Category Archives: Books I bought

Book Review: The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

12870068The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

by Mark Forsyth
ISBN13: 9781848313071
Penguin Books Canada, 2011

Don’t think this is a dry book written by a crusty, judgmental Englishman. English, he is, but crusty and judgmental? Most definitely not.

Mark Forsyth takes us on a highly entertaining circular stroll through the history of our ever-evolving language. He makes surprising connections—the Latin for witness is testis from which we get both testicles and the Old Testament—and he sets aright some unfortunate changes in meaning. Angry protesters spouting angry opposition against an event or activity might feel better if they remember that protest means to bear witness for something.

“Every weakness of human nature comes out in the history of etymology.”

We see our frailties and failings reflected in our language. Soon was the Anglo-Saxon word for now; our procrastination led to the erosion of that meaning. The Roman word probabilis meant something could be proved by experiment, but people tend to be more certain of things than they should be. As Forsyth points out, “. . . absolutely any sane Roman would tell you that it was probabilis that the Sun went round the Earth.” By the time probably made its way to English, “. . . it was already a poor, exhausted word whose best days were behind it, and only meant likely.

From protest, soon and probably, we can see that we are complaining procrastinators who obstinately believe in shaky truths.

Forsyth is funny too, in the subtle British way.

“The Latin word for sausage was botulus, from which English gets two words. One of them is the lovely botuliform, which means sausage-shaped and is a more useful word than you might think. The other word is botulism.

He tells us why black can mean white and white can mean black, and why down sometimes means up. He reassures us that being an idiot might not be as bad a thing as we thought. And, he lets us in on the secret of what John the Baptist and The Sound of Music have in common.

If you read the book, you will find out all that, and more. And the next time you enjoy a cappuccino in Starbucks, you can ponder both Moby Dick and barefoot monks, and it will all make sense to you.

______________

Read more at the Inky Fool blog: http://blog.inkyfool.com/

Book Review: The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

0062113763The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

by Rita Leganski
ISBN: 9780062113764
HarperCollins, 2013

You will enjoy this book if you are a fan of magical realism. If you prefer cold hard facts, maybe not so much.

Given the title, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say the main character does not speak, or at least not with words. Voiceless, he uses other means to communicate deeply with people (alive or dead) and with nature and the universe.

Rita Leganski creates a charming character in Bonaventure Arrow. Because he doesn’t speak, Leganski can’t use traditional dialogue to convey his insights and emotions. She uses head nods, gestures, and thoughts in a way that I feared might get tedious and annoying after a while, but it never did.

The mystical New Orleans setting matches the mystical nature of the story. Leganski brings in Southern Baptist tent revivals, Roman Catholic rituals, Voodoo curses, and Hoodoo charms to add spicy twists to her narrative.

Occasionally, just very occasionally, the stilted dialogue of Bonaventure’s mother, Dancy, did not ring true to me. Dialogue is not Leganski’s strong suit as a writer. Her strength is beautiful, descriptive narrative that captures the essence of a thing.

“Dancy did not know of Gabe’s feelings, but Bonaventure could hear them and he thought they sounded like a pearl that forms in concentric layers of kindness to protect a helpless oyster from a hurtful grain of sand.”

Fortunately, since Bonaventure doesn’t speak, dialogue is not a prominent feature of the book, so the dreamy story flows.

Leganski gives us plenty to think about: life after death, different ways to perceive the unspoken, the benefits and dangers of religion, the need for forgiveness (or not), acceptance of differences, and the poison of guilt, revenge and loneliness.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow received unanimous approval from the members of my book club: fans of magical realism all.

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

9780553418026The Martian 

by Andy Weir
ISBN: 978-0-553-41802-6
Broadway Books, 2014

The first thing you should know: If you are not a math or science geek, you will skim many sections of this book.

The second thing you should know: If you are not familiar with 1970s TV, music or movies, you might miss out on some of the cultural references.

The third thing you should know: In November 2015, Matt Damon will star in the movie version of this story. This is a good thing.

I need to give you the back story behind why I came to read this book, because it is not the kind of book I would usually read. My son is a fussy reader. When he was about eight years old, I tried to encourage him to read all the kinds of books boys his age read: Geronimo Stilton, Hardy Boys. He said to me: “Why would I want to read about something that’s not real?”

Okay, so he’s into non-fiction, I get that. Still I try. So this past Christmas I challenged two guys at the local bookstore: “Recommend a book that my son will not be able to put down,” I said.

The Martian,” they both replied.

My son received his copy of the book for Christmas. When he sat down to read it in the lull of holiday break, his body language did not reassure me. He rolled his eyes some. He set it down regularly.

“So, what do you think?” I asked.

“He’s so . . . so . . . stupid,” he replied.

Huh. Given that story is about an astronaut, I wasn’t sure how that could be, and my husband was curious too, so he gave the book a try. As he was reading, I said, “So? What do you think?”

“I’m not sure how he could say this guy is stupid,” he replied. “The main character is a genius. I really like this book.”

So, I had to read it for myself. The deciding vote.

The first thing I noticed was that Andy Weir really, really wants his geek audience members to know the mathematical and scientific plausibility of this story. Gobs and gobs of math and science fill the pages. I started skimming. There’s a reason I’m not making my living laboratories.

I said to my husband (no math whiz, himself), “Didn’t you find it kind of math- and science-heavy?”

“Oh, I just skimmed those parts, he said.

Okay then. I carried on. At the ends of scenes or chapters, Weir throws in jokes about Three’s Company, and disco, and The Dukes of Hazzard, and such things. My son, born in the late 1990s, would not know the finer points of the Chrissy or Cindy Three’s Company debate, or that General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard was a car, so that humour would be lost on him. And I suspect that if my son were to participate in a mission to Mars, he is the type who would take the assignment very, very seriously, and he would not include boobies (•) (•) in his communications with NASA, so I guess that’s why he drew the “He’s so . . . so . . . stupid” conclusion.

In the end, I laughed out loud at the jokes, especially the boobies, and I skimmed the gobs of math and science, and I liked this story about a man’s experience on Mars. 

When Hollywood gets hold of this, they will synthesize the math and science into palatable bites, and they will light Matt Damon beautifully, and they will make one fun and interesting movie.

 

Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

9780143191278_0The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry 

by Gabrielle Zevin
ISBN: 9780143191278
Penguin Canada, 2014

My wish would be that all readers would enter this book blissfully unaware of the main plot points, so they could let the story unfold in its beautiful way.

That being my wish, I choose not to give away secrets. A.J. Fikry, owns a book store on a tourist-destination island. As he approaches middle age, he must confront and overcome some quirky character flaws, a few strained relationships and a series of unexpected events. From the twists and turns of his life, he learns some lessons, and he passes those lessons on to those who love him through comparisons to his favourite short stories. Each chapter in the book begins with A.J.’s critique of and reference to one of these stories.

Zevin’s book is intelligent, cozy, surprising and touching. My favourite line? “Someday, you may think of marrying. Pick someone who thinks you’re the only person in the room.”

Good advice, right? Enjoy that and other such wonderful nuggets when you read this book. 

Book Review: A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

house-in-the-sky-9781451645613_lgA House in the Sky

by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett
ISBN 978-1-4516-5148-5
Scribner, 2013

This one will stay with me for a while. 

Since I finished reading, my mind returns again and again to memorable scenes, pivotal moments, and mystical insights.

For most of us, international travel is an occasional money-depleting endeavour undertaken between long stretches of home, but for Amanda Lindhout, home was an occasional money-replenishing pastime undertaken between long stretches of international travel. Lindhout backpacked around the world, ticking off countries on an invisible list, comparing and contrasting the reality of them to National Geographic pages she thumbed through as a child. The National Geographic photos were one of the stable factors in an often turbulent childhood.

The book begins with the stories of this childhood, which, if examined deeply enough, might merit a book of their own. Her memories of this time are both not really relevant and entirely relevant to the core of what this memoir is about: a kidnapping Somalia. For readers to understand how Lindhout ends up in Somalia at one of its most dangerous times in history, she needs to tell us the childhood and teenage events that shaped her, and she needs to delineate her evolution from “carefree young backpacker” to “aspiring war correspondent.” And she needs to let us know how Nigel Brennan ended up along with her on such a horrific journey.

This book takes reader on an up-and-down emotional ride: a downer of violence and alcohol abuse, an exciting ascending stretch of international travel to exotic locations, a gut-clenching plateau of apprehension because we know what lies ahead, a long, slow descent into horror, and finally an upward coast to healing, forgiveness and plans for the future.

Lindhout gives an honest account of her missteps and her self-blame and guilt, especially when it comes to the complicated relationship with Nigel. She shares how she used the power of imagination and gratitude to persevere through months of boredom, and physical hardship.

Lindhout and Corbett write a compelling story that, at the end of it all, is a tribute to the power of compassion and spirit. It stays with you for a while.

 

Book Review: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

theorendaThe Orenda 

by Joseph Boyden
ISBN  978-0-670-06418-2
Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2013

We own a cottage in Huronia (central Ontario, Canada), so for decades I have frolicked in the geographical area where the  less-than-frolicsome historical events from which Joseph Boyden drew his inspiration took place. We canoe for pleasure on the same waters where First Nations people and the French engaged in life-saving trade and life-ending battles. We spend touristy afternoons at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, a reconstruction of the 17th-Century French Jesuit mission where the peaceful coexistence and treacherous torture took place.

Perhaps familiarity with the area and the history helps me to visualize this novel. Perhaps the life force—the orenda—of the time lives on through the Canadian Shield granite upon which those people walked. Whatever the reason, The Orenda resonates with me.

Joseph Boyden uses three narrators to tell of the first encounters of Jesuit priests with the Wendat people and of the conflict between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Wendat (Huron). The three narrators cover all angles of the story: Snow Falls is an Iroquois teenager who becomes the victim of a revenge kidnapping by the Wendat, Bird is the Huron warrior who kidnapped her, and Christophe is a Jesuit priest who wants to convert these “sauvages.”

Boyden’s story has no “good guys” or “bad guys.” In their pursuit of revenge, conquest or conversion, all his wonderfully complex characters perpetrate acts of kindness and villainy. Thanks to Boyden’s skill at characterization and his instinct to honour the integrity of a story, we understand his characters’ acts of villainy in those circumstances, even if we could not condone them in today’s society.

We all know how the story ends—the big-picture story of First Nations and European relations in North America—and that knowing flows like an unseen undercurrent in the reader’s mind. When Bird questions how the “crows” (the priests in the black wool cassocks) will effect his people, when Wendat warriors struggle with alcohol, and when Samuel de Champlain’s men hand over the first gun, we know. It adds an eerie shadow effect to the reading.

The only concern I have about this book—the only thing that made me stop reading and step outside of the magic of the story for a moment—is the use of present tense by Christophe in certain circumstances. I like present tense stories, and it worked beautifully for Snow Falls and Bird, who we imagine relating their version of events via the ancient oral storytelling traditions of the First Nations. Christophe, however, writes to his superior in France or in a diary. Him we imagine writing, so he needs past tense. When he is pulled under water by the sodden weight of his heavy wool cassock he could not have been scribbling notes at the time, so a first-person, present-tense account doesn’t work.

My stickiness about implausibilities of tenses aside, I admire this novel. Boyden never shies away from gory details, so when you read his books, expect the brutal truth. The Orenda has torture scenes that might alarm and repulse some delicate sensibilities.

But then the true events of history often do. 

________________

I recommend any book by Joseph Boyden. Through Black Spruce is my favourite. Three Day Road is harrowing but worthy.

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