Monday, September 18, 2017

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper

I loved this book about how dictionaries are created. Author Kory Stamper has worked at Merriam-Webster since 1998 and she has written a tell-all about the challenges and controversies involved in creating a modern, up-to-date dictionary. Written in clear and lively prose, this book takes both a serious and humorous look at how dictionaries are made. This is also a personal story about Ms. Stamper and her love of language. I should say languages, though, because to be a lexicographer, you have to have a good sense of the other languages that are the building blocks of English, like French and Latin.

Whether dictionaries should be descriptive or prescriptive is one of the questions that Stamper addresses. While that might have been decided already, there are still many who believe they should be prescriptive, that is, telling readers how to use words, rather than descriptive, telling them how words are used. I can understand the viewpoint of the Prescriptivists, as I have my own pet peeve that I wish the dictionary could validate (reticent vs. reluctant), but in the end the Descriptivists win out. Language is always changing, and as use changes, what's acceptable eventually follows. Sometimes, as in the case of "irregardless," the dictionary notes its common usage but relies upon usage notes and the use of "nonstandard" to indicate its lack of correctness.

This book will be a fun, entertaining, and enlightening read for anyone who loves words, language, and grammar. It includes an index and a bibliography including several books that I'd like to read:
  • Simon Winchester. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Herbert Charles Morton. The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove’s controversial dictionary and its critics.
  • David Skinner. The Story of Ain't: America, its Language and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.

Kory Stamper. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. New York: Pantheon Books, 2017. 296 pages. ISBN 9781101870946.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Logical Family: a Memoir, by Armistead Maupin

Fans of Armistead Maupin will love this memoir. In it the author talks about his childhood in North Carolina with a very conservative father. He describes his grandmother who encouraged his artistic tendencies, including acting and writing. He writes about his navy service in Vietnam and Cambodia, his time working with Jesse Helms, and how he met President Nixon. Mr. Maupin describes his move to San Francisco where he worked as a reporter for the Associated Press for a time before he began his weekly fiction column that eventually became Tales of the City.

Mr. Maupin is unflinchingly honest, and the book is touching and funny throughout. He has a way of dropping names and hints which make the later revelations all the funnier. He talks candidly about his friendship with Rock Hudson, and acquaintances like Harvey Milk. He believes that people have a responsibility to be honest about their sexuality, and he doesn't regret "outing" Rock Hudson when it became known that Hudson was ill with AIDS. He writes about losing his virginity, coming out, and his relationships with his parents.

I really enjoyed this book. It was the August selection for my book club and it was a hit with all of us. Although the book doesn't come out until October, I was fortunate to receive several copies of the advance reading copy at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago. Anyone who likes Armistead Maupin or enjoys a good memoir would like it.

Armistead Maupin. Logical Family: a Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2017. 294 pages. ISBN 9780062391223.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency

The Gatekeepers is a fascinating look inside every White House from Nixon's administration through Obama's. Author Chris Whipple devotes a chapter to each president and his respective chiefs of staff. It's clear that the success of each administration hinged at least partly on how the Oval Office was managed, and much of that comes down to the organizational skills of, and authority granted to, the chiefs of staff. Presidents who tried to micromanage the Office's activities, with everyone reporting directly to him, had much more difficult times that those who had stronger chiefs. Chiefs who were able to stand up to the President when necessary were better able to steer him to sound decision making.

Filled with intriguing anecdotes, quotes, and interviews with key players, The Gatekeepers is a riveting look at recent history. The author touches on many of the most important events of the last 50 years, including the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Cold War, the Iran-Contra Scandal, the first Gulf War, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, 9/11 and its aftermath, Obamacare, and much, much more. I found it particularly gripping given our current political climate. I wonder what today's events will look like when we look back in 20 or 30 years, and I wonder if it will be as distressing to recall as it is to live through it every day, with the horror show we see perpetually on television and in the papers.

I found The Gatekeepers hard to put down. It's well supported with robust bibliography and notes sections. Mr. Whipple's style is clear and his writing flows like a novel; I hope he continues to write popular history.

I received this book from Blogging for Books.

Chris Whipple. The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. New York: Crown, 2017. 365 pages. ISBN 9780804138246.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

My book club picked My Beloved World for our May read. Sonia Sotomayor had recently visited the University at Albany, although I was traveling at the time and unable to attend her presentation, held in our basketball arena to a sold-out crowd. I was eager to read her memoir as part of my effort to counter the horror of the daily news with affirming works by people who are worthy of admiration. After reading Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father, I was ready for another work that would remind me that principled and intelligent public servants do exist.

My Beloved World tells Ms. Sotomayor's life story from childhood through her first appointment as a judge. I loved reading about her family, both here in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico, as well as her academic challenges and achievements. She breezes pretty quickly through her years at Princeton and her time at Yale Law School, but I really appreciated learning how she would identify the best student and ask them for advice about how to be a better student. Post-graduation she worked as an Assistant District Attorney, then for a law firm, and volunteered for numerous positions in important advocacy organizations, in the process getting the right experience to be considered for a judge-ship.

This book is a thoughtful look back at Ms. Sotomayor's experiences growing up, going off to school, entering the workforce, and becoming a judge. She ends the book at the point that she becomes a judge; I can only hope that she's going to continue the story at a later time; hopefully she won't have to wait until she retires. My Beloved World is well-written, clear, and concise. Highly recommended!

Sonia Sotomayor. My Beloved World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 315 pages. ISBN 9780307594884.

June-August 2017

People of the Book tells the story of a famous book through the imagined clues left behind in its pages. A moth, a wine stain, and evidence of salt water on its pages reveal clues to its adventures, from its creation to its rescue during World War II and again during the siege on Sarajevo during the 1990s Balkan wars. It's a well-written and fascinating example of historical fiction; I look forward to reading more of Geraldine Brooks' work.

The Sparrow is a science fiction novel that explores philosophy and religion as its characters travel through space to encounter another civilization. As Father Emilio Sandoz, the sole survivor of an expedition to another planet, heals from his injuries, he slowly tells the story of what happened when they met intelligent beings that didn't quite meet their expectations and hopes. I loved this story and I'm eager to read the sequel, Children of God.

Author Sarah Schmidt became obsessed with the story of Lizzie Borden. A native of Melbourne, Australia, her interest was so great that she traveled to the U.S. to visit the Borden home and stay overnight. See What I Have Done explores the Borden tale through the viewpoints of Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget, and a drifter named Benjamin (a fictional character). The characters and their voices are distinct and create a fascinating picture of what might have happened that day in 1892.

I've only read one Henning Mankell mystery: The Troubled Man, which is his last Kurt Wallander book. I wouldn't normally start a series at the end, but I had received an advanced reading copy at Book Expo America, so I gave it a shot. I found it a little bit sad and depressing, but maybe that's because he was wrapping up the series. Secrets in the Fire is a children's book based on the life of a young girl who lost her legs to a land mine. Along with its two sequels, Playing with Fire, and Shadow of the Leopard, it reveals the plight that so many regions of the world experience, not being safe in their own homeland due to conflict and war.

Peter Mayle's The Marseille Caper is a fun, fast-moving romp through Marseille. Sam Levitt, an amateur detective, is hired to help his client secure a contract to develop beachfront property in Marseille. Lots of action, adventure, good food, and wine drinking follow. Just what was needed for a post-semester break from reality.

I've set a goal to read all of the Jo Nesbo Harry Hole detective stories in order. I've enjoyed a few of his later books, but with Cockroaches his writing is nowhere near as good as in his later books. Perhaps it has something to do with the translation, because there are many phrases throughout that just don't ring true or make sense. My guess is that after he made it big his earlier books were translated into English, but the books weren't really all that good, and the translations were not the best. I will keep going with the series, however; at least I'll be able to track when he began to get really good.

Friday, June 2, 2017

May 2017 Reads

A good mystery set in Northern California. Matthew Lindstrom has been given a tip that his wife, missing for 14 years, is alive and well. He decides to confront her, only to find that she's gone missing again, and he's the logical suspect.
Can a classic car really be a portal to another dimension or planet? That seems to be what's at the center of this suspenseful novel. For decades the Pennsylvania State Police in a small town in Western Pennsylvania have monitored a Buick, conducting experiments and keeping it hidden away. What happens when someone decides it's gone on too long and decides to destroy it?
How have we allowed ourselves to get so busy that we don't have time to enjoy each day? We take on too much and can't say no. We allow our guilt and others' expectations to rule our lives and feel trapped in our overly-busy routines. This book explores this phenomenon and helps readers understand that there are other ways to live.
A short but compelling mystery set in a small town in Peru.

Them, by Nathan McCall

This 2007 novel is about tensions that arise when a traditionally African-American neighborhood in Atlanta succumbs to gentrification and young white couples begin to move in and change the character and culture of the neighborhood. Barlowe Reed is a 40-year old African-American man living in a rented home with his nephew Tyrone. Just as Barlowe begins to think about the possibility of purchasing the home he's renting, a young white couple buys the home next door. Sandy and Sean moved into the city neighborhood to live closer to their work in Atlanta, and they can't understand why they're not accepted or welcomed by the African-American residents of the "Old Fourth Ward."

Author Nathan McCall does a good job revealing the various viewpoints of each of the characters, although the only character with any real depth is Barlowe. It's easy to empathize with many of the characters; however, both sides of the issue demonstrate extremism is their positions. Some African-Americans want to keep all whites out of their neighborhood, and carry out vandalism against their property. Many of the new white residents exhibit a complete tone-deafness to their conversations and are intolerant of harmless neighborhood characters, such as Ricky, who picks through their trash, or the neighborhood drunks who take shortcuts through their yards. Both sides think of the other as "them." As I read this book, I kept thinking about how difficult it is for people to communicate. Fear keeps people from trying; when things go unsaid, they can be completely misinterpreted. At the very least we all need to try to talk to each other and really listen.

This is a well-written and engaging book; I couldn't put it down and read it in just about 24 hours (although I'm on vacation right now and that helped a bit). I would recommend this to anyone who likes contemporary fiction that takes on a challenging subject.

Nathan McCall. Them. New York: Atria Books, 2007. 339 pages. ISBN 9781416549154. Advance Reading Copy.