Thursday, January 31, 2008

Book 28 of 52: A Short History of the American Stomach by Frederick Kaufman

I wanted to like Frederick Kaufman's A Short History of the American Stomach. I really did. How could I not? I write about health and fitness, and I think a lot about our country's love/hate relationship with food. It's hard to ignore it when you consider that 66 percent of American adults are obese or overweight, yet every woman staring at you from a magazine cover is impossibly, photo shopped thin.

But I thought there might be a problem with the book when I opened it because of one factor and one factor only: the font size.

This is a generously spaced book. The font size is on par with those of young adult novels (it reminded me of Spanking Shakespeare, which was book 3 of 52). A lot of the quotes aren't included in paragraphs but broken apart from the narrative. For example, say this block you're reading right now was a portion of the book.

The quote would be hung out to dry like this.

And the narrative would continue on. It's not uncommon to see blocks of longer quotes in books, but some of the blocked out quotes were only a sentence long, and some pages has two, even three of them, each.

My instincts were right: this is an unfocused book. What I hoped would be an intense study of food culture is intead a glossing over. There's little about Kosher diets, and almost nothing about veganism. I expected at least something about anorexia and bulemia, and got nothing exept how the Puritans embraced it. Even in parts where Kaufman could have delved into modern examples of the binge/fast split -- like a food eating contest -- his descriptions are short and bland.

And I have to question the accuracy of the book, too. Toward the end, Kaufman writes: "I had even examined the social elements of pumpkin mania and could have told the story of the dedicated pumpkin hobbyist who had watered and manured an Atlantic Giant until it weighed more than 1300 pounds. A world record." Anyone who's read Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever or read anything about giant pumpkin growing knows that the world champion weight is over 1500 pounds -- and has been since 2006 (and even the 2005 winner was over 1400 pounds).

I struggled to finish the book. I'm not sure I would have made it through if I didn't have a review assigned (and I struggled with that, too).

If you have an interest in this topic, I suggest picking up David Kamp's The United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution. Even though it doesn't try to tackle the binge/fast topic, it does cover more about the evolution of the American menu, and it's a well researched, interesting and fun read. It'll take a lot longer to munch through than A Short History of the American Stomach, but, then again, with the way this book is spaced, just about every other grown up book will.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Commentary: Oprah's Latest Book Club Pick

Newsflash: Oprah's picked her next book club book. It's not a novel or memoir but -- get this -- a self help book: A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle.

Steve Salerno must be tearing his hair out (Salerno, who I interviewed for my Philadelphia Inquirer article about self help books, is not a fan). I'm keeping a close eye on his SHAM blog to see his reaction. I'm sure he'll be much more passionate that I could ever be about the topic (he did, after all, write Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless), but I'll go out on a limb to say our views are along the same line: a big thumbs down.

I remember when Oprah first started the book club. It brought literary fiction and powerful memoirs to the masses. I thought it was a great idea, even if I didn't always like the choices. It got people reading and discussing serious literature again.

But this? A book that amazon describes with the following? "Experience a more fulfilling life with Oprah's latest pick, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. Building on his bestselling Power of Now, Tolle shows why a transformation of consciousness is essential to finding personal happiness--and ending suffering throughout the world."

Touting another self help book? That doesn't seem to fit the point of the book club to me.

Granted, she's Oprah, and she can do whatever she wants. But I wish she'd stick to focusing on serious literature.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

PSA: Jack Russell Terriers are Not Purse Dogs


I'm going to stray from books for a moment to post about something that's been bothering me.

If you frequent gossip blogs or read tabloid magazines, you've probably seen pictures of Mariah Carey walking around with her Jack Russell Terrier (also known as know at Parson Russell Terriers), Jack. Jack is adorable. He wears cute outfits. He's been seen about town in the same way that a lot of celebs use little dogs: as accessories.

I'm not making any kind of assumptions about how Carey treats her dog. But I want to say that if you're thinking of getting a JRT based on the cute factor, that you consider one thing:

Jack Russell Terriers are crazy.

Now, hold on just a second before calling PETA. As I've written about before, I have a Jack Russell Terrier, a six year old gal named Emily. I love her dearly. She is -- obviously -- the prettiest girl in the whole wide world. Even so, she can be a difficult dog.

Jack Russell Terriers are very hyper. They like to bark. They like to chase. They like to jump. They don't always get along with other dogs (which is why Emily was in the shelter where I found her), and they require a lot of exercise and play. I don't know if I could have a Jack Russell Terrier if I didn't work at home and was able to walk her often, and even then, I sometimes think about hiring a part time dog walker so that someone else can help Emily expend her energy while I work.

Anyone who has a Jack knows this. But since Jacks are cute, they're frequently used in commercials and on TV. Eddie from Fraiser is the most obvious example. During one walk this summer, a batch of people screamed "Eddie!" to me and Emily as we walked by their house.

Even though she does sort of look like him, she doesn't act like him. He was an impeccably trained acting dog. Not all of us can train a dog, especially a strong willed dog, like that, and a lot of people who buy one thinking they're getting an Eddie are sorely disappointed, which is one of the reasons Jacks end up in shelters.

So if you're looking at a Jack Russell and thinking of getting one because he or she is cute -- heck, ANY dog that you see on TV and think might be a good dog for you -- I implore you to read up on the breed at the American Kennel Club. Here's the direct link for JRTs.

I would never discourage someone from getting a JRT. But, like picking any breed of animal, please do a lot of research and talk to a vet to figure out if that breed is going to fit into your lifestyle. While I could fit Emily into a purse, she's much happier walking by my side and has much more energy than my brother's 100 pound dog.

Don't believe me? Here's a video of Emily trying to get to a cat that was on the other side of that glass door (and, yes, I realize that it's facing the wrong way, but this was taken just when youtube started to be used by my grandparents).

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Book 27 of 52: Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction by James B. Stewart

"By all rights, completing a manuscript should be a joyous moment in any writer's career. Yet most writers I know suffer to varying extents from some form of postpartum depression. They may be suddenly racked by doubts that the story is any good. They worry about whether their editor will like it...Writers worry about where their next story or book will come from."

I highlighted a lot of passages in James B. Stewart's Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction, but this one stuck out the most, not only because it's toward the end of the book, but also because I know what he's talking about. I lived it for the last four months. And let me tell you, it ain't pretty.

I turned in the manuscript for my book on September 4, 2007. Late that afternoon, I e-mailed the files of the manuscript to my editor and dropped a hard copy in the mail. Then I went for a run, ordered some horribly unhealthy take out, had a beer, and went to bed. I planned on waking up the next morning, walking the dog, eating a bowl of Cheerios with bananas, and start freelancing full time once again.

This didn't happen -- not just the next day, but not for next weeks that turned into months. I stared at my computer and, when nothing came, alternated between hitting 'refresh' on my email and reading gossip sites. I didn't write queries. I didn't follow up with editors I assured I would contact after the book was done. I withdrew from my friends, my family, and slid into what can only be described as depression. I finally admitted I had a problem in the middle of October when I laid on the floor of the extra bedroom at my grandparents house and sobbed in front of my mother, who had no idea what was going on, or why I was so upset.

Eric Nuzum warned me this might happen. I interviewed him about The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Choculafor an article in Washingtonian magazine -- one of the two freelance articles I squeezed out in the last month before my book deadline. He pressed me to find a post-book project, and I tried. But when your income relies on work output and you're not outputting, the stress snowballs until you have one very depressed writer unable to write anything than blog posts.

This lasted about five months. Even when I finally contacted those editors and stopped being a hermit, my work was still slow going, and I knew I was turning in articles that weren't up to what I could do. I re-read essays I'd written years ago, and it didn't spur me on but only deepened my depression because I didn't write like that anymore. Sure, I could bang out a story on how to motivate yourself to get to the gym, but write something that would illuminate anything other than tips on personal fitness? I just couldn't do it.

Jack Wright, editor and publisher of Exit Zero and Cool Cape May (who also put in time as Executive Editor of Gear, US Weekly and Men's Journal before moving to Cape May for his own little slice of publishing heaven) saw this, and gave me a professional beating. When I saw the comments he leveled on the essay in question, I cried. I knew I had a writing problem, but whereas other people said that my writing was fine and would work itself out (a hope I clung to), Jack put my problems in front of me in very specific terms.

Now, he wasn't cruel, and Jack told me he thought it was a good start (even though I'd already gone through five drafts before turning in the essay). As we worked through the revisions, he suggested -- ordered, even -- that I read Follow the Story, and I'm glad he did.

Aside from Stewart's work as editor of The Wall Street Journal, he also wrote BLOOD SPORT: The President and His Adversaries (about the Clinton Watergate scandal) and Den of Thieves (about the insider trading culture and downfall of the 1980s).

In Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction, Stewart explains the mechanisms of how those kinds of books (and articles from The New Yorker) are researched, written, built and edited.

Even though the book could double as a journalism textbook (and I'm sure it does), I was hooked like I would be with any good piece of narrative non-fiction. I usually use scrap paper as bookmarks, but I used a highlighter this time because I marked so many passages that seemed like they were written for me:

"The key to a successful lead is quite simple: it must attract and hold readers by re-creating in their minds the same curiosity that drove you to undertake the story in the first place."

"Don't waste your time working on stories in which you aren't really interested. Life is too short; there are too many good stories to be written; and your lack of enthusiasm, I can almost guarantee, will be painfully apparent in your finished work. Writing is never entirely painless, but satisfying one's own curiosity should certainly be one of its greatest pleasures."

"Find good editors. And when you do, stay with them, treasure them, and thank them."

I applied Stewart's advice to articles I worked on while I read the book, and I know it's going to change how I approach the profile I'm writing about a cable news anchor. His advice has also reinforced that I need to try writing my other book, one I started writing in 2002. I didn't have the reporting skills then to write the book I envisioned, but I think that I've gained enough professional skills in the last six years go do the book right.

I never went to journalism school -- I'm a firm believer in learning by doing and self-education, and Stewart's book plays right into those believes. It, and the dressing down by that editor, have given me the confidence and drive to go out and get that agent and get that deal that will lead to my second book.

I'm also glad Stewart concluding the book by writing about why he left law to go into writing, and how, even though the financial gains weren't immediate, he stuck with it. Since college, I've been told to go into law because I'd be good at it. That might be true, but I wouldn't have the drive for law that I do for writing, post-book depression or not. I like what I do, and hopefully with the new zip in my step (and in my typing), I'll continue to be able to do it.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Comic: Pearls Before Swine on Dating Books

Sometimes it's not a picture but a comic that says 1000 words. I almost spit my milk out my nose when I read this one.

Check out more Pearls Before Swine here.

Sorry that the image is so small -- I can't figure out how to make it larger. But you can click the comic to enlarge it.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Interview: Daphne Oz, author of The Dorm Room Diet

Click here to check out an interview with Daphne Oz, author of The Dorm Room Diet: The 8-Step Program for Creating a Healthy Lifestyle Plan That Really Works. Once a week, I inteview someone with South Jersey Shore connections for the "Down the Shore with..." series on my Down the Shore with Jen blog. Why the South Jersey shore? Because that's what my bookis about.

I'd read Oz's book before, and it makes sense whether you're in a dorm or not. Oz also vacationed in Stone Harbor and IDs Green Cuisine in Stone Harbor as one of her favorite places to eat (and I agree with her).

You can read the entire "Down the Shore with..." series here.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Book 26 of 52: Design Flaws of the Human Condition by Paul Schmidtberger

I planned on Design Flaws of the Human Conditionby Paul Schmidtberger being an earlier entry on this blog, but a few things block that path:
1. I left my copy of the book at my mom's house
2. I had to read all those dating books for guys.

But I finished the book this morning, and as much as I hate to admit it, I was more than ready to move onto whatever book 27 of 52 will be.

For a first novel, it's not bad. The premise is interesting -- people who don't really need anger management classes meet in an anger management class, become friends, and work together through their relationship woes. It has funny parts, especially in the beginning where Schmidtberger describes WHY the characters ended up in the class.

But if I were the editor, I would have toned down the Hit-You-Over-the-Head metaphors that cluttered up the final chapters. I'm all for a subtle suggestion of comparing, say, a design flaw on an alarm clock with design flaws in a relationship, but to put it out there in glaring black and white was a turn off for me. I was ready for the book to end, even if I did want to find out what happened to the characters. If I didn't care, I wouldn't have finished the book.

Some highlights, though, and there are many that struck a chord with this single gal:

On being single: "Being single stank. Being single meant being shunted off to the sidelines of society. Ken was back to being single and look at him -- sitting on his couch bathed in the flickering blue glow of couples and families who were having fun." Being single has its finer points, but sometimes when you're sitting on that couch with no one but the dog to keep you warm, yes, it stinks.

On thinking about your ex: "I didn't ever like the way Brett made me sound. Brett doesn't bring out the best in me, and while he's at it, while he's not bringing out the best in me, he's making up for it bringing out the worst in me. To the point where I can say, without the slightest hesitation, that I don't like the way he makes me sound. It was shocking. 'Brett and I weren't right for each other,' Ken though. A single, baseball-sized hailstone on an otherwise crystal-cler day. Who would have imagined?" As I've mentioned before on this blog, I had difficult time getting past the guy I broke ties with about a year ago. And it was only when I had almost this EXACT realization that I knew I was over it, and him. That guy brought out the worst in me, and who wants to be with someone like that?

On running: "So she ran in the mornings, and she tried to sort things out in her head, and there was never a moment of inspiration when everything suddenly became clear to her. Instead, she plodded along and with time she began to develop a better stride and she began to make it all the weay around the reservoir without resting, and then she began to do it a little faster, and then there was a moment when she first passed somebody else, as opposed to always being passed." I'm a distance runner, and I became one when my involvement with said icky ex began. Yes, that time happened to coincide with an article assignment about running, but I think I was so dedicated to it because it becamse my way of sorting things out in my head. Is it any surprise then, that when the final ax fell on that relationship, I started training for a half marathon? I think not.

I had to quit that training for a lot of reasons (mostly because I had a book to write), and as I struggled with the decision of whether to continue or call it quits, my dad said, "You know, you don't have anything to prove to anyone." And that's when I realized that I was running so hard because I thought that if I tackled the race, I'd tackle my regrets about the relationship.

I don't think of him nearly as much anymore, though he does come to mind on some of my longer runs. Habit, I guess. I've just started training again, this time for the Broad Street Run. Now that I got him out of my head, I can focus on fixing issues with my writing, and isn't that nice?

Anyway, final thoughts: good first novel, and I hope the second one will repair some of the flaws.

If you're working at or ever worked at a big, busy law firm, you'll appreciate some of the parts about Ken and Jeff's jobs (Schmidtberger's bio says that he's a graduate of Stanford Law School). For an excellent book about being first year law associations at said big, busy firm, check out In the Shadow of the Law: A Novelby Kermit Roosevelt. Great guy, great book. You can also read my interview with Roosevelt here.

For more information, visit www.paulschmidtberger.com.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Redux II: Dating Books

The 'dating books for guys' article is done and on my editor's desk(top). Thanks God. I think I can only handle so much of one genre at one time. As interesting as it was jumping into the other end of the dating book pool, I need something a little different. I'll post a link to the article once it's published, so stay tuned!

This picture is of the patch of my office floor where I put "current" projects, and by "put" I obviously mean "toss on the floor with arm's reach." I've also been going through book catalogues to see what's coming out this spring, hence why those are mixed in with the dating books. And uncluttered mind requires a cluttered desk, right?

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Blog Report: 52 Songs in 52 Weeks by Ari Hest

If you know me (which you probably don't, but that's okay), you know that I'm a big Ari Hest fan. I got hooked in by a song sampler that was in an otherwise terrible give away bag. I've seen him in concert twice and interviewed him once. He's a singer/songwriter all the way, and a personable one at that.

From a conversation I heard between Ari and someone on his management team (which I participated in by by trying to look cool and nod without letting anyone know how nervous I was to actually be a foot away from Ari), I knew that he wasn't happy with his corporate record deal. I don't think his second album, The Break-In, is nearly as good as the The Green Room Sessions, which is an EP he put out on his own (but The Break-In is still better than most of the stuff on the radio today).

In celebration of getting out of that contract, Ari has pledged to write a song a week for a year. You can follow along on his blog here. You can also buy individual songs via the site or iTunes, or do like I did and buy the year long feed -- 52 songs for $20. Not a bad deal if you ask me.

Now back to your regularily scheduled reading...

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Book 25 of 52: This Book Will Get You Laid by E. Dickens

I know, I know. Not exactly high literature here, but, hey I got a dog to feed, and I'm reading this for an article. Why else would I dedicate my time to This Book Will Get You Laid by E. Dickens, a book written for guys?

This, like Rules of the Game (book 24 of 52), is about how to get laid. Period. Not about how to get a girlfriend or the love of your life (this isn't addressed except for a throw away line at the end of the book). Some of the tips seem dishonest or downright rude: "If she wants to see you a second time, feign mild surprise and palm her off with, 'I'm sure we'll run into each other again.' Or give her that non-functioning email address."

And people wonder why women are so screwed up by guys when advice like this is being tossed around. And "E" by the way, is a woman.

I'm not going to be so naive as to say that sometimes women don't want just a one night stand. I even wrote an article about that for Men's Fitness, but the only reason I agreed to write to do that piece was because it focused on how to find women who wanted exactly that, not on how to trick trick some woman into bed.

If I had to pick between the two books, I'd go with Rules of the Game. Even though it's also a bit shady, it's more practical, and the tips can be used to find you a girlfriend, too, not that poor lady you're going to give a fake email address.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Redux: Dating Books

On Sunday night, I headed to my friendly neighborhood Barnes & Noble, sat in the "Self Improvement" (no longer Self Help) aisle, and flipped through dating books for guys. Even though there are far fewer of these kinds of books than there are dating books for women, they are still there, as were a whole host of titles that will make you reconsider your hunt for a relationship. If that's what you're after. After scanning these, you might not be:

The Sex-Starved Wife: What to Do When He's Lost Desire by Michele Weiner Davis











Why Did I Marry You Anyway? Overcoming the Myths That Hinder a Happy Marriage by Barbara Bartlein










How Could You Do This to Me? by Jane Greer and Margery D. Rosen









How To Catch Him With His Pants Down: and Kick Him in the Assets by Vinny Parco with Michael Benson











After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful by Janis Abrahms Spring and Michael Spring









Having an Affair?: A Handbook for the "Other Woman"
by Sarah J. Symonds











It's So Hard to Love You: Staying Sane When Your Loved One Is Manipulative, Needy, Dishonest, or Addicted by Bill Klatte and Kate Thompson









Kinda wants to make you throw out all your Disney DVDs, doesn't it?

I also came across this book, which I think has a cover worth posting in a larger size:



That would be Don't Be That Girl: A Guide to Finding the Confident, Rational Girl Within by Travis L. Stork. You'd think a lot of this kind of stuff would be obvious to the fairer sex, but I've seen plenty of these ladies out in the wild. No wonder guys need dating books, too.

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