Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2011 Reading List

For a long time I've kept track of all the books I've read between January and December. This year I've categorized the 2011 list into favorites, both fiction and nonfiction, the classics, crime and mysteries, and those that failed to meet the expectations set by critics and book reviewers. 

My 2011 favorite fiction:

1. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is a stunning book about how time affects our memories. Are our memories accurate or has time modified the truth? Tony Webster, now retired, reflects on his youth, his friendships and his actions, in particular to Veronica who is a difficult person to understand.  Barnes's writing is eloquent, giving the reader pause to reflect.  Winner of this year's Man Booker Prize, this is a must-reread book which I plan to do.  I found it absolutely wonderful and the best book I've read this year. 

2. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles is the story of a young woman living in Manhattan in 1938 who rises from the secretarial pool to the upper echelons of society. Greenwich Village, the jazz age, New York at its most glamorous are depicted wonderfully. In less talented hands, this first-time author's excellent writing, characterizations and plot might have subjected the book to the "chick lit" pile.

3. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson is a delightful story. Better than I'd anticipated!

4. Room by Emma Donoghue is a haunting  story narrated by a child.

5. The Master Builders Singing Club by Louise Erdrich is a beautiful story of the life of a German immigrant living in North Dakota.

My 2011 favorite non-fiction:

1. Literary Brooklyn - The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life by Evan Hughes.  This terrific book combines my fondness for the borough and the city where I grew up and my love of books. This is one book I'll cherish. 

2. In the Garden of Beasts - Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. This close-up of Berlin in the 1930s conveys all the aspects of a spy novel with the terrifying aspect of its reality. 

3. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, published posthumously in 1964, is his classic memoir of Paris in the 1920s.  Although I was never a Hemingway fan, this book invites me to reconsider.
4. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough. Did you know that Samuel Morse, aka the originator of the Morse Code, was primarily a painter?

5. Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl. Even those who seldom, if ever, frequent haute cuisine restaurants will enjoy the author's adventures in some of New York City's best dining spots.

Mysteries and Crime

1. The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo.  First, Stieg Larsson introduced Lisabeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to the world; now there's Swedish writer Jo Nesbo whose compelling crime dramas feature Detective Harry Hole. (The list of Scandinavian crime writers also includes Henning Mankell who's on my 2012 to-read list.)

2. Three Seconds by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom is a hypnotic thriller by a Swedish journalist and an ex-criminal who combine their talents in a masterful tale.
3. Moscow Rules by Daniel Silva. Since my trip to Moscow in 2010, anything Russian catches my attention.  This book had me reliving the wariness I felt as I wandered around the streets of Moscow streets and boarded the crowded Metro. A good thriller!

4. The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer is the second installment in The Tourist spy series about Milo Weaver, who works in an undercover CIA agency called Tourists. (Don't confuse the book with the movie of the same name.  No relation.)

2011 Books that failed to meet my expectations:

1. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

2. The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

3. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
4. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

5. The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

Classics read this year:

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
2. The Dubliners by James Joyce

3. O Pioneers by Willa Cather
4. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

And all the rest:
1. The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard

2. The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin

3. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

4. The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty

5. Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

6. The Empty Family by Colm Toibin

7. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

8. Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy

9. The Monster of Florence, A True Story by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi
10. My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City by various authors
11. On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry
12. Strangers by Anita Brookner
13. Talk Show by Dick Cavett

14. When Will There be Good News by Kate Atkinson

Please feel free to add comments or your list of favorites read this year.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Mad as a Hatter"

While vacationing this past summer I came across an interesting book called Endangered Phrases, Intriguing Idioms Dangerously Close to Extinction by Steven D. Price.  It came in handy this past Halloween when my granddaughter appeared as the Mad Hatter.

If you've read Alice in Wonderland you know that Lewis Carroll named his character the Hatter, not the Mad Hatter. The new name took hold not only because of the character's eccentric behavior but for the fact that during the time the book was written hatters often went mad due to mercury poisoning.  In the 1800s when hat manufacturers used a mercury solution to turn fur into felt, the hatters breathed in the highly toxic vapors. An accumulation of mercury often led to trembling or "hatters' shakes."

 Interesting, isn't it, how a child's Halloween costume can lead to new information?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Words from Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in Zuccotti Park used words from the U.S. Constitution, from Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King and others to express their anger, frustration and intentions. You can find many websites which explain the demonstrators' motivations. Here are some photos taken by Nancy Brennan the other day. We found the demonstrators mostly young, articulate and polite. Or as one young man said, "We're a ruly crowd, as opposed to unruly."

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Immersed in Scandinavia

From my window in the Park Inn Pribaltiyskaya in St. Petersburg, the Gulf of Finland looked like a serene blue lake. But standing at the water's edge I recalled some of the harrowing scenes in Stieg Larrson's Millennium trilogy - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest: crimes involving human trafficking and drug deals carried out among characters in Tallinn, Estonia, across from St. Petersburg on other side of the Gulf of Finland, and Stockholm, Sweden, to the west across the Baltic Sea.

Having never paid much attention to the history, politics or daily lives of Swedish citizens, Larrson's books were eye-openers. Acts of violence and corruption in high places are certainly not unusual plots for mystery writers, but when the setting is somewhere unfamiliar to the reader a new dimension is added.

There are several rewards when I combine my interests in travel and books. One, of course, is learning about a particular place or region. Second is the new direction that leads me to other books of that time or place. Or, the reward might be discovering a new genre.

Stieg Larrson led me to Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom who combined their talents to write Three Seconds. Roslund is a journalist and Hellstrom is an ex-criminal. It's Hellstrom's knowledge of criminal life and the inside of a prison that adds much of the tension to this exciting novel. The novel won the Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2009, the same award previously won by Stieg Larrson and Henning Mankell. Three Seconds extends the plot's geographic boundary to Warsaw where members of the Polish mafia run a drug cartel.

Next I found myself among Norwegian criminals. Jo Nesbo is receiving a lot of press lately for his new thriller The Snowman. Since it features Detective Harry Hole, I decided to read The Redbreast where Hole makes his first appearance. This is an intricate and well-written mystery that originates in 1944 when Norwegian soldiers turn their backs on their homeland and fight instead for Germany on the Russian front. Although the Neo-Nazi movement plays a role in the novel, it is the mystery behind five traitors that forces the story forward to the present day.

I've learned that mysteries and thrillers, though never high on my reading list, can be extremely satisfying if they're well-written, have interesting characters and a suspenseful plot. Though I don't think I'll travel back to the time of Agatha Christie, I will be on the alert for more good thrillers, especially if they're set in a place that's new to me.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Just wild about Harry

When the first Harry Potter book came out, I read about 75 pages just to see what all the fuss was about. It was the newest publishing phenomenon and I wanted just a taste. After all, J.K. Rowling had written the book for children, not for adults. Yet Rowling's style and tone and especially her unwillingness to simplify or downgrade the language for a young audience impressed me. Rowling became a hero to young readers around the world as they devoured the tales of fantasy and adventure. Sales of the book reached astronomical heights and Harry Potter and everyone at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry ignited the imaginations of millions of children and converted them into book lovers.

When I spotted the full set of Harry Potter books at a friend's home recently, she said she'd read them all even though there are no young children in her life. I would guess she's not alone, just one of many adults who've become fans of the series.

With the release of the eighth Harry Potter movie last week, newspapers and magazines devoted a lot of ink to the Harry Potter phenomenon. It's enticing and I feel myself drawn to the world of Harry, Ron, Hermione and the colorful cast of characters at Hogwarts. In addition, I'm intrigued by the effect of the books' language on the general population. "Muggle," for example. Rowling's word for a person without magical abilities has now become synonymous with persons who have no obvious skills. And, looking down the road, in the next year or two my granddaughter will probably venture into this world and I’d love to share it with her.

I think these are good reasons to join Harry Potter's world. I’m just wondering how many adults who are reading this blog have also read one or more of the books. I’d love to hear from you. You may post a comment here or email me at

Friday, May 20, 2011

"It's Only Language"

If you were lucky enough to catch The Dick Cavett Show when it aired back in the 1960s-1970s, you were witness to intelligent, humorous and interesting in-depth conversations with guests that ranged from writers to politicians to actors, even to Cavett’s philosophy teacher at Yale.   Cavett, to my mind, is unquestionably one of  the most intelligent and entertaining of talk-show hosts.

Four years ago, Cavett accepted an offer from the New York Times to write a regular column. His new book, Talk Show,  is a collection of his columns from February 2007 to 2010. It’s a wonderful read. 

His first column appeared on February 4, 2007 and is called “It’s Only Language.”  
 Even if you’re a wordsmith or a true lover of the English language and never need any type of correction, you’ll enjoy Cavett’s writing and his examples of incorrect written and spoken English (and a few French words , too).

He points out Bush’s “nuke-you-lur” of course, but also the prevalence of misused words such as “literally” and “momentarily.”  When he addressed the words “loathe” and “loath” I decided this blog would be an apt place to note the difference between the two.

“Loath” is an adjective meaning “unwilling.” It ends with a hard th and rhymes with growth or both.  (Ex: He was loath to admit that he had lied to his friend.)
“Loathe” is a verb meaning “to hate intensely.” It ends with a soft th like the sound in smooth or breathe.  (Ex:  She loathes spiders.)

Here I’d like to quote Cavett’s last paragraph: “I don’t see the future as bright, language-wise. I see it as a glass half empty — and evaporating quickly. Almost daily irritants, like the dumb cluck’s beloved, “between you and I” will never be expunged, it seems. “Loathe” and “loath” will continue to change places, and “phenomena” and “phenomenon” will still be used interchangeably. But, finally, what the hell? It’s only language. It’s only what we live by.”

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Venting my spleen!

If you have a strong opinion - whether it be about politics, education, the present culture or anything at all - there’s a place on the web for you to “vent your spleen.” Recently, however, I reverted to a somewhat outdated method: I chose the “letter to the editor” option because my opinion has to do with the upcoming local school board election. Two local newspapers published my letter.

When I heard about a relatively new local website called “Patch” for my town of Cedar Grove and its neighbor Verona, I submitted my letter and was delighted to find that the editor kept it on the site for a week. I think the reason may be the fact that I address the current crisis in the Cedar Grove school system from a different perspective, that of a “senior” who is tired of hearing that members of the older generation typically vote down school budgets.

The school budget vote is scheduled for April 27th. Concerned parents have been holding meetings to explain reasons for passing the budget. Most of the attendees are their peers.  I believe, however, that the older generation needs to take a good look at the budget and the reasons it should pass.   I don’t know if my letter will have any effect on the vote.  I do know, however, that we are fortunate to have a variety of outlets to express a strong opinion. 

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Choosing to disagree

I’ve often bitten the bait tossed out by book reviewers. I’ve read the ones they praised and often been very disappointed. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo come immediately to mind.  Now I’ve become wary of theatre reviewers.  Only this time, I’ve seen previews of plays before they officially opened and I was, therefore, able to form an opinion without being swayed by New York critics and those of other newspapers.  I’ve come instead to critiquing their reviews.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert  (notice the missing comma) opened in New York recently at the huge Palace Theatre.  From the  venue alone you know it’s going to be presented as a crowd -pleaser, a draw for tourists.  Based on the movie about three Australian men who perform as drag queens, the play is full of disco music, outlandish costumes, unbelievable sets and moments of hilarity, sensitivity and tenderness, too.  I really enjoyed it because I accepted it for what it is.  It’s not Stephen Sondheim or Rodgers and Hammerstein.    The theatre critic for the New Yorker called it “demented and brain dead.”  No equivocating there!

Then I went to see the revival of That Championship Season,  the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Jason Miller.  The all-star cast is probably one of the reasons the limited run is practically sold out:  Brian Cox, Chris Noth, Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric (the playwright’s son) and Jim Gaffigan.  Because it is set in 1972 at the 20th reunion of a basketball team and their coach, the plot involves the contemporary issues of that time.  So if it is racist and anti-Semitic, the audience may gasp and be shocked but it accepts it as part of that era.  When one of the coach’s heroes is Sen. Joseph McCarthy, we know we’re in a very different time. So, when a critic says it is dated, I say, of course it is.  So are all the other revivals that come to Broadway each year.

When I was younger, I think I was less discriminating, tending to accept more readily the views of “experts.”  Now, I find it very invigorating to dissect the reasons why I do or do not enjoy certain books and plays.  It also makes great conversation to hear the views of friends who may or may not agree.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

When my grandson Ian was four, he began to say “I amn’t” for “I am not.” It intrigued me that a child would know instinctively how to make a contraction that he had not heard before.

His contraction made sense, I thought.  If the plural of “are not” is “aren’t” is it not perfectly logical that the singular of “am not” be “amn’t”?

When I saw that James Joyce used the word in The Dubliners, I assumed it was an “old” word. But I was surprised to learn that it is still used mainly in Ireland and Scotland.

Perhaps my Irish cousins will enlighten me on this.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig "Happy St. Patrick's Day!"

Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.
—W. B. Yeats
from "Adam's Curse"

On this St. Patrick’s Day, let us toast all the great Irish writers who have enriched our literature: James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Sean O’Casey, John Millington Synge, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, C.S. Lewis, Lady Gregory, Oliver Goldsmith, Bram Stoker, Elizabeth Bowen, Roddy Doyle, William Trevor, Frank O’Connor, Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, Edna O’Brien, Frank McCourt, Seamus Heaney, John Banville, Anne Enright, Colum McCann and the list goes on.

And let us not forget the writers, journalists, playwrights and screenwriters of Irish descent: Pete Hamill, Mary Gordon, Michael Harrington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Terrence McNally, Cormac McCarthy and the list goes on and on and on.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Just as I was thinking of a topic for this week’s blog, seven-year-old Maeve asked me if I knew what onomatopoeia words were.  Tell me, I answered, trying to recall a high school English lesson. 

Maeve then rattled off a list of onomatopoeia words taught that day in her first grade classroom: zip, boom, squish, oink and hee-haw. Onomatopoeia words sound like what they are describing - words that make noise, she explained.

I think it is terrific that first-graders here in Cedar Grove (and, I hope, elsewhere) are learning about onomatopoeia.  I went to my bookcase and checked in a couple of college handbooks but onomatopoeia was nowhere to be found.

I still have a copy of Crowell’s Hand book for Readers and Writers,  published in 1925 that my mother referred to quite often. It defines onomatopoeia as “Primarily the forming of words to suggest by their sound the object or idea presented as buzz, hiss, clack, bang, twitter.”

The Handbook pages are somewhat yellow and the cover needs repair, but I intend to someday present it to Maeve (who, incidentally, says she wants to be a writer.)

I would love to hear some of your favorite onomatopoeia words.  You can click on any number of websites, zap me your list via email, or give me a buzz.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

“You want to throw me under the bus? Hit the road and don’t darken my door again or you’ll be pushing up daisies.”

The words and phrases we call euphemisms add color, power, humor and sensitivity to written and oral speech.  Created as substitutes for words or phrases that might make us uneasy, euphemisms may sensitize us, make us think more deeply, or make us laugh.

In his new book Euphemania, Our Love Affair with Euphemisms, Ralph Keyes explains that euphemisms are used to “neutralize uncomfortable terms,” especially those related to bodily functions. But, if you look and listen carefully, you’ll find euphemisms of every category everywhere.

Occasionally, when a euphemism lessens the harshness of a word or term, it makes the meaning more palatable but less effective. (“ill-advised” for “very poor or bad,” and “enhanced interrogation technique” for “torture.”)

Many euphemisms have to do with death. While there’s the somber “passed,” “out of his misery” and “crossed over,” we also have the humorous: “sleeping with the fishes” and “playing harp duets with Hoffa.” 

The government and the military are prone to creating euphemisms when they want to lessen the harshness of a topic.  “Friendly fire” and “collateral damage” are two examples. The medical profession, corporations, and individuals have their own euphemisms, sometimes called “doublespeak.” And, of course, euphemisms abound in books, magazines and newspapers.

Just this morning, I read a newspaper article about job-hunting in which someone was “pounding the pavement.” 

If you’d care to spill the beans about your favorite euphemisms, post a comment here or email me at No snail mail, please.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A word for those who listen clandestinely

Have you ever wondered how certain words came to be part of our language?  Eavesdropping, for example.  It happened to me last week during a conversation with my seven-year-old granddaughter. After I explained the meaning of eavesdropping as listening to private conversations without the consent of the participants, I wondered how the two parts of the word related to listening surreptitiously.

I found the answer on The Phrase Finder:     EAVESDROP - ".comes to us virtually unchanged from Anglo-Saxon days. In those times a house had very wide overhanging eaves, not unlike those that may still be seen on thatched cottages in Devon. Since rain gutters and spouts were unknown then, the purpose of the wide overhang was to allow rain to drip safely away from the house's foundation. So the 'eavesdrip,' which later became 'eavesdrop,' provided a sheltered place where one could hide to listen clandestinely to conversations within the house."  From "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988.) 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Too much negativity

The title of the magazine article jumped out at me: “Can’t Hardly Wait.” This is wrong, isn’t it? A double negative:  “can’t” and “hardly.” Yet it passed the scrutiny of the magazine editor.

Just to be sure, I checked. “A double negative is the nonstandard usage of two negatives used in the same sentence so that they cancel each other and create a positive. In Shakespeare's day, double negatives were considered emphatic, but today, they are considered grammar mistakes.”

Lists of negative words - no, not, nobody, nothing, none, never, hardly, scarcely, barely, only - and practice worksheets for avoiding double negatives can be found on several websites. 

Just because "Can't Hardly Wait" was the name of a 1998 movie and a popular song does not justify its acceptability. There are other examples of poor grammar being spoken more frequently. What comes to your mind?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

“If you want a tweet, buy a bird.” - Mario Cantone

Tweet is one of many words that have developed new meanings thanks to the growth of social media websites. Today Tweety Bird is far from the thoughts of millions of people who post their tweets on Twitter. Another member of the animal kingdom, the sleek prowling cougar, is now synonymous with an older woman who dates a younger man. And cheeseball, which used to be served at a cocktail party, is today directed as an insult at anything or anyone lacking in taste or style. And if you hear the word pimp, don’t assume it only means an “agent” for “ladies of the night.” It’s now used as a verb and means to make something more showy or impressive.

So, if I want to pimp this blog, I’d post a tweet and hope that no one would describe it as a cheeseball or call me a cougar (unless George Clooney calls).

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Personal preferences versus critics’ choices

When reviewers hail a book as one of the year’s best, I've learned that their criteria may not always coincide with mine. The naming of Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs in 2007 as one of the year’s best made me swear off accepting these lists as infallible. Yet, I decided to read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

While I can admire what one reviewer called his “literary complexity,” I found the story of the Berglunds, their family, friends, and colleagues exasperating. As the chronology shifts back and forth from the 1980s to the present, from college years through marriage and children, to changing political scenes, I felt no compatibility, no sympathy for their motives and actions.

Room, however, was a surprise. Although it has been hailed as one of the best books of 2010 and was on the shortlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, I was not eager to read a novel narrated by a five-year-old. Emma Donoghue, however, has created a unique world for Jack and his Ma and I felt myself unable to put the book down for long. Room is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I don't like a couple things, do you?

Have you noticed how some people use the word couple without its companion of? It never sounds right to me so I checked a few places and it seems to have appeared only in the past couple of years. According to Organization Monkey, “I’ll be away a couple days” is not traditional but it is not incorrect.

I’m on the side of Everything Language and Grammar however, which says “This grammar error seems to be one of the most pervasive in grammar history…… couple of is ALWAYS the correct expression in ANY type of writing or speaking, not just formal. Couple is not slang or colloquial or conversational English; it’s just plain wrong, and we should stop making excuses for using poor grammar."

Do you have a couple of language pet peeves?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Let's Discuss it in the Lobby

When I heard the newly inaugurated Governor Andrew Cuomo announce that the second floor of the New York State Capitol would be reopened to the public, it reminded me of my tour of the building a few years ago. That was when I learned how the word “lobbyist” became part of our language.

Just outside each of the chambers where the New York State Senate and the New York State Assembly meet is a lobby where individuals with special interests may gather and wait to approach the state representatives. Over the years as these members of the public waited in the lobby for opportunities to advance their specific causes, they became known simply as “lobbyists.”

At the time of my tour, the guide said that the coining of the word actually started in the halls of the New York State Capital. Delving a little deeper, however, I have since learned that the history of the word may be traced to the halls of the British Parliament.

Regardless of its derivation, each time I hear the term “lobbyist” now, I picture the chamber anterooms of the beautiful New York State Capitol.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Could you really care less?

If you cringe whenever you hear "I could care less," you'll be glad to know that someone has finally corrected this statement. It was on last night's Modern Family when one of the characters - the rather uptight Mitchell - corrected his partner who had said emphatically, "I could care less."

To express a complete lack of concern, you'd say instead, “I could not care less.” If you could care less, it means you still care. It means that there is still a reservoir of care left within you. If you could not care less, it indicates that you have not one smidgen of care left to give.