Books read, November 2011

Rather late, I know. I blame, uh, monkeys!

A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan. Yes, again. I was editing. I probably read the book more than twice, if you actually tracked it, but I’m only counting straight-through readings, of which there were two. But they still don’t really count for these purposes.

House of Many Ways, Diana Wynne Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

Dark Lord of Derkholm, Diana Wynne Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin. I loved this book as a kid, and when I saw it cropping up in the list of Yuletide requests, I felt the need to revisit it. I’m glad to say this did not suffer a visit from the Suck Fairy while I was away. In face, reading it as an adult, I’m startled by how progressive it is, in ways I never noticed as a kid. This was written in 1978, and one of the central characters is a highly-placed black female judge. It also deals interestingly with the Chinese family in the building, from Doug’s track competitions to the evolution of Mr. Hoo’s restaurant to Madame Hoo’s desire to go back to China. Plus there’s Turtle and Flora teaming up to play the stock market — I could go on. (And it’s a Newbery Medal winner that ISN’T all about “life sucks and then your dog dies!” Wonders will never cease!)

For those who may not already know and love it, The Westing Game is about a rich man, Sam Westing, who dies and sets up a weird competition for his possible heirs, all of whom have been maneuvered into living in the same apartment building. Westing claims in his will that he was murdered, and challenges them to find the guilty party. It’s an odd mystery, built around the occupants of Sunset Towers:

Who were these people, these specially selected tenants? They were mothers and fathers and children. A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. An, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake. Barney Northrup had rented one of the apartments to the wrong person.

I love that quote, and always have.

Anyway, it was interesting to re-read the book when I remembered only tiny fragments of the story. That meant I had pre-existing suspicions regarding the characters, and was looking for evidence to back it up — which is there, for the most part, if not so obviously as to make this the sort of mystery where an alert reader (who has the benefit of an omniscient pov) ought to figure it out for themselves before the characters do. Regardless, it makes for good fun.

Year of the Griffin, Diana Wynne Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent. A nonfiction book on the history of conlanging, which is to say, constructing languages. It goes back much further than I realized: arguably the first conlang we have documentation for was designed by Hildegard von Bingen, in the twelfth century! Certainly it got rolling as a thing in the Renaissance, and has gone through a series of waves since, each one with its own particular motivation and approach. It’s fascinating to see the effect (or non-effect) of each one: John Wilkins accidentally designing a thesaurus instead of a language, Ludwik Zamenhof creating a new linguistic culture rather than transcending existing ones, Charles Bliss inventing something that could have been great for children with cerebral palsy and similar disabilities, but shooting himself so determinedly in the foot that it never really took off the way it could have.

Okrent intersperses this with personal accounts of her experiences with Klingon-speakers and Esperantists in the present day. She strikes what is for me the appropriate (and difficult) balance between being just personal enough to engage, without making this Arika Okrent’s Adventures in Conlang Culture: the focus is mostly on the topic, but I walk away with an understanding of why it fascinates her, and what she brings to the table in her discussion of it. She isn’t judgmental of, say, the Klingon guys, but she also isn’t Not Judgmental in a way that suggests it’s oh-so-generous of her not to be. It might be fair to say she thinks they’re crazy, but also understands a) why that kind of craziness appeals and b) that it’s no weirder than some other, more mainstream obsessions. Anyway, this makes an interesting pairing with The Language Construction Kit; it says very little about the mechanics of language construction, but a great deal about the various philosophical approaches behind the endeavour, and the pitfalls of each one. Very much recommended, if you’re into that sort of thing.

I’ve already made it through four books for December, so it’s fair to expect the next list will be longer. (Still heavy on Diana Wynne Jones, though. At my current pace, I have a few more months of that project to go, and then I’ll be able to read more broadly again.)

0 Responses to “Books read, November 2011”

  1. Anonymous

    I love The Westing Game TO DEATH. I don’t even know how many times I’ve reread it.

    The other childhood beloved novel that has stood the test of time for me is CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDIE. You’ve probably read that one, too, right? Seems up your alley.

    • Marie Brennan

      Actually, I don’t think I have read that one. What’s it about?

      • Anonymous

        it’s set in turn-of-the-12th-century England. the main character, Birdie, is the 13-year-old daughter of a moderately rich (but not noble) merchant who has decided to marry her off. the book is the diary of a year of various tricks she plays on suitors to get out of marriage. it’s pretty intensely medieval.

  2. Marie Brennan

    It’s much more philosophy and history than practical discussion, but I could easily see it sparking interesting thoughts for anybody involved in the hobby.

    • autumns_ink

      It still sounds interesting. My attempts at conlanging have been mostly self taught through my own linguistic geekery (I didn’t even know there was a term for it until long after I’d started), and it would be fascinating to see how other people do/did it. The bit about Hildegard von Bingen is particularly interesting to me. I always knew I liked her… 🙂

  3. Marie Brennan

    Angela is a very interesting character, but yeah — I don’t think I noticed that as distinctly when I was a kid. She’s a very pointed commentary on her times, I think, as old and new expectations collided.

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