February Minireviews

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just feel rather “meh” about and they don’t seem worth writing an entire post about.  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E.L. Konigsburg

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//published 2007//

So growing up, Konigsburg’s The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was one of my favorite books.  As an adult, I discovered her book The View from Saturday and loved that one, too – a lot (I even read and reviewed it again!).  But for me, The Mysterious Edge just didn’t work the way her other two books did.  The plot is disjointed and strange, the characters inconsistent and unrealistic, and the entire premise centers around a lot of coincidences.

I really wanted to like this book – two kids becoming friends while helping an elderly lady clean out her house that’s full of interesting stuff – doesn’t that sound like fun??  But the old lady, Mrs. Zender, is really weird, and so are both of the boys – and not in the realistic, quirky way of some of Konigsburg’s characters in Saturday – just weird, weird: the kind of weird that leaves you scratching your head in puzzlement.

A lot of the story centers around a picture that one of the boys finds, a drawing of a naked woman.  Now we’re informed that this is art, so this is a “nude” which is different from just someone being naked.  But…  it still felt really inappropriate for the age of the characters and the intended readers, and, once again, was just kind of weird.  Like why does the picture have to be of a naked person??

There are almost some good discussions about how people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves, about people who are rich and people who aren’t, about whether or not a government should be able to decide what is or isn’t art.  But none of those conversations really go anywhere, so the whole book feels awkward and stunted.

All in all, 1/5 for a book that I wanted to like but just couldn’t.  I’m still planning to read some more of Konigsburg’s books because I have enjoyed a couple of them so very much, but I don’t see myself ever revisiting this one.

American Gardening Series: Container Gardening by Suzanne Frutig Bales

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//published 1993//

This is one of those random books that I picked up for a quarter at a library book sale at some point.  It’s not a terribly thick book, but it does have a lot of photographs and plenty of good information about choosing plants for container gardens and then keeping them alive after you’ve planted them!  Bales has a lot of enthusiasm for container gardening as it is very flexible and can be done in almost any amount of space.

I’ve been working through several gardening books this month, and I always glean some new tips and ideas.  This one is well worth the shelf space as a great reference book.  I especially enjoyed the chapters that focused on planning container gardens – I think that a lot of times people go into container gardening assuming that you just sort of jam some plants in and it will look great, but this book spends some time talking about not just the color of the plants you are planting, but texture, size, and growing requirements.  Definitely recommended if this is a topic you’re interested in learning more about.

The Princess by Lori Wick

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//published 1999//

This is a (multiple time) reread for me, and I have a more detailed review here.  Sometimes I just need some happy fluff, and this book always fits the bill.  It involves my favorite trope (marriage than love), and just is a happy, gentle little tale that I have read many times and yet always find enjoyable.  I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump here at the end of February, what with starting my new job and being super tired all the time, so The Princess helped get me through!

Terms & Conditions // by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

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//published 2016//

It occurs to me as I am writing this that this is actually the second book I have read by this title in the last few months, which seems peculiar.  It also has absolutely nothing to do with this review, as Robert Glancy’s Terms & Conditions was absolutely nothing like Graham’s!

Some of you may remember, back in the mists of time (and by that I mean in December), that I received my first issue of Slightly Foxed, an absolutely delightful literary magazine.  I enjoyed it so much that I actually wrote a review of a quarterly full of reviews!  SF publishes a special edition book every quarter as well, and for this winter it was Terms & Conditions.  Everyone spoke so warmly of this volume that I felt that I had to have it – and when it comes to books, I nearly always indulge my whims!

First off, we simply must address the physical perfection of this book.  Everything about it is exactly as it should be, from grey-blue cloth-bound cover to the ideal size (perfect for slipping into a pocket or reading in bed) to the book-marker ribbon to the excellent quality binding that allows the book to lay flat no matter where it is opened.  I wish all books would be published with such care!  All this meant that reading this book was always a lovely experience.  Every time I picked it up, my spirits were lifted before I even opened the book.  It is that perfect!

As for the book itself – well, conveniently, that is delightful as well!  This is a nonfiction book, a memoir of sorts, although not in the traditional sense as Graham has mostly collected the memories and stories of people other than herself.  So in a way it is a memoir not of a specific person, but of a type of person – of a group of people who all went through a similar experience.  And while each of them brings her own voice and memories, together they create a type: Women who attended British boarding schools between 1939 and 1979.

Before I began this book, I found myself wondering if I would really relate to anything it said.  After all, I’m an American who was home-educated and wasn’t even alive during the first seven decades of the twentieth century!  But to my delight, reading this book reminded me afresh that the simple kinship of being a woman is frequently enough of a bond to make the stories of other women relevant to me.

Graham’s book doesn’t really follow a linear story, a specific character, or even a particular location.  Instead, she has divided her book into chapters that each delve into an individual aspect of boarding school life during this period.  Throughout there are quotes from women who were students at this time, all with their own memories and stories, a rich reminder of how childhood experiences and friendships can stay with us throughout our lives.

I was a bit afraid that Graham was going to use this book as a platform to rant about the educational inequalities between girls and boys during this time.  But while she did discuss this – as it was an important aspect of boarding school life – I never felt like the book ventured into the polemic.  Instead, Graham balanced much of what she was writing with the concept that while some of the girls did suffer educationally because they were ambitious and their ambitions were dismissed merely because of their sex, other girls genuinely did want to find a nice husband and settle into their homes and raise their children, so for them an education that focused more on the social rather than the scientific was not detrimental to their future lives.

And in the end, I appreciated many of Graham’s conclusions –

These women were trained not to see themselves as the centre of the universe, but always to think of others, even when it came to the method for being passed the salt.  They learned early that ‘it’s not all about me’.  This lack of self-centredness is, I think, the biggest difference between privileged childhoods fifty or sixty years ago and privileged childhoods today.  Yes, these boarding-school girls came from affluent families, but they did not go on skiing holidays every year, and they were not given the idea that things should be arranged mainly for their benefit and delight.  Their schools taught them that their duty was to be of service to the community: they learned to look outwards and away from themselves rather than to wallow in introspection.  Thus they grew into an unselfish, un-self-pitying generation.

A while back I worked for an elderly woman (born 1919) who was born rich, raised rich, married rich, and is probably going to die rich (last I checked, she was still going strong!).  But what really amazed me about this woman was how despite the fact that she definitely felt entitled to a great deal (and honestly it was kind of hilarious to work as a servant…  like if she had people come to visit I would legit bring them tea and then go hang out in the kitchen until they left haha at least I didn’t have to wear a uniform), she believed it was so important for her to give back to her community.  In her lifetime she had personally overseen the purchase and restoration of a beautiful historic home that was slated for demolition in our downtown – it’s a museum now, and it was amazing to take her there for different events and listen to her stories about how even though other people helped, she almost single-handedly had done this.  And that wasn’t the only thing – she led committees and fundraisers that benefited all sorts of different local charities and organizations.  She was wealthy and privileged (she drove a custom-made Lincoln Town Car with her name engraved on the dashboard for pity’s sake!), but like the women in this book, she was also raised with the concept that being wealthy and privileged meant that you had responsibility.  And while she – and most of the women in the book – didn’t have a career, that did not stop her from being a productive, intelligent, competent citizen who devoted hours every week of her life to bettering her community and the lives of the people who lived in it.

All that to say that I do think that it is excellent that girls are given equal educational opportunities nowadays, but it does sometimes feel as though we have sacrificed that ingrained knowledge (in both girls and boys) that if you have, you are responsible for helping the have-nots.

My only complaint about this book was that I somewhat felt that Graham did not establish context.  I mean, yes, these girls definitely had a hard time of it – but so did almost everyone in those war/post-war years.  I don’t think going to a boys’ school at that time was a bed of roses, but at times the book edges towards implication that girls had it so much worse than the boys.  I don’t think they had it worse – I think they just had it different.

But on the whole, this was a delightfully entertaining and interesting read.  Plus, it’s nonfiction, so I’m already working on my goal of reading more nonfiction in 2017 – bonus!  I definitely recommend this book that manages to take a very specific piece of societal history and place it in relevant terms.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to seeking out more of Graham’s works soon – not to mention more of Slightly Foxed’s lovely special editions!

Sunsets // by Deborah Howard

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//published 2005//

This book, subtitled Reflections for Life’s Final Journey, is, in short, a book about death.  And while it wasn’t necessarily the most uplifting book to read, Howard approaches this subject with hope and encouragement.

Deborah Howard has worked as a hospice nurse for many years, and eventually felt compelled to write this book as an aid to guide people through the process of having a loved one die, or even knowing that the reader is facing death himself.  Howard is a Christian, and this book is unapologetically so.  While there is a great deal of emphasis on God, eternal life, and the perspective towards death that that mindset brings, Howard also provides much information about hospice that is useful even if you are not in agreement with the tenents of Christian faith.

I actually only had a vague notion of what hospice does before I read this book, so I found those parts of the book extremely interesting and informative.  Howard talks about how hospice was founded with the idea that people who are dying deserve to do so with dignity, with as little pain as possible, in their own homes, and surrounded by those they love.  She says that the founder of hospice was horrified by the way that those who were dying in hospitals were more or less considered failures of the medical profession.  (Granted, this was decades ago when hospitals were quite a bit different from what they are now.)

Having recently watched a loved one suffer through the final stages of cancer, I sincerely wish that I had been more familiar with hospice and the alternative that they offered.  While we were comfortable and cared for in hospital, there will always be something impersonal and vaguely routine about the care there.  Looking forward, with another relative diagnosed with terminal cancer, it was encouraging to understand that for someone like him, who hates hospitals and strangers, there is another option for him, and that he can spend his final weeks in his own home.

Howard emphasizes hospice as an alternative to the growing movement of assisted suicide.  Because patients who are enrolled in hospice have a terminal illness and a prognosis of less than six months to live, and all potentially life-saving options have been exhausted, the goal of hospice is not to help the patient “get better.”  Instead, their goal is stated as helping the patient “remain comfortable and free of suffering for the rest of his/her life.”  This is done, not by putting the person to sleep as though they are worth no more than a dog, but by providing them with equipment and medication that they need to make their final days as comfortable as possible.  Enabling someone to be in their own home, surrounded by their own family and loved ones, creates a situation where the focus can be on the joy of the patient’s life.

Throughout the book, Howard opens each chapter with the next part of a story of a hospice patient and his family.  She uses this story to illustrate the various stages of dying, from diagnosis onward.  Howard is realistic in her portrayal of human response to dying: we don’t want to!  But as she discusses the different stages and puts them into an eternal perspective, the reader is shown how death is inevitable but does not have to be viewed with terror.

She reminds the reader that preparation for death can (and should!) take place at any time in one’s life, not just when a life-threatening prognosis is given.  We do not know when our last moment will be – it can happen at any time.  I greatly liked the line she quoted from Dr. Charles Hodge:  “It is important that when we come to die we have nothing to do but die.”  In another place she tells a story of St. Francis –

It has been said that someone found St. Francis working his garden and asked him, “What would you do if you knew that you would die in ten minutes?”  St. Francis replied, “I’d try to finish this row.”

Howard discusses what happens after death, as well.  She believes in the Biblical definition of eternity, obviously, so although she examines other beliefs, she mostly does so to show how she does not believe that they logically fit into the real world.  I can see where a non-Christian may be greatly offended by much of this book, but I also think that it is a book that can put forth a challenge to that non-Christian’s beliefs.  If nothing else, it gives the reader much to consider, as so often we prefer to pretend that we will never die, when in fact we all will.

As I said at the beginning of my review, Sunsets wasn’t a super cheerful read.  But I still came away from it encouraged and informed.  I feel like I have a lot more information about hospice, and some clarified thoughts about death and the afterlife.  Howard’s book is written in a gentle and loving way.  It is never harsh or disparaging, even when she is discussing beliefs that she does not believe are true.  I would strongly recommend her book to anyway who is facing the challenge of becoming a caregiver for a loved one who is terminally ill.  This book is full of practical and helpful information to guide people through this most difficult of times.

So, Anyway // by John Cleese

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//published 2014//

While I cannot say that I am a passionate Monty Python fan, it has still been a strong influence in my life.  So much of my family’s vernacular traces back to a Python sketch, and I think I may have fell in love with my husband at the point in our relationship that he told me that he could have been an aeronautical engineer, except he spent most of high school memorizing Monty Python instead.

So when I stumbled across John Cleese’s autobiography, I thought that I would give it a whirl.  About 2/3 of the way through the book, however, I realized that Cleese wasn’t just taking a long time to get to the Python years – he wasn’t going to get there at all!  Closer perusal of the jacket summary does say that he tells his story “to the founding of the landmark comedy troupe”…guess I missed that “founding” when I first read it!  Truthfully, I was much more interested in reading more about Fawlty Towers, which is also a long-time favorite (my family legit quotes from the episode with the Germans all the time), but we didn’t even get to that point in life.  Ah well.

Other than wondering when we were going to get around to Python stuff, the book was an interesting read.  Cleese is a little too fond of self-analysis for my taste (things like, “As an adult, I was talking with a therapist when I realized that this episode of my childhood caused me to blah blah blah”), but that was mostly in the early chapters.  The early chapters also included a lot of slightly crude humor, with jokes involving things like penises, but thankfully that also wasn’t as prevalent for the entire book.

There were multiple things that caused me to laugh while reading the book.  For instance, I loved when he was talking about the bombing, during World War II, of his hometown, Weston-super-Mare, and how the people there were, in a weird way, proud that they were bombed on multiple occasions.

The Germans were a people famous for their efficiency, so why would they drop perfectly good bombs on Weston-super-Mare, when there was nothing in Weston that a bomb could destroy that could possibly be as valuable as the bomb that destroyed it?  That would mean that every explosion would make a tiny dent in the German economy.

Cleese spends several chapters describing not just his early years, but also how his parents met.  His parents actually eloped since, Cleese tells us, the social gap between them was too great:

You see, Dad came from, at best, the middle-lower-middle class; to be exact, he was middle-middle-lower-middle class.  Whereas Muriel Cross came from the great auctioneering house of Marwood Cross, who were almost middle-middle class; their lowest possible social classification was upper-upper-lower-middle-class.

Throughout his book, Cleese actually returns to this concept of class on multiple occasions.

He was the epitome of the Oxonian code of “effortless superiority,” whereby to be seen trying really hard to achieve something was in many ways worse than actually failing at it.

As Cleese’s history continues, he goes to school and then to college, and then is a teacher, and then works for the BBC…throughout, there is this sense of randomness that Cleese admits is real.  He didn’t have much of a plan, and things just sort of seemed to come together.  Once he reaches adulthood in his story, the book gains in interest (for me, anyway), as he talks about stumbling into the drama group at college and how things grew from there.

One tidbit that he mentions is how none of the Pythons considered themselves actors – they were all writers who also acted.  And so what you see as you read about Cleese’s life is how writing became more and more important as he began to find his place.

A final thing that really struck me was when Cleese was talking about one of the things that made so many Python sketches work –

…no matter how wacky the premise of a sketch was, once it had been established, its rules had to be followed, or else the sketch would lose coherence and, thus, “believability.”  It may seem bizarre to use the word “believability” about a Python sketch, but in some mysterious way the audience will accept any premise, no matter how weird, and then allow it to set the rules for what is, and what is not, believable in that piece.

I think this really stuck out to me because this is an issue that I have with a lot of fantasy/sci-fi that I read, or even just a piece of regular fiction where the characters don’t make sense – any story has its own rules.  The important thing isn’t that you have make “believable” rules, or rules that are real-life rules, but you have have consistent rules.  The same goes for a character – I can accept any crazy character if that person stays true to the character as established.  It’s so frustrating to read a book and feel like it is floating around wherever the author wants to go because the author hasn’t bothered to tighten up his rules.  That’s a big reason that I stopped reading the Pern books once they were being written by Todd McCaffrey – he just never seemed to understand the world of Pern, and all of his books felt so discordant, not just with the series as a whole, but even within each story.

Anyway, this was an overall entertaining read, worthwhile if you are interested in Cleese or in learning about how someone becomes a successful comedy writer, but it isn’t particularly one of those autobiographies where you get a real scope of the times or anything like that.  Overall recommended.

Living as a Christian // by A.W. Tozer // compiled & edited by James L. Snyder

A.W. Tozer was a minister who lived, wrote, and preached in the early-to-mid 1900’s.  Known for his soundly and unapolgetically Biblical teaching, his most famous book, The Pursuit of God, has been in print constantly since it was written in 1948, and is still as insightful and challenging today as it was when it was first published.

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//published 2009//

In the early 2000’s, James L. Snyder received rights from Tozer’s estate to sift through Tozer’s many recorded sermons and compile them into books.  Thus, in the last ten years, several “new” Tozer books have appeared, even though Tozer himself died in the 1960’s.  Living as a Christian is one of these books.  Challenging and gritty, Tozer’s writing isn’t afraid to make the reader examine her life.  Reading Tozer is like opening the curtains of a dark room to let the sunshine in so you can really, really get down to the cleaning the room needs.

Tozer thoroughly understands the strange balance that is the Christian life: that our good deeds do not save us or make us better.  Only Christ’s sacrifice, and our acceptance of it, allows us to eternal life.  But that very acceptance is only the first step in our pursuit of God and holiness.  Our good works stem from this.  Tozer preaches a strong line of no-compromise holiness to those who have agreed to follow God.  Not only does he not expect non-Christians to live up to these standards of holiness, he doesn’t really expect them to understand why anyone would.  Tozer’s writings are, for the most part, directed to Christians, to strengthen, challenge, and encourage them.

Someone may say, ‘Mr. Tozer, how can a man cleanse his own heart?  How can a man purge his own soul?’  I might ask you how can a man wash his own hands?  He cannot; he can only subject his hands to water and detergents and they do the washing.  If he does not subject himself to water and detergent, he will not be cleansed.  Just as a man is clean by washing his hands and yet cannot wash his hands, so a man’s heart is cleansed when he cleanses himself, yet he cannot cleanse himself.

Living as a Christian is a collection of writing based on the book of 1 Peter, which is actually one of my favorite epistles.  Peter wrote to a group of Christians who were being persecuted for their faith following the burning of Rome.  Peter encourages his readers to stand firm in their faith, and helps them to understand why trials and trouble are a part of our lives even after we have come to Christ.  Tozer expands on Peter’s writing, show how what he said then is just as applicable to our lives today.

Snyder has given us seventeen chapters, most only about 10-15 pages long, making them very accessible chunks to digest.  Tozer is never condescending or superior, but he is also never soft and never compromises.  Some people may have trouble with his hard-line approach, especially in our day of universal acceptance and the constant fear of – gasp! – offending someone, but I don’t think that anyone who genuinely reads Scripture can deny its overall hard-line approach.  It is not called the Sword for nothing.

One of the things that I love (LOVE) about Tozer is his insistence that Scripture is not inaccessible or difficult to understand.  He believes that God has given us a letter that is very clear in its terms and conditions, and that our efforts to make it muddy or complicated are because we don’t like what it says, not because it is actually hard to understand.

You can throw your flesh into the effort, and with strong religious determination break your teeth and batter your own head black and blue but never get anywhere.  You can do that in theology too.  The simplest explanation of any text it just what it says.  you read it, get on your knees and take it at its plainest meaning.  As Mark Twain quipped: ‘Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they don’t understand, but for me I have always noticed that the passages that bother me are those I do understand.’  You will have time enough following the text you understand without seeking piously underneath the surface to bring up some esoteric meaning that God never put there.

Tozer’s emphasis is always that God intends us to start where we are and work towards Him, and that the best way to get anywhere is to start on the path you can see and follow it, rather than worrying about where the path is a few miles away from where we’ve begun.  Those parts of the path will be clear when you get there.  So many people refuse to accept any Scripture unless they can understand all of it, rather than beginning with what they do understand, accepting that, and building from there.

A heresy always hunts obscurity, and false teaching always hunts the difficult text.  You see, it is as if I were to take you to my farm and say to you, ‘Here you will find apples and peaches and grapes and watermelons and cantaloupes and sweet potatoes … now, this is all yours, take over.’  And then I came back a month later and found my guests half starved, and said to them, ‘What’s the matter?  You look undernourished.’

They would say, ‘We are undernourished because we have found a plant we cannot identify.  There is a plant behind  the old oak stump back there in the near end of the far field, just over the hill, and we have stayed one month trying to identify this plant.’

‘But you’re starving!  You’ve got so many other plants around you, but you look sick.  What’s the matter with you?’

And they would reply, ‘We’re worried about this one plant.’

That is exactly what many of God’s children do.  They starve themselves to death knee-deep in clover because there is one little old plant … that they cannot identify.  Heretics are always starving to death while they worry about that one passage of Scripture.

While this is an excellent book and one that I definitely recommend to anyone wanting to know what the Christian’s life ought to look like, it is, at times, obvious that this book was mostly transcribed from sermons.  There are sections that are a bit repetitive, as Tozer reviews something he covered in last week’s sermon – which would make sense if you were listening to him and it had been a week since you heard the last lesson, but can bog down the book a bit when you read the last lesson just yesterday.

Still a challenging and insightful book that is a really wonderful contrast to the lazy compromises so prevalent in our churches today.

 

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way // by Bill Bryson

//published 1990//

Quite a while back I read Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927.  At the time, I really loved Bryson’s knack for relating historical anecdotes in a way that was informative, organized, engaging, and entertaining.  He pulls off more of the same in The Mother Tongue, an overview of the craziness that is the English language.

Bryson begins with a look at language in general, and the hows and whys of language development.  He goes on to talk about the many (many) inconsistencies in English language, and why some of them exist.  History, pronunciation, grammar, dictionaries, swearing, and American v. British English are all covered as well.

For the most part, the book reads really well.  However, the very nature of the topic invites one to list examples –

Sometimes, just to heighten confusion, the same words ends up with contradictory meanings.  This kind of word is called a contronym.  Sanction, for instance, can either signify permission to do something or a measure forbidding it to be done.  Cleave can mean cut in half or stick together.  A sanguine person is either hotheaded and bloodthirsty, or calm and cheerful.  Something that is fast is either stuck firmly or moving quickly.  A door that is bolted is secure, but a horse that has bolted has taken off.  If you wind up a meeting you finish it; if you wind up a watch, you start it.  To ravish means to rape or enrapture.  Quinquennial describes something that lasts for five years or happens only once in five years.  Trying one’s best is a good thing, but trying one’s patience is a bad thing.  A blunt instrument is dull, but a blunt remark is pointed.

And while all of these examples are intriguing, after a while, it begins to feel as though the entire book is comprised of lists.  Every chapter is littered with paragraphs like the one above – here is an interesting thing; here are ten examples of it.  And while I might remember a contronym, I’m not likely to remember all of those examples, and I found myself frequently skimming those paragraphs in order to skip ahead to the next interesting tidbit, rather than weighing myself down with so many illustrative words.  To me, the book was more interesting when only one or two examples were chosen –

Sometimes words are made up for a specific purpose.  The U.S. Army in 1974 devised a food called funistrada as a test word during a survey of soldiers’ dietary preferences.  Although no such food existed, funistrada ranked higher in the survey than lima beans and eggplant.

I also quite enjoyed the history aspect.  The truth of the matter is that English has borrowed from so many sources, taken words from so many different languages, and made up so many words just for fun, that the language doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.  While some may try to give us rules of spelling and grammar, a brief look at English’s history shows that this may actually be an impossibility.  Still, many have tried!

People began to feel passionate about it [consistent spelling].  Noah Webster not only pushed for simplified spelling, but lobbied Congress to make it a legal requirement – turning American into the only country in history where deviant spelling would be a punishable offense.

By its very nature, English is a flexible language.  We make up words and terms at an astonishing rate, some of which spread and become widely known, while others remain inside family jokes.  There is a constant battle between people who do not wish for words to be new or used in new ways, and those who advocate English’s versatility.  It can be a difficult balance.

It’s a fine issue.  One of the undoubted virtues of English is that it is a fluid and democratic language in which meanings shift and change in response to the pressures of common usage rather than the dictates of committees.  It is a natural process that has been going on for centuries.  To interfere with that process is arguably both arrogant and futile, since clearly the weight of usage will push new meanings into currency no matter how many authorities hurl themselves into the path of change.

But at the same time, it seems to me, there is a case for resisting change – at least slapdash change.  Even the most liberal descriptivist would accept that there must be some conventions of usage.  We must agree to spell cat c-a-t and not e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t, and we must agree that by that word we mean a small furry quadruped that goes meow and sits comfortably on one’s lap and not a large lumbering beast that grows tusks and is exceedingly difficult to housebreak.  In precisely the same way, clarity is generally better served if we agree to observe a distinction between imply and infer, forego and forgo, fortuitous and fortunate, uninterested and disinterested, and many others.  As John Ciardi observed, resistance may in end prove futile, but at least it tests the changes and makes them prove their worth.

As Bryson moved through the history of dictionaries and the men who wrote them, it was quite fascinating to contemplate just how much effort must have gone into such a task before the modern conveniences like computers and the internet.  Small wonder that the authors sometimes took some flights of editorialization –

[Samuel Johnson] defined a patron as “one who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery” or oats as a grain that sustained horses in England and people in Scotland.

Yet for all that, his Dictionary of the English Language, published in two volumes in June 1755, is a masterpiece, one of the landmarks of English literature. … Without a nearby library to drawn on, and with appallingly little financial backing … Johnson worked from a garret room off Fleet Street, where he defined some 43,000 words, illustrated with more than 114,000 supporting quotations drawn from every area of literature.  It is little wonder that he made some errors and occasionally indulged himself with barbed definitions.

Bryson always does an excellent job capturing the people of history, with snippets of background information that are entertaining and insightful.  The picture of Johnson, scribbling away in his garret, is really inspiring in a way.

I quite enjoyed the chapter that discussed the differences between British English and American English.  For all of the reading I do of British literature, I am still sometimes confused by small terms or phrases (and it definitely was years before I realized that the first floor in England is not the same as the first floor in America – and while I grant that “ground floor” is a more useful term, I’m still not convinced that you should have to go up a flight of stairs to attain the first floor!).

Of course, Bryson himself left me a bit confused by this tale –

…an American lady, newly arrived in London, who opened her front door to find three burly men on the steps informing her that they were her dustmen.  “Oh,” she blurted, “but I do my own dusting.”

Bryson continues merrily on with his paragraph…without bothering to tell the reader what a dustman really is!  (I had to look it up.  They collect garbage!  Which makes sense, considering that I did know that trash cans are dustbins!)

He also devotes a chapter to the globalization of English.  I always enjoy reading instructions that are obviously written by a non-native speaker (and I say this as someone who speaks about twenty words of Spanish and no other foreign languages; I am a strong advocate of the saying that “Someone who speaks broken English speaks another language much better than you”; however, this does not lessen the entertainment I derive from the fascinating attempts at our obviously ridiculous language); I have some instructions that came with a small speaker I purchase that tell me that I connect “more and two” I will have “a sound boom heard in the world everywhere.”  Bryson sites a similar example with an eraser he has from Japan –

…which says: “Mr. Friendly Quality Eraser, Mr. Friendly Arrived!!  He always stay near you, and steals in your mind to lead you a good situation.”  On the bottom of the eraser is a further message: “We are ecologically minded.  This package will self-destruct in Mother Earth.”

Many people do strive to learn English, and the few times that I have left the country, I have been quite grateful for their efforts.  (Although, speaking of erasers, I did once ask a hotel clerk in Guatemala for a razor and he gave me an eraser, which I cherish to this day as an example of the sometimes entertaining aspects of language barriers and accents.)

Besides the neverending lists of examples, the only other complaint I had about this book is just that it’s ready for an update.  It was published in 1990, and a lot has changed since then.  I would be really interested to learn about the impact that the internet has had on English, and language in general.  Things like hashtags, texting abbreviations, memes – these and more would be really interesting fodder.  Consequently, this book is left feeling slightly dated.  Isn’t it ridiculous how much has happened just in the last 25 years??

Overall, The Mother Tongue was an interesting read.  I’d love to see a new edition with fewer lists and some chapters on all the intriguing twists that our ridiculous, nonsensical, and fascinating language has taken since this book was first published.  Recommended.

PS Not actually a part of 20 Books of Summer, as I started this one all the way back in May!!!

From the Archive: Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime

The only nonfiction book that I loved so much that I actually wrote to the author to tell him that his writing really impacted my life…  and he wrote back!  Ha!  Originally posted on tumblr 27 August 2012.

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by Richard Pipes

published 1994

If you had told me three months ago that when I finally finished reading all 500+ pages of this book about the Bolshevik rise to power, I would actually be sad that it was over, I would not have believed you.  But, it’s true.  I really, really, really liked this book.  So much so that I found the author’s address so I can write him a letter, and I’m planning to actually purchase this book.  Seriously.

Where to even begin?  I read Mr. Pipes’s book The Three Whys of the Russian Revolution first; it was assigned reading for Tapestry.  I was really impressed by the author’s ability to write about complicated situations and theories with clarity. I am no expert on Russia or her history, yet Pipes kept my interest throughout the entire book.  More, he intrigued me and caused me to think about and reassess many of my views of Communism and Russia.

The book was brilliant all the way through.  The beginning is a little rough, as he is describing Russia’s civil war between the Reds and Whites.  There are a lot of names of people and places, and since they all look like Tzagoragphy, it gets a little complicated for English-speaking folks like myself.  But once I got through that bit, things settled out with the main players and places, and it was much easier to follow.

Pipes doesn’t really limit himself to just the history of what was happening in Russia.  My favorite chapter actually looks at the concept of totalitarianism: what it is and where it has existed in recent history.  Throughout the chapter, Pipes compares and contrasts the regimes in Russia, Germany, and Italy.  This is especially intriguing because Germany and Italy are always classified as fascist and put at one end of the political spectrum, while Russia is labeled communist and placed at the other.  Yet Pipes argues that these “governments” had far more in common than most people credit, and he argues the point very well.

In that chapter, too, Pipes talks a great deal simply about the steps to totalitarianism, and how Lenin, Hitler, and Mussolini all worked within and through their legal political systems to gain control.  Fear, Pipes tells us, is the totalitarian’s best friend.  Each of those three regimes chose a scapegoat (capitalists or Jews for example) and then built up fear of that group, until the population was willing to do whatever it took to protect themselves from this threat.  Except there wasn’t really a threat and there wasn’t really a need for protection–but that realization came too late; power had already been given up by the people.

So I don’t know, it was just a lot of food for thought, looking at our government and the many wolves to which they point.  Are the wolves real, or are they merely shadows being used as excuses to take more and more control of our lives?

Anyway, I couldn’t believe how easily this book read.  So many books of this weight are written specifically for people who are already neck-deep in studying the topic, and thus are almost impossible for a newbie to the situation to understand.  Example: I also checked out a book on Mussolini’s Italy.  I gave it up after the first four or five chapters.  The author assumed that I already understood exactly what was going on in Italy and who was in charge and why and how they got there.  Pipes, on the other hand, manages to explain the background thoroughly but not overly, making the rest of what he has to say meaningful, relevant, and interesting.

If you ever have to do any studying of Russia from the point of the Revolution to Lenin’s death, I strongly recommend this book.  If you don’t feel like reading all 512 pages, at least read chapter five, on totalitarianism, and the last chapter, which is a summary of the rest of the book.

This is one of the few non-fiction books that I’ve read lately that I see myself reading again in the future.