How English Became English

Monday, May 2, 2016

How English Became English
Simon Horobin, 2016

New release! I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review.

Premise: A layman-friendly history of the English language: the roots of its complexity, the source of its foibles, the ways people have sought to define or legislate it, and the ways it is continuing to grow and change.

What a joy for a word-lover like me! This book lays out English in all its glory.

I loved learning about the languages that came together to make Old English and all the reasons that other languages and words were folded in later. It was especially interesting to get examples of how the long-ago mashing together of people and language created specific inconsistencies and quirks that carry through to the modern language.

The book has a humorous, modern tone, which I enjoyed, and the author clearly has little sympathy for prescriptivists who would put the language in a box and freeze “correct” English in place. There’s a good deal of commentary on the history of language authorities. I enjoyed the description of the circular nature of certain important references, i.e. citing Shakespeare’s use of a word to prove the meaning of the word, and then using the citation to prove the importance of Shakespeare to the language.

I would have liked more about emerging dialects and the future of English, although the commentary on the classism inherent in the codification of Standard English is well done.

This was a proof copy, so the book is not necessarily final, but the ending was a bit jarring, just sort of: “Well, and that’s a list of all the things about the history of English you should know.”

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - and the Journey of a Generation

Monday, April 25, 2016

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - and the Journey of a Generation
Sheila Weller, 2008

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a biography (not memoir or autobiography)

Premise: This joint biography of three iconic female singer-songwriters tells the story of being a woman in the music industry during the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Unlike most biographies I’ve read, I went into this one with very little prior knowledge of any of the subjects. Music history, particularly popular music, has never been a strong suit of mine. Erin sometimes despairs at my feeble guesses as to which rock group plays such-and-such a song. If it isn’t classical, showtunes or from a small group of celtic/folk artists, I probably have no clue about the people behind a piece of music, even if I recognize the song.

The positive of this approach was that the book was potentially full of surprises. I knew all three women had been successful, I recognized their names, but I literally had no idea without some help from wikipedia what songs/styles were theirs or what arc their careers would have.

The negative is that I had an extremely difficult time keeping all the names and stories straight. The book alternates chapters between different women, and sometimes I got confused as to what had happened to who, or who all these side characters were (other famous and semi-famous musicians of the time, mostly, but I don’t know their names or what they’ve done).

About a third of the way in, I was really struggling, and fell asleep reading a few times. The lists of clubs they played or people they played with just glazed over to me. Like reading the thick bits of The Silmarillion, except with less potential payoff for paying attention.

Happily, I was able to get a handle on the disparate stories eventually, and I enjoyed the book fine overall.

My favorite aspect of the book was how it conveyed, through three very different life stories, the choices and attitudes facing professional women in the music industry, and in society in general. Telling this overall story was clearly the author's intention in writing the book, and it mostly came together, although I found myself wondering how much massaging of facts and careful choosing of quotes may have gone into building that narrative. Not that the approach was wrong, just it felt a little manufactured at times.

Only at times, though. Overall, I was willing to go along for the ride, learn a little about music, and get a sense for how it was to live through a time that was not that long ago, but already feels far away.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Monday, April 18, 2016

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Nicholas D. Kristof, and Sheryl WuDunn, 2009

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book about politics, in your country or another, fiction or nonfiction

Premise: Two New York Times journalists lay out the arguments why people should care about oppression of women worldwide and what people can do about it.

I wanted very much to enjoy this book, but while I think it is well written and deals with important subjects, it left me rather cold.

This book hasn’t been out for ten years yet and yet it feels dated. The biggest reason is that this is from before the largest spread of mobile and social media that has drastically changed communication and social movements across the globe. There’s a tossed off line near the end that implies that their case for girls’ education being a paramount solution (built throughout the book) may be a good tactic, but the spread of television may be as much or more effective. At the time the book was finished, they could only say: more research is needed about television. So what about the spread of the internet?

I also couldn’t even forget that, whatever their racial and cultural backgrounds and their empathy, the authors are journalists with the New York Times. Their attitudes about how people should travel to understand other cultures, occasional word choice around both personal stories and politics… these are people who come from a particularly privileged place, even within the US, and the narration just felt a smidge too pedantic and patronizing for me.

Also, at this point, anyone holding out hope for bipartisan support for anything, even global health issues, seems a bit naive.

All of that said, the personal stories are compelling, and the accounts of women and girls suffering because of social structures, lack of health care, obstruction at governmental levels, etc., are heartbreaking.

But I wanted to come out of this book inspired to help, and only got depressed. Despite the list of organizations at the end, I didn’t feel I’d gotten a current, accurate, feasible case for something concrete and beneficial to do.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Ender’s Game

Monday, April 11, 2016

Ender’s Game
Orson Scott Card, 1985

Hugo Winner - 1986

Premise: Years after a catastrophic attack, the world military tests and trains children in an attempt to find and mold a mind smart, fast, and flexible enough to lead the fleet against a galactic force of creatures that think nothing like humans. You know this book, it’s the one where they teach kids to fight wars with video games unironically.

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first. Orson Scott Card is an asshat who has said a lot of despicable things and supported heinous organizations.

I have heard nothing but terrible things about his recent work, and I wouldn’t pay money for anything with his name attached unless he were to publicly change his tune drastically.

I was dragging my heels to read this book, ending up borrowing it from the library. But I read Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide years ago, and I remembered them as not awful.

So I tried to give the book a fair shake, and found that… the ending held up pretty well. The book overall has a real telling-not-showing issue with how much time it has to cover with the first two thirds. There’s a lot of plainly saying that characters developed feelings or stating (paraphrase) ‘And Ender was further isolated from the others, even as his team continued to win.’ The style gives it a feeling of distance, which I guess isn't a terrible choice, but it lacks any tension for much of the first half.

The weirdest/worst thing about reading Ender’s Game today is how there is an unspoken, unexamined assumption at the heart of many character interactions. This is: that even given years and years facing an external threat, and huge advances in technology, humankind will not move past the prejudices and internal conflicts faced in the 1980’s.

Notable examples of this (besides the endless continuation of the Cold War) include a character who embraces Jewish stereotypes and a side comment about how army leaders beat in the game by his forces became ‘Jew-haters,’ as if that was an understandable reaction. Another is a General’s comment about why girls don’t generally go to the Battle School: “too many centuries of evolution working against them.” Even aside from the utter hilarity of the idea of ‘centuries of evolution,’ this sexism passes unquestioned, even though they’re not actually training infantry fighters to carry hundreds of pounds. They’re training kids to be fast and clever, and most of them start prepubescent.

It’s not that these comments couldn’t make sense for the characters who utter them given the world of the book, it’s that the choices feel deeply lazy. It feels to me as though no thought was given to whether/how society would change given an alien attack.

Now, all that said, Ender’s Game is still important. It foreshadowed the rise of the internet as a source of influence in a big way. The ending reveal still hits pretty well, even though I knew it was coming. The whole closing of the book feels mythic in an interesting way, although I think the version I read includes the 1991 rewrites which were added to link this book with the larger series that followed.

So did I like it? It’s a hard question to answer in the end. I think I liked it. I think most of it is actually well-written. However, I think anyone reading it today should go in with a healthy awareness of how dated some of the material is.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book, despite serious issues.

Lumberjanes: Volume Two: Friendship to the Max

Monday, April 4, 2016

Lumberjanes: Volume Two: Friendship to the Max
Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, 2015

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years

Premise: Follows Beware the Kitten Holy. Collects Lumberjanes #5-8. Counselor Jen and the girls of the Roanoke cabin are still trying to figure out why supernatural things keep happening around them. But Jo is hiding the artifact she found, and another camper is taking an interest in them…

Dinosaurs! Mythical Beings in Disguise! Capture the Flag! It’s all just part of the camp experience.

This volume completes the initial plot arc, and while I can’t say that I expected the directions that the plot went in, I still very much enjoyed it. The writing and art tighten a little for these issues, and the great blend of humor, pathos, and action from the first volume continues. I laughed out loud fairly often.

Really, it’s all about teamwork and friendship. Jo and Alice’s friendship specifically takes center stage, although all the girls have great moments and work together wonderfully.

It’s the details that really highlight how special this book it. Rosie (head of the camp) casually whittling… axe handles...with an axe. A brief shift in art style to heighten the melodrama of planning a daring rescue of capture-the-flag prisoners. The Mal and Molly puppy-love romance continues to run behind the action. Lots of nuanced moments around how Jo responds to a misunderstanding about identity (in about ten issues, it will become explicit that Jo is trans).

I’m still enjoying this world and this group of characters enormously. While I would have been happy with just these two volumes, I’m glad the success of the title means that it is still running. I’ll keep following for more adventures, more comedy, and more friendship to the max!

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Silver on the Road

Monday, March 28, 2016

Silver on the Road
Laura Anne Gilman, 2015

Premise: Isobel has grown up in the Territory, working in the saloon in the town of Flood. In the Devil’s West, life is what you make of it, if you choose to make a Bargain.

Fantasy Western? YAY!

I picked up this book out of curiosity, because fantasy western is a subgenre that I enjoy, but don’t see that often. And I loved it. I have pre-ordered the sequel.

I love the setting. In this world, everything from the Mississippi to the Spanish colonies is the Territory. The Native nations co-exist with small settlements from outside, all governed by the Agreement: give no offense without cause, and the Devil protects his own. Magicians and marshals both ride the roads, and crossroads are places of power and danger.

Who is the man who runs the Territory? It’s unclear, but Isobel has grown up in his saloon, under his teachings, and as she comes of age she is given the choice what to make of her life. Her choice sends her out to ride the lands, and the resulting tale is full of adventure, mysticism, danger, and a gorgeous depth of description.

The land itself is practically a character, it’s described in such a compelling manner. I have always loved the sea and the mountains, but this book could convince me to love the plains.

I also loved that there is a female main character and NO romance in this book! Everyone is too busy getting stuff done/running for their lives/fighting evil magic/etc. Also, Isobel deals with many aspects of being female in a matter-of-fact way that I appreciated.

There’s intriguing and worrisome foreshadowing for coming books as well, dealing with events outside the Territory and what might happen as history marches on.

In short, this hit right in my sweet spot.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Saint Peter’s Fair/The Leper of St. Giles (Brother Cadfael, Books Four and Five)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Saint Peter’s Fair/The Leper of St. Giles (Brother Cadfael, Books Four and Five)
Ellis Peters, 1981

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900.

Premise: (Follows, although requires no knowledge of, Monk’s Hood.) The annual fair has returned, after being disturbed by civil war the year before. A clash between the abbey and the merchants of the town raises tension, but are the resulting deaths due to commerce or more secret agendas? Then, an expensive wedding is to be held at the abbey, but the match seems poor. That would be all there is to it, if there were not also secret loves, hidden identities, and a mysterious wanderer at the St. Giles asylum.

These are both solid entries in an enjoyable series. St. Peter’s Fair, like One Corpse Too Many, deals significantly with the civil war in England at the time. According to Wikipedia, this war is sometimes called ‘The Anarchy.’ In short, it revolved around who should succeed to the throne of England: Henry I’s nephew Stephen (called King Stephen) or his daughter Matilda (called Empress Maud due to her marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor).

There is no actual fighting going on at this time, but factions are working behind the scenes, and several characters are using the fair to cover information gathering or meeting with confederates. I enjoy that there are simultaneously characters who care desperately about these causes and will do anything for them and characters who don’t give a fig for who rules England, because it doesn’t matter to their lives.

Both books feature a romance and interesting female characters. In the first, a merchant’s daughter at the fair is stalked by tragedy and courted by a flashy young nobleman. It sounds simple, and perhaps it is, but Emma’s strength and bravery tells in the exciting climax.

Romance is central to The Leper of St. Giles, as it features an unhappy match between a cruel older nobleman and a very young heiress who only has eyes for the knight in the lord’s train. Machinations on both sides complicate matters, and murder follows, as this is a mystery series.

The best parts of this book are split between Cadfael’s former apprentice Brother Mark’s work at the leper-house, and the way this plot touches lightly on Cadfael’s time in the crusades. His attitude towards all the characters is colored by the knowledge and experience which sets him apart from many at the abbey. Plus there’s a surprise character late in the book who only appears briefly, but Cadfael and I are of one mind about how awesome she is.

Both tons of fun and great reading.

4 Stars - Very Good Books