Blog-o! Notes from

Sat, 26 Dec 2009

Another year, another giant stack of books. Here's how it all boiled down in ought-nine.

  • Total books read: 66
  • Adult Novels: 16, of which six mysteries, and six for the book club.
  • Young Adult Novels: 4, two of which by Kit Pearson
  • Non-Fiction: 42, of which:
    • 9 books about writing;
    • 6 books about parenting;
    • 16 how-to and self-help (or psychology) books;
    • leaving 11 others.
  • Memoir: 5, three by Bill Bryson
  • CanCon: 12

I felt like I wasn't reading much this year, and I was right. Further, it wasn't my most profoundly intellectual of reading years. I only read four adult non-mystery novels of my own accord (the rest were for the book club). I read a bunch of non-fiction books, but plenty of them were "how to decorate" or "how to garden"-type books.

Interesting that I read three more books about writing than I did about parenting. I guess I'm getting pretty confident about the latter, but still petrified to take the plunge into the former.

Here are some standout books, in no particular order:

  • Pictures of Perfection by Reginald Hill is a beautifully written mystery.
  • A Handful of Time and A Perfect, Gentle Knight by Kit Pearson both made me cry, as did
  • Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy and Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn pushed me to raise my parenting game
  • Dead Men Do Tell Tales by William R. Maples and Michael Browning was surprisingly profound and yet also provided me with lots of gross anecdotes for cocktail parties.
  • I called Everyday Survival by Laurence Gonzales as one the best of the year back in January when I read it, and I was right. It's astonishing in its depth and breadth, and the way Gonzales brings it all together is breathtaking. In fact, I can hardly believe it was so good—I'm going to have to read it again and see.
  • And a special mention to Getting Started As A Freelance Writer by Robert Bly for planting the seed of the idea that I might be able to earn a living at this thing I do for fun.

Next year I'm going to try and clear out at least half of the two feet of my to-be-read shelf before the end of May. I'm going to try and read more novels, and I'm going to strive, as always, to be a more attentive and thoughtful reader.

[Posted at 23:37 by Amy Brown] link

A while ago I read The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer, for book club, but I forgot to write it down and therefore didn't blog about it at the time. It's about a handful of New York mothers who variously work, don't work, volunteer, don't volunteer, bake, don't bake, have great marriages or disappointing ones. It's about the choices women make about work and life, and about how you sometimes find you've made life-changing choices without really knowing it at the time.

Unfortunately nothing happens in the first 92 pages of this book. There are chapters and chapters and chapters of character development and backstory until you wish you could step into the book with a handgun just to make something happen. Finally something happens, there's a couple of chapters of action, and the book ends. It's all a bit boring and I probably wouldn't have finished it, if it weren't for the book club. Ironically I didn't end up going to the book club meeting, but I bet it was a good one. We always have more fun talking about books we didn't like, and despite the slowness of the story, this book provided plenty of discussion fodder for a group of urban mothers.

Heat Wave is a book "by" Richard Castle, the fictional protagonist of the TV series Castle. He's a well-connected mystery writer, played by Nathan Fillion, who shadows a sexy New York cop (Stana Katic) for research. The book is about a magazine writer who shadows a sexy New York cop for research. It was very disconcerting to read a book written by a fictional character, about a second-order fictional character who was clearly based on the first-order fictional character (who in turn is played by an actor who I follow on Twitter, providing yet another layer of reality/unreality confoundment). But besides that it was a clever and funny mystery very much in keeping with the TV show.

Another torturous read courtesy of the book club (it's been a bad year): Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn is a history of Santa Claus written as an autobiography, from the character's origins as a child named Nicolas who would be a bishop and later a saint, all the way to the portly elf we know today. Along the way Guinn explains how Santa manages to make all the toys and get all the way around the world so fast. He might explain some other stuff, but I stopped reading around the time Santa Claus convinced Queen Isabella to sponsor Christopher Columbus's search for a better route to India. The book is full of such Forrest Gumpian connections. The funny thing is, all the people that old St Nick befriends, including King Arthur, and Attila the Hun, share the same early-21st century belief system as Santa (and, I imagine, most of the readers of this book).

I love Christmas and I love Santa Claus—well, I don't mind him—but this book is simple-minded glurge. I would enjoy a real history of Santa Claus: how his story has changed throughout history, and what the changes mean in the context of their time. This is not that book.

[Posted at 23:37 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 04 Dec 2009

A while ago I read the latest Kathy Reichs: 206 Bones. You know, if it were up to me, I wouldn't bother with Kathy Reichs. I really only read them because my mother reads them and it's nice to talk about them with her. Anyway, I guess I must like them well enough because I do read them. In this one our feisty heroine finds herself trapped in a tomb, struggling to remember how she got there and find out how to get out before it's too late! The mystery was mysterious and satisfyingly resolved, but my very favourite part of the book was right at the end, when Reichs let her character, Tempe Brennan, stop talking in sentence fragments for a heartfelt paragraph about the field of forensic anthropology. It was clear that it was Kathy Reichs talking, not Tempe Brennan, and equally clear to me that I would rather read a book about Reichs than about Brennan.

A Handful of Time by Kit Pearson. Twelve year old Patricia is sent from her home in Toronto to stay with her aunt and cousins— strangers to her—at their lakefront cottage in Alberta, while her parents sort out the terms of their divorce. Unable to get along with her cousins, she explores on her own and finds a pocket watch which takes her back in time to when her own mother spent her twelfth summer at the lake. Patricia divides her summer between her mother's childhood and her own, and discovers how to connect with her cousins and with her present-day mother. A Handful of Time is a beautifully written book with believeable, rich characters and a satisfying ending. Also, it made me cry. A keeper for the girls' bookshelf.

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinov is a stats book. I love stats—I really should have done stats at school, if any math—but it's hard. The human brain is not wired to understand risk and probability. The good news is Leonard Mlodinov makes it much easier to understand. This book goes over a lot of the basic principals of probability: sample space, the law of large numbers, bell curves, standard deviation, chi-squared. All that is the build up for what this book is about, which is how much more stuff is random than we think. Humans love to tell stories about the world, and when something apparently significant happens we would rather construct a narrative about why, than recognize that whatever it was was probably statistically inevitable, or at least not caused by whatever we're attributing it to.

This was one of the books I bought myself for my birthday, and I'm really happy to own it because it provides such good explanations for so many stats concepts, and despite being fascinated by statistics, I need to constantly refresh my understanding of it. Having this book on my shelf will make that a much less painful experience.

Speaking of bookshelves, my to-be-read shelf is two feet long and I committed to reading most of it before attacking my to-be-read list at the library, which is 50 books long (the maximum you're allowed to place on hold) or my to-be-read list on my computer, which is fifteen books long. (It would be longer, but I deleted it by accident a couple of weeks ago.)

As I say, I committed to reading most of the books on my physical bookshelf, but then I realized I'm not all that interested in reading a lot of them. Most of them are books that other people have given me to read, and I'm not excited about them at all, not in the way I'm excited about the books on my lists. I've got a dozen or more not-exciting books between me and the exciting books I want to read: that's not right. I've decided I'm going to sit down with all those books and reevaluate them. The ones I'm not interested in I will pass on, with no guilt. Life is too short to read books I'm not excited about.

How do other people manage their to-read lists?

[Posted at 22:58 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 20 Nov 2009

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph. D.. Martin Seligman is one of the pioneers of Positive Psychology, the study of the psychology of normal life and happiness, as opposed to psychological pathologies. This book is about optimism, which Seligman claims hinges on how you explain the bad things which happen to you. When something nasty happens to you and you believe the cause was personal—it was your fault, pervasive—it will affect your whole life, and persistent—it will never go away, then you are cooking up a big batch of pessimism, which in big enough doses leads to depression.

This book is touted as a self-help book, but as such it went far too much into the history and theory of learned helplessness, and cognitive behavioural therapy. I enjoyed the backgrounder, but if you just want the advice part you could skip to Part Two or even Part Three.

If you're prone to mild depression, or if you just want to be happier, this is a useful introduction to the new(ish) theory of changing your mood by changing how you think about your life.

The Flu Pandemic and You: A Canadian Guide by Vincent Lam, M.D. and Colin Lee, M.D. (2006) is a guide to the pandemic. It was written with the avian flu pandemic (H5N1) in mind, but since 2006 H1N1 has come to the fore. Fortunately the issues are all but identical. (Thrillingly enough, H5N1 is still out there and could strike at any moment!) The book includes, among other things, the history of flu epidemics and pandemics, an explanation of the WHO pandemic stages, how to prepare for a pandemic, how to limit the spread of flu, and how to care for others with the flu.

The most interesting thing was the degree of preparedness the authors recommend. A while ago I read that Cody Lundin book, When All Hell Breaks Loose, and he advocated some pretty extreme levels of preparedness, including planning alternative places to poo if the water system goes down, and figuring out how to keep your house warm if the power (or natural gas) system fails. Lam and Lee don't go that far, but they do recommend keeping plenty of food, water, and medical supplies on hand, and even a camp stove to cook on.

The Flu Pandemic and You is written clearly and informs without alarming. The chapters on preparedness and caring for sick people make it worth buying to have on the shelf for reference.

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis is a novel for children, about Elijah, the first free black child born in his Buxton, Ontario hometown. Elijah is a fragile boy, sensitive and scared of snakes. This story takes him through an adventure which tests his courage and gives him painful insight into his parents lives before they escaped slavery.

The characters in Elijah are complicated and believable, and the story is rich in plot and historical detail. I enjoyed every page of Elijah and can't wait until the girls are old enough to read it too.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson is Bryson's memoir of his childhood in 1950's and 60's Des Moines. Bryson is always gold, and this book is no different. By the time I finished this book, I almost wished I had grown up in 1950's Des Moines. The freedom that the children of the 1950s had, and the lack of external stimulation, are things I wish my children could have (even just for a few months so they appreciate all the bells and whistles of 2009 life more).

I bought a bird feeder a while ago, and I'm trying to find a book which will tell me what I should put in it to attract various specific birds, how to ward off squirrels and deter sparrows and pigeons, and maybe (bonus) provide a reference guide to the birds I'm likely to see in Toronto.

Backyard Birdfeeding by Mathew Tekulsky is not that book. It is about (perhaps unsurprisingly) backyard birdfeeding, but it's a personal account of the author's experience with his birds in his backyard, and his backyard is in California. It was still pretty interesting and gave me some ideas for how and what to feed, but didn't have the specific information I want.

Birds at Your Feeder: A Guide to Feeding Habits, Behavior, Distribution and Abundance by Erica H. Dunn and Diane L. Tessaglia-Hymes isn't that book either, but it's cool. It's an analysis of the data collected through Project FeederWatch, a survey of bird feeder birds across North America begun in 1987. It's organized by species, which each bird getting a clear drawing, description, and a map showing geographical distribution and abundance. Even more helpful is a list of what each bird likes to eat best.

Prize for weirdest bird feeder story goes to the woman who dragged two horse carcasses home from the vet and counted the vultures who came to clean up.

This book is much closer to what I want, and is probably worth buying, but I still want some kind of beginner's guide to feeding Toronto birds (and not Toronto squirrels). The search continues.

Writers Digest Guide to Query Letters by Wendy Burt-Thomas is a guide to writing all kinds of query letters: queries for magazines, books, agents, columns. There are lots of examples, both good and bad, and several lists of "don'ts" to ensure that your query at least doesn't suck. Which seems good enough to get onto a few editors' short lists.

Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer by Moira Anderson Allen is a catch-all guide to working as a magazine writer. It includes information on finding markets, developing ideas, writing queries, formatting manuscripts, and more.

There's also a compelling chapter on business writing, guest-written by Peter Bowerman. He makes it sound easy to earn money by writing, and I'll definitely check out his book, The Well-Fed Writer: Financial Self-Sufficiency As A Freelance Writer in Six Months or Less. (Seems like we're veering into snake oil territory again.)

[Posted at 22:23 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 16 Oct 2009

I took out Understanding Your 6 Year-Old by Deborah Steiner in an attempt to understand my six-year-old, and it worked pretty well. Six-year-olds are in a horrible state: they realize they're not good at everything, they realize other people don't always like them, they realize other people's lives are different (and sometimes better) than their own, and on top of all that they realize that Mum isn't infallible. It's too much. No wonder they're so crabby. Reading this book helped me understand Delphine's perspective.

This is an English book translated for an American audience. I hate it when they do that, nominally because it's patronising to Americans to assume they can't understand Anglicisms, but in truth probably because I'm an Anglophile and I think (irrationally) that English English is better than American English. Anyway, either it's impossible to completely Americanize a book like this, or they did a lousy job because right from the first paragraph when she talked about "infant's school" I knew it was an English book, so all the Americanisms they did manage to slip in came off as glaring incongruities. Goodness knows what it would have been like to read as a unilingual American; very disquieting, I imagine.

The September 16 issue of New Scientist magazine had a section on science fiction, guest edited by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson said, "the range, depth, intensity, wit and beauty of the science fiction being published in the UK these days is simply amazing", so I thought, hey, I used to love science fiction, I should try it again. Sounds cool.

Robert J. Sawyer is a Toronto SF writer who gets some favourable press, so I picked up his novel Rollback. It's about a woman who initiated conversation with aliens in 2009. By the time the aliens' reply reaches earth, the woman is in her eighties and near death. A rich businessman offers to pay for a "rollback" treatment for the woman, which will return her to the health of a twenty-five year old. She accepts on the condition that her husband gets the treatment, too. To say more would spoil the plot, but there's romantic intrigue and alien contact and tragedy and stuff.

Plot-wise it was a good read, but I can't say it renewed my love of SF. I didn't buy the premise that the only person who can continue to communicate with the aliens is the person who started to. The writing was no better than servicable—my bar for writing quality has gone way up in the last few years. The dialogue was lumpy; do writers not say their dialogue out loud to see if it sounds like something anyone would ever say? And there were some very awkward pop culture references which were very clearly the author's own opinion, put into the mouth of his characters: diatribes on TV shows, extensive discussion about the Atkins diet, a Slashdot reference. The book was published in 2007 and the near-future part was set in 2009, and already the Atkins and Slashdot references were painfully anachronistic. The world changes so fast that writing near-future SF is playing with fire. (Although I'm not sure that any astrophysics professors were reading Slashdot even in 2007. I could be wrong; I stopped reading Slashdot in 2003.)

The characters were likeable and believable, the plot was interesting and kept me turning pages, and there were some interesting ideas presented about aging, and fidelity. But if this is the best the SF has to offer (and Sawyer does keep winning SF awards) I'm not surprised that SF writers don't win any "literary" awards. But I'm not giving up yet—Kim Stanley Robinson talked about UK SF writers, so I will read some of his recommendations, and my brother (who loves the same kind of writing that I do, Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro and Khaled Hosseini) likes the writing of Charles Stross, so I will read him too.

Speak of the devil (hah!), my next read was Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, which I read for Book Club. I thought it was great, nice and light with a million references (pop culture and otherwise) to pick up, and a nice rich allegory to mull over when the book is done. (Okay, am I the only person who thinks "Butt the Hoopoe" is a "Mott the Hoople" reference? It could be!) This book manages to be both light and richly complex, like some kind of light but richly complex wine. (That's what you call the Trivial Metaphor.)

Before I read Keep it Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction edited by Lee Gutkind I didn't know what Creative Nonfiction was, and I'm not entirely sure I know now, but I think I read quite a lot of it. It seems to refer to those books and magazine articles which take a nonfiction topic and write about it in a literary way, like Mary Roach's books about sex and corpses, or The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. This book is a collection of short (very short, a page or two) chapters about various topics relevant to writing Creative Nonfiction: research, composite characters, libel, fact-checking, quotation marks, etc. That the chapters are arranged alphabetically brings a certain randomness to the book, but each chapter is clearly self-contained and there isn't much repetition. The shortness of the chapters keeps it interesting, resulting in a quick, easy, but very informative read.

[Posted at 11:10 by Amy Brown] link
Wed, 14 Oct 2009

September and October have been really slow months for reading. I thought would be able to read more, what with the girls being in school, but it really seems like school generates more hours of work than it relieves. Also, and I cringe to admit it, I think I have been Twittering when I used to read. Those little bursts of reading I used to do, when brushing my teeth, or between chores, or (it's true) while on the can, are now spent on Twitter. I didn't think it would make that much difference, but the fact is I get through most of my reading three or four or five minutes at a time. I've been making a conscious effort to read more and Twit less since I realized the extent of the problem.

This is what I did manage to read:

I picked up Ideas and Details: A Guide to Writing for Canadians by M. Garret Bauman and Clifford Werier on a trawl through the library one day. This book is mainly about writing academic papers, but it seems to me the techniques in it apply to any kind of writing. It's a thinish book, only around 290 pages, but it covers an astonishing amount of material: how to get ideas, how to build paragraphs, how to create a thesis and outline, how to write a draft and revise it, writing style, word choice, writing descriptions, writing narrative, informative, and persuasive writing, how to do research and keep notes, and yet more. Everything is explained clearly with plenty of interesting examples and lots and lots of exercises and discussion questions. This would be a fantastic textbook for a writing class, but it's also a handy and rich reference book.

Slob proof! Real-Life Design Solutions by Debbie Weiner I don't like to clean, but I like my house to be clean. Or at least appear that way. This book leapt off the shelf at me—it's so seldom that you get a decorator who admits that not everyone wants to spend their life sponging down white walls or polishing sticky fingerprints off kid-height mirrors. I have read more than one magazine article which recommends white slipcovers for a house with kids because "you can just bleach them once a week!" Sure you could—but would you want to?

Debbie Weiner knows you don't want to, and this book is packed with specific recommendations for upholstery, flooring, and furniture styles which don't show marks, are easy to clean (if you ever have a chance) and will take years of abuse from your kids, your kids' friends, your friends' kids and your big hairy dog. She also has ideas about robust lighting, window coverings, rugs, and paint colours.

This is a fantastically useful book with great ideas, but I have to admit I am conflicted about slob-proof decorating. I love white. I love shades of white and grey and beige all together in one peaceful wash of foggy whiteness. (I am so not my mother's daughter: her living room is rain-slicker yellow.) I also love bright, crisp white with splashes of sparkling colour: bright azure or sunshiney yellow or vivid orange or acid green. I don't like a room that is heavy with dark, saturated colour: chocolate brown or wine red or navy blue. So somehow I have to figure out a way to get the white I love while using the darker, brighter colours on the areas which get the most abuse or are the hardest to clean.

The one thing missing from this book is advice on creating a slob-proof kitchen or bathroom. My in-laws' experience with engineered wood has proven that if you want a sturdy kitchen you need to choose materials carefully, and my experience with graceful (curvy, impossible to clean) faucets and a clawfoot tub (how are you supposed to clean behind that?) have show that choice of fixtures can make the difference between a cleanable bathroom and one that reduces you to tears. Some of the advice in the book is applicable to kitchens and bathrooms (Marmoleum!) but it would have been nice to have a section addressing those areas specifically.

Out of time for today. Stay tuned...

[Posted at 11:05 by Amy Brown] link
Mon, 21 Sep 2009

I chose The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000) as my pick for the book club, thinking it would be a sure thing. It's a great read, everyone loves it, and there will be lots to discuss. Right?

Wrong. Two book club members hated it ("Sentences too long! Words too big!") and two love/hated it ("Such beautiful writing! But I don't care about comics! And why the hell are we in Antarctica?!") Two more didn't finish it but were pretty sure they would love it after they did finish it, so that's good, I guess. I was completely thrown by that reaction—I honestly thought everyone would love it unreservedly. What's not to love?! They didn't seem particularly interested in my questions, either. (Maybe it's time to find a new book club? But we're reading Salman Rushdie next. I wonder what they will think.)

I loved Kavalier and Clay this time, too. (I read it and loved it once before.) The writing is gorgeous, the characters are beautifully wrought, the story is gripping. Okay, that bit in Antarctica was pointless as far as I can tell, but the rest of it was great.

Incidentally, my also-rans for book club picks were Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. I have no idea how either of them would have gone over. Sigh.

Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children The Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts by Lenore Skenazy. Lenore Skenazy has been all over the media lately; she was on Q with Jian Ghomeshi, she was on Penn and Teller's Bullshit. Even my mother knew who she was when she saw this book. Obviously what she has to say strikes a chord, and what she has to say is that today's children are dangerously overprotected. Sometime in the seventies or eighties we all decided that the world is terribly dangerous and that children can't be allowed out in it by themselves. This is in contradiction of the evidence, which shows that children are safer now than they have ever been (apart from when they are in or around cars). This book convinces, with statistics and anecdotes and passionate argument, that children need to have freedom more than they need to be protected from bogeymen.

Skenazy also puts forward her theory as to why we have all become so scared (television news and crime dramas) and gives plenty of concrete ideas as how we can give our children the freedom and responsibility they need without going crazy with worry.

Read Skenazy's blog for the latest crazy story about people calling the police because some kid is walking home from soccer alone.

Exit Music by Ian Rankin is Rankin's last Rebus book. I'm afraid I can't review it very effectively; I suppose I wasn't paying very close attention when I read it. I did enjoy it. If you like Rebus and Rankin you'll probably enjoy it too, apart from the bittersweetness of it being the last. I hear his new book is good too, though.

Some piece of crap by Tess Gerritsen. I picked up a book from my mother's side table and started reading it when I ran out of books while I was out in Sask, and boy was it rubbish. I tried to look up the title on Tess Gerritsen's website, but it looks like it's one of the books listed on the "Romance Novels" page. The link to the "Romance Novels" is hidden at the bottom of the "Real Books" page, and the "Romance Novels" don't merit pages of their own, so it's quite possible that Tess Gerritsen herself knows what a piece of crap this book is.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure it's fairly hard to write even a bad novel—this one in particular seemed to call for a lot of research—and further if I could get paid good money to churn out bad books, don't think I wouldn't. I don't blame her in the least for writing whatever book it was I read (it was about prisoners of war in Asia), but I sort of regret the time I spent reading it. Although it didn't take long to read, and it's probably just as instructive to read a book that's awful (and figure out why it's awful) as it is to read one that's wonderful. Maybe more so. All in all I guess I'll call this a wash.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist by William R. Maples and Michael Browning recounts some of Maples' most interesting cases, from the historic (he studied the supposed remains of the Romanovs) to the gruesome (plenty of those—he works in Florida). I am fascinated by all manner of gore, injuries and death, so the subject matter of this book was right up my alley. I learned, among other things, about how people dismember corpses, about autoerotic asphyxiation, and about weird ways to commit suicide. (Table saw? Really?)

Maples and Browning write eloquently and beautifully—I'm not sure which of the authors is responsible for the richness of the prose, but it made the book a delight to read far beyond the inherent appeal of the subject matter. Here:

Dreadful as all these processes [of decomposition] may seem, they are only the resolution of certain carbon-based compounds into certain other carbon-based compounds. Carbon is the element of life and death. We share it with diamonds and dandelions, with kerosene and kelp. While we may wrinkle our noses at some of its manifestations, we ought also to remember that this element comes to us from the stars, which wheel over us forever in silent, glittering array, pure fires obeying celestial laws.

As you can see, the authors don't shy from matters of philosophy, and also morality and the challenges of the profession of forensic anthropology: shortage of skeletons for training, lack of funding, lack of jobs despite the clear need for more forensic anthropologist.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales was an unexpected pleasure.

The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't by Robert I. Sutton. This is a book Blake took out of the library but looked interesting, so I gave it a read. It's pretty much what the title states: a book about how (and why) to create a workplace where people are civil to each other. It seems so obvious when you just type it out like that, but plenty of managers claim that conflict and nastiness is crucial to their success. Sutton has plenty of evidence to show that rudeness is expensive and unnecessary, and he provides lots of tips on how to go about acheiving an asshole-free environment. There's also a chapter with survival advice for people stuck working with or for an asshole. Worth a read if you work with other people, especially if you are part of the hiring process.

[Posted at 11:01 by Amy Brown] link
Tue, 18 Aug 2009

Herewith find a list of all the books I bought with my birthday money. (I shopped at second-hand stores for the most part.)

  • Death's Daughter by Amber Benson
  • A Handful of Time by Kit Pearson
  • The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • 12 Books That Changed the World by Melvyn Bragg
  • The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski
  • Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
  • Heat by George Monbiot
  • Dead Men Do Tell Tales by William Maples and Michael Browning
  • The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

...and two for Delphine:

  • That Scatterbrain Booky by Beatrice Thurman
  • Jacob Two-two Meets the Hooded Fang by Mordecai Richler

If you wait long enough I'll review them all, except for the last two.

[Posted at 21:33 by Amy Brown] link
Wed, 12 Aug 2009

Some shovelware for you—we are reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in my book club this month. It was my pick, and so far two people have emailed me to say they couldn't finish it, so we'll see how it goes. Anyway, since it was my pick I was responsible for finding or getting discussion questions. Here are the questions I devised on my own. Discuss amongst yourselves:

  1. On page 286, George Deasey says that the boys' comics are "powerless" and "useless", but Joe Kavalier thinks to himself that he believes "in the power of [his] art". Do you believe in the power of popular culture to steer the course of public opinion or political events? Can you think of any current or recent art which affects politics?

  2. Several characters in Kavalier and Clay change their names as a means of reinventing themselves. Does it work? How does knowing the person's original name affect the way others relate to them? Have you ever changed your name? Did your identity also change?

  3. Do you read comics? Did you ever? (Did you ever try to write one?) Do you appreciate them more having read Kavalier and Clay?

  4. Several characters in Kavalier and Clay identify as both Jewish and as atheists. Discuss how their Judaism is manifested in the absence of belief in God. Do you practice the rituals of your ancestors and if so to what extent do you share their beliefs? Is it possible to be Christian without believing in God?

  5. When I was reading Kavalier and Clay I came across a few words I didn't know. Do you enjoy it when a writer uses unfamiliar words, or do you find it annoying, or pretentious? When you come across a new word do you look it up and try and learn it, or just carry on?

  6. The theme of escape recurs throughout the book: escape through changing one's name, escape through disguise, literal escape from bondage or from danger, and escape through literature. On page 575, Chabon writes: "...the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf." Why is escapist entertainment frowned on by some? Do you agree? Do you use books or TV as an escape or reprieve from reality?

[Posted at 23:23 by Amy Brown] link
Wed, 15 Jul 2009

Dude, I don't even know why I'm doing this blog entry. I'm so tired! The girls and I had an epic day today: we took the streetcar out to Kew Garden and the girls played on the beach for hours. After that, they played in the wonderful playground, and after that, we walked for blocks and blocks to have an ice cream with a friend the girls met on the beach. Then another long (long, long) streetcar ride (punctuated by an emergency stop at Starbucks for a bathroom visit) and finally home at five. I made supper, put the girls to bed, cleaned the kitchen, and then rearranged all the furniture which had been disarrayed so I could paint the wall. Then I reloaded the bookcase, which I had emptied so I could paint it. I must have put on more coats of paint than I realized because I couldn't fit in all the books I was sure I had taken out of it, but I finally got all that sorted out and now I am sitting. Hurray!

On to the books.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill was our book club book, and it's also the Canada Reads book for this year, which means that just about everyone I meet has read it, or at least heard of it. Now that's cool.

The Book of Negroes is the story of Aminata Diallo, an African woman who was kidnapped into slavery as a child. The book follows her life through slavery and freedom, and all around the world. Some of the people in my book club didn't know about the slave ships and stuff, and I didn't know about the loyalists in Nova Scotia, the actual Book of Negroes, and the ships to Liberia. It was an informative read, and a good yarn, but I didn't get as emotionally engaged as I did when I read, for example, A Thousand Spendid Suns (which just about killed me). I found Hill kept a distance between the reader and Diallo, and didn't let me get right into her emotions.

The book is sold as Someone Knows My Name in the US, because apparently "Negro" is just too loaded a word down there. I think from a marketing standpoint, The Book of Negroes is a better name, but Someone Knows My Name is truer to the themes in the book. Names are important in this book. But it's a bit forgettable, marketing-wise.

I don't often buy books. I used to buy books a lot, before Delphine was born and we had a 1-to-1 people-to-jobs ratio. But a couple of weeks ago Blake and I found ourselves in a bookstore and I decided I was going to buy myself a book, dammit. Lucky for me it was coming up on Father's Day so I checked out the display of Man Books, which I love. (Why are there no science books in the Mother's Day display?) In amongst all the spy books and stuff I saw the bright yellow cover of A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif. The cover promised a witty, clever thriller. It started off a little confusing; it's not one of those books that spoon-feeds you every detail, so you just have to forge ahead and figure out things as you go along. It's worth it, as the book unfolds into a touching and intriguing story of love and revenge. With a great ending.

A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson decided to walk to Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Well, not the whole thing. But enough to get an idea of what the trail's about, and write a book. As usual, it was great Bill Bryson writing, funny and easy to read. Reading the book inspired me to do (well, think about doing) a long hike sometime. (I'm trying to figure out how to go for a long hike without pitching my own tent. I expect that will involve paying someone a lot of money.) Reading this book was the next best thing to actually walking the AT.

Healthy Lunchboxes For Kids by Amanda Grant. Picked this one up off the display at the library. Delphine's starting all-day school and while I'm not expecting her to stay for lunch often, I thought I could use some ideas. Thinking of something for dinner every day pretty much saps my food creativity, so I need all the help I can get. This is a great book, with lots of sandwich and salad ideas, recipes for scones and cakes and cookies, as well as nutrition information and advice on how to reduce waste in your kid's lunch. Very useful book and one I'd consider owning. Although you could tell it's an English book; apparently English kids love chutney, will consider eating dip made with smoked fish, and enjoy sausage sandwiches. No sign of Marmite, but plenty of nuts.

50 High Impact, Low-Care Garden Plants by Tracy DiSabato-Aust. I ordered this from the library but it's really not my kind of thing. I like low-care garden plants, but I also like them to be local to my area, and this book featured lots of foreign plants chosen because they have spectacular foliage or great flowers. This is a useful book but not for me.

A Perfect, Gentle Knight by Kit Pearson is a young adult book about a large family coping with the death of their mother. Sebastian, Rosalind, Corrie, Orly and Juliet live in a big old house with their father, a distracted English professor. The older kids take care of the younger kids while they all try and stay out of the way of the latest housekeeper. They cope with the loss of their mother by escaping into a game of Round Table, playing the roles of knights, squires and pages. The children struggle with growing out of the game, or not being able to, and the pressures of having to take care of themselves without an involved parent. It's a lovely book with beautifully drawn characters and a satisfying resolution.

[Posted at 22:33 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 12 Jun 2009

I just started making compost in my backyard, and because I can't scratch my nose without intensive research, I took a couple books out of the library. Both named Compost.

Compost by Ken Thompson is a glossy, beautifully produced little book published by the always-extravagant DK. As well as being gorgeously designed and illustrated, it's simple, to-the-point and includes everything you need to know to get started composting. It's thorough and scientific, yet readable and above all, encouraging.

Compost by Clare Foster covers about the same material as the Thompson, but it's much dryer, preachier, and lacks the pretty pictures.

I also re-read Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner for the non-fiction book club at the library. (What is that book, like, four years old? It would be nice to read something newer in the book club.) It was good to reread this, especially having read Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn which addresses the issue of incentives. The Steves talk about how everything can be explained by incentives, but then give some examples which have clearly been disproven, as shown in Kohn's book. That doesn't affect the plausibility of the Steves' arguments, though, because despite talking about incentives in the introduction they don't lean on them much throughout the book.

I liked this book the second time as much as I liked it the first time. I relish the use of data to understand the world in ways which are contrary to popular wisdom, whether it's called economics or statistics or sociology.

[Posted at 22:55 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 28 May 2009

Copyediting: A Practical Guide by Karen Judd is another guide to copyediting very much like the last one I read, The Fine Art of Copyediting by Elsie Myers Stainton. Both offer an overview of what copyediting entails, along with lots of reference material: when to use which punctuation, how to capitalize titles, and so on. Either book would be a valuable addition to a writer or copyeditor's library.

I don't think copyediting is a good career direction for me; I revel in the satisfaction of finding obvious mistakes (doesn't everyone?) but I would get impatient having to look up everything I wasn't sure about. I could be a copyeditor, but I wouldn't enjoy it much. (Although Judd actually says, 'Copyediting isn't fun," so maybe I'm missing the point.) But having read these two books, I now know more about good grammar, good writing and punctuation. Once I start writing for real I'll buy one of these books and refer to it often. My editors will love me.

The Craft and Business of Writing: Essential Tools for Writing Success is a collection of essays about writing, from the editors of Writers' Digest Books. It's divided into five sections: Getting Started / General Business, Fiction, Nonfiction, Children's Writing, and Poetry. Each of the last four sections is further subdivided into "The Craft of..." and "The Business of..." The essays are great, both helpful and inspiring. However, for some reason they chose to wire-bind the book and wrap it in a giant hardcover like a big ol' cookbook. Made it very hard to read it in bed, while brushing teeth, on the can, etc: all my best reading spots. So it has taken me weeks to read it. Between the dry-as-dust copyediting books and this I've been all clogged up in my reading.

A while ago Greg Wilson suggested I write a book about survival in the event of a disaster or collapse of our modern infrastructure. Seemed like a fine idea, so I thought I would find out what was already out there. A few years ago I read James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, and I briefly revisited it. Then as now, it left me more scared than prepared. The book mainly discusses what's going to go horribly wrong. The last chapter deals with how we might manage the process, but it's mainly prognostication and very little advice.

However, When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes by Cody Lundin is rich in advice on how to survive a week or a few months without the modern conveniences we take for granted.

The book is divided into two parts: "Head Candy" and "Hand Candy". Head Candy covers a wide range of philosophical, psychological, and physiological concerns, including posttraumatic stress disorder, consensus decision making, the power of gratitude, the importance of positive thinking. . . . Plenty of the material is valuable, such as the importance of continuing to communicate with your family, recognizing the signs of excess stress in others, and the impact of fear on physical function, but there's plenty that could be left out too. There's a lot of woo-woo stuff about thinking positive, and putting good vibes into the universe to get good stuff back.

You're 84 pages into the book before you get into the nitty-gritty of what you're gonna need and how much of it. That's the Hand Candy section, each chapter of which covers a particular need: shelter, water, food, sewage disposal, hygiene, light, heat for cooking, first-aid, self-defense, communication, transport, and how to get out if you have to.
Although the book is written in a light-hearted, humourous way, Lundin doesn't talk down to his readers: each chapter starts with a technical description of the matter at hand. For example, in the food chapter Lundin discusses the different sources of calories (protein, fat and carbs) and how the body metabolizes each one. He also devotes a page to explaining the Glycemic Index, two to calculating your Basal Metabolic Rate, and three on an overview of Great Food Shortages in History, most of which resulted in people eating each other (just in case you weren't sure whether you wanted to store some food). The light section has two pages on the history of artificial lighting and a one-page primer on batteries. And so on.

I would call this book over-written. Or maybe under-edited. Personally, I love all this information, but then I thrive on non-fiction. I'm not sure that the average reader wants this much background in a book of this nature. However, if you can get through all the extra stuff, the advice in here is gold. Lundin has years of hands-on experience living off the grid, living in the wild and leading survival courses. The book is rich with anecdotes and advice direct from experience, and when Lundin doesn't know something and couldn't find it out, he's blunt about it. (Like, how long does whole wheat keep anyway?) He is pragmatic and considerate of all your family members—for example, a couple of times he specifically addresses the needs of obese people without being judgemental.

I took copious notes while reading this book, and I now have a very long list of things to do and buy. Once I've done them all I will feel much more prepared in the event of something going horribly wrong for quite a long time.

Incidentally, if you should think that planning for a long-term failure of some or most of our infrastructure is paranoid, you might not know that the CDC's worse-case scenario pandemic plan involves the general public staying home for up to three months. Or maybe a solar storm will knock out the power grid indefinitely. The fact is I'd rather be ready and wrong.

[Posted at 23:21 by Amy Brown] link
Tue, 19 May 2009

This post could be filed under either "books" or under "Delphine", because as usual, in Your Six-Year-Old: Loving and Defiant, Louise Bates Ames and Frances Ilg have nailed the phase my kid is going through like they were observing her personally. Here are some quotes from the book which describe what's going on around here:

Things often get so bad around the house that, as one mother put it, "Each morning I get up with the solemn promise to myself to try and make my daughter fell loved. And I may succeed for an hour or so. But then she'll do something so impossible that I lose my temper and have to reprimand her." [I usually do better than an hour or so; Delphine's pretty great in the mornings. It's after school that she's almost intolerable.]

Six's way is, in his opinion, right; he cannot bear to lose or to accept criticism. On the other hand, he loves to be flattered and praised. Certainly he is not as secure as he might be. In fact, we believe that much of his stubborn, arrogant, and sometimes bratty behavior is his effort to build himself up and to make himself feel secure.

His capacity for enjoyment is tremendous. Make him a present or surprise, give him praise, propose a treat, and his vigorously expressed joy and enthusiasm will well repay you. [Delphine often tells me I'm "the best mum ever!" for something as simple as ice cream for dessert.]

Six is at his best and also his worst with the primary caregiver.

[On siblings] But on the whole, his competitive, combative nature and his need to always be first and to win out, make certain difficulty in the household. . . . He tends to be very jealous of attention or objects given to to a brother or sister. . . . Six may be very bossy with younger siblings. He may argue, tease, bully, frighten, torment, get angry, hit.

If your daughter is one of the many with a very sensitive scalp, who screams bloody murder as you comb her hair, a short haircut (if she will accept it [hah]) can save much anguish.

Obviously Ames and Ilg have Delphine's number. They also have some insight into why it's so difficult to be six:

One of the Six-year-old's biggest problems is his relationship with his mother. It gives him the greatest pleasure and the greatest pain. Most adore their mother, think the world of her, need to be assured and reassured that she loves them. At the same time, whenever things go wrong, they take things out on her.

We must remember that a Six-year-old isn't violent, loud, demanding, and often naughty just to be bad. There are so many things he wants to do and be that his choices are not always fortunate. He is so extremely anxious to do well, to be the best, to be first, to be loved and praise, that any failure is very hard for him.

They offer a list of helpful techniques: praise, chances (second, third, etc), counting, sidestepping the issue, bargaining, giving in, ignoring misbehaviour. It's not the most rigorous year of parenting, but it seems that Six is a year to be endured, for child and parent alike, at least until Six-and-a-half.

[Posted at 22:27 by Amy Brown] link
Sun, 17 May 2009

I was given Love Monkey by Kyle Smith by a friend who hated it. Not sure what this says about my friends, but I definitely didn't hate this book. It's your typical 30-something single New Yorker looking for love book, except the protagonist is a guy instead of a chick.

Smith sets up his protagonist, Tom Farrell, as a dick—he's rude to his mother and he's a cartoon-watching, cereal-for-dinner-eating man-boy—and then redeems him over the course of the book with self-deprecating honesty and vulnerability, and with the charming, witty conversations he has with his romantic interests, the almost-perfect Julia and the reliable back-up date Bran.

I found it interesting to get into this particular man's head. At first I was quite put off by how self-conscious Farrell is and how he overanalyses and manipulates situations to suit himself, but then I realized that I do that too—we all do. For example, I had some people over yesterday, some of my coolest and brightest friends. We all brought some books that we had enjoyed and wanted to pass on, and did a big old book swap. One of the women brought She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb, and she reported that when she chose it her husband questioned her choice: "Think of your brand!" he said. We all made fun of that but I think we all know what he meant—you have this image of yourself that you want to project to other people, and it isn't necessarily your whole, honest nitty-gritty self. You second-guess your impulses, you debate clothing choices, you carefully curate the items in your home. I will admit that the books on display in my dining room are slightly cooler and smarter (and prettier) than the books hidden upstairs. Smith unflinchingly documents Farrell's management of his brand, which could make him seem like a manipulative phony, but his vulnerability and honesty and wit won me over in the end.

Going Solo by Roald Dahl is the sequel to Dahl's childhood memoir, Boy. Going Solo documents Dahl's early twenties working for Shell in Tanzania, and in the Royal Air Force fighting in Greece during the German invasion. He talks about the people he met in Africa, the bizarre adventures he had there, his training as a pilot followed immediately by a spectacular crash which sent him to hospital for six months with a horrible head injury. Once he recovered he was sent right back into the fray, where he faced ridiculous odds against the German invasion and was one of the last of the Allied forces to flee Greece.

The only slow spot in the book was when Dahl detailed apparently every training flight he took. (I expect flying the planes was more interesting than reading about it.) The rest of the book was exciting and moving. The best part was when Dahl encountered a group of Jewish children and the man who was protecting them, hiding them in an obscure corner of Greece. Like so many people, Dahl was oblivious to the Holocaust and his bafflement about the Jews' plight was curiously charming.

The disastrous loss of almost all the men he flew with was a reminder of the idiotic nature of war. I am both thankful that Dahl made it through the war alive, and sickened by the thought of the amazing talents that we will never know about because they didn't.

I enjoyed Going Solo and would recommend it particularly to boys, although I don't know what age. (I picked it up at the school library, so obviously someone thinks that kids twelve or under would like it.) It's exciting and captures what it was to be a gentleman and adventurer in an earlier, but still fairly recent, time.

We read The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett in Book Club. I gave it a 5, which is the second-lowest rating I have given a book club book. My first exposure to this book was back when it came out in '89; it was panned horribly by a Globe and Mail reviewer and one of the English teachers at my high school used the review as an example of how to review a book negatively. I don't recall if I read that review, but ever since high school I've carried with me the idea that this is not a particularly good book, and reading it didn't turn that impression around.

My two main problems with the book are that the writing is clunky and awful, and that it has no particular Literary Value—it's not clever. I did quite like the characters, and the plot was exciting if a little relentless towards the end. The book was well-researched and Follett certainly made sure to put in plenty of historical detail so all that time doing research didn't go to waste. I enjoyed all the information about building and architecture, and I appreciate Follett's attempts to describe complicated structures without illustrations. I wish he had put a little more effort into period-appropriate language; the book is thick with anachronistic words and usages. For example, when writing from the point-of-view of a female character he refers to menstruation as having a period, a usage which didn't appear until the 1800s. The book would have been richer and more engaging if the language hadn't seemed so modern.

In the end The Pillars of the Earth didn't engross me. I read on because I wanted to know what happened, but I wasn't invested in the characters or absorbed into the action.

Get a Freelance Life:'s Insider Guide to Freelance Writing by Margit Feury Ragland Yes, you see where I'm going. I kind of hate how listing the books I've read provides a kind of window into what I'm thinking about, but there doesn't seem to be any real point in being secretive.

This is the second book I've read on writing as a job, so you might suppose that I'm contemplating a new career direction. Well, maybe I am. If I were this would be a very helpful book, perhaps even one to buy and keep around. It has plenty of advice on how to launch your writing career, how to focus on a speciality, how to do research, pitching ideas, the editing process and all the many varieties of editor that can be found in the wild, and much more besides. The book is aimed mainly at magazine and book writing, with only one chapter about business writing.

I started reading Make a REAL Living As A Freelance Writer: How to Win Top Writing Assignments by Jenna Glatzer but right at the beginning of the book she says something about how you could make a living writing for businesses, but would you rather tell your friends that your byline is on an article in People, or that you wrote the piece of junk mail they just tore up. Well, first off I'm not a pathetic celebrity whore, and second not all business writing is junk mail. I don't even think I have any friends who read People! (My problem with writing for magazines is that I don't really read them: I read Toronto Life, New Scientist, Today's Parent and Chirp. I'd be happy to write for any of those publications, but a potential market of four magazines is hardly going to put bread on the table.)

Between that, the ALL-CAPS EMPHASIS in the title, and some snotty comment about how it's so unprofessional to have children crying in the background when you're on a business call (because God forbid you should want to earn a living after having reproduced) and I just gave up on this book. If I ever develop a burning desire to write in magazines for fame and fortune, I will know where to look for advice.

Your Five- and Six-Year-Old by the editors of Parents magazine. Delphine has gone all weird and cranky lately, so I sought out books about six-year-olds to see if it's a Thing, and apparently it's a Thing. Six-year-olds are all neurotic because they're trying to detach from their parents and become independent but at the same time they totally adore us, so that creates this horrible inner conflict which causes them to be psychotic bitches half the time and completely adorable, enthusiastic sweethearts the rest of it. It's exhausting. It's funny how before you have kids everyone tells you about the Terrible Twos, but they don't mention the Fucking Fours or the Psycho Sixes. Two was easy, dude. At least Two doesn't tell you she hates you.

This was a helpful book, nice and pragmatic. Lots of stuff about praise, which is kind of anti-Kohn, but then apparently six-year-olds eat up praise and so much of parenting a six-year-old is about easing them through this horrible stage (they're not enjoying it any more than you are) so maybe a little judicious praise, or at least unbridled adoration, would go a long way.

The Fine Art of Copyediting by Elsie Myers Stainton When I mentioned to Greg Wilson that I was pondering a writing career he suggested I consider editing as well, so I got a couple of copyediting books out of the library. If you imagine that a book about copyediting would be quite boring, you'd be right. I think this book is probably as exciting as a copyediting book could be, and it was still pretty dry. Stainton does a great job giving an overview of the copyeditor's job, as well as providing plenty of concrete reference material such as editor's marks and grammatical rules. The best part, though, is her defense of the art of copyediting, of the importance of it and the satisfaction of being part of the intellectual discourse.

I learned some things about editing which I didn't know: I didn't realize that editors are responsible for identifying poor reasoning and flawed arguments, nor did I realize that they are supposed to identify racist and sexist language. It's not just grammatical nitpicking! (It's other kinds of nitpicking too!) That made me much more interested in copyediting, although I'm not sure I am detail-oriented enough to be a good copyeditor. It's worth contemplating further.

[Posted at 23:21 by Amy Brown] link
Tue, 21 Apr 2009

Getting Started As A Freelance Writer by Robert Bly (2008) is about... well, just guess what it's about. It was on the "new" cart at the library so I thought I would check it out. Maybe I can be a freelance writer! Here's how!

Robert Bly has written about a million books, almost all of which you undoubtedly haven't heard of, and he also writes magazine articles, marketing material, annual reports, brochures, junk email... pretty much anything you can make money at. He's not an "author" or a "novelist", he's a writer, and in this book he tells you how you can make a living as a writer too.

Obviously it's hard for me to say whether his advice is any good since I'm not a writer, nor have I ever read any other books on making a living as a writer. It seems pretty sensible - he offers practical advice on how to set up your office, how to market yourself, how to manage your writing business, how to find work - but then this guy makes most of his living writing "direct mail marketing" copy, ie, snake oil ads. Bly also makes lots of money through self-published ebooks, booklets, giving speeches, selling CDs of his speeches... basically regurgitating the same content in as many ways as possible to get more money out of it.

The book also contains sections on gettings cartoons, personal essays, and poems published.

Ironically, the book could have been better written, or perhaps better edited. There were a couple of times where he introduced the same concept twice within a page or two, as if he had rearranged some paragraphs and then not checked it closely enough. (This, I suppose, supports his contention that you don't have to be a good writer to make a living at it.) The section on the Internet was terribly dated; "If you think, as some people do, that there's any future in the Internet". (That's a paraphrase, I forgot to write down the exact quote.) This edition was a rework of the 1997 edition, and clearly he should have paid more attention to the Internet section.

I'm not sure whether this book convinced me that you can make good money writing, or whether it just showed that you can make money doing just about anything if you are willing to work hard enough at selling yourself, and repackaging your material in lots of different ways. The more I think about it the more it seems what made Bob Bly rich wasn't being a writer but being an entrepreneur, which is not to say that you can't make money writing, but Bly's path to riches isn't exactly the path I want to take.

One more thing - Bob Bly makes lots of money selling books about how to be a copywriter, and on further investigation there's a whole online cottage industry of ebooks, email newsletters, etc about writing. Doesn't that seem like a pyramid scheme? Bly sells a book about writing to 2000 people, those people write and sell 2000 books each - what happens when everyone who wants to be a writer has bought a book about it? Doesn't someone, at some point, have to write about something else?

Thomas Foster mentioned the novels of Reginald Hill a few times in How to Read Novels Like A Professor, so when I found Pictures of Perfection in a plastic bag at someone's curb, I picked it up. It says on the cover that it's a Dalziel/Pascoe mystery, but Dalziel and Pascoe are fairly minor players; the main investigator is a policeman (I can never remember people's rank) named Wield who is sent off to an odd little village in Yorkshire - odd not in the usual Yorkshire way - to discover the whereabouts of the missing village bobby. On the way to locating the missing policeman, Wield meets various peculiar village characters and has to sort out their relationships, their history, and their intentions.

Reginald Hill writes for an intelligent reader - this book is rich with references to literature and music. He has a knack for describing things in a way which makes you pay attention. Here he is saying someone has a good memory:

Wield's brain, which his CID chief, Andy Dalziel, opinied should be picked in strong ale and and sold to IBM after the sergeant's death, had been punching up references to Enscombe.

And here he says the same character is hairy:

Wield barked the sound which his friends recognized as his way of expressing amusement - though others often took it as a sign that the interrupted lycanthropic process suggested by his face was about to be resumed.

This is not writing for a lazy reader.

I very much enjoyed this book; I liked the characters, I liked the relationships, I liked the mystery.

[Posted at 23:11 by Amy Brown] link
Sat, 18 Apr 2009

Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children's Literature by Mark West (1997) is a collection of interviews with children's book authors, publishers and librarians on the subject of censorship. My local library had a display of books on censorship, and the title of this seemed in keeping with my parenting philosophy, so I picked it up. I'm pretty naive about censorship because I don't really see the point of it, so I don't think about it much. This book was a pointed reminder of how some people dislike some ideas so much they don't even want them to be mentioned. Back in the seventies and eighties censorship was largely about sex, but these days (well, when the book was written) more people complain about anti-authoritarian themes, books where the kids best the adults, books where kids question the rules, and even books where kids are portrayed as unhappy.

Judy Blume got more mentions, if I recall correctly, than any other author. I'm not surprised by that, but I am saddened; Judy Blume was a staple of my childhood. I never got The Sex Talk from my mother, but it was fine because between Judy Blume and the other books I read I pretty much knew what to do and what not to do when the time came.

A more subtle issue is that of self-censorship by authors and publishers. Honestly, what's the use of writing something if it's just going to be taken out, or result in your book not being bought by libraries? One of the solutions, and a flawed one to be sure, is to market your teen book as an adult book, which I was surprised to find actually happens. Apparently Judy Blume's first adult book, wasn't.

This is a valuable compendium of perspectives, with lots of history and context. It would be nice to read an updated version of this book - there are lots of references to the Reagan administration in the book, and I would love to know how the Bush and Obama administrations affected censorship of kids' books.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph. D. (2006). Carol Dweck is a social psychologist who specialises in motivation, personality and development. Her mindset theory is hot in democratic parenting circles, and it deals a death blow to the idea that you have to constantly praise your children for any and all achievements. I was very glad to hear this behaviour has been discredited because I hate hearing parents constantly chirp, "good sharing!", "good swinging!", "good falling down!". (Unfortunately, most people don't seem to have heard that praising sucks, but I'm trying to spread the word.) As you might guess, Alfie Kohn refers to Dweck's work in his Punished by Rewards, so I thought I might as well read this book to get the full story straight from the horse's mouth.

Dweck's argument is that everyone walks around with one of two mindsets: the fixed mindset wherein you believe that everyone is born with a fixed set of talents and abilities which will remain constant for life, and the growth mindset wherein you believe that those talents you are born with are just the beginning; everything you do can be improved by study and practice. If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that you are what you are, and so your main motivation is to prove that what you are is fabulous. If you have a growth mindset you believe that you can always get better, so you don't have to prove anything, you just have to figure out what needs work and get on with it. Or not: it's your life!

The book discusses how mindset applies in business, in sports, in romance, and in parenting. It's nicely written for a non-scientific audience, leavened by plenty of anecdotes, some of which are about Carol Dweck's own journey from fixed mindset to growth mindset. The book also offered some concrete advice on how to change your own mindset, and how to help your children grow up with a growth mindset.

I think understanding the two mindsets is important to anyone who wants to understand their own mind and motivation, and reading this book is probably the best and most direct way to learn about them. You could probably safely skip the chapters on business or sports or parenting if they don't apply to you.

new day revolution by Sam Davidson and Stephen Moseley (2007) is a book about how easy it is to make the world better, written, I assume, to convince those who might otherwise not bother to lift a finger to help out. And lifting a finger is about as much as this book asks: it proposes such strenuous tasks as "call someone you haven't spoken to lately", "learn your barista's name", or "watch a documentary instead of a blockbuster". They have a laudatory profile of a woman who gave up the use of her car... for one whole day. This book sets the bar so low that I'm fairly sure that anyone who would be interested in it would already have done the calibre of world-improvement activities they suggest. If you need the advice in this book, you wouldn't bother to pick it up.

Also there was a spelling mistake on the second page. Pff.

[Posted at 22:44 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 03 Apr 2009

British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History by Colin Spencer. Yes, I know what you're thinking because every damn person who saw this book on my shelf had some stupid joke about English food. But guess what? English food was really cool and interesting until, I dunno, the Reformation or something. The reason that I only know about the cool and interesting part, and not how it ended, is that this book, while packed with information, was a bit dry, and in the end I gave up on it.

If you want or need to know what the British ate, and why, (and how they got it, prepared it and served it) this is the book for you, but if you're looking for a juicy read I would hold out for Eating for England by Nigel Slater, which I will write up as soon as I read it.

Between Ishmael and British Food, that was two books in a row I abandoned, making me doubt my ability to, I dunno, read, so I lobbed myself a nice easy ball with Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. My brother recommended Diana Wynne Jones, and you know I have this thing about reading books instead of watching movies that are based on them, so this was a shoo-in. And it was a lovely read, light and refreshing and escapist, like a grapefruit sorbet. Nice characters, good story, very satisfying. We'll probably get the movie for the girls sometime.

The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards" by Alfie Kohn. I continue my romp through the Alfie Kohn canon with a book which makes me think that Cordelia is currently experiencing the high point of her education. This is a book about how education ought to be, with Kohn's usual rigorous research and wry, readable style.

I'm glad I read it because I think it's important to know how things are when they're at their best, but I think it will cause me some grief to realize how far the TDSB is from the ideal. Although we're a damn sight closer than some of the lunatic school boards in America! Someone on Twitter posted about her kindergartener failing the entrance test for a gifted public school. Kindergartener, entrance test, and gifted public school are words that should never appear in the same sentence. (Except that one.) In fact the phrase "gifted public school" shouldn't exist all by itself. But anyway. If you have a kid in school, you should read this. If you're a teacher, you should read this. I think that pretty much covers everyone who reads this blog, some people twice.

Also I think it might be the only book I've ever read with scare quotes in the title.

How to Make a Garden: The 7 Essential Steps for the Canadian Gardener by Marjorie Harris. If there's any Canadian gardener who needs essential steps, it's me. I have 60 by 20 feet of garden (that's just the backyard) which I have been staring vacantly at for two years now, and I have yet to pluck up the courage to do anything more major than pluck a few weeds and plant a few bulbs. Fortunately Marjorie Harris knows what to do, and further she knows how to tell me how to figure out what to do for myself. This book is incredibly packed with information: how to design your garden, prepare and care for your soil, how to choose plants, how to plant them and how to care for them once they're planted. It's larded with lots of great plant recommendations, and it closes with a description of what tasks you should do in your garden in each season. I need to own this book.

[Posted at 23:19 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 26 Mar 2009

Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. If you have been paying attention here, you know how much I love Alfie Kohn. But I've been reluctant to read this, his parenting book, because I knew it would force me to raise the bar on my parenting, to really think about what's behind how I treat my kids. And I was right, this was a good read but a tough one. This isn't a book with a bunch of techniques or tricks for managing your kids (Alyson Schafer is your girl for that), but rather a discussion of how traditional parenting techniques put your kids in the position of having to earn your love in the form of rewards, praise and attention (or avoid your approbation in the form of punishment, time outs or "consequences").

Kohn's radical thesis is that children are human beings and deserving of love and respect no matter how much they fuck up, and equal love and respect (not more) when they get it right. He writes about "working with" children rather than "doing to" them.

Unconditional parenting is hard; it goes so contrary to popular wisdom which is all about praise and consequences. It's also, to be honest, sometimes hard to treat your kids like human beings when they act like maniacs, or idiots, or animals. You have to really try hard to see the human being inside that crispy exterior and try and respond to her. Which can be hard when you're tired or in a hurry or otherwise resource-challenged. (One of Kohn's list of recommendations is "Don't be in a hurry", which is great advice if you can take it.)

Kohn's arguments are, as always, compelling, well-researched and well-supported; the notes and references seemed to start about two-thirds of the way through the book. (That's one thing I missed from Alyson Schafer's latest book: it just ended. No index, no references, no further reading, nothing. Girl needs a new publisher.)

This is a must-read for me. I would buy this book if I weren't such a cheap bastard.

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson lived in England for a long time (Wikipedia says over twenty years), and he wrote this book after he decided to move back to America. For his last hurrah he did a whirlwind train tour around Britain and wrote all about it. I love Bill Bryson and I love England, and I love train travel, so I thought I would love this book, but I found it kind of sameish after a while. I can't put my finger on why, exactly. Although I can tell you that despite the fact I went to lots of different places when I was in England, my trip and Bill's hardly overlapped at all, so I missed that thrill of reading about a place I'm familiar with.

My favourite thing about this book is how Bryson gets all sappy and sentimental about England, because I love it too (although in a nice-place-to-visit way; I couldn't live there). I was a bit perplexed, though, by his insistence that Brits are so thoughtful and polite. In my experience Brits tend to be a bit mean and rude, if anything (sorry to generalize; usual disclaimers apply, some of my best friends, etc). They're hot on "manners" and behaving "properly", but not so much on actually considering others. Maybe I'm wrong - I was there in middle school which isn't exactly a hotbed of consideration on any continent.

Design Ideas for Home Storage by Elaine Martin Petrowski. Take a guess what this one's about. Yes! A useful book with lots of good ideas, and plenty of photos (some apparently ripped straight from the Ikea catalogue). What makes this one a keeper, though, is that it includes the dimensions you'll need to make storage design decisions: how high is a kitchen counter, how much room do you need to hang a pair of pants, etc. And last but not least there are instructions for a few simple storage projects you can build yourself, like a window seat built from store-bought over-refrigerator cabinets. Brilliant!

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Okay, my "friend" Ellen picked this book as our book club read this month. Our relationship might never be the same. When I found out the premise of this novel (a philosophy of sustainability explained through a telepathic Socratic conversation between a person and a gorilla) I knew I would hate it. I know, you're not supposed to prejudge things, but when you reach a certain age and you've read a few things, you know what you're going to like. And what you're going to hate.

I hated this. Generally I hate books that are discourses on philosophy disguised as a novel. I hated Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I hated Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Okay, that's not true, I guess I liked and found value in both those books when I read them (when I was much younger), but both of them left a bad taste in my mouth, like I'd been spoken down to. And maybe because I'm older and have a stronger sense of my own morality and philosophy, Ishmael was a thousand times worse. I felt like I was being spoon-fed something really quite simple: the whole message of the book could be delivered in a few pages. And on top of that the thesis of the book is ridiculously flawed: the author manages to lump all the subtlety and complexity of every non-Western culture into one group, the "leavers", and says that they're lovely and good people because they don't take more than they need, not like us selfish bastards. It's just all so stupid and patronising (to the other cultures this time, not to me).

Should make for a good book club discussion, anyway. (I'm pretty sure Ellen hates it too - I wonder how everyone else feels.)

Wow, every paragraph in this post has a parenthetical insertion. (Except this one. (Whoops!)) I think I have a problem.

[Posted at 22:17 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 12 Mar 2009

Quintet by Douglas Arthur Brown. I can't remember where I found out about this book - probably from the Globe and Mail's now-diminished book section. I don't always like the novels they like, but I did really enjoy this one.

The book is about three men, triplets, who lost their parents in a freak accident. After the accident the brothers decide to reconnect with each other by taking turns writing to each other in a journal. As the book progresses each brother's voice becomes clearer and various mysteries are presented and resolved, as one would expect. (I'm tired, man.) It was a good story, once you got past the extreme unlikeliness of three brothers all happening to be such good writers, and managing to find the time to write longhand when half the time we don't even have time to email each other. Nice characterization and development, a bit of a mystery, interesting secondary characters. (I should do this when I'm not so tired.) So this was a good book and if you like character-driven novels you should read it.

Burning Down The House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myself by Russell Wangersky is a memoir of the author's time as a volunteer firefighter. These days being a firefighter is as much being the first responder to car crashes as it is fighting fires, and was largely that aspect at the job which really worked at Wangersky's head and messed up his life. Not talking to anyone was part of the problem, as you might imagine. This is the story of Wangersky's experiences as a firefighter, his descent into darkness and recovery. It was a good book, if you're into descents into darkness and back.

The Chameleon's Shadow by Minette Walters is about a English soldier who returns from Iraq after being injured by an IED which killed two of his men. He has trouble remembering what happened at first, and as the novel progresses he gets his memory back and tries to put his life back together. Meanwhile a series of grisly murders seem to be connected to him, and he has to try and clear his name with the help of a motley band of psychiatrists, doctors, drunks and street kids. I enjoyed this book; it wasn't as cynical as Walters' usual stuff, and the mystery was well-played-out.

[Posted at 21:18 by Amy Brown] link
Wed, 25 Feb 2009

How To Read Novels Like A Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World's Favourite Literary Form by Thomas Foster. Blake gave me this for Christmas because I loved Thomas Foster's last book so much. This is a field guide to novels, starting from the first sentence, and touching on all the main elements of the novel: the narrator, the structure, the sources, the ideas and theme, heroes and anti-heroes, what kinds of sentences, vocabulary, and so on.

I took this book with me to book club, and one of the other club members turned her nose up at it. "Why would you want to?" Well, maybe you wouldn't, but wouldn't it be interesting to read the book and find out? I found this book really helpful; it gave me lots of ideas of things to focus on and think about when I read novels. (Incidentally, yes, a lot of the things were covered in high school English class, but somehow I wasn't ready for them then. Sometimes I wonder if grade school is wasted on kids just because they're so green. Or maybe it was just me.)

I applied some of the things I learned to the last novel I read and it did indeed deepen the experience. I actually found that my heightened attention left me with more questions about the book than I would otherwise have had, so I guess that's something.

I reread Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell for the local library's non-fiction book club. Interesting to read it again; I found myself thinking, "Oh, that's where I read that" quite often. I do tend to remember what I've read but not remember where. Such a lazy mind, I have.

Anyway, if you are the one person left on the planet who hasn't read this book before, it's about how we make snap judgements, which can be very valuable if our minds are trained properly, but of course are also the root of prejudice. So the most important part of the book is really the part which covers how to manage and control rapid cognition. One of the things he talks about is how you can improve your score on an Implicit Association Test, specifically the black/white one, by exposing yourself to images and stories of successful black people. So the obvious question is, has the average score changed in favour of blacks since the advent of the ultimate shiny black guy, Barack Obama? I'm sure the people at Harvard are looking into it.

Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion by Carol Tavris This book was referred to in the Alfie Kohn book about common misconceptions. The misconception in question was that expressing anger, "getting it out of your system", reduces anger. Kohn referred to this book when he debunked that notion. I have a personal interest in anger so I decided to check it out.

Anger is not a self-help book, it's an overview and discussion of the current (well, current at the time - it's around ten years old) research on anger. Tavris covers the history of thinking on anger, cultural differences, and of course lots of information about research into what anger is, where it comes from, what it's for and what we can do with it. She mythbusts a few ideas, like that supressing anger will lead to disease; she discusses factors which can make anger worse; she talks about anger within marriages, and she has an entire chapter about anger as a force for social change in the context of the women's rights movement. The last chapter is the only chapter which formally presents advice for dealing with anger. All in all a very helpful book, more so than the other books I have read on the subject.

Grow Wild!: Low Maintenance, Sure-Success, Distinctive Gardening with Native Plants by Lorraine Johnson and Andrew Leyerle I love these books about native-plant gardening. I would love to have a garden full of low-maintenance, indigenous plants which will nourish birds and insects. In fact, I plan to have such a garden. I just have no idea where or how to start. I guess the answer is, slowly. In the meantime I'll keep on reading books like this (which was a good one, but I liked The Naturalized Garden by Stephen Westcott-Gratton more) for inspiration.

Honey, I Wrecked The Kids: When Yelling, Screaming, Threats, Bribes, Time-outs, Sticker Charts and Removing Privileges All Don't Work by Alyson Schafer. I was going to read this book because I liked Alyson Schafer's last book, and because I like Alyson Schafer: she is tremendously generous with free advice by email even though she's busy and could be charging hundreds of dollars for that advice. And then I thought, maybe I wouldn't read it because things are going pretty well with the girls and I don't want to borrow trouble. Then Blake said, "Read it anyway, the last one was funny and helpful." So I did, and indeed it was funny and helpful. It covered a lot of the same ground as Breaking The Good Mom Myth (I think: see above re: not remembering where I read stuff) but it was a useful refresher on democratic parenting.

I copied out three things from the book to stick up in my kitchen. The first was the DROP-the-rope system for getting out of power struggles. I seem to get into power struggles a lot with my little ones, over stupid things like which boots to wear or what to have for snack. DROP is a clever mnemonic but obviously not clever enough because I don't remember what it stands for. Anyway, it basically means disengage, back off, figure out what the situation demands (not what you as a control freak or parent who is afraid of losing power demand), make sure everyone's rights are being honoured, and then extend a peace offering. Basically figure out what is actually necessary, and stop being so damn scary.

The second thing I wrote down was a list of ways to deal with sibling conflicts, which happen a lot around here. First on the list is "Ignore them". Yeah!

The third thing I wrote down was a suggested agenda for a family meeting, which Schafer pretty much insists you have to have in order to have a proper democratic household. The agenda does look terrifically useful, as it includes things like "review next week's schedule", and "distribute allowance", two things we should do every weekend but often flake out on. I added "make dinner menu plan". If we do manage to implement family meetings on Friday nights they would be very useful.

The only problem with this book is that it's awfully edited. There were spelling errors and grammatical errors all over the place. I don't blame Schafer for this: being a good therapist and writer doesn't mean you can spell. The publisher should have thrown a few more resources at it, though. Very weird omission, and of course it detracted from the message of the book.

Father Knows Less Or: "Can I Cook My Sister?": One Dad's Quest to Answer His Son's Most Baffling Questions by Wendell Jamieson. Jamieson has a kid who, like every other kid, asks lots of weird questions, the kind of questions you don't ask as an adult because you have more context for things, or because you don't want to look stupid, or because you are too busy to think about things that don't directly affect you. Jamieson decided he was going to find out the answers to those questions, but not by looking them up in the encyclopedia (like my Mum did) or Googling (like I do), but by using his chops as an editor at The New York Times to get actual experts to answer them.

I read this because I thought it would be a cute novelty book, and maybe I would learn the answers to some of those surreal questions children ask. It was cute and I did learn lots of interesting things. But it was also a touching story of parenthood, and of what it is to grow up and live in New York. Jamieson is honest and generous with details from his life, which adds depth and warmth to this collection of sometimes wacky, sometimes profound questions and answers.

[Posted at 22:44 by Amy Brown] link