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

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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.

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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

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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.


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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

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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.


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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

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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.]


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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

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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.


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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

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Description by Mark Doty

The Art of Description: World into WordThe Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Usually, when a book isn’t what one expected, a feeling of disappointment accompanies that mismatch between expectation and experience. For me, this was the rare exception to that situation. I expected more of a how-to manual and less of a collection of essays. [I also expected a book that was less poetry-dominant and which touched upon prose writing to a greater extent. But that was entirely my oversight.] Anyhow, I think I got far more out of this book than I would have if it had been the book I expected. It encouraged me to revamp my thought process about writing description — be it poetic or prose.

The book is short, consisting of six chapters that take varied approaches to the subject. The first few chapters build on an idea that the art of description requires insight both into perception and into the nature of that which we become conscious. That is, one is not trying to perfectly describe the full extent of the world that lies before one. If one did that: a.) one would fail; b.) the reader would not be granted insight into what captures the writer’s eye – i.e. insight into the mind of the artist; c.) one’s writing would become drudgery to read. [I recently started Yukio Mishima’s “The Temple of Dawn” and he begins the first chapter with dense, wall-to-wall description of the story’s Bangkok environs, and I found the thicket of description was losing me. It should be noted that after that opening, the readability becomes excellent – i.e. very story- and character-centric.] There are certainly other issues discussed in the first four chapters. One idea that resonated with me was Chapter two’s discussion of the importance of how we perceive time (as opposed to the orderly pace at which it unfolds,) and the role of temporal perception in description.

The penultimate and final chapters are quite distinct, both different from each other and from the preceding chapters. Chapter five, entitled “Four Sunflowers,” presents four poems that feature sunflowers to show how various poetic masters take on a given subject. The four poems are by William Blake, Alan Shapiro, Allan Ginsberg, and Tracy Jo Barnwell. The final chapter follows a glossary format, and is entitled, “Descriptions Alphabet.” This section actually makes up about half of the book, and it considers a range of relevant topics in an ABC format. Some of these topics are discussed in more detail than others, and are of greater importance than others. Discussions that particularly resonated with me were one on “Economy” versus “Excess,” one about metaphors, similes, and Figures of speech, and those on Qualifiers, Sonic quality, and Verbs. In this chapter, the author delves into the value of common advice that is often (unfortunately) delivered in Biblical – i.e. “thou shall” / “thou shalt not” form. The point being that it’s often bad practice to follow such advice so dogmatically.

As I said, I got a lot out of this book. It’s a quick read, but loaded with food-for-thought. I’d highly recommend it both for poets and for prose writers. (Though, as I mentioned, it’s very much directed toward poets, e.g. all of the examples come from poetry. That said, the approach to thinking about description can be of value to any writer.)

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book was written to explore the intriguing cross-cultural similarities between various heroic mythological and folk tales from around the world. However, it’s had a second life on writers’ bookshelves because it nicely explains a story arc, commonly called “the hero’s journey,” that serves as one of the most popular approaches to narrative plotting. Many of the most celebrated works of fiction and film, from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to the first “Star Wars” movie, explicitly follow the hero’s journey arc. Campbell draws examples from a wide range of traditional hero stories. These involve central figures who must leave their familiar life in the world they know in search of some objective or change that they will bring back to their everyday life. Campbell doesn’t stick to well-known systems of mythology — such as Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Hindu — but delves into small and less well-known tribal stories from Africa, Latin America, indigenous North America, and other far-flung lands. [That said, he does pull heavily from the world’s major religions, as well as from the most broadly known systems of mythology – e.g. Greek Mythology.]

The book is divided into two parts. The first of these parts is the one that will be of greatest interest to writers and other storytellers because it describes the hero’s journey story arc in great detail and using a variety of traditional stories. Part I is divided into four sub-parts and – within them – eighteen chapters. The first three sub-sections each investigate about a-third of the seventeen stages of Campbell’s monomyth, i.e. his name for the hero’s journey. [It should be noted that there’s no claim that all heroic myths contain each and every one of these elements, but only that if one wants to capture the bulk of all heroic stories, one needs to consider some formulation of each of these categorizations.] The first subpart consists of the five stages that take the hero from his work-a-day world into the new world [that is typically of a supernatural nature.] These stages include: a.) the call to adventure; b.) refusal of the call; c.) the supernatural aid or guide; d.) crossing the first threshold [into the supernatural / foreign world]; and e.) the belly of the whale (i.e. being swallowed into the unknown / self-annihilation.)

The second sub-part is called “Initiation,” and it covers the six stages within this strange, new world — including the attainment of the hero’s objective. This section begins with a “road of trials” to challenge the hero. This maybe the stage most associated with the heroic journey in the popular mind. The other stages of initiation include; meeting / marriage with the goddess (i.e. mastery of life,) temptation by a woman, atonement with the father, the elevation to an enlightened or divine state, and the ultimate boon (e.g. immortality or a great bounty.) [The middle portion of this section is where Freudian influence is most intensely felt.]

The third sub-part is about the hero’s return trip back to the familiar world. This section also includes six chapters including: 1.) refusal to return; 2.) the magic flight; 3.) rescue from without; 4.) crossing the threshold into the regular world; 5.) as a master of both worlds; 6.) with freedom to live. This idea that the hero returns not only with a great boon but as a master of two worlds is central to the hero’s journey.

The final sub-part / chapter recaps the entire process in a restatement and summary. Given the complexities and wide variation of the matter at hand, this is beneficial. This section opens with a helpful diagram that summarizes and depicts the stages of the hero’s journey in a cyclical format.

The second half of the book, Part II, takes a step back to look at the cosmogonic cycle — i.e. looking at mythological approaches to the story of the universe from its origin to destruction, though still with special focus on heroes. Again, Campbell finds many consistent elements among a broad and disparate collection of cultures and religions. Part II also features four sub-parts, this time including twenty chapters. The first sub-part (6 chapters) focuses on the origin of the universe. The four chapters of the second sub-part delve into mythology surrounding virgin birth among heroes, which is much more widespread than the well-known Christian story of Jesus’s birth. The third sub-part considers the lifecycle and varied roles of a hero, starting with the origins and childhood of the heroic figure, ending with the hero’s demise, and in between examining a number of the facets of a hero including: warrior, lover, leader, redeemer, and saint. The final subpart discusses how mythology and folklore treat the world’s end.

This book has many pages devoted to front- and back-matter including an introduction, a prologue, an epilogue, and an annotated bibliography. There are graphics throughout. Besides the explanatory diagram mentioned earlier, these are mostly renderings of artworks depicting events in mythological stories.

The broad sourcing of myths is necessary to tell the tale that Campbell sought to convey – i.e. that there are common narrative elements seen among varied cultures that had little to no interaction. With regard to one’s reading experience, the inclusion of myth and folklore unknown to most readers is a mixed bag. On one hand, it ensures that everyone – except perhaps professors of Mythology and Folk Studies – will learn about new stories and cultural traditions. On the other hand, it’s not always readily apparent what Campbell’s point is when he launches into a myth or folk story because it’s frequently done without any preemptory remarks that would clarify said point. This can make for some clunky reading in which one has to reflect and reread — as if reading a textbook as opposed to a popular work. This book sits near the edge between popular and scholarly reading. The reading isn’t terribly dense, but it does jump around from myth to myth in a way that presumably felt logical to the author but isn’t always readily so to a neophyte reader.

One quickly notices that Campbell was heavily influenced by Freudian ideas that haven’t weathered scholarly scrutiny well over the past several decades. It’s hard to be too critical about this as, when the book first came out in 1949, Campbell wasn’t alone, by any means. And, more importantly, Freud’s influence only really undermines certain ideas about what undergirds mythological tales. It doesn’t adversely impact the central argument that there are these common story elements across a diversity of cultures. In the chapter on “Woman as Temptress” one will see the most explicit examples as Campbell discusses “Hamlet” and the “Oedipus Trilogy.” Still, one could argue that Campbell’s ideas have survived more intact than did Freud’s.

I’d recommend this book for individuals interested in learning more about either mythology or story crafting. It’s extremely thought-provoking throughout, if – sometimes – a slog to read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera

The Art of the NovelThe Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of essays by the renowned Czech novelist about the literary novel, and particularly the European literary novel. That said, the pieces gather nicely into this collection without seeming disparate. Points and themes carry across the essays such that the book has a life as a whole. Also, the there is food for thought in this book even if one isn’t particularly interested in literary novels. There are ideas that could be of interest to any story crafters or writers.

There are seven parts (essays) in the book. The first and third part take specific novels as their focal point: Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Hermann Broch’s “Sleepwalkers,” respectively. That said, the feel isn’t greatly varied from the more general chapters of 2, 4, and 5. That is, Kundera uses critique of those novels (as well as others) to make general points about what is more or less effective, artistically speaking, in the novel. Besides those two novels, not surprisingly given Kundera’s heritage, he also repeatedly uses the novels of Franz Kafka and “The Good Soldier Svejk” by Jaroslav Hasek as examples. That said, many well-known novels come up in the discussion including those of Tolstoy, Musil, and even Faulkner (I say “even” because he’s clearly not a European novelist.)

The sixth and seventh parts are both a bit different. Part six is entitled, “Sixty-Three Words,” and it’s Kundera’s discussion of words that he believes are misconstrued. In some cases, they are words prominent in his own works, and in other cases they are of interest regarding novels more generally. Like many writers, Kundera takes a strict approach to words, arguing that synonyms don’t exist because if meanings were truly identical one of the words should die. The last piece is from an address that he made about the novel as a European artform.

While I read this with interest as a writer, I found that the discussion that most intrigued me did so on the level of a jnana yogi. That is, what interested me was his discussion of what constitutes a person – fictional or not. Kundera speaks in considerable detail about this issue. He’s writing about fictional selves, but some questions carry over. What makes a character and what is superfluous information – i.e. the illusion of a self? What is necessary and beneficial to convey to reader? Kundera criticizes the modern novel for getting bogged down in describing physical attributes and background information. On the other hand, Kundera praises novels in which one learns little about the character beyond what they do in the novel. His objection is that this denies the reader the opportunity to mentally build the character, him or herself. However, it also raises the question of whether those characteristics are really the relevant information.

I learned a few things from this book. It’s short and surprisingly readable given the topic-at-hand’s potential to become arty and pompous. If you’re a writer (particularly if you’re interested in the novel as an artform) this book is worth a read.

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