Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

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

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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: Off with Her Head: Three Thousand Years of Demonizing Women in Power, by Eleanor Herman

Eleanor Herman’s Off with Her Head: Three Thousand Years of Demonizing Women in Power is something every woman should read.

It’s sad, funny, irreverent, factual, well-written, and a hell of a good time, even though the subject is a serious one. Her examples are spot on, and there is plenty to chew over (I now have to rethink my opinion of a biblical figure I have valued for many years based on some facts she unveils that I didn’t know). I love books that challenge me to think about things I have taken for granted over the years, so this is very welcome, even though it changes a lot of what I believed I knew about this particular figure.

She opens by reading a lot of hate speech against a powerful woman, then notes that she bets we were thinking she was reading about Hillary Clinton, but she wasn’t. She was reading about what people said about Cleopatra. And with that, we are off on a long, exploratory journey of how (and a bit of why) men have demonized women who have any kind of real power.

For some folks, a lot of this will seem like Feminism 101, but it is assuredly important because, as my Mom used to say, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

So, I stand in my assessment – every woman (and those men who claim to be allies) should read this. In my book, it’s right up there with india.arie’s song Video, in terms of teaching women self-respect.

Review: My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad

I finally finished Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Uncle Napoleon, and my own personal copy should be arriving sometime today! I probably never would have picked it up on my own, which would have been a great tragedy.

I first heard about My Uncle Napoleon while reading Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. It sounded interesting, so I borrowed an actual physical copy from the library. I don’t usually do back cover blurbs here, but let me quote a little information:

First published in Iran in the 1970s and adapted into a hugely successful television series, this beloved novel is now “Suggested Reading” in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. My Uncle Napoleon is a timeless and universal satire of first love and family intrigue.

Sadly, they do not credit this blurb, so I assume it’s from the publisher

The blurbs for the book are from such varied sources as The Atlantic Monthly, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post Book World, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Baltimore Sun, Kirkus Reviews, and Middle East Journal.

This is that rare book that I have slowed down my reading for just so I can fully savor each incident. Don’t ask me the plot – it is both too simple and too complex. Just get in the roller coaster car and hang on for the ride of your life. In tone, It’s a bit like Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman without the weird formatting. it somewhat reminds me of Tristam Shandy, especially if that worthy work had been cut into a movie with additions from The Beatles A Hard Days’ Night or Help.

The narrator is never named, but he starts the story when he is 13 and falls in love with his cousin Layli. Mind, this does not bode well, as Layli’s father not only has other plans for his daughter, but is currently trying to destroy the narrator’s father for various silly, petty reasons. Situations keep abounding, pitting various family members and a servant or two against each other, generally with hilarious consequences.

To say the characters are unforgettable would be doing them a great injustice. Even the minor characters are memorable, with significant bits to play in the general family drama.

There is almost no way I could describe this book without using spoilers. The ending is not what I expected, but that’s okay because it is of a whole with the story.

If you want a crazy, wild ride with all sorts of family dysfunctions (and wasn’t there a meme a few years back about all functional families being similar and each dysfunctional family being dysfunctional in a specific, singular way) this is a book for you.

Anyway, I really hope you enjoy this one as much as I did, and that we can have some fun discussions about it!

Review: Ruby Finley vs. the Interstellar Invasion, by K. Tempest Bradford

Before I get into this, I want to acknowledge that I personally know Tempest since her college days at NYU. That said, Tempest is one of the most incredible women I know working in the SF field today. A huge proponent of all kinds of equality, she is the woman behind the I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year challenge. She is also one of the people behind the Writing the Other workshops. I have never had a conversation with her where I did not come away with a fresh perspective.

She has now written her first middle-grade book, Ruby Finley vs. the Interstellar Invasion. It’s a delightful book. Ruby is an extremely bright eleven-year-old, with an over-arching interest in bugs of any kind. She finds a bug that nobody she knows has ever seen before, and posts about it to the science group on Twitter that she has created against her parents’ wishes. As often happens in books like this, chaos ensues. Government agents appear, the online posts her family and friends make start disappearing, and her science teacher tries intimidation to get Ruby to abandon her chosen science project in favor of one the teacher thinks is appropriate for an eleven-year-old girl.

During the chaos, Ruby discovers a neighbor in distress and she and her friends get the local civic council to make a wellness call, which saves the woman’s life. Further, Ruby does a lot of evaluating f her assumptions. I won’t tell more than this, since that would ruin the book for you, but it is well worth the time to read. Delightfully, I found it in one of the libraries I have access to in both e-book and e-audiobook forms.

If you have a kid who reads at the appropriate level, or if middle-grade books are your thing (and I know there are lots of adults for whom this is true), you will enjoy this book. And, maybe, Tempest will make you think, which is always fun.

Book Review — The Boy Who Listened to Paintings: A Memoir, by Dean Kostos

I purchased The Boy Who Listened to Paintings: A Memoir directly from the author at a brunch we both attended. That said, you guys know that the following will be my honest, unvarnished opinion.

The Boy Who Listened to Paintings: A Memoir is a very compelling book. Kostos’ candid, heart-wrenching memoir really resonated with me for many reasons, not the least of which was the role art played in keeping him going when all else failed.

It was not an easy book for me to read. Many of the struggles Kostos had ran at least parallel to struggles I had as the odd duck in my nuclear family. The recognition of those parallels, however, just made this memoir ring true. The feelings of not fitting in, the trying to toughen myself to the taunts of the bullies and mean girls I spent my school years with, the feeling responsible for the problems in my family were all territory I have traversed, and this memoir made me look at them again, but from a distance and with greater perspective.

While some of my choices, and the way I handled some of my struggles, differed from his, it was easy to see him growing into himself throughout the course of the book. It was also easy to see how much he cares about the people he shared his stay at “the Toot” with.

The biggest effect of the book on me is that I would love to be able to sit down with Kostos and “compare notes;” to talk about the ways art has sustained me over the darkest parts of my life, about having to reinvent myself, about how universal some of both of our issues were then, and still are now, even though there are many more solutions available to teenagers now than there were when he and I were teens.

As I noted, this was not a comfortable book to read, However, it was incredibly worthwhile to do so because in some ways it brought me face to face with myself. I highly recommend reading this book, and then pursuing some of Mr. Kostos’ other works, which I fully intend to do.

Happy 100th, Mr. Spillane!

Hard Case Crime is beginning the year-long celebration of what would have been Mickey Spillane’s 100th birthday by publishing (for the first time anywhere) his last completed novel, The Last Stand.

They were kind enough to provide me with an advance reading copy, so here are my thoughts on it. Neither of the stories in the book feature Mike Hammer, so if you are looking for a new “lost” Hammer novel, you will be disappointed. That will probably be your only disappointment with the book, however.

Additionally, the volume includes a never-before-published early Mickey Spillane novella, “A Bullet for Satisfaction.” This is the first story in the book. It’s a taut story, albeit a violent one. Rod Dexter is a police detective who, while investigating the murder of a local politician, stumbles into a conspiracy by the Syndicate to take over the mid-sized town he works and lives in. Fired for essentially being too close to exposing too many bigwigs, he refuses to let go of the case.It’s a lot grittier than most of the stuff I read, but it is definitely the work of someone who knows what he is doing. The prose is spare – not a single word that isn’t needed – and the tension is kept high. And while the violence seems excessive to me, it is my understanding that this was appropriate for the time was written, and takes place, in.

The title story, “The Last Stand” follows. When you read it, you will need to bear in mind that it was written way before political correctness existed. This may mean you find it offensive in terms of stereotyping. If you can put that aside (I found it hard to, until one of the Native Americans in the story started making fun of the stereotypes), it’s a good story. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say I hope that you can, becaause this is one of the best stories i’ve read in a long time. Funny, scary, tense, complicated, and with utterly memorable characters, this is one that will stay with e for a while. Mr. Spillane may have aged, but it’s clear he was still at the peak of his abilities when he penned this one.

During the year-long celebration, MWA Grandmaster Max Allan Collins’ completion of the first Mike Hammer novel (begun in 1945, but set aside for later work), Killing Town, will be published by Hard Case Crime. So will his the first paperback publication of the Spillane started/Collins finished The Will to Kill. Additionally, Hard Case Crime will publish a new Mike Hammer graphic novel/comic book called Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer: The Night I Died.

So, if you are a Mickey Spillane fan, this will be an excellent year, with lots of things coming your way.

An Interesting Challenge

I don’t normally do shout-outs of publishers, but I would like to call your attention​ to two publishers – one in the U.S., one in Britain – who have taken up a challenge.

First, the challenge: In 2015, a British Pakistani writer named Kamila Shamsie came up with a challenge for publishers: publish only books by women for a year. She wrote the following:

“I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there is a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that men are better writers and better critics. Enough … Why not have a year of publishing women: 2018, the centenary of women over the age of 30 getting the vote in the UK, seems appropriate.”

It was taken up for 2018 by one British publishing house​: And Other Stories, based in Sheffield. The challenge has now also been taken up by Oregon’s Not A Pipe Publishing.

I think both publishers​ are doing something really good by taking up this challenge, and I am looking forward to reading the books they will put ut this year. I promise to review the books here ​and to keep folks up to date on how the publishers are doing while taking this challenge.

Kindles and Tablets and Phones, Oh My!

As most of you know, I am a pretty deep and wide reader. I will read anything that doesn’t run away fast enough. My apartment has more books than bookshelves, even with the four additional bookshelves I inherited when one of my oldest friends moved. Further, my roommate is a retired librarian. If there is a flat surface in our house other than the kitchen counter and table that is not covered with books, you can be sure it soon will be. I love to crack open a good book, and I always will.

That said, I am a great fan of e-books and e-readers. I wasn’t always, I admit, but I have come around. E-readers and e-reading apps make life easy. My Kindle has, as of this morning, 3,098 e-books on it. Imagine the delight of carrying that much reading material with me, especially since having several major surgeries, both of which have required me to drastically cut down the amount of stuff I can lug around on any given day. Further, so long as I remember to bring a charging cable with me, the devices can be used to make long hospital stays much more endurable.

Even better, I can borrow e-books from both the Brooklyn and New York Public Libraries. This means that new books are just a few clicks away. I can even send things like knitting patterns to my Kindle or other e-readers, so I am lugging less paper.

Also, one advantage of e-readers and apps is that I can adjust the size of the print to whatever I can comfortably read. Many e-readers and apps also allow you to adjust the brightness and background color to something that your eyes find comfortable. I also like that I can easily make notes, place bookmarks so that I can pick up from the same spot in a book on my Kindle, my tablet, or even my smartphone. I can also choose to have a different book open on each device or app. Since I tend to read several books at a time, this is one of the biggest advantages as far as I’m concerned.

I have found only one downside to using e-readers and apps: I now tend to acquire books at an even faster rate than I did before. The thing is that people, both online and off, keep recommending books and series of books to me. And there are always newsletters and websites to tell me about all the books I might want to read Real Soon Now.  I have actually maxed out my Amazon store card on occasion because of this. It is far too easy, when buying a book for my e-reader, to just buy the whole series – just a few clicks and they are on my device. Still, this does have the upside of being able to have all of a series with me, just in case I need to look back to find something.

So, while books will always hold the premier place in my heart, e-readers and apps will tie for a close second. If you have not used an e-reader, I suggest that you download one of the many e-readers available to either a tablet or smartphone, and give it a try. You may discover that you enjoy the flexibility an e-reader or e-reading app.

I’d love to hear from y’all as to whether you like or hate e-reading devices and apps, so please feel free to comment below!

Reading, Religion, and My Quest for Knowledge

As you guys know, I am a reader. Nothing makes me happier than to curl up with a good book, whether it’s a hardcover or on my Kindle. What you may not know (unless you know me in real life) is that I read multiple books over the same period of time. I might grab a good Lawrence Block mystery in the morning (which I will undoubtedly finish at one sitting because I can’t put it down), and then dip into a few chapters of a cookbook. In the evening, I might read a bit about meditation or a few chapters of a biography.

This year, I am taking on two major reading projects. The first is to read the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) in a year. I’m using a New Revised Standard Version because I cannot find my King James version. I love the way the language is used in the King James. The New Revised Standard is a bit too modern for my taste but, in the smallish doses I read each day, it will serve. The reading plan I am using for this is’s “Walk Thru the Bible.

The other project is reading the Talmud. Since I cannot read Hebrew, I am reading the Koren Publications English version of the Steinsaltz Edition. The first three volumes, covering the first two tractates, arrived yesterday (I opted for “real” books for this, rather than an online or PDF version). I cannot claim to be going full Daf Yomi on this project — the reading for today is in the 26th volume, and I suspect it would take forever to catch up. However, I will advance at my own pace – I plan to try for at least two dafs a day on days when I don’t have doctors appointments or other things scheduled.

Now, those of you who know me know that I am not particularly religious so you might raise the question of why I am taking on these two projects. Well, I have always loved learning about religions, and I think it’s time to take the next step and start going deeper into that. I do not intend for these to be the only religious books I add to my list — there are a number of other religions I am also interested in. It just seemed to me that my own religion and the other major religion (Christianity as a whole, rather than any one sect of it) would be the proper place for me to start.

So, my reading multitasking just got bigger by two projects. We’ll see if I can stick to them.

Alexander Hamilton Comes to Town

Hi! I know it’s been a while, but I was off having spinal surgery.

The book I want to talk about today is Ron Chernow’s  in-depth biography of Alexander Hamilton. I bought this e-book because, like most of America, I was fascinated with the alexander_hamilton_ron_chernowsubject after hearing the score for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play, Hamilton.

That Hamilton was, like many New Yorkers, an immigrant, was just part of what made him so fascinating. That his main weapon was words was another thing. I felt that this biography not only brought the man to life, but also brought to life the milieu he lived in. Further, the book didn’t reduce his foes or colleagues to cardboard characters. You could really feel the intensity of Hamilton and his colleagues and foes as they struggled to create and defend a new nation. Further, the political infighting was fascinating, especially given the election we recently had. Also, the writing itself was good

Also, the writing itself was good.Many history books are so dry that they remind me of bad textbooks. Alexander Hamilton avoids that fault. The writing is concise, but lively. While it was not a book I could read in one sitting, often I would sit down to read a chapter or two, get caught up, and be reading far longer than I had planned — sometimes deep into the wee hours of the night.

I highly recommend this book if you are interested in history, both of the United States and New York, or in biographies of the founders of our country.

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