Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Connor – Mini Review

Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Connor
Published by Riverhead Trade, an imprint of Penguin

From the publisher:

In this new edition of Woe Is I, Patricia T. O’Conner unties the knottiest grammar tangles and displays the same lively humor that has charmed and enlightened grateful readers for years. With new chapters on spelling and punctuation, and fresh insights into the rights, wrongs, and maybes of English grammar and usage, Woe Is I offers down-to-earth explanations and plain-English solutions to the language mysteries that bedevil all of us:

  • Avoid the persistent (and persistently embarrassing) grammatical errors that bewilder the best and the brightest
  • Pronounce and spell words that even the smartest people mangle
  • Correctly use hundreds of woefully abused words and phrases

I actually read Woe is I at work, we spent Friday afternoons reading things that could be pertinent to our positions, and since I did a lot of writing and web writing at work, I chose Woe is I. Below are some of my thoughts as I was reading:

  • Really good cross-referencing: O’Connor is very good about noting where similar rules are discussed, and similar ideas mentioned and pointing you to them.
  • Good examples: The examples are not only easy to understand, they are relevant, and it is not difficult to figure out how they translate to other situations.
  • Clear rules: O’Connor lays out in plain terms what the rules are, why they are, and when you can ignore them. All of this written in plain English, in case you don’t know a subject from a predicate.
  • Funny: The funny in Woe is I tends towards the corny, but it is funny all the same. For example, on page 130 in the discussion of spell-checkers and using them only as a backup, “oar Yule bee sari.” This and similar jokes keep Woe is I entertaining, a must if you’re going to read over 250 pages about grammar.

Both engaging and informative, Woe is I is a great basic grammar guide.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Borrowed copy.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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How Children Succeed by Paul Tough – Audiobook Review

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, narrated by Dan John Miller
Published in audio by Tantor Media, published in print by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


From the publisher:

A foremost New Yorker and New York Times journalist reverses three decades of thinking about what creates successful children, solving the mysteries of why some succeed and others fail – and of how to move individual children toward their full potential for success.

Thoughts on the text

Much of what Tough talks about in How Children Succeed – such as the need for strong attachments – is not new. However, combined with some of the newer and less-known research about non-cognitive skills, often referred to as character traits, such as curiosity and grit, these old Psych 101 ideas take on new life. Tough’s reporting is straightforward, informative, and interesting. Perhaps his greatest skill is his ability to explain his ideas across audiences. The average parent could absolutely pick up How Children Succeed and understand any and all of Tough’s theses and explanations, but he is not too simplistic for our household, with our education and education-reform backgrounds. That being said, much of the content in How Children Succeed that will appeal most to those interested in education reform. There is information for parents, but this is decidedly not a parenting book. Tough focuses primarily at students at the outsides of the socioeconomic divide: poor minority students and the children of the 1%. Still, there are things in here that parents can easily extrapolate for their own children.

As far as the issue of school reform goes, How Children Succeed reports ideas from some of the leading lights in today’s movement and comes up with some very interesting ideas, many of which do seem to have the potential to effect great change. If only the parents and caregivers of my old students on the South Side of Chicago had been given attachment therapy! Our school days might have been much different and more productive.

As a side note: having been a Teach for America teacher in Chicago I was familiar with many of the reformers Tough refers to, which may have increased for me the legitimacy of his arguments, I am clearly predisposed to agreeing with many of these people.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Dan John Miller does a great job keeping How Children Succeed interesting. Of course, Tough writes engagingly enough that the text itself is interesting, but Miller adds audible interest as well. When narrating conversations between Tough and some of the subjects of his investigations or direct quotes from some of the same people, Miller gives these people unique voices. The voices are fairly subtle, so it doesn’t matter that Miller isn’t exactly a credible high school girl. In addition, Miller seems just as passionate about the subject matter of How Children Succeed as Tough is himself, which gives Tough’s findings an increased feeling of importance to listeners.


A fascinating look at the non-cognitive markers of success. Interesting for parents, but especially relevant for the school reform-minded out there. If you’re going to want to take notes, by all means you probably want to approach this in print, but if you want a general introduction to Tough’s arguments, Dan John Miller’s narration is a great choice.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
Indiebound: Audio/Print*

Sound Bytes is a meme that occurs every Friday! I encourage you to review your audiobooks on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite by Matt Kaplan – Book Review

Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan
Published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

From the earliest times, humankind has been obsessed by monsters. As is evidenced by the fact that an entire month-long blogosphere event can be organized around horror stories, our species is fascinated by the things that scare us.

Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite is that most special of nonfiction books – the kind you don’t want to put down. Kaplan has wonderful style, as well as the ability to make his already interesting subject even more interesting. He has clearly done the research necessary to present a well-rounded and informative book. I could tell that the book would be good when he started with this interesting and pertinent information on page 4:

…Rozin, along with many others in his field have a theory that there is pleasure for the mind in watching the body react negatively while knowing perfectly well that nothing bad is actually going to happen. The enjoyment, they suggest, comes from a sense of mental mastery over the body that is responding in a knee-jerk reaction.

To put this information in context, Kaplan describes two different studies, one of people who like very spicy foods and another of people who love horror movies. Both groups don’t just claim to enjoy the actual experience, which others would find to be physically or psychologically painsful, but they also claim to enjoy the accompanying physical reactions, whether it be sweating from spicy foods or a racing heart from the scary movie.

After establishing the human penchant for the things that frighten us, Kaplan works through ten different categories of monsters, from giant animals (many early monsters, King Kong), to the beasties of the water (Leviathan, Jaws) to the created (the Golem, Frankenstein, Terminator). Of course he also discusses werewolves, vampires, Medusa, ghosts, and the like, but what is particularly interesting about each of these ten categories is that by grouping them together in these categories, it is easier for Kaplan to look at the root cause(s) of the fear. For instance, the connection between rabies and the fear of those “cursed by a bite” such as vampires and werewolves.

This also allows Kaplan to describe the things that have replaced some of these earlier fears in the same categories. For instance, the myth of the minotaur seems to have evolved from geological happenings, such as earthquakes. Now that we understand the natural mechanisms that create loud noises and shaking from the earth we no longer use a proxy mythical beast, but that doesn’t keep us from making what are essentially horror movies with natural occurrences – earthquakes, volcanoes, asteroids, etc. – as the monster. As Kaplan says,

The monster is being created by the same core fear, but believability is forcing the form of the monster to change. -p. 147

Although Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite is a particularly relevant read around Halloween, it is a smart exploration of the connection between man and monster that is a good enough read to pick up at any time. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Edelweiss.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart – Book Review

Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart
Published by Algonquin Books, an imprint of Workman

Fresh off of her delightfully sinister book Wicked Plants, Amy Stewart has returned with a fascinating look at the most painful, destructive, and deadly of all bugs. The book is organized in short essays about each of 220-odd bugs, with interspersing chapters on buggy trends like zombies, garden pests, and bugs with brutal mating habits.

Each chapter is almost more intriguing than the last. On page 134, for instance, the reader learns that Formosan termites were actually the cause of much of the damage in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The seams of the floodwalls were constructed from sugarcane waste, a favorite treat of the Formosans. Worse, due to the Formosan’s building structures, the flood waters failed to wipe them out, which left the termites free to attack abandoned structures after the waters receded. What I want to know is, why is this the first time I’ve ever heard that piece of information?

Aside from making me slightly cranky and suspicious, Wicked Bugs is a joy to read. Really, what more can you ask from a book than that it make you remark out loud, “Oh Charles Darwin, you’re so dumb?” (read the entry on the Bombardier Beetle and you’ll understand). You might want to avoid reading it with other people around, though, unless you want to be That Person who constantly remarks on the interesting facts in your book. I’m sure my husband would have preferred to concentrate on what he was reading rather than what I was reading. If I had just one wish, though, it is that Stewart would have included a postscript on some of the reasons these bugs are actually valuable parts of our ecosystem, because after reading all of the terrible things they do to us, I was about ready to suggest we just get rid of them all, ASAP.

If you like to learn new, not always necessarily useful things, then Amy Stewart is like candy for your brain. Yum. Recommended.

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Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Madre by Liza Bakewell – Book Review

Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun by Liza Bakewell
Published by W. W. Norton & Company

Madre means mother, right? Well, technically. Madre may mean mother in Spanish, but it means a whole lot else besides that in Mexico. There is an extensive list of madre idioms, nearly all of which have negative meanings along the lines of disaster or whore. How can this be, when mothers traditionally hold a very high place in Mexican society, in a land where the Holy Virgin, the mother of Christ, is so venerated? What question could be more fascinating to a social anthropologist with an interest in linguistics and feminist leanings from the United States living in Mexico? It was this first question, in fact, that turned Liza Bakewell from a social anthropologist into a linguistic anthropologist with a particularly interest in madre and the intersection of gender and language.

“It can be dangerous to say madre in Mexico. Underscored and italicized. His words would blow fire across the screen. A kind of watch-out fuerte, not only powerful, but really powerful. Like a match to gasoline, or a blow to the face.” -p. 47

Out of this fascination came Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun. The subtitle of Madre is really the best description of what this book is. Far from a strictly academic treatise, Madre is more of a travelogue/memoir combo by someone who is simply very intelligent and likes to think deeply about issues of language and society. In spite of this, the chapters are organized topically within the larger subject of madre: talking about piropo and albur, the grammatical dominance of maleness even in a room predominantly female, las mentadas de madre.

Perhaps this begins to explain the origins of the symbolic dilemma of madre in Mexico. The Church believes the bride, once married, is Eve, not the Virgin. -p. 175-176

Maybe it is just me, maybe I missed my calling as an anthropologist, but I think that the intersection of gender, culture, and language is a fascinating place to linger and observe, and I’m so grateful that Bakewell brought me to this particular intersection. Even better, she does not manage to lose a non-Spanish speaking, non-linguist on her journeys. It could be occasionally disconcerting to have the very personal style interacting with the linguistic and anthropological insights, but overall it worked very well.

A very interesting book, if the concept interests you, then I can recommend Madre.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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