Wednesday, September 18, 2013

For a Change, Let's Talk About Actual Books (Part 10)

I don't know if it still counts as "for a change" if I've done it ten times now, but I thought I'd take a short break to look at the non-pony reading I've been doing lately.  As always, I've grabbed all the books I'm actively reading at this moment, the better to provide a cross-section of my literary preferences, and am offering my thought on them (up through however far into them I am, anyway).  Click down below the break to see what I'm looking at these days, and what my opinion is.

The Dictionary of Disagreeable English (Deluxe Edition), by Robert Fiske

What it is:  "The Grumbling Grammarian" compiles a list of regrettably common misspellings, homophone mix-ups, and general assaults on the English language.

How I'm liking it so far:  It's a dictionary entirely composed of angry finger-waving; what's not to love?  Fiske is still fighting a lot of lost causes (e.g. people using the "non-word" enormity instead of enormousness), and targets a number of regionalisms (pronouncing the l in almond), but the majority of the entries should give any moderately well-read and well-spoken person a sense of righteous superiority ("at least I don't mix up between with among!").

Recommendation:  Since it's composed of many short entries for individual words, this is great for picking up and putting down.  Also, there's an undeniable pleasure in seeing someone get worked up about language, and Fiske delivers on that count.

The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner

What it is:  A history of Tolkien's brief time working on compiling the OED, and a look at some of his most original and/or interesting linguistic creations.

A few thoughts:  That's right, I'm reading two books about words at once!  Anyway, Tolkien worked on the OED for a brief time near the start of his professorial career, and the history section here is very interesting (in fact, just about anything about the creation of the OED is interesting--see Simon Winchester's excellent The Professor and the Madman for more about the OED's roots).  As for the linguistic creations section?  It's positively wonderful, highlighting over 100 words and phrases which Tolkien either coined, repurposed, or brought back from the dead in his writings.  The entry on "eleventy-one" (as in Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday) delves into Anglo-Saxon counting systems and how they influenced Tolkien's word choice, for example.  This is the sort of detailed thought and attention to setting that makes me love Middle-Earth, and I'm really enjoying The Ring of Words as a result.

Recommendation:  This is a must-read for anyone who loves Tolkien's writings.  Beyond that, I suspect it will also be of interest to those with a general interest in literary creation or philology.

Nekropolis, by Tim Waggoner

What it is:  In an undead-filled near future, Matt Richter is a private eye.  He's also a zombie, and while being dead has its advantages, life can be tough when you're spending half your time trying to keep from decomposing.  And it's even tougher when someone wants you dead (again)...

A few thoughts:  I'm only a few chapters into this novel, so I don't have a lot to say about it yet.  So far, it's got a wicked sense of humor (Richter's got a bit of Harry Dresden's snark to him, which meshes nicely with the horror-world in which he lives), but the writing quality isn't so impressive.  At least as far as the beginning's concerned, I have to say that the story looks like it could have used another editor.

Recommendation:  I was sold on reading this with the promise that it would be more "funny/noir" than "angsty/teen romance."  So far, it's kept up its end of the bargain.  There are some editing problems, but if the beginning's indicative of the whole, then I'll probably finish this.

How the South Could Have Won the Civil War, by Bevin Alexander

What it is:  The title's pretty self-explanatory: the author lays out about a dozen key military engagements, and highlights how the Union could have been dealt crippling blows which might have lead to a negotiated separation.

A few thoughts:  Books about how the south could have won the Civil War are incredibly common, and I have to say that there's nothing particularly special about this one.  I'll definitely give it points for not being an ill-disguised Confederate apologist tract, though (if you haven't read much about he Civil War, you would not believe how common such things are, even among modern authors), Alexander carefully confining himself to could haves and not should haves.  But beyond that, this is a pretty standard "despite the north's economic and material advantages, the south had better leaders and fewer dissident voices within its political ranks, so a few crucial military victories might have convinced the Union to abandon a war that was winnable on paper" accounting.

Recommendation:  That said, it's not a poorly presented or poorly researched book.  I'd have no trouble recommending this to someone who hasn't read much on the Civil War, and is looking for an analysis of some of the key military moments therefrom.  For the buffs, though, this won't offer much that you haven't seen before.


  1. "That's right, I'm reading two books about words at once!"

    I find the fact that you can read two books about anything at once both impressive and strange. How do you keep everything separated in your head?

    Also, you just blew my mind with that "almond" thing. I think it would sound too much like a European vampire without the "l", though

    1. Whether or not one pronounces the "l" depends entirely on where you live. We are all "l"-ers here in the Midwest, but in some places that's just not how they do things. So, I'd put this more in the "does been rhyme with bean" category than the "are there two or three syllables in athlete" one.

    2. "We are all "l"-ers here in the Midwest, but in some places that's just not how they do things."

      That damn well is not true. Some of us Midwesterners do not pronounce the 'l' in "ah-munds."

  2. People pronounce "almond" without the l? <.<

    The only thing that should be finger-waved is prescriptive grammars.