and she’s left alone and penniless with the first mate.  (Who, surprise, turns out to be someone she kinda likes.)

Then it just gets freaky!  Camille discovers that the mother she thought died in childbirth is actually alive, living in Australia, and hiding a secret map that leads to a magical stone called Umandu.  The first person to touch the stone will be able to bring someone back from the dead.  Natch, Camille wants to resurrect her dad.  Throw in bad guys with guns, weird wolf/dog/man beasts, giant spiders and you have, well…not what was indicated by the cover of this book. Seriously.  When you saw that cover, you pictured the boat scene from The Little Mermaid, right?  The point is, I have nothing against fantasy books, but I do object to being tricked into reading them.

Angie Frazier is a first-time author.  Her writing is fine, although her historical detail needs some help.  (Sorry, but there was more involved in “underwear” than just a corset and drawers in 1853!!!)  So, in conclusion, I guess I’ll say: if the words “magical stone called Umandu that brings people back from the dead” doesn’t turn you off, then you should give the book a read!

Picture the Dead

Adele Griffin

Illustrated by Lisa Brown

Hardcover, $17.99

Sourcebooks

May 2010

272 pages

I’ve been holding on to my copy of this book for a long time, assuming I wouldn’t like it because it’s full of illustrations.  I don’t want to say that I was wrong, cause you know, I’m never wrong, but I loved this book.  The illustrations are lovely and add another dimension to a great story.

Jennie Lovell has just lost her twin brother and fiance/cousin (and she’s from New England, so ha!) in the Civil War.  She’s left with her evil aunt and uncle and turns to the unlikeliest of allies–a spirit photographer who claims to commune with the dearly departed.  Jennie begins to uncover secrets about her deceased fiance and his still very-much-alive brother, but the process makes her question her own sanity.  All I can say is that this book did not turn out to be what I was expecting, for better or worse.  But, as illustrated by my gushing Jack Finney review, I’m a huge fan of using images to heighten the reading experience, especially when it weaves seamlessly into the narrative.  (In this case, the illustrations are all pages from Jennie’s scrapbook.)

Definitely an interesting read–give it a try if you’re up for something cool and different!

This Side Up

I have neglected my poor blog for over a month, but I have a really good excuse this time!  I just moved!  And yes, although my new apartment is only 5 blocks away from the old one, I still had to pack, move, and unpack everything I own, including books.  The only ONLY thing in the world that would even make me consider that I might have too many books is moving.  I ended up with 11 boxes packed just with books and a sprained right shoulder to prove it.  But now that that’s all (mostly) behind me, I sit in my new place and think: The problem isn’t too many books; it’s too few bookshelves!

Many of my boxes have been unpacked and their contents are in the process of being arranged:

But many of my boxes still look like this:

So it’s time once again for my semi-annual trip to IKEA, where I will purchase yet another bookshelf, enabling me to finally finish unpacking.  I will then bring home yet more books (over twenty this week alone…), and the vicious cycle continues.

Meanwhile, I’ve had the pleasure of rediscovering some great books that I had no idea I owned.  That alone almost makes moving seem worthwhile.  Almost.

Let the Great World Spin

Colum McCann

Paperback, $15

Random House

June 2009

400 pages

This National Book Award finalist was my first ever Book Club read!  I’ve resisted joining a club for years because I had had enough of being told what to read in school (and of then being forced to discuss it).  Granted, I was exposed to some amazing literature that way (The Catcher in the Rye, Chaucer, To Kill a Mockingbird), but also to some real stinkers (Billy Budd…I still shudder to think of it).  But I just got a new job and my co-workers invited me to join their book club.  We all work in publishing so I thought, Hey, I bet these people read great books. Based solely on my first experience (and a book that was chosen before I got my job), I think I was right.

Let the Great World Spin is Colum McCann’s latest brilliant, poignant tale.  It’s loosely “about” the infamous Frenchman who strung a wire between the Twin Towers in the 1970s and walked across it.  (See recent documentary, Man on Wire.)  The book isn’t actually about that man at all, but rather a collection of strangers (each explored in separate chapters that could be short stories in themselves) who happen to see or hear about the man on the wire.

There is Corrigan, the Irish monk living in a NYC tenement and keeping a watchful eye on the local prostitues.  There’s Ciaran, his brother, lost and flummexed by his brother’s life.  Tillie, the prostitute.  Claire, the Park Avenue wife who lost a son in Vietnam.  Gloria, who lost three sons in the war and is struggling to recover in the Bronx projects.  And more.

Like all New Yorkers, these people are completely separate from one another, at least in the beginning.  And yet, they are all connected.  Some actually enter each others’ lives in very substantial ways, while others simply remain linked by that one amazing event–a man, his leotard, and a cable wire strung between the tallest buildings in the world.

So whether you’re by yourself or with a group of people whom you hope to impress with your social acumen, Let the Great World Spin is a tremendous read.  It almost made me miss my subway stop on multiple occasions, which is pretty much the ultimate sign of brilliant literature.

Fever Crumb

Philip Reeve

Hardcover, $17.99

Scholastic Press

April 2010

336 pages

From Philip Reeve, the author of Here Lies Arthur, is another book that I expect to see atop the bestseller lists.  This book is a member of the newest YA lit trend, post-apocalyptic society (move over, vampires!).  The story follows a young girl named, sadly for her, Fever Crumb.  An orphan (of course), she has been raised by the uber-rational Order of Engineers.  Her presence is requested in the countryside by an archaologist, Kit Solent, who has found a hidden tunnel.  Kit believes the tunnel and the room it leads to once belonged to one Auric Godshawk, the last of the Scriven overlords (okay, stay with me).  The Scriven, not-quite-human, ruled the city (post-apoc London) some years ago but were overthrown in a vicious coup.  As Fever begins the work of unraveling the mysteries of the tunnel, she starts to experience some mysteries of her own.  Who were her parents, what are these strange memories flooding her mind, and why are people trying to kill her?

I hope my description isn’t making this sound weird.  It’s a great steampunk book and well worth a read.  I eagerly await the sequel that I feel pretty sure is coming.

iPad, Do You?

Did you notice that Apple’s iPad finally went on sale last week?  If not, you might consider downloading the Crawl-Out-From-Under-That-Rock app.  Anyway, here’s my little review of the iPad and its place in the whole e-reading universe.

Domestic licensing and copyright ownership have hindered the speed that many Canadians adopt new devices, whether it's the iPod or streaming television over the internet.

First off, it’s been pointed out to me that you can do things with the iPad other than read.  I don’t know why you’d want to, but those things include everything you can do with the iPhone, aside from making calls (which, let’s be honest, you can barely do on the iPhone anway).  Now that that’s out of the way, back to books.  The iPad’s e-reader is far and away the best that I have seen.  It makes Sony, Kindle, and the nook look like Medieval technology.  Get a load of this:  Full color!  Pages that turn at the speed of light with a mere swish of the finger!  Audio capability!  I felt like I was seeing the future right before my eyes.  I mean I was like a kid on Christmas morning playing with this thing.

But now for the enevitable post-Christmas let-down.  Unlike other e-readers on the market, iPad does not come in convenient, portable digest size.  It’s about the same dimension as a loose-leaf notebook, making it too large for my purse!  So if you’re going to cart around something that big, it better be more than just an e-reader, right?  Well, sure, iPad has all those apps, but although it’s slightly larger than a netbook, it doesn’t even come with word processing.  (As with all Apple products, you can acquire it for a fee.)  Plus, it relies on WiFi for Internet access and you know what that means–we’re back on the hunt for those elusive hot spots.

In conclusion: I like that the iPad has a lot of capabilities, but I think it’s just too big.  Something between the iPhone and the iPad would be the perfect size.  And after enjoying Kindle’s Whispernet, the last thing I want to do is run around trying to find hot spots.  A lot of people may think these are petty points, but the last thing I need is a piece of awesome technology that’s going to annoy me every time I try to use it/commute with it.  However, if you are serious about e-reading, about cool apps, about impressing your friends, and about not being able to pay your rent next month, then the iPad is for you!

[Editor's note: Print books are still available.  They work everywhere.  They do not cost $500.  I'm just sayin'.]

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