READING AND REFERENCE:
Usage guides serve as great references for writers, but don't typically do well for an afternoon's reading. Can you imagine curling up with a cup of hot tea and Strunk and White's Elements of Style? Here's one that's great for both: The Grouchy Grammarian (Wiley, $19.95, 172 pp). It's "a narrative as well as a reference book," author Thomas Parrish writes _ readable from front to back and smartly indexed for easy reference.
Using common blunders from the media (and other sources that should know better) as a starting point, The Grouchy Grammarian is a "how-not-to" guide to grammar. What distinguishes it from other guides is the author's explanation of the gaffes and empathy for those who make them: "Whom turns up in odd places because it is supposed by some to be a nicer, classier, word than who, just as I is often thought to outrank me (between you and I), but the supposition is groundless. These are all just words, which belong in some places at some times and not in others at other times."
Parrish, a longtime editor and nonfiction writer, makes a fun and clever companion along the road to good usage.
FOR ETYMOLOGISTS AND BIBLIOPHILES:
Do you know what a "tittle" is? Get your mind out of the gutter, silly. It's what you call the dot on the letter i. Or how about "mispell" _ what would you call that? It's a haplography: "the accidental omission of a letter or letter group that should be repeated in writing." (The word should be misspell; it's, um, misspelled.)
Only Anu Garg, the founder of Wordsmith.org, can make word facts this much fun. His book, A Word a Day (Wiley, $14.95, 194 pp), is full of this stuff, with chapter names like "Words for Body Parts That Are Used Metaphorically," "Words Not to Put on Your Resume" and "Words That Make One Say, "I Didn't Know There Was a Word for That!' " Garg writes: "This book is an expression of the joy of words, the magic of words, the music of words" _ a real yawnfest for bibliophobes (people who hate books), but a side-splitting lesson plan for bibliophiles and word lovers.
The latter folk will also find a few laughs in The Quotable Book Lover, edited by Ben Jacobs and Helena Hjalmarsson (Lyons Press, $9.95, 228 pp). Come to think of it, the former might, too. After all, Winston Churchill said: "It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations."
USE WITH CAUTION:
There just aren't any safe shortcuts, are there? Don Prues and Jack Heffron, authors of Writer's Guide to Places (Writer's Digest, $21.99, 390 pp) set out to write the Cliff's Notes version of a traveler's experience to help writers circumvent the "write what you know" rule. A novel idea indeed. With notes on all 50 states and Canada, the Writer's Guide includes information like where people eat, what the locals love and hate about their state and which neighborhoods are populated by white-collar or blue-collar workers.
They did a fine job on Tampa, pointing out that fried grouper is a local favorite, and that Bern's Steak House ("a local eatery noted for its funeral parlor decor and extensive wine list") might make for an "interesting and peculiar" place to set a scene. But be mindful: The authors are prone to passing judgment and stereotyping. For example, they'll have you know that "Bostonians are known for having exaggerated senses of self-importance" and that trendy Bostonians shop on "Newberry Street."
Hey, guys _ it's Newbury Street.
Samantha Puckett is a Times staff writer.