The Bookworm's Library

A room without books is like a body without a soul -- Marcus Tullius Cicero

Tag: Murder

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by: Simon Winchester

Review:

Although the majority of what I read is fiction — I really enjoy Non-Fiction, particularly history, as well.  Fiction is a great escapist past time.  It has no connection to the real world; it is somewhere I can go, where I can’t be found, to avoid disturbances.  However, like the well known saying goes — history is pretty much ALWAYS stranger than fiction.  This book is a shining example of the adage.  The best fictional plots can’t equal the story told in this historical account.  Winchester did an excellent job of not only selecting the topic for his book, but also demonstrates a mastery of both his knowledge of the material and a gift for writing that keeps the reader truly captivated.  

If you ever wonder what comes from a generation that has to rely on something other than instant gratification, television, video games and mindless — anti-social engagement with the world around them, the accounting of the events in this book are a great example.  Granted, it was the title that drew me in.  How can you possibly overlook a title entailing the Oxford dictionary, a well educated professor and a crazy person?  The title alone begs the question of what the three could possible have in common that would connect them — thereby opening the door to a read out of curiosity.  

One question this book explores is the struggles of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — before it was considered nothing more than shell shock or a shirking of military duties.  Dr. Minor is an example of how devastating PTSD can be for an individual.  From a successful medical career to an army surgeon in the Civil War — Dr. Minor was exposed to the horrors of war on a massive scale.  The trauma left him mentally disconnected from more than the world around him.  Causing a descent into depression, trauma and eventually murder, before being confined in an asylum in England, for the criminally insane.  

The book demonstrates a real sensitivity for the troubling times of the Civil War and those following.  With nothing but his books for solace and comfort — Dr. Minor discovers an advertisement for submissions, for entries into the newly started project of creating a Dictionary of the entire English language.  This one advertisement gives Dr. Minor a new purpose in life — and eventually helps him form a bond with Professor Murray — the man in charge of the compilation for entries for the dictionary.  The connection between these two men is profound and eventually leads to a friendship that will last the remainder of both of their lives.  

Winchester is sensitive in his exploration of not only the unusual friendship formed between these two well educated men — but he also explores a degree of mental illness and how it manifests in different connections and associations in life.  I found myself amazed at the intriguing story behind this dictionary that still exists and is used on a daily basis throughout the world.  Its lasting legacy a tribute to the two driven men.  Winchester revives the men and their history and makes it live.  

There are certainly some parts of this book that are beyond graphic.  Some of them are pretty disturbing, in the extreme.  (Particularly one incident late in the book, which is both horrifying and harrowing.)  But when you are dealing with a story revolving around an exceptionally bloody war, murder and a seriously disturbed, unstable mind — it is inevitable that there will be some pretty graphic history.  The reader just needs to be aware going in that Winchester doesn’t shy away from these topics — and may even present them in over the top detail.  

It is history like this that makes it so fascinating to read.  Winchester certainly has a gift for bringing the history into the real world and getting the reader so engrossed that at times it reads more like fiction than history.  This is a fascinating read, particularly for readers and lovers of the study of language.  The obscure, little known history is both interesting and engrossing and well worth the read.

A Stranger in the Kingdom by: Howard Frank Mosher

Review

This is a book I found on Bookbub.  It looked interesting in some ways — but in others I had reservations.  Frequently when I struggle to make a decision about reading a book, I find that I fall in love with it.  It is usually the books I know I want to read and pick them up without much thought that give me trouble.  This one, unfortunately, was an exception.  I struggled with this one right from the first, but kept reading hoping it would get better.  Most of the reviews I have read on this one were good — in fact they were excellent — with only a few exceptions.  Because of this I settled in for what I was looking forward to as a good read.  Over 200 pages in, I was still waiting.

To say the beginning (200 pages worth) of the book was extremely slow is a misnomer.  In fact, I would have to say this is an understatement.  Mosher could have provided the background information and insight into Jim’s family in a quarter of that — half at the most.  It just seemed to go on and on.  Add to that the fact that the editing was atrocious and it makes for a painfully tough read.  I try to have patience with editing issues when they crop up and not let them influence my opinion of a book and its story.  But in this case the editing errors were so blatant that they actually disrupted the story.  Punctuation in the middle of sentences, incorrect words that made absolutely no sense, grammar issues and more.  Simply put — I found it almost impossible to follow the story because every page there were editing issues.  

The story, itself, started out with an uphill battle.  Unfortunately, it comes across as a mirror image of To Kill a Mockingbird if it were poorly written.  The narrator — Jim Kinneson — is an interesting character.  But he spends more than half the book simply telling background, and family anecdotes that appear to have nothing to do with the story, whatsoever.  And while I understand that the purpose of all this background information is important for not only providing foundation for the story, but also helping to develop characters — it just got to be too much.  I started to feel like Mosher lost sight of where he was going with the story and was bogged down in the immediate chapter he happened to be writing at that time.  

For all of that development, the characters never really took on much depth.  Or they were sporadic at best.  Some of the characters seemed very well developed, like Reverend Andrews, his son Nate and Jim.  The were colorful and lively and easy to identify with.  But for the most part — the characters were transparent and predictable.  Many of them were extremely stereotypical in the most obvious ways, with no depth beyond exactly what the reader expected them to be.  I felt like Jim was the male version of Scout and very poorly matched at that.  And the character names were simply obnoxious in the extreme.  Elijah, Resolved and Welcome Kinneson was the over the top examples — but the book is full of character names that simply challenged all belief and once again detracted from the story.

The technical writing was well done, if lacking in creativity.  I started to wonder if Mosher was obsessed with Baseball and fishing.  The two subjects play such a central role that they almost overwhelm the whole book.  Not only that — but they are presented using the slang and topic specific jargon — as if everyone in the universe knows about baseball and fishing.  More than once I had to look up terms — just to figure out what Mosher was talking about.  I don’t mind having to look up words that I don’t know what they mean.  It expands the vocabulary and adds depth to a book.  But when it becomes excessive — simply because the author assumes that the reader shares these interests so much that they know every reference to the game of baseball — it comes across as a little overbearing and presumptive.

Overall — I don’t know that this is one that I would recommend.  The story gets lost on more than one occasion and the reader has to really work just to follow wherever the book is trying to go.  It fails to live up to the expectations of the read — which, unfortunately for Mosher, are exceptionally high because he decided to challenge a real classic in literary art from the outset.   

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