A delightfully informative book about letters, their meanings, and the words and meanings we derive from them.

A poet, writer of children’s books and host of BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth tells the history of each letter in our alphabet.

Rosen (Fighters for Life: Selected Poems, 2007, etc.) shows a capacious curiosity and imagination in a work that, in lesser hands, would glaze the eyes of all but the most nerdy language freaks. He proceeds alphabetically (duh) but also in a sort of defiantly digressive way. For each letter, the author provides—in sort of dictionary fashion—some of its history, evolution, pronunciation(s) and, for many, some “sound play” involving the letter. Regarding N, for instance, Rosen mentions “ninny,” “no-no” and “nanny” (among others). These initial pages for each letter are informative and good for reference, but the remainder of each section is even better. For example, for C, he discusses ciphers, the Enigma code and even Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster. For K, he spends some time with Korean and with the recent YouTube phenomenon of “Gangnam Style.” S takes us into signs and symbols, from Morse code to the International Phonetic Alphabet. And Z? ZIP codes. Along the way, we learn about Beowulf, e.e. cummings, George Bernard Shaw’s disdain for the apostrophe, our fondness for initials, a bit about that old song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” the history of okay, the history of shorthand, why rhyme has an h, Noah Webster and the Urban Dictionary. Rosen also is mellow about “correctness” in usage and punctuation (“Our personal histories and feelings are wrapped up in what the letters and their means of transmission mean to each of us”) and shows little sorrow for the disappearance of handwriting in schools; in fact, he thinks our current emphasis on it doesn’t make much sense.

A delightfully informative book about letters, their meanings, and the words and meanings we derive from them.

Pub Date: Feb. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-1619024830

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014



This is not the Nutcracker sweet, as passed on by Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa. No, this is the original Hoffmann tale of 1816, in which the froth of Christmas revelry occasionally parts to let the dark underside of childhood fantasies and fears peek through. The boundaries between dream and reality fade, just as Godfather Drosselmeier, the Nutcracker's creator, is seen as alternately sinister and jolly. And Italian artist Roberto Innocenti gives an errily realistic air to Marie's dreams, in richly detailed illustrations touched by a mysterious light. A beautiful version of this classic tale, which will captivate adults and children alike. (Nutcracker; $35.00; Oct. 28, 1996; 136 pp.; 0-15-100227-4)

Pub Date: Oct. 28, 1996

ISBN: 0-15-100227-4

Page Count: 136

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1996




An extravaganza in Bemelmans' inimitable vein, but written almost dead pan, with sly, amusing, sometimes biting undertones, breaking through. For Bemelmans was "the man who came to cocktails". And his hostess was Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe), arbiter of American decorating taste over a generation. Lady Mendl was an incredible person,- self-made in proper American tradition on the one hand, for she had been haunted by the poverty of her childhood, and the years of struggle up from its ugliness,- until she became synonymous with the exotic, exquisite, worshipper at beauty's whrine. Bemelmans draws a portrait in extremes, through apt descriptions, through hilarious anecdote, through surprisingly sympathetic and understanding bits of appreciation. The scene shifts from Hollywood to the home she loved the best in Versailles. One meets in passing a vast roster of famous figures of the international and artistic set. And always one feels Bemelmans, slightly offstage, observing, recording, commenting, illustrated.

Pub Date: Feb. 23, 1955

ISBN: 0670717797

Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 25, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1955