Monday, January 30, 2017

Reviewing Janet Arrowood's "Plain Language, Please"

When I put books on hold at the library, I rarely know how “big” the book is (either by external dimensions or the amount of pages).  Yes, yes, I know you can actually see the page amount in most library catalog sites. It’s usually there with the printing year and publishing house.  But I don’t pay attention to that.  It makes things interesting.

Sometimes I am overwhelmed.  More than once I have put a book on hold on a whim, only to find myself lugging what felt like a set of Encyclopedia Britannicas home on my next trip to the library. 

Other times I am pleasantly surprised.  Such was when I picked up Plain Language, Please: How to Write for Results.  Now, of course, sometimes I want a nice, satisfyingly-hefty book to tote home. But it was encouraging that the author, Janet C. Arrowood, was able to condense her points to a mere 79 pages.  It was promising that she could practice what she preached.

It’s also nice to find a quick-reference book that is not only a speedy read, but also slim enough to squeeze onto a packed reference shelf with the dictionaries and seven copies of The Elements of Style

Arrowood indeed practices what she preaches in this book.  In clear, concise language she explains how to write in a way that will engage the reader and make sure you’re communicating what you actually want to communicate, not just what you think you’re communicating.  Not only does she present examples below each segment discussing a specific topic on grammar or punctuation, she also gives a few memetic tools so the reader can actually remember and apply these principles in their own writing. 

I know I learned a lot.  I also know I have a lot more to learn.  But when you’re learning from a book as well written and presented as Plain Language, Please, the technical aspects of language seem less like a series of rules to learn by rote, and more like a puzzle to rearrange and solve.  

Monday, January 23, 2017

Lives in Ruins...and no, I'm not talking about that one movie

Indoor excavation site, Bryggens Museum in Bergen, Norway.
Photo credit: Me.

Coming off my reading of The Death of Caesar, it seemed only fitting to transition to something more…lively.  And quite coincidentally this audiobook, which had been on hold for several weeks, came into the library just as I finished reading Caesar. 

Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble.  The title itself was most promising.  In this book, author Marilyn Johnson doesn’t so much look at how archaeologists work, but rather why they do that work in the first place.  And the answer, she thinks, is a sort of infatuation that takes hold of you when you look at a remnant of the past and see the past through it.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Reviewing Barry Strauss' "The Death of Caesar"

Every book you will ever read will be a message from the past. 

Think about it. Even if a book is written at break-neck speed, there’s an entire process of editing, beta-reading, publishing contracts, manufacture and distribution that takes a bit of time. Then there’s the additional and varying lag-time of how long it takes you to learn of a particular book’s existence.  Sometimes, especially with a series of novels, it’s easier to keep track of this last factor. One can pre-order, pre-purchase, pre-hold so as to get the book hot off the press. 

But if you’re like me, you have a To Be Read Pile that is dangerously close to knocking the International Space Station out of orbit. So even if you do receive a book ASAP, it may be buried under a pile of other books. (I can almost imagine the books I own saying to my library holds, “Back of the line, take a number.”)

Back to the main point: because a book is a message from the past, it behooves* a reader to not only be a lot geeky about literature, but also a little geeky about history too. The further back a book’s publication goes into the annals of time, the more a reader might have to dig to understand what the book’s contemporary readers would have taken for granted. Try reading Jane Austen without learning about the social rules of 1800’s Britain and you’ll soon understand what I mean.

I think my “To Be Read [History]” pile is possibly just as tall as my pile of other miscellaneous books. Like good literature, nonfiction history books serve a greater purpose than just entertainment: it helps the reader better comprehend the world around them. If an architect wanted to understand the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the first thing they would need would be to research the building’s foundation. Thus, in order to understand politics, sociology, international relations, conquests, wars, racial problems, religious movements, and other things that are so prevalent in the news these days, we should look to the foundation of our current world by reading history.

One such book that I think does this well is The Death of Caesar: The Story of History's Most Famous Assassination. I imagine writing history lends itself to two temptations:

-          To elaborate and speculate and make almost a novel out of events
-          To stick only to what can be proven through archaeological evidence and cross-referencing primary sources, basically turning it into a textbook

Monday, January 2, 2017

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky, 
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields, 
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air 
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven, 
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end. 
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet 
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit 
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed 
In a tumultuous privacy of storm. 

Come see the north wind's masonry. 
Out of an unseen quarry evermore 
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer 
Curves his white bastions with projected roof 
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door. 
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work 
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he 
For number or proportion. Mockingly, 
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths; 
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn; 
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall, 
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate, 
A tapering turret overtops the work. 
And when his hours are numbered, and the world 
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not, 
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art 
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone, 
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work, 
The frolic architecture of the snow.