Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

Musings about language, books, grammar, and writing in general

Archive for the category “Books”

Catching Up on Life and Reading

First, I apologize for not being more regular about posting. It’s been a rough two years, including spinal surgery, and more heart work. That, plus all the usual junk that life piles on you, and writing crashes to the bottom of the priority list for a bit.

So, In May of 2016, I woke up one morning and could not get out of bed. Literally. It took three EMTs almost half an hour to get me into a transport chair so they could get me out of the apartment, and I was screaming in pain the whole time. It turns out that a number of things had gone wrong. There was sciatica, which I had known about, but there was also stenosis, a nerve so pinched at the base of my spine that the doctors couldn;t even find it on the MRI, degenerative arthritis at the base of my spine that no one knew about, two crumbling disks, and an infection between the two crumbling disks that was doing its damnedest to get into my spine.  I spent six weeks in what is probably the worst rehab place in Brooklyn (ask me offline if you want the gory details) getting IV antibiotics, then a few weeks at home to make sure the antibiotics had worked. Then I had a consultation with a neurosurgeon, and spinal surgery was scheduled. The good news is that even though there was some discomfort after the surgery, the relief was so profound that the discomfort could pretty much be ignored. Then came the slow recovery. Now, what I didn’t know at the time was that none of the doctors involved, except my primary care guy (who is a saint) believed I would ever walk again. Fortunately, I proved my primary care guy right and surprised all the others. However, just after Passover this year, my heart started racing. I mean my heart rate was something like 130 when I was just sitting at my desk. I called my doctor and was diagnosed with atrial flutter, a situation where the heart’s electric signals are getting missent. It’s not quite as serious as atrial fibrillation but does increase risks for strokes, heart attacks and the like. I went into the hospital for a cardioversion (basically electroshock therapy for the heart) and it worked. BUT…two weeks later, I had another episode. My cardiologist (another saint), set me up with a cardiac electrophysiologist, who recommended that I have a procedure called an ablation, wherein the tissue that is misfiring is basically destroyed, allowing the heart to return to a normal pace. I had that procedure about three weeks ago, and things are getting back to normal, although we are having some fun trying to find a new balance for my meds.

I have been able to start reading again, since my ability to concentrate is one of the things that has been returning. Not that I wasn’t trying to read this whole time; I was just having enough concentration issues that in stead of a joy, it was becoming downright unpleasant.

I am now trying to finish books I had started and given up on along the way, as well as new books.

In that regard, I am reading Excelsior, You Fathead!: THe Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, by Eugene B. Bergmann. I was surprised at having a hard time reading this (not realizing that it was largely because of the physical stuff) before my health issues kicked up because I have always been a fan of Jean Shepherd’s. My mom always had WOR-AM on her radios in the house, so I grew up falling asleep at night to Shep’s delicious cynicism. I have picked the book up again (thank God for Kindle readers), and it now seems less of a slog.

In fact, what inspired this entry is something that Shep came up with in the late 1950s (when I would have been listening to him every night that he was on): Dream Collection Day! What Shep proposed was that the city declare one day to be Dream Collection Day, on which day everyone could put out on their stoop, like so much garbage, all the dreams they had not achieved, along with the paraphernalia for chasing those dreams. His contention is that those old dreams are doing nothing more than making us feel guilty and holding us back from what we could be doing if we were living in the present moment. Thing is, from my great perspective of almost 65 years, I think he might be onto something here.

I received an email today from an acquaintance who was bemoaning that nothing he had tried in his just under eighty years on the planet had worked out the way he had wanted it to. in his words, “My entire life could best be described as an unrealized potential–a tale of what MIGHT have been; not a tale of what ACTUALLY happened. Not for a single moment did my shafts hit the bullseye. I was off by a mile. I was considered second-rate; never a winner. I was no more than a face in the crowd; a nameless, unidentifiable being; a nobody.” Now, this friend is about to have a second volume of poetry published – not a mean feat these days. Yet all he can see is the things that didn’t happen. And he judges his life as being worthless because of those. I wonder what it could be if he could focus on going forward, rather than looking back in despair. I also am debating taking Shep’s idea and putting it to use in my life. I have been wanting to

I also am debating taking Shep’s idea and putting it to use in my life. I have been wanting to get rid of tons of things over the last few years, and have even made some attempts at doing so before I got sick. I think I need to look at the stuff in my life, and see what dreams are no longer relevant to me, and sell, give away, or toss out the things pertaining to them.

In other news, I have been reading a delightful series by Shira Glassman; the Mangoverse series. It revolves around a Jewish, lesbian queen named Shulamit; her wife in all but name, Aviva; Riv/Rivka, her cross-dressing bodyguard; and Riv’s husband, Isaac, a man/dragon shapeshifter. The series is fun, silly, delightful, and way too damned short. I want more stories about them. I stumbled onto this series because the author is a Twitter friend of one of my real-life friends, and I had interacted with her through my friend’s Twitter account and liked her. She’s also done some stand-alone book, and I read the first one, Knit One, Girl Two, with great delight (except that it was too darned short and I want to read more about Clara, Jasmine, The Phantom, and Danielle)! I highly recommend this book, as well as the Mangoverse series.

Another thing I got to read, thanks to the wonderful Lawrence Block, who seems to have gotten me listed as a reader/reviewer for Random House, was a book by Donald E. Westlake, Forever and a Death, which is – according to Random House – his first novel. It was delicious, with all the hallmarks of a great Westlake read. Not Dancing Aztecs, by any means, not a Dortmunder, but well worth the time spent reading it. Again, highly recommended, especially if you are a Westlake fan.

There is so much more I have to recommend, but I think that’s enough for one post. So I will be back to my regular schedule soon, I hope, and look forward to seeing everyone again.

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White, Hot, and True – A review of Danielle LaPorte’s WHITE HOT TRUTH

 

White Hot Truth: Clarity for Keeping It Real on Your Spiritual Path from One Seeker to AnotherWhen I first heard Danielle LaPorte through The Yoga Summit, I knew I was hearing someone special. WHITE HOT TRUTH just reproves that. LaPorte is funny, wise, and practical. Part memoir, part what-to-avoid, part how-to-get-there, this book is an enjoyable survey of what worked for her and what didn’t. She has strong advice on how to evaluate teachers, gurus, or other practitioners, and lots of advice on how to follow your own star. Also, unlike many books of this type, she notes why many practices are not “one-size-fits-all.”

Much of her book resonated with me, and rang true to the experiences I’ve had with various groups. I also had a couple of key breakthroughs on things I had never gotten closure on through reading her experiences.

I highly recommend this book if you consider yourself to be on any kind of spiritual path, whether mainstream, New Age, obscure, or fringe.

Review: “The Crime of Our Lives” – Lawrence Block

There’s only one problem with opening a new non-fiction book by Lawrence Block: Your reading list explodes logarithmically. His newest collection of introductions, eulogies, and other appreciations, The Crime of Our Lives, is no exception. In addition to finding authors I already knew of and enjoyed, like Robert B. Parker and Donald E. Westlake, there were a whole bunch whose work I had never heard of, and another bunch of writers who I dimly remember from school — all presented so engagingly that I now have a new list of authors to pursue, along with a batch of notes on their various pseudonyms and notable pieces, so I don’t miss anything. When I mentioned this to my ex — also a Lawrence Block fan — he noted “you don’t have to read every author he recommends.” “Maybe so,” I responded, “but he makes them all sound so engaging.”

And that is the truth of Block’s writing. Fiction or non-fiction, gentleman thief, assassin, adventurer, ex-cop, running essays, stamp collecting, writing — Block’s work is engaging. I have never read a Block book or story that didn’t feel like I was settling in with a good friend for a catch-up session.

In The Crime of Our Lives, he gives overviews of the work of sixteen writers — peppered with anecdotes about them, about his own life and writing, and about writing and the mystery/crime genres in general. One caveat which Block notes in the beginning, is that he has restricted the subjects of the book to deceased American writers, primarily of the “hard-boiled” variety of fiction, and the list has no women on it. He does note that the last is because Christie and Sayers are British while the female American writers he would include are still living. His reasoning is that he does not wish to assemble a list of favorites and upset friends by their exclusion. In his words: “I have mentioned how generous and amiable mystery writers are, how much I enjoy their company, how well we all get along. If you think I am going to change all that by assembling a list of favorites and leaving some of them off it, you’re out of your mind.”*

Among the writers Block covers in this volume: Anthony Boucher, Frederic Brown, Raymond Chandler, Stanley Ellin, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, and Donald E. Westlake.

After reading Block’s overviews, my first instinct was to go to the Brooklyn Public Library website, find all the books by each writer and start putting them on hold, one writer at a time.

If you are a fan of mysteries, crime stories, noir, or all three, this is an interesting, engaging overview of some of the author’s favorite writers, who happen to be among the best in their fields. I highly recommend this book to you. In fact, I recommend this book even if you aren’t a fan of the genre. You might just well become a fan after reading it.

*Block, Lawrence (2015-03-26). The Crime of Our Lives (Kindle Locations 286-288). Lawrence Block. Kindle Edition.

Mixed Reviews, e-Publishing, and Other Amusements

I was recently assigned a short story to review and post about. I did what was required, but did so with a really heavy heart. You see, the book was an e-book, and had many of the faults that keep people from whole-heartedly adopting the technology.

The story idea was mildly interesting. However, the characters were flat and wooden — nothing there for a kid to really relate to. The editing was horrendous – spelling errors and bad grammar to the point where I wanted to write the author and tell him to get a good copy editor and pull this from Amazon until it was fixed. Worst of all, the story was entirely too heavy-handed and preachy; the nicest thing I could say about the way it was handled was that the author’s points could not be missed.

Why do I discuss this here, especially since I did the required review elsewhere, then? I note it to point out what I, and many others, see as some of the problems with e-publishing, especially of the vanity variety. As anyone who reads this blog is probably aware, self-publishing e-books is incredibly easy compared to getting published the “old-fashioned” way. Unfortunately, this means that pretty much anyone can publish stuff — good or bad. Amazon abounds with poorly edited e-books; my favorite mistyped title is The Three Tenants of Prosperity. Gratuitous spelling errors, plots with holes you could have Andre the Giant walk through were he still alive, grammar errors that would be looked at askance in a second-grader’s work…and don’t forget to toss in characters that could be cut from recycled printer paper; sometimes it feels like people are just into parading their ignorance.

Please note that I am not talking here about using various street or regional dialects; those can add real flavor to a story. However, characters whose speech does not reflect who they are just make me want to throw the book at the nearest wall. Part of making fiction good is having the characters put an accurate picture of who they are in the readers’ minds.

However, I digress a bit. It’s not that all e-publishers are bad. Lawrence Block has been e-publishing his books for a while now, and the e-books are just as meticulously edited as his hard copy books are.There are reputable e-publishing houses. What I object to about e-publishing is largely that anyone can put anything out these days. I’m not saying they don’t have a right to – just that all the garbage out there makes it much harder to find the good books by new authors who are exclusively e-publishing for whatever reason. Yes, I know that even paper publishing has small vanity houses where these issues are regular visitors. This is why my reading remains a mix of both e-books and paper books.

I have been working a bit more, as I get healthier. It’s interesting to see all the different styles clients want. There are at least two guides for each of the writing teams I’m on. One is from the client, the second is from the project manager. Often, there are additional guides, cheat sheets, etc.  the most amusing part of this kind of work is making sure your work is not plagiarized – not even accidentally. This is usually done by using a program such as Copyscape, which searches the Web for words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that match your work. Unfortunately, there are things Copyscape flags that cannot be changed, such as your product’s name. Get enough “hits” and you can be let go by your project. Add in to this that most clients provide you with keywords and/or links they want you to use, and turning out 100% original copy becomes, shall we say, interesting. It’s not too terrible for me. Often I find the biggest challenge is writing to an approximate tenth-grade level.

Part of the problem is that the world has changed since I was taught to write. When I was growing up and in school, complex sentences were the sign of an educated person. Not that you used extra words, mind; such sentences had several clauses, but were – optimally – not strings of adjectives and adverbs. Passive voice was often part of formal writing; it served to distance you from your writing – to make the writing sound neutral. The current style is short sentences (I have been told that 25 words is optimal), with few clauses and fairly limited vocabulary. It’s not a style I learned easily, and I use a few programs to check for things like that (my favorite is Hemingway Editor). Anyway, I am finding writing in the new style something of a challenge, but it’s an interesting challenge. Language evolves, and we should evolve with it, even if it moves us out of our comfort zones.

That said, I still am happier when books I read are written with proper grammar and spelling – except when changed for reasons of dialect.

Announcement and Catching Up

Okay, it’s been a while, and I have a couple of things to talk about today.

The first is an announcement:

August 1-3 2014 are the dates for the Deadly Ink Mystery Conference, taking place at the Hyatt Regency New Brunswick, Two Albany Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901.

Deadly Ink 1                                                                      Deadly Ink 2

The conference promises to be an interesting one, with Donald Bain and Renée Paley-Bain, who wrote the Murder, She Wrote mystery books as Guests of Honor, and Donna Andrews as Toastmaster. Whether you are just a mystery fan, or you want to write a mystery of your own, this is a great opportunity to mix with the writers and other publishing professionals who feed our mystery cravings, be they hard-boiled, police procedurals, cozies, or humorous. There will be panels, a “Writers’ Academy,” special presentations, a desserts party, a luncheon, a Sunday brunch, an Awards dinner, book signings, and a book room.

Information about the conference can be found at WWW.DEADLYINK.COM, or by emailing info@deadlyink.com.

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Here is a small literary gem for those of you who live in New York City. 41st Street, between Park and Fifth Avenues has been deemed “Library Way.”  Both north and south sidewalks have embedded plaques, designed by Gregg LeFevre of Andrews/LeFevreStudios, with library and book-inspired quotations. Two blocks, four sidewalks, and free! Bring a camera (I forgot mine, but plan to bring it next time.)

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I am continuing to recover from the open-heart surgery I had in March. I am now able to get out of the house for brief periods of time. This has done wonders for my moods. I am also in cardiac rehab, which is a lot like going to a gym, except that they constantly monitor your heart rate and take your blood pressure between each exercise. It has recently been increased from twice a week to three times a week, a sign that I am getting stronger and they believe I can do more.

Anyway, that’s the short  version of where things are at currently. I’ll have more to say soon.

 

 

Lawrence Block and Bernie Rhodenbarr

One Good Thing that happened at the end of 2013 was that Lawrence Block, one of my favorite writers, independently published The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, the latest installment in his Bernie Rhodenbarr series, on Christmas Day. Since I am on Block’s mailing list, I had pre-ordered the book, so I knew I would have an enjoyable read waiting when my Christmas company went home.

Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed. Bernie has barely changed a hair since I first met him (while, Mr. Block and I have both grown a good bit older) back in 1992 or so. That was the year that Mr. Block and I were both on the bill to read from our work at the now defunct Science Fiction, Mysteries, and More bookshop in downtown Manhattan. Mr. Block read his Bernie short story, “Like a Thief in the Night,” and I was hooked.

Since then, I’ve read all the Bernie books (not to mention anything else by Mr Block that I can get my little paws on), and have loved them all. I was even part of the conspiracy to buy Bernie a bench in Bryant Park, and was there for the reading/ribbon cutting.

That all disclosed, let me just say the new book is a joy.  From the mystery of “Juneau Lock,” to treating on how used bookstores are being affected by the advent of Kindles and the like, to tie-ins between historical figures,writers, and several manuscripts, to Bernie and his friends and colleagues, along with the requisite murder for Bernie to solve, this has all the elements of a good Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery. The important thing for me, however, is – as always – the writing. I have read all of Mr. Block’s series, and the writing is different in all of them (and even moreso in his books on writing, race-walking, and stamp collecting). In this series the writing sparkles. Yes, Bernie is witty and mordant, and all that good stuff, but more than that, the writing pretty much skips lightly across the page, creating exactly the kind f atmosphere you would expect to be around a sophisticated, gentleman burglar. The other thing that makes Bernie stand out for me – although this is also true about his other anti-hero, Keller, to a lesser degree – is that Bernie is so darned likeable. This is important, since most of us do not normally root for a burglar (or a hitman), and Mr. Block easily gets us to do so.

Yes, to some degree the Bernie books have a formula, but they never come across as formulaic. For me, the formula is more like a clothesmaker’s frame, waiting for new fabric to be draped on it in different and interesting ways.

Picking up any of Mr. Block’s series books always feels to me like catching up with an old friend, but this is even more true with Bernie than the others, since he is the first of Mr. Block’s characters that I met. Mr. Block wrote this book after announcing his retirement, and has now declared that it seems he doesn’t do very well at being retired. I, as I am sure many other readers are, am delighted at this, and I hope it means more books (and more Bernie books) in future.

 

I Love My Library…Sometimes!

Many of you who know me in real life know that I am generally an advocate of the public library. You also know that I live in a city that supports three public library systems: The Queens Borough Public Library, which is the one I grew up using; the New York Public Library, which I used extensively when I was more mobile; and the Brooklyn Public Library, which I have become a huge fan of since moving to Brooklyn in 2000.

However, as time has gone on, I have had reason to become a bit less enamored of Brooklyn Public Library. I had no problem when they switched to a library card that could be read by computers, or when they added a feature to add money to your card, then made it impossible to pay overdue fines online unless they were over a certain amount, and only allowed you to pay them by placing money on your library card. I have had an ongoing issue with them over notification. They are supposed to let me know by either email or text message when a book I have put a hold on is ready for pickup. I have not, in the eight years I have lived at my present home, been able to get them to reliably do this. I have, in fact, given up on it, and just check my account every few days when I have a book on hold. I can even live with missing a lecture I would have very much liked to attend on December 10th because their newsletter announcing it didn’t arrive until the 11th.

However, I was recently subject to some of the worst service I have received from a library – and that includes all the college libraries and private libraries I have been involved with over the years. At some point the Brooklyn Pubic Library seems to have decided that their library cards would come with an expiration date. Not something I had ever encountered outside of one private library and a few college libraries, but not the end of the world. EXCEPT…Brooklyn Public never notified me of this change. I recently went to renew my library books online and got a message that my card was no longer valid. I headed to the “Ask a Librarian” section of their website, where I was informed that my card had expired, and I would have to go to an actual branch, with actual ID, in order to renew it. When I noted to the librarian that I am currently an invalid, without asking my age or anything, she asked if  I wanted to sign up for Service to the Aging, with no explanation of what it was. When I pointed out that since I had no idea what it was, so I would not sign up for it, I was very rudely told that it would provide me books by mail, and that it would be the only option available to me once my card was renewed to make sure my card did not expire without notice.

After a few choice words to the librarian, I ended the chat and spoke to the roomie, who had – after all – been a librarian before she retired. She noted that yes, the library had changed to cards with expiration dates, and yes they were supposed to notify me before the card expired. We ended up schlepping to the local library and getting my card renewed, but I am still feeling unhappy with my library. While it’s true that I am certainly old enough to qualify for Service to the Aging, it was incredibly rude for the librarian to assume that without checking my age first. Nor am I happy that I missed a lecture I very much would have loved (about the Allan Sherman bio I recently read, by the author of said bio) simply because the library couldn’t be bothered to mail their newsletter in a timely manner (and – I note – this is far from the first time this has happened). Nor was I happy when they trashed their beautiful card catalog — without transferring all the books to the computer system first (in fact, various librarians I know have informed me that that task will never be finished, because there is not enough manpower to do so).

Will this stop me from being a fan of libraries in general? Not gonna happen. I love many aspects of my library, including the tremendous amount of e-books they have that can be borrowed (although I would like it a lot better if I didn’t need two different kinds of reader applications – 3M Cloud and Overdrive – in order to be sure I can read e-books from the library). Further, I think libraries are an important part of building strong communities. Also, as a deep and wide reader, I surely could not afford all the books the library gives me access to, and that is one of the most important reasons to support the library.

However, I have – as many of you know – a long-standing propensity for pointing out when the emperor is fooling himself as to his coverage; a propensity which seems to grow as I get older. Therefore, while I love my library, I find myself calling it out on its shortfalls.

Your Grammarian has been Sick Enough to Stay in Bed Reading…

First of all, let me note that many of my friends are writers.

I am not generally big on reading the work of friends, because I am always afraid I will be disappointed.

That said, I have spent much of the last few days reading some the books Seanan McGuire has written.  At the second seder, D, our intrepid hostess, loaned me the first book of Seanan’s “InCryptid” series, Discount Armageddon, and gave me a copy of the second, Midnight Blue-Light Special, to keep (she had accidentally ordered it twice).  They were fabulous.  I adore her heroine, Verity Price.  I adore her heroine’s friends and colleagues.  I love her hobby is free-running, and that she really wants to be a ballroom dancer.  I adore the writing — it’s sassy and snarky, and totally fits with her characters.

Having finished those, I returned to her “October Daye” Series. I had read the first book, Rosemary and Rue, shortly after if came out, but life then got “interesting”.  I finally got a chance to put the second book, A Local Habitation, on hold as an ebook at my library, and take the third, An Artificial Night, out as a paperback. I tore through them the night before last, only putting them down briefly when I couldn’t focus and fell asleep (the wonders of antibiotics) for short periods.  Those done, I borrowed the next one, Late Eclipses, as an ebook, and put the following one, One Salt Sea, on hold.

If you like urban fantasy, you will adore these books.  Hell, even if you don’t like urban fantasy, you should give them a try.  They are well-written, chuckle to yourself (and occasionally laugh out loud) funny, and just really good reads.

IF you do try them, please let me know how you like them.

Your Grammarian is Taking a Break this Week…

…because she is editing a manuscript that is actually delightful.

The writer has done much right — a very strong opening that drew me in even before I got to the story proper; a POV character that is not perfect, but is interesting, and in interesting circumstances; support characters that are fully-fleshed out; showing rather than telling.  Honestly, it’s the first time I have ever edited a manuscript where I am putting in more comments about why something is perfect than why the small things that aren’t need to be tweaked.

This project is truly one of those that gets savored while worked on, and I am really looking forward to seeing the finished product.

Anyway, I want to get bak to it, so see you when the editing is done!

Your Grammarian is Feeling Much Better Today

I did start this post on Saturday, but I ended up taking a short nap — that lasted five hours!

Got paid for the first manuscript, and even got a second — which is much better in so many ways. Good, strong story and characters; good, transparent writing that doesn’t get in the way of the story; and an author who clearly did his homework, but doesn’t have to dump his erudition on the reader. I’m really enjoying working on this one.

The new computer is working smoothly which is a godsend, especially after having to do my last month or so’s work by borrowing the roomie’s computer in order to have workable internet service.

One of the problems with recovering from congestive heart failure, with fluid in the lungs, is that I need a lot more sleep than I used to. And I need to remember to be kind to myself. My energy now crashes out fairly suddenly, and when it does I need to stop, quite literally. I’ve had to go home in the middle of get-togethers with friends, and I’ve had to stop mid-writing to go and take a nap. It’s annoying but — at least for now — it’s my reality, and I need to take care of it.

I’m working my way through the pile of library books slowly. Finished Fr. Andrew Greeley’s The Making of the Pope 2005, and am now reading John Shelby Spong’s Jesus for the Non-Religious and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Both are interesting, so far. Will talk about them when I am through.  I also have Seanan McGuire’s A Local Habitation on my iPhone, as well as Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. I’m also working my way through Dr. Phil McGraw’s Life Strategies, which is very interesting. I should note that I am disposed to like Dr. Phil — he calls for action instead of whinging, which is refreshing int his world where so many people feel that endlessly complaining about a problem is the same as doing something about it.

Anyway, that’s it for this week, I think. See everyone next time!

 

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