Bad Writing, Fun Reading

drivel book
Imagine my surprise when I found two of my all-time favorite writers included in a collection of bad writing.
mary roach
Mary Roach, best-selling author of science for public consumption, presents a facsimile of an early Pet Tips column from the San Francisco Examiner. The opening line is “Why not guppies?” and the closing begins with, “Let’s hear it for guppies!” And in between there are actually interesting facts about guppy gestation, birth, and cannibalism—totally overwritten.
amy tan
Ami Tan’s contribution is a 10-line poem titled “A Juggler Named Jake.”  The first stanza lines end with Jake, fake, air, pair, and break. The second stanza endings are Hoodit, to do it, plates, break, and glue it.


This book works on so many levels! First, it reminds the rest of us that once upon a time, occasionally, even the best writers suck—which can be very good for morale!


Then, too, reading bad writing and knowing why it is bad is good for one’s self-esteem.


Finally, it’s full of bite-size reads. With 51 contributors and fewer than 200 pp of text, including photos and section breaks, each entry can be read in a flash.


The pieces are grouped by topic: Totally Professional, Bad Romance, Ill-Advised Confessions, Oddities, Dark Matter, and Terrible Angst—all so bad they’re good!



Writers’ Notebooks


Virtually all writers have heard the advice that they should keep notebooks—books of whatever sort in which one jots down ideas for stories, images, bits of dialogue, whatever might be useful sometime or other. I’m not very good at that. I kept extensive notes when I was writing Nettie’s Books, but mostly it is catch as catch can.


But don’t take me as a model! Better look to Agatha Christie. When Christie died in 1976, at the age of 85, she left behind 73 hand-written private notebooks, including illustrations and two unpublished Poirot stories.


agatha christies secret notebooks
She wrote more than one book a year from the 1920s, all bestsellers. Her notebooks included notes, lists, and stories. Such notebooks give depth to the published works, reveal the originally planned endings, and plots that were rejected.


agatha christie murder in the making
Not surprisingly, such a successful, prolific writer left behind more material than one book could contain. This volume explores Christie’s techniques for surprise and entertainment. John Curran discusses how her plots evolved, presents previously unpublished short stories and chapters edited out of published works, and discusses her final unfinished work.
hawthorne's lost notebook
Keeping a notebook is not a modern idea. Hawthorne’s notebook from 1835-1841 is testimony to that. It is the earliest notebook that Hawthorne is known to have kept, containing more ideas for stories and articles than any other, including facsimiles in his own hand with more readable typescript alongside.


I urge you to read such notebooks. For one thing, they are fascinating reading. But also, you might come across bits that the greats abandoned but which inspire you to new heights.


In any event, consider keeping your own writer’s notebook—or expanding what you’ve already started. As in virtually every case, there are books to help you do that!


novelists notebook

Musings on Number Titles

Every once in a while I come across something that makes me say, “Humph.” And then my thoughts hare off in any number of directions. Such is the case for books that have numbers in the titles.
george orwell 1984
The first book with a number in the title that I recall noticing was George Orwell’s 1984. Surely anyone who hasn’t read it knows about it. It was copyrighted in 1949, and what seemed like a distant future is now the distant past. Still it endures.


Immediately after that, I recalled that Dorothy L. Sayers used number titles in Five Red Herrings and The Nine Tailors.
That led to other mystery writers who have done so, Agatha Christie for one: Five Little Pigs, 4:50 From Paddington, The Big Four, The Third Girl.


And what about Sherlock Holmes? Sure enough, The Five Orange Pips.
sherlock holmes
Even Raymond Chandler had Five Sinister Characters.
five sinister characters raymond chandler
Beyond mysteries, there is creative non-fiction. All sorts of things come to mind in this category. For example, in London 1849, Michael Alpert used the records of the police files and murder trial of Maria and Frederick Manning, along with contemporary journalism and fiction, to recreate ordinary people’s day-to-day life in the London of 1849.


london 1849
Similarly, 1491 and 1493 bring to life the Americas just before and just after Columbus’s famous voyage.
So, there is a whole category of books dealing with a specific year or time frame. For example, Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927.
bill bryson one summer
Of course, annual anthologies must be dated.


poetry anthologies
And then there are books that have numbers in the titles because they have delimited the contents that way.


So what? Nothing, really. All of this is just following my mental ramble on numbers in book titles. It made me think about another aspect of titling books. And I came across a couple of books I still haven’t read, though they’ve been on my shelves for quite some time.


What are your favorite books with numbers in the title?

Read it Already

new yorker june 2017
The June 5 & 12 issue of The New Yorker is fabulous.


It is jam packed with work by well-known writers. Philip Roth wrote the Life and Letters piece, “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names,” and discusses his early influences.


sherman alexie clean cleaner cleanest
This issue includes not one but three fiction stories. Sherman Alexie is one of my favorites, and his “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest” article is great, though not as off-beat as some of his work. He is joined by Will Mackin and Curtis Sittenfeld.


toni morrison work you do person
There is a whole section titled On The Job. Another of my favorite authors, Toni Morrison, has a very strong piece here: “The Work You Do, the Person You Are.” Others in this section include Jennifer Egan, Richard Ford, Chris Ware, and Akhil Sharma.


This issue includes two poems, by Kaveh Akbar and Tracy K. Smith. The usual book reviews and commentaries on TV and Movies are present as well, of course.


If the cover price of $8.99 seems a bit steep, get thee to the library. And read it already!

Worth the Wait!

elizabeth strout anything is possible
A friend gave me Anything Is Possible for my birthday. At the time, it wasn’t yet published. When it actually arrived, I was reading something else and my husband—a great Strout fan—eagerly enjoyed my present. He just finished, and I interrupted what I was reading and took it up. And as the headline says, it is worth the wait.


This book is another gripping example of linking short stories to form the whole. Remember Olive Kitteridge? It won the Pulizer Prize in 2009, and has since sold over a million copies.
olive kitteridge elizabeth strout
[Source: Amazon]
That was my first exposure to Strout. I love that book. It inspired me to put together a collection of my short stories with a working title of Almost Family. Well, my book is still almost, but in the meantime, Strout wrote The Burgess Boys (among other things).


worth wait elizabeth strout burgess boys
[Source: Goodreads]
Frankly, although well-written as always, I didn’t like The Burgess Boys so much; it’s much darker than Olive Kitteridge. So far, Anything Is Possible is promising a great read.


It starts with Tommy Guptill, who inherited a dairy farm from his father. The barn and house burned down one night, and Tommy is still haunted by nightmares of the trapped cows. Okay, so that sounds pretty dark. But he moves into town and takes a job as a janitor in the local school and… well, I won’t tell you too much about it. No spoiler alerts here.


long homecoming ariel levy
I mentioned recently that The New Yorker of May 1 had an article about Strout by Ariel Levy titled “A Long Homecoming.” The article provides interesting insights about the relationship between the writer and her writing. Her take on Anything Is Possible is “The tone of Strout’s ficton is both cozy and eerie, as comforting and unsettling as a fairy tale.”


I’m taking Anything Is Possible on a road trip this weekend. I’ll check back in when I’ve finished the book!

The Gift of Rainy Days…

…is that they are the perfect excuse to read instead of weed!
Marcel Proust
The only question is, what shall I read? One favorite is a big, fat book to take me through the day and the rainy days to follow this week. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, Proust wrote the longest book in the world—a novel in 13 volumes. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how it differs from a more modern series, such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and subsequent installments. However, I don’t have the former and I’ve read the latter, so I must look elsewhere.


flow menstruation
I’m fond of off-beat cultural history, and I haven’t yet read Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation, so that’s one possibility.


breath and bones susann cokal
Then, too, a little sex can be entertaining. A few years ago, Susann Cokal gave a talk at the James River Writers Conference on writing effective sex scenes. The main thing I recall is her advice not to put in too much clinical detail and don’t be too explicit. Publisher’s Weekly called this novel “Steamy… [a] literary bodice-ripper.” AND she creates a great historical voice. So, definitely a contender.


girl who wants to write
Then again, maybe I’ll go for really non-traditional. The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel in Pictures by Caroline Preston is just that. Each page is covered in pictures, with very few words. My only concern is that it wouldn’t even get me through today.


On the other hand, with all the rain predicted this week, why choose just one?


Time to stop typing and start reading!

Travel Reading

savoring spain portugal
This fall my husband and I are traveling to Portugal and northern Spain, so we are starting our travel reading.


For many years, wherever I traveled, I bought a cookbook as a memento of the trip. Three problems with this approach emerged. First, I couldn’t always find a local English language cookbook. In Rome, I went to great lengths to find an English language bookstore only to discover that the cookbooks had been printed in the U.S., and often written by people in the United States! And, of course, there were times when I couldn’t find any cookbooks in English at all.
my portugal
The second problem with buying books while traveling is that there is too much to see and do to read more than bits and pieces.


spanish cooking
And, finally, I realized that I’m more likely to read about where I’m going than where I’ve been! So now I read ahead.


No doubt you’ve noticed a common element among the books pictured so far. I have a long-standing cookbook collection. But these books are more than recipes! The first two give a great deal of cultural history and geography, talking about ethnic foods and how they came to be. My Portugal is more personal. Although a renowned chef in NYC, his roots are in Portugal. This book contains stories of his time in Portugal, his family, and his experiences as a chef. And all of them contain spectacular pictures of the places as well as the food!
journey portugal jose saramago monica ali alentejo blue
My husband chose Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal’s History and Culture. It is a travelogue—not my usual choice in reading. However, José Saramago was a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, so perhaps I’ll put aside my biases in this instance. Alentejo Blue appeals to me more. It is fiction, set in a village in Portugal, and the author (Monica Ali) is highly praised.
spain reading
One of my favorite ways to enjoy “foreign fiction” is to read some of the country’s best contemporary writers. The Traveler’s Literary Companion is a series, published by Whereabouts Press. Check it out.


Perhaps I haven’t convinced you to read your travels, but why not give it a try?

Writers are People, Too

Last weekend I attended my husband’s college reunion. The part that is relevant to this post is that we meandered through the English Department. Lo and behold, the corridors were lined with pictures of writers.


mark twain
When I saw the picture of Mark Twain, I remembered last week’s discovery—that he had published a short story mystery unbeknownst to most. So when I picked up the May 1 New Yorker and saw an article about Elizabeth Strout—author of Olive Kitteridge—I was immediately interested. It’s a great article.


long homecoming ariel levy
But back to the English Department. Below are several writers honored in the halls of higher education. Choose one—or any author you prefer—and investigate their peopleness (if I may coin the term). Find an article. Pick up a biography or memoir. Do an online search. You’ll surely be entertained, and perhaps surprised.


Let me know who you chose and why!

Am I the Last to Know?

extra literary sleuths
Most academics subscribed to the belief that Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) was the first detective story to appear in print, not succeeded in American print media till 1891 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series was syndicated. LeRoy Panek and Mary Bendel-Simso beg to differ. Approximately 10 years ago, they found evidence to the contrary.


early american detective stories
The co-authors first collaborated on an anthology of these stories. I’ve just ordered it! 
Also, as archives have been made available online, these two English professors at McDaniel College created the Westminster Detective Library, a unique online collection of more than 1300 (!) pieces of crime fiction published in newspapers and magazines. You can visit it at The earliest found so far was published in 1824.

Most are published anonymously and many were pirated by other publications. But according to the article, “…some famous names appear as authors, including Mark Twain and Walter Whitman—before he was the poet Walt Whitman. Abraham Lincoln’s ‘The Trailor Murder Mystery’ was published in 1846 in the Quincy Whig. Charles Dickens published ‘Hunted Down’ in The New York Ledger in 1859.” (Bolding added.)


essential elements detective story
I’ve also ordered their new release, The Essential Elements of the Detective Story, 1820-1891! Also, check out the dozens of Panek’s books now available, covering many aspects of mysteries over the centuries. He is an internationally recognized expert.


According to Bendel-Simso, some basics of forensics were first imagined in early detective stories. “Fingerprints and blood were both used as evidence in fiction 20 years before they were accepted as such in real life.”
13 discovered whodunits
Even if you aren’t already inspired to dive into this treasure trove of books—they are expensive—at least check out a few sample stories at!

Celebrating Independent Bookstores

logans bookstore

The last Saturday in April is Independent Bookstore Day, which made me think of such bookstores I have known and loved. The first was during my college years in Athens, Ohio. Logan’s was way more than a bookstore. One could buy Ohio University memorabilia and textbooks, of course, but also everything from greeting cards to Vanity Fair underwear!

st lawrence university bookstore
[Source: School Designs]
My next bookstore love was during my years in Canton, New York. It, too, sold more than SLU textbooks and related items. My cookbook collection started there. Everything from candles to pottery was at hand, as well as the work of local writers and artists. When it moved into what was once a hockey arena, the expanded space allowed for a coffee bar and comfortable seats scattered about.


Both of these bookstores are located in small towns with no easy access to larger cities, and so they took on the character of general stores of old.


Indie bookstores in cities are typically more focused on books and closely related items, such as journals, bookmarks, etc. And sometimes they have a specific mission. For example, Politics and Prose spotlights political and social issues in the books it caries and in the speakers it features.


I tend to seek out independent bookstores wherever I spend a lot of time. The Tattered Cover in Denver is an old, multi-story bookstore carrying books for all ages and interests. One can easily spend hours browsing books, magazines, and newspapers. The space is charming, with sunken reading pits, elevated areas, and appealing woodwork. And people ready and willing to help one.


fountain bookstore richmond
[Source: Turnberry Press]
The Fountain Bookstore on East Cary Street, in Richmond, is much more intimate than the Tattered Cover, but Kelly Justice is a treasure. She owns and operates the store and often features book signings and talks by local writers. Do stop in!


Other independent bookstores in the Richmond area include Chop Suey Books, bbgb Tales for Kids, Book People, Stories, and RED Books.


Independent bookstores are more than just stores; they’re community centers run by passionate readers. They are as good as secondhand bookstores in offering the possibility of serendipitous finds. In addition, they support the local economy through job creation and tax dollars. So buy local!

Independent Bookstore Day is a one-day national party that takes place at indie bookstores across the country. Every store is unique and independent, and every party is different: authors, live music, cupcakes, scavenger hunts, kids events, art tables, readings, barbecues, contests, and other fun stuff. Check out what’s happening in your area!

celebrating independent bookstores

In a world of tweets and on-line searches, bookstores are not dying out.  They continue to grow and expand and enrich the lives of readers and communities. So prepare to party down tomorrow!