Book review: Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted PlacesGhostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ghostland is at turns frightening and horrifying, not because of the alleged ghosts said to haunt homes, bars, hotels and other places across the U.S., but due to the sometimes unspeakably awful ways the people who lived, worked or occupied these places behaved.

In the hands of author Colin Dickey, Ghostland is an examination of how crime, class warfare, sexism, racism and more are often the root of so many ghostly appearances. Where people have suffered, Dickey argues, stories of ghosts thrive, borne variously from anxiety, guilt and loss. Sometimes the stories have an economic motivation–people making a few bucks off tours of allegedly haunted houses. Other times the stories are a way of translating some human horror–the mistreatment and abuse of slaves, for one–into something more easily-digested. As Dickey notes, “Ghost stories like [these] are a way for us to revel in the open wounds of the past while any question of responsibility for that past blurs, then fades away.”

As Dickey details the operation of massive insane asylums constructed in the mid to late 19th century, with their horrific overcrowding and cruel experimentation on patients in search of “curing” them, it seems inevitable that ghost stories would emerge from the real-life horrors that went on inside the walls of these hospitals.

Dickey also covers some well-known haunted locales, such as the Winchester Mystery House. Here he lays out evidence suggesting that Sarah Winchester didn’t keep adding rooms to the mansion to ward off the spirits of those killed by her husband’s rifles, but because she had the keen mind of an architect–and nearly limitless funds to indulge her experiments in building.

And so it goes throughout Ghostland, with Dickey deconstructing nearly every haunted place he has researched. A few that he visits give him pause, leaving him genuinely unsettled, but there is no “a-ha!” moment when he becomes convinced–or tries to convince the reader–that ghosts are real.

Rather, this is a fascinating journey through the darker parts of American history, Ghostland is well worth reading for how capably it provides rational explanations for the ghosts, poltergeists and other entities said to haunt so many corners of America’s vast landscape. Recommended.

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Book review: One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen WayOne Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Much like the small steps the Kaizen technique recommends, this is a small book that is quickly read, all the better to start applying its suggestions for self-improvement.

Like the ancient expression “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” the Kaizen technique is one in which improvement is seen as a gradual process, where small steps lead (eventually) to big changes. The book covers several aspects of the technique, ranging from asking “small questions” to small rewards, small actions and so on. Each chapter includes tips and examples using patients of Robert Maurer’s.

Kaizen is appealing in its simplicity and logic. When we attempt major changes (think of New Year resolutions to lose a lot of weight or give up a bad habit or addiction) we usually trigger our brain’s fight or flight response, leading to anxiety and even fear. The body refuses to cooperate. The brain goes “Nope!” and suddenly that Boston Cream you swore you’d never touch has vanished from its plate.

Instead of going cold turkey, the Kaizen technique goes to the opposite end by promoting change through small increments, sometimes so small they may seem silly. In the donut example above (mmm, donuts…) you wouldn’t just give up Boston Creams immediately. Instead, you’d buy one as usual, sit down and then skip the first bite (Kaizen doesn’t tell you what to do with that bite so you’re on your own for that). The next donut skip the first two bites and so on. Eventually you’ll get to where you aren’t ordering the donut at all–and not missing it.

I’ve used this technique myself when I started running, adopting the well-known Couch to 5K plan. The first few runs were so brief (they were more walking then running) that it felt entirely effortless. How could I not continue? By the time I reached Week 7 of 9, it was the middle of summer, blazing hot and I struggled to meet that week’s goal–but I persevered, because I had spent nearly two months slowly building to that point and it wasn’t nearly as daunting as it would have been otherwise.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life is easy to read, easy to follow and lays out the case for Kaizen in a direct and accessible manner. I really can’t see how anyone couldn’t gain some benefit from adopting its technique for at least some aspect of his or her life. Recommended.

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Book review: Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing

Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better WritingTake Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are plenty of books out there explaining how and why you should outline your novel. It always seems like drudgery to me and so I’ve avoided it, for the most part.

As I write this review, my attempt at National Novel Writing Month 2017 is a smoking ruin. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. It was never smoking at all, more a damp lump of coal that never caught fire. In the vernacular of Libbie Hawker’s book, I wore my pants, refused to take them off (commit to an outline) and stalled before I could get anything going. This was also my experience on several dates ten years ago.

It’s been even worse, too–sometimes I’ve committed thousands of words to a story before realizing that it was going nowhere.

Having just gone through another stall-out, I was more receptive to the idea of outlining.

Hawker’s book is brief, more a bookling than a book, but the brevity works as a strength because you’ll whip through it quickly and be able to apply its lessons all the sooner. Hawker also smartly realizes many will read the book through first before going back and using it as reference, noting where to keep a bookmark so you can jump back in when you’re ready to go.

The process she uses for outlines is simple and leans heavily on using the hero’s journey as your story’s template. She provides some wiggle room but there is a basic assumption that you will be writing about a flawed main character (or several) who is thwarted by one or more antagonists, and ultimately overcomes their flaw or at least fails to in an interesting way, completing the character arc/journey.

And she makes it seem tantalizingly simple, extolling the twin benefits of locking down your story in advance (while still leaving plenty of space to be creative once you start writing scenes and chapters) and cranking out a completed first draft significantly faster than the pants-wearing method (she has completed first drafts in as little as three weeks). Hawker references several well-known novels (an eclectic group, ranging from Lolita to Charlotte’s Web), as well as her own work to provide examples of the different parts of the outline.

In brief, she says every well-constructed novel has a Story Core that consists of a flawed character who wants something, is thwarted, struggles to overcome their flaw, then ultimately fails or succeeds. The Story Core is built on a structure she compares to a three-legged stool, consisting of Character Arc, Theme and Pacing. It sounds simple and really, it is. As mentioned above, it’s the hero’s journey, a story archetype that has been around for thousands of years. As Hawker notes, your story will shine not because it’s outrageously original, but because it’s well-told and in a voice that is distinctly your own.

Even as I was still going through Take Off Your Pants! I was imaging the outline of my still-unfinished NaNoWriMo 2014 novel, a story that is pretty solid in some ways, but a bit of a meandering mess in others. Applying Hawker’s outlining methodology, I can see what’s missing from the story and identify entire scenes that can be chucked (goodbye, thousands of words, *sob*).

Take Off Your Pants! is highly recommended to those with a fear of outlining but still willing to take another look at it. I think it’s made me a convert.

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Book review: Story Genius

Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere)Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The “brain science” part in the title might make you think this is a dry, analytical approach to story construction, but Lisa Cron peppers this book with plenty of humor, often painting herself as the target, as she details a very specific approach to outlining and planning the story that will drive a novel. The brain science is basically recognition that humans are hardwired to enjoy a good story, due to how important stories were to the survival of early humans. Cron explains this better than my glib rundown would suggest, but don’t mistake this for a book about brain science. It’s not, it’s about writing a novel.

She comes down hard on so-called “pantsing” where a writer just grabs an idea and then wings it, hoping that over the course of 300 or so pages it all somehow works out (hint: most of the time it won’t and the writer will abandon the story. I can vouch for this by my amazing tower of unfinished stories, now in the running as one of the wonders of the modern world). Instead, she favors an approach where you, as the writer, are always asking questions about your story and its protagonist, the most persistent question being,”Why?”, followed closely by “And so?” The latter is asked at the end of a scene, to prompt the writer to explain how the end of the scene leads into the next. The questions prod the writer into thinking through the character’s actions and motivations before committing to the actual writing. No winging it allowed!

Cron is also an advocate of what she calls Scene Cards where each scene of the novel is explicitly detailed on a card (she recommends virtual over physical), with items like the Alpha Point, the plot (cause and effect), the consequences and so on. She rightly observes that writing software like Scrivener is pretty much tailor-made for the level of organization and planning she advocates.

You might think all of this planning would result in a story that is so predictable as to be rote and not especially fun to write, but Cron notes that there is always plenty of room for developments to grow organically and take off in one of several directions–as long as those directions continue to work in service to the protagonist and her motivations/beliefs.

I’m not sure I could commit to the level of planning Cron suggests, but I can’t deny that a writer who does is bound to come up with a story that is solid and able to pull a reader through to the end. In a way the approach reminds me of bestsellers that are derided for the quality of the writing (Shades of Grey, Dan Brown novels) but are successful due to other strengths, such as the storytelling (I’ll admit to never having read a Dan Brown novel, so I’m assuming there’s something other than the prose that compels people to read his books). Even if you don’t write deathless prose, following Cron’s method may still produce something people will enjoy reading.

Story Genius is made more entertaining as Cron enlists one of her friends and fellow author/writing coach, Jennie Nash, to follow Cron’s technique in developing a new novel. The reader gets to watch the development of this novel’s protagonist (a woman who refuses to get close to others for fear of getting hurt and ends up kidnapping a dog and, well, it gets complicated) and how all the parts of the story–background, supporting characters, motivations and so on, come together to create a compelling whole. I was a bit disappointed that the end result of Nash’s work was not made more clear.

All told, this is a meticulous approach to novel-writing and one that will likely bear fruit for the writer who is willing to commit to the techniques described. Heck, even only following some of the techniques, like always asking why, or compiling Scene Cards in the way Cron describes, will likely result in a stronger story. Recommended especially for people who love plotting.

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Book review: It was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences

It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Crafting Killer SentencesIt Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences by June Casagrande
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is like the perfect date for a grammar geek. It’s funny, smart, reasonable, and hates semicolons.

June Casagrande does an excellent job of guiding writers through the pitfalls of crafting a sentence, carefully illustrating the many ways one can fumble with just a few words. She offers solid instruction on how to avoid the pitfalls, be on guard for common errors, and generally improve the sentences that form the foundation for all writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.

The book ends with some useful appendices, too, though the first one–humbly titled Grammar for Writers–may cause unpleasant flashbacks to English class, depending on the individual. If seeing “Subject + transitive verb + direct object + object complement” gives you the willies, know that Casagrande explains everything carefully, concisely and with a fair amount of humor.

I tend to intuit what works and doesn’t work in a sentence without being able to precisely identify a prepositional phrase or a nonfinite clause, so much of this book felt like a remedial course. I don’t mean that as a negative, either. It’s an excellent guide and Casagrande repeatedly emphasizes that you don’t need to memorize every rule (or variation of the same), that you can–and should–break out a dictionary or two when in doubt, and breaking rules is completely okay, provided you actually understand the rules you’re breaking.

Overall, this is an excellent and entertaining guide to grammar. I feel like any grammatical goofs I’ve made in this review will carry extra shame for me, having read this spiffy primer.

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Book review: A Long Way Home

A Long Way HomeA Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a sweet story of how a child of five managed to survive lost in the city of Calcutta for weeks before being taken in by police, put up for adoption, then moved to Australia before, improbably, finding his birth mother still living near his childhood home 25 years later, using Google Earth, of all things.

The first third of the story depicts life in the Indian village of Ganesh Talai, where the poverty-stricken family struggles to find enough to eat. Eventually Saroo’s older brothers start begging and working around the railroads farther away from the village and one time the eldest, Guddu, offers to take the then-five year old Saroo with him for the day. Exhausted by the long train ride, Saroo waits on a platform at the station after his brother promises to return later that day–but never does.

After growing impatient, Saroo tries to find his way back home by boarding another train but ends up on a journey that takes him 1500 km away, ending with him in the giant rail terminus of Howrah, in the city of Kolkata (then Calcutta). Surviving on a combination of wits, fast legs, a general distrust and begging, Saroo spends weeks in Kolkata before finally being taken by a teen to the police and reported as lost.

Fairly swiftly he is adopted by an Australian couple and moves to a new home in Hobart, Tasmania. There, 25 years later, he uses Google Earth and then Facebook to begin an improbable quest to find his hometown and birth family.

But he never finds them. The book is only 20 pages long.

Kidding! While later admitting his search methodology could have been more efficient, Saroo does eventually find his home village and the reunion with his mother is touching, yet bittersweet, given the lost years and the fate of his older brother, killed by a train (hence why he never returned to fetch his younger brother).

While his memories as a five year old are sometimes inaccurate–he will never remember the exact train route he took that managed to land him in Kolkata) he retained enough detail about his home town to positively identify local landmarks on a satellite map, an amazing achievement, more so given the lengthy passage of time.

Even now, writing this review, I am still struck at how Saroo’s dedicated effort yielded the proverbial needle in the haystack. This is a remarkable story and well worth checking out. The photos (at the end of the ebook version) are especially sweet, showing the reunited family with smiles all around.

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Book review: The Eerie Silence

The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien IntelligenceThe Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence by Paul Davies
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paul Davies, the chair of SETI’s Post-Detection Science and Technology Taskgroup, wrote The Eerie Silence in 2010, a short time after the Kepler space telescope launched. Back then a handful of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) had been discovered. Since then Kepler alone has confirmed over 2,300 exoplanets and estimates for the observable universe go as high as 5.3 trillion.

That’s a lot of planets.

And yet seven years later, the eerie silence Davies wrote about persists. You might think that over 50 years of observation by SETI failing to yield any tangible results would be disheartening and indeed, Davies does admit it can be a little depressing when you focus solely on the lack of any clear signal that we are not alone in the universe. But he remains hopeful that life here is not a one-time fluke among the billions of star systems. That hope is tempered by his adherence to the scientific method, of observation and testing, with minimal speculation.

It is that speculation, though, that forms the heart of the book. Davies presents comprehensive scenarios on how other planets might support life, what that life might be like, how alien races might communicate with us–or if they would even bother. He takes a dim view on fictional portrayals of aliens as malevolent beings looking to wipe us out and constantly warns against falling into the trap of anthropocentric thought. H notes that we might not even recognize aliens because they could exist in a state we can’t comprehend.

Davies also spends time covering how SETI and others would handle the world-changing confirmation of other intelligent life (he doesn’t put much stock in politicians or government handling it well).

In all, this is a wonderfully detailed and engaging look into the possibility of life beyond Earth. Davies keeps coming up with unique angles on how to approach looking for signs of communication–whether intentional or incidental, on how other intelligent beings might act and evolve, and why he is still passionate about continuing the search for other intelligent species beyond the confines of our solar system.

Highly recommended.

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Book review: Steal Like an Artist

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being CreativeSteal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a quick little inspirational tome designed to help spur creativity, supplemented by Kleon’s quirky choice of photographs and his own hand-drawn art and notes.

His advice, backed up by quotes from notable creative types, is sensible while some of the particulars reflect what works well for him but may not work so well for everyone else. He cheerfully recommends jettisoning anything you don’t think will work for you.

Some of his ideas are interesting–having both a digital and analog desk, keeping a simple logbook (not to be confused with a diary or journal) and having a praise file for days when you are feeling down or uninspired. Others, like a giant year-long calendar you can X off each day as you complete tasks, I am less sold on.

The enthusiasm and spirit with which he presents his advice are bound to get you motivated to try something, though. And his drawing style is weirdly cute. Recommended.

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Book review: Brandwashed

BrandwashedBrandwashed by Martin Lindstrom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Martin Lindstrom’s Brandwashed is in many ways not surprising to those who are familiar with the lengths that companies will go to in order to market their products. What still surprised me, though, was how improved technology has allowed these companies to propel their efforts to new, absurd and downright creepy heights.

Whether it’s carefully-arranged store displays presenting illusions designed to elicit specific emotions or memories, efforts to market not just to adults, teens and children, but even to babies, or the use of sophisticated data-mining to target individuals with a disturbing level of precision, Brandwashed paints a picture of a world in which we are constantly bombarded with messages–usually subliminal–to buy certain products and services.

Lindstrom’s perspective is that of an insider, and he cites not only numerous case studies and marketing campaigns, but some he has orchestrated directly himself. He comes across a bit apologetic at times and even tries to reveal some of the good in these insidious techniques, like attempts to woo consumers toward more green products, but he also rightfully raises concerns over privacy and reach.

The book focuses on a different aspect of marketing in each chapter and the style and tone remain light, even as Lindstrom reminds us of how the flat where George Orwell wrote 1984 now has 32 closed-circuit cameras mounted within 200 yards of it.

While the thrust of the book remains as potent in 2017 as when it was originally published in 2011, some of the observations are bound to raise a few eyebrows just six years later (likely in dismay):

On the male side, there are colognes attached to the famous names Justin Timberlake, David Beckham, Usher, Tim McGraw, Andre Agassi, and even Donald Trump. “We are confident that men of all ages want to experience some part of Mr. Trump’s passion and taste for luxury,” said Aramis president Fabrice Weber.25 Actually, it appears they don’t. In one of the few cases where putting a celebrity name on a product didn’t work, a few years after it hit the shelves, according to one gimlet-eyed blogger, Donald Trump for Men could be found on clearance at T. J. Maxx for $8, down from $48.

Brandwashed is an easy recommendation for anyone wondering just how far companies will go to get us to buy their stuff (which is a lot further than most probably imagine).

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Book review: How to Grow a Novel

How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome ThemHow to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them by Sol Stein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a sucker for “how to write a novel” books and when How to Grow a Novel was on sale, I picked it up as I was interested in Stein’s perspective not just as a writer but also as an editor and publisher.

There’s some good stuff here and the advice is practical and precise, if sometimes contradictory. Stein both advises writers to read their own work aloud–and to not do so (because novels are read, not heard). He offers some genuinely interesting glimpses into how the book publishing business works (or at least worked, as the book was originally published in 1999, predating the rise of self-publishing through e-books).

I enjoyed the use of specific excerpts to underline the points being made but was less enthused with the self-promotion. The book Stein recommends the most is his own. At times he makes Stein On Writing sound better than this book, perhaps hoping to net a few more sales.

By the end, I found How to Grow a Novel more interesting as a reflection on the book publishing industry and less on the actual writing of a novel. A beginning writer could do worse (the stories of six-figure advances may be depressing in a way Stein didn’t anticipate) but could also do better, especially if looking for help that more readily mixes nuts and bolts advice with inspiration.

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