Writing prompts and zen koans

Writing Down the Bones is a book of something like zen koans combined with writing prompts. The chapters are never more than 4 short pages (the book is physically small), and are designed to get you to sit down and write after you read each one.

It was not super-useful to me, honestly. I’m not often in a space (physical or mental) where I can switch between reading and writing like that. I did try to just sit down and read it, but the chapters were too short and pithy to flow well.

I’m sure Writing Down the Bones works for some folks. It wasn’t for me.

Wonderful and terrible and full of life

The Collected Schizophrenias – a book of essays that functions as a memoir, by a person suffering a mild form of schizophrenia – is both wonderful and terrible. Is this what sublime means?

The writing is beautiful and detailed, though be forewarned that the first essay about the DSM-IV and its history might only be interesting if you’re into the ins and outs of psychological politics. The other essays capture:

  • what it’s like to have hallucinations;
  • what it’s like to have Cotard’s Delusion, which is being absolutely convinced that you’re dead;
  • the oddness of trying to convince your doctor that you’re sane when you’ve been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital;
  • how society (read: Yale) treats you when you’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia (spoiler alert: not well).

I am a person who always develops a certain amount of empathy for the main character in whatever I’m reading. That meant feeling not entirely well whilst reading this book. My teenager kept asking me if I was all right. I decided to plow through as fast as I could so as to be in this mindset as briefly as possible. Reading the whole book was necessary – putting it down was never an option.

The Collected Schizophrenias was vital to me. Highly recommended.

Ignorance is bliss?

The White Princess is a family drama, it’s just that the family is royalty and all of the family politics is on steroids. It takes place in the immediate years after Henry VII has become king, right after the Wars of the Roses. He marries Elizabeth, daughter of a prior, much-beloved King, Edward IV. The story is told from her perspective

Elizabeth deliberately keeps herself ignorant so she can live and be queen of England. Her mother is plotting to get one of her own relatives to overthrow Henry VII, meanwhile he’s running everything in tandem with his mother, Margaret. Elizabeth’s mother-in-law should have been queen. Honestly. She puts Henry VII on the throne because it was unthinkable that she could have been in charge. Everyone would have been better off if she had; Henry VII would have been happier as a person instead of as a king. He comes off as paranoid and incompetent for ignoring his wife who a) knows how to rule and b) is just trying to survive.

The White Princess is very much recommended if you like either family or historical dramas.

Making you hungry since the 1960s

My Life in France is Julia Child’s memoir and it made me endlessly hungry.

It really is her memoir of her time in France and of how she came to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volumes 1 & 2. It is full of her passion for food, a thing she came to late in life. As a result, she worked all the harder at it, creating what was one of the classic cookbooks. It took more than a decade to complete!

Her passion and total dedication to her subject – food – is as interesting as the Beastie Boys’ passion and dedication to music. The fervor comes through the writing, the way she would recreate recipes over and over to make sure they worked, her dedication to writing everything clearly, the way the recipes were tested by others before they were ever published.

I wanted a good fish meunière by the time I was done. Recommended.

The Beastie Boys Book is a delight

I was never more than a casual, occasional Beastie Boys fan. I listened to this audio book for two reasons: I had a free book on Audible and Linda Holmes enthusiastically recommended it.

The Beastie Boys Book is a history of the band as told by its two remaining members, Michael Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horowitz (Adroc). It captures their passion and enthusiasm for both New York City in the late 70s/early 80s and music. Their story is a delight to listen to. It took longer than expected to listen to the book because I kept wandering off to Spotify to listen to music I hadn’t heard in awhile or hadn’t heard before. (Someone, bless their heart, made a playlist of all the songs and artists mentioned in the book.)

Specifically, I’d recommend listening to the audiobook. Why? There are a ton of voices, not just theirs, people like Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, and so, so many others read chapters. Not surprisingly, a hugely successful band knows how to put together a quality audio product.

I can’t stop, won’t stop recommending the Beastie Boys Book to everyone in my real life, so here’s me, continuing to do it on the internet.

Round up the usual suspects

Destination Casablanca is about Operation Torch, the Allied operation in 1942 to invade French Morocco and Algeria; this allowed the Allies to gain an operational toe-hold in Africa to fight the Nazis from another side.

France held a weird position during WWII. The official French government was headed by Petain and collaborated with the Nazis: France was our enemy. But there were a LOT of dissenters – the decision to surrender to Germany in order to maintain a semblance of self-control was not unified by any means. A lot of army officers who didn’t necessarily agree with that decision were posted to France’s colonies – including Algeria and French Morocco. Which meant that a fair number of the officers in these two colonies were sympathetic to the Allied cause. A major part of Operation Torch was figuring out who they could trust and how much.

I also got to learn about Josephine Baker’s espionage career, which was a delight. She would smuggle messages on sheet music.

I would recommend Destination Casablanca, but be forewarned that the actual chapters on the battle sometimes get bogged down in detail.

Shipwrecks and leadership

Island of the Lost is a book about a shipwreck in the 1860s, south of New Zealand, and the five men who survived against all odds. This is the story of their struggle, their teamwork, how and what they ate, the house they built, and the engineering ingenuity that allowed them to endure through 18 months of being stranded. (Seriously, the engineering skills were crazy amazing. There was one point where I was reminded of The Professor from Gilligans Island. Alas, no coconut radios for these gents.)

It’s contrasted with another shipwreck on the other side of the same island while these men were on the other. Those men were not well-led and most of them did not survive a much, much shorter abandonment.

I read Island of the Lost purely for book club – it’s not a book I would have picked up on my own. That said, I would recommend it if you like shipwreck stories or are looking for non-cheesy leadership lessons.

Not in the mood for sci-fi

Giving up on The City in the Middle of the Night was a hard decision that was easy to do once I made it. It has nothing to do with the book. Her writing is great, and I was drawn into the world building. Alas, I realized shortly after I picked it up that I was really, really not in the mood for science fiction. Sometimes that happens.

Charlie Jane Anders is an amazing writer, and I would encourage you to read The City in the Middle of the Night if you are into science fiction.

Contagious Joy Fairy

The Austen Playbook is a contemporary romance novel, and I thought this was one of Lucy Parker’s better books. The romance is front and center; but the subplot is a mystery that needs to be solved – just what happened between the protagonists’ grandparents, anyway? It added a level of conflict that propelled the story along – romance novels can sometimes be short on plot and require the main characters to have unrealistic conflicts. That didn’t happen here.

Plus, the main character is described at one point as a contagious joy fairy. She is a naturally upbeat person, but isn’t obnoxiously so. Just like being around happy people usually makes me happier, being around the main character in this book also makes me happier.

The Austen Playbook is definitely recommended.

Charm and snacks

I have been looking forward to Somewhere Only We Know since I first learned about it last fall. Why? Because Maurene Goo writes delightful teen romances that I quite enjoy. But also because this is an updated take on Roman Holiday, one of my favorite movies.

In Roman Holiday, a princess whose life is too structured, escapes the palace after taking a sleeping pill, only to be found mostly asleep on the street by a journalist. He thinks he’s stumbled onto the story of the year, only as they spend the day together they start to fall in love. He decides that he can’t publish the story, and she returns to her life at the palace. They go their separate ways.

Somewhere Only We Know is basically the same story, but in Hong Kong instead of Rome, and with the top female K-Pop star instead of a royal princess. And instead of a journalist, it’s a paparazzo who would much rather be studying photography, but he hasn’t figured that out yet.

Both Roman Holiday and Somewhere Only We Know are full of charm and delight and love for their locations. Somewhere Only We Know is definitely also in love with food. You are likely going to be hungry whilst eating it. Have snacks handy.

If you like a teen romance with a travel flavor? This is your book.