Category Archives: Non-fiction

Excavating our language…a review of David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words.

crystalI have finished reading David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words, hooray! It’s been rather a disjointed read, with me picking it up and reading a few sections at odd times over the last few months; but that doesn’t really matter with this book as it is very much a compendium of words and their etymology and evolution.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this book. As I mentioned in a post many months ago, I have only ever been a student of English Literature and never English Language and so, for me, this book has been my first real foray into the realms of linguistic analysis. I have had fun. I’m not sure, however, if I would have enjoyed this book as much were it not for David Crystal’s simple and straightforward style of writing. I imagine that, if he wanted to, Mr Crystal is infinitely capable of writing a great, dense and humongous tome about the evolution of the English language (in fact, he probably has), but that would not be the book for me – or, indeed, for most casual readers. The Story of English in 100 Words, however, I would recommend to anyone. It’s easy-reading, simple, uncomplicated, informative and entertaining.

words 2I have already bought a copy of this book for my Mum and can readily foresee me recommending it to other family members and friends. For those of you who’d like a little more detail on the format the book takes…well, the title tells all really. In one hundred sections or chapters, Crystal explores the evolution of the language through one hundred varying and diverse words. From chapter sixteen and the word ‘swain’ to chapter ninety-seven and the word ‘muggle’ – there are a vast range of linguistic treasures to explore.

I’ve already mentioned that this book is easy-to-read and simply but effectively written, it is also not very long. I suppose you might imagine that a book exploring one hundred words might be rather hefty. It is not, in fact, Crystal fits a great deal of information into just over 200 pages.

english-wordsI think this book is ideal for those of us who find language interesting as an entity in itself, but one of the great surprises is how interesting it is to explore the ‘journey’ of each word from its first usage right up to its present day meaning. It’s also surprising how old some of our words really are. Words which I had considered fairly modern introductions to the language frequently turned out to have been coined by Shakespeare, the Georgians and those canny vikings and celts have much to answer for too. I am especially fond of a new word I encountered, the Anglo-Saxon word ‘medu-wang’, meaning ‘the land surrounding the mead hall’ – it seems many Anglo-Saxon places, objects and experiences were described chiefly by their association to mead!

&2As I’m sure you’ve come to realise, I would recommend this book to most readers. It’s also a good read in the sense that it’s easy to pick up in those odd moments where you don’t have time to get engrossed in a weighty narrative, you can simply read a section (usually a couple of pages) and put it down to return to at the next opportune moment.

As for Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, I’m still very much mid-read. Strangely I’m finding it a little more heavy-going than I’d anticipated, having not, perhaps, allowed for its Victorian authoress’ musings and sermons!

Until next time, I’ll be reading, thinking and, of course, drinking tea.

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Filed under 21st century, Books, David Crystal, Non-fiction, Reading

Long overdue.

books 1(3)I am sorry.

When I was little and my brother used to say these words to me by way of making up for some wrong he had done me, I would reply with the very churlish retort “well, sorry is supposed to be when you won’t do it again”. Perhaps it is time for me to eat my words. At the opening of my last blog post…many, many moons ago, I offered my apologies for my lack of blogging. I have repeated my offence. It has now been over two months since I last put finger to keypad and posted. Why? I will hazard a guess. When I began In my good books…, way back in March 2011, I made this statement

“One of my major motivations when starting this blog was to use it as a means of keeping me on the straight and narrow, so to speak. Not in the sense that blogging will distract me from a life of crime, but more that it will (hopefully!) prevent me from re-reading the same books over and over and over again.”

I think, bizarrely, that within the gaps in this sentence lie the reasons for my lack of posting. It’s hard to neglect great loves…and it’s even harder to ignore them when they whisper sweet nothings to you from a nearby bookcase…

“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”  

“Trust me, I’m telling you stories.”  

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”  

                                 “…she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.”

“…do it from the heart or not at all.”

books 6

I have been re-reading, indulging. When I began In my good books… I had the best of intentions, I sought to broaden my reading, to experience new books. I think, somewhere along the way, I made an error. Somewhere between “I must read more classics” and “I like re-reading” I surmised that my love of re-reading precluded my reading new books. From this conclusion I seem to have created a sort of shame, an unhealthy disdain for my urge to re-read. Having created this disdain, I think I have consequently become ashamed to acknowledge my re-reading habits…past, present and future. Consequently, when I have re-read, I have not blogged. When I think about it, this seems incredibly naive and foolish.

books 5In another post I labelled myself “a re-reader by nature” and acknowledged that my battered copy of Pride and Prejudice has never been allowed to sit unread on the shelf for a whole calendar year. I wonder exactly when I decided that I must go against my character, or rather, that I must conceal it. I think that I must adjust my attitude to my reading. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that from now on I will re-read to my heart’s content and bury my library card in the garden. I am saying that from now on I will strike a happy medium. When I re-read, I will blog about it. When I read new books, I will blog about them. I guess that previously I had made some sort of unconscious distinction between ‘books’ and ‘reading’ and, somewhere along the way, I decided that blog posts must be about books. I revise this premise, from now on blog posts will not only be about books, but also about the act of reading books, both old and new.

So there you have it. I guess this goes some way to explaining the gaping holes that have hung like dropped stitches in the knitting pattern of In my good books… – I’d say it’s fairly safe for you to assume that where there are gaps in time, there was re-reading. I have re-read Pride and Prejudice at least twice since beginning In my good books…, I have re-read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I have re-read Persuasion by Jane Austen, I have re-read the first three Harry Potter books, and probably more that I can’t recall. I think it is abundantly safe to infer that I will always re-read books. I have found true love on the pages of my favourite  books and I very much hope that it will last a lifetime.

books 3So what of The Story of English in 100 Words? I hear you cry (!). Well, I have almost finished it. Only a few lonely  pages to go. I have also, as is my wont, begun simultaneously reading other books. Another reading habit which I seem to have begun in early childhood. From the days when I first started reading books by myself my mother would despair at the pile of bookmark-stuffed books beside my bed. It’s a habit I’ve tried to kick. It’s never particularly conducive to mental clarity to have several different plot-lines and, lord knows, how many characters  all buzzing about your head simultaneously.

I have, however, made it my intention to read (or should that be re-read) Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women over the festive period. I first ‘read’ this book when I was a child, I say ‘read’ because it was actually read aloud to me by my Mum. I have never actually held the book in my own hands and turned the pages and I think it’s about time. So, armed with a beautifully bound Penguin classic, I intend to read its pages for myself for the first time.

books 2I suppose this post has turned into rather an odd ramble about my reading habits. I apologise to those of you anticipating a book review. I think, in the end, this post has turned out to be more of a ‘reading review’. It seems clear to me now that this review (like most of my others!) has been long overdue.

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Filed under Blogging, Books, Fiction, Non-fiction, Novel, Re-reading, Reading, Uncategorized

Working words…a review of Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson

As this post’s title suggests I have to confess a diversion away from my intended course of reading. Faced with the reality of having to return a book by Jeanette Winterson (one of my very favourite writers) to the library without reading it, I have deviated. Instead of my review of When God was a Rabbit (forthcoming), you now find yourself reading my review of Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery…not the most catchy of titles, I grant you, but it does have something, I think.

The book contains nine essays conveying Winterson’s ideas relating to writing, painting, drawing, music and more. Art Objects is Winterson’s take on, well, art objects; but that makes the book sound rather clever and serious – which it is – but I don’t want to imply that it is just clever and serious…it is so much more.

“Learning to read is more than learning to group the letters on a page. Learning to read is a skill that marshals the entire resources of body and mind…the ability to engage with a text as you would another human being. To recognise it in its own right, separate, particular, to let it speak in its own voice, not in a ventriloquism of yours. To find its relationship to you that is not its relationship to anyone else….Art is the realisation of complex emotion.”

Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery

I find it rather a complicated book to review. I think this is because it deals with concepts and ideas which I have not yet reconciled within myself. That is to say, I don’t know what I think and, as such, find it difficult to evaluate what Winterson believes. But if Winterson is to be believed then the act of reading art should be difficult. Art Objects is a book that poses a lot of questions and, for me, anyway, Winterson has the happy talent of being able to express her own opinions without demanding that her reader either accept or reject them as their truth.

“The worst nineteenth-century drudge could at least depend on eternal life. The twentieth-century robot depends on lasting until retirement.”

Winterson’s take on art in the twentieth (and, supposedly, twenty-first) century is both insightful and inciting. Her vision shows us trudging through our lives – forming an orderly line from the cradle to the grave – stopping only to visit the supermarket, watch the TV and sleep. Her predictions of libraries as museums and stories written in the language of the soap opera present a very dreary image of the present and a disturbing projection of the future. Her ardent fear of books merely as a simulation of life is obvious…I quake to think what she would make of my addiction to the computer game the Sims (a world where language and words have been sifted down to a series of options between two characters); and yet…only the other day when one of my Sims gave birth to twins, I can honestly say that the dismay, worry and stress I felt were equal to any emotion art has ever created in me.

If you are or have ever considered yourself a writer then this book is something you should read. I say should read, but perhaps I mean must? It is immensely thought-provoking, it challenges you and it makes you ask questions of yourself as a writer…it also makes you evaluate your motives and ideas. It shoves you into taking a step backwards and compels you to see yourself for the writer that you are. For me, this book made me see that I have only really dipped my toes into the bottomless pool of writing and that perhaps I should learn a little more about the nature of the pool before I attempt to swim. This book also comforted, thrilled and terrified me in equal measure…but perhaps it wouldn’t hold such potency over someone who has not attempted to put pen to paper and create.

But Art Objects is not merely a book for those who write, it also has much to offer those who read (and to a lesser extent those who paint, draw or appreciate art in its non-literary forms). I’m not saying that all of this book will be relevant to anyone who has ever read or appreciated art. There will be parts of it that do not sing to your tune. For me, it was Winterson’s essay on ‘The Psychometry of Books’ that I took issue with. In this essay Winterson tells us of her love of book-collecting. As someone who finds themself incapable of discarding any book, I thought I might relate a little better to Winterson on this topic than I did, alas, it is here that she and I disagree. Winterson extols the virtues of physical books and whilst I do agree with her about the relationship a reader develops with a particular book (every books weighs and smells the same on a Kindle), I refuse to accept that a signed first-edition is of more value to the reader than a Penguin classic…but (to quote match.com) that’s just me. It also depends on your notions of value…but that’s a different beast altogether.

I’m conscious of the fact that I don’t want to end this review on a negative. I don’t agree with everything Winterson writes and I think, perhaps, the difference in our age has come between us a little in my reading of this book (something she’d probably see as an insult to her writing), but believe me when I say that this book has made me think about myself as a reader and as a writer more than any other book I have read since beginning this blog. I am still in total awe of Winterson as a writer, she is a true sculptor of words. Whether you agree with her meaning or not, for me, no other living writer relates to words as she does, there is no one so capable as Jeanette. No author so precise, so constant, so unrelenting when it comes to the beauty of a sentence.

She understands language as art and, therefore, creates it. She has faith in imagination and, therefore, hers runs free. Prior to reading Art Objects, I thought I had made that leap of faith where imagination and art are concerned…in reading this book I’ve come to realise that though my feet have left the ground I have a long way to go before I land safely on the other side where the likes of Winterson, Woolf, Tolkien and Austen stand, calling me on.

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Filed under 20th century, Books, Jeanette Winterson, Non-fiction

History and intrigue…a review of Courtiers by Lucy Worsley.

Watch out Georgians, I know all your secrets now…that insatiable gossip     Dr Lucy Worsley told me each and every one.

Yes, I have finished reading Courtiers by Lucy Worsley, my first foray into the realms of historical…dare I call it a novel? It’s sensational and gripping enough to be compared to any novel, that’s for sure. I think the phrase ‘never a dull moment’ must have been coined to describe the Georgian courts, trust me, there is more than enough intrigue to fill the book’s three hundred odd pages.

I first purchased Courtiers on a bit of a whim having watched Worsley’s BBC Four series about the Regency period, I must own up to the fact that I was a little apprehensive that it would be able to retain my interest. My worries were in vain. I’d been concerned that I might be in for a dreary trudge through the dates, political events and royal marriages of the era, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Courtiers in no way resembles a dreary trudge, in fact it’s more of an elated skip. Worsley deftly guides her readers through the courts of George I and George II with the tender hand of one who knows them well. She maintains a good pace throughout the book, not allowing the story to stagnate and never spending too long on any one character. She uses plenty of sources, but never falls into the trap of lengthy quotes from other historians or historical sources.  This is by no means heavy reading.

What I really admire about this book is its aim to portray so many aspects of the courts. You might be forgiven for expecting the book to solely focus on the royal family and their lives at Kensington Palace and St James’s Palace, and while they certainly figure as major characters in Worsley’s story, they are by no means the exclusive focus. I really enjoyed the thrill of reading about the other players in  the Georgian courts; from mistresses to poets…from architects to a feral ‘wild boy’ adopted by George I…there is a wide spectrum of characters to fascinate any reader.

Buxom AND brainy, Queen Caroline.

Worsley writes, ‘The more I learnt about their lives, the more convinced I became that the whole sumptuous and luxurious cocoon of court life was in many ways a prison’. Indeed, Courtiers is a rather sobering lesson for anybody apt to sigh ‘I wish I lived in the Georgian times’. Even for those at the very pinnacle of upper class society, the Georgian era was not without its trials and often considerable horrors. Respected doctors might at any moment remove your bowels, you had to give birth in a room full of people, you even had to get dressed every day in front of a crowd of paying spectators…and that’s just if you happen to be the Queen; there were plenty of other horrors suffered within the Georgian courts and none of them even remotely enviable.

In previous reviews I’ve hesitated to recommend some of the books I’ve read, not so with Courtiers. I thoroughly enjoyed every page. Although, I will concede that it probably isn’t for everyone, I doubt very much that my brother, for example, would be quite so enthralled. If you like history, if you’re interested in royalty, if you’d like to know more about the day-to-day lives of people at the Georgian court then this book is for you. If you’re fed up of history being presented as a long line of dates and events, then you will probably find Lucy Worsley as captivating as I have; however, if you’re an ardent and exclusive sci-fi fan, then Courtiers might not be your cup of tea.

As for me, what next? I think it’s time I return to my ever-growing pile of library books and stop abusing my Amazon account. The only book that’s been there since the very beginning, way back in March when I began this blog, is Jamaica Inn – I think it’s about time it got an airing.

I move on to Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier.

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Filed under 21st century, Books, Lucy Worsley, Non-fiction