April and May Books

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: mediabistro.com'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.

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