Monday, July 24, 2017

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming SentencesSister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How does an author write a book about sentence diagramming that is both informative and downright entertaining? I never diagrammed sentences in school, but my mother did and was also an elementary school teacher. Maybe that's why I was interested in this book. The author provides the nuts and bolts of diagramming rules, a history of diagramming, and her own memories of sixth grade in Sister Bernadette's English class. She's a word nerd with the appreciation that not everybody feels the same need to obsess about grammar and punctuation. Hence, her humanity shines through in this story. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

"Few people would deny that students need to master grammar in order to write decently. But there are other places to acquire it than in sixth-grade grammar classes. And where brilliant writing "comes from" is always a mystery--the simple answer is that it comes from deep in the psyche of the writer who perpetrates it--but there's a lot more to it than correct grammar.

The fact is that a lot of people don't need diagramming or anything else: they pick up grammar and syntax effortlessly through their reading--which, in the case of most competent users of words, ranges from extensive to fanatical. The language sticks to them like cat hair to black rousers, and they do things correctly without knowing why.

Others understand their own language only when they study a foreign one: seeing it from the outside makes it come clear, particularly--as in the case of Eudora Welty--with the study of Latin, which is a bit like an encyclopedia of grammatical principles. Once you've mastered, for example, the elegantly succinct ablative absolute in Latin (and, incidentally, seen how clumsy its English equivalent can be: 'With the dog barking furiously, the girl drew a diagram' versus 'Cane fortiter latrante, paella diagram describebat') you probably will never have trouble with your own language again." p. 100


"I suppose if I have any rules of writing, they would go something like this:

1. Communicate
2. Communicate elegantly
3. When elegance is beside the point, fuhgeddaboutit.

It's good to remember the importance of context. I speak slightly differently to, say, my landlord than I do to my editor friends, and a smart kid who grew up saying 'youse' or 'ax' will know not to say 'I'm axing youse for a job' at an interview." p. 115


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Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When the author was asked if his book had a central theme, his answer cemented my five-star rating:

"I certainly hope not. In crafting a novel, I do not have an essential message I am trying to communicate. Rather, I hope to create a work of art that, while being satisfyingly cohesive, contains such a richness of images, ideas, and personalities that it can prompt varied responses from reader to reader, and from reading to reading."

I am tempted to climb up on my roof and shout, "THIS IS WHY IT IS A GREAT BOOK!" but a five-star review will have to suffice.

This is one of my favorite passages:

"Would you like to hear a story about a princess?' he suggested.

Sofia sat upright. "The age of the nobility has given way to the age of the common man," she said with the pride of one who has recited her times tables correctly. "It was historically inevitable."

"Yes," said the Count. "So I've been told."


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Friday, June 30, 2017

Eric Sloane's Weather Book

Eric Sloane's Weather BookEric Sloane's Weather Book by Eric Sloane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been reading selected books from our homeschool curriculum. My daughter remembered the bit about the woolly bear caterpillar's markings and winter predictions years after she read it. This book will inspire looking up more often--and shows what some careful observation can teach. Some of my favorite passages:

March 12, 2017 – page 12
"Ben Franklin advised that we "do business with men when the wind is in the northwest." He knew that when the wind is from that direction...the weather is likely to be buoyant, dry and hopeful--the best state for quick decisions and for bold enterprises."

March 16, 2017 – page 19
The troposphere is approx 5 miles high at the poles, but bulges to 10 miles at the equator. In temperate zones it's about 7.5 miles. This is due to centrifugal force at the equator.

March 24, 2017 – page 29
Isobars and millibars: "Exactly what a millibar is, is beside the point. It would make no difference if we measured air by the weight of apples or oysters. The point is that air pressure is higher or lower at one place than it is at another, or if it is going up or coming down."

April 2, 2017 – page 35
"The air you are now breathing was probably 500 miles to the west yesterday."

April 4, 2017 – page 40
Types of clouds associated with warm fronts: cirrus (wispy mare's tails), cirrostratus (cobwebby), cirrocumulus (mackerel) and finally towering thunderhead brings rain. From cobwebby halo around sun/moon it's 10 hours before rain starts.

June 13, 2017 – page 57
Winds: cushion effects, blanket effects, and even a cat's paw (ruffling the surface of the ocean). I have a new appreciation for sailing. So much to understand so you can get from point A to point B.

June 15, 2017 – page 64
The greater the spread between temperature and dewpoint, the farther away is rain. (Dewpoint is a humidity & forecasting measurement.)

June 30, 2017 – page 75
Heat lightning is regular old lightning that is too far away for you to hear the thunder (10-25 miles, depending)

June 30, 2017 – page 84
A waterspout is only sea water 7-10 ft up. The rest is a cloudforn of pure moisture coming down from above. Often start as a cumuli-mammato cloud. Can you guess what those look like?

June 30, 2017 – page 90
Look up and take note. "With your eyes in the sky, in old age may you walk lively in a path of beauty." -- Zuni saying

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Flood Friday

Flood FridayFlood Friday by Lois Lenski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just re-read Lenski's Strawberry Girl recently and became interested in finding more of her Regional Series of books for children. Apart from Inter-Library Loan, they are difficult to find and out-of-print copies are getting pricey. I managed to find Flood Friday for under $10 so I snapped it up.

The story takes place in Connecticut in 1955 and is told from the viewpoint of a young girl and her friends. The narrative conveys the terror of the event as well as the persevering spirit of the people caught up in the flood.


A temporary shelter is set up in the local school. Children are simultaneously anxious and bored and Lenski portrays this so well. The uncertainty of the situation as missing family members are looked for is full of tension. Later, neighbors put up people who have lost their homes or who need time to clean up before they can live in their homes again.


After huge efforts at cleaning up and rebuilding, families are able to return to their homes. Their simple gratitude for a roof over their heads and family and friends to share a meal with is touching and humbling. I'd recommend this book to children and adults alike.


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Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Conspiracy of Paper

A Conspiracy of Paper (Benjamin Weaver, #1)A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Considering this mystery focuses on 18th-century London stock fraud, it succeeds far better than I might have expected. With a few murders to season the sauce, we're off to visit some unsavory characters, both high- and low-born, Christian and Jewish. The combination of the intricate financial dealings and Benjamin Weaver's more forceful investigative style create a balance and tension throughout the novel. Weaver is a retired pugilist (The Lion of Judah) and a former petty criminal. Liss writes in a style reminiscent of the time period without getting tedious about it. His detective, or "thief-taker" in the parlance of the day, knows that he has to try to understand the stockjobbing world he's been thrown into, but sometimes his frustration results in a violent beating or two. This method yields results.

Quite a few times I was reminded of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe character:

"He aimed directly at my jaw, and in my weariness I did not see it coming. Or rather, I did see it coming, but I could not quite remember what to do about a punch aimed full to my face."

"The barkeeper showed me nothing but terse indifference--something just shy of politeness. I made a note to myself to return to this place, for I liked its way of conducting business."

Benjamin Weaver is an outsider, but an intelligent one. His wry sense of humor and friendship with Elias Gordon were some of my favorite parts of the story.

I found this book when I was searching for historical fiction about the East India Company. The third novel in this series will find Benjamin Weaver entangled with the EIC. I'm looking forward to that.

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

I noted about halfway through this book that the author was hardly a typical hillbilly. At the age of sixteen, he was "consuming books about public policy." This might explain how he ended up at Harvard, but he makes it clear that there were plenty of opportunities for him to crash and burn. He credits his grandparents, especially his grandmother (Mamaw), with making the difference in his life. She sounded like a force to be reckoned with and somebody you wouldn't want to piss off. As her grandson noted, Mamaw's favorite TV show was "The Sopranos": change the names and dates, and the Italian Mafia starts to look a lot like the Hatfield-McCoy dispute. Vance's family traces their ancestry back to those infamous tribal combatants.

Vance also nails the half-hearted attempts to brighten up blighted downtowns in the rustbelt:

"Efforts to reinvent downtown Middletown always struck me as futile. People didn't leave because our downtown lacked trendy cultural amenities. The trendy cultural amenities left because there weren't enough consumers in Middletown to support them."

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Little Folly

A Little FollyA Little Folly by Jude Morgan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I loved the other two books by Jude Morgan. Unfortunately, this one fell off for me about half way through. Not sure what was missing or if I just wasn't in the mood. There were some funny observations and situations, but I didn't get much involved with the characters, as I remember doing with An Accomplished Woman and Indiscretion.

A few notable quotes:

"Sir Clement Carnell's ruling passion, until the very last moment of his life, was his passion for ruling. In other times and circumstances he might have made a fine king of the absolute and despotic sort, bringing troublesome provinces to order, crushing rebels under his chariot wheels, and inscribing on a giant column his exact and fearsome laws. Being, however, only a country gentleman of Devonshire, he had to make do with tyrannising his wife and children."

"But Miss Rose's determination to be ignored and slighted was not yet satisfied; and there must be a good deal more fuss about her taking a glass of wine, and her insisting that she did not expect such a privilege, before the matter was done, Miss Rose in this demonstrating the peculiar talent of those who proclaim their absence of self-esteem for getting a lot of attention by pretending they never get any."

"Demi-reps, my dear. Cyprians. Votaries of Venus. The muslin sisterhood." "Oh," said Louisa, in an impressed tone. "I thought they were just prostitutes."


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