Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood MarkSemicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
by Ceclia Watson, Pam Ward (narrator)
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780062917935
Publication Date: July 30, 2019
Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: HarperCollins

The semicolon. Stephen King, Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Orwell detest it. Herman Melville, Henry James, and Rebecca Solnit love it. But why? When is it effective? Have we been misusing it? Should we even care?

In Semicolon, Cecelia Watson charts the rise and fall of this infamous punctuation mark, which for years was the trendiest one in the world of letters. But in the nineteenth century, as grammar books became all the rage, the rules of how we use language became both stricter and more confusing, with the semicolon a prime victim. Taking us on a breezy journey through a range of examples—from Milton’s manuscripts to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail” to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep—Watson reveals how traditional grammar rules make us less successful at communicating with each other than we’d think. Even the most die-hard grammar fanatics would be better served by tossing the rule books and learning a better way to engage with language.

Through her rollicking biography of the semicolon, Watson writes a guide to grammar that explains why we don’t need guides at all, and refocuses our attention on the deepest, most primary value of language: true communication.

Another great recommendation from the Irresponsible Reader.  I’m an unapologetic user of the semicolon and really have never understood why it was such a divisive mark.  This short-ish (about 4 hours on audio) history / essay on the mark cleared up some of that for me.  People really do get weird about trying to codify every last possible detail.

Watson balances on a fine line between ‘yes! rules are necessary for clear communication’ and ‘no! throw out the rules and let your flag fly your own way!’ concerning punctuation in general.  She includes convincing arguments for both sides – but I’m still falling on the prescriptivist side of things.  I’m not fussed how someone uses punctuation, as long as they DO use punctuation, and in such a way as to clearly communicate their message.  My resentment stems from writers (and I’m using that term to loosely encompass anyone trying to communicate in a written form, whether it’s text messages or novels) who make me work overly hard to parse the meaning they’re trying to convey.  I’d like to know if they’re inviting people to eat grandma, or inviting grandma to eat and I’d like to do so without breaking a sweat.

The narrator does a fantastic job with this book, and I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys the occasional dip into linguistic nerdism.

Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens

Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the HeavensChasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens
by Andrea Wulf, Robin Sachs (narrator)
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780307989659
Publication Date: May 1, 2012
Genre: Natural Science
Publisher: Random House Audio

On June 6, 1761, the world paused to observe a momentous occasion: the first transit of Venus between the earth and the sun in more than a century. Through that observation, astronomers could calculate the size of the solar system—but only if they could compile data from many different points of the globe, all recorded during the short period of the transit. Overcoming incredible odds and political strife, astronomers from Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Sweden, and the American colonies set up observatories in remote corners of the world, only to have their efforts thwarted by unpredictable weather and warring armies. Fortunately, transits of Venus occur in pairs: eight years later, the scientists would have another opportunity to succeed.

Chasing Venus brings to life the personalities of the eighteenth-century astronomers who embarked upon this complex and essential scientific venture, painting a vivid portrait of the collaborations, the rivalries, and the volatile international politics that hindered them at every turn. In the end, what they accomplished would change our conception of the universe and would forever alter the nature of scientific research.

Before starting this book, I’d read two of Wulf’s books.  The first was about Alexander von Humboldt, and natural history, so I was inclined going in to love it.  The second one was about the birth of Romanticism; a subject I’m less interested in, but it included von Humboldt and Goethe, so again, I was inclined to really enjoy it.

Chasing Venus was the acid test of Wulf’s writing for me, because space bores me silly.  Yes, the stars are pretty to look at, and I urge everyone to find access to some dark corner of the world in which to view the Milky Way, because … wow.  And the Auroras are definite bucket list musts.  But beyond that, the planets, constellations, black holes, etc … eh, don’t care.

I hadn’t even intended to read this one, but it showed up as available in audio at one of my libraries and I gave in to curiosity – could Wulf make the race to watch the transit of Venus in the 1700’s interesting to someone like me?

Turns out she can … sort of.  Did I care about will they/won’t they question of success at getting the measurements?  No, not really.  But Wulf totally sucked me in to the drama and adventures of those men who rushed to the far corners of the globe (‘rush’ being a highly relative term in the 1700’s) in the often vain hope of seeing the transit of Venus, and not dying in the process from disease, war, or boredom.

I listed to this on audio and I thought the narrator did a terrific job, BUT, my American tin-ear for accents made some of the names really difficult to comprehend, coming from an British accented narrator and many of the names being French.  This got better as the book progressed, but I do think I’d have probably gotten a bit more out of this book had I read the print version.


Mind of the Raven

Mind of the RavenMind of the Raven
by Bernd Heinrich
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781515978404
Publication Date: June 1, 2016
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Tantor Media

Bernd Heinrich involves us in his quest to get inside the mind of the raven. But as animals can only be spied on by getting quite close, Heinrich adopts ravens, thereby becoming a 'raven father,' as well as observing them in their natural habitat. He studies their daily routines, and in the process, paints a vivid picture of the ravens' world. At the heart of this book are Heinrich's love and respect for these complex and engaging creatures, and through his keen observation and analysis, we become their intimates too.

Heinrich's passion for ravens has led him around the world in his research. Mind of the Raven follows an exotic journey-from New England to Germany, and from Montana to Baffin Island in the high Arctic-offering dazzling accounts of how science works in the field, filtered through the eyes of a passionate observer of nature. Each new discovery and insight into raven behavior is thrilling, at once lyrical and scientific.

I don’t know what to think about this book.  Would I have liked it more if I’d read the print version instead of listening to the audio?  I don’t know, but I suspect … maybe.

Heinrich is a published scientist who studied ravens, so the book is pure behavioural science, no deviations, no asides; all very on-point and full of pure observational research and field studies.  I have no complaints about this in theory – it was all very interesting and I can’t remember ever thinking it was getting dull or monotonous.  Except that the narrator came very close to making it sound very dull and monotonous.  This is why I suspect I’d have liked it more if I’d read it, or if there had a been a different narrator. Norman Dietz was competent; maybe even more than competent, as his delivery tried to be lively and was never wooden.  But it was also obvious that he’s an older man, whose voice was often gravely and always a bit breathy, and in spite of his obvious efforts to bring the text alive, his voice still gave the narration a slight monotone that was hard to get past.

If I have any complaint about the content itself, it’s only that as a scientist, Heinrich is a bit cold-blooded.  While it’s obvious he thoroughly enjoys his ravens and has no problem admitting to often having favorites, his objectivity and efforts to not anthropomorphise means that the ravens’ personalities never really come through.  He doesn’t treat them as pets and they are, for the most part, semi-wild, but still, as someone who anthropomorphises everything, I’d have liked to have a better sense of they were as individuals.

I also struggled quite a bit at times with what Heinrich was willing to do in the name of science.  While he always fed the ravens using roadkills (apparently ‘fresh’ is as relative a term to a raven as it is to vultures), there were a few studies he did where he blithely sacrificed untold numbers of animals to the ravens – while still alive – just to see how the ravens would react, and in one study he introduced a wild female raven to a tightly knit group of 4 ravens who had grown up together to see how they’d react, which wasn’t a positive experience for the poor caught raven. After a couple of days of witnessing her ostracism, Heinrich went out of town for a day and came back to find her dead from being basically pecked to death.  He seemed surprised, but not remorseful, and the whole thing left a sour taste, as I’d have no problem arguing that that little experiment was not only unethical, but valueless from a scientific viewpoint.

Mostly, however, the information was interesting, if a little dated (most of his studies were done in the 90’s).

Running with Sherman (re-read)

Running with Sherman: The Donkey that Survived Against All Odds and Raced Like a ChampionRunning with Sherman: The Donkey that Survived Against All Odds and Raced Like a Champion
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781781258279
Publication Date: July 2, 2020
Pages: 338
Genre: Memoir, Non-fiction
Publisher: Profile Books

When barefoot running guru Christopher McDougall takes in a neglected donkey, his aim is to get Sherman back to reasonable health. But Sherman is ill-tempered, obstinate and uncooperative - and it's clear his poor treatment has made him deeply fearful of humans. Christopher knows that donkeys need a purpose - they are working, pack animals - and so when he learns of the sport of Burro Racing or running with donkeys, he sets out to give Sherman something worth living for.

With the aid of Christopher's menagerie on his farm in rural Pennsylvania, his wife Mika and their friends and neighbours including the local Amish population, Sherman begins to build trust in Christopher. To give him a purpose, they start to run together. But what Sherman gains in confidence and meaning is something we all need: a connection with nature, the outdoors, with movement. And as Christopher learns, the side benefits of exercise and animal contact are surprising, helping with mental and physical health in unexpected ways.

I read this almost exactly 2 years ago to the day for the first time, and it was one of those stories that quietly stuck with me.  So much so, that when I saw a copy for sale at out local, I snapped it up without even thinking about it (I originally borrowed a friend’s copy).  I’ve been eyeing it for a re-read since I bought it and it did not disappoint.  My original review is below, and it stands – except for the part where I refer to the ‘filler’.  That has a negative sound and it isn’t a negative thing.  While the narrative dives off into different directions, those directions are related, and ultimately, quite fascinating.

A good friend of mine – whose idea of a good time is competing in triathlons – and I met for our weekly coffee/tea a couple of weeks ago, and she said “I have a book I think you’d like.” I looked at her with heavy scepticism, because she reads running books and cookbooks, and I’d rather starve than cook, and be eaten rather than run. “No, really; it’s written by a runner, but it’s about a donkey and I SWEAR nothing bad happens to the donkey, and it’s ends happily.” She knows me well.

So I brought the book home, and when MT saw it, he said, with heavy scepticism, “Is that supposed to be for me to read?”, thereby proving that the only person he thought less likely to be interested in the book than himself was me. So I started explaining how the book ended up on our coffee table and as I did, I opened it to the first page.

And was completely captivated. I don’t mean “oh, this actually looks good” in an idle sort of way, I mean once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop and I heard MT ask about 30 minutes later: “Did you mean to start reading that now?” Er… no, but shhh…

Part of this easy engagement definitely stemmed from my friend’s assurances that the story ended well; if she hadn’t sworn up and down that this was so, I’d have thrown the book down before I got to page 2 and refused to touch it again. The donkey may end up in a great place, but he doesn’t start there. Horrifying fact: donkey’s hooves never stop growing; they have to be trimmed or else they start curling upwards.

The story in a nutshell is this: the author, a runner, agrees to shelter and rehabilitate a donkey rescued from a hoarder. Part of the donkey’s recovery success depends on being given a purpose, and at a loss for anything more purposeful, and with a secret curiosity about the sport of donkey racing, the author starts the donkey on the long path from death’s door to racing fit.

That nutshell makes it sound like it’s still more about racing than the more sedentary reader would like, but it isn’t. This book is about the donkey – Sherman – and his fellow goat and equine friends, Lawrence, Flower and Matilda; it’s about the people involved in helping Sherman be his best donkey self, and, as filler to pad out the page count, a lot of interesting asides about related topics, such as the history of donkey racing (honest to god, it’s a thing), the people involved in racing donkeys, the benefits of animal/human relations, the benefits and dangers (in excess) of athletic training, depression, and the Amish. Yes, the Amish. It works.

McDougall is, at heart, a journalist, and the writing style and narrative reflect that. It’s well written and an easy read, but it lacks that formal, reserved style sometimes found in similar books. It’s chatty, and his personality comes through clearly, as does Sherman’s and his furry friends. Who are awesome, by the way.

Running with Sherman is the best kind of feel good book, where the animal triumphs in the end, and everybody wins. As the reader who’d rather be eaten than run (not really, but it’s a close thing), I’d happily recommend this book to anybody looking for an easy but worthwhile read.

The Most of Nora Ephron

The Most Of Nora EphronThe Most Of Nora Ephron
by Nora Ephron
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781804991381
Publication Date: October 6, 2022
Pages: 452
Genre: Essays
Publisher: Penguin Books

A new, revised edition of the ultimate nora ephron collection, packed with wit, wisdom and comfort, with an introduction from candice Carty-Williams.

* Nora's much-loved essays on everything from friendship to feminism to journalism
* Extracts from her bestselling novel Heartburn
* Scenes from her hilarious screenplay for When Harry Met Sally
* Unparalleled advice about friends, lovers, divorces, desserts and black turtleneck sweaters

Not quite as good as I hoped it would be.  I’ve read Ephron before – Heartburn, and I Feel Badly About My Neck – and enjoyed her writing, finding her funny and astute. But this is a large collection of writing from all her different pursuits, and while I still found a lot of it funny and astute, I also found some of it un-relatable, whether because of differences in politics or faith (as in, her lack of it*, not her Jewish heritage); it just didn’t resonate with me.  Still, I enjoyed it more than I didn’t, and I admire anyone who has enough courage in their convictions that they can publicly, and without apology, admit that they’ve changed their mind – as Ephron did in a couple of her essays in regard to her lost admiration for the Clintons.  In fact, I admire her for a lot more than that, so even if I didn’t find this collection to be the laugh-out-loud riot I’d hoped it would be, I still can say I got a lot out of the reading of it.

*Here’s the thing: everyone’s got the freedom to believe in something greater or not – that’s their prerogative and I respect it.  What irritates me beyond all redemption is when someone expresses their thoughts on the matter as fact.  Atheism is not a fact, it’s a belief, and when writing about it, it should be stated as the writer’s belief, not as a fact. (Religion is also a belief, not a fact, and when I write about my beliefs (which is rarely, because they’re personal), I write to reflect that they are my beliefs, not facts.)

Remainders of the Day

Remainders of the DayRemainders of the Day
by Shaun Bythell
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781800812420
Publication Date: September 1, 2022
Pages: 377
Genre: Books and Reading, Memoir
Publisher: Profile Books

The Bookshop in Wigtown is a bookworm's idyll - with thousands of books across nearly a mile of shelves, a real log fire, and Captain, the bookshop cat. You'd think after twenty years, owner Shaun Bythell would be used to the customers by now.

Don't get him wrong - there are some good ones among the antiquarian erotica-hunters, die-hard Arthurians, people who confuse bookshops for libraries and the toddlers just looking for a nice cosy corner in which to wee. He's sure there are. There must be some good ones, right?

Filled with the pernickety warmth and humour that has touched readers around the world, stuffed with literary treasures, hidden gems and incunabula, Remainders of the Day is Shaun Bythell's latest entry in his bestselling diary series.

My second to last book wholly read in 2022, and there’s not a lot to say about it except if you’ve enjoyed Shaun Bythell’s previous memoirs about running a bookshop in Wigtown, you’ll enjoy this one too.  If you haven’t yet tried his Diaries of a bookseller, and you enjoy that kind of thing, AND you enjoy reading about cranky, curmudgeons, then you might enjoy giving his books a try.

Each entry includes simple stats about books ordered online (through Abebooks or Amazon) vs. how many of those books were found on the shelves (used bookstores are messy) and how many books were sold in the shop and how much money was made each day.  These stats are enough to reinforce that nobody goes into bookselling to get wealthy … or even eat.  But in spite of his plain speaking about how tough it is to make it, and how stupid people are capable of being, he fails to dim the appeal of owning one’s own bookshop.  At least, not for this reader.

Diary of a Tuscan Bookshop

Diary of a Tuscan BookshopDiary of a Tuscan Bookshop
by Alba Donati, Elena Pala (translator)
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781399605519
Pages: 196
Genre: Books and Reading, Memoir
Publisher: Orion Books

The diary of a publicist-turned poet-turned bookseller who decided to open a tiny bookshop on the hills of the small village of Lucignana, Tuscany.

'Romano, I want to open a bookshop where I live.'
'Great. How many people are we talking about?'
'Right, so if 180,000 people live there, then...'
'No, not 180,000, Romano. 180.'
'Alba... Have you lost your mind?'

Conversation between Alba Donati and Romano Montroni, former CEO of Italy's largest bookselling chain
Alba used to live a hectic life, working as a book publicist in Florence - a life that made her happy but also left her feeling like a woman constantly on the run.

So one day she decides go back to the small village in the Tuscan hills where she was born and open a tiny bookshop.
Alba's enterprise seems doomed from day one, but it surprisingly sparks the enthusiasm of many across Tuscany - and beyond. And after surviving a fire and the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the 'Bookshop on the Hill' soon becomes a refuge and beacon for an ever-growing community of readers.

Meh.  I was expecting, and looking forward to, a diary about a ‘micro bookstore’ in a small village of 180 people in Tuscany.  Sort of like Sean Bythell’s books, only sunnier and happier.

Only about half the book is about the bookshop.  Those bits were good, as were the bits about some of the villagers.  But really, the bookshop just serves as a prop for  going off on tangents about the author’s childhood, her family, her philosophising, and her literary criticism about books I’ve never heard of, because most of them were poetry and I’m a troglodyte when it comes to poetry (the author herself is an Italian poet).

The book is supposed to be a diary of the first 6 months in 2021 and that’s the way it’s formatted, but there’s almost no adherence to this structure, as every entry Donati goes ‘off-date’ to talk about something else – how the bookstore got started, the fire that destroyed it only months after opening, it’s rebuilding, her childhood, etc.  Since the bookstore opened just months before the pandemic, the entires that touched on how that affected her bookstore and the village were interesting.  But all the interesting bits were just that: bits.  I craved more detail about the bookstore’s conception, creation, restoration, and operation.  I did not crave more information about the house she grew up in that didn’t have a bathroom, but about which I had to hear about a disquieting number of times.

It’s not a bad book, just not the book I was looking for.

How to Solve a Cold Case

How to Solve a Cold Case; And Everything Else You Wanted To Know About Catching KillersHow to Solve a Cold Case; And Everything Else You Wanted To Know About Catching Killers
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781443459372
Publication Date: April 19, 2022
Pages: 339
Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: HarperCollins

Get inside the mind of an elite cold case investigator and learn how to solve a murder.

Despite advances in DNA evidence and forensic analysis, almost half of murder cases in Canada and the US remain unsolved. By 2016, the solved rate had dropped so significantly in the United States that it was the lowest in recorded history, with one in two killers never even identified, much less arrested and successfully prosecuted. And the statistics are just as bad in Canada.

As a sought-after global expert and former detective, Arntfield has devoted his career to helping solve cold cases and serial murders, including the creation of the Western University Cold Case Society, which pairs students with police detectives to help solve crimes.

In How to Solve a Cold Case, Arntfield outlines the history of cold case squads in Canada and the US, and lays out the steps to understanding and solving crime. Arntfield shows you what to look for, how to avoid common mistakes, recognize patterns and discover what others have missed. Weaving in case studies of cold crimes from across Canada and the US, as well as a chapter on how armchair detectives can get involved, How to Solve a Cold Case is a must-read for mystery fans and true crime buffs everywhere.

I’ve been in a slump recently and have been re-reading some of the long-timers on my shelves, hoping they will nudge me out of it.  They haven’t.  This book has been lingering on my library pile, quietly giving me the side-eye while silently reminding me that I’ve already renewed it 3 times and that’s my library’s limit.  So I picked it up and gave it a go.

Now, it might be because I’m in a slump and I’m feeling a bit harsh as a result, but I didn’t like this book.  It was only about 10% of what I’d hoped, which were case studies and discussion of little known cold cases and how they were solved.  The remaining 90% was divided up between first year University level lecturing (60%) and self promotion (20%).

More than half of the lecturing portion of the book was about the sexually deviant nature of serial killers – and he makes it clear that anyone that murders more than once is a serial killer.  I won’t dispute this, which isn’t for me to do anyway, but it feels a bit excessive to call 2 murders a serial.  I bring it up because this definition might leave readers feeling even more despondent about humanity than they already do.  A reader on the more sensitive, or impressionable, end of the spectrum might never want to leave their house again, or allow their children to ever see sunlight.  Especially women, of course.  Honestly, by the end of the book, a reader would give a lot to read about a good old fashioned murder for inheritance.

Mostly, I think, I just didn’t like his writing.  I wanted to DNF it, but I kept hoping for more case studies, which the author included just enough of to keep me on the string, but by the 75% mark there was some heavy skimming because I just wanted it to be over.

DNF @ 168 pages: Invisible Women

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for MenInvisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
by Caroline Criado Perez
isbn: 9781784706289
Publication Date: March 17, 2020
Pages: 410
Genre: Science
Publisher: Vintage Books

Imagine a world where...

· Your phone is too big for your hand
· Your doctor prescribes a drug that is wrong for your body
· In a car accident you are 47% more likely to be injured.

If any of that sounds familiar, chances are you're a woman.

From government policy and medical research, to technology, workplaces, and the media. Invisible Women reveals how in a world built for and by men we are systematically ignoring half of the population, often with disastrous consequences. Caroline Criado Perez brings together for the first time an impressive range of case studies, stories and new research from across the world that illustrate the hidden ways in which women are forgotten, and the profound impact this has on us all.

Discover the shocking gender bias that affects our everyday lives.

Here’s me, being all contrarian and swimming against the tide, but I could not finish this book.  It engendered a level of page rage in me that I haven’t experienced since being forced to read Orwell, although, not so much that I’d like to flick a bic at it, so Orwell’s title remains safe.

Why the page rage?  Because this book was sold to me as an academic look at the bias towards men in everyday living; if that’s what it was meant to be, it’s poorly written, with very little context, and next to no data to inform the author’s assertions.  As a diatribe or manifesto, however, it’s an excellent piece of writing, full of snark and sarcasm and barely repressed vitriol, in spite of the forward where she claims to take an agnostic view, because so much of the bias is unintentional.   Understand that I don’t make any claim that these bias don’t exist – I don’t disagree with her premise in the slightest.  But I don’t like anyone of any gender that rages against the machine and does little else.

But the biggest reason for my page rage and my DNF is that I couldn’t help thinking as I read it that I’m not a female in Perez’s world.  I’m too tall, my hands are too big, my seatbelt sits where it’s supposed to, but most damningly of all: I don’t have children.  I’m not a care-taker or giver, and therefore I am irrelevant.

I have never encountered this attitude in my books before, and the irony is not lost on me that my first experience with it is in a feminist title.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A HatThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat
by Oliver Sacks
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781447203834
Publication Date: January 1, 2007
Pages: 256
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Picador

In this extraordinary book, Dr. Oliver Sacks recounts the stories of patients struggling to adapt to often bizarre worlds of neurological disorder. Here are people who can no longer recognize everyday objects or those they love; who are stricken with violent tics or shout involuntary obscenities, and yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents. If inconceivably strange, these brilliant tales illuminate what it means to be human.

This has been on my shelf for at least 10 years, and I don’t know why it took me so long to pick it up; I’m a sucker for case studies, and Sacks doesn’t disappoint in that regard.

This is a collection of previously published case studies of various neurological disorders, and reading it reinforces my sense that truly, every day is a miracle when your brain isn’t forsaking you.  I alternated between awe, horror, indignation, anger, sadness and, throughout a growing, overwhelming amount of respect for those that dedicate their lives to their patients.  Sacks impressed me as both a doctor and a human.

The book wasn’t perfect – Sacks had a tendency to meander through citations of similar cases, or other doctors’ hypothesis, and when that happened, my eyes got a bit glassy, and I skimmed, but overall it’s an incredibly readable collection.  I wish there was more follow up for so many of these people – I’m left curious and hopeful that they all found some space in the world for themselves.