Review of Sol Stein’s ‘Stein on Writing’

Sol Stein’s ‘Stein on Writing’ might be labeled a tome. Over a thousand pages on my Kobo the book is nothing if not thorough. He covers everything important on the craft of writing. I’ve read over a dozen writing books in the last six months (I have lots of spare time) and I nodded again and again at the good advice offered. These are the kind of rules and suggestions that every writer should have in the front of their mind while editing and re-writing any work of prose.
It is a dry text, more of a textbook than a conversational encouragement. Very little of the author’s personality shows through. And the part that does reminds this reviewer of being cornered at a cocktail party by an expert in his field who enjoys hearing himself talk. The reader will learn a lot of the craft if he can get past the self righteousness.
I am reminded of a great quote from the recently deceased Jim Lehrer of PBS. ‘Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.’ I did not get the feeling Sol Stein subscribed to this thinking. Which is too bad.
Purchasing and reading a book is a commitment of money and time. You will spend ten, fifteen hours or more with this author. In the case of ‘Stein on Writing’, I found I couldn’t spend more than an hour or two at a time. I did learn a lot from it, and I do recommend budding writers read it and note the tips.
There are lots of other authors, who have written books on writing, who are more fun to spend time with. Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, Steven King, Dorothea Brande, Ariel Gore, Brenda Ueland. Each of those authors left me feeling stimulated and encouraged. And thinking I would LOVE to run into them at a cocktail party.

Review of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Ubervilles’

I don’t burn books, but on finishing ‘Tess of the D’Ubervilles’ I nearly tossed it into the fire. I was angry: with Tess, with Alex, with Angel, and with all the Victorian moral hypocrisy this novel explores. Good riddance to it. And good literature should move a reader, so this is a success.
I began reading Tess knowing it was on one of those great pieces of literature taught in university courses everywhere. How had I completed my major requirements in English literature and never read it? Well, never mind, now it was time.
Spoiler alert, I will reveal plot elements, as so much of my dislike of this novel is plot related.
I knew it was a story of a woman (Tess) who is taken advantage of (By Alex), it surprised me how early in the book that happens. And that she had a child. I think having the child die is a weak plot device to clear the field for act 2 (Angel Clare). But so far I enjoyed the novel, especially Thomas Hardy’s language. It is inspiring.
But the social structures are stifling. My biggest knock against George Eliot is the fatalism her characters embrace. I suppose Hardy’s book makes me better understand that fatalism.
A good book requires a certain ‘suspension of disbelief’, the reader immerses into the narrative and let’s the author’s world envelope them. They act and react to the narrative as if it were real, feeling the emotions, thoughts and feelings with the main characters. This is one joy of reading great literature.
But at about two-thirds through Tess I lost my disbelief. There are just too many author constructed coincidences to be believable. I am surprised Hardy’s editor didn’t point out the improbabilities piled on top of improbabilities. Or maybe he did. Regardless, the last third of the book is weak.
But it still moves the reader. I so wanted Tess, the woman, to succeed in some way, some form. The frustrations mount and it gets harder to read on.
It is a great book, and everyone should read it. But only once. I cannot see reading it again.

Review of Linda Gray’s ‘First Nations 101’

A visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery VAG on January 17, 2020 led me to this book. On the third floor was an exhibition titled ‘Transits and Returns’ a display of Indigenous artist’s work from around the Pacific. Continuing to the fourth floor I found the works of Emily Carr and her inclusion (Some might say appropriation) of First nations themes. My mind opened to learning more as I walked through the VAG gift and bookstore on the way out.
Where to start in this I wondered, when I saw Linda Gray’s ‘First Nations 101’.
There is so much I don’t know. I have vaguely heard of the Residential Schools and know the Canadian government issued an apology. I had heard of the Sixties Scoop, and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. But it was all just alluded to in school and the media. Background noise in a busy life and society.
I wanted to know more, but was also worried about learning more. I had good reason to worry.
This book is a wall I ran into. It stopped me cold. It hurt and stunned me. How could the country I had been born and grown up in been so cold and callous to people?
The book imparts a lot of information and history in less than three hundred pages. But I found I had to read it in installment. It is just too bleak and depressing to read in one session. And that was much of what I took away. This problem is far too big for anyone to address. Where do you start?
The last fifty pages felt like a bit of piling on. Ms.Gray was delivering a list of more and more issues that needed attention. My mind disengaged. I was clutching for something positive.
Well, the book closes with some hopeful messages and calls out the work being done by volunteers, athletes, artists and performers, writers and speakers. It is not all bleak. There is hope.
This is a very condensed book that delivers on what I would expect from an entry level course. It left me wanting to know more and I will actively seek out more. This week the North Vancouver Writers association had another presenter who talked about her book, ‘The North-West is our Mother.’ I will read and review that book too.
Linda Gray’s ‘First Nations 101’ is a great introduction to issues that all Canadians should be aware of. Well done.

Review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft’

I just finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft : A 21st-Century guide to Sailing the Sea of Story’.
It is a short book and covers a lot of the craft of writing. I nodded in agreement over and over. ‘Read your Prose Aloud’ is something I stumbled on years ago. It is amazing how much awkward writing can be found with this tip. Her admonitions about adverbs echos so many writers, but her observation that ‘Those of us who were brought up to be unaggressive in conversation are liable to use qualifiers … that soften or weaken words they modify. In conversation they are OK; In written prose they’re bloodsuckers.’ The chapter on point of view and voice was excellent. I didn’t complete all the exercises in the book, but only because I had seen from experience how well a chapter or scene can be improved by re-writing it from another characters POV. And again how re-writing from third person to first, and vise-versa can have a huge change in affect. (And the difference between affect and effect.)
Le Guin also uses extracts from some great literature in her examples. Now I need to read Virginia Woolf’s ‘Jacob’s Room’ and Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ again.
This is a great book for writers. I find as I am rewriting and editing books like this one help put me in the right frame of mind. Well recommended.

Review of Brenda Ueland’s ‘If You Want to Write’

Brenda Euland’s book ‘If You Want to Write’ was recommended in Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way.’ I am working through the twelve-week program in Cameron’s book and will post on it separately.
Brenda Euland’s book reminds me of the Dorothea Brande book ‘On becoming a writer’ and they published both in the 1930s. Euland’s ‘If you Want to Write’ is an inspirational, almost spiritual book. Rather than speaking to techniques for writing, she encourages and coaches writers. She is a cheerleader to the writer’s soul, but not by repeating slogans but by encouraging each writer to find their truthful voice. It is this truthfulness that will give a writer a voice that readers believe.
I generated a list of things I took from the book:
Ueland is encouraging slow, thoughtful behavior rather than frantic grinding out of material.
Learning to live in the present and seeing, really seeing, what is around us.
Writing honestly and truthfully. Simply. Truthful writing is good, and easy to spot as good.
Art is Infection. To infect the reader with the same thoughts, feelings and ideas as the writer.
The Imagination works slowly and quietly.

Her chapter titles are great: Be Careless, Reckless! Be a Lion! Be a Pirate! When you write.
Why you are not to be Discouraged, Annihilated, by Rejection slips.

And even in the footnotes I found gems: 31 – I know a fine concert pianist who says sadly of a terribly hardworking but hopeless pupil: “She always practices and never plays.”

This book is going on my list of strongly recommended writing books. A small book that is well worth the time and effort to read.

Week One of ‘The Artist’s Way’ Program

I have begun working through a program as prescribed in Julia Cameron’s  https://www.goodreads.com/series/246709-the-artist-s-way ‘The Artist’s Way’. Saturday I completed the first week and so today seems a good place to check in.
The entire book is very good, inspirational even. I will do a separate review after the program. The core of the program is to keep ‘Morning Pages’, a daily journal of approximately 750 words, to complete a weekly ‘Artist’s Date’, and to complete the exercises for each week.
My first thought was that the Morning Pages would be easy. I already keep a morning journal so that bit will be easy. Wrong.
My journal entries averaged under 300 words a day, sometimes just a few sentences complaining about my health or the weather. And because I am recovering from a spinal and head injury in June, I have lots to moan about. I found that 250 to 300 words was my easy and normal output. 750 words was a stretch. I ran out of stream-of-consciousness rambling and found I needed to start thinking more. I started summarizing the previous day’s activities, but soon found that un-fulfilling. So I started developing my plan. Putting my goals for writing down on paper.
My plan:
Complete some short stories, get them critiqued on ‘Critique Circle’, an on-line writing group I am a member of, and then try to get them published. I borrowed a copy of the 2019 Short Story and Novel Market book from the library and started the research. My goal is one short story out the door every month.
Read and Critique 50 books this year, alternating fiction and non-fiction.
Finish my novel, ‘Hopes Up’, and get it beta-read by a few people I respect.
Start on a non-fiction book I have been thinking about.
Start a second novel.
Continue with both Critique Circle as a method to develop my craft, and as a monthly book club member at the library.
Evaluate my life, consider my over-riding goals, who do I want to be?

I realize that this accident, that changed my life so radically, is also providing an opportunity to re-invent myself and decide how to spend the next twenty years or so.
So the program and the ‘Morning Pages’ are providing me with a forum to work through all of these thoughts, plans, hopes and dreams. Seven days in and I am already seeing a huge value.
It takes more of my time. I used to write in my journal while having breakfast, now I am still writing 45 minutes later. My dog Sawyer doesn’t like it, he has to wait longer for his morning walk. But if a writer is defined by writing, I am now twice the writer I was, my output has more than doubled. A good result. And the material is more focused, also good.
A slight digression, in Julia Cameron’s book she suggests other books that have inspired her. One is Brenda Euland’s ‘If you want to write’. A short, easy book, I also read it this week and found it very inspirational. Both Cameron and Euland have some spiritual ideas about God and creativity that I will learn more about. I will review Euland’s book separately.
So from the first of the three requirements in Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ I am seeing great value. I am committed to the twelve-week program.
The second requirement was a bit of a bust, this week anyway. Cameron prescribes going on an Artist’s Date. I am working up a list of things I want to do, including the museum of man out at UBC and the Vancouver Art Gallery. But her suggestion to visit a dollar store and have some fun, for the first date, fell flat. It was easy as there is a dollar store beside one of my favourite coffee shops, Waves in Lynn Valley. But as I wandered the isles, the fun disappeared and the cheapness, gaudiness and consumer crap just overwhelmed me. I will try again next week.
But the third requirement, completing the exercises hit pay-dirt for me.
There was some taking stock, reviewing the morning pages process, (Rather than the material) and confirming the positive affirmations and the negative blurts. But the exercise that surprised me was the time travel, going back in time to remember three people who had been ‘enemies of your creative self.’ And then to write out one of those horror stories.
Mine was an English teacher in High School, very last term. We had read D.H.Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’, frankly a tough text for high school. And I had struggled with some of the material. But I loved books and reading so I wanted to understand it. I asked a question, and the teacher replied with such vile venom that I remember my cheeks burning. He had attacked my work ethic, my intellect, my decency. I was horrified and very nearly cried. I could never understand the response. I put down books and literature for over five years after that.
But I came back to literature when I went to UBC at night, and had to choose a major. I chose English Literature. I have read dozens of novels, and have found that Lawrence’s ‘The Rainbow’ is one of my all-time favourites.
So the question stirred up some ashes from a long dead fire. Why had he been so mean? And instead of hate, I found sympathy. As well as being a teacher he was a local elder in the Baptist Church. I remembered him as leading a youth group called Sentinels, much like Boy Scouts with a more Christian leaning. He was probably a moral man, maybe even self-righteous. And ‘Sons and Lovers’ is a difficult text. It deals with love, passion, and sex. It was probably a prescribed textbook from the Ontario provincial education ministry. And he didn’t know how to talk to young adolescent men and women about it.
So the course is stretching me, making me work and think. And opening my eyes to things I might not have seen before. I am getting value and enjoying it. I will post an update each week.

Review of ‘When Life Gives You Lululemons’

‘When Life Gives You Lululemons’ by Lauren Weisberger was a North Vancouver City library book club selection for this month, January 2020. If I had not felt an obligation to read it, I would have quit in the first five pages. I am glad I didn’t, it turned into a fun and funny romp. That first impression was a portrayal of ‘The Lifestyles of the Rich and Vacuous.’ A shallow materialistic bunch of catty Connecticut house wives. And there is lots of snark. But when the reader level sets from high literature to beach reading and just goes with the flow, this is a good entertaining read.
Lululemons follows Emily Charlton from ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, a movie I have watched again and again, because I think Merle Streep is outstanding as Miranda Priestly. That Ms. Weisberger created such a strong character is a triumph. The characters in Lululemons were not as great as Priestly, who makes a cameo. I felt the main characters all shared a common voice that made it difficult to differentiate them as some points. If a line didn’t have ‘Emily said’ or ‘Miriam said’ it was difficult to follow conversations. Anyone could have said it. And there were a few scenes at parties or social gatherings that I felt explored the shallowness of life rather than advanced to plot. There were a couple of points I wanted to just see what was going on with the main story but had to wade through the minor story arcs. Although these scenes are hilarious.
Spoiler: I did think there were a couple of weaknesses of the ‘Tell vs Show’ variety. We learn that Miranda Priestly affects the plot in a major way but we only see the result. I would have liked to see that scene. And the whole artificial insemination of Karolina when Graham had already had a vasectomy sounds so unethical that I expected the women to sue the doctors and clinics involved into oblivion. But nothing.
I felt it got a little sentimental and over sweet at the end. Emily and Miles had never wanted kids, but Emily getting pregnant was all good?
Something I like about reading a book by a good author is learning their points of view, listening to and enjoying their intellect and wit. Reading a novel is an investment of time, eight, ten hours or more. I want to spend that time with a writer who treats me like an intelligent adult and never condescends. If the book makes me feel I am being brought into the writers confidence, that they are sharing important intimate truths, I am pleased, and filled with some positive energy. Ms. Weisberger passes this test. This is not a book I would normally read, but that is one of the reasons I have joined a book club. I am glad I read this. A fun read and a good way to start 2020.

Review of How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead

I just finished reading ‘How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead’ by Ariel Gore. It was a book I picked up off the shelf while wandering through the 808 section of the North Vancouver City library. The title is light and funny and a little outrageous. The book follows in that impression.
Reading this book I felt like I had happened across an interesting stranger in a coffee shop or brew pub, struck up a conversation, and had then found myself held captive by the stories, language, attitude and enthusiasm. Quite simply, this book is fun.
Ariel Gore has a sharp mind, and her wit and intellect come through on every page. She has a ‘can do’ attitude that creates an infectious energy in the reader. Sure it will be hard work to become a famous writer before you’re dead but here is how to get started. Come on, let’s go.
I saw some parallels to  A. L. Kennedy’s ‘On Writing’ essays. Both women have done stand up comedy work and that busy, active mind comes through in spades.
Funny, quirky even, the book is a bit of a thrill ride. Wait, slow down I think, I need to write this down. But then I realize it is a book, not a conversation, and I can go back at my leisure.
She finds she cannot get the reclusive Haruki Murakami to sit down for an interview. No problem, she will just imagine the conversation, thereby ‘Showing rather than Telling’ that imagination can overcome so many obstacles.
Short chapters keep it moving, and the real or imagined exercises give the reader great take aways.
Like most writers, I am a little shy and introverted. Whether I can put these directions into real action might be a stretch. But I think the plan and directions are solid.
Highly recommended.

Review of You are the Placebo

I rarely review books I didn’t like. On June 3 I suffered a serious spinal injury while mountain biking. Since then several friends have given me books to help with my recovery. ‘You are the Placebo’ by Dr. Joe Dispenza was one such book. I had just finished reading ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’ by Norman Doidge so I had some understanding of neuroplasticity and the ideas that the body and brain can adapt. So I had high hopes.
The book begins with some interesting research on the placebo effect, and how mind over body is a real measurable phenomenon. Okay, I thought, this makes sense. But Doctor Dispenza veered off track and left me scratching my head. He gave a long anecdote on a research project where a subject was hypnotized to commit a crime. Interesting, I thought, but what does this have to do with the book subject? I think the author had an interesting story he needed to tell. His editor should have told him this isn’t the place.
But I persevered and continued reading. My analytical mind didn’t want to blow this off too quick.
But then he hit me with another caveat. He tells the readers that people with strong analytical minds may not be able to use this material as they are resistant to suggestibility. I think I am open to new thoughts and ideas and have read a number of ‘new age’ books that I have enjoyed and put into practice. I am currently working through Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ and don’t have any resistance. (I will do a review when I complete the 12-week program). But to get halfway through a book and get this warning was irritating at best.
But the best was yet to come. I studied University physics. I learned a tiny bit about quantum mechanics. The probabilities of particles being in one place or state at any time is a difficult concept. That things move between states, not in a straight line, but jumping between levels in ‘quantum’ jumps takes some time to accept and understand. This is some hard stuff.
Dr. Dispenza suggests that these jumps can somehow be used by the human mind to communicate to the body and soul. This is pure bunk, and I nearly tossed the book at this point. But I was almost done and felt the need to finish. Mistake.
The final flaw of the book is the blatant way it is meant to goose up sales for the authors program of workshops and seminars. I kept having visions of a Tom Vu advertisement, ‘Take My Seminar’.
Take my advice. Give this book a pass.

Review of ‘Tilly and the Crazy Eights’

I have completed Monique Gray Smith’s ‘Tilly and the Crazy Eights’. This was a fun book to read and I think I learned a lot while reading it. Native/Aboriginal/Indian issues are in the Canadian mainstream right now so this book has found a fertile time to land.
It is a bit too sweet at times and definitely pulls on the heartstrings of the reader. If you don’t laugh and cry while reading it, you should probably get your heart checked. It is an entertaining read with an interesting ensemble of characters.
But, it is the characters with which I find the first weakness of this brave novel. I had trouble picturing these people in my mind’s eye. There is very little physical description of them and few quirks, habits or tells to queue the reader to them. The voices are not distinct between them so following dialog relied on Tilly said, Sarah said, etc. I think this was a flaw that made it harder for this reader to associate and empathize with the characters. I little more description and personalization of the characters would have gone a long way. I wondered what nation these people were from, but had to guess.
There was quite a bit of ‘Telling’ versus ‘Showing’. We are told Rose is gruff and cold, we are told Pancho as a good heart. These things ‘shown’ would have made a better novel.
And the choice of omniscient point of view is something I don’t much like. Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy pull it off, but I feel it keeps the reader from getting into the heart and mind of the characters. A good reason to read is to experience what the characters in the book are experiencing, without the risks involved. To fall in love, to watch a loved one die, to dance in a Pow Wow. This experiencing is best done with close third person where the reader becomes the character, immerses into their world experience. This wonderful spell is broken in omni, especially when the author jumps between points of view. I would be experiencing something from Tilly’s POV then suddenly head-hop to Pancho’s POV. The spell is broken.
There is some tough material covered in this book and I salute Gray Smith for taking it on. Truth and Reconciliation, Residential schools and the sixties-scoop, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Life on the rez.
The book led me to look up Pendleton blankets and to watch a You-tube video of the world Pow Pow in Albuquerque. I must try out fry bread. And like I said above, I did both laugh and cry. A good read that I recommend.

Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, Albuquerque NM https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGAThB2D2T0