Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

Hope for the Flowers

Hope for the Flowers (6/16/14) Illustrated Fiction (1972 ***) Written and illustrated by Trina Paulus. Two caterpillars, Stripe and Yellow, search for the meaning of life, which may or may not involve climbing a writhing pillar of their brethren. I was loaned this book by a friend, who said it was a personal favorite of hers. I began reading it one evening, got about halfway through, then set it atop a stack of books on my nightstand and didn’t get back to it for about two years. Finally tired of the feelings of guilt, I brought it into work and read it in one sitting over a long lunch hour. It would be extremely hard-hearted and cynical of me to dismiss its anti-establishment hippy-dippy message as the product of its early 1970s origins. So I won’t do that. After all, it’s ultimately about something that is near and dear to my heart, something I learned long ago and never forgot: Ambition can be a very dangerous thing; it’s all too easy to live your life driven by the thrill of competition, only to turn around at the end and realize just how much of life’s rich pageant you’ve missed out on as a consequence.

I Dare You to Write!

I Dare You to Write! (3/9/14) Nonfiction (2013 ***) Written by Rochelle Shapiro. Presented in the form of a series of essays, Rochelle Shapiro (Miriam the Medium) gives her advice for aspiring writers. Several years ago, I had the good fortune to have Ms. Shapiro as an instructor for an online Personal Essay class I took through UCLA Extension. It was one of the better classed I’d taken and actually appreciated that she expected us to write a finished essay each week. I was very excited to learn about this new book of hers and looked forward to reading it, which I did during a visit to see family. I very much appreciated her approach, taking various writing topics like dialogue and characterization and devoting short essays to each, illustrated with writing examples and supported by personal anecdotes. I also loved the title, which represents a challenge, a call to arms for the beginning and intermediate writing students for whom this book is intended.

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (12/29/13) Nonfiction (1995 ***1/2) Written by Anne Lamott. This book about writing and the inner workings of the writer’s brain is really a collection of stand-alone essays masquerading as chapters. The material is grouped into 4 major sections: “Writing,” “The Writing Frame of Mind,” “Help Along the Way” and “Publication — And Other Reasons to Write.” The book is richly illustrated with personal anecdotes, including one about her procrastinating brother that served as the inspiration for the book’s title. It’s important to note that the book was written in 1995, and the publishing world has changed drastically since then. While it is certainly a good book and many writers and writing students consider it a bible of sorts, I don’t know that I can go that far. Though the book offers much in the way of advice, I think its biggest impact may be that it was the source of the phrase “shitty first drafts” which I have personally heard spoken by writing teachers or at seminars approximately one million times. The copy of the book I read was given to me as a birthday present by a friend more than a decade ago. At the time I was embarking on a novel-length project that became my first unfinished book. I’d started reading Bird by Bird then, but it would appear from the location of the bookmark that I only got only as far as the second chapter before shelving it. Over the years I’d meant to pick it up again and finally managed to get around to it, reading much of it during a trip to London for the holidays.

A Writer’s Time: Revised Edition

A Writer’s Time: Revised Edition (11/6/13) Nonfiction (1986, 1995 ***) Written by Kenneth Atchity. Occidental College professor-turned-Hollywood producer Kenneth Atchity instructs his readers not only how to write, but also how to manage their time while producing copy. While this book contained a lot of information I’d read previously in other books, I have to hand it to Atchity: He found an original angle on which to approach the business and artistry of writing. In particular, I enjoyed the various super-specific recipes he offered for writing nonfiction, novels and screenplays, and some of his suggestions may find their way into my writing regimen the next time I take on a book-length project. Also, I’m sure my wife would appreciate that a cornerstone of his time management approach was the taking of lots of vacations! Because it covers so much territory in a fairly concise fashion, including both the creative and business aspects of starting a writing career (subjects that are usually the topics of separate books), it might make for a good gift for an aspiring writer.

Life Drawing in Charcoal

Life Drawing in Charcoal (6/22/13) Nonfiction (1971, 1994 ****) Written and illustrated by Douglas R. Graves. Master illustrator Douglas Graves walks aspiring students through his charcoal illustration technique, one step at a time. I very much appreciated this book and found it to be one of the strongest art instruction books I’ve read. It helped that Graves was working in a realist style, and his mastery of the medium was apparent to even the most casual observer. My favorite aspect of the book was Graves’ “director’s commentary” approach, in which his thought process was articulated in incremental drawings. He wrote clearly — but without skimping on details — about all the incremental additions and changes made along the way and his reasoning for each one. His text was also a source of occasional unintended amusement: Keeping in mind the original version of his book was written in 1971, it was entertaining to read occasional editorial comments related to the increasing length of men’s hairstyles and the apparent androgyny of today’s young men and women.

Drawing (Creative Techniques)

Drawing (Creative Techniques) (6/15/13) Nonfiction (2009 **) Written and illustrated by Josep Asuncion and Gemma Guasch. Fourteen different approaches to drawing and rendering are presented by two artists. The purpose of this book was to expand the horizons of artists and students by offering them alternative approaches to drawing. However, I found the range of styles presented in this book was disappointingly narrow, even with two different contributing artists. It didn’t help that the majority of the styles didn’t particularly appeal to me or represent directions I was ever interested in pursuing. A much wider gamut would have been appreciated, and an alternative approach to the book might have been to use a different artist for each style presented. Still, even with its limitations, there were some useful ideas in the book and some artists might find it inspiring, even if it wasn’t much help for me.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print (2nd Edition)

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print (2nd Edition) (5/5/13) Nonfiction (2010 ***1/4) Written by Renni Browne and Dave King. Experienced editors Renni Browne and Dave King break the revision process into several bite-sized chunks, providing plenty of examples taken from their clients as well as well-known works. This was actually a pretty quick read, and I read most of it while flying from St. Louis to Los Angeles. There was a time when it seemed I read a different book on writing technique on a daily basis, and so I have a great deal of familiarity with the genre. This one was written in a particularly clear and light manner. While I knew much of the information presented in the book, review on the basics of editing is always helpful, and I found the section on dialogue mechanics to be especially informative. My only wish was that the chapters had given just a tad more depth. According to the Introduction, the authors’ stated goal was to create a book that could sit on a shelf with The Elements of Style without embarrassing itself. Though it’s not quite on par with that book, I feel they accomplished their mission. Its structure also lends itself to being used as the textbook for an introductory editing class.

About Time

About Time (5/5/13) Short Fiction (1986 ***1/2) Written by Jack Finney. This short story collection contains twelve science fiction stories, most of them about time travel in some form, originally published between 1957 and 1962. I had been looking for something to read that would be a pleasant diversion, and I happened to run across this book amongst my collection. This was the second time reading About Time, which I first read more than a decade ago. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Finney’s writing, though with this reading I became aware that some of the stories were decidedly stronger than others. It’s odd to think that the man who write the book on which The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was based was also capable of such a perfect marriage of science fiction and nostalgia. The reason Jack Finney’s stories worked as well as they did was that they all had heart. Each and every one had a strong emotional component. I may have to pay a visit to our storage unit and try to dig out a copy of his other time travel story collection, Time and Again.

Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellant?: And Other Amazing Comic Book Trivia!

Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellant?: And Other Amazing Comic Book Trivia! (10/6/12) Nonfiction (2012 ***1/2) Written by Brian Cronin. Cronin is the creator of the “Comics Should Be Good” blog and had previously written Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed (2009), a book I read back in 2010 and also gave ***1/2. I devoured this entire book cover to cover in 3 hours on a Saturday afternoon. While I clearly live smack dab in the center of Cronin’s demographic bullseye, this book was objectively a well-written delight and one that should appeal even to those far less steeped in comic book trivia than I. To be honest, I already knew about half the trivia contained in this book, but that didnt bother me in the sightest. I don’t know what’s been in the zeitgeist lately, but between this book and AMC’s Comic Book Men, I’m in comic geek heaven lately!

Stupid Movie Lines

Stupid Movie Lines (8/4/12) Nonfiction (1999 ***) Written by Ross and Kathryn Petras. The authors of The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said turn their quest for stupidity to the silver screen. According to the “also by the authors” list at the front of Stupid Movie Lines, it would appear that the Petras siblings have made somewhat of a cottage industry of producing “stupid” books. More power to them, I say! But while I admire this effort, the problem with stupidity in dialogue form is that it’s pretty situational. In other words, much of the impact was lost without context. However, I enjoyed their book and especially appreciated lines taken from films I’ve seen. It seems that in selecting quotations for this book they subjected themselves to some pretty awful movies, like Fire Maidens from Outer Space and The Hillbilly Hooker, to name but two. I can’t help but wonder if they were watching those films as research… or for their own entertainment.