Monday, May 11, 2020

Grammar Mini-Reviews: Dreyer's English and Semicolon

Benjamin Dreyer is the copy chief at a little-known publishing house known as Random House. He knows a thing or two about ensuring that prose is clear, error-free, and perhaps even delightful to read. Dreyer insists he is not writing an essential style guide (there is probably no such thing). Instead, he shares the rules that aren't quite as concrete as you might think, and the conversations he has in the margins with the writers he works with. (Don't worry, we get over our objections about ending a sentence with a preposition in chapter two).

The first half of the book is a meandering sort of meditation on how to write well. The second half is a list with explanations: what's the difference between affect and effect? How do I spell the name of that author? (It's Virginia Woolf with two O's.) Dreyer's English is a book for writers who want to improve their craft, editors who want a better handle on the why of things, and any reader who is fascinated by language. It's also delightfully funny. The footnotes alone are worth the price of the book. If you find yourself in need of a good style guide (or twelve), you might as well have one that will make you laugh while you figure out if you should be using further or farther.

Dreyer's English:
An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style from the Copy Chief of Random House
By Benjamin Dreyer
Random House January 2019
256 pages
Read via Netgalley

Ceclia Watson used to glory in the rules of grammar and punctuation. She knew that there was right way and a wrong way to use the comma and the semicolon. But as she researched the history of usage, she discovered that things were not as clear cut as she had believed. In Semicolon, she breaks down the origins and history of the much-beloved and much-maligned mark. She examines the ways grammar can become a weapon and how it could change the meaning of a law, and analyzes the much-beloved prose of writers like Raymond Chandler, Herman Melville, and Rebecca Solnit.

This book is well-researched and easy to read (two things that don't often co-exist). Watson's passion for language, grammar, and punctuation make the reader very interested in this tiny symbol that has both furious detractors and fierce advocates--a tiny dot and curl from a pen can change everything. If you are the kind of person who is interested in how language evolves and how it affects the people who use it, this is the perfect book for you.

The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
By Cecelia Watson
Ecco July 2019
213 pages
From the library

Friday, January 24, 2020

Mini-Reviews: The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes and The Great Unexpected

Masha goes to the community pool every morning and considers going under and not coming back up. She is consumed by grief after the death of her son. One day, she decides to open up just a little to the local eccentric who spends her days at the graveyard. Another woman is consumed with grief as well, although her grief is for something that hasn't happened yet. Alice doesn't know if she will survive after being diagnosed with cancer, and she is desperately looking for some way to care for her teenage son after she is gone.

The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes is a sweet story about community carrying us through grief and pain. While tragedy can be isolating, this book reminds us that we can reach out and find people who are willing to be with us in our darkest moments. It didn't draw me in quite as much as Hogan's debut novel The Keeper of Lost Thingsbut we still get to meet quirky characters and experience a story that deals with difficult issues without devastating its reader.

The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes
By Ruth Hogan
Crooked Lane Books June 2019
320 pages
Read via Netgalley

Joel was able to bear the nursing home when his wife helped him through each day. When she dies, Joel can't see a reason to continue living. He hates having no control over his life and being told what to do when. His new roommate Frank is a retired soap opera star who loves to charm the people around him. The two men frequently clash, until Frank suggests that they might make some bold choices and take a trip outside the nursing home. Frank and Joel become unlikely friends and decide to have as many adventures as possible in the time they have left.

Dan Mooney does an excellent job of showing the pain and frustration of losing control over your own life. The staff at Joel's nursing home are not cruel, but they are people who are overworked and have to ensure that certain things happen each day. The story was somewhat predictable, but it's always wonderful to read a book that focuses on                                                                                friendship, especially when those friends are                                                                                     septuagenarians! 
The Great Unexpected
By Dan Mooney
Park Row June 2019
368 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review: Furious Hours

Rev. Willie Maxwell was suspected of murdering several members of his family and cashing in on the insurance money. He got away with it until a relative shot and killed him at a funeral. Even though 300 people saw Robert Burns shoot Willie Maxwell, he was acquitted. Harper Lee was fascinated by the story and decided to write her first nonfiction book. But modern readers know that Harper Lee never published this work. What happened to this tale of poverty, murder, and injustice?

I picked up this book because I adored To Kill a Mockingbird when I read it in high school. A decade and a half later, with an English literature degree under my belt, I can see Lee's talent as well as the ways she protected herself as a white woman. Casey Cep does a masterful job of presenting Lee as a woman who did the safe thing--while she may have believed that racism and discrimination were wrong, she never publicly condemned them.

While Lee is carefully rendered on the page, readers hoping to read 300 pages about her may be disappointed. She shows up only briefly until the last third of the book. The first two sections focus on the man suspected of murdering his family members, and the white lawyer who defended both the reverend and the man who killed him.

Cep is a truly excellent writer. The best nonfiction teaches you and shows you connections you didn't expect; Furious Hours accomplishes this in every chapter. This also may be one of the few books that actually caused me to laugh out loud, and I was surprised to find that I was chuckling about the history of life insurance.

This is a book about individual people--the small town minister who wanted money even at the expense of his family's lives, the lawyer who fought for equality before Alabama was ready for it, and the writer who fell victim to the power of alcohol and fear of failure. But Furious Hours is also a larger look at the cost of success, the victories and corruption of Southern politics, and the power of telling a story.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review: Orange World and Other Stories

Karen Russell is a highly awarded author whose stories are both beautiful and unsettling. Her newest collection, Orange World and Other Stories, is full of tales of worlds that are just a bit more bizarre than the one we live in.

The book starts with a pair of friends hoping to take advantage of a few marks at a fancy hotel, only to discover that the party they've crashed is attended only by ghosts. In The Bad Graft and Bog Girl, characters spend time in nature as a woman pricks her finger on a Joshua tree and a young man falls in love with the body of a woman pulled from the bog. It's not the only pairing, as men consider their purposes in The Tornado Auction and Black Corfu (although careers raising tornadoes and preventing the undead from rising are as different as can be). The final two stories may have been my favorite, though. In The Gondoliers, sisters traverse the dangerous waters of a post-apocalyptic Florida by singing and in Orange World, a new mother encounters a devil who preys on her fears and demands to be fed.

The stories are often funny and always dropping you into strange, new worlds. Russell is a literary wizard who imagines scenarios that could never exist in any other writer's head. Somehow in the midst of ghosts, zombies, and devils, she makes us think about the most vulnerable moments of our humanity and how we make decisions for ourselves and the people we love.  I can't wait to see what strange and beautiful places Russell will take us next.

Orange World and Other Stories
By Karen Russell
Knopf Publishing Group May 2019
288 pages
From the library

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Review: Save Me the Plums

Ruth Reichl was known for her insightful restaurant reviews. But she wasn't sure she was qualified to run Gourmet magazine. When she was offered the job of editor-in-chief, she overcame her hesitation to lead the publication she had loved for decades. She would work at the magazine for ten years, learning that the things that worked in a review column didn't always work when success was determined by the whims of both staff and readers.

Save Me the Plums is the real-life dishy look inside the day-to-day operations of a magazine that you've always wanted. As you read, you feel like you're tasting a cake in the magazine's kitchen or attending a party with the hottest celebrity chefs. She easily throws off references to Alice Waters and James Beard, but it doesn't come across as braggy; Reichl is just showing you her world from her unconventional childhood to making dinner with her son.

Reichl is a foodie who understands there is more to it than creating a beautiful and delicious plate. She believes that food writing should bring to light the damage we do to our planet in the quest for certain foods and the reality that eating well is not possible for everyone. When she ran Gourmet, she insisted that the magazine feature writing that would inspire and challenge people, instead of continuing to be an old-fashioned magazine for the wealthy. Save Me the Plums is an loving tribute to the heyday of magazine publishing, when fascinating and provocative articles about food were the topics of conversation everywhere.

I can't believe I waited so long to read something by Ruth Reichl. Her love for food is evident on every page, and she has a true gift for telling a great story. I will be happily reading through her backlist this summer.

Save Me the Plums
My Gourmet Memoir
By Ruth Reichl
Random House April 2019
288 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: We Will Feast

Kendall Vanderslice grew up loving church and loving the way that eating brought people together. She believed that there was a connection between food and theology and finally found them co-existing at a Massachusetts dinner church. Kendall traveled the country from Texas to Michigan to see how people come together to worship and eat. 

We Will Feast is not prescriptive; Kendall visits a variety of congregations and cautions that this kind of church does not work for everyone. But she does wonder how we bring people into church who feel uncomfortable with traditional practices. "For those who have grown up in a church, the code and language of that specific setting are learned unconsciously. But for those who have not developed such a training, stepping into a community can be awkward or even painful. Holding a worship service over a simple meal subverts all expectations of behavior...It can challenge a church to use the Eucharist not only as a sign of God's abundance but also as a practice that uses God's abundance to bring together men and women from a variety of social backgrounds."

Every two months or so, I invite the women of my congregation to come to my house for dinner. We answer some discussion questions, but mostly we enjoy enchiladas or lasagna together. I've realized that people are much more likely to open up about their lives over a meal. It's easier to really discuss something when we know that there is time to take a sip of coffee or break off a piece of bread and consider our answers. Coming around a communion table or a table in a church basement gives us the opportunity to really see and hear each other in a way we can't when we say that we're doing fine while running out the door.

The Bible tells us not just to come together once a week to have a service and then go home. It tells us to live together, and that includes sitting around a table to eat pizza on a Friday night or share a crockpot of soup after we take Communion together. We Will Feast is crucial reading for those of us who attend church. It asks us to think about how we welcome people and how we can include the lonely, the questioning, and people who don't look or think like us in our feasting.

We Will Feast
Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God
By Kendall Vanderslice
Eerdmans May 2019
176 pages
Received book as part of launch team

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Review: The Paragon Hotel

Alice James is fleeing across the country. She makes polite small talk with her fellow travelers on a train to Oregon, while covertly nursing the bullet wound in her side. While she might fool some people, Max can tell right away that something is wrong and she needs a safe place. The porter takes a chance on Alice by bringing her to the Paragon Hotel, the only all-black hotel in Portland. Some of its residents are fascinated by Alice and her ability to instantly change her story and her personality; but others are wary of her presence. They have good reason to suspect white people: the Ku Klux Klan is on the rise in Portland and even the Paragon may not be safe for long.

If you read and enjoyed Lyndsay Faye's book Jane Steele, you already know that she has an uncanny ability to tell a dark story that is also ridiculously fun. She makes the same magic happen in The Paragon Hotel. This is a book about people who had no power and no rights in the 1920s--women, people of color, and gay and transexual people. While modern Oregon is seen as somewhat of a liberal mecca, it was a difficult place in the early twentieth century. In fact, is is the only state that banned black people from living there and it had one of the highest concentrations of Klan members in the United States. The Paragon is based on a real hotel in Portland, which was the only place for people of color to safely stay during their time in the city.

As a reader, you are going to be worried about these characters on almost every page. But you are also going to embark on a colorful, joyous adventure with larger-than-life characters. And at certain moments, it does feel like too much. Surely not every single person can be so charming, so fascinating, and have such an unexpected backstory. As you read along, it feels almost as if you are watching a movie because the stakes are always so high and the characters are always bright and compelling. Lyndsay Faye has written another story you won't want to put down.

The Paragon Hotel
By Lyndsay Faye
G.P. Putnam's Sons January 2019
432 pages
From the library