The Grammarians

Could it be Ann Landers and Abigail van Buren on the cover of Catherine Schine’s new novel about twins with extraordinary linguistic skills? The picture of the two wide-eyed twin girls on the cover could be any set of famous twins, but Daphne and Laurel Wolfe are the stars of  The Grammarians and they share some of the idiosyncracies of the real Pauline Esther and Esther Pauline Lederer (better known as  Ann and Abby) in an entertaining story about sibling rivalry and the power of words. 

The notion of being a twin is not an experience most of us have, but many have smatterings of twin envy. Have you ever wished to trade places with a doppelganger, especially on those days when you would rather be someone else than face the routine of life? Shakespeare did it and so do the Wolfe twins. And wouldn’t it be convenient to have a secret language like twin speak? Even Sally, Daphne and Laurel’s mother, cannot understand their private language. 

Although I suffered through years of diagramming grammar with the good sisters who believed a dangling participle a mortal sin, and later studied linguist Noam Chomsky, I was sometimes intimidated by the twins. Each chapter begins with a word and its obscure dictionary definition; conversations sometimes include outlandish words. Readers could create their own list, just like the twins with words like fugacious, gloze, irenicon, to check them out later in the dictionary – but why bother.

The dictionary – Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition – enters the story early, offering a convenient source of reference as the girls grow, becoming a point of contention when their father dies, and finally bringing the twins back together in the end. This heavy tome placed on its stand, referred to as the “altar,” has all anyone needs to understand the story – “words, words, words, words” and the twins sometimes take it to bed with them.

As adults, the twins branch into different interpretations of language. Daphne becomes a grammar columnist, devoted to preserving the mother language, while Laurel leaves her teaching job to write poetry with hiphop tendencies. Both become well known in language circles, and they argue publicly about who has the correct slant toward words –  suffering a time when they are not talking to each other – not unlike those famous sisters, Dear Abby and Dear Ann Landers.

Schine’s story is not just for the “bookish.”  Her observations of family relationships, especially sisterly competition, offer a humorous and sometimes poignant tale.  Luckily, it all turns out well in the end; real sisters are not always so forgiving.  

 

Review of Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport:  https://nochargebookbunch.com/2010/05/11/the-three-weissmanns-of-westport/

 

The Starless Sea

I had expected the unusual from Erin Morgenstern after reading her Night Circus, but The Starless Sea goes beyond my expectations for strange and complicated. The book has elements of Scheherazade in her storytelling, and bits of Lewis Carroll in her references and visits to fantastic worlds, but the story Morganstern most reminded me of – even referencing it in the beginning of her book – was Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.

Just as in Carlos Ruiz Zafón‘s Cemetery of Lost Books, Morgenstern creates her own secret underground library and a mystery involving the hero and books, as well as their pages and words, sifting them through a tangential plot sometimes hard to follow. If you have read The Westing Game, you might see some of its elements too.

But it’s the many stories, not necessarily the one following the main characters, that become pieces that can be taken by themselves – fairy tales of fantastic places and sometimes horrible creatures. I was tempted to skip over these chapters to follow the main line, but after a while they seduced me into reading, and then I wasn’t so concerned about Zachary Rawlins, the graduate student on a quest – I knew he’d be back somewhere in later pages as the time warp flexed.

If all this sounds wild and ambiguous, it is – probably because the book is written that way too. The pages are crammed with symbolism – The Owl King, a sea of honey, magic doors – mixed with real places – the New York Public Library, posh hotels, and a professional fortune teller. Read it if you dare, but be prepared to get lost. In the end, I thought I caught a moral from the Never-ending Story, but maybe I just imagined it.

Review of the Night Circus: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2011/10/06/the-night-circus/

 

More Book Lists

Ron Charles’ list of best books of 2019 for the Washington Post had not one book I had read. Many were nonfiction which I tend to avoid, one I had started but could not finish (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), but one sounded appealing enough to order from the library – Strangers and Cousins.

If you want to see what they are reading inside the beltway these days, here is the Washington Post top ten:

  1. Black Leopard, Red Wolfe by Marlon James – fantasy epic
  2. Falter by Bill McKibben – nonfiction
  3. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – this year’s Booker Prize
  4. A Good Provider is One Who Leaves by Jason DeParie – nonfiction
  5. Know My Name by Chanel Miller – nonfiction
  6. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong – fiction
  7. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe – nonfiction
  8. Strangers and Cousins by Leah Hager Cohen – fiction
  9. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
  10. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom – nonfiction

Library Reads at http://libraryreads.org has the monthly nationwide library staff picks list for adult fiction and non-fiction.  This time of year they offer their complete list, asking library staff to vote for their favorites.  I usually find many on their list I’ve read, and sometimes a few I’ve missed.  Check out their site for over 150 titles they recommended this year.  Librarians always have good ideas.

Here are a few I’ve read:

  1. The Clockmaker’s Daughter: A Novel by Kate Morton 
  2. The Library Book by Susan Orlean 
  3. One Day in December: A Novel by Josie Silver
  4. Unsheltered: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver
  5. My Sister, the Serial Killer: A Novel by Oyinkan Braithwait
  6. Night of Miracles: A Novel by Elizabeth Berg 
  7. Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty 
  8. Once Upon a River: A Novel by Diane Setterfeld
  9. The Suspect by Fiona Barton 
  10. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict 
  11. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides 
  12. Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman 
  13. Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl 
  14. The Lager Queen of Minnesota: A Novel by J. Ryan Stradal 
  15. Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman 
  16. The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware 
  17. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett 
  18. This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

Something in the Water

Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick – Something in the Water – has me wondering when she will produce it for viewing. Catherine Steadman’s book has all the elements of a great series – exotic settings, unreliable characters, and plot twists favoring the female leads.

I listened to Steadman’s British tones reading the book for Audible and it was hard to not keep going into the night. The “something in the water” was not what I had expected and the hints of espionage and financial fraud added to the suspense.

Erin, a documentary producer, and Mark, an out of work hedge fund expert, go off on their honeymoon to Bora Bora. Mark, an expert diver, convinces Erin to overcome her fears to experience the beautiful underwater world. His cavalier comments about the sharks in the water had me suspicious, but what they find leads the adventure into murky waters as each plot twist combines danger and a new life for both.

Great fun to listen to.