Amy (old posts, page 31)

How Do They Do It?

I've always wondered how they do it, those women. You know the ones, the women who are on the board of this organization and the fundraising committee of that, who have two children and a dog and a full-time job. The women who do it all. How?

For example, the president of our School Council (PTA to you) is a full-time lawyer, and she has two little kids. How does she manage? Where does she find the time? So I asked her. I did, I just asked her. And for one thing, she doesn't clean. She has a giant house and she gets someone in every weekend to clean. That's a whole day of cleaning, probably $200 a week or so. Of course she has childcare: she has a nice young woman who looks after the kids and probably does light housekeeping too. I don't know what else she doesn't do, but she's not averse to spending money so I bet she pays people to do quite a lot of mundane crap. I know I would if I could manage it.

I know dozens of these women with full-time jobs and children who none-the-less manage to take on huge volunteer roles in the school, or in other organizations. They don't all have money, so it can't be that they all outsource all that time-consuming everyday crap. And yet here I am, with my two kids and not much else on my plate, barely making it through each day. Why? There's nothing in particular wrong with me, that I know of. What do these other women have that I lack? Time? Ambition? Passion? Amphetamines?

Finally I decided that rather than try and work this out deductively I would just run an experiment. I would go ahead and sign myself up for a bunch of stuff and see what broke.

So this year, I'm chair of the school's Eco-Committee. (So far we've had one meeting, submitted a grant proposal, and sent a lot of email.) I'm working on the Crafts booth for our school Winter Fair. I'm class parent for Delphine's class, I help out in the library for two hours every two weeks, and I get to school at 8 am on Thursdays to help with Junior Choir. I run twice a week. I have choir, and book club, and that whole "writing career" thing I said I would get started on. I still have two children and a cat to look after, and a house to run. Oh, and I have friends who sometimes I like to hang out with, and a husband who, frankly, I barely ever talk to about anything other than household administrivia. And I like to watch TV. And read—a lot. And there's this blog. And the eight hours of sleep that I really, really enjoy.

Under all that weight, something's bound to break. Perhaps it will be sleep. Perhaps it will be housework. Perhaps it will be one of my new responsibilities. Perhaps it will be my mental health. Or perhaps it will turn out that I'm one of those women who can do it all. Perhaps all I needed to do was try.

Fuck That

Dave Pell thinks we're fucked. Or rather, Dave Pell thinks most of the stuff people post to Twitter is a boring waste of time. Why he chose to express that as "we're fucked" I'm not sure. We're fucked because the earth is heating up and no-one has the balls to do anything about it, but that doesn't have much to do with Twitter.

Dave Pell doesn't like people posting about the following on Twitter: where they are; current events and their opinions on them; the party they are at; their children; flight delays; their small fitness triumphs; jokes or puns they made up or ideas they had; what they're listening to; what they're thinking about; where they are; the state of their inbox; the weather.

You know what all those things are? They're small talk. Small talk is a social lubricant. Small talk is how you get to know someone better so you can decide if you want to share Big Talk with them. Small talk is how you connect with other human beings, it's how you reach out and find out what you share. It's how you gain an understanding of how everyone else experiences the world.

Small talk is not profound. No-one can be profound all the time, but if the only time we're allowed to connect with other people is when we have the energy and insight to be profound, this is going to be one hell of a lonely life.

I love people. I love being with people and sharing and chatting about kids and weather and books and news. Sometimes the conversations I have with people are superficial and trivial, sometimes they are intense and intellectual. Sometimes the conversations I have with people are in the flesh, and sometimes they are on the Internet. Either way, I make a connection, and I feel happier and more human. Does that mean I'm fucked? I really don't think so.

Christmas Pudding Cookies, or, I Am a Culinary Genius

On Wednesday, I made my Christmas puddings. I know it seems early to make Christmas anything, but you have to let Christmas puddings hang around for a while after you make them. Like, a couple of months. Also you have to stay on top of Christmas or it will kick your ass.

I always have to do a special trip to the bulk food store to buy all the preserved fruit that goes into Christmas pudding, and no matter how hard I try to buy the right amount, I always end up with piles of leftover raisins and candied peel and slivered almonds after the puddings are made. I don't know about you, but I don't have that much use for candied peel and slivered almonds in my day-to-day life. Usually they sit around until July and then I throw them out. This year I was determined to do better.

I tried to think of some context (besides Christmas pudding) in which candied peel, almonds and raisins aren't, well, kind of gross, and I kept coming back to shortbread cookies. I don't know if I've had shortbread cookies with all that stuff in them, or if I just made it up, but in my head it made sense. I couldn't find a recipe for exactly what I had in mind, but I found a Martha Stewart recipe for rum raisin shortbread cookies to get me started.

I used raisins instead of currants because raisins were what I had too much of (I managed to buy the exact right amount of currants). I used lemon zest instead of orange zest because that's what I had, and because there's lemon zest in my Christmas pudding. I substituted rum for the vanilla because I wanted to make them as rummy and Christmassy as possible, and instead of the shredded coconut I put in ¼ cup slivered almonds and ½ cup candied peel.

They turned out perfectly, just as I had imagined them. They're very Christmassy and rich; Christmas Pudding in cookie form. Here's the recipe:

Christmas Pudding Shortbread Cookies

Ingredients
  • ½ cup dark rum
  • 1 cup raisins
  • ½ pound unsalted butter, room temperature
  • ¾ cup confectioners' sugar
  • ½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup slivered almonds
  • ½ cup chopped candied peel
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
Directions
  1. Combine rum and raisins; cover, and let stand at room temperature overnight. Drain, reserving 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon rum.
  2. Beat butter, sugar, and lemon zest with a mixer on medium speed until creamy and smooth, about 2 minutes. Add reserved rum, and beat until combined. Reduce speed to low. Add flour and salt, and beat for 3 minutes. Stir in raisins, almonds and candied peel by hand.
  3. Form dough into 2 logs, each about 1 ½ inches in diameter; wrap in parchment, and refrigerate 1 hour (or up to 3 days).
  4. Preheat oven to 325. Remove parchment. Slice logs into ¼-inch-thick rounds, and space about 1 inch apart on baking sheets lined with parchment. Bake until pale golden, about 20 minutes. Let cool. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Books I Read Lately: Mid-October 2009 Edition (Part The Second)

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.

Books I've Read Lately: Mid-October 2009 Edition

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...

I Get So Mad

The girls had a fight last night. I was sitting reading, and they were playing on the living room floor. They both wanted a truck that Delphine had made out of Lego; Cordelia wanted it to play with, Delphine wanted to use the pieces for something else. The disagreement soon escalated to snatching and hitting, so I intervened.

The Democrative Parenting people suggest that this is a splendid opportunity to show your children how to resolve difficulties. Could Delphine get other, identical pieces out of the Lego box? No. Could Cordelia play with some other Lego or a different truck? No. Could Delphine make Cordelia another, identical truck so Cordelia could play with that and Delphine could have the pieces of this truck? No? No.

So you have no interest in actually resolving this, you actually don't care about the truck or the Lego at all, in fact you're just being little assholes and fighting for the sake of it, then?

It was at this point that I got hollerin' mad. I was mad at them for being contentious jerks, but also at the parenting advice people who are all, "Help your children learn to communicate and resolve disagreements," ignoring the fact that they are not always tiny little adults who just want to get along. I'm no Skinnerian but sometimes you have to treat them like animals, because sometimes they behave like animals.

So I manged to lose my temper not only at the kids but also at an entire philosophy of parenting. Hooray!

After I was done hollering at them I went upstairs to my room, and then they worked it out for themselves.

Alyson Schäfer would say that they were fighting to get my attention, and my first mistake was intervening when it got physical—that is, rewarding them for fighting by giving them the attention they sought. The facts of the case certainly support that theory: I was ignoring them (by reading), they fought, I paid attention to them, they kept my attention by refusing to resolve their fight. They only stopped fighting when I took my attention out of the picture by leaving the room. Which is what I should have done as soon as the fighting started.

(Of course that's easier said than done when you have a tiny house with only one really good reading spot. Parenting is hard.)

Writing About Writing: My First Real Project

I'm a writer. I can tell I'm a writer because I write. This blog, mainly; I've been blogging since before it was called blogging. But blogging doesn't pay the bills (except for some people) and if I am going to be a professional writer I have to improve. Fortunately the blog provides the perfect place for me to practice.

I won't be modest: I'm a pretty good writer. I can turn a sprightly phrase, I have a good vocabulary, I can make myself understood. To some extent that comes naturally, but not entirely: I work on word choice, and I excise cliches when I notice them, but it's easy, and fun. What I don't do is plan the structure of what I write, neither at the article (essay? post? paper?) level nor at the paragraph level. I also don't revise deeply: when I write a blog post my revision consists of reading it once or twice to smooth out any egregious bumps.

In the interest of writing better, I'm reading a handful of books about writing, and the first one is called Ideas and Details: A Guide to Writing for Canadians by M. Garret Bauman and Clifford Werier. It's targeted at a university audience, people who have to write papers on things, but it seems to me that their advice is valuable for any writer. What I am concentrating on at the moment is their advice on structure and revision.

What they say about structure is the same old stuff we learned in Grade Seven (and Eight, Nine, Ten,...): figure out what you're trying to say (your thesis) and make sure your whole paper supports that.

You've already seen my first Real Writing Project: it's that post about my dad I put up on Monday. I knew I wanted to write "something about my dad", but you and I both know that "something about my dad" is not a thesis. I charged ahead with writing it anyway, and what I got was a bunch of disjoint paragraphs: about how my dad and I are alike, about our relationship, about the relationship we didn't have, about seeing my dad in the nursing home, about how I felt the day he died. I couldn't make it make sense. In the past I would have just cleaned up the grammar and spelling and posted it like that, but this time I decided to work with it and try and make it into something less amorphous.

I wrote down a brief description of each paragraph, cut them up and shuffled them around to see if I could see some unifying idea. I brainstormed some thesis ideas and narrowed it down to two: 1) grieving for someone with dementia can start long before they die, or 2) I mourn more for the relationship I didn't have with my dad than that I did. Obviously I went with Door #2. I think Door #1 is interesting and worth writing about, but most of the stuff I had already written was about my (non-)relationship with Dad, and that was what has been on my mind (for the last, oh, five years).

I rearranged my little paragraph slips of paper until I liked the flow, and then I rearranged what I had written on the computer. I had to write some new stuff and throw out some of the stuff which didn't work with my new thesis (I was sorry to cut some of it because I was happy with the writing, so I saved it to a "snippets" folder for when I write more about my Dad).

Then I revised, more carefully than usual. Ideas and Details wants you to revise five times:

  1. For ideas. Make sure you thesis still fits the paper.
  2. For details. Add and sharpen details.
  3. For paragraph structure. Is each paragraph about one idea?
  4. For word use. Conciseness, vivid verbs, metaphors, precise word choice.
  5. For spelling and grammar.

Of those, 1 scares me the most. Once I come up with a thesis I'm very committed to it and I hate the idea of making a big left turn when I've already written something. But if your paper doesn't match your thesis or your thesis turns out to be rubbish, your whole paper is rubbish. (Hopefully you've already noticed that before you get to the end of the first draft, though.) Anyway, since I had already rearranged and rewritten my post with the thesis in mind, I didn't have any problem with this step or the next.

I have never paid attention to 3 before. I have pretty good instincts as a writer (from reading so much, I suppose) and my paragraphs are usually naturally well-structured, but now that I'm a Real Writer I can't rely on instincts and nature, so I went over the post to make sure each paragraph had one idea and some supporting details.

Obviously 4 is my favourite revision step, and I had to stop myself from fiddling with words in every other revision step. 5 I didn't do properly (as you can see—I missed a word and only noticed it today). I tend to rely on my natural grammar and spelling talents and very seldom look things up. Well, I look up spelling; I never look up grammar and punctuation, as you might have noticed.

And that post is what I ended up with. I found that after all that work on structure and paragraphs I was quite unhappy with the whole thing; I felt it was stiff and didn't flow. I posted it anyway, and on rereading it today it's not as bad as I thought it was. I think I'm just not used to working so hard on what I write. I suspect every writer hates everything they write at some point in the process.

So that was the post-mortem of my First Real Writing Project. Writing this post (which I didn't structure or revise, incidentally, so you won't have to read a post about how I wrote this post) has served as an excellent distraction from the business of working on a real, pitchable article or pursuing business writing leads. Result!

Requiem for a Missed Opportunity

I am like my dad—the older I get the more I see it. When I was a kid I thought I didn't have a sense of humour, because I didn't laugh at the same things my mum laughs at. It took me a long time to realize that my sense of humour is sarcastic and ironic, like my dad's. (My mum always said my dad didn't have a sense of humour, either.) I'm like him in other ways, too: we shared a love of singing, of writing. We shared our insecurity, our sociability, our interest in politics and civic engagement.

Despite our similarities, we never had a great relationship. My parents had an awkward marriage, and since I was closer to my mother, my childhood relationship with my father was strained by my knowledge of the hurt he caused her. After I left home, that distance persisted, even when we travelled together. There were glimmers of the connection we could have had. Occasionally we would get talking about politics or people, I would make a joke or sarcastic comment and the phone line would crackle with his rare laughter, stiff with disuse. But soon we would run out of things to say and the moment would pass. I never knew how to conjure up those moments, or I didn't try very hard to. Despite my best intentions, I could never shake off the childish embarassment and awkwardness I felt around him. When I got married my dad sent me an angry letter about having the wedding in Toronto rather than in Saskatchewan, and our relationship never recovered. As the years passed we talked less and less, and only the topic of choral singing animated our strained conversations.

My dad was fifty-four when I was born, and eighty-seven when he died. Maybe if our lives had overlapped more, I would grown up enough to connect with him as an adult. But before that happened, my dad's mind started to fade. A few years ago I was going through some old family pictures with him—he misidentified several children in pictures clearly taken in the seventies, as people born in the forties. That was my first hint that he was starting to lose his mind. Later he fell victim to numerous scams of the kind targeted at the elderly. He grew distant and vague. Lying awake one night I realized that he was only going to get worse, that I had missed my chance have a good relationship with him. We had passed the point of no return. That was the night I started grieving for my dad.

A couple of years later, my mum and my dad's doctors decided to move him into a nursing home—his forgetfulness and inability to take care of himself were taking a toll on my mum. A year after he moved into the home, almost to the day, he died. I got the call from my mum early in the morning of September 16, 2008.

My dad and I could have been great friends, but because of lack of time, lack of effort, fear of failure, youthful stupidity or elderly stubbornness, we never were. I will always regret not trying harder to nurture those glimmers of connection. I will always grieve the loss of my father, but more than that I will grieve for the relationship we could have had.

Books in July and August

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.