Becoming a Bilingual Reader Latvian & English.

For many people being a bilingual reader is no big deal. Nothing to blog about. They do it all the time. These days, with so many distractions, reading in just one language can be an issue. With all those audiobooks and videos online, why bother to read?

Reading doesn’t bring the same joy to everyone as it does to me.

One of my fond memories is sitting in my mother’s lap while she read to me from a book that I was going to take to a party and give to the birthday girl. I wanted the book but it had to go. Getting it read to me was the next best thing to keeping it.

Kriksis, the star of four books beloved by many Latvian kids. He was better than Lassie and Rin Tin Tin put together. Here Kriksis meets Tomiņš. They’re both Latvian refugees in Germany.

We were poor refugee immigrants who had to pinch pennies. Until I was ten my uncle lived with us. For a while, we lived communally with my uncle and my godmother, and her family in order to be able to afford rent. Nevertheless, we always had books in the house. I had lots of children’s books in Latvian and later in English. My parents bought Little Golden Books for me and even let me get comic books. They didn’t much care what I read, as long as I read.

“World of Wonders.” A book of fairy tales by the author of the Kriksis books.

During my early years in Tacoma, we lived only a couple of blocks from the library. My father and I would walk there to get books. When we moved to a different neighborhood farther from a library branch, we’d drive there together. In those days the local library system issued library cards in two different colors, yellow ones for adults, blue ones for kids. My little blue card was a proud possession. My dad would let me use his yellow card to get any book I wanted. I don’t recall reading anything shocking.

Unfortunately, I don’t have memories of my father reading to me the way my mother did. Was she the only one to read all those kids’ books to me? Both my parents probably read aloud.  When I learned to read well enough my father and I read Latvian books to each other for several years.  He’d read one chapter aloud to me and I’d read the next chapter aloud to him taking turns through the whole book. Most likely we got into this habit because I saw no reason to learn Latvian. We lived in America now and more than anything, except for a horse, I wanted to be an American. English was language enough for me. My father would have none of it. He insisted that I learn Latvian. The most fun way to do so was to read to one another.

This practice probably ended when he picked a translation of a Swedish book,  Black Horses, I think. A book about horses? YES! I want to read it. We read happily until one of the main characters got his eye put out. That was enough for me. I didn’t want to read any more of that book. By then, the habit of reading had been well established in me.  From then on, I chose my own books and read them silently to myself in my room.

An illustration by Alfreds Plīte-Pleita. “Herta is reading.”

Every year, the Latvian newspaper, Laiks, (Times) printed coupons called, “Book Dollars.” Still on his campaign to make sure I learned Latvian (I was a Latvian school dropout) my father let me use all the coupons to order any book I wanted from a Latvian publishing company called, “Grāmatu draugs” (Friend of Books) Tētis paid for the books. They were my gift for successfully completing another school year. When the books arrived from  “Grāmatu draugs” it was like Christmas in summer. As a result of my father’s generosity, during those years I read many novels by popular Latvian authors who’d immigrated to the US. The publisher who’d founded  “Grāmatu draugs” in Latvia in 1926, escaped the communist invasion in 1944, and resumed publishing, under the same name in Brooklyn, New York in 1951.

An illustration from “World or Wonders.”

I can still read Latvian, just not as well as I used to. There are too many books in English that I want to read, including ones written by Latvians.

Thanks to my father’s diligence in encouraging me in every way he could and demonstrating the importance of books and reading by doing his own reading, I learned to love reading in both languages.

My father wasn’t alone in promoting reading. I remember watching a TV quiz show aimed at teens. I can’t remember who their guest was, some academic, I think. When asked what the best way to get into college is he said, “Read, read, read.” I don’t think that necessity has changed, nor will it any time soon.

* **

I do intend to get back to Latvian diminutive but I had to write something different for a change.


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Does Writing Ruin Reading?

This is how reading fiction is supposed to make you feel as if Pegasus is carrying you aways on his back to some magical realm. And not just fantasy books. Any book.

Lately, I’ve been disappointed in the books I’ve been reading, even with books by favorite authors, people I’d always thought were very good writers. Is it because I’ve gotten more impatient as I’ve gotten older? Or is it because I’ve been writing more and editing my own material? Being a nit-picky writer has turned me into a nit-picky reader.

Now, I pay more attention to such cliches as “She kept her eyes on the floor.” (Be careful not to step on them) Worse yet, “She raked him with her eyes.” (I didn’t know eyes have claws) Eyes do all sorts of unlikely things in books. Substitute “gaze” for eyes to make the prosed less absurd.

“I hate it when people breathe dialogue,” she breathed. Period, after dialogue instead of a comma. But don’t people breathe all the time?

Even the best writers use the annoying, nonsensical description, “He felt, rather than saw.” “He felt, rather than heard.” Why not just, “he felt” without “saw” or “heard”?

I love books that have include a rich tapestry of details. It’s the sort of thing I write myself. I have to rein myself in so as not to overdo it. It’s hard to know when there is too much detail when charming becomes annoying. I recently read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth for the second time. The first time I loved the book. It contained the sort of information that I loved in my class on Medieval and Renaissance art, which I thoroughly loved. Years later, not so much. A cast of thousands in Pillars, along with their detailed storylines, didn’t help

Thinking to find a book by someone who’s a graceful writer, whose other books I’ve enjoyed, I ordered Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, based on a true story about an English village that quarantined itself during the Black Plague. As expected, the book has some gruesome details. Considering the subject gruesome could be expected. But then she throws in a gratuitous murder, turns a saintly character into a sociopath, and writes a totally off-the-wall ending. This time the fault is in the writer, not an overly-critical reader.

My current aggravation is with a book by Philippa Gregory, another writer whose books I’ve enjoyed. Were her historical novels always this tedious or is it me? She has chosen an odd way to write The Constant Princess about Henry VIII’s first wife. Some scenes are written in first person, present tense from Katherine’s point of view. These scenes are printed in Italics. A couple of pages or even a paragraph later, Gregory switches to third-person, past tense, printed in regular font. Back and forth all through the book. ARGH! It does not make for immersive reading. If this book had been her first, instead of her ninth, I doubt that it would even have gotten published.

Editing is stressful, so is being edited, especially if you’re doing it yourself.

Maybe I should switch to reading books that were written when editors actually edited. Books by authors such as Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald whose I manuscripts were edited by editor par excellence, Maxwell Perkins. I could use an editor like Perkins myself. The publishing world could use more editors like him.

Author Review: Ken Follett

Ken Follett has a new book out, The Evening and the Morning. This post is not about that book. I have not read it and I probably won’t. This is about Follett as a writer.

Even though I find Follett’s writing to be annoying to one degree or another, depending on the book. I have read six of them in the last few months, one after the other, like eating potato chips. Over the years, I’ve probably read a dozen of his works. These tomes are as nourishing to my mind as potato chips are to my body.

Considering how I feel about Follett’s writing, why do I continue to read his works? They’re immersive. With current events as they are, immersion in a different era is just what’s called for. Also because I have his books at home. Libraries are open only for curbside pickup. It’s a hassle for me to get to the library. If it’s onerous to get to the library, I want to browse, not just pick up books I ordered online.

Critics call Follett’s books “page-turners.” Sometimes I do keep turning the pages to see what’s going to happen next. Other times, I turn pages to see how close I am to the end of the chapter or scene. I don’t always read as far as the scene or chapter break. I read until I get bored, even if it’s in the middle of a scene. I put the book down because I’m tired of excess details and paragraphs that resemble brick walls. Even in scenes that are supposed to make readers hold their breath in anticipation of the next development, he sticks in tedious detail that slows the action. Does anyone really need to know about latrine pits? I stopped reading Pillars of the Earth just as a fire broke out. Eventually I resumed.

The older and more famous Follett gets the more self-indulgent he gets, the more bloated his books get. Too many characters. Too many subplots. Just when I think the book is finally finished, there’s another gratuitous plot twist. Too much repetition. He doesn’t trust readers to remember something that happened on the previous page. Other times characters pop up seemingly out of nowhere and he doesn’t bother to identify them, leaving me wondering “who was that?” His more recent books would benefit from being cut by at least thirty percent, or more. Preferably more.

By reading so many of his books so close together, his flaws become glaringly obvious. Pillars of the Earth and World without End, the most recent two books I’ve read are part of the Kingsbridge series, which is set in a small English town during the Middle Ages. Both books demonstrate that the author is running out of ideas. No wonder. His career spans more than forty years. In both books, part of a cathedral collapses and is re-built. In World Without End, the second book in the series, a bridge also collapses. Babies are born out of wedlock in both books. Women accused of witchcraft show up in both books. Small, slight geniuses are the heroes of both books, It’s hard to tell them apart.

A lot of thinking and brainstorming goes into writing.

I frequently want to slap some sense into the main female characters. Not many of the too many main characters are likable. The secondary characters often have them beat in likability. Although set in Medieval times both books have implausible road trips. In World Without End, two nuns chase after the king of England who is with his embattled army in France. In Pillars of the Earth a lone woman, with her infant in her arms, chases after her lover, the child’s father, to France and Spain. Apparently, no one told her that Spain is a big place. She tracks the lover from San Diego Compostela to Salamanca to Toledo, then back to Paris. Despite the heroine’s travails, I wanted the young Saracen girl he met in Toledo to get him. I like her better.

Follett’s good at creating vile villains, so vile that I want to tell him, “I know you need to keep the villain alive until the end in order to maintain suspense, but couldn’t you just maim him somewhere along the way? He badly needs maiming.” Yet I felt sorry for one loathsome character Follett killed off. Go figure. Maybe it was the way the bad guy died.

One of Follett’s thrillers that’s set in Afghanistan has a scene where a woman gives birth. It goes on for pages and pages. There’s enough detail that it might as well be a midwife’s handbook. I really didn’t need to read about every single contraction. Yet in Pillars a woman has her baby under the rubble of a collapsed cathedral roof. No details whatsoever–the kid’s just there. Who cut the umbilical cord? Who knows. It’s not mentioned.

No doubt it’s too much to expect that a thriller writer be a prose stylist, but Follett could be way more careful. I don’t expect him to be Chaucer but he could forgo his constant use of anachronisms. They drive me nuts. The words, suburb, boyfriend, girlfriend, employee, technology, among many others he uses, had not been coined in the Twelfth Century. His writing is so clumsy that I won’t bore you by citing any more examples. Except that I have to mention that there are many hearts in many mouths. Why bother to come up with new images when you’re a best-selling writer?

Usually, I don’t skip pages when I read for fear of missing something interesting or consequential. But I skip over the gruesome, intricate details of flaying, bear-baiting, torturing cats and other atrocities. The people-meat-pies in Titus Andronicus are nothing in comparison.

Follett’s books remind me of Rube Goldberg machines. Goldberg was an American cartoonist who drew intricate machines, with too many moving parts, which perform simple tasks. The drawings are funny and fun to look at. Books with too many moving parts make for turgid reading. True galloping through a book at breakneck pace gets tiresome, readers need slower-paced sections to catch their breath. However, the slower parts should not be hundreds of pages long. Good writing includes good editing.

Vector industrial illustration background of the operating mechanism. Complicated mechanism at work. Line Art
This isn’t a Rube Goldberg machine, but you get the idea.

Abandoning an Author

When, if ever, do you abandon a favorite author? If you do, why do you abandon them?

I’ve done it many times. I’ve stopped reading the works of authors whose work I never expected to stop loving.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved books, writers, and reading. Over the years, I’ve had many favorite writers

My Favorite Reading Glasses


When I was a horse-crazy girl, I adored Walter Farley’s Black Stallion and Island Stallion books. I wanted to be a female Walter Farley when I grew up. I thought I would always love his work. Eventually, I outgrew his books and went on to other writers. A few years ago, I discovered that Farley hadn’t stopped writing when I’d stopped reading. I thought I’d enjoy catching up and reading the stories I’d missed. How disappointing to discover that Farley’s writing no longer held my interest.

As a teenager, I loved Emilie Loring’s books and read one after another. It soon became apparent that she’d been writing the same story over and over. Only the characters’ names and the settings were different. There was no reason to keep on reading.

More recently, I’ve enjoyed Patricia Cornwell’s books. I probably read at least fifteen of them. Even before I stopped reading her works, my pleasure in them was starting to pall. Her books became increasingly gory. Cornwell’s protagonist, Kay Scarpetta, is a medical examiner, who investigates crime scenes and performs autopsies, so of course, gore is to be expected. It seemed to me that in later stories the descriptions of crime scenes, the crimes themselves, and the autopsies became gratuitously gruesome as if the grisly details, and not the solving of the crime, were the point. What finally put an end to my reading of Cornwell’s mysteries was when she made a secondary character, Al Marino, behave in an ugly, criminal, totally out of character way. From the very first book, I never liked the way Cornwell treated Marino. He’s a seasoned police detective who regularly worked with Kay. He was supposed to be a good cop and a good guy, but the author treated him with contempt. She made him a fat, crude, semi-literate slob. His saving graces were his skill as a detective and his devotion to Scarpetta, who always outshone him. I’d already been thinking about giving up on these novels, but when there were no new books by my favorite authors available, I went back to Cornwell’s mysteries. The last straw for me was when she turned Marino into a rapist. No more Scarpetta. No more Cornwell.

There are still plenty of authors whose work I enjoy more. However, several of these writers now hang in the balance. Will I, or won’t I, read their most recent book? Writers get old and so does their writing.

There’s Nothing Like a Book and Coffee.

J.A. Jance is one writer whose books I will most likely no longer automatically read just because she wrote them. I’ve faithfully read her J.P. “Beau” Beaumont, Ali Reynolds, Joanna Brady, and Walker Family series. Seattle police detective Beaumont was always my favorite. Was. After the last Beaumont mystery I read, I have major doubts. Jance rehashes the plot of an earlier book and does not improve on it. She also turns Beau into a doggie-daddy. There are too many dog-walks interrupting the flow of the plot. Too much dog poop. Not enough material to interest me. I even have doubts about her other series.

John Grisham is another long-time favorite. My cousin and I both loved his books and have fun discussing them. Grisham has had interesting well-developed characters, pertinent details, and complex, intriguing plots, with surprising twists. Until recently, he kept his details under control. In his most recent books, the details have become bloated, the plots have grown flimsy and the endings have become lame. My cousin read one of Grisham’s latest tomes and said it was, “nothing.” I trust that my cousin is right.

I’m sad that these reliable writers are no longer so reliable. If I read their novels again, it will be their older ones. Thank goodness new writers are always coming along. Thank goodness for libraries which allow me to sample these new discoveries without buying before I’m sure their works are worth the money. Thank goodness for older writers whose books remain to be discovered.

John Work Garrett Library. Baltimore, Maryland. Wouldn’t This be a Fabulous Library to Explore?

A quote from Carl Sagan

“A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time–proof that humans can work magic.” – Carl Sagan, author, scientist.

Via books humans can travel through time and step into another person’s shoes, learn who they are, learn how much others are like you. Learn how they succeed and fail. Learn how they handle life challenges.
He left us too soon.