Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Read: 27 June, 2015

Bird by Bird is another book about writing, based in large part on the classes Lamott teaches (the conceit fades in and out, but by the end she addresses her readers directly as if they were students who had just completed her course). The style reminded me more of Writing Down the Bones, rather than Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, in that it was more of a pep talk, more about attitude, rather than the actual mechanics of writing. And pep talk it certainly was. In fact, if I were to summarize the thesis of the book, it would be: “Keep at it, don’t be discouraged, you can survive this!”

I enjoyed the book, and I mostly liked Lamott’s writing, but I didn’t feel like I got as much out of it as I had from Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg’s book make me keep putting it down to go write, and I’m still using many of its prompts. Bird by Bird never really gave me that feeling. As I finished the final page, I did feel like I wanted to pick up my writing project and work on it for a bit, but it wasn’t the frantic feeling I got from Bones.

Still, I found Lamott’s writing to be interesting, if not truly engaging, and the book is full of little gems, little pericopes that I thoroughly enjoyed. I doubt that this is a book that will stick with me, but I did enjoy the ride while it lasted.

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A Feast of Ice & Fire by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel & Sariann Lehrer

I love cooking, particularly hearty, flavourful foods. I love A Song of Ice and Fire. I also love Medieval Europe (touristing only, there is no way I’d like to live then). I think it’s rather obvious that A Feast of Ice & Fire is right up my alley. All three of my alleys, in fact.

The book takes us to the different locations of ASOIAF: the Wall, the North, the South, King’s Landing, Dorne, and across the Narrow Sea. For each location, there are several dishes mentioned in the books (all include a breakfast) with recipes. Even better, many of the dishes are presented with two recipes – one drawn from medieval sources (using the term “medieval” loosely, as they actually span the period from the Roman Empire to the Elizabethan period, and some of them are not European in origin), and one modern variation.

Some of the ingredients can be hard to find, but the book includes a list of substitutions.

The best part is that all of the recipes are fairly simple, most having only a handful of steps. It would actually be feasible to put on a multi-course Game of Thrones dinnerparty without running yourself ragged.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable cookbook, for regular use as well as for it’s novelty gimmick. It would make a great gift for a reasonably experienced cook who likes experimentation and trying new things.

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Teach Your Child To Read In Just Ten Minutes A Day by Sidney Ledson

Read: 25 March, 2014

There are two separate aspects of this book to review: The first is the writing, and the second is the method.

The writing is terrible. It reads like the fevered rant of some self-publishing conspiracy theorist. The book – particularly the argument-setting Part I – is riddled with phonetic spelling errors, like the word “Instutute” on page 15. These don’t exactly inspire confidence in the method.

There was no real acknowledgement of childhood development, no mention of the physical developments of the brain that might be necessary to process the relationship between symbol and symbolised, and no mention of the research that suggests that pushing skills (like reading) before a child is developmentally ready can backfire. There’s also no mention of the difference between ability to read and comprehension, so that Ledson gives no evidence that he’s teaching anything other than a parlour trick. Even if the author disagrees with these points, since such research have direct implications for his thesis, they should have been acknowledged.

Further, Ledson clearly has an axe to grind against the public school system. Throughout the book, his method is compared to the failings of public schools, including the rather incredible assertion that dyslexia is a made-up disease. None of this was necessary to his thesis, nor to the discussion of his method. I found it distracting and, frankly, rather aggravating.

Whenever research is used to support a point, it goes uncited. References are far too vague for me to be able to figure out what studies he’s talking about. For example, he says: “According to a highly-respected researcher in early-childhood studies…” (p.24). When that is the only identifying information given, how can I possibly take his point seriously?

Finally, I want to whine about the incredible promises. Throughout the book, Ledson promises that every single child can read with his method (often using the word “guarantee”). He even, at several points, strongly suggests that children taught with his method will develop a genius-level IQ as a result. Over and over again, the idea that precocious readers might have started with certain physiological advantages is dismissed out of hand.

For all these reasons, I was pre-disposed not to take the method very seriously. Yet for all its claims, the method really isn’t so different from what I already do with my preschooler – except perhaps being a little more methodical (not relying on incidental word sightings, and focusing on one letter at a time).

So the method seems to at least have some surface validity, and I’m willing to give it a try. I’ll update with our progress, if any.

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Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Read: 18 February, 2014

In Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg takes a Zen-inspired approach to creative writing. And, indeed, her descriptions and advice use writing almost as a form of meditation – of being actively present in one’s life and environment.

I found it to be a very interesting concept, and it’s certainly inspirational. It took me days longer to read than it should have because I had to keep putting it down to go write for a while.

The approach was a little New Age-y for my tastes at time, but I only cringed a few times and the rest of the book made it quite worthwhile.

In terms of the kind of advice, there’s very little (almost none, really) attention paid to the mechanics of writing. Rather, Goldberg focuses on the mindset and habit of writing, the way to approach writing. In that way, it was quite different from what I was expecting, and had almost nothing in common with, say, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction (except in the advice to practice often and a lot). So I think it works really well for someone who either didn’t take to Burroway’s methods, or who would like to approach the subject from a variety of different angles.

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Pound Foolish by Helaine Olen

Read: 26 December, 2013

If you’ve been reading along for a while, you’ll know that I went through a spat of reading personal finance books in 2009 (and even read Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad, which Olen specifically addresses in Pound Foolish). At the time, I had just started working after living on a single income for several years while a student. Our goal was to keep living on as close to a single income as possible, putting the second income away for rainy days. But, of course, we were young and didn’t quite know how to make that work, so I toured the personal finance section of my library.

I did learn quite a bit about how to make and maintain a budget, and I like the idea of the envelope system even if we’ve never found a way to make it work for us. But other than that, I didn’t see much value in the books I read. The advice often seemed to ride on things that just didn’t make much sense – like Kiyosaki’s advice to buy real estate (which read like comedy given that the real estate bubble had just burst), or the assumption of at least an 8-12% rate of return on investments (I have never in my adult life seen a consistent return higher than 2% and even that much is rare), or the requirement that housing take up no more than 30% of your household income (puh-lease, a cardboard box would cost me more than that around here!), the books just seemed to make an awful lot of assumptions that simply would not apply to what I would imagine are the vast majority of their audience.

What’s left, the good advice like “spend less than you earn!”, is common sense. People who are reading personal finance books (and therefore care about personal finance) are already trying to do just that. What they want to know is not the goal, which they already have, but the steps for achieving it despite having unexpected expenses like medical bills, or despite the loss of income due to a crappy economy. And for that, personal finance offers no solutions. What stabilized my household’s livelihood was not my budgeting, but rather the recent Canadian minimum wage increase.

And that is essentially Olen’s thesis. The personal finance gurus (nearly all of whom make their money by selling their advice, not following it) shift the burden of managing on the individual, when many (of not most) of the difficulty the individual is having comes, ultimately, from social issues – such as the state of the economy, lack of regulation in the financial sector, lack of social support after a job loss, or medical expenses.

Olen’s book is damning, and depressing. There’s no uplifting message, no sign that things are changing. It just goes on and on pointing out how various ways that predators have found to feed off the public. It’s a hard book to read, and it had me taking a good second look at how I’ve allowed my finances to be managed (though, silver linings, it has prompted me to make some significant changes in that area that I’m hoping will at least minimize risk).

It’s also a call to action. Instead of talking about personal finance, we need to talk about social finance. We need to talk about regulation.

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The Book of Wizard Craft by Lindy Burnett

This helpful little guide provides young apprentice with all the instructions they need to get started as wizards – from how to make your own wizard robe, to choosing the right owl, to throwing the best wizard party.

I found the artwork, layout, and writing to be fun and engaging. Remove the dust-cover, and the book even looks like it might be found in a wizard’s tower.

This would make a great gift for kids who are into crafts, especially if they are into fantasy or Harry Potter. In particular, I think it would be great leading up to Halloween, or if a child would like to redecorate their bedroom (a wizard tower-themed bedroom!).

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Bruno Courrèges Mystery #5: The Devil’s Cave by Martin Walker

Read: 8 September, 2013

Whenever I get to see my dad, we usually have fun trading book recommendations – almost always mystery series because it’s our biggest genre overlap. This summer, he sent me home with a copy of The Devil’s Cave.

Though I generally prefer starting a series at the beginning, it was the only one my dad had with him. Even so, I didn’t get the impression that it matters too much, as the narrative is reasonably self-contained (barring the odd, rare references to past events and character histories).

Bruno, the investigator, is a fun character. He is very down-to-earth and his mandatory eccentricities (all investigators require eccentricities, it’s like a law of the mystery genre) are quite fun – he is obsessed with food, cooking delicious meals at least ever 50 pages or so, and he is very involved with his community. Unlike the usual “doing it his own way / lone wolf” investigator, Bruno teaches sports to local kids, stops by the weekly market to chat with shoppers and stall holders, and must balance the needs of the investigation with his social calendar. It makes for a very refreshing change.

The cooking was also quite fun to read about. Walker uses enough detail to allow me to recreate a few of the dishes (with my own modifications, of course), much to my family’s delight. So far, I’ve had success with the fried/broth rice and the beer chicken.

The mystery itself was a lot of fun. My favourite type of investigator narrative is the one where the reader is privy to all the clues and is able to guess at the resolution, essentially pitting her/his deductive powers against the investigator’s. That’s exactly what happens here, and yet Bruno still surprised me often with his inventiveness and his ability to think two steps ahead of the baddies (all the while playing with the “rules” of the genre).

The setting, of course, is quite idyllic, with characters to match (though not lacking in complexity).

I’ll definitely be seeking out more from this series, and I highly recommend it.

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The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans

Read: 28 July, 2013

I enjoy reading “how to write” guides because I find them so informative – not in my own writing, but more in my reading. For some reason, they seem to speak to me more than the “how to read” guides I’ve tried.

These sorts of guides highlight things that writers should be paying attention to, and that translates well into what readers should be paying attention to. I feel that it gives me some insight into thought and planning that may have gone into whatever book I happen to be reading.

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction is quite a good book, presenting six steps (each broken down into a number of smaller considerations). Of course, following the steps won’t produce a good book, but they do highlight the things that a writer will need to think about to write in the genre.

I found it interesting, and I think that it does have some use for both writers and readers. And, while geared specifically towards fantasy and science fiction, plenty of the advice is applicable toward other genres.

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Myths & Magic: The Complete Fantasy Reference, introduction by Terry Brooks

I went to high school in a small town with what was probably the second largest Wicca/occult shop per capital in the world (the largest being Salem, Mass.). Is it any wonder that I dabbled in that sort of thing as a teen?

Just to be clear, I never got into Wicca. I got into the awkward, romanticised version of Wicca that we see in movies like The Craft. I was angsty, and it was my way of rebelling.

Given the proximity of so many magic shops, I of course did a bit of shopping and picked up books – most of which I’ve since discarded because… yikes. But during my recent move, I re-stumbled on Myths & Magic as I was unpacking and decided to give it a good second look.

When I first read it, I didn’t really get what it was supposed to be. I just saw that it wasn’t teaching me how to make love potions or make my enemies sprout warts, so I shoved it in a corner. But re-reading it, I have no idea what it was doing in a magic shop, because that’s not what it is at all.

Myths & Magic is a superficial reference for writing fantasy. It covers everything from a brief explanation of how medieval European society worked, how different cultures around the world have understood and classified magic, and of various mythical animals. There are also checklists of things to think about regarding how a writer’s magic system works, and how the society is organized given the existence of magic.

The information really is quite superficial, and frequently sacrifices nuance for simplicity and clarity. But it’s not supposed to be a history textbook, it’s supposed to be an aid in idea generation.

I really quite enjoy this book, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone who writes fantasy. It’s not an instruction manual, but it’s great for thinking through world-building with magic.

My only complaint is that the book lacks some amount of focus. Each chapter has a different author, each clearly tackling a different problem, and it shows. I think that the addition of a “checklist” sort of chapter at the end of things to think about would have been an improvement.

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Home Learning Year by Year by Rebecca Rupp

Read: 20 May, 2013

This book is exactly what the title indicates – instructions for building a homeschool curriculum divided by year. There’s really no surprises. For each subject, there are lists of learning goals for the year that largely match up with what I’ve found on school websites and the like, so it’s all pretty uncontroversial.

Unfortunately, many of the resources listed in the book are out of date. A lot of the websites are simply non-existent, and many of the books are out of print. I also noticed that a few of the resources listed have a distinct religious flavour to them, but this was not indicated in the description provided in Rupp’s book.

Since most of what I would have found useful in Rupp’s book I’d already gotten from other sources, it really didn’t hold a lot of interest to me. But if you are just starting to think about homeschooling (or supplementing education at home), it would be a good place to start just to get an idea of what material needs to be covered.

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