Archive for March, 2015

Something a Little . . . Odd

March 28, 2015

Thirty-four years ago The Bookseller, an industry and review magazine published in the UK, announced the first winner of its Diagram Prize.  This award was conceived as a way to liven up the annuoddal Frankfort Book Fair, the announcement to be made at that august gathering after nominations and voting had been conducted via Bookseller.  The very first winner, acclaimed as the year’s oddest book title for 1979, was Proceedings of the Third International Workshop on Nude Mice (there’s more; something about Bozeman, Montana, but that’s the good part).

After that, a stampede!  The Diagram announcement is eagerly awaited every year by book nerds who don’t have anything better to do, and this year is no exception.  But before I get to that, let’s remember last year’s winners and runners-up:

  • How to Poo on a Date (grand prize, and ’nuff said)
  • Are Trout South African? (second place)
  • The Origin of Feces (third place–apparently it was that kind of year)
  • Working class Cats: the Bodega Cats of New York City (hon. mention)
  • Pie-Ography: When Pie Met Biography (hon. mention)

Memorable titles of the past include

  • For 2008: The 2009-2014 World Outlook for Sixty Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais (all the good tiny-cheese-container titles were taken)
  • For 2004: Bombproof Your Horse (or else!)
  • For 2003: The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (didn’t know that was a thing)
  • For 2000: Designing High Performance Stiffened Structures (nope; not going there)
  • For 1996: Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers (and the women who love them?)
  • For 1980: The Joy of Chickens (chickens in the title always gives you an edge; see Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop, 2012)
  • For 1992: How to Avoid Huge Ships (#1, stay out of the water)
  • For 2010: Managing a Dental Practice: the Genghis Khan Way.  (Is your dentist also an author? Better check.)

More odd titles at Goodreads, here.

I know the suspense is killing you, so enough with the delaying tactics and on to this year’s award.  First the relentless drumbeat of runners-up:

  • Nature’s Nether Regions, by Menno Schilthuizen
  • Advanced Pavement Research: Selected, Peer Reviewed Papers from the 3rd International Conference on Concrete Pavements Design, Construction, and Rehabilitation, edited by Bo Tian
  • The Madwoman in the the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones, by Sandra Tsing-Loh (actually, I wish I’d thought of that one)
  • Where do Camels Belong?, by Ken Thompson
  • Divorcing a Real Witch: For Pagans and the People That Used to Love Them, by Diana Rajchel
  • The Ugly Wife is Treasured at Home, by Melissa Margaret Schneider

So many odd titles, so tough to choose one.  The winner this year broke two records: the first self-published title to be nominated is also the first self-published title to win, namely

To dispel the inevitable creepiness, the author hastens to explain that her book is about depending on the kindness of strangers while backpacking all over the world.  Glad she cleared that up.

And now, on to 2016.  Keep a weather eye out of odd titles (must have actual books attached to them) and let The Bookseller know when you find one!



Teachers’ Lounge: Growling at the Camera

March 20, 2015

One of the most important lessons any writer can learn, whether child or adult, is this:


Writing is largely a matter of framing.  Take your picture frame or camera lens or screen or however you want to imagine it, and zoom in on the subject.  Don’t try to take in everything; observe only a few details, focusbut observe them lovingly.  Don’t list every action, but bring out the actions that contribute to one focused whole.

Say you ask a classroom of kids to describe their best friend.  How likely is it that most of the descriptions will read something like this:

Selena is like a sister to me.  She has brown hair and brown eyes and is very athletic.  She won the hundred meter dash in all-city track last year.  She’s four inches taller than me and sometimes she calls me “Shrimp.”  But she would never hurt my feelings on purpose.  We like a lot of the same things, like dance movies, M&M cookies from the bakery, soccer and Danny Rodgers (he’s in seventh grade).  Our favorite author is J. B. Cheaney.  We’re almost always together and we have a lot of fun.

Okay, I get it; they’re buddies.  But Selena as a person eludes this description, and that’s because it’s often tough for beginning writers to describe someone they know and love.  So try this: ask them to describe  a local TV personality, such as the Channel 8 meteorologist or a talk show host.

  • After observing this person on TV, decide what image of himself he’s trying to get across (or her, of course)–is the person trying to look trustworthy? fun? interested? nuts (like the furniture or used car salesman who wants you to think you can totally take advantage of him)?  Write down one or two details that support your impression.
  • Write one thing the person says.
  • Describe the person’s surroundings in one sentence, including the most prominent feature (such as a car dealership sign or program logo).

Once you have all that, put it together in a one-paragraph description.  Here’s an example:

“In other news, the stock market fell almost 5% today,” says Mark Spencer.  His eyebrows pull together in a serious look and his mouth is a thin straight line.  Just behind his left shoulder is a big lighted sign reading, “Channel Six headline News.”  His dark suit and plain tie stand out against the sign.  His solemn face wants to reassure me that I can trust him.

Want to try that again?  Rewrite your description of the same person, but this time, imagine that he or she is an animal.  What animal do they remind you of?  Once you’ve figured that out, fill in the bullet points above and use appropriate details to create the picture:

“In other news, the bone market fell almost 5% today,” growls Mark Spencer.  His eyelids droop over mournful-looking eyes and his tongue hangs out sadly.  Just behind his hulking brown shoulder is a big lighted sign reading, “Channel Six Canine News.”  His droopy bulldog face wants me to think he’s very serious about the news, but I can hear his tail thumping behind the desk.

Focusing takes some time to develop (photography pun–sorry), but if practiced enough it can become second nature.

Expand Your Reading Prowess!

March 6, 2015

I think kids should learn to enjoy all kinds of books.  When I was homeschooling, library days were exploration days, when I told the kids check out books from each hundred-degree variation of the Dewey decimal system.  Not all in one day, of course, but over the course of a year or semester they’d be browsing the stacks of pure science (600’s), arts and crafts (7oo’s–and p.s., that’s where the comic books are!), philosophy (100’s), history (900’s), until they’d covered them all.

But that’s not what I’m talking about in this post.

nontrad.reading1I’m talking about what you read, but how and where you read.  You can devour Thoreau and Plato and Sun Tzu and Tolstoy, but in my opinion you are not an accomplished reader until you’ve mastered positions and places.  It’s never too late to start!  If you’ve been a conventional, butt-in-the-chair type of reader, with an occasional “daring adventure” on the bus, train, or family car,  it’s high time you moved up to the next level.  Which would be

1. Horizontal.  Most of us have mastered this one, but I’m starting with the basics.  Who hasn’t read in bed?  It’s much safer than smoking and the only downside is it can rob you of your full eight hours sleep.  If you’re a kid, it can be hard on flashlight batteries, too.  Don’t limit the experience to beds, however–try hammocks, floors, blankets on the grass, kitchen counters, sleeping bags, tree limbs.  Be imaginative!

2. On your feet.  The great advantage for us fifty-ups is it keeps us from falling asleep (usually).  On cold nights, it’s much easier to stand over a heat register than crouch on it.  On warm days, why not get in a little reading time while standing over the barbecue?  If you need to lose a few pounds, remember that the stationary leg gets the workout, so try switching legs.  And if you get tired, there’s always a leanable object nearby:

gotta read

3. In Motion.  This is actually a sub-position, to be combined with others.  If you’re in a hammock, give it a push (same with a porch swing, but points off for sitting).  Forward motion in a car or train doesn’t really count unless you get motion sickness–then it’s heroic.  As is reading on the back of a motorcycle. For skydiving or parasailing, see #7, below. But with just a little practice anyone can read-while-walking, and you will wow your friends and neighbors so long as they aren’t always picking you up off the dirt.  Follow these simple tips: a) choose a familiar route; b) check for potholes; c) avoid running into people, who tend to get tetchy; d) don’t trip over small animals.  You might want to practice on a flat, unpopulated surface, like a racetrack.

4. Around water.  For many of us, this may mean the bathroom.   Beaches don’t count, neither do toilets (no fair sitting!!).  I’m a practiced bathtub reader (tub positions are not sitting!! they are semi-reclining!!), with only one fatality on my record (if it happens to you, try this).  Avoid clawfoot tubs, which tend to have curved railings that present balance problems.  Also avoid those aluminum frames with the sliding shower doors–I hate those!  Speaking of showers, I hear it’s possible to read in them, but I’ve nontrad.reading2never tried that.  I make up for it by reading while washing dishes (standing and around water).  If you try this, a book chair is very helpful.  Add a clear piece of plexiglass, and kiss your concerns about sloshes and splashes good-bye.  Some try to, as they say, go “all in,” but I think they’re mostly showoffs.  Or they have one of these, in which case they are extremely devout .

5. Upside down.  This is mostly a novelty act, though I hear it’s actually a thing–some people read just as well upside down as rightside up.  (And no, I don’t mean they read equally badly in both positions, so don’t go there.)  They are rock stars!gotta read2

6. Contortionist style.  Mainly a specialty of people in the 11-17 age range, and not for beginners!  Readers attempting contortionist style would be well advised to start with simple positions, making ample use of friendly furniture

and gradually build up to the more challenging poses:


Results may vary!












7. Extreme Reading.  I hate to be a killjoy, but at some point, reading ceases to be reading and becomes something else, like an Olympic event or a circus act.  So enjoy your base jumping or paragliding-cumJane-Eyre, but I do not choose to participate.  And I’ll bet you don’t remember anything you read.