Category Archives: Books

Don’t Self-Help, Just Help

Self-help books should come with disclaimers: Western civilization only. Restrictions may apply. May be illegal in some countries. Not responsible for maiming or death caused by applying exercises in this book. Self-help books promote the assumption that anyone can be happy and successful if they just believe it enough. If you really believe that, you don’t need a book.

First, you need to be born in a free country. And even then it takes a lot more than belief. Circumstances must be considered and compromises must be made, no matter what they tell you in the book. Throw health, intellect, insight, environment, ability, and a huge amount of luck into the mix too. So what about the millions of people trapped in unimaginable circumstances all over the world, especially women? Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India, the Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Haiti…the list goes on and on. Clearly these books are not meant for them. Maybe those women are just being too negative. Maybe they’re not taking action. Maybe they need to work on forgiveness. Be thankful you’re not getting your nose and ears cut off for running away from the men you were sold to, acid thrown in your face for disobeying your abusive family, poisoned for trying to learn to read, or raped on a daily basis.

Unfulfilled Americans spend over $11 billion each year on self-help books, products, services, speakers, and seminars—a testament in itself to the argument that they’re not working. Many people, after buying one, become disillusioned and try another, and then another. Someone’s getting rich, but it isn’t you. If you want to be happy, you’re going to have to dump some of those meddlesome human traits, like compassion. This compassion crap will just make you sad or angry, and you’ll lose your focus on personal perfection.

It’s not all about you. Stop trying to make your self more successful and start trying to make your world a better place. Be polite but stand up for yourself and those weaker than you. Not everybody is going to like you—embrace it. Sometimes pain, anger, or distress is what you’re supposed to feel. Try to get over bad stuff and move on. Try to get through the day. Consider yourself one lucky bastard to be here.

And if you feel the need to rant, go for it.

What do you think?

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Oleaginous Mush

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force. Dorothy Parker

The following two paragraphs comprise the first page of a book by a “national bestselling author,” Mariah Stewart, who has about 30 books published. I don’t get how people can plow through this—it’d be better than Ambien for getting to sleep if it weren’t so annoying.

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Here’s the first page:

Outside the courthouse , sleet hissed softly, striking the front of the old stone building at sharp angles with muffled plunks. From a narrow first-floor window, Curtis Alan Channing watched water spill from partially frozen gutters to overflow in icy waterfalls onto the frosted ground below. His eyes flickered upward to a sky the color of cinders, its low clouds hovering over the naked trees that lined the main walk leading to the courthouse steps.

News vans from competing television stations were parked side by side along the one-way street. He stared for a while, hoping to see if one of the pretty young reporters might surface, but no one emerged in the face of the storm other than a cameraman who occasionally poked his head out to check the readiness of his equipment before ducking back into the shelter of the vehicle. Channing wondered idly what event could be of sufficient interest to bring all those media types out so early on such a morning.

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ENOUGH—I get it already! It’s shitty outside and a guy’s looking out the window! There’s some media outside! 166 words to say this? No writer should ever, under any circumstances, say “his eyes flickered upward.”  Does Ballantine not have editors? I’m surprised this book doesn’t have stretch marks from the glut of lard that binds it.

The only enjoyment I got as I labored through the first page was editing it as I read:

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Sleet hissed outside, striking the front of the old stone courthouse at sharp angles. From a narrow window, Curtis Alan Channing watched icy water flow from the gutters onto frozen ground. He looked up at a gray sky, its low clouds hovering over naked trees.

A crush of television vans jammed the one-way street before him. Channing watched with curiosity for a while but no one emerged. He wondered what would cause the media to converge so early on such a bleak morning.

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Can you blame me for enjoying the satisfying thwump a flatulent paperback makes when it hits the wall? I had to pick it up though, so I could type the first page here. Otherwise, the dogs would have hijacked it. I still might let them.

Bragging Rights

Today is the official release day of the New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition.  I can’t describe it better than OUP’s website:

As Oxford’s flagship American dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary sets the standard of excellence for lexicography in this country. With more than 350,000 words, phrases, and senses, hundreds of explanatory notes, and more than a thousand illustrations, this dictionary provides the most comprehensive and accurate coverage of American English available.

I am proud to have worked on the first edition, and this one, the third. I was art editor and editorial assistant for the first edition and contracted out 1200 illustrations by several amazing artists back in Connecticut—and many of the illustrations, including some new ones,  are mine. There’s no room in dictionary illustration for cheating or sentiment. They must be absolutely accurate. To draw dictionary illustrations an artist must seek out excellent references on the subject, and that’s often not easy. The pictures don’t fall out of our heads.

No one who loves and uses dictionaries would believe how much work goes into creating one—every tiny revision has consequences. Thousands of new words are assessed, others deleted. There are hundreds of editorial tasks to be done including a huge proofreading effort by a stable of some of the most experienced dictionary proofreaders in the US, including yours truly! I have never written about working on dictionaries before so it’s tumbling out! I think the main point about dictionary work is this: anything included must be true. Think of the thousands of subjects a dictionary covers—making sure every definition is the truth requires an enormous amount of research but it’s an obligation taken very seriously. And deadline time is as crazy as in any job with late nights, too much coffee, and blurry eyes for all involved.

This dictionary is also available as an online subscription.

Ruined Young

When I was a kid we were forced to read a lot of depressing books. I knew which ones were going to be a problem way beforehand, but reading and writing book reports on those tearjerker novels were rites of passage—or a form of hazing, depending on your view.

Nothing, nothing was worse than the animal stories. I hated that young adult crap of the day, though there was less of it back then. Why couldn’t I just pick titles off my parents’ bookshelves like I had been doing since first grade? They had all the basics, from the classics to the modernists to the beatniks. One of the first books I ever remember reading was the utterly delicious play Bad Seed.

Why make a kid read The Yearling? Or Old Yeller? Or Where the Red Fern Grows? I still don’t know. I didn’t learn any lessons from these books except that adults suck and life sucks. The books weren’t inspiring to me in any way. They were disturbing and horrible, and to some neurotic kid who’s stupid over animals they may as well have been pornography. Wait, there was pornography on the shelves in my house. My father had Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Story of O, and plenty of Henry Miller. Nobody ever told us that any of the books were off-limits. Maybe we didn’t actually read the racy stuff in front of my parents, but we sure as hell read it on the sly.

But even the most violent, smutty adult fiction I devoured as a kid didn’t affect me like the animal stories. There is no animal story that isn’t a tearjerker, they don’t work that way. The truth is I’m a basket case long before the ending so I can barely concentrate, because each word leads closer to abuse and/or death. I recently read a scene in a Joseph Wambaugh novel where an ashamed, alcoholic cop is preparing to commit suicide. His dog knows. He puts cottage cheese in the dog’s bowl as a final act of love and then walks outside and shoots himself while the dog howls in agony, not touching the food. I was howling myself by then and I admit I threw the book. So if I get that mental over a scene in a book at this age, imagine the 10-year-old version with a damp, snotty copy of The Yearling in her hands.

As I grew up my fear of animal stories deepened. If there was the slightest suspicion of animal abuse I wouldn’t read it. I never read Charlotte’s Web, Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, Call of the Wild—all very popular books when I was growing up. People have told me many times what I’m missing.

I can’t watch Incredible Journey or Eight Below or Marley & Me or the Horse Whisperer. People say, “oh I cry every time I see that movie!” Huh? You mean you watched it more than once?

I know I’m hopeless and no one feels the weight more than I do, but everyone has some baggage we just can’t unload, this is in a suitcase of mine.

The Terrible Things People do to Sherlock Holmes

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin (1978)

This book starts 50 years after Watson’s death when a box of papers left in his will is opened and the contents revealed to the public.

It’s supposed to be about Holmes investigating the Jack the Ripper murders. Sounds like a great premise for a story, doesn’t it?

But I can’t read it. The author has transformed Holmes into a bombastic blowhard—a person I wouldn’t be able to be in the same room with. The bookjacket claims this Holmes is “more complex, more human, and more fascinating than the one imagined by Arthur Conan Doyle.” What they don’t mention is how very much more annoying he is. He’s arrogant, conceited, swaggering. I don’t care how smart he is, he’s awful.

Here’s an excerpt where Lestrade stops by to talk to Holmes about the murders: As Lestrade approaches, Holmes says:

“But unless I am much mistaken, here comes Lestrade to put their case in person. Are you aware that it is possible to distinguish thirty-three different trades and professions by the sound of their footsteps? I was thinking at one time of publishing a small monograph on the subject. Ah come in Inspector! The cane chair is vacant. I gather you have finally come to seek my assistance in putting an end to these Whitechapel murders.”

No, no, no! Holmes would NEVER talk like that! This is his tone throughout the book!

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is probably my most beloved fictional character. I read the stories over and over. If Holmes did insult someone, he did it with such wit, style, and class that people didn’t even know they were being insulted until they thought about it. Sometimes Holmes is gruff or short, but he’s not egotistical or a windbag—he just is.

I did however, love Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes which I just rented and watched twice. Ritchie mixed characters from different stories, gave Holmes and Watson some snappy dialogue and didn’t try to stick to a believable story—but it was good, except there was maybe too much fighting.