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Thoughts on Do the Work by Steven Pressfield

Do the Work by Steven PressfieldIt’s tough to write about Do the Work by Steven Pressfield without focusing on how the book was published. It’s the second release from the Domino Project, a joint effort between Amazon and Seth Godin. Their first book was Poke the Box by Godin himself, though in Do the Work Godin limits himself to the introduction.

Pressfield is also the author of a slew of successful novels, including Gates of Fire and The Legend of Bagger Vance.  In Do the Work, he revisits the advice from his wonderfully titled War of Art, offering a basic roadmap for tackling creative projects. He focuses on the concept of Resistance–yes, with a capital “R”–and how it can freeze us on the blank page. He writes mostly of writing, but the formula he lays out could equally apply to any entrepreneurial or political endeavor–anything that requires a massive effort to yank a something from the void. The central tenant is that Resistance will show its fangs each step of the way and must be bludgeoned into submission. To do this, we employ the power of stupidity and its other allies. Don’t overthink it. Banish perfectionism from the creative process.

There’s nothing profoundly new here, and the book doesn’t offer as concrete of a plan as it claims. It’s more rough outline, wrapped in a harsh–think drill sergeant–pep talk. It’s also a slim tome. I was able to read it cover to cover on the bus ride to and from work. But I’ll revisit it, once I get stuck and need a firm kick in the butt to get going again. The book reminded me of Unleash the Warrior Within by Richard J. Machowicz, which I strongly suspect Pressfield has read. His references to the Navy SEAL training program seem to have been drawn from Machowicz’s stories. Though this other book goes beyond the pep talk, and offers help with understanding and evaluating priorities.

I picked up the ebook version of Do the Work for free through a sponsorship that the Domino Project received from General Electric. (Only after reading Do the Work did I realize that this is the second book by Pressfield that I’ve read. Gates of Fire, his novel about the battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece, was much beloved at the bookstore where I once worked.) The ebook was briefly priced at $9.99, but for now at least, is free again. It seems to have been designed with the ebook format in mind. The cover–like the first book from the Domino Project–is a single image with no text, perfect for a postage-stamp sized icon. There are chunks of super-sized text throughout the book. And whole pages dedicated to a single–white on black–word.

There’s also a signed, limited edition hardback that comes with a special metal plate–one with a 16th-century style engraving, no less–that’s available for $65. I love to see the Domino Project experimenting with new formats, taking the book beyond just pixels on a screen or bound paper. I suspect this won’t be the last offering from the Domino Project to land on my Kindle.

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Thoughts on Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

For months, Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart has been hovering near the bottom of the list of the top 100 free Kindle ebooks. It’s a collection of letters from a Wyoming homesteader, dated from when she first arrived on her claim in 1909, through 1913. They’re all addressed to her friend and former employer in Denver, who seems to have seen more in the letters than their author did. Stewart emerges as a big hearted woman, who would most likely be shocked that her letters are achieving such fame a century after she wrote them.

She had no formal training as a writer, but her words–as well as her frequent book references–show that she must have been a voracious reader. She brings the old West to life, but not in the way I would have expected. The people here are wonderful characters, full of life and generous almost to a fault. She describes food so well that all opinions I had previously of bland, canned diets have been vanquished. It seems there was often a cause for a feast. Stewart bountifully describes meals piled high by the side of makeshift campfires, putting today’s fast food standards to shame.

But it’s in her descriptions of the Wyoming landscape where Stewart truly excels. It’s obvious that she fell in love with this land, reveled in all that nature had to offer. The letters are riddled with evocative descriptions:

For a distance our way lay up Henry’s Fork valley; prosperous little ranches dotted the view, ripening grain rustled pleasantly in the warn morning sunshine, and closely cut alfalfa fields made bright spots of emerald against the dun landscape. The quaking aspens were just beginning to turn yellow; everywhere purple asters were a blaze of glory except where the rabbit-bush grew in clumps, waving its feathery plumes of gold. Over it all the sky was so deeply blue, with little, airy, white clouds drifting lazily along. Every breeze brought scents of cedar, pine, and sage. At this point the road wound along the base of the cedar hills; some magpies were holding a noisy caucus among the trees, and high overhead a great black eagle soared.

The letters are often separated by months, and usually detail trips Stewart took to neighboring homesteads. A fiercely independent woman, she made a habit of bundling her young children into a wagon and heading out into the countryside, where she often would need to take an unexpected detour and spend the night camping out.  Lots of elaborate tales of weddings, pot luck dinners, and holiday get-togethers. Her tone is upbeat, if not inspirational, and there is only the slightest hint of all the work that must have happened between such festivities, little more than side references to how much labor was involved with the day-to-day life of a homesteader.

Stewart comes across as downright contemporary. One can only imagine what she would make of the connectivity that modern communications would have allowed the homesteader. Her letters are a real treasure, a wonderful portrayal of life in the not-so-old West.

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Thoughts on Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher fits snugly into the dystopian trend in young adult fiction. It tells the story of two people in different worlds. There’s Finn, an inmate in a futuristic prison with the same name as the book. He has no memory of his childhood, and is convinced that he did what no one else in the vast prison has done… seen outside. Then there is Claudia, daughter of the warden of Incarceron, who lives in a highly refined and aristocratic world, one where technology is artificially held back through Protocol.

The book starts with a bang, with Finn about to be run over, and doesn’t let up much through the end. Fisher has mastered the art of throwing rocks at her characters, though it’s often–perhaps as a result of so many hurled rocks–the secondary characters who feel more deftly drawn, if not outright likeable. Attia, a slave girl, was my favorite. She was unquestionably devoted to her master, yet also more than capable of taking care of herself. Lord Evian, a tireless sycophant with a secret, came a close second.

The settings of the book are wonderfully evocative, and change rapidly. Finn moves through the prison world, making his way out from the belly of the beast. Often it feels like the stage sets are the real stars of the book, and the main characters just show up to move the furniture around. Yes, this book fired on all cylinders, but it ultimately never captured me the way I hoped it would.

I did come to Incarceron with high expectations. It was the most recommended young adult fantasy at the SCBWI Weekend on the Water writer’s retreat last November. I heard more than one rave over it. And yes, the book is the work of a master wordsmith and highly skilled storyteller. But it all felt a bit like watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster. The sets were fantastic. The lighting and atmosphere spot on. The actors immensely talented. But the sum of it all somehow lacking.

There were so many opportunities where Incarceron could have offered much more than action, but it never seems to have taken aim for the profound. The story surged from one instance of mortal peril or jaw-dropping scenery to the next, never asking anything too serious of the reader. So that in the end, I wasn’t quite sure what Incarceron is about, and feel that in spite of the fine skill that Fisher displays, I’ll soon forget all about this prison and its inmates.

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Thoughts on The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

The Lightning Thief by Rick RiordanI read The Lightning Thief primarily to see what all the fuss is about. It’s the first in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan, which seems to have taken over multiple shelves in book stores everywhere. Of course, the film adaption this year has helped matters, but there’s no denying that the books were already doing quite well without any Hollywood interference.

The story is straightforward enough. Percy Jackson has never done all that well in school, suffers from both ADHD and dyslexia, and is prone to freak accidents. This all starts to make sense when he discovers that he is a half-blood, with a god for an absentee father. The Greek gods are alive and well, and relocated to America in the not-too-distant past. Percy soon finds himself at a camp with other half-bloods, the first place where he has ever felt at home. Soon enough the action kicks in again and Percy sets off on his quest to battle a small chunk of the pantheon and ward off World War III.

The parallels to Harry Potter are unavoidable, but this book feels quite different. It has a breezy style so that the book is more easily inhaled than read. The pages turn quickly. The plot, while somewhat formulaic and at times predictable, never relents. Even the most reluctant reader will find this book an easy challenge to finish. This is a great book for boys, with far more focus on action than quiet moments. And yes, there is at least one explosion. The creatures and monsters that pop up throughout are done well, but not so well that they’re likely to induce nightmares. There are also enough comedic interludes and spots for brief reflection to please more thoughtful young readers, though the book never wavers from its intent to entertain first and foremost.

That said, The Lightning Thief is not all mayhem. It sneaks in a crash course in Greek mythology. The gods are all present and slightly reinvented for the contemporary kid. These parts of the book feel somewhat inspired by Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, reimagined for kids. Each history is given in an engaging way that puts my high school Greek history class to shame. All around, the book has piqued my interest to seek out the second in the series. There are five books in all released to date. Another factor likely to please hesitant readers: the books stay pretty slim… unlike that other infamous series.

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6 Rules for Writing Book Reviews

A couple of author blogs that I follow have had some great recent posts on the role of the book reviewer. First, Mark Charan Newton weighed in with a discussion on the value of hype. And then Sam Sykes on reviewing authors on their own merits rather than through comparisons with other authors. One thing that doesn’t seem to be open for debate is that the reviewer has been yanked out of the ivory tower. No longer is the club limited to those with access to a publishing outlet. Today, anyone with an internet connection can join, and start posting reviews far and wide.

I love this egalitarian approach. It makes for an interesting precursor to what we’re likely to see happen with the book itself over the next 10 years. But as is so often lamented on this topic, quality will vary greatly. We’ll need these egalitarian reviews to help us figure out what to read as the number of books published in the English language soars past the 1-million-per-year mark. As someone who used to review books for The Seattle Times, I’ve likely thought a bit more about the subject of the book review than most.

Here’s my two cents on the essential elements of a book review:

1) It all starts with book selection. Reviewing a book puts it above the other books published by both traditional presses and independent authors. This is why I harbor such angst for Kirkus Discoveries. They’ve abdicated one of the most important roles of the book reviewer: choosing what gets reviewed. They’ve prostituted this out to anyone willing to cough up $500. There’s also the slew of review factories willing to write reviews and post them on Amazon for a fee. In some ways I find them less reprehensible though. They’re at least up front about the prostitution part of their work.

2) Read the book. Yes, the whole dang thing. It’s amazing how many reviewers–even those of the professional ilk–don’t do this. I feel that I have two options if I’m not liking a book that I intend to review. One, finish it and write the review. Two, throw it across the room and review something else.

3) Convey an impression of what the experience of reading the book is like. This is the most important aspect of the book review. People read reviews to decide if this book is worth their money, and more importantly, their time. The reading experience is intensely personal. No two readers walk away from even the same book with the same understanding of it. The most valuable thing a reviewer can do is not christen a book as good or bad–thumbs up or thumbs down–but let readers know what a book is like.

4) Review the book that’s there. The desire to review the book that the reviewer wishes was there, instead of the one that actually was written, can be huge. It doesn’t do either the author or the reader any favors. The review should demonstrate that it understands what the author set out to do, and then comment on how well this was achieved. If it’s a thriller, review it as such with plot and pacing paramount. If it’s a literary novel, look at language and style and theme. If the book is overly hyped, ignore it. If you’ve heard the author is Charles Dickens reincarnated, ignore that too. Just read the dang book and write about what’s there.

5) No spoilers. Again, this should go without saying. While a bit of summary is good, anything more than what’s revealed in the official publisher blurb is too much.

6) Understand that every review reviews the reviewer as much as what’s reviewed. A book review says as much about the person writing it, often more, than it does about the book itself. This to a large extent is why I stopped writing reviews for The Seattle Times. As I got into my own writing and came to understand how much work it is to write a novel, I came to question if I had any right to say anything at all about what someone else had written.

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Thoughts on The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is one of those books that seems to pop up everywhere. It’s at the front of all the major bookstores, is mentioned with envy at every writer’s conference, and was featured prominently in a recent New Yorker article on the rise of the dystopian kid lit novel. The Hunger Games had caught my attention, but it didn’t make it onto my list until I saw my 12-year-old niece reading it. She was even nice enough to buy me a copy of it last Christmas, though I’ve only just now snatched it from the shelf.

Once I dug in, it didn’t take long to understand why the book gets such rave reviews from all corners. This is not a book that’s read, so much as swallowed by the spoonful. The story follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. It’s set in a future society in the North American Rockies, following some unspecified cataclysmic event. A rich capital city is surrounded by 12 provinces, all overrun with varying degrees of impoverishment. Each year, to keep the provinces in line, there is a lottery that selects two children from each province to become contenders in the namesake Hunger Games. It’s a critique of our reality-TV-drenched society, only in this world the games are a fight to death… between kids. Last one alive wins. Katniss, of course, ends up as a contender for her coal-mining province, the poorest of the poor.

Collins does a superb job of launching the plot from the first page, but offers much more than just relentless story. The reader quickly develops deep empathy for these characters. While Collins never does stop throwing rocks–sometimes quite literally–at her beloved Katniss, the book also has highly reflective moments for her. These come crashing to an end, long before they get boring, with some new disaster that Katniss must claw her way out from under.

One of the most striking things about this book is how it deals with death, which is featured rather prominently and sometimes almost gruesomely for a kid’s book. Collins hasn’t created a moving novel on mortality like Tuck Everlasting, or one that reflects on humanity’s weaknesses like The Lord of the Flies, but she does pluck at something more profound than just the heartstrings. I highly recommend it for kids and adults alike, just slightly older kids. It’s not a good candidate for bedtime reading for truly little ones. The sequel, Catching Fire, was released late last year, and we’ll probably all hear a great deal–perhaps too much–about the third book in the series, Mockingjay, when it’s released this August.

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Thoughts on Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me

"Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me"I first found Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me in the library about 30 years ago. At the time I was an avid fan of the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series for young readers. I had finished all of those books, so went to the card catalog to track down more Hitchcock, blissfully unaware that the kid’s series had little to do with him. I found this collection, which was edited by Hitchcock, in the grownup section of the library. When I checked the book out, I felt certain the librarian would forbid it, but she was none the wiser.

I read the first story, “Fishhead” by Irvin S. Cobb, that night. Written in 1913, it’s the earliest work in the collection. It’s a hugely atmospheric story about a remote lake and an outcast. And it gave me nightmares that first night, and then on and off for about five years.

I closed the book and returned it, feeling the librarian should have been more diligent in her duties. But it stuck with me, and nearly three decades later I tracked it down. That first story is still thrilling, but no nightmares this time. Those were saved for “One of the Dead” by William Wood. This story from 1966 is about a haunted house in California, again hugely atmospheric but this time loaded with a 60’s chic feel.

There’s other gems in the collection. “Not with a Bang” by Damon Knight tells of the last man and woman on the planet. “The Cage” by Ray Russell shows clearly how an author can be a sadist with his characters. “Guide to Doom” by Ellis Peters has tremendous characterization in just five pages. “Journey to Death” by Donald E. Westlake makes one happy that planes have since replaced ships for travel. There are two novellas as well. “Out of the Deeps” by John Wyndham details an alien invasion, but at a pace that’s stunningly slow by today’s standards. “It” by Theodore Sturgeon is largely predictable, though notable as it’s by the only author from the book that I knew before reading it. That’s one the biggest pleasures in rediscovering this collection, tracking down these nearly forgotten authors.

The stories date mostly from the 50’s and 60’s, or “the day of the swinger” according to Hitchcock in the introduction. Many of them present avant garde couples surrounded by square, flat houses with minimalist furniture. But there is a subtext: all is not quite so perfect in this world that prides itself on order and cleanliness. The stories harken to a time when one only needed to “remove the receiver” to cut the world off. When newspapers still reigned, and there was time for much rumination before action. Or as the narrator in Wyndham’s novella notes about a newspaper he encounters, but doesn’t much like:

Though it is, I am aware, not without its merits and even well thought of in some circles, it leaves me with an abiding sense that it is more given to expressing its first prejudices than its second thoughts. Perhaps if it were to go to press a day later.

Thirty years in the making, and far from my first prejudice, I highly recommend this collection. It’s long out of print, but was a book club pick so there are a few second hand copies that can be found.

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