Monday, January 29, 2007

About Alice

Calvin Trillin has written for the New Yorker for 30 years, which should give you an idea of his facility with words. This spare volume, which can be read in an hour but deserves more, is indeed about Alice, his wife, who died a few years ago. This tribute, tender without being maudlin, is clear-eyed look at their love and marriage. I can highly recommend it, and will soon be looking for Mr. Trillin's back titles.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Words Words Words

So, you like words? How much? This book is all about words. It's small, and the chapters are small, so it's more readable than you would think. But the author, David Crystal, is a top-flight linguist--and a Brit, hence the OBE and the UK-slant that creeps in--and he knows how to use words to discuss words.

Here you will find information on practically every word-related topic: origins, diversity, evolution, and enjoyment. The last section, Becoming a Word Detective, shows you how to find out the history of a word and the meaning of names, how to get involved with dictionaries and dialects, how to estimate the size of your vocabulary and keep a record of your child's words, and how to find out more about words, in case this wasn't enough.

Perhaps it is. It's pretty comprehensive, although short. And I like short.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Blind Submission

This first novel from Debra Ginsberg has an intriguing premise. Angel Robinson joins a literary agency as assistant to the legendary Lucy Fiamma, a soul sister to The Devil Wears Prada's Miranda Priestley. As she learns to deal with Lucy's outrageous demands and her own crumbling personal life, Angel discovers she has a flair for spotting and refining talent. And then an anonymous manuscript appears and everything changes.

I liked it at first. The characters are distinctive enough, the plot moves along and the milieu is fascinating. I was just going to read the first chapter, and some time later realized that I was half way through the book. Oh well. Guess I'll have to finish it.

Only I didn't. Soon after that, I tripped over an Obligatory Sex Scene, which bores me to death, so I lost interest, and took a peek at the end to see whodunnit. Resolution achieved.

But this chick lit subgenre is getting old for me. The Nanny Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada, two or three Hollywood versions, clone each other too much. Energetic young thing takes a demanding job from an over-the-top boss, loses or nearly loses everything, then pulls it together and triumphs in the end, or gets fired, parting ways from Devil Boss Lady (usually), who continues wreaking her satanic will on hapless subordinates, but at least not on Our Heroine. Meh.

I'm done with this genre.

The Pocket Stylist

A new twist on the how-to-look-good book. Author Kendall Farr is a stylist and former fashion editor, and her experience shows. Her mantras are: (1) wear what is flattering on your body, and (2) everything has to fit.

The book is progressive. First, figure out your body type (A, B, C, D, E, or F), then clean out your closet, shop for what you need, and take your finds to the tailor for alterations. Farr coaches you through this process, helping you figure out what works and what doesn't. She winds up with a chapter on underclothing, and a chapter on accessories.

I really liked this book. I think it would be useful to me as I navigate my changing size, and hence, wardrobe. I may even buy this book. If I do, borrow it from me. If I can let it out of my hands.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Museum of Lost Wonder

I had high hopes for The Museum of Lost Wonder, by Jeff Hoke. Beautiful volume--all the elegance, color, and quality paper of a coffee table book, but small enough to actually use. And the title sounded like there would be some fun creative explorations.

The museum format is clever; each topic is encapsulated in a room. Each room is presided over by a Muse, and has a latin name, and a cut-out model to build yourself, and a Gnomon comic, and a lot of short pieces of pithy commentary. It was, indeed, very promising.

Alas, the promise does not fulfill. Take the first topic, "Calcinatio," The Hall of Technology, defined as "Home of all our hopes, fear, and preoccupations with what civiliation has brought us." Whaaaat? OK, let's look a little closer. The Muse is Clio, for history. There are blurbs entitled "The Fire Within," "The First Fire," and "Let There Be Light." It's starting to come together. Until we turn the page, and launch into a spiral model of the universe and a flippant discussion of four creation myths. Then an experiment with a reverberating yawn, jumping rope, and making your own creation myth. Finally, a cut-out model of the universe. And then on to the next topic/room/Muse.

I found the whole thing to be incoherent, albeit beautiful to look at, which at some level made it worse. All that elegant confusion. And the self-aware tone made it impossible to dip in for nuggets of interest, because any relevant facts are obscured by mockery, so nothing can be taken at face value.

To wrap up, I quote the following from the introduction:

Warning: The weary, bored, and disenchanted are welcome in the Museum of Lost Wonder, but there are elements here that are not suitable for closed minds and cold hearts. Side effects may include doubt, irrationality, and synaptic pathway realignment. Enter at your own risk!

Sorry, Mr. Hoke, your expertise in designing museum exhibits does not translate to the literary medium. The side effects are turning out to be boredom, confusion, and irritation.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Memoirs of a Book Snake

Forty years of seeking and saving old books

So, does seeking and saving old books make one a book snake? Turns out David Meyer has been a book scout, and "snake" was a language mangling by a friend who meant "worm." Whatever. Book scouting, it appears, is an absorbing avocation, but you'll never get rich that way. The thrill is in the chase.

This is a tidy, friendly volume about how Meyer has been engrossed with old books since the dawn of (his) time, and has made a buck on it now and then. It's a glimpse into another world, one in which experience and instinct count for much, and the love of books is all-pervasive.

I'm always interested in books about books, as well as glimpses into another world, so I enjoyed this book. But not so much as I expected; there was an air of pathos about it, as though he was dabbling in the shallows of book dealing, neither in nor out of that world.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Book of Lost Things

I liked the concept of The Book of Lost Things, and certainly what I read was well written and compelling. Young David mourns his dead mother, and turns to his well-loved books that his mother so loved to read to and with him. In time, he is drawn into their world, and faces danger and terror there.

That is as far as I got, although the Crooked Man is heavily foreshadowed. But I do not care to cultivate the part of myself that resonates to the dark and violent undertone of this book. So I skipped to the end and resolved the story to my satisfaction, although not without regret. John Connolly is certainly worth reading, but his work is not for me.

The thematic elements of fairy tales and stories appeal to me enormously, and if they appeal to you, and you don't mind the darker elements, you will probably enjoy this book as much as I'd hoped to.