Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

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

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.

Review: By the Waters of Babylon, by Stephen Vincent Benét

This is a bit complicated.

When I was in seventh grade I first read Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story By the Waters of Babylon. I enjoyed it but the only thing that stuck with me were the words “There was also the shattered image of a man or a god. It had been made of white stone, and he wore his hair tied back like a woman. His name was ASHING, as I read on the cracked half of a stone. I thought it wise to pray to ASHING, though I do not know that god.”

Never managed to remember the name or the author, which is unusual for me, but whenever something brought the great god ASHING to my mind, I would look it up online, and be happy I remembered that much.

That happened again this morning – it came up while talking to my wife, and I looked it up. Having found the title and author, I checked the three libraries I have access to and none of them had it. So I did what any self-respecting bookgeek would do — I did an internet search and found the story on the Internet Archive.

I’m so glad I did. I was just as blown away by it this morning as I had been in seventh grade. The upshot — me being me — is that I now need to read more Stephen Vincent Benét.

Review: Happiness Came With a Cat: My Journey from Brokennesss to Happiness, and the Life Lessons My Cat Taught Me, by Cynthia Star

Cynthia Star’s Happiness Came With a Cat: My Journey from Brokenness to Happiness, and the Life Lessons My Cat Taught Me is an adorable short book about her journey with the cat her daughter wanted, Mr. Jinx. It’s basically an explanation of the insights she gained while first cat-sitting, then owning Mr. Jinx.

As the owner of a difficult cat, I found Ms. Star’s insights to be spot on. My difficult cat is now 19, and beginning to feel her age. I enjoyed very much the similarity between insights I’ve gotten from Kitt and the several cats who preceded her in my home.

Anyway, when Ms. Star gets a cat for her daughter, her life implodes from several directions. As anyone who owns (or is owned by) a cat can tell you, they are the best therapists. And Ms. Star is clearly a keen observer of feline behavior, and very capable of extrapolating how her observations of Mr. Jinx’s behavior is relevant in living her life.

I definitely recommend this book for cat lovers and even those who might be cat lovers if the right cat came along. I also recommend it for folks who are afraid of cats, because it shows how compatible with humans cats can be. I note that I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Review: IMAGINE JOHN YOKO, by John Lennon (mostly curated by Yoko Ono)

Imagine John Yoko is almost too much of a Good Thing. It is chock-full of interviews with anyone and everyone who had anything to do with the recording of the album. It’s also lavishly illustrated, including photos of notes, tech layouts, houses, gardens, people, art, and just about everything that went into the project. The result is a wonderful, huge book that literally took me all 15 of my library’s renewal options to finish. It also required me to clean off a table and put the book on it rather than holding it.

For those of us who remember John, Yoko, the Beatles, and the circus that seemed to be around them at all times, it’s a wonderful look back. I highly enjoyed it and even came to understand Yoko Ono and her work a bit more than I already did. (I had known that in some circles Ono was the “rising star” celebrity and Lennon the “hanger-on.”) In fact, one of the things I came away from the book with was a better understanding of what John found intellectually challenging about her. The book also noted that while John has often said that he took the lyrics for “Imagine” from some of Yoko’s work, it wasn’t until 2017 that Yoko got writing credit for it. Shortly before the announcement, Lennon had noted in a BBC interview that

“‘Actually that should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song because a lot of it — the lyric and the concept — came from Yoko. But those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book.”

Yoko Ono added to Imagine writing credits
Published 15 June 2017, BBC News

Again, if you love the Beatles, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, the Plastic Ono Band, and — most of all — the song “Imagine,” you will want to read this one. It’s definitely worth the time and effort.

Review: Vegan Serendib: Recipes from Sri Lanka, by Mary Anne Mohanraj

I’m not sure I’ve ever reviewed a cookbook before, so please bear with me. Also, I should note that while Ms. Mohanraj and I have not met in person, we have had several interesting conversations on Facebook Messenger when I had questions about recipes from her blog. I was also a supporter of both this book, Vegan Serendib: Recipes from Sri Lanka, and her first cookbook, A Feast of Serendib on Kickstarter.

That said, I was really knocked out by Vegan Serendib: Recipes from Sri Lanka! There are so many recipes in there that I want to try, especially as I have been trying to get more non-meat foods into my diet. I’m especially looking forward to trying some of the eggplant, beet, Brussels sprouts, okra, and cauliflower dishes since those are among my favorite vegetables. Savory dishes, however, are not the only things that Ms. Mohanraj covers. She also covers breakfast dishes, party dishes, desserts, and beverages.

In this volume, she keeps the storytelling to a minimum, which I kind of miss because she is an excellent storyteller, but I understand that she opted to include more recipes instead. She also has a small glossary, beautiful pictures of the foods, and advice on substitutions, which is very helpful for those of us not living in Sri Lanka.

I have no idea how she made the time to do this book: Ms. Mohanraj is not only a cookbook author, she writes science fiction/fantasy, runs several organizations promoting Desi literature, is a full professor of literature, has sat on a library board, and on a school board. She also designs beautiful fabrics, and now has taken on running a small press. Just listing all she does makes me dizzy!

Still, I hope she writes more cookbooks and explores her culture in them more deeply. If you like cookbooks, ethnic foods, excellent writing, and information, this is a book you need to add to your cookbook shelf and use often.

Review: Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

I was a lot less impressed with Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago than I thought I’d be. The sad thing is that it was not the length of the book that was my problem…the characters just didn’t hold my attention. Thinking I was missing something, I asked my wife, who is as big a reader of difficult material as I am, what she thought. Her opinion is that it was the romanticized movie and his political activity that has caused this work to be so popular, but that she had not cared for it either.

I may come back to it someday — I am willing to believe that my perspective is far from the only one, so the book may well deserve another chance. Or it may be that this book needs to be read, not listened to.

Still, I feel like I’ve been through a war just to get through it, and it will definitely be a while before I contemplate picking it up again.

Review: Hard Listening: The Greatest Rock Band of All Time (of Authors) Tells All, edited by Sam Barry

Sigh. Another book I didn’t review the first time around.

Hard Listening: The Greatest Rock Band of All Time (of Authors) Tells All, by Sam Barry, is the second book about the Rock Bottom Remainders, a “supergroup” made up of a number of best-selling authors (and some family members and friends, and a ringer or two).

The book is clearly a group effort, although this time the curator is Sam Barry, Dave Barry’s brother, who was the harmonica player for the band. The book is part tribute to the Remainders that were no longer alive by the time it was written, most notably Kathy Kamen Goldmark, who founded the group back when she was an author escort.

Like much of what I’m reading, this is a book built of stories — in this case the memories of gigs and other moments on a rock tour. It’s much more of a look through a kaleidoscope than a coherent, chronological tale, and that alone helps to capture the insanity of being “on the road.”

I recommend Hard Listening: The Greatest Rock Band of All Time (of Authors) Tells All to anyone who ever wanted to be in a band. Moreover, I recommend t to anyone who wants to spend a little time remembering what it was like back when “the music” was the thing that made you tick. The trip is definitely worth the price of admission.

Review: Radio Girls, by Sarah-Jane Stratford

Jan from the Virtual Silent Book Club recommended Sarah-Jane Stratford’s Radio Girls to me, and I’m glad she did.

This historical fiction is an account of MI-5 agent Hilda Matheson, told from the viewpoint of a fictional member of her team at the BBC, during the ramp-up to World War II. At the same time, it’s about the entry of women into other than secretarial slots in broadcasting, and — indeed — the changing events in many women’s lives, such as gaining the vote, standing for political jobs, etc, as well as the resistance of many men to these changes.

As an ex-college-radio-engineer myself, I was fascinated by the work Hilda, Maisie (the fictional team member) and the other women at the BBC did to break into broadcasting — clearly a boys’ club — with shows and stories about/of interest to women. And this was long before the women’s movement of the 70s, so these (and the women they represent) are the true foremothers of women in broadcasting.

One of the best things I found in this book was the way that many of the characters who were actually sympathetic to the changes also had to recognize (or not) their own resistance to them, and their own hypocrisy.

All in all, it was an interesting take on a heroine I had never heard of before, and I want to find out more abut her, so I recommend this book not just for the excellent writing, but for introducing me to aa new heroine and piquing my interest to learning more about her.

I think that this book would be great for anyone interested in Ms. Matheson, the history of the BBC, Britain’s ramp-up to WWII, the history and uses of radio, and women’s history.

Review: Playing in the FM Band: A Personal Account of Free Radio, by Steve Post

I picked up Steve Post’s Playing in the FM Band: A Personal Account of Free Radio with more than the usual mix of anticipation and trepidation. You see, I, too, am a Pacifica orphan — not at anywhere near the level Post and contemporaries were, but WBAI-FM was – from my sophomore year of high school until my mid-twenties – one of the places that shaped me. I volunteered at the station, doing everything from equipment setup for concerts to stuffing envelopes and answering phones during marathons. The two major relationships of those years were with men I met at the station. Heck, one of my cousins even became Operations Manager there (long after my time, but still…).

that said, the book is a fascinating look behind the scenes at what was a very exciting time for radio — at least here in NYC. Some of the items Post talks about I only knew bits and pieces of, others I was right there for. The men who shaped my life in those days, Steve Post, of course, Larry Josephson, and Bob Fass are all gone now. The last of NY’s great free-form radio announcers, Vin Scelsa, retired in 2015. Still, the memories I’ve on, and it was good to see them from someone else’s viewpoint.

As with much of my reading this year, this book is –in many ways — about stories and how we communicate them.

I do recommend this book (if you can find it – it’s kind of hard to find) if you are into radio, or into the changing music, environment, world, and political era Post reflects on. If you ever took part in college radio (announcer, news, engineer) or held an FCC 3rd Class (or better) license, you will also find much to remember here.

Review on Second Reading: The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

I didn’t review Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita the first time I read it (earlier this year) because I felt it was a bit beyond me. This second reading, however, just proves the assertion by both Steve Allen and Benjamin McEvoy that classics are made to be read more than once.

For one thing, my familiarity with the story made it easier for me to relax and see just how widely funny The Master and Margarita is. It also made it much easier to track the characters and their storylines. It was definitely easier, too, to follow how the storylines interacted with each other.

I can definitely say I will come back to this book again, to see what I find on a third reading, but for now I am content t have proven Allen and McEvoy right.

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