between last week’s retreat and prepping for several activities this weekend, i haven’t finished any new books. that’s why this week’s bookworm review is a title i first read five years ago and recently revisited: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (4 of 5 stars).
in the airport bookstore on the way to our honeymoon, lee and i each picked out a novel to enjoy on the long airplane ride and lazy days on the beach. this was my choice. it’s thicker than i usually go for in a traveling book, but my interest was piqued by creative syllabus format (each chapter in the “core curriculum” is named for a classic work of fiction, with a final exam at the end and a glossary of terms on the cover flap). i was convinced to give it a try by the description of the sixteen-year-old heroine, blue van meer, as brainy and deadpan with a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge.
after moving to yet another remote academic outpost with her professor father, blue finds herself eyeball-deep in a series of inexplicable events and eventually a murder mystery. at first i was completely delighted by pessl’s bibliography-style descriptions and hand-drawn “visual aids” sprinkled throughout the book. the perpetual student in me was thrilled to be immersed in academic vocabulary and references to great literature as a tool to paint detail into a work of fiction.
somewhere around chapter 24 the incessant research paper-esque citing became tedious…and then i began to appreciate it for it’s significance to the story and not just a clever writing style. i was also pleasantly surprised by the skilled weaving in of uncommon words and the unexpected turn in the plot. i was certainly entertained and closed the book quite satisfied with my impulsive choice.
have you read this book? does the idea of reading a novel with style elements of a term paper sound exciting or mind-numbing to you?
in honor of national grammar day on sunday, i’ve been celebrating our lovely language this week. today’s bookworm review is on a book that does just that: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English by John McWhorter (4 of 5 stars).
i have always enjoyed mcwhorter’s style of teaching — i borrowed his lecture on “the story of language” from the library and listened to all twelve hours in rapt attention. i admit that i’m already a fan of the subject matter, but mcwhorter has a way of making the international origins of English words and syntax patterns seem like a lively story.
he covers everything from the the odd use of the word “do” in question form to the claim that language reveals culture. i connected with his attitude toward the maddening nature of arbitrary English rules…he seemed to convey an exasperated affection as you would feel for an unruly family member.
one of my favorite things about this book is that he points out how it’s silly to get upset over broken rules like a preposition at the end of a sentence or split infinitives, because the entire history of the English language is of an ever-changing grammar with many broken rules along the way. somehow my brain naturally distinguishes between an evolving way of communication like simplified sentence structure (acceptable), and blatant, lazy errors like mistaken homophones: it’s/its, their/there, or your/you’re (so annoying).
this book may not be your cup of tea, but it is certainly not out of reach, even if you are not a linguaphile. if you speak English, you can appreciate this story.
do you ever think about why we use the words we do? what is one oddity of the English language that has always made you scratch your head in wonder?