Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

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

Archive for the category “Reviews”

Review: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino

I borrowed Italo Calvino’s <i>If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler</i> after someone referred to it in a comment on a Hardcore Literature Book Club discussion.

After listening to Jefferson Mays read the first chapter, my wife (who was sitting in the kitchen) and I were rolling with laughter. The descriptions of getting into the proper position to read a book and the bookstore trip to acquire said book were that funny. And, boy, did the bookstore trip resonate with us, Marc, Lisa, and the folks from tonight’s Virtual Silent Book Club, although Marc and I came up with a couple of categories he missed.

From there, the book sobers up — kind of. The book is purchased; the Reader gets it home and finds that the book he has is NOT the book that the cover says it is. So the next day, he goes back to the bookstore and finds out that the publisher had somehow screwed up the print run. The owner replaces the book and points out another customer with the same problem. The Reader strikes up a conversation with her, and they exchange phone numbers. They compare notes the next day and find that it has happened again. This triggers a search for either of the missing texts, but every time they think they have found one, it turns out to be wrong — and incomplete. The search gets more and more complicated. What keeps you going during this ride is waiting to see a) if they ever get the text of the first book, and b) just how many books do they have to start over the course of the search. The search takes the Reader to some very odd places, and his experiences vary from comical to scary, but things move along well, and the book is satisfying.

My initial response to this was, “How the heck did I miss reading any of this guy’s stuff?” followed by, “I need to add as much of his stuff as possible to the YBR list.” If you are not familiar with his work, you might just have the same reactions.

Review: The Copenhagen Trilogy, by Tove Ditlevsen

Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen trilogy is definitely a masterpiece and worth spending time with. I listened to it through Libby, the library app from Overdrive, and it was compelling, horrifying, saddening, and wonderful — all at the same time.

Ms. Ditlevsen is an excellent writer. She tackles her memoir without glossing over the rough parts or glorifying her accomplishments, and we know that such balance is not always easy to achieve. Further, her story is compelling because it is a very common one in my generation. the young Tove is easy to identify with — how many of us were outsiders at some level? And, once that has happened, it’s all too easy to understand why she makes the decisions she does. But the most attractive thing about the book is the unflinching way she looks at her decisions and their consequences.

According to Wikipedia, by the time she committed suicide in 1976 she had written 29 books and was one of Denmark’s best-known authors. I shall certainly add any of these that were translated into English to the never-ending reading queue.

So, while this is not a happy story, let me count among those who want Tove Ditlevsen to be one of the most-read authors in the US.

Review: Stella Maris, by Cormac McCarthy

I believe that, though it’s the shorter of the two books in this duology, Cormac McCarthy’s Stella Maris is a much richer book than The Passenger.

In Stella Maris, we are observers, so to speak, at seven sessions between Alicia Western and her therapist at the Stella Maris mental health facility. Together, they explore the nature of madness, of language, of communication, and of symbols.

For me, one of the most resonating moments is when Alicia admits that she always wanted to fit in, but could not countenance the price of admission. I was also fascinated by their examinations of the intersectionality of God, physics, faith, and reason, and our search to understand the complex relationship between them.

This is a very fascinating book, and even more worth reading than The Passenger. However, for a full understanding it’s best to read both books, and time and effort well-spent to do so.

Review: The Passenger, by Cormac McCarthy

I generally find Conrad McCarthy’s books difficult to read, and The Passenger was no exception. However, I did find this book to be rewarding, because — for once — I felt I had a handle on what McCarthy was going for.

To me, the book is about searching, control, and the price and futility of trying to become “enlightened.” It’s also about how our paths get thrown off as life takes us in directions we never dreamed of following, and about the tunnel vision most of us have when it comes to pursuing things, as well as how we shape events in our lives to agree with our “stories.” It’s also about coming to terms with who we are.

This is, of course, a lot of heavy lifting for one book. The Passenger carries it off brilliantly through the eyes of Bobby Western and the conversations he has with others, along with the paths his life takes and his obsession with his deceased sister, Alicia. It also looks at Alicia’s very human desire to not exist at all since she finds the constraints of living in society to be soul-crushing. She retreats into a world where the voices in her head become much more real to her than almost any human voices (with her brother being one of a very few exceptions to this).

I note that I had to take a number of breaks while listening to the book, although the reading was excellent, because there was so much to digest and think about, and partly because there are disturbing elements to it (as with the other books of his that I’ve read).

McCarthy has written another book to go with this, Stella Maris. I will definitely be reading it, to see how he wraps this series up — although at first read of The Passenger I am wondering if these were meant to be the first two books of an Aeschylus-styled trilogy, where two competing things are dealt with in the first two works, and synthesized into a coherent whole in the third.

Still, if you are up for a challenge, this is a worthy one.

Review: The Kingdoms, by Natasha Pulley

Not even my love of complex Russian novels quite prepared me for Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms. Besides the time-shifting, multi-location world of the story, there is a complicated cast of characters, as there are at least three different manifestations of the protagonist.

What he initially believes are epilepsy delusions, however, turn out to be actual memories of his various personae. Further, people do not always have roles one would assume due to their gender, and in this world, London is now Londre, England having been defeated by France.

The real gold here, though, is the exploration of the protagonist’s relationships, and what turns out to be of utmost importance to him. Like many complex novels, this one starts a bit slowly but becomes more complex and engrossing as it goes along. At first, the story is a bit difficult to follow, but, as with the aforementioned Russian novels, if you stick with it, it soon becomes comprehensible.

While I would not recommend it to everybody, if you like longer, complex works, this is a book you should consider reading.

Review: Revolting Librarians, by Celeste West

I found out about Celeste West’s Revolting Librarians from my friend Lisa, who called me to gleefully inform me that this book she had gotten from my wife had sold for $70. After my asking what the hell she was talking about, she told me that it was an old book, from 1972, and apparently quite rare. Following a brief argument, I did what I always do when I can’t find a book at any of the three NYC libraries — I turned to World Cat on the web, which revealed that The Internet Archive had a copy that was readable online.

Now I love The Internet Archive, don’t get me wrong. However, it can be a pain to use. For one thing, while some books can be borrowed for 15 days, most are only available as one-hour loans, which means you have to keep borrowing a book in order to finish it. It also is not user-friendly in that while you are trying to make a page large enough to be readable, it will randomly resize the page and it takes a lot of time to get back to where you were.

That said, since it was the only way I was gonna get to explore this book (actually more of an APA [Amateur Press Association] collation), I dove in, and I’m glad I did!

First, the book is delightful. It’s a wonderful look at the state of libraries from 1972 when the major changes we are now accustomed to were first being thought of and fought for by librarians, usually with stiff opposition from administrators and those in real power.

Second, it was just fun to read. It’s a nice mix of stories, poems, art, and some audio (which I did not listen to, but maybe next time…) and feels like the librarian equivalent to the free-form radio I came of age listening to.

Third, there is the nostalgia factor. I was in college (my first attempt) in 1972, and the book, with its many bits about college libraries, brought back a lot of memories — notably about why I preferred the Queens Borough Public Library’s Central Branch to my college library (better hours, better organization, more audio choices, more items for pleasure reading, a greater likelihood of finding the material I wanted, etc.). At the time, of course, I had no idea how frustrating this must have been to the college librarians since I had no idea of the battles they were fighting to be taken as relevant to the students.

At any rate, if you can get your hands on a copy, or are willing to deal with the idiosyncrasies of The Internet Archive, you should definitely try to read Revolting Librarians. (And there is a sequel, Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out, edited by Katia Roberto and Jessamyn West, that I will attempt to read in my copious free time.) It’s time and effort well-spent.

Review: The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton, by Andrew Porwancher

Okay, Andrew Porwancher’s The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton took a long time to read. However, that was because there was so much information to digest (not to mention interruptions for health reasons and family issues).

Mr. Porwancher digs deeply into Hamilton’s origins and career and also paints a fascinating picture of how America transitioned from a colony to a democratic republic. Hamilton was, perhaps, the most complex of our Founding Fathers, and the book provides a nice counterbalance to all the furor created by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s outstanding musical and Ron Chernow’s fascinating book.

Among other things, it compares Hamilton’s relationship with Jews to that of the other Founding Fathers, which let me see a lot that I didn’t know before. it also examines several of the legal cases Hamilton took on and the greater meaning and impacts those had on colonial Jews.

What the book does NOT do, is proclaim definitively whether or not Hamilton himself was Jewish by birth. He leaves that for the reader to determine, although he notes that since Hamilton’s mother had converted to Judaism it is a distinct possibility.

Whether you agree or not, however, Porwancher provides a stunning, in-depth look at a complex man living in complex, turbulent times. So, for me, it’s definitely a must-read.

Review: A Sportsman’s Notebook: Stories, by Ivan Turgenev

As always, I enjoyed Turgenev’s work. A Sportsman’s Notebook covers a lot of ground besides the hunting and fishing stories you expect in such a volume. He looks at the life of serfs, the relationships between serfs and owners, Russian society at a time of major changes and upheavals, and relationships between men and women.

Turgenev’s writing is beautiful in its directness and clarity.

Sorry for the shortness of this review, but I am having an episode of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, so I can’t hold the tablet for long.

Still, if you are exploring Russian literature, Turgenev is a writer you don’t want to miss.

Review: The Phoenix and the Carpet, by E. Nesbit

My friend Lisa told me that the second and third books of this series were better than the first one (E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It), and she was right about the second book, at least. The Phoenix and the Carpet is about the continued adventures of the children.

In this book, the mom buys a rug and an egg falls out of it. The egg contains a phoenix, who gets the kids involved in various adventures. The phoenix, of course, has its own take on the world. One of my favorite scenes occurs in an insurance office, with the insurance salespersons singing about their products as if the songs were hymns to the phoenix, with the phoenix critiquing them.

So, yes, the second book is better than the first, but it’s still a pretty low bar. However, if yu are not happy unless you read a complete series, it won’t do any harm to try this one, too.

Review: Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit

My Friend Lisa recommended E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It to me because she loves Victorian children’s literature. She also felt that it portrayed the children as realistically bratty, yet they stood together when push came to shove. She also notes that this is the weakest book of the three-book series, so I might consider reading the other two books.

I generally enjoy children’s books, but I didn’t like the children in this one. Nor did I like any of the adults or the sand fairy (who grants one wish a day) the children find. Still, it was published in 1902, s it had the moral attitude of a tale to teach children right from wrong.

All in all, it was an interesting glimpse at how children were regarded at the beginning of the 20th Century. I will try the second book, to see if Lisa is right (she often is), and let you all know what I think.

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