Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for June, 2014

The Messenger of Athens

Posted by nliakos on June 28, 2014

by Anne Zouroudi (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay/Little Brown 2007)

I actually bought this book. The university library doesn’t have it (no surprise there), and the public library doesn’t have it, either, but I was intrigued by the idea of the god Hermes solving murders in modern Greece. Although I was not immediately hooked by the beginning, after a few chapters I started getting caught up in the story of Irini, her fisherman husband Andreas, the object of her lust Theo, their families, the smarmy Chief of Police and the others living on the made-up island of Thiminos. Zouroudi, who lived for a while on a Greek island, is not particularly kind in her portrayals of most of the islanders. They are hopelessly parochial, often mean-spirited, and unforgiving. Hermes Diaktoros is “the fat man” who arrives mysteriously from Athens. He is not a policeman; he answers to “a higher authority”. It is his job to see that justice is done, and by the end, justice has been done. Everyone has gotten his (or her) just deserts. The wrongdoers are punished, and the victims (except for Irini, who is beyond justice) look toward a brighter future. It’s a very satisfying read. I’d like to find and read more in the series (“The Seven Deadly Sins“).

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Posted in Fiction, Mystery | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2014

by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins 1998)

This book is a good follow-up to The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, which had its own chapter on the making of the greatest dictionary in the world. (Another good one is Reading the OED, by Ammon Shea.)  James Murray, the second editor of the OED, is the professor; the madman is Dr. William C. Minor, an American doctor suffering from what was most likely paranoid schizophrenia, incarcerated in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum for the murder of George Merrett, an English workingman on his way to work the night shift at the Red Lion Brewery in London. Minor, an intelligent and well-educated man, leaped at the opportunity to contribute to the work on the OED. His contribution was to read, collecting words and relevant quotations for the dictionary which he would then mail to Murray at Oxford. His work was remarkable in its meticulousness, and eventually, he and Murray became friends. Minor outlived Murray by several years, and neither of them lived to see the completion of the first edition of the dictionary that they had labored so long and hard to produce.

The tragedies of Minor’s mental illness and of Merrett’s senseless death leaving a pregnant wife and six young children make this a sad book indeed. Still, it is an example of how mental illness is not the whole person, but only one aspect of that person; given the opportunity, a “madman” can still make a useful contribution to society (and Minor, in his remorse, also provided contributed to the support of Merrett’s widow and children). This is something we are still learning today–that mental illness is an illness like any other.  I was fairly surprised at the enlightened attitude not only of James Murray but also of several of the Broadmoor “governors”, who allowed the usually gentle but terribly tormented Minor quite a lot of freedom within the confines of the asylum.

The book is good both as the story of the two men and the development of their unlikely friendship and as the story of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Thanks to Rachel C. for suggesting it!

Posted in History, Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

Year of Wonders

Posted by nliakos on June 19, 2014

by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin, 2001)

A great read! I confess I rushed through it in about 2 days. It was hard to put down. The book is set in England in the years 1665-1666, during an epidemic of bubonic plague. The narrator, Anna Frith, is a servant in the rectory of a village of several hundred people.  When plague begins to kill the villagers, rector Michael Mompellion encourages everyone to quarantine themselves rather than spreading it further to the surrounding villages (this is based on something similar done in the actual village of Eyam, known as “Plague Village”). As more and more people die of the dreaded disease, the people are sorely tested as their community is fractured by illness, death, loss, betrayal and even murder. Anna, one of those who is not susceptible to the plague, takes on a role as healer and much more, together with the rector’s beautiful wife Elinor. An unlikely friendship blooms between Anna and Elinor, but Anna doesn’t learn the whole truth about Elinor and Michael until after Elinor dies. (I found that part kind of hard to swallow.)  I won’t say more, as I don’t want to spoil the ending for you. If you like historical fiction and strong, gutsy female characters, you will love this book.

Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment »

Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music

Posted by nliakos on June 19, 2014

by Judy Collins (Crown, 2011)

Judy Collins is one of my favorite singers, so I was looking forward to reading her memoir about growing up and being a part of the folksong and singer-songwriter movement in the sixties and seventies. It was interesting because I am familiar with most of the singers she mentions, but actually I was disappointed because the book is full of lists–lists of people she met, knew, slept with; lists of songs she learned or sang on this album or that–but it lacks affect. I never felt that she was really telling me anything about these people or songs other than that she knew them, or slept with them, or sang them, or wrote them. Was I expecting some kind of baring of the soul? Maybe. I didn’t find it.

She does write a lot about her alcoholism, which began when she was very young and continued for decades. It’s really amazing that she was able to produce such beautiful music when she consistently abused alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Before reading the book, I did not realize the extent of her addictions. The fact that she was able to perform and record during all those years is nothing short of amazing.

She describes her first marriage to Peter Taylor as quite idyllic, but it suddenly ended and she was separated from her son, Clark. She doesn’t really explain why the marriage ended or how it affected her. (Her involvement with the Sullivanians, who discouraged monogamous relationships, did not help.) She mentions a custody fight for Clark, which she lost; and then a few years later, Taylor and his new wife appear out of the blue and send Clark back to her. It’s never clear why they did this. There is a lot in this book that isn’t clear.

I think the editor could have done a better job, too. Sometimes the book wanders from one topic to another without any real focus (at times within a single paragraph).

Despite all my complaints, I finished the book, and it brought back many happy memories of listening to, learning, and singing a lot of wonderful songs, both traditional and composed. It made me want to download some of my favorite songs to listen to again!

Posted in Memoir | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Gone Girl

Posted by nliakos on June 12, 2014

by Gillian Flynn (Crown, 2012)

This story of a dysfunctional couple “celebrating” their fifth anniversary was on the bestseller list so long I figured it was not worth even looking for it at the library. . . until I found a copy sitting on the fiction shelf last week! It was a real page turner; I raced through its 413 pages in a little over three days. Definitely a great story that keeps the reader guessing all the way. Too much gratuitous swearing for my taste, though.

Partial synopsis: Nick Dunne’s fabulous wife Amy vanishes from their home in North Carthage MO (where they have moved from her native New York) on the morning of their anniversary, leaving behind an apparent crime scene. Chapters alternate between Nick’s present and Amy’s past (through seven years of diary entries chronicling the souring of their relationship) throughout the first part of the book (“Boy Loses Girl”); everything points to Nick’s guilt, although he won’t admit anything. The reader wonders how Flynn will keep this going for another 200 pages when suddenly we reach Part Two (“Boy Meets Girl”) and there is a whole new angle on everything! And that’s not the last of it.  Really a good read (I just wish the dialog, both actual and inner, could have featured a few adjectives and adverbs besides fucking).

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park

Posted by nliakos on June 9, 2014

by Jack Lynch (Walker & Company 2009)

This is a great book for word nerds. It’s all about the (mostly unsuccessful) attempts through the centuries to harness English speakers and make them speak and write in particular ways. I learned about Dryden, Swift, Johnson, Priestley, Webster, Murray, Fowler, Roget, Gove and many others, both prescriptivists (those who try to lay down rules for others to follow) and descriptivists (those who are content to describe people’s actual language usage). I read about why there is no English Academy (basically: the English, and now the Americans, are too unruly) and about grammars and spellers and dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary (stay tuned for more on that when I read The Professor and the Madman later this summer) and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which “generated the kind of ire that one expects to see in quarrels between pro-lifers and pro-choicers, between jihadists and Zionists, or even between Red Sox and Yankees fans.”  I discovered that the dictionary that has been on my shelves for most of my adult life, the Anerican Heritage Dictionary, got its start “as a kind of antidote to the laissez-faire descriptivism of Webster’s Third.”  (Who knew?)  As I read, I considered the dilemma of lexicographers (and English teachers!) everywhere: what to include and exclude, and whether or not to label words as substandard, colloquial, dialect, etc. I enjoyed every page.

Posted in History, Non-fiction | 3 Comments »