She was just here a minute ago…

Dear readers — Yes, I am still on sabbatical from the blog, finishing up my book project.

I did come out of my hollow log long enough to write a book review for The Seattle Times:

It’s a difficult time for bookworms. We fear the next generation will have to visit interactive museum exhibits to turn pages of an actual, physical book. (Yes, it’s true our worries tend to recede while we’re waiting for the Kindle to download, but we do worry.) “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” (W.W. Norton, 263 pp., $26.95), by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, is especially well-timed for our neo-biblio age. Among its many teachings, this book assures us that dramatic change in manuscript-delivery systems need not erode the power of the words…

For the rest of it, click here.






Conventional wisdom.

On a recent pass through Whole Foods I noticed one word on a few signs in the produce department.

(I also noticed that a teeny bunch of  cauliflower was going to cost me upwards of $4…that’s a story for another time.)

Right inside the entrance was an enormous display of avocados, salsa and bags of organic chips–hey, even vegans watch the Superbowl. A big sign hung over the table blaring:


No, “conventional” here does not mean middle-class, suit-wearing avocados clinging to the status quo, it means “not organic.” It is a common term now; I had somehow managed to miss this linguistic development. When I checked out the WF website, I read this:

Organic foods set the standard for top quality freshness, texture, flavor and variety. These foods are produced without the standard array of potentially harmful, environmentally long-lasting agricultural chemicals commonly used on conventional food products since the 1950s.

WF is, of course, right to label the provenance of  produce. “Organic” is a USDA designation that must be earned, and these avocados, tasty as they may be, were not worthy of the O-badge. But I couldn’t help feeling, well, judged, as I grabbed my $5 worth and hurried off: Suddenly I’m conventional, typical, pedestrian in my choice of guacamole ingredients. I am conforming.

Maybe a sign saying “Old School Avocados” would be better.

“Cooks Source” is a den of thieves.

People who steal images or words from others on the web will go to a special Hell…where there is nothing to read but outdated airline magazines with pages missing.

And the reading light is too low.

Oh, and no snacks. Or bathroom.

And the only other human is the person who was meanest to you in grade school.

You, word thieves, are scum.

(Click here for “Copyright Infringement and Me,” a blog post about plagiarism by “Cooks Source Magazine” and one editor’s ridiculous response that inspired the above sentiments. The rant against Cooks Source is going viral and the unleashed fury is wonderful to behold.)

New book review: “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto” by David Shields

(Published first by The Seattle Times, Feb. 28, 2010)

As I work my way through a review book, I often stop and picture the sort of people who will fall in love with it. By the end I’ve assembled a roomful of imaginary party guests. Sometimes it’s festive; other times I just want them the hell out of my living room.

The folks conjured up by the writings of Seattle author David Shields are always a smart bunch — funny, tolerably neurotic, well-read. We all like sports, love language and are traditionalists who nonetheless enjoy journalism and other nonfiction that reveal the writer’s opinions. I’ve assumed this crowd to be middle-aged, like me.

When I finished his new book, “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,” the group defied easy literary profiling: That young rapper in deep conversation with an old guy whose life was revolutionized by Allen Ginsberg and the Beats. A gaggle of elbow-patched Proustniks trading insights with novelists who are grafting paragraphs together on their iPhones.

I figure they share Shields’ fascinations: the evolution of literary genre; curiosity (or skepticism) about the canon that sets down boundaries between memoir and fiction; biography and literary nonfiction; poetry and photo captions. This book doesn’t call for reshaping writing conventions; it insists that they’ve always been protean…

Read the rest of my review in The Seattle Times, here.

(Need more Shields? I was fortunate to also review his last book, “The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.” Click here. And his website is here.)

Note to readers: In the case of paid reviews written for The Seattle Times or any other newspaper, the copy of the review book is provided by the book-page editor. I do not chose the books I review for newspapers; review opportunities are offered to me and I can accept or reject the assignments. Other reviews (unpaid, alas) I write for this blog might result from discovering a book in the library or from a friend’s recommendation. If I know the author personally, I will say so.

End of a chapter

Two writers died this week, both proof that the approval of the so-called academy has little to do with pleasing readers or selling books.

Erich Segal, the Yale classicist who wrote the wildly successful “Love Story” and Robert B. Parker, whose nearly 40 lively novels delivered a memorable, wise-cracking detective named Spenser and a succession of short-haired pointers, all named Pearl, will be missed by their fans.

Both Parker and Segal (a scholar who horrified peers with his pop titles) provided countless hours of escapism, entertainment…even some enlightenment. And at least one very enduring aphorism. Both placed novels in Boston and both populated their fictional worlds with smart women.

Look around on the next bus, train or airplane you’re in — if you don’t see someone with a Parker book, I’ll buy you lunch. And whether or not you were around to read the first printing of “Love Story” (or see the 1970 movie), surely you know by now that Love means never having to say you’re sorry.

In my opinion…

Something author John Irving said at a reading here in Portland last week stuck in my mind.

During the Q&A, Irving was asked how he handles a “poor review.” The questioner could have been referencing any one of several critiques of Irving’s latest novel, “Last Night in Twisted River.”

Irving answered with some venom, in itself a not uncommon attitude for a prolific author exasperated by years of dealing with reviewers. In effect he said, “After 12 novels, it is possible that I am much better at what I do than a reviewer is at what he does.”

It got me thinking about reviewing; what makes a good one, good. And a bad one, bad.

I’ve turned this question over in my mind for a long time. I started reviewing for daily and weekly newspapers back about 1990. The books are almost always assigned to me by an editor; I don’t pick them. I do a fair amount of fiction, especially regional writers, but my strengths as a reviewer tend to nonfiction: religion, American history, biography.

(I’ve also been called on to review a lot of work on mental illness and self-help topics, which probably doesn’t reflect too favorably on how editors see me, but whatever. God knows there’s a lot written that falls under those headings, so you won’t hear any whining from me.)

An accomplished journalist I know has been ranting to me for years about the need for reviewers to be highly critical, not just point readers to new not-to-be-missed books. Not only does that keep readers engaged, he says, it gives the reviewer more credence.

He’s not wrong, but I don’t fully agree. Too often book reviewers do what I call the Reviewer Waltz: Step forward with one compliment, then back. Some sideways praise, then step away briskly. They so fear being considered soft that they opt for brittle. Or worse, they bury their opinion in such dense lecturing that the reader is too exhausted to go find the actual book and see for herself.

My own rules for reviews go something like this:

1 – If it stinks, I don’t review it.
One exception: If the author is someone so talented that this new-and-awful book is going to make fans feel deeply betrayed.

2 – Consumer protection is part of my job.
Literary quality aside, sometimes I need to provide a heads-up that will save a book buyer from misstep…or mortification. A novel by pop writer Eric Jerome Dickey was such a case when it veered from his usual frank treatment of sexuality to good ol’ fashioned porn. Not the best gift book for a conservative mother-in-law. Likewise, a nonfiction book packaged as a feminist treatment of women’s careers was really a right-wing wolf in hip-sheep’s clothing — and needed to be labeled as such.

2 – Read at least some of the author’s earlier work before writing about the new book.

3 – Aim for historical, cultural and literary references that result in I-feel-smarter! for the reader, rather than that Damn, I’m smart! feeling for me.

4 – Resist the cheap one-liner for a laugh. (I fail at this one sometimes.)

5 – When the review is done, ask myself this question out loud:

“How does this serve the reader?”

If my answer sounds like waffly bullshit, it is. Start over.

Oh, and for what it’s worth: Irving is right, he is better at what he does than most reviewers are at what we do.

There’s a word for this

I had no sooner finished reading the obituary for William Safire, fearless commentator, tireless writer and unparalleled language-czar, when a faint beep sounded, warning me of an incoming job opportunity in my email.

I wish I’d never signed up for all those “career feeds” in the first place, but that’s what a day with a head cold and nothing good on pay-per-view cable can do to a person.

The job ad touts a community-relations position with a big international nonprofit that has an Oregon office. In the middle of its windy description of duties, this gem appears:

“The Community-Relations Officer will focus matrixed teams on matters of cross-agency benefit.”

I’m sure if I had any idea what this meant I would be an excellent person to do it. Alas, I will just continue to focus my un-matrixed team-of-one on cross-room trips from desk to ‘fridge.

Rest in peace, Mr. Safire.

It’s all Latin to me

One of my freelance clients is a scientist-turned-writer who is crafting two very different manuscripts, one based on the fascinating story of his father, an immigrant to this country who lived a remarkably rich life, and the other a young-adult work about development encroaching on wildlife habitats. Both works, even in draft state, are very good.

In the section I was reading today, he used a word I have not seen in a long time: usufruct. (Say “youse-zoo-frucht”) It usually crops up in legal writings, meaning the use of property not one’s own, carried out in a way that doesn’t harm or devalue it.

There is nothing like going off to hunt down the origin of a word in order to avoid work, household tasks, exercise, bill paying. So, of course I did just that.

The word derives from the Latin usus et fructus meaning “use and enjoyment.”

I took Latin about 100 years ago. Despite my mediocre grades then and dodgy memory now, it still helps me figure out and retain the meaning of words. At the time the only thing I liked about the class was that every vocabulary word seemed to have a story, a bit of history, behind it.

It was a further bonus that no one was really sure how Latin was pronounced, so it did not have the tonal challenges of Spanish or French. We read it aloud as if speaking weirdly spelled English, which suited me just fine. (I once scored so low on a Romance-language ability test that I was asked to re-take it; the test graders assumed I’d had a damaged audio tape.)

For all its stolid structure, there is something warm and quite subtle about Latin. The fact that this phrase has been co-opted to describe the dull concept of what is essentially right-of-way to a neighboring property is beside the point.

When the Romans said usus et fructus, however they pronounced the words, there surely was a lilt to their voices. They were enjoying the moment, and no one else was the worse for it.

Over and Out

E-mail, like so many of life’s short-cuts, turns out to be a little more complicated than it first looked.

You can’t beat it for speed, of course. Those of you who find it too taxing to cross the room and lift that heavy box of writing paper can toss off a heartfelt thank-you note via email without strain.

And I’ll be the first to admit that it is the best way to stay in touch with people in different time zones, as well as that one high school boyfriend who still thinks of me as weighing 110 and running the quarter-mile in less than a minute.

Over time, though, we’ve all come to realize that its flat affect and potential for dramatic misunderstanding makes e-mail less of a free ride than we thought. Fact is, many of the appendages of old-time on-paper missives just don’t travel well to screen. An entertaining piece in the Washington Post by Ruth McCann raises one of the biggest challenges: What’s the best way to sign off?

I’ve always loved the old-fashioned “Your obedient servant,” but the S/M undertone is too risky, let’s face it. “Sincerely” works for job-hunters, but is too stiff for real-life exchanges. “Cheers!” as McCann notes, can seem too boozy. I confess, I do the type-and-erase routine on this sign-off often, having done a quick mental evaluation of the alcohol issues of the recipient. (Me judgmental? Surely not.) I like “Best,” for business correspondence, but it stumbles a bit at the end of one of my frequent consumer-rant letters.

After reading McCann’s essay, I can’t help but notice the missteps people make, such as the client who sends long lists of demands, ending with “warmly” and the can’t-take-a-hint pest who jabs me with the guilt-inducing “thinking of you as always.”

I’m thinking that the trick here is to break new ground and begin signing off with phrases that rely on basic honesty:

Inadequately/gratefully yours,


Time for bathroom break,

Fresh out of small talk,

Off to next thankless thing,

Need paying work,



Older but still cute,

Let’s leave it here,

Peace now,

And, courtesy of author Richard Goldhurst from Connecticut and his fearless editorial partner Jeanne, who read the blog and emailed this:

Sorry to dust you,


I, blogger

“Microcelebrity” is what we bloggers want, and each of us defines that evocative term in our own way.

I discovered that word in a terrific piece of commentary by author Bill Wasik in The New York Times. Wasik compares internet ventures with a young adult’s idealistic move to New York City. He writes:

“The experience of moving online actually bears quite a few similarities to becoming a New Yorker. Disorienting and seemingly endless, the Internet conversation moves at lightning speed and according to unstated social rules that can bewilder outsiders. Also, like New Yorkers, residents of the Internet do not suffer fools, or mince words in belittling them, as anyone who has contributed a redundant post to Metafilter, or an earnest comment to Gawker, can attest.

A down-market version of that experience happens here in Portland. This is a young city, full of the magnetic pulls of great new music, art, food and other art. The hip factor, bike lanes, utterly absent dress code, and infinite number of temp agencies make it a good incubator for those of tender years and big dreams. (And a surprising number of late-career types.)

The Willamette River isn’t the only thing that flows through here. Every six months or so I hear from a Smith College alum (or one of their brothers) who has just landed here to pursue a life of art/social work/activism/journalism and who needs a decent meal/$50/a resume re-write/an evening’s break from the other three roommates. Some cherished friendships have grown out of those calls.

Likewise, as Wasik notes, the internet experience is one of connections and hopefulness–and in this, it transcends generation. Granted, my younger friends waste none of their time marveling at the transparency of life online, while my contemporaries are stunned by their own addiction to Facebook.

Why do I do it? I wasn’t even that wild about the public nature of being a newspaper reporter, never mind this wide-open medium. I think there’s a very attractive combination of forces at work when one blogs. I manage to be both intimate and public, journalist and fiction writer. I choose the news of the day. I revel in inconsistency and I take a morning off when I feel like it.

Oddly enough, blogging also feels more like my early days in a daily newsroom than anything else. Just as I did back then, I rise early and I have a clean slate every day. I know my family and close friends will read whatever I write, and quite a few strangers too. I have an inflated sense of my value, but most of the time I keep that under wraps. I secretly know my brilliance will be rewarded.

Ledes and me

When I went to back to college at 40, one of the hardest things was letting go of the “news lede” style of writing.

My professors, who almost to a person looked thoroughly constipated when I proudly revealed my profession, immediately pounced on my snappy opening paragraphs.

Professor: “This reads like a sell job.”
Me: (stiffly) “I don’t think a winning introduction is ever out of place.”
Professor: (dismissively) “You would do well to revisit this.”

I did. I learned to write those Ambien-like opening grafs when necessary. And, fortunately, I found a terrific thesis adviser, an historian and gifted author who didn’t take points off when I stepped into a pile of journalism now and then.

Returning to the daily-newspaper world was the same conversation, in reverse:

Editor: “Are you kidding me? What’s with this lede?”
Me: (stiffly) “I think readers deserve something a little less formulaic.”
Editor: (dismissively) “Bullshit.”

These days, of course, I get to veer wildly between ledes and thesis statements, a sort of literary bumper car, smashing into them just for laughs. Behind every former-journalist blogger is someone who always wanted to use the passive voice and bury the lede in the 19th graf.

And here, only about seven grafs in, is the point of this post: Today I read one of those ledes that makes me proud to have printer’s ink in my veins. Every now and again, a writer gets a whole story in that opening line. Michael Brick did it in the New York Times:

“John Bachar, a rock climber who inspired awe as a daredevil, condescension as an anachronism and eventually respect as a legend, fell to his death Sunday from a rock formation near his home in California. He was 51.”

Even more rare is the writer who gets it all in the lede, and then quits. One of my all-time favorites is this from E.B. White, who in 1963 captured John F. Kennedy in 149 perfect words:

“When we think of him, he is without a hat, standing in the wind and weather. He was impatient of topcoats and hats, preferring to be exposed, and he was young enough and tough enough to confront and to enjoy the cold and the wind of these times, whether the winds of nature or the winds of political circumstance and national danger. He died of exposure, but in a way that he would have settled for—in the line of duty, and with his friends and enemies all around, supporting him and shooting at him. It can be said of him, as of few men in a like position, that he did not fear the weather, and did not trim his sails, but instead challenged the wind itself, to improve its direction and to cause it to blow more softly and more kindly over the world and its people.”

Language matters

When I saw the headline in The New York Times that promises the answer to “Hispanic, Latino or What?” I was delighted. At last, I thought, I’ll know which word is correct, and when to use it.

Well, not quite. There’s still a lot of disagreement among editors as well as those to whom the terms can be applied. I came away with the sense that “Hispanic” is somewhat safer, but the ideal is to reference the country of origin instead. Oh, and by the way, it’s a really good idea to stop and ask yourself why the reference is necessary in the first place.

If this seems like hair-splitting, reconsider.

The language we use influences what we think. Remember the Ms. battle? “Girl versus woman?” When “Asian” usurped “Oriental?” and “Native American” came into use? Or perhaps you’re old enough to recall when newspapers started the chain of changes that included colored/negro/black/Negro/Black/Afro-American/African-American? I thought “person of color” would never roll off my tongue easily, but it does — and is a much more respectful and useful phrase than my various bumbling guesses.

Now and then I hear someone–usually a person my age or older–complain they don’t know what the correct term is, as if they are exhausted by the effort of updating their vocabulary. Oh, please. If you can remember your PIN numbers, you can do this too.

Fact is, if people use certain ethnic and racial labels long enough, they become default settings, and it becomes out-of-touch or even uncouth to use the old terms. This is a good thing.