Finished Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

I enjoy reading John McWhorter’s books as he writes lucidly about language.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter
I enjoy reading John McWhorter’s books as he writes lucidly about language. His style of writing is very much in the manner of his speech; I can hear him narrating as I read, and I read in the cadence of his speech. That’s enviable. I certainly don’t write as I speak. I speak poorly, I think, thus I write and strive to write well.

In any case, in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, McWhorter sets how to explain why English is such an exceptional language. His book focuses on grammar, rather than etymology (as many other books do). One of the important causes of English’s distinction is the overlooked impact that Celtic languages had on Old English. He argues many of his colleagues have dismissed this influence and they should take a second look. To the extent this layman can understand his case, I would say it’s a compelling one.

McWhorter also covers the notions that English is easy to learn for non-native speakers and that language shapes culture. He finishes the book with the intriguing idea that Proto-Germanic is unique among the Indo-European language families as English is unique among the Germanic languages. But why and by who? Just as McWhorter contends that Celtic languages influenced Old English grammar, he finds tantalizing, though by no means case-closed, evidence that Semetic languages influenced Proto-Germanic.

All in all, a casual, quick read that I highly recommend to those who wish to learn more about the history of English.

Have you read it? What do you think?

Began White Witch, Black Curse

White Witch, Black Curse is the seventh in a series by Kim Harrison.


White Witch, Black Curse is the seventh in a series by Kim Harrison. A witch named Rachel Morgan tells her story of an alternate Cincinatti where vampires, werewolves and other creatures have emerged from hiding and are now integrated with human society. Rachel earns a living hauling in dangerous supernal suspects for authorities to process.

I don’t recall why I had picked up the first novel when it came out, but I’ve enjoyed reading about Rachel getting in over her head and somehow surfacing in the end.

This installment promises to continue Rachel’s search for her boyfriend’s murderer while she deals with the crafty demon Al while introducing a new player in the game of screwing up her life.

Have you read any of these novels? What did you think?

Finished The Winter Queen

In The Winter Queen, Erast Fandorin’s instincts don’t quite compensate for his inexperience.

Cover of The Winter Queen.
In The Winter Queen, Erast Fandorin’s instincts don’t quite compensate for his inexperience. Fandorin senses there is more to a student’s public suicide in the Alexander Gardens, but he is unprepared for where his suspicions lead him. Now finding himself in an ever-widening conspiracy, the young sleuth must travel across Europe to discover the truth, nab the villain and escape with his life.

Russian names aside (they’re a mouthful for me), Boris Akunin’s writing is clear and clean with wonderful details in all the right places. The humor is charming and the twists are numerous. I enjoyed meeting Akunin’s strange characters — even lamenting the demises of some of Fandorin’s adversaries. The Winter Queen is a terrific detective story and I’m eager to pick up the next Fandorin adventure.

Have you read it? What do you think?

Finished Reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Like many others here and around the word, I’ve watched the movie, The Wizard of Oz, many times over. But I’ve not read the book till now.

Like many others here and around the word, I’ve watched the movie, The Wizard of Oz, many times over. But I’ve not read the book till now.

Published in 1900, L. Frank Baum set out to create new fairy tales for children to enjoy. It was a conscious and conspicuous departure from European fables, like those by Aesop and the Brothers Grimm.

Written for children, the simple storytelling is no less enjoyable for this grown-up, enriched by W. W. Denslow‘s original illustrations. We all know the basic story. Kansas farm girl Dorothy, her dog, Toto and their house are whisked away by a cyclone and deposited in Oz and on the Wicked Witch of the East. Now she needs to get back home, but in order to do that, she must visit the Great and Terrible Wizard in the Emerald City. On her journey she befriends the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion. Each seeks something they have had all along. The book has many more characters and dangers than the movie with a bit more satisfying ending. Though no musicals.

Ray Bradbury provides the Introduction for the Modern Library edition I read. At the book’s end there is a list of questions for book clubs to spark discussion. Many of the questions are sensible enough — what do you think makes Oz such a timeless story; how is this fairy tale different than those that came before; what lessons can be drawn from it? But what did strike me was question #2: “What roles do money and capitalism play in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? What is valued in the land of Oz as opposed to what is valued in the real world?”

My question: Does everything have to be deconstructed this way? I’m reading here!

Anyway, have you read the book?

Enthralled by The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a marvelous, tragic tale. I enjoyed reading every page. Reviewers are correct: this is magic for grown-ups. There are real stakes here with profound consequences when boyhood fantasies come to life.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a marvelous, tragic tale. I enjoyed reading every page. Reviewers are correct: this is magic for grown-ups. There are real stakes here with profound consequences when boyhood fantasies come to life.

 An exceptionally bright young man, Quentin Coldwater is bored. Something is missing. His talents aren’t appreciated and no one really  understands him. He daydreams of Fillory, a mythical land depicted in a series of books by Christopher Plover. He yearns to escape there. He’s certain if he could just find the way there everything would be all right.

Sure enough, Quentin finds a way, but not to Fillory. Instead he’s transported from Brooklyn to an exclusive college in upstate New York. Here he learns real magic and becomes a real magician. As the semesters pass, Quentin makes friends, falls in love, witnesses wonders and yet still something is missing. He still isn’t happy and worse he isn’t sure what will make him happy. Even after graduating, moving to Manhattan and partying day and night, he is still aimless. With all the power at his fingertips, he is still unfulfilled. Then one day, it happens. A discovery is made that promises that this time, this adventure will be the one that lives up to his expectations. But his imaginings don’t prepare him for the nightmare that comes.

Drinking figures quite heavily in the book. And it underscores a theme that emerges. That magic can leave you with a hangover. Worse, it can make you an alcoholic. With such power, it can surely consume you as a bottle of liquor, pushing you further away from what you really value.

Grossman pays explicit homage to the Harry Potter and Narnia series as well as Dungeons & Dragons, while finding his own voice and shaping his own worlds. They’re vivid and fascinating. There are creatures that are weird, surprising, frightening and savage.

Read an interview of Lev Grossman on the Onion’s AV Club website.