Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

Musings about language, books, grammar, and writing in general

Archive for the category “Pleasure Reading”

Review: The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens

I’m reading Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood as part of Benjamin McEvoy’s Hardcore Literature Book Club. There will probably be multiple readings of various editions because of that.

I grabbed this, however, because I wanted a relatively quick and painless first run-through. What I got instead was much more: I remembered how much I actually like Dickens’ writing. I like his word choices, I like the sound when his work is read aloud, and I love the clarity of his prose. Admittedly, I only have five other Dickens’ pieces under my belt so far (A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, and Nicholas Nickelby), but I expect to change that. I’ve attempted Bleak House several times, but was clearly not ready for it.

Like many of us, I read my first Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities) in high school. I was very lucky, however — our teacher, Miss Alma Doherty, loved both Dickens and Shakespeare, and made sure we heard the works of theirs that she taught in Saudi, schlepping in her own copies of the recordings and her own portable phonograph. It was a wonderful way to get me engaged with the literature, and a great way to discover the precursor to audiobooks. In fact, I spent much of that summer in the Queens Central Library (it had air conditioning) listening to various recordings of books and plays, guided by the knowledgeable staff and Mr. Miton Byam, the Director of the Queens Borough Public Library.

Anyway, I fell in love with Dickens’ work, although reading it kind of got lost among all the other things I’ve read over the years. I’m really glad I decided to take part in this club read; it helped me find my way back to one of my favorite authors, so I can resume reading his work.

If you do choose to try some Dickens there are a couple of things to remember. First, the man was a product of his time. There are unkind portrayals of Jews and others. Second, his works often started out as weekly serials in the papers, so there are lots of cliffhangers…this is not a bad thing, by the way; it keeps you engaged from one major plot point to the next. It also means that if you have a busy life (and, who doesn’t) there are plenty of places you can pause and pick up the story later. Third, his characters may stay with you long after you have read them. I find this a Good Thing, and a mark of a really memorable book. Four, there is always a lot to think about in a Dickens story. Having lived at one time or another at pretty much every economic level, Dickens had a unique way of observing society. Nor did he shy away from doing so.

So, take the plunge — if you dare — and jump into the Dickens pool. I’ll be waiting for you.

Review: Death in Williamstown, by Kerry Greenwood

My review of Kerry Greenwood’s newest Phryne Fisher book, Murder in Williamstown is a five. However, my rating of Goodreads itself is a big fat zero. Since the format change, Goodreads seems to be ignoring the Audible version of new books, so I have to mark that I’ve read either the Kindle, hardback, or paperback versions. I’m finding this extremely annoying since I do much of my reading via Audible or Libby these days.

That said, this is a typical Phryne Fisher book: light, easy to read or listen to, engaging, and with a group of characters who grow along with Ms. Fisher. In this book, for example, it is observations by Phryne’s adopted children – Jane, Ruth, and Tinker – that provides the keys to solving several mysteries. What it means in terms of impact is that each time I pick up a new Phryne Fisher mystery I get to visit with a bunch of old friends and (depending on what happens to some of the newcomers) maybe even make some new ones. When you are locked in at home due to health issues, this is one of the best ways to keep from going batsh*t crazy.

The other thing that keeps me coming back for more is Phryne Fisher herself. I first heard of her when PBS imported a series they just called “The Miss Fisher Mysteries,” about an aristocratic lady private investigator who wasn’t anything like the “girl detectives” I grew up reading. Set in Australia in the 1920s, Phryne is the epitome of an independent woman. She has traveled, drives a car, flies a plane, has open relationships with various interesting people, has friends and some relatives who are non-binary, and basically lives life to the tune of her own drummer. Oh, yeah, and she is smart and beautiful on top of it all. Even now, at age 70, I find myself saying I want to be either her or Granny Weatherwax (yes, I am a Terry Pratchett fan) when I grow up.

In this book, there are two major mysteries to be solved – the financial issues that could create a major scandal for a local charity, and the murders of several people involved in illegally importing opium from China to Australia. (Sorry, you have to actually read the book to get to the very satisfying endings.)

If you do decide to take the plunge, this is one series I really recommend reading in order (the first book is called Cocaine Blues), or you will miss the way her chosen family grows. And, quite frankly, I hope you do take the plunge.

Why I Review the Way I Do

I have been noticing lately that my reviews often differ from those of a lot of other posters. So, I started thinking about what I write about when I review something, and why I choose those things.

To me, one of the most important things is the impact a book has (or not) on me. Sure, I could explain the plot like others do, or try to talk about every character, but there are others who can do that much better than I ever will. What I can do is share why a book has an impact on me – whether it’s a beloved classic or something totally out of my wheelhouse. That is the service I can provide best, although the “normal” review elements do peek in from time to time. I am more concerned with why you would want to read the book I’m talking about than with the book’s specific details.

As far as I can see, we read books for many reasons. Some we read like dessert – the light, fluffy treat at the end of a long day. Others we read because there is meat there. We suck the knowledge out like we suck marrow out of a soup bone (does anyone remember doing that as a kid?). Still others are some combination of the two. I believe that my job is not to reconstruct the book for you, but to let you know why I think it’s worth your time or not to pick up a particular book.

If that’s not what you are looking for in a book, so be it. I never thought I could please everyone. Go in peace and enjoy your reading – I honestly will not judge you. However, if you think my method is good, I am delighted to see you and share what I have learned, And, I have never stopped learning — every book I read teaches me *something* — even the light, fluffy ones have something to say that leaves an impact on me. Hopefully, I can communicate that impact well enough to help you make your reading decisions.

Reading Habits…

Like many of my bookish friends, I rarely read only one book at a time. Right now, for example, I am reading a collection of short works by P. G. Wodehouse (The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories), a novel by Iraj Pezeshkzad (My Uncle Napoleon), a book about libraries by Matthew Battles (Library: An Unquiet History) a book about the making of “Imagine” by John and Yoko Ono Lennon (Imagine: John Yoko), and a book of essays about food mostly by Mark Kurlansky (Choice Cuts). I am also listening to an audio version of Homer’s Iliad.

I’ve read this way for as long as I can remember. There are so many things I’m interested in, and so many times a book that is fine on one day is not something that suits my mood the following day. It may be a weird way of approaching books, but it has always worked for me.

Another bookish habit — one that was schooled out of me early on — is not marking up books as a rule. There are one or two books that I have marked up over the years (always feeling guilty about doing so), but those books I have always bought an extra copy of — just for the purpose. I’ve been thinking about this lately because Benjamin McEvoy notes in his YouTube lectures about reading notes that marking up a book with comments, indices, and other marginalia is one of the best ways to make a book “yours” and to tie your thoughts about the book to other books you’ve read, ideas you’ve had, and how the book relates to your world views and general values and beliefs. I have to admit that the idea is scary — and when I discussed it with one of my most well-read friends last night, he noted that he had also been taught that marking up books was a sin. (His parents were both educators; my mom was a bookkeeper and my dad was a construction worker.)

A bookish friend of mine, the late Velma Bowen, had a system for marking up books, and I did use it once or twice to note ideas in books on journal-keeping (I was teaching online courses in journal-keeping at the time, so being able to find the info was useful. I also developed a system for noting things in my own journals (which I still use when I journal by hand). I number the notebook’s pages and then I create a Table of Contents (ToC) going from back to front in the last three pages of the journal. Working from back to front with the ToC means that if I need more pages, it’s easy enough to do, I just rule off a page or two more. I have three columns in my ToC: the date of the entry, the page number(s), and a column for a brief description of the information I’m noting. I’ve used this system since 1979 or so (way. before Ryder Carroll and Bullet Journalling became A THING, and it has never failed me yet.

Another bookish habit I developed early on is maxing out my library cards. These days, that’s easier than ever, what with e-readers; apps like Glose, Audible, and Libby (my current favorite); inter-library loans; Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, and — of course — the good, old neighborhood library. (We won’t mention that I have maxed out my Kindle at least three times, and I am currently at maximum borrowing and holds at two of the three libraries I have access to through Libby.) Yes, I do love “real” books (now often referred to as “dead-tree editions”, but I can carry thousands of books an an electronic device (as opposed to maybe three physical books), which has become more important as my health has declined over the years

The other bookish habit I have, and I suspect that it is the most important one of the lot, is that I read every day. I found out long ago that if I do not do that, the ability atrophies, just like what happens when you don’t use any other muscle, talent, or ability. What I do not do is set up a formal schedule for reading — life throws too many curve balls at adults to be able to say I will read for “x” amount of time every day. Some days, I will barely get half a short story read; other days, I will finish one or two novels. The point is not that I turn reading into a job that must be done; I keep it a pleasure that I can fit into whatever time my day allows.

So, above are peeks at some of the habits (good and bad) that I have acquired around reading over the years. I’d love to hear what yours are, so please feel free to tell me what works (or doesn’t) for you.

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