BOOK REVIEW: Funny on Purpose by Joe Randazzo

Funny on Purpose: The Definitive Guide to an Unpredictable Career in Comedy: Standup + Improv + Sketch + TV + Writing + Directing + YouTubeFunny on Purpose: The Definitive Guide to an Unpredictable Career in Comedy: Standup + Improv + Sketch + TV + Writing + Directing + YouTube by Joe Randazzo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

Former editor of the hilarious faux-newspaper, The Onion, (Joe Randazzo) provides a broad overview of the humor creation industry, and the many jobs, therein. Whether you’re interested in scriptwriting, performing stand-up, or starting a YouTube channel that provides color commentary of crippling skateboarding accidents, this book has tips and insight into how said job works, how to do the job, and how to avoid the pitfalls. And, as expected, the book offers humor throughout. That said, the first priority is educational, so one shouldn’t expect a laugh-a-minute humor extravaganza.

The book is divided into five parts. The first four parts delved into the various humor content creation jobs (writing, performing, making pictures, and making internet content,) and the last part is about the common business aspects like understanding intellectual property rights, knowing the difference between an agent and a manager, and learning how to get people to give you money for a product you don’t yet have.

One nice feature the book offers is brief interviews with various experts such as Judd Apatow, Weird Al, Joan Rivers, many people you’ve never heard of but I’m sure are good at what they do, and a few that you will have heard of if you have obsessive niche tastes in humor. The interviews are short, but it does help to have insight from someone whose life has largely focused on a particular dimension of humor creation. Randazzo has a diverse background, including writing, performing, and television and internet work, but there are fine insights to be gained from a specialist.

I got a lot out of this book and would recommend it for those interested in the humor content creation industrial complex.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell StoriesThe Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This tome could’ve been two or more books (or, alternatively, could’ve been heavily edited into one book that stays on task.) The book’s first part contains the book that the reader expects to find. It’s that section that proposes that historically (e.g. pre-20th century) all popular stories fit into one or more of seven plot categories, each of which has a specific purpose. Part I clarifies the nature and purpose of these plot types. The seven plots are: 1.) overcoming the monster, 2.) rags to riches, 3.) quest, 4.) voyage and return, 5.) comedy, 6.) tragedy, and 7.) rebirth. While one might niggle about whether all the various myth, folklore, plays, epic poems, etc. of previous centuries can be categorized by seven plots (or some other number — bigger or smaller,) this first part isn’t particularly controversial. From “Beowulf” (overcoming the monster) to “Hamlet” (tragedy,) most of the stories one might think of probably do lend themselves to such categorization.

Where the book gets controversial, not to mention convoluted, is from Part II onward. Part II delves more deeply into the ideas of Jungian psychology upon which Booker (like Joseph Campbell) hangs his ideas about story. Now for my own controversial views. First, I think Jungian psychology is pseudo-scientific nonsense that should never be used in the treatment or understanding of the mind. While Freudians and Jungians have a big conflict with each other, I think they’re similarly useless. They both start from a laudable view that there is an unconscious mind and we should seek to better understand it. But then, instead of trying to objectively understand the workings of the unconscious mind (granted, it’s a terribly challenging task given our inability to witness the subjective mental experience of others,) each psychiatrist decided to furnish the unconscious mind with his own pet provocative scheme – Freud’s being centered on sexuality [particularly of an infantile nature] and Jung’s being more mystical, but neither man seemed to stop and think about whether said pet scheme could be defective and not universal.

Now, having said that, I don’t find it so objectionable that Booker (and Campbell) use Jung’s ideas for evaluating the fantasy realm of story. Jung’s archetypes may be a perfectly logical way for a writer to think about their characters, about symbolism, and about building nightmare realms. Therefore, I wasn’t that put out by the Jungian focus of the book – despite my lack of belief in the validity of Jungian psychology as a means to understand the mind or to treat mental illness. Still, it does reflect a mindset that is Booker is frozen in, a particular era and approach to psychology that creates many a blindspot in the author. Parts III and IV are about how plot is dead because writers have dared to go off book and abandon the purposes presented them by the titular “seven basic plots.”

Long story short: if you thought that Jung was the bee knees and that mid-20th century views on gender, art, and meaning were the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then you may love this book. (At worst, you might find it rambling in places, but it often rambles intriguingly.) If you thought Jung was more a mystic than a psychiatrist, and that the approaches to art from recent decades are as valid as those that came before, you may hate it. I, personally, found a book that contained many interesting ideas, but also found that they were usually deep in the weeds (or maybe – more aptly – encrusted in the ice by which this book’s framework is frozen in time, a time that by no means represented the height of human understanding.)


View all my reviews

ESSAY REVIEW: Confessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell

Confessions of a Book ReviewerConfessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Available free through the Orwell Foundation

An amusing essay that reveals the dirty secrets of book criticism, while proposing that the vast majority of books don’t merit a review. Just a few pages long.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

An Essay On CriticismAn Essay On Criticism by Alexander Pope
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

View free at The Poetry Foundation

This essay is a poem, i.e. heroic couplets in iambic pentameter, to be precise. It advises both poets and critics of some of the mistakes made in their respective pursuits (though at the outset he warns that bad criticism is a bigger sin than bad poetry.) To critics, Pope advises against nit-picking, as well as failure to recognize the tradeoffs inherent in poetry – i.e. sometimes the better sounding line is grammatically strained, or the wittier line may be less musical. To poets, he lays out a range of insights from stylistic to psychological, and it is an essay both about improving the product of writing as well as improving the relations between writers and critics.

Those unfamiliar with the essay will still be aware of a few of its lines, these include: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing;” “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and anyone who’s learned to write iambic pentameter (and the sins, thereof) will remember: “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.”

But those everyday aphorisms are by no means the full extent of this essay’s wise words and its clever phrasing. My favorite couplets of the poem include:

“Some neither can for wits nor critics pass, // As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.”

“Trust not yourself, but your defects to know, // Make use of ev’ry friend – and ev’ry foe.”

“For works may have more wit than does ‘em good, // As bodies perish through excess of blood.”

“Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, // Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.”

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, // As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

“Some praise at morning what they blame at night; // But always think the last opinion right.”

“Unhappy wit, like most mistaken things, // Atones not for that envy which it brings.”

“All seems infected that th’ infected spy, // As all looks yellow to the jaundic’d eye.”

“’Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain; // And charitably let the dull be vain:”

I delighted in this poem. It’s full of food-for-thought, and reads remarkably well for a piece from the year 1711.


View all my reviews

Anonymous [Free Verse]

scribe & chronicler:

face unknown,
name unknown,
soul laid bare by way of words --

words that reveal from
the inside out --

it's not the way 
we're accustomed 
to getting acquainted

we're used to surface learning
'til we scratch through,

but here we have:
no name,
no face,
but deep insight

BOOK REVIEW: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Zen in the Art of WritingZen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

I rarely re-read books, but I’m glad that I revisited this one. I think I read it more smartly on the second go — more in a way that benefited from Bradbury’s style and message. The book’s nine essays, capped by a small collection of poems, convey lessons on writing, and – specifically – creativity in writing. Bradbury was among my favorite authors because he combined brilliant language with clever stories – i.e. he was creative on both levels. That’s a rarity. There are many excellent storytellers whose language lacks poetry or finesse. And, there are writers who are eloquent and evocative with language, but who either care little for, or have limited gift for, story.

While Bradbury claimed no expertise in Zen and doesn’t hide that he cribbed his title from a popular work by Eugen Herrigel entitled, “Zen in the Art of Archery,” it remains an appropriate title for the book and its eponymous final essay. Throughout the book, one can feel the Zen in Bradbury’s writing. He lets his words and analogies flow without becoming obsessively analytical about them – or at least appearing not to have been. Bradbury uses a lot of short, punchy sentences and a great many poetic applications of figurative language. He practices what he preaches as he both gives lessons and simultaneous demonstrations on how to write. His advice ranges from using single word writing prompts to shake one out of writer’s block, to the very Zen idea of avoiding thought – i.e. letting the words come from the subconscious. Lest one think that there is a conflict in a book on creativity that draws from another book’s title, there’s a recognition that creative writing is never wholly novel.

This book is well worth reading, not just for writers but for other artists and creative types as well. I highly recommend it.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Writing Haiku by Bruce Ross

Writing Haiku: A Beginner's Guide to Composing Japanese PoetryWriting Haiku: A Beginner’s Guide to Composing Japanese Poetry by Bruce Ross
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: March 15, 2022

With this guide, Ross offers a compact guide to navigating Japanese poetic forms and the offshoots and variations that have evolved in America. The book does have a particular focus on the American and international style of haiku, and related forms, though the author always lays the groundwork by first exploring the “rules” of the traditional Japanese form. He also discusses concepts, such as wabi and sabi, that heavily inform Japanese poetry. However, most of the examples come from English language writers, and there’s extensive discussion of how American haiku differs in form and substance. This makes the book particularly useful for English-as-native-language writers who wish to capture the flavor of this spare and elegant poetic form, but who have limited acquaintance with the Japanese language and culture.

I didn’t think I’d need another guide for writing haiku after reading and re-reading William Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook, but Ross does cover a few topics in greater depth and detail, particular haiga (combining graphic arts with haiku,) renga (a partnered / team style) and several American variations, and ginko (a nature walk-based practice.)

The book has graphics as needed (i.e. in the haiga section,) and offers and extensive set of recommendations for further reading as well as resources.

While I’ve been writing haiku, tanka, and senryū for some time, I learned a lot from this book, and it got me excited to try some of the forms with which I’m inexperienced. I’d highly recommend this book for beginner, intermediate, and advanced haiku poets.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Good Writing is Like Good Sex by C. S. Johnson

Good Writing is Like Good Sex: Sort of Sexy Thoughts on WritingGood Writing is Like Good Sex: Sort of Sexy Thoughts on Writing by C.S. Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Sex sells. This book attempts to capitalize on that fact to achieve a foothold in the concise writing guide market, a class of books for which there is no shortage and whose entrants include established masters such as Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury. Given the nature of this market, having hinted at sexiness as a hook, it behooves the writer to boldly embrace that hook, but this isn’t done. I’m not suggesting the author needed to venture into pornographic territory, and I understand that the book is not about writing erotica, specifically [a point that is made quite clear.] However, the banal and disembodied references to sex make the material drier than it otherwise would be. In creating a book that could be read by, say, the Pope or the chairwoman of the Southern Baptist Convention Lady’s Auxiliary without so much as the hint of a blush, the book draws attention to just how much it’s failing to follow its own advice. [I would go as far as to say that if a person had a rare condition in which the slightest sexual arousal would cause his or her heart to violently explode, killing everyone in a ten-foot radius, I would feel safe sitting next to that person on the couch as they read this book.]

The book takes a soup-to-nuts approach, reflecting upon the usual range of topics including: prep work, characterization, tension building, and editing. The information is good, and it’s presented in a brief and readable fashion. That said, it would be a much better first guide than one for someone who has read extensively on the subject because there isn’t much that is novel, either in the advice or the way in which it’s presented. If you’ve read other books on writing, you’ve probably read this advice before – and, in many cases, read it stated in a much more interesting fashion. There are some odd inclusions. At one point the author discusses the parts of speech. If you don’t understand the parts of speech, no writer’s guide will help you, and you probably need to revisit elementary school.

In this kind of book, examples are essential, and, here too, some odd choices were made. One such choice was the author using her own writings. [If you’ve read writing guides by well-known authors, you’ll note that they don’t even use their own writing, and instead tend to use stories like “Macbeth” or folktales – works that are well known to the broadest imaginable readership.] Among examples that weren’t from her own writing, there was a mix of more and less obscure references. It’s not so much that insufficient information was presented to get across the author’s point, but rather that a kind of affinity is achieved with readers when they have familiarity with a story, and that is sacrificed when the couldn’t possibly.

The long and the short of it is this, I think the book was a fine concise writing guide. It presents the information clearly and in a logically arranged fashion. That said, choices were made that felt odd – mostly in using sex as a hook and then eschewing any sense of sensuality. If you’re looking for an introduction to writing, you could do worse than this one [but you could probably do better as well.]


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark

The Art of X-Ray ReadingThe Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

If one asks a group of people whether a story worked or not, one is likely to hear widespread agreement, but if one asks them why it worked [or didn’t,] one is likely to get a hodgepodge of murky conclusions. The average person will struggle to put together a coherent explanation for failed stories, an explanation which may or may not be grounded in paydirt. That’s because whether writing works or not is a matter of emotional resonance, and what delivers that emotional experience is almost as hidden as the pipes and wires in the walls that deliver water and electricity. Clark’s purpose with this book is to show the reader some of the characteristics they can read for, features which may not be readily apparent when one is lost in a good book, but which make the difference between a masterpiece and a ho-hum work.

While I referred to “story” a lot in the preceding paragraph, it’s worth noting that Clark’s book does cover the gambit of creative writing activities – including a few poets, essayists, non-fiction authors, and repeated references to one very famous playwright. That said, the bulk of the works under discussion are fiction — be it a novel, short story, epic poem, or play.

The book consists of twenty-five chapters, and the subtitle is a little bit deceptive because not all of the chapters take a single work as a focal point. Each of the chapters has a core concept to convey, using one or more authors (and one or more of each writer’s works) to do so. Some of these lessons are at the level of language, such as Nabokov’s playfully poetic alliteration and assonance, Hemingway’s sparse prose, or Toni Morrison’s effective use of repetition. Other chapters explore how intrigue can be set up and sustained: such as in Shirley Jackson’s foreshadowing of the twist in her story “The Lottery,” or the way “Sir Gawain and the Green Night” turns a non-event into unexpected chills, or how Harper Lee uses the slowed experience of time to build tension. Still other chapters present techniques such as placing texts within the text as done in “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” zooming in or out with perspective as is done in Homer’s “Odyssey,” or Shakespeare’s rejection of conventions in his sonnets. Some chapters investigate how a tone is established such as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, and one other focuses on intertextuality – i.e. the borrowing of ideas from past masters in a non-plagiaristic sort of way.

The authors and works selected are popular and will generally be a least familiar to avid readers of English language literature, and most readers will have read at least a few of the works under consideration. A few of my personal favorites were explored including Shakespeare, Yeats, and Hemingway, and I suspect that will be true of most readers. There was only one author of whom I had no knowledge, M.F.K. Fisher, a writer who is well-known to mid-twentieth century cookbook fans, but who is a little obscure today. Having said that, I did come away with an interest in reading the book under discussion – i.e. “How to Cook a Wolf.”

While this book is marketed towards writers, I think any serious reader would find it an interesting and worthwhile read. If you want a better understanding of what succeeds in the world of writing, you should take a look at this book.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon

Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to ReadBuilding Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read by Brooks Landon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

The Great Courses page

This book goes along with a video course of the same name from “The Great Courses,” but it can be obtained independently as well.

Landon’s book is one of the most beneficial writing books that I’ve read, and is the most beneficial one about sentence-level composition. The book’s core premise is that crafting richer, more interesting, and more artful sentences requires the ability to build longer sentences. This doesn’t mean there is no room for short and simple sentences. It simply means that if all one writes are short and simple sentences, one’s writing will read choppily, will provide limited detail, and – let’s face it – one probably doesn’t need to read a book on the subject after successfully completing elementary school.

Of course, it’s not enough to build longer sentences; the sentences must be enjoyable and readable. This is where learning how to write the right kind of long sentences comes into play. Landon argues the benefits of cumulative sentence syntax, using free modifiers to add propositions about a base clause (and / or about other modifying clauses.) He’s not suggesting that one only use this type of sentence, shunning the other varieties of syntax, but he does show how this approach allows one to build longer sentences that won’t lose the reader, a trait that cannot be claimed of sentences using fixed modifiers.

The first half of the book introduces cumulative syntax, showing how it compares to other syntactic patterns, presenting evidence of its superiority, and demonstrating how sentences using it can be improved and pitfalls avoided.

The second half of the book explores the various directions one can take one’s writing via cumulative sentences. Chapter eight discusses two types of information that can be introduced via free modifiers: comparisons and speculation. If one was taught to avoid injecting personal guesses and commentary into one’s writing, speculative propositions might seem particularly strange, but part of the beauty of this book is that it discourages mindless obedience to writing dogma, a trait that is in rare supply among writing books.

There is a chapter on prose rhythm. As in other sections, the focus is on cumulative sentences, but even with respect to cumulative syntax, the discussion is limited to a few key concepts because the topic is just too complex to address in great detail.

There are two chapters on suspensive sentences. Like the punchline of a joke, a suspensive sentence puts the most surprising or intriguing information at the tail end. This can be used to make sentences that are not only humorous, but also ones that are surprising or memorable. However, suspensiveness is not without a cost. Suspensive sentences are typically left-branching (or middle-branching) such that part or all of the base clause is at the very end. Throughout the book, Landon gives special emphasis / preference to right-branching cumulative sentences, meaning the base clause is the first thing one reads and the modifiers are tagged on behind. The benefit of the right-branching sentence is that it can be made quite long while maintaining readability. On the other hand, a suspensive sentence can lose the reader before they reach the base clause because they don’t have any central concept on which to tag what may read like a disparate collection of modifiers.

Chapters twelve and thirteen delve into writing in a balanced rhythm (Ch. 12) or in a rhythm of threes (Ch. 13.) Balances are phrases, clauses, or sentences presented in opposition. There are many technical terms to describe ways of balancing (e.g. anaphora, epanalepsis, epistrophe, polyptoton, etc.) but the emphasis isn’t on vocabulary building but rather on examples of these effective modes of sentence building.

Chapter fourteen discusses the idea of “master sentences” — long sentences skillfully crafted to not only convey information and to be readable, but also to make for pleasant reading experiences. The final chapter is a wrap-up but also makes an argument for valuing education in sentence-level writing, an area of the discipline that has apparently gone by the wayside in recent decades.

I found this book to be incredibly beneficial. If you are interested in how to grow your sentences longer without having them become an impenetrable thicket of incomprehension, this is the book for you. The author provides plenty of examples to make his meaning clear, and he also references other books that can be of benefit to writers seeking to hone their sentence crafting skills.

View all my reviews