Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Meaning of Everything--A Review

The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester is the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary came into existence. While this subject matter has the potential to be completely boring, Winchester creates a narrative that is simply delightful. It's been a very long time since I've enjoyed a book as thoroughly as I've enjoyed this one.

Winchester begins the narrative with a brief history of the English language and then describes the attempts men made to catalogue it in various dictionaries. Then comes the Philological Society of Britain and their commitment to create a comprehensive dictionary of the English language. And thus begins the endeavor that took 70 years, 6 editors, and thousands of "readers"--men and women who dedicated years of their lives to scouring books for words and their many usages.

The story of the OED is fraught with stories of incompetence, fervor bordering on madness, and the struggle between those who wanted to take the time, however long that may be, to do it right, and those who would cut corners to save money. Characters like Frederick Furnivall (second editor of the OED and one who left it in a shambles during his tenure), James Henry (third and most influential editor, who spent over a half century seeing the project to fruition), and Fitzedward Hall (hermit, dedicated reader and eventual sub-editor much admired by Henry) spring to life under the dazzling storytelling of Winchester.

The scope and weight of this project was enormous and it grew exponentially over time. What was estimated at the beginning to take less than a decade turned out to take seven. But what came out of it is the definitive record of the English language, one that will never stop growing.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

We the Animals--A Reivew

We the Animals is the debut novel from Justin Torres, graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

This book is a collection of snippets from the life of a boy in New York--the son of a white mother and a Puerto Rican father--and how he and his two brothers cope with a volatile childhood.

The writing here is exquisite. Torres writes simply in places, but in others he winds sentences out like ribbon, delicately put together and beautifully executed. He distills images down to their bare bones, so we're left with the essence of a scene, without the excess that so many beginning writers succumb to.

I have only one complaint about this book, and that is the abruptness with which we are introduced into the boys' older selves. Two thirds of the book describes their lives as children and then somewhat suddenly we are thrust into their teenage and young adult lives. The transition was a bit jarring for me.

Despite this small blip, however, We the Animals is a fantastic first offering from a bright new voice in fiction.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Man-Eaters of Kumaon--A Review

Big game hunter Jim Corbett published Man-Eaters of Kumaon in 1944. The book is a collection of stories of his hunting conquests in the northern part of India.
In the 1930s this northern area of the subcontinent was plagued with attacks by man-eating tigers. When the local government could not kill the tigers, they called on Jim Corbett. He was known for being able to track and kill even the most wiley game.

Corbett's writing is urgent and exciting (in an old-school British kind of way--which is even more delightful, in my opinion). When describing a hunt, the reader feels as though she is there with Corbett, watching his back as he creeps through a jungle ravine, reading signs that only he can see. He often refers to "listening to the jungle folk," by which he means the animals of the jungle. Often, before beginning a hunt, he would pick a nice shady tree to sit under and just listen to the birds and animals to hear what they had to say about what was happening in the jungle that day.

While the stories Corbett tells are breathtaking, they sometime describe terrible deaths, either of humans or of the tigers themselves. Corbett explains that tigers aren't naturally man-eaters. Something has to drive them to hunt humans. Usually the catalyst is old age or a festering injury, something that forces the tiger to go after easier game. This knowledge makes the stories of his kills even sadder. He describes going after these tigers with such tenderness, such a respect for them, that it breaks your heart when he tells of how they die. 

Corbett was, despite his reputation has a big game hunter, an avid conservationist, in an age when conservation wasn't much on the minds of people. He says in the book that he'd much rather shoot a tiger with a camera than with a gun. The last story in the book tells of his attempts to capture an image of a tiger, how he uses his skills as a hunter to stalk a group of tigers over many days and many miles. It leaves the reader with a sense of hope, an image of a man with a camera rather than a man with a gun.

The only drawback to this book (and it's a small one) is that the stories of him hunting the man-eaters are all very similar. A tiger starts picking people off in a remote village, they either try to kill the tiger or are too afraid to even go looking for any remains of the victims, they call Corbett, he comes to the rescue, he stalks the tiger and eventually kills it. The stories are so exciting, however, that one barely notices the repetition. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Idiot Who Parked Next to Me in the Maryland Avenue Garage Last Week--A Review

Usually, a review contains both positive and negatives aspects of a performance, work of literature, etc. I am, however, having trouble finding anything positive to report about the parking job that was executed in the space next to mine last Thursday.

The driver of this SUV started their run of poor parking judgement by parking their giant, gas-guzzling behemoth in a spot clearly labeled COMPACT. I have seen this phenomenon before, but have overlooked it when the parking job was done with careful consideration of the actual compact cars parked nearby. This person, however, had no such consideration. Not only were they parked in a spot clearly too small for their vehicle, they also parked so crookedly that I, parked in the space next to them, was forced to walk around my car on the passenger side and go around the front of my car to get to the driver's side door. The right corner of the bumper of said behemoth was, by my rough estimate, three or four inches from the left corner of my bumper. This, of course, meant that on the other side of their vehicle, they'd taken up a corner of the adjacent parking space, rendering it useless for anyone else.

I won't comment on the blatant disrespect this driver appears to show for the rest of humanity. Perhaps they were late for class and they had an important, life-altering test to take and had no time to stop, back up, and correct their disaster of a parking job. Perhaps they suffer from a condition in which they cannot tell when they've parked like a jackass. Who am I to say? All I can do is report what I see. I will say, however, that they didn't hit my car when they performed this profound display of ineptitude. There's that, at least.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Travels in Siberia--A Review

There's nothing I love more than a nice, fat nonfiction book. In the right hands, nonfiction can be as engaging, enlightening, and beautifully written as a novel or even a book of poetry. After purchasing Travels in Siberia by Ian Frasier at my local Boarders's going out of business extravaganza, I sat down with the hefty tome, eager to dive into the literary feast that awaited me. I've always loved Ian Frasier's mastery of language and I just knew that if anyone could turn a book about Siberia into something interesting, it would be him.

Well, I was almost right.

Travels in Siberia is a book about, you guessed it, Ian Frasier's travels back and forth across Siberia. The book is engaging, informative and even has drawings by Frasier himself, illustrating the various landscapes and city scenes he encounters on his journeys. He crafts a narrative of Russia from its inception to the present day that is vastly more interesting than anything you'd read in a history book. He weaves this history lesson in with the story of his own travels, which, sadly, are not that interesting.

The book begins with his first encounter with Russia, through some friends of his and his wife's who are Russian expats living in New York. He goes with them on a visit to Moscow just after the fall of the Soviet Union, and is forever after infected with what he terms "Russia love." This first trip to Russia is fun to read because it is, in fact, his first trip. Everything is new and so very different from anything you'd find in America (as they're leaving the airport in Moscow, his female friend tells him there was a woman doing her dishes in the airport restroom) that you can't help but keep reading.

And then there's his longer trip driving across Siberia in August in a van with two guys he barely knows who speak less English than he does Russian; also an interesting read despite some stories that you must've had to have been there to understand the import of.

And then there's his trip across Siberia in winter, because if you're going to travel across Siberia, it only makes sense you'd do it, at least once, in winter.

And then, you'd think, that'd be enough. By then we've had several hundred pages of bleak landscapes and bleaker cities, piles of trash, ice highways that would make the Ice Road Truckers of reality TV fame crap their pants, abandoned gulags, a whole bunch of stuff about the Decemberists (not the band) and, despite all of that, beauty enough to make your heart ache.

But no. He goes back. And I don't even remember what happens, because it was that unimportant.

I wasn't disappointed with Travels in Siberia--the writing is superb, the subject is interesting, and I learned much about Siberia's history and its people--but the book could have been cut a great deal. There were a lot of self-indulgent moments on the part of the author, during which nothing much happened. Despite these moments, however, I would recommend this book to the avid nonfiction reader or to someone who is, like Frasier, suffering from a serious case of "Russia love."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Proust Was a Neuroscientist--A Review

In Jonah Lehrer's debut book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, he describes how art discovered how the brain works long before science got around to it.

By exploring the works of Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Wolf, Lehrer explains how these artists anticipated the discoveries of science--how we remember, how we experience flavor, how visual perception is processed by the brain.

Jonah Lehrer has an interesting background. He is a graduate of Columbia University, a Rhodes Scholar, a contributer to Wired, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR (among others). He's worked in the lab of Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel and in the kitchens of prominent chefs in New York City.

This varied background has enabled him to examine science and art together and give us a well-researched and well-written look into how art and science are connected, how they compliment and inform each other. Lehrer is a gifted writer, taking subject matter that has great potential to confuse and lose a casual reader (basics of neuroscience, physics, etc.) and turning them into poetry.

Lehrer creates a very convincing argument for the pairing of art and science to better understand the world around us and, more importantly, ourselves.