Quote: Children are made readers on the laps of their parents. — Emilie Buchwald
Nonfiction: Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer
This is a delightful, funny, and soon-to-become indispensable guide to writing in American English. Benjamin Dreyer has been a copy editor for Random House for more than 20 years. He has worked with numerous authors during that time, authors who appreciate both his attention to detail and his care for their voices being heard through their prose. Dreyer’s English finds that precarious balance as well: it advocates boldly for correct usage and grammar, while also recognizing that style and voice can occasionally transcend the “rules” of English.
Dreyer has a delightful sense of humor. I have long suspected that “only godless savages eschew the series comma;” he proudly calls out this travesty of omission. Many of the funnier statements are found in the footnotes which festoon almost every page, and which are required reading to fully appreciate the wonders of this book.
Dreyer’s English is divided into two sections. “The Stuff in the Front” includes “Rules and Nonrules,” “67 Assorted Things to Do (and Not to Do) with Punctuation,” and “A Little Grammar Is a Dangerous Thing.” This is where the meat and potatoes of improving writing can be found. Not all of his rules and suggestions will be universally acclaimed, a fact which he sometimes gleefully admits himself. He also looks at the numerous differences between British and American styles of writing and punctuation. A British author might write, ‘the book says, “quotes work thusly”’. In America we would argue, “the book says, ‘quotes work thusly.’” (The tendentious word “thusly,” punctuated in true American style, is my own example) Dreyer is not arguing that one is better than the other. He is simply acknowledging they are different, and those of us who occasionally read books from the other side of the pond may sometimes find ourselves mixing our styles capriciously. These and many other warnings can help the careful writer avoid simple mistakes that would distract a reader from the heart of the text.
“The Stuff in the Back” includes lengthy lists of misspelled words, “Peeves and Crotchets,” and other things that occasionally catch even the best writers off guard (and occasionally pass by even the most circumspect of copy editors). This section can be read through, but might also be seen as more of a reference companion. It continues with his delightfully unabashed approach to language as something that is fun and should be enjoyed, and not at all as a list of reasons that show you really should have stopped writing after Remedial English 001. (Though randomly popping in the word “really” is one of the no-nos he warns against, so maybe I need to revisit that class myself.)
In fact, nothing in this book is meant to brow-beat the aspiring author. Dreyer enjoys English. And he wants you to enjoy it, too. He rails against rules that choke creative writing, such as the rule against starting a sentence with the word “and” as I did the one before this. Dreyer cautions against usages that confuse or belabor; he encourages tight and taut sentences that communicate well. He supports the use of semicolons. Nowhere, though, does he belittle or demean authors who struggle with the applications of these rules. They are the reason copy-editors are necessary, right?
Dreyer’s English is a book every aspiring author should buy. It has a place on your desk and will find a place in your heart. You will use it, you will refer back to it again and again, and you will wish that Benjamin Dreyer could be your copy editor when that day comes for you to publish your own work. My hope is that I will find someone who has a copy of this book on her desk.
It’s June, and summer in the northern hemisphere where we live will soon be in full swing. Along with vacations, swimming, cookouts, and other fun summer activities, it’s time to put together your summer reading list.
You’re not going to go wrong picking any book for a summer read, but we will admit to preferring a little lighter fare for our summer reads. Thick, serious books just seem a bit harder to focus on when the sun is out and the garden (or beach or pool or grill) is competing for attention. That’s not to say we would avoid them completely.
For our summer tastes, though, something a bit cheerier is usually on the menu. We love SFF, and Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera is as funny a book as you will find in the genre. Part apocalyptic threat, part Eurovision competition, and all absurd, it is serious and ridiculous and joyful all at once. A couple of series also deserve mention here: Curtis Chen’s Kangaroo books and Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine novels are excellent and fun.
Summer is also a good time for us grownups to catch up on our YA novels (admit it it, you love them, too!). Seafire is the kickass girl pirate book that I want my granddaughters to read when they are older. And Richard Bach’s Ferret series is charming and is a terrific read-aloud-together series for families with children.
Moving away from SFF, last year’s hit summer movie was Crazy Rich Asians. The series is smart, biting, and hilarious, and you should definitely read the books before the movie sequels come out. The movie was great–but the books are better. (Yes, that’s almost always the case.)
And lest you let the summer gap take away everything you learned the rest of the year, some non-fiction should go onto your list. Lucy Cooke’s The Truth About Animals is the book you didn’t know you needed about animals. From swimming sloths to panda sex to bomb-carrying bats, this book is full of stories of animals and the strange relationships we humans have with them. If you want to feel like a kid again, Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs will remind you why you fell in love with those prehistoric giants in the first place. And finally Lynn Murphy’s The Prodigal Tongue is a laugh out loud book about the differences between British and American English–written by an American teaching English in Britain.
Hopefully your summer is full of fun. Let us know whether any of these books make it to your own list–or what you would recommend we add to ours. Maybe we’ll review it! This Summer!
Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente
Seafire, Natalie C. Parker
Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, Kevin Kwan
Rescue Ferrets at Sea, The Ferret Chronicles series, Richard Bach
Nonfiction: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Steve Brusatte
Nonfiction: The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English, Lynne Murphy
We at www.scintilla.info have had the privilege of reviewing many books by people whose heritage and ancestry hails from the world’s largest continent. Although this month is specifically devoted to the celebration of Americans who count Asia and the Pacific Islands in their genealogy, we are going to include other Asian authors (i.e. those who are citizens of Asian, European, or other non-US countries) in our list so as to make it as inclusive as possible.
Our apologies to anyone we’ve missed in this list. Asia is a large continent! In many families, including ours, family names do not adequately reflect ancestral homes so we did not rely exclusively on that. If someone should be on this list, please let us know and we will correct it. Any errors or omissions are entirely our fault.
Eugenia Cheng — The Art of Logic in an Illogical World and
Michio Kaku — The Future of Humanity
R.F. Kuang — The Poppy War
Kevin Kwan — Crazy Rich Asians trilogy
R.O. Kwon — The Incendiaries
Liu Cixin — Ball Lightning
Ling Ma — Severance
Celeste Ng — Little Fires Everywhere
Somini Sengupta — The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young
Vandana Singh — Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories
Shaun Tan — Tales from the Inner City
It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart. Rainer Maria Rilke
To find heartfelt spring poetry, see
To help you nurture a love love of words, language, and poetry with children see:
Driving slowly near my home,
I surprised a woodchuck standing in the road.
It was in no danger from me
But I suspect the poor beastie did not
Share my confidence
In its security.
With speed defying its corpulent shape
It dove in a bound to the grass
Then through the smeuse I had never noticed before
But can no longer unsee.
Like the word itself, “smeuse,”
“A gap in the base of a hedge
Made by the regular passage of a
The woodchuck is gone
Though its trail remains open,
And in my mind
A gap is now filled
By a perfect word.
— David Marvin
For the book that inspired the poem above see the link to:
Nonfiction: Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane
I have read books that deeply affected me, books that I believe changed the way I saw the world, that gave me insight into myself or society, that taught me new words and concepts and facts. Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane did all of that for me, but also did something that no other book has inspired me to do.
I wrote poems.
I have written poetry for awhile, though I don’t flatter myself that publishing houses are waiting breathlessly for my submissions. But I have never read a book that made me put it down and write out a poem inspired by the thoughts and images of the book. Landmarks did this to me, twice.
Landmarks is a unique, special book that is a love letter to Britain, to the land, to the English (and related) languages, and to the people of the land. It is a review of books, a celebration of authors, a review of landscapes, a celebration of life. It is a collection of words, a “word-hoard,” a series of glossaries, and a resurrection of dead and dying words. MacFarlane has worked with authors and others around the country to gather words that describe places and (yes) landmarks, words that are falling into disuse in our increasingly urban and indoor culture. Even children’s books and dictionaries are dropping words like “dandelion” and “kingfisher” in favor of words reflecting online and networked realities. This loss of language comes with other, more ineffable losses.
My city condo backs up to a park which has some wildlife, including woodchucks (large rodents also called groundhogs). One wandered into our road when I was driving home, but decided upon seeing my car that it wanted to go back to the park. I had never noticed the small gap in the shrubbery, but the woodchuck dove through it with alacrity and familiarity. A few days later, reading Landmarks, MacFarlane introduced the word “smeuse,” which is defined as a small gap in a hedge or wall used by animals. Now, I cannot drive along that section of road without looking at the smeuse and thinking of my visitor. I did not know that word was missing from my life; now I am thrilled to have it and the accompanying memories.
Each chapter introduces one or more authors who wrote elegiacally about the land and its inhabitants, flora, fauna, and features. Some of the authors are deceased, some are living, some are (or were) friends of MacFarlane, others are known to him only through their words. Each chapter also includes a lengthy glossary of terms related to the chapter, words relating to moors, to highlands, to water, etc.
Landmarks is a beautiful book that dances lyrically with language and with the landscapes. It is one that is inspiring, lovely, and one that I hope to return to again and again when I am looking for new ways to see familiar things.
Nonfiction: The Library Book, Susan Orlean
I read The Library Book without knowing a lot about it. For instance, I had no idea that author Susan Orlean was such a wonderful observer of humanity. She describes a patron in “one of the carrels in history, a man in a pin-striped suit who had books on his desk but wasn’t reading held a bag of Doritos under the lip of the table. He pretended to muffle a cough each time he ate a chip.”
I did not realize how passionate she was for libraries in general. She describes them as “a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality, in the library, we can live forever.”
The Library Book focuses on a singular event in the life of one library. The 1986 fire in the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library destroyed literally millions of books, microfiche, photographs, magazines, and other documents and records. Much of the damage was irreplaceable. The event itself did not get the national publicity warranted for a simple reason: it occurred on the same day as the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Still, it was the largest library fire in US history.
Orlean spends a lot of time looking at the possible cause of the fire, the effects, the aftermath, and the person ultimately blamed for starting the fire (he was never formally charged due to a lack of evidence). But she also looks at the history of the library and of libraries in general, and brings the story to the present and the future of libraries.
I cannot tell you how much I love this book. I am a sucker for libraries, and the library branch she mentions early in the book, Studio City, is very few miles from the North Hollywood branch we patronized during our brief sojourn in Los Angeles. Even though we lived in LA while they were rebuilding the main branch after the fire, I do not recall being fully aware of the devastation of the fire, so this book taught me a lot about a library in a town I lived in during the time frame when I lived there.
More than libraries, though, I am a sucker for a great book. This is a wonderful, amazing book. Susan Orlean’s choice of characters, her spot-on descriptions, and her engaging storytelling style makes this read more like a novel than a nonfiction narrative. I could read this book again and again, and probably get more out of it each time I started.
Some of the characters are the leaders of the LA Public Library. One of the leaders literally walked to Los Angeles from Ohio! After becoming the head of the library, he became known for his passionate advocacy for the library, his zeal in expanding the library’s collection and services…and his messy affairs which led to his divorce. In the early 1900s, this made news headlines, even in LA. A future librarian was so keen on reading that she advised people to fib their way out of social engagements so they could instead stay home and read a novel in a single gulp “like a boa constrictor.”
Apparently in Senegal the polite way to refer to someone’s passing is to say, “his or her library has burned.” Their stories have ended, their chapters are closed. What a beautiful and appropriate metaphor! The Library Book is full of bon mots like that. Not many nonfiction books can make you laugh and cry and sigh and feel better about life after reading them. Susan Orlean has accomplished all of that and more.
We of www.scintilla.info LOVE libraries, especially our local library, www.schlowlibrary.org. Almost every book we’ve reviewed has been borrowed from Schlow and is part of their collection. Like every library we’ve ever visited, they have helpful friendly people, they know almost everything, and they can put their hands on any book you would ever need or want.
In the last year we have reviewed almost 200 books, posted some fun recipes and tea time suggestions, tweeted 1300 times, and had an absolute blast!
We visited the Central PA Book Festival, the National Book Festival, joined the Nittany Valley Writers Network, bought a cute pair of bookish shoes, and (most importantly for us) drew closer as a couple.
We are hoping to do more this year: more books, more conventions and festivals, more writing, more posts, more tweets, more memes, more recipes, and maybe some cool book shoes for Dave as well! 😉
We are also hoping to improve the site, fix some of the statistical measuring and backend issues that have fought with us this year, and keep having fun.
Thank you for joining us on this journey. We hope you have enjoyed Scintilla.Info almost as much as we have enjoyed making it!
Love to all,
Maria and David Marvin