I recently read John McWhorter's new book, Words on the Move: why English won't - and can't - sit still (like, literally). If you have any interest in words and language, I highly recommend pretty much anything he's done - besides books, he's now doing the Lexicon Valley podcast. (His lecture series for The Great Courses are all fabulous, as well.)
He's the person who single-handedly changed me from a staunch prescriptivist into a mostly descriptivist, which is saying something.
I wanted to make notes of a few things from this book, and I thought I might as well share them here. Randomness follows:
Merry, pretzel, and bra all came from the same original word. I wish I could include the whole explanation here, but it involves way too much typing. But from Proto-Indo-European down through Latin and then Old High German, the explanation makes sense.
Talking about turning verbs into nouns: they do actually become different words with (sometimes subtle) different shades of meaning. An "epic fail" means something different than an "epic failure."
"In the same way, we must expect that designations for various groups will turn over regularly: the linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker has perfectly titled this 'the euphemism treadmill.'" So for example, the correct, kind way to refer to a person with a disability used to be cripple. But after a certain amount of use, that word became associated with the "kind of ridicule tragically common among members of our species," and handicapped was chosen as the kinder alternative. "But while words change, people don't," and soon that became an unpleasant word as well, and we moved to disabled, then differently abled ... which will soon become tainted, and we'll find yet another word.
"And here's the rub: since words cannot help drifting in their meanings, we need not worry that people are deliberately keeping us off guard or are given to indecision. The euphemism treadmill must be accepted as an inevitable and unexceptionable result of what a word is: not only a bundle of sounds linked to a meaning, but also one that naturally piles up with implications over time because it is used by human beings living lives."
Then there's the idea that compound words are not really two words joined together, but a completely new word created out of two words. A black board is different from a blackboard, for example, and part of that is because of backshift (itself a compound word!)
Backshift is when the the emphasis changes - it happened when sus-PECT (a verb) became SUS-pect (a noun.) We automatically and mostly unconciously know that to noun a verb, you change the emphasis. (See also rebel and record.) This happens with compound words too: a black BOARD is different from a BLACKboard.
And all this explains why I habitually find myself typing "icecream" instead of "ice cream" and why we say ICE cream, not ice CREAM.
And to be clear, the things that make it strange and different are exactly what I love about a place. What would be the point of traveling otherwise?
In general, I noticed more: smoking, free wifi, unfamilar brands of cars, and butcher shops than I was expecting. I also wasn't expecting the Scottish and Northern English accents to be so pronounced among young people - I thought that with globalization and all, they'd be getting smoothed out and more standardized and only the older generations would have the pronounced accent. Happily, I was very, very wrong!
Conversely, I saw much less fast food than I expected, even in the big cities. (Otoh, I didn't hang out much in the touristy areas.)
People really do say "brolly" in casual conversation. They also say "I might do," where we would say "maybe," which I looove.
The typical greeting, from Northern Scotland to Northern England, was "hiya" or "heyya" to both friend and stranger alike.
In Scotland, cycling is commonly taught to young children in school - not how to physically ride a bike (I don't think), but traffic safety and whatnot.
Trains are announced as "this train is for Linlithgow" instead of "to Linlithgow."
Most places - even the tiny village of Glencoe - had yellow containers in parking lots or along sidewalks marked "grit," where anyone could reach in and get rock salt to sprinkle on icy patches.
Words and phrases
Left luggage = where you can store bags temporarily (this makes sense, but the phrasing feels weird to my American ears)
skip = dumpster
muster point = a designated place to meet in case of an emergency (most buildings seemed to have a "muster point" sign somewhere outside.)
layby = a place to pull off a narrow road and let others pass
intimations = annoucements (I only noticed this in church services, as in, "check your bulletin for further intimations.")
1. Witch Week, Diana Wynne Jones
Part of me is very sad that I didn't read Diana Wynne Jones as a child. The rest of me is just happy I've started now. This is not one of her better ones, really, but still.
2. The Invitation-Only Zone, Robert S. Boynton
A chilling book about some of the people (mostly Japanese) abducted by North Korea - people who just dropped off the face of the earth.
3. Grave Peril, Jim Butcher
Slowly working my way through the Dresden Files. Much as I like the reader, I think I'm going to have to give up the audio books for a while in favor of print: there are just too many names to keep straight and my attention wanders more easily with audio.
4. Fire & Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended by katharhino and goodness, I can see why. It's beautiful and mysterious and yet very grounded. Also, hard to explain.
5. Toilets, Toasters & Telephones, Susan Goldman Rubin
Histories of various household items - this is a middle grade book, so there's not as much detail as I would have enjoyed (and some of the explanations seemed over-simplified), but still quite fun. It reminded me of the science museum in London, where my favorite part was the basement display of vintage household appliances!
6. Summer Knight, Jim Butcher
7. The Innocent, Posie Graeme Evans
So ... this was the very first book I ever ordered from PaperbackSwap (which is sadly a shell of its former self these days.) That means it's been hanging around for over 10 years unread. In truth, it wasn't really worth it - the history was shaky at best, the writing okay but still cringe-worthy at times. And yet the story was compelling enough that I couldn't stop. So I didn't.
1. The Pearl Thief, Elizabeth Wein
Oh, how beautiful to see Julie as she was before we meet her in Code Name Verity. Beautiful - and heartbreaking, because we know what's coming.
2. Etiquette and Espionage, Gail Carriger
Sometimes it's not the book - it's just the timing, or even the format. Years ago I tried to read this and couldn't get past the first chapter. This time I listened to the audio book, and I found it delightful.
3. The World According to Bertie, Alexander McCall Smith
4. Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick
I would like to be Anna Kendrick's friend, please and thanks.
5. The Gate to Women's Country, Sheri Tepper
Calamity has happened, and society has been destroyed and reformed with people divided into two main camps: men living in warrior encampments, mostly uneducated and focusing only on warrior-things, and civilized cities made up of women, who preserve knowledge and art and do all the practical things like practice medicine and grow crops.
The best thing about this book was reading all the one-star comments on goodreads, left almost exclusively by men.
6. A Train in Winter, Caroline Moorehead
Absolutely gutting and heartbreaking. This details both the activties of women in the French Resistance during the occupation in WWII, and their inhuman treatment in concentration camps after capture.
7. The Outlaws of Sherwood, Robin McKinley
And now, the year in review:
I read 65 books (20,363 pages) in 2016. I'm not ashamed of this number, although it's a mere 64% of what I read last year. But I don't like it and I hope to up that number for 2017.
56% was fiction, which is up a smidge from last year, when fiction and non-fiction were roughly equal. A full 32% (21 books) were directly related to my Scottish adventure: either travel guides, books set in places I was visiting, or just Scottish literature in general to get me in the mood.
While the number of audiobooks I listened to remained exactly the same as last year, they made up a larger percentage of my overall reading: 15%.
The author I read most was Alexander McCall Smith, particularly his 44 Scotland Street series. I read a total of 6 of his books in 2016.
The absolute standout titles this year were:
How to Be a Tudor, Ruth Goodman. No dry history, this. She's walked the walk - living as authentic a 15th century life as is possible for up to 6 months at a time.
First Bite, Bee Wilson. A thoughtful and delightful look at food and how our tastes are formed ... and whether or not we can change them.
The Pearl Thief, Elizabeth Wein. Obviously this was going to make the list. <3 <3 <3
Crosstalk, Connie Willis. Her missed-connections scifi/romance style doesn't please everyone, but it pushes all my buttons. This was delightful.
Dogsbody, Diana Wynne Jones. I'm a late bloomer. This was the first DWJ book I've ever read. I laughed, I cried, and immediately found more of her books to read.
1. Exploring English Castles, Dr. Edd Morris
A coffee table book that takes a selection of castles and shares their history and architectural details. However, the design of the book seemed a bit amateurish, and since all the photos were from Shutterstock and not taken specifically for the book, they often didn't illustrate the text well.
2. Spark Joy, Marie Kondo
She's a bit nutty, but an adorable kind of nutty.
3. The New Deal, Jonathan Case
A fun graphic novel romp through historical New York hotel life; loved the vibe of the art
4. Fifth Avenue, 5 A. M., Sam Wasson
Bought this off a $2 cart at a West Village rare book store. This is not a rare book, obviously, but it must be rather forgetable despite its charms because I got home and realized (after reading 3/4 of the book) that I'd read it once before, 5 years ago. It's beautifully written, though, and if you like Audrey Hepburn and/or Breakfast at Tiffany's you should probably read it.
My further misadventures with the TSA:
- on the way, my necklace had to be patted down. My NECKLACE!
- and my suitcase had to be scanned twice.
- on the way back, despite going through the invasive full body scanners, I still got a special pat down.
- The NYC Transit Museum, which is nifty. Best part, of course, is walking through the collection of vintage subway cars.
- The Skyscraper Museum.
- Morbid Anatomy Museum, finally!
- St. Paul's Chapel (on the Columbia campus, not the one in the financial district). This is a positive gem of a little church with beautiful tile/brickwork. Here's a tiny audio-visual taste.
- Old St. Patrick's (famous for the Godfather scenes filmed there)
- St. Luke's in the Fields
- St. John the Divine (multiple times throughout the week.) I got to actually got to three services there and 1) that space really comes alive when it's ringing with music (snippet of video here), and 2) it's also lit completely different for a big service than it is normally, and it's even more beautiful than otherwise, which I didn't think was possible. Also, I overheard someone describing it as a "hidden gem" and I laughed because it's only the largest Gothic (neo- or otherwise) structure IN THE WORLD.
- John St. Methodist Church, twice, although it was closed both times, so I never did get to see the Wesley's pew. ;)
- Trinity, mostly to get a photo of Alexander Hamilton's grave for elvenjaneite.
- St. Bartholomew's, which is a stunning French Romanesque Revival church, filled with Byzantine decoration and art.
- New St. Patrick's - last time I was there for mass, the inside was covered in scaffolding, so it was nice to experience it properly. I stayed and explored more fully and realized I had failed to appreciate just how beautiful it is - although St. John's is my first love, St. Patrick's is more highly decorated inside. But the downside is that it's full of tourists, whereas St. John's hardly ever is.
- Christ Church, for the beautiful Byzantine style mosaics.
- St. Mark's of the Bowery, which has some of the oldest graves in the city.
- A performance by a fairly famous cellist whose name I can't remember (he's toured with Itzhak Perlman) in St. Paul's Chapel. This was so fabulous. The space has wonderful acoustics. He did everything from classic cello pieces to very avant garde stuff that involved hitting the side of the cello with the bow (he showed me the music for that piece afterwards and it is BONKERS and includes symbols that looks like umbrellas and Christmas trees.)
- Choral Evensong at St. John the Divine, by the Cathedral school choir. We got to sit in the choir stalls and it was goosebump inducing. This is the choir director for the school, and he was pretty swell.
- The Renaissance Street Singer's concert. This was my most up-close experience with polyphonic sacred music and wow. How you even begin to go about writing something like that is hard to imagine. Singing it is hard enough! There was a free singing time afterward and I joined in, but that's tough stuff to sight-read.
- The Exceedingly Good Song Night (an open-singing folk song session). In Brooklyn, of course, and people were literally drinking out of mason jars, and there was everything from sea shanties to 60s protest songs to blues-influenced gospel. It was probably the highlight of the entire trip - the only thing that would be better is a big renfaire folks jam session.
- Mulberry Street Library (in an old chocolate factory)
- Hudson Branch Library
- Jefferson Market Library (still my favorite, because it has a tower and a dungeon! Ok, basement. Dungeon-like basement.)
- the NYPL main library, whose real name I can never spell.
- 96th Street Library
- Ottendorfer Free Library, the oldest library in the city.
- At least one other that I can't remember, mostly for the free wifi.
- Korean-style ramen at mŏkbar, where I managed entirely with chopsticks and managed to slurp appropriately. Also, ate kimchi and fermented pickles for the first time and liked them!
- Bagels, of course.
- Real European hot chocolate, which is basically just melted chocolate. I had a teacup full of 60% chocolate at Mirabelles, a fairly hoitytoity French chocolateer. Was it worth $7 ... well, at least once. It was pretty much the most amazing chocolate experience I've ever had.
- Guava pastries and white corn arepa con queso at "my" bakery, the Big Booty Bread Company. It is my great life disappointment that I can't figure out how to replicate the arepa at home (it shouldn't be that hard!)
- Halloumi at "my" Greek resturant, where they remembered me. That blew my mind since I've only been there a total of maybe 10-12 times, and the last time was two years ago. On the other hand, the last time I was there I accidentally stayed way past closing, talking to some of them at the bar, and I felt so bad I tipped $20 on a $13 bill. Which might have something to do with it.
- Raclette, a cheese from the mountains of Switzerland that's melted and scraped onto your plate tableside at a tiny resturant (the dining area part was smaller than my small guest bedroom. Oh, nyc) called, not terribly inventively, Raclette.
- A special $3.50/cup small batch handcrafted yogurt that didn't taste that much different from regular yogurt, but came in a cool glass jar which I kept and is now holding daffodils.
- Coffee on tap at La Columbe. Lily and I were the only non-Wall Street types, two colorful birds in a sea of black suits.
- Cider at Fraunces Tavern, which I'd never been to before because I thought it was a tawdry tourist trap. It's actually really nifty, and I'll be back. Also, when I walked in, a live band (complete with washboard player) was playing You Are My Sunshine.
- Amazingly, my first experience with steamed dumplings. They were amazing.
- Frozen hot chocolate at the random and strange Serendipity3, where I sat next to the table that Marilyn Monroe supposedly once sat (I have my doubts.)
- Grilled cheese at Beecher's which, no, is not just a Seattle thing.
- The Evolution Store is REALLY COOL. It's basically like being able to go into a Natural History museum, but everything's for sale - everything from articulated skeletons, stuffed animals (from squirrels to huge peacocks), bits of rock and gems and teeth and bones. I bought a slice of agate that's the exact color of my blue wall. Also, the people who work there are really fun to talk to.
- I found the most opulent of subway stations - 27th & Park, in the MetLife building. It is SUPER.
- I found myself getting a little angry with how many people don't take advantage of the wonderful opportunities they have, living in a place like nyc. I know that's normal, but to have so much music and culture available, I started to get really irritated at the (many!) comments I heard from locals about what they'd never seen or done.
- I stopped by the Algonquin Hotel (of the literary round table/Dorothy Parker fame), just to say I'd been there. The Roosevelt Hotel lobby is much more pleasant for hanging out, however.
- I spent significent time in Brooklyn for the first time and I'm sorry now that I'd neglected it before.
- Julia and I rode the trippy fish carosel at Battery Park and you should totally watch my Instagram video of the experience.
- Julia and I walked across the George Washington Bridge and I went to New Jersey for the first time!
1. At Home, Bill Bryson
It's just so nice to hear Bryson read this own books.
2. Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, James Runcie
I keep thinking this series was written in or close to the time period it's in - 1950s or 60s - and then being a little befuddled when I'm reminded that this only came out four years ago. It just feels like an older book.
A worthy followup to the first Companion, Now With More Gaelic! It has recaps of all the later books, essays on the food ways of the period, costumes and music in the tv series, Diana's writing methods, and so forth.
5. Time and Time Again, Ben Elton
I'm about to be fairly critical of this book, but don't get me wrong - it's worth the time if you like time travel, this period of history (pre-WWI), and/or lots of twists and turns. It's just that I judge time travel books by a very high standard, and this one doesn't measure up.
6. Clouds of Witness, Dorothy Sayers
7. Unpleasantness at the Belladonna Club, Dorothy Sayers
I don't have to tell you lot that this is sharp and intelligent writing. I feel like I lose the nuances by listening to the audio, but I'm sure I'll revisit them again in print later.
8. Into the Dim, Janet Taylor
This is a first novel, and so I cut it some slack for that. Altogether, I'd read the second in the series if it crosses my path.
1. Sidney Chambers & the Forgivness of Sins, James Runcie
I'm not fond of the way much of the dialog is written, nor what I perceive as some ambiguity in Sidney's marriage, but I liked the way these stories fit together and the way certain subjects were handled.
As a side note, I assumed while watching the show (Grantchester) that it was based on books written in the 50s or 60s. I was so surprised to discover it's a modern series! It really has the tone and feel of something written much earlier.
2. Thing Explainer, Randall Munroe
Review This is brilliant: take big complicated things and explain them using small, simple words (and some really excellent diagrams.) And since it's by the creator of xkcd, there's a lot of nerdery, deadpan humor, and cleverness.
Sure, it was fun and entertaining - but I also legitimately learned a lot, as well.
3. Shades of Milk & Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal
A passable "in the style of" Jane Austen novel, although I dislike the author's choice to use certain Regency spellings - shew and chuse, for example - as they only serve to remind that this writing, though perfectly good, doesn't rise to the level of Austen herself.
The incorporation of magic is excellent - IT, at least, never feels jarring or out of place. Many of the character's names, however, do.
4. The Wild Swan, Michael Cunningham
You know my love for fairy tales with a twist ... these twists are by turns horrifying, comedic, macabre, beautiful.
5. How to Build a Cathedral, Malcolm Hislop
Lovingly illustrated, a veritable feast of architecture.
6. Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett
I read this last maybe ten years ago, and I find that I appreciate the underlying feminism much more than I used to.
7. Heist, Jeff Diamond
Kids, crime doesn't pay. Don't steal. You'll end up sad and afraid in Mexico.
8. Cheerful money, Tad Friend
Best line: "Life is about saying yes to the mystery of the future."
One suspects that the family qualities Tad Friend writes about are rather less a symptom of WASPishness, as he assumes, and more just garden variety dysfunction. Dysfunction there is, and in hindsight I'm not sure it was worth the time spent reading it.
9. The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson
(ARC graciously provided by NetGalley.)
This is the classic Bryson I love: often grumpy but clearly besotted with his adopted country, fairly certain things were better in the Good Old Days(tm), frequently branching off into barely-relevant side notes, perpetually arriving places just as things close (srsy, I would love to be his travel minder and make him a schedule and *keep him on it*).
This is a solid addition to any collection of travel books - and added a few more places to my travel wish-list
10. Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers
... guys. This book. It's disjointed and Mary Poppins is not a nice person. I mean, she GASLIGHTS THE CHILDREN. This is a childhood favorite I should have left in my childhood.
11. Young Elizabeth, Kate Williams
I've read a lot of biographies of Queen Elizabeth II, but not many written in the last 15 years, and none drawing quite as lovely a portrait of her as a child and young woman. She truely is remarkable.
12. Wild Ducks Flying Backwards, Tom Robbins
The man does have a way with words.
13. The Spaces Between, Diana Gabaldon
A novella set in the Outlander world - it doesn't directly involve Jamie or Claire, but a really lovely glimpse into the lives of some of the more minor characters.
And now, some stats for 2015:
I read 101 books - up slighty from last year's 96, but a far cry from 2013's 131 (not to mention 2012's 175.)
Fiction and nonfiction were almost equally split. My young adult reading continues to fall, taking up only 6% of this years list (63% in 2011, 33% in 2012, 20% in 2013, 12% last year.) It's not intentional - I'm just not seeing as much that catches my eye. Audio took up 10% this year (up 9% from last year, thanks to the ease of using the Overdrive app!) I'm not sure I've ever counted graphic novels before, but they made up 13% this year - surely the highest except for maybe the year I read the entire D.Gray-Man run.
I read 4 books each about travel and food - shockingly low.
This year there weren't any clear obsessions reflected in my reading - remember the year I read all 18 of Lee Child's books?
Authors I met this year: Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Erik Larson.
I sped through this one in two days - easily the fastest I've read a fiction book in more than a year. Engaging, suspenseful, and pretty close to plausible.
2. An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler
A call to change how you think about food - cloaked in some of the most beautiful prose I've encountered in food writing.
3. Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilders
I grew up on a steady diet of Little House book, so I eagerly devoured each footnote and marginalia. This is so full of detail - I loved that it includes not just pictures of the Ingalls family, but also places they lived and people connected to their lives. As I don't think any of us are surprised to find out, the real Ingalls family lived a harder life than their fictional counterparts, but this is not the sad or disillusioning book some reviews led me to believe it might be.
4. Promised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice
Predictable? Yes - but with such well-developed characters and complete world-building, you won't care. A lovely little sci-fi adventure/romance.
5. Bellman & Black, Diane Setterfield
Can be a bit dry at times, but you won't find a more thorough history of the garments of women religious anywhere. I had never realized the sheer variety of nun's habits before.
8. Going Clear, Lawrence Wright
What I gained from this book:
Scientology is creepy.
9. Pandora's Lunchbox, Melanie Warner
Just the reminder I needed to eat more real foods and fewer processed food-like substances. It wasn't an alarmest book, and didn't call for readers to never eat processed foods ever, but you have to admit - even a lot of what we think of as healthy foods are a pretty far cry from any real forms of food.
1. Personal, Lee Child (audiobook)
A reread - I'm finding that I like the Reacher books just as much in audio format.
2. Double Indemnity, James Cain (audiobook)
A shining example of noir, and made for a great audiobook - really great all the way around (voice, plot, characters), and left me uneasy and a little anxious for no good reason.
3. The Shepherd's Crown, Terry Pratchett
I put off reading this, because - last Terry Pratchett book (cue sobbing.) Then I started reading it, but kept putting it down and being reluctant to get back to it cause - last Terry Pratchett book (more sobbing.)
In the end, I read the parts I needed most just when I needed them most. Let's just say: I related even more than usual to Tiffany this time 'round.
Warning: the afterward will slay you.
4. The Postman Always Rings Twice, James Cain (audiobook)
Double Indemnity is actually the better story - this one has a lot of the same elements, but lacks a little of the narrative drive. Or something. Or maybe it's just because I read Double Indemnity first.
5. High Heat & Small Wars, Lee Child
Lumping these two novellas together - High Heat was the better of the two, however hard to believe that Reacher's tactical skills were this developed pre-military (and at age 17), but it was just delightfully fun.
6. The Secret Life of Pronouns, James W. Pennebaker
What is this ... languistic sociology? Whatever name it goes by, I love it.
7. Walking Wounded, Olivier Morel (graphic novel)
Visually, very striking - and emotionally powerful.