Archive for the 'Good Reads For Writers' Category



The Know-it-all: One Man’s Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs

Cathy BelbenGood Reads For Writers

Reviewed by Cathy Belben

Writer A.J. Jacobs discovers early in his wise and witty journey through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) that “the Britannica is not a book you can skim. This is a book that you have to pay full attention to, like needlepoint or splinter removal…The reading is much, much harder than I expected.”

 

What happens to someone when they read the EB in its entirety? Jacobs finds that random conversations trigger memories of his new (and sometimes trivial) knowledge; he makes some unexpected discoveries about himself, and he learns about the book—its history and construction, its errors, omissions, prejudices, and peculiarities. In a particularly funny section, he lists his deduction of how something gets an entry into the EB. Getting beheaded generally works, as do winning the Nobel prize, being the mistress of a monarch, and “becoming a liturgical vestment.”

Reading The Know-It-All is not just reading a book about a guy reading a bunch of books. It’s a trip through history, a reminder about just how much there is to know, learn, do, see, and appreciate about the world.

Cathy Belben lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she earned early fame for her award-winning fourth grade essay, “What the flag means to me” and later wrote bad rhyming poetry for the Whatcom Middle School Warrior Express. She recently survived a year in Hollywood writing for the show Veronica Mars. She’s returned to her normal life as a high school teacher and librarian, a triathlete, a weightlifter, a yogi, a dog’s mom, a cat’s slave, an artist, a napper, a nanny and an auntie. She’s thankful every day for everything.

What Would MacGyver Do: True Stories of Improvised Genius in Everyday Life Edited by Brendan Vaughan

Cathy Belben

Good Reads for Writers

Reviewed By Cathy Belben
A short list of things I have not done: destroyed a laser using binoculars and cigarettes, plugged a sulfuric acid leak with chocolate, converted an umbrella into a grappling hook, built a bomb out of toothpaste. My greatest act of improvised genius? Devising a better way to empty the cat box.

Even if you weren’t a fan of the ’80s TV show MacGyver, whose main character was notorious for his ingenious solutions and incredible escapes, you’ll enjoy the essay collection What Would MacGyver Do: True Stories of Improvised Genius in Everyday Life edited by Brendan Vaughan. Writers describe scenarios in which their creative problem-solving has allowed them to do everything from cleaning the gutters to stopping an asthma attack.

Except for a couple of cameos by better-known writers (Esquire’s Chuck Klosterman, for example), most of the contributors are regular folks who had a good idea and a fun story to tell. Besides learning some novel strategies for situations like using Chex Mix for car traction in the snow, I was also inspired by the idea of writing about unique solutions to problems, and I think other writers will be, too. As you read What Would MacGyver Do,consider writing about your own life and the unique, creative ways you’ve solved problems or escaped from uncomfortable situations—you’re almost certain to come up with a fun writing topic.

Cathy Belben lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she earned early fame for her award-winning fourth grade essay, “What the flag means to me” and later wrote bad rhyming poetry for the Whatcom Middle School Warrior Express. She recently survived a year in Hollywood writing for the show Veronica Mars. She’s returned to her normal life as a high school teacher and librarian, a triathlete, a weightlifter, a yogi, a dog’s mom, a cat’s slave, an artist, a napper, a nanny and an auntie. She’s thankful every day for everything.

Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell

Cathy Belben

Good Reads for Writers

Reviewed By Cathy Belben
My summer experience as a nanny for an infant required that I find things that I could do while watching him (at least from a short distance) and that could be done in the 5-10 minute intervals of time during which he wasn’t crying, pooping, or otherwise requiring attention. Surprising not only myself but many people close to me, I began cooking. And I don’t mean the usual cooking I’d been subsisting on for the last 30+ years—the kind that involved poking holes in a microwavable pouch and then spinning the food around in the magic box for a few minutes.

I mean actual cooking. The kind that requires drizzling tomatoes with olive oil and blanching things and soaking small fruits overnight in a bisque of brandy and cranberry juice. I made white sauce, clam sauce, pesto, chili, artichoke-garbanzo bean soup, and a bunch of other stuff that’s much easier to just buy in a can. But now I know what it feels like to be Julie Powell. Sort of.

Powell is the author of Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, her account of the year she cooked every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. No easy task, but Powell, feeling stuck and bored in her job as a temp, was eager for a challenge. Child’s cookbook is “childishly simple and dauntingly complex, incantatory and comforting,” Powell writes. Reading it, she says, “I thought this was what prayer must feel like. Sustenance bound up with anticipation and want.”

I won’t spoil the story for you, but I will say that reading about food is almost as fun as eating it, especially in the talented hands of a writer like Julie Powell. She could’ve written a book about deciding to watch NASCAR racing every day for a year and I probably still would have found it hilarious, fascinating, and completely impossible to put down. She’s that entertaining. Even if it doesn’t send you to the kitchen, Julie and Julia serves up a terrific sampling of how to weave a story and a life into an entertaining memoir.

Cathy Belben lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she earned early fame for her award-winning fourth grade essay, “What the flag means to me” and later wrote bad rhyming poetry for the Whatcom Middle School Warrior Express. She recently survived a year in Hollywood writing for the show Veronica Mars. She’s returned to her normal life as a high school teacher and librarian, a triathlete, a weightlifter, a yogi, a dog’s mom, a cat’s slave, an artist, a napper, a nanny and an auntie. She’s thankful every day for everything.


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