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Serial of champions – Flavia de Luce series wins again

It does not seem like it, but five years have passed since the first book in the Flavia de Luce series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, came out and caught my heart.

Flavia, still 11 years old (almost 12) after all these years, has been an annual delight

  • The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie (2009)
  • The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (2010)
  • A Red Herring Without Mustard (2011)
  • I Am Half Sick of Shadows (2011)
  • Speaking From Among the Bones (2013)
  • The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (2014)

Alan Bradley, who was born in Toronto, has hit on a formula that brings this reader back for more – an 11-year-old chemistry whiz living in a crumbling manor in England solves mysteries for the local police, dodges the daggers of disdain and dislike issuing from her two older sisters (one a face in the mirror otherwise found at the piano and the other an obsessive reading fixture in the library), and pines for her mother, Harriet, who went missing while mountain-climbing when Flavia was but a baby. Her father seems to love nothing but his stamp collection, and a dogsbody named Dogger keeps the family largely on course with the help of a hapless housekeeper whose meals resemble nothing so much as stone soup.

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*The Accursed* offers many blessings

I can eat shelled peas with chopsticks. In fact, that is my preference. For lunch, right now, I am eating a bowl of fried rice, with chopsticks. So is it any wonder that I enjoyed reading a 600-page-and-more novel about a medley of interesting themes served up by a deliciously unreliable narrator?

That was a rhetorical question.

The Accursed is the first novel by Joyce Carol Oates that I have read, and I am glad that I did. The story is set in Princeton, New Jersey, in the first decade of the 20th century. The narrator sets out to give a strictly historical account of a time of great and baffling events in Princeton, town and gown.

As a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, ordained by the Presbyterian Church USA, I have a natural affinity for a story set in this place. However, that would not be enough to convince me to part with gold or silver. I would be persuaded, perhaps, but not convinced. It was the promise of a variation on the gothic novel convention delivered by a twittish narrator that tipped the scale for me.

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*The Lady in the Lake* — novel new territory

With this rereading logofourth novel, The Lady in the Lake, one can say that Raymond Chandler has done better and has done worse.

The most notable thing about the Lady is the way that Chandler goes away from Los Angeles, thereby showing a knack for nature descriptions. The change of scene allows for some colorful characters, too – characters befitting the rural scene.

chandler later worksIt is not a matter of Chandler losing ground. He is who he is, and that is a very good thing. I can remember searching for another, and another, Chandler title after I had read just one. Anything by Chandler has an advance placement in my top 100 list of favorites in the detective category.

The writing is as good as ever, and the characters are the usual suspects that we have come to expect. The weakest link is the plot, which is standard and predictable. That said, my notes show a lively interest in the language. I copied out more than twenty examples that I just could not pass up.

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Books in Review: *Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles*

The interplay of truth and fiction, and my enjoyment of such matters, led me to buy Ron Currie Jr.’s novel Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles.

I am glad that I did.

The novel combines life and death, and longing, in a story that took me a month to read. This was my choice. The author’s episodic style, with most of the pieces bite-size, allows for a quick or slow read.

Four main plot strains vie for our attention –

  • A story of obsessive love.
  • How the narrator’s father died.
  • The narrator’s own death and return.
  • Speculation on the Singularity.

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Have a heart — Chandler’s *The High Window*

Continuing my rereading of the books of and about Raymond rereading logoChandler, I turn to The High Window, the third novel Chandler wrote (published 1942).

We knew that Philip Marlowe has a heart, and with the coming of this story we can hear its beating. In contrast to the flow of the first and second novels, this one shows Marlowe as a big brother sort of guy in certain well-defined situations.

chandler later worksThere also is an interruption in the tight plotting around rich families. The High Window falls into line by starting with Marlowe meeting with a rich and strange matron who becomes his client, but the story soon takes a new path. The reader keeps expecting a certain character – one Linda Conquest, a torch singer — to be more prominent in the action, based on previous experience with Chandler, but it never happens. A certain gold coin gets more face time than Linda Conquest does, name withstanding. I appreciate the confusion. One plot written over and over would not make Raymond Chandler memorable or laudable.

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*Timbuctoo* writer strikes gold

our cat bellaThe best parts of John Updike, in my experience, total at least two.

Three things leap to mind –

  • The Rabbit books.
  • The word zoftig.
  • The observation that some books, well-worth reading, can only be opened in bed (because they are so big and heavy).

jon books in review 150x150Tahir Shah’s new book Timbuctoo at 526 pp. in hardcover is one such big and heavy book that is well-worth reading. I bought the hardcover special edition with six fold-out maps ($50 minus one penny). There also is a Kindle option costing $2.99.

I’m glad I went the extra mile. Love books with maps.

I also am a big fan of this writer.

I believe that I own each book of Shah’s available in hardcover. And one or two paperbacks, too. Since I buy many books and leave them in piles, waiting for shelf space to appear (sound familiar?), I am gong on memories that stretch back at least ten years. Five years anyway. At my age it would be as well to walk across the Niagara River gorge, just down from Horseshoe Falls, on a high wire. I could be there from home in less than 30 minutes, but my performance would be spotty at best.

sorcererMy favorite for a long time was Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Incredible Journey into the World of India’s Godmen.

I would have described Shah, based on this and other titles, as a travel writer and one of my favorites. Even when he came out with Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca — about moving his family to Casablanca and buying a rundown compound complete with house and a few servants (loosely speaking) — I still considered Shah to be a travel writer, lately at home. At work on a novel, as it turned out. His first.

That Timbuctoo is Shah’s first published novel was another draw for me. I especially like to collect first novels.

The novel has some distinctive features –

  • Shah has gone over to self-publishing. Not because he must, I believe, but because he can — and will, I suspect. Score one for us.
  • The story, about an American man (Robert Adams of Hudson, New York) who is kidnapped and thrown on a departing ship and ends up as a slave in Timbuctoo, has been a touchstone for Shah for a long time. He writes a historical novel based on many years of study and dreaming. The book includes a bibliography.

I want to support a writer of standing who turns from big-house publishers.

I was not that interested, out front, in the fact of a historical novel.

However, Shah’s simple and clear style in telling a hair-raising tale, was pleasing to me as I hung in there. I quickly went from curiosity to commitment, finishing the book in a few days of enjoyable reading.

The narrative frame is simple and effective. Robert Adams suffers for love of a woman whom he marries in secret. When her evil father finds out, he sets up years and years of misery. Adams after bouts of escape and recapture ends up in London, all but dead, and is taken in by a wealthy man with ties to a subscription-supported attempt to grab the fabled gold of the North African desert city of Timbuctoo. Adams tells his story in daily public sessions as the gold plot unfolds.

I give Timbuctoo all possible stars.


Books in Review: *Words on Words*

our cat bella logoJohn Bremner was a man of many faces and places — priest, husband, professor, writer, friend. His usage book Words on Words, though not as popular or notorious as other titles, will be a sure map to the territory and with one exception, quickly fixed, will not let you down, lead you astray, or swipe your precious baggage.

don speaking logoThat one exception was a misspelling that Bremner made in his manuscript for Words on Words. He misspelled the word millennium. When a copy editor called, he rejected the idea that he could have misspelled a word, a Latinate word no less. Bremner said the copy editor said something like, Look it up, hotshot, and hung up.

I wonder if she introduced herself as Miss Spelling.

Bremner was 1) mortified and 2) contrite.

jon books in review logoThis anecdote I heard in a roomful of copy editors. We were gathered to hear Bremner give a seminar on grammar and usage matters for journalists and their minders.

Copy editors seldom get any respect and usually get reviled for the mistakes that others make and that the copy editors do not catch. Being at this seminar was one of the few atta-boys I got in 14 years of such work. I want to say that Bremner’s throwing us that story was like feeding flesh to sharks, but it was not like that. The response was the dull rage of the back-stopper.

Silence, and an occasional nod.

When Bremner had asked us if anyone knew what was wrong with the word he had written on the board — a misspelled version of millennium — a carefully dressed woman of a certain age, from the one metro in attendance, moved to the front of the class, placed her bling-bright reading glasses on her nose, and squinted at the word.

It should be m-i-l-l-e-n-n-i-u-m, she said.

Bremner bear-hugged her.

We back-stoppers smiled (though many of us also were grinding our teeth at not knowing the right answer; copy editors are competitive).

It is a memorable day.

Notice that I did not say that it was a memorable day. No. For me, it is memorable, like my last roller coaster ride, which also was my first. It is a memorable day in line with one of the many memorable things Bremner said on that day. Bremner explained the sequence of verb tenses, a principle of writing that one follows with or without using, knowing, or understanding the phrase sequence of verb tenses. For example, in reported speech I might write that “the mayor said that he was tired because he had been up all night with a sick aide.”

The simple past tense of said is rightly followed by the more complex past perfect tense form had been up. In speaking and in writing, we do this automatically, but Bremner wanted the back-stoppers to know how to fix the thing if it got broken.

After filing a story on what the mayor said, later on I might be having a beverage with colleagues and say that “the mayor was in full bloom tonight. He really is a pompous twit.”

Here the sequence of past tense verb forms yields to a universal truth on the order of “the moon is round” or “mean people suck”.

Universal truths, even when part of the sequence of tenses usually used in reported speech, take a present tense verb.

“He said the sun is bright, and we said in reply that he was stating the obvious.”

Other treasures that Bremner gave us that day included —

● using vivid quotes in news stories.

● placement of attribution for greatest effect.

● a term for meaningless headlines (crinoline headlines, which cover everything and touch nothing).

● and the roots of the word ukulele.

The day lives on for me like a beautiful rose that blooms in its season with a pleasing regularity.

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John Bremner began as a priest and ended as a professor, at the University of Kansas. Bremner’s students loved him, to judge from their public statements and their private stories. I worked with many of his students during my time in Oregon.

Bremner focused anger on lapses and blank spots in the use of words. I would say, after being in The Presence on two occasions that Bremner by his attitude said, Join me in this anger … focus your anger on fixing broken words and phrases in a broken world.

Okay, that is a lot of me and a scoch of Bremner, but that is what I heard under all the zeal and showmanship and all the loving stories of his students sitting beside me on the rim.

Bremner was large, expressive, and demanding. He had a vigorous salt-and-pepper beard that put out as much effort under his chin as above it. He taught his students through vivid stories and startling, thunderous pronouncements such as Shit! said the Pope or Balls had I but two I would be King, cried the Queen.

The papal pronouncement was meant to illustrate the choosing of quotes with punch. The queen’s lament was meant to illustrate the importance of placing attribution for best effect — Balls, cried the Queen, had I but two I would be King.

Bremner urged us to fix all copy that said anything other than some form of said in reported speech in news stories. He urged us to avoid the sports department’s use of would, such as In time on that day, Bremner would go on to say to us in closing, Meanwhile comma peace period.

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Words on Words, at just over 400 pages, covers most of the words that can make you look silly if you or someone else does not catch the error. The book rewards close reading. The book rewards those who use it like a dictionary. Sampling, even briefly, of this book will give you something of value. After all, who in their right mind would sit down to read a dictionary cover to cover.

Don’t answer that.

Reading  all of even the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, weighing in at 20 pounds, give or take an adverb or two, would give you bragging rights to place beside your reading the entire text ofWar and Peace but also would give you an acute need for reading glasses. Your writing probably would be no better than it had been before you started with the A’s. Reading or reading at Words on Words will improve your writing.

Here is an example of the style that Bremner uses —


Note the spelling. Most of the time ukulele appears as ukelele. The word is Hawaiian for flea, from uku, insect, and lele, to jump, a reference to the fingers flitting across the strings. See also ACCORDION.

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I choose to begin with Bremner rather than one of his many competitors because of my strong memory of him and the obscurity that his book Words on Words has in comparison to word masters such as Fowler or Bernstein, neither of whom will lead you astray. I choose Bremner in hopes that those of you who know the first tier with appreciate my gift of a new source of truth, trust, and joy.

The admonition to instruct and delight drives my own writing. Bremner, too.


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