Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: Your Flying Car Awaits by Paul Milo

Quick review for a quirky little book: I read Paul Milo's Your Flying Car Awaits: Robot Butlers, Lunar Vacations, and Other Dead-Wrong Predictions of the Twentieth Centuryfor an assignment, and it's packed cover to cover with tidbits that continue to make me a fountain of worthless information -- like why we don't drive flying cars even though we can technically make them; how hoverboats are accepted but hoverboards are not; and why doomsday scenarios haven't come to be (unless you are getting all your food via algae pills).

The book doesn't come out until December, but if you have a friend who's a science nut, put it on your holiday list. It's spot on.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Review: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

In the three and a half years I've been running competitively, I have never really hurt myself.

Sure, I've turned my ankle here and there (I blame childhood softball and clumsiness more than anything), but I've never had real knee pain, heel pain or even shin splints.

This makes me lucky -- eight to ten runners gets hurt every year. By delving deep into the middle of the earth and finding a tribe of Indians who run great distances in little more than rubber foot coverings, Charles McDougall has made the case that less is more, especially when it comes to running.

McDougall's book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, has been called "that barefoot running" book, which perhaps it is. But it's not just about how Nike may have screwed an entire generation of runners. Born to Run is a wonderful memoir and narrative on why humans evolved into runners, and how we can become better runners when we shuck the marketing mumbo jumbo and rediscover the joy in hitting the open road.

McDougall, a contributor to Runner's World and Men's Health, wanted to know why his feet hurt, and how to fix them without involving shots or orthotics. So he went out to find the Tarahumura Indians, a Mexican tribe that lives in the Copper Canyons, a place they choose because it's so hard to get to, and they don't want to be found. By trying to run like the Tarahumura, McDougall discovers that all the padding, all the marathon scheduling, and all the training runners are told to do might not matter at all. The Tarahumura just run, and so do a band of out-there American runners he finds along the way.

I probably shouldn't have read this before I run the Philadelphia Half Marathon on November 22. I finished the book yesterday, and was self conscious about my shoes, feet and running form on that days' three mile jog. Should I ditch my shoes, run in an old flat pair, try not to heel strike? Am I making my feet and ankles weak in this spiffy new pairs of running sneakers?

So many questions and ideas ran through my head that I had to stop, shake my brain clear, and start again with the goal of not thinking at all. I've been fine so far. I think I'll make it through another month of training.

I might try something different after the half marathon, though. I'd like to test a pair of Nike Frees, which are supposed to mimic barefoot running, or at least try some barefoot drills in the grass. I might even break out my soccer cleats, which have no padding, and do some speed work in the park. A lot of what McDougall writes makes sense -- we didn't need sneakers for thousands of years, and only now we're worried about pronating? I started playing with my dog barefoot in my house, and I don't chase her with the same form I run in my sneakers. Maybe some of the points about running for joy and wonder rather than paces and times will bring me to that next level of running where going on a six mile jog is not a big deal but fun.

Even if you're not a runner, Born to Run is worth reading. It's one of those books that I want to dissect to see exactly how McDougall created such a wonderful narrative. I'm also comforted that, in the acknowledgments, he thanks his Men's Health editor Matt Marion by saying "Like everything I've written for Matt, it came into his hands like an unmade bed and came out with crisp hospital corners."

I worry a lot about my writing. Am I taking on the right assignments? Am I adding enough texture? What if I go on a jaunt that my editor hates? What if I tighten up the writing too much? What if I make a mistake and no one assigns anything to me ever again? Reading that someone like McDougall struggles with the same thing, and turns in imperfect drafts, is comforting. Maybe this book will help me be looser and freer about both my running and my writing.

I'm going to go on a run of running book reviews (pun intended). I've just been named Running Editor of Liberty Sports Magazine, a freebie in Philadelphia about all things sports. I'm doing it more for the opportunity to explore running through writing than for monetary glory. It might even get me a free pair of Nike Frees to test. When I started running, I thought it would be something I did a few times a week to stay in shape, but now it's become a big part of my life. If I can meld writing and running together sometimes? I just might find more joy in both.

For more on Born to Run, check out this interview McDougall did on the Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Christopher McDougall
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Full Disclosure

My first book review for a major publication was of The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld. I didn't pick the book -- the then-book editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Frank Wilson, picked it for me based on my clips, my age, and my interests.

I didn't rush out and buy the book. It wasn't even out yet. Wilson mailed me a bound copy, which is the novel in what looks like a book report form, without the final covers, but all the text and marketing information. For subsequent reviews, he'd sometimes send me a bound copy, or I'd go into the Inquirer book room and pick something from racks and racks of galleys, which are also preview copies of books but in what would look like a trade paperback form, sometimes with final covers, sometimes not. The paper is sent so many of these bound copies, galleys and finished books that Wilson gave unused copies to prisons.

I tell you this story because of the recent FTC ruling that bloggers must disclose what they receive for free. This seems ludicrous to those of us who work in the book world. We've always used bound copies, galleys and finished books mailed from the publishers to do our reviews. Thousands of books are printed a year -- we, nor any publication we work for, could ever afford to buy all of them. It's standard practice, and I don't feel obligated to give someone a good review because I'm sent a copy. Because every publisher does it, I don't feel like I'm getting special treatment. In fact, I'd like to tell some of them to stop sending books because I can never get to everything that's sent to my office (what I don't read goes to family, friends, and the Collingswood Library).

But just so I don't get whacked with an $11,000 fee for not disclosing so on a blog that I consider a volunteer effort: Publishers send me free books. I probably read 2 percent of what's sent, and sometimes review those books on this blog. If I review something before it comes out, it's a galley. If the book is brand new, it's most likely a galley.

So there's my disclosure. And just to prove I don't feel like I have to give a good review to something sent for free: I hated The Man of My Dreams, and wrote so. A quote from that review: "It's not that the reader can't sympathize when Hannah makes mistakes--and she makes some big ones, like allowing an older man to get her drunk at an office party, and letting a sex addict convince her that his side dalliances have no impact on their relationship. But she doesn't learn from them, and the repetition is grating."

I will never hold back in telling you what I think about a book, whether I buy the copy or not. My job to you is to give you my opinion of what I read. I write for you, not for authors, not for publishers, and not even for myself. So there's my full disclosure.

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Review: Modern Love: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit, and Devotion

I ordered Modern Love: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit, and Devotion from for a simple reason: I'd like to place an essay in "Modern Love," a column that runs every Sunday in the New York Times that has to do with -- you guessed it -- love.

I've tried before, and after re-reading those essays, I saw why they weren't accepted: they were angry and jumbled, more the rantings of a broken heart that something someone who doesn't know me would want to read. I've been trying to write about the same relationship since it ended almost three years ago, but I don't think I had enough distance from the break up to write about it clearly.

I touched on this topic in my review of Cleaving. If I didn't have enough distance years after a break up, I doubt Powell should have been writing about the dissolution of her marriage while it was still happening.

The capper on trying this project again: the October ASJA newsletter interviewed Daniel Jones, who edits the column, about how to land something, too. Best way to land the assignment is to read what's already been published, right?

There is no right or wrong thing to write about, it seems -- the anthology includes essays on being a gay teenager at a prom, the don't ask, don't tell policy, the death of a child. Some essays are simply "here's my story."

Reading the anthology of past essays has helped me write out my story I was only into the second essay that I started re-writing the story I've tried so many times to write before. I kept getting back out of bed to type up what I thought would be a few notes about what I wanted to say. An hour later, I'd finished the shell of the essay, long before I finished reading all 50 entries in the book. I didn't feel angst-y in writing about what happened, or re-living those events in my head. That's a good sign that it's finally time to write about it.

So far, I've gone through five drafts, and I think I have a few more to go. I'll send it to a few writers to get their take, too, to tell me where they see flaws, where I need to expand, and what I need to cut. The revisions are the tedious, craft part. I could say writing it was easy, though I've been trying to write this story for so long. Maybe time will make this draft the right one to make it into print.

If my essay is not selected for the column, I'll keep reworking, revising, and sending it to other publications. Essay writing is unlike any other writing I do. Not only am I writing about myself, but I finish the essay and ask someone to publish it, rather than asking for the assignment and then writing. This is probably why I don't write as many essays anymore. I'm so busy with work that I know will pay that it's hard to carve out time to take a risk on something that might not ever see the light of day.

But I'm glad I tried. I like writing essays. I think I have something to say. I'll keep you posted...

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