Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

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

Archive for the category “Reviews”

Review: Crying in H Mart, by Michelle Zauner

Michelle Zauner has written a very special book, Crying in H Mart.

Note: For those of you who are not familiar with H Mart, it is an American grocery chain specializing in Asian foods and other goods. The stores are huge, with a mind-boggling array of items — often at better prices than in “regular” supermarket chains.

I listened to it in one long sitting, because it rang so true to what I felt about the loss of my own mother (from breast cancer that returned and went to her liver). The trappings of the two families (hers, Korean American; mine, American assimilated Jewish) may be very different, but the complexities of the mother/daughter relationship and the complexities of grieving the loss of one’s mother are very much the same, and Ms. Zauner does not shy away from them.

She also is very clear about how she held on to the Korean part of her heritage by cooking the dishes her mother had made when she was growing up. Comfort food is, after all, the food that brought us comfort as kids. (Mine is my mom’s split pea soup, rich with beef instead of pork, and loaded with carrot and potato chunks. It can be made from scratch, although Mom often used these packets from either Manischewitz or Streits as a base. But I digress…)

If you have lost a mom, I don’t think you will be untouched by Crying in H Mart. Then, again, even if you haven’t lost a mom, I believe you will find Ms. Zauner’s book relevant. I certainly recommend that you read it, even if it appears to not be something you would pick up as a matter of course. It’s definitely well-worth the time.

Review: The Good Rat, by Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin was, perhaps, the ultimate New York City true crime writer. <i>The Good Rat</i> shows all the reasons why, too. Meticulously researched, told brilliantly, with subjects you can almost feel living and breathing, a superb ear for dialog, and an almost Runyonesque tone. Breslin is a master at holding your attention. I will admit, that being said, that it didn’t hurt that a lot of this book takes place in neighborhoods I grew up in or next to, so I had no problems visualizing the locales he noted, which always adds to a book for me. Further, more than just the story of the rat in question, <i>The Good Rat</i> is a study of how two New York City cops go from heroes to bad guys. It’s especially fascinating since one of them grew up in a family “in the life” and claimed he became a cop to counteract some of what his father had done. True crime aficionados will definitely appreciate this book. So will readers who like books that look at what happens beyond the surface of a neighborhood. Brooklyn, Queens, or other NYC natives will recognize much of the area and enjoy that, as well.

Review: Mona, by Pola Oloixarac

I found this book as a result of a YouTube video where this fellow buys and reads the books he sees other people reading on the subway, so I knew I was taking a risk by choosing it.

Sadly, it was not my cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. The writing is good, and the story is interesting if a bit disappointing. The protagonist is a Latina author who is nominated for a prestigious award, so she is at a writers’ conference in Switzerland. However, she has a secret that even she has pretty much blocked out, which affects her in many ways, including her interactions with the other attendees and nominees.

I found the characters well-written, even though there was not that resonance that makes a book “spot on” to me. I didn’t like the ending — it felt like a copout, which annoyed me.

Still, I am glad I tried it, and — if I ever get my mobility back for real, I would be interested in trying the YouTuber’s experiment.

Review: The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence was recommended by several members of The Virtual Silent Book Club, and I am very glad I followed it up!

It s written from the viewpoint of Tookie, the protagonist, who has rebuilt her life after being set up by a couple of friends. However, it also involves coming to terms with a past that Tookie has pretty much blocked out, and how she grows in the process.

Ms. Erdrich’s characters are, however, what makes the book compelling. Tookie, Pollux, Hetta, Laurent, Asema, Flora, een, et al, are not only quirky, but they are memorable and will stay with me for a long time.

Further, in addition to having a mystery to resolve, there is a wickedly funny ghost story involving several of the characters, a slightly twisted love story, a look at the relationship between indigenous people and ‘non-indigenous people, and a good sprinkling of real-life events — all taking place during the year between All Souls Day 2019 and All Souls Day 2020.

Anyway, all that is to say that this is one book you don’t want to miss!

Review: Library: An Unquiet History, by Matthew Battles

Matthew Battles’ Library: An Unquiet History is a most fascinating book. In fact, I could not breeze through it as quickly as I’m used to, but had to stop every chapter or two to digest what I had read.

Battles covers so much more than one would expect — he looks at the effects societies have had on libraries, and that libraries have had on societies. He gives a pretty thorough overview of the varying schools of thought on the purpose of libraries, and a horrifying look at the way various libraries were destroyed — with the numbers of materials lost so staggering it was hard to get my head around them.

One of the more interesting tidbits (to me, anyway) was about the geniza, which is a kind of book tomb.While not a library in the strictest sense, the geniza is a repository for books (until they can be properly destroyed and disposed of) that are no longer usable. The value of the geniza is that it accepts all kinds of written materials – from kids’ coloring books to sacred texts – giving the searcher a much broader understanding of what life was like in that society.

I definitely recommend Library: An Unquiet History to anyone who loves books and libraries.

Review: The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe

Most folks I know consider Tom Wolfe a pop culture writer, but forget that he was primarily associated with what has been called the New Journalism. That’s a shame because Wolfe is one of the most engaging authors I have recently read.

My mom was a big Tom Wolfe fan, but I somehow missed reading the books he is most known for (or any of his other works, for that matter). This is a lacuna that I want to correct as soon as possible.

Wolfe is, above all, engaging. While fact-filled, <i>The Kingdom of Speech</i> goes rollicking along like one of the best novels. Wolfe’s tone is casual and invites you to play. The audiobook of this has an excellent reader in Robert Petkoff, who makes even the footnotes sound lively and intriguing. The book reads so well that, in fact, I had to check several times to assure myself that this was non-fiction.

This is a book for anyone who loves language. It doesn’t analyze speech, per se, but is a survey of the development of speech. The book starts with Wolfe reading an article by eight highly qualified evolutionists (including Noam Chomsky) stating that they have, after over a century, given up on determining where speech comes from. This piques Wolfe’s interest, and he begins researching what led these scientists to this conclusion. The journey is fascinating, and I came away with a whole new understanding of how it is speech that drives societies and achievements.

This is definitely a book for those who enjoy learning about other viewpoints, and who also enjoy learning about the infighting that often accompanies new theories. It’s also for those who like a fun read along the way.

Review: Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl

I was not ready for Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. This is one I should have done in paperback or Kindle so that I could make notes and comments.

The book is not very long, but Frankl raises lots of questions — and this is about things I have been pondering for a long time, so I found it very interesting. In fact, I had conversations about some of the questions he raised with my wife, and two friends over the course of the day. I like books that challenge me and make me think, so this was a Very Good Thing.

I do recommend this if you are of a philosophical turn of mind, but you might want to get it in paperback, rather than as an audiobook.

Review: Like a Rolling Stone: The Last Letter to the Editor: A Memoir, by Jann S. Wenner

Jann S. Wenner’s Like a Rolling Stone: The Last Letter to the Editor: A Memoir, was like looking back at my own life. Okay, I didn’t know quite as many famous folks as he did, but I did know my share, and I had a far more interesting life (’til now) than one would expect a lower-middle-class kid from Richmond Hill, Queens, New York to have.

I’ve always been obsessed by music. All my friends can tell you that. I’m always listening for something new or unusual, and I love to read lyrics. As a kid with a rough childhood and teenage years, music kept me holding on. Also, I grew up at just the right time, as did Wenner: we both came of age when almost every band had something special and worth listening to. People were experimenting; music, especially rock, was changing and growing organically in pretty much every direction.

Wenner does more than capture that, though. He talks about his life – both good and bad parts, He is frank about his issues and decisions, and how he has lived over the years. He engages the reader the way he engaged his subjects at Rolling Stone, with grace and empathy. You don’t feel Wenner is preaching at you; rather, you feel that he is reflecting on a life well-lived.

Whether or not you grew up with Rolling Stone, this is well worth reading.

Review: Little Miss Marker, Tobias the Terrible, Romance in the Roaring Forties, and The Lemon Drop Kid, by Damon Runyon

Following up on my last story, I have been listening to some f the Damon Runyon stories at The Damon Runyon Theatre.

I’ll actually note four stories here: the aforementioned “Little Miss Marker,” “Tobias the Terrible,” “Romance in the Roaring Forties,” and “The Lemon Drop Kid.” They are all delightful, and all deserve a listen, especially “Little Miss Marker.” Whoever the reader is, he has the accent down perfectly, and the stories evoke a New York that most of us want to believe in, even though it never really existed.

And that is the charm of Runyon’s stories: he creates a New York that is vibrant and exciting, peopled with flamboyant characters that make you wish you lived among them.

If you can listen to these stories, you really should. When properly read, they are delightful.

Review: A Piece of Pie, by Damon Runyon

I found Damon Runyon’s A Piece of Pie at the urging of a non-Goodreads friend who knows I love New York stories. So, following her advice, I listened to a radio version from KBOO, narrated by a fellow named Napales Yellow.

It was delightful — the story is about an eating contest between Boston and New York contenders, with the New Yorkers betting on Nicely-Nicely Jones to win for them. Nicely-Nicely, however, cannot take part in the contest, so a substitute is found and the story proceeds from there.

This was definitely a story to listen to, rather than read, as Mr. Yellow’s version of Damon Runyon’s version of a New York accent was spot on, and totally comparable to those in the musical or movie versions of Guys and Dolls where, by the way, most of us first became aware of Nicely-Nicely Jones. The story takes place during the 1920s.

I was rather annoyed that when I tried to find A Piece of Pie at the three library systems I have access to nothing came up — not even other stories by Mr. Runyon. We are losing far too many classics, in my opinion, but that’s for another blog post.

The only problem I have with A Piece of Pie is that I now want to add audio versions of other Damon Runyon works to my ever-expanding reading list. And, if you listen to this and enjoy it, I’m sure you will want to also.

UPDATE & NOTE: While checking around for audio versions of Runyon’s work, I found that The Internet Archive has a page called The Damon Runyon Theatre, which has 52 audio broadcasts of Damon Runyon’s short stories, including A Piece of Pie.

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