Writer’s Block

Joey Friends TurkeyHello everyone. Are you (those in the States, I mean) ready for Thanksgiving? I know I am. Tomorrow I will be spending eating some fabulous food and spending time with even more fabulous friends. Mmmm, I can taste the homemade mashed potatoes and gravy already.

What else? Well, soon Christmas will be here and I’m going to be busy preparing for the holidays. Because I’m insane, I will be making a lot of my gifts (I’ve been making soap for nearly six years), and I’ve been invited to several potlucks, which will keep me busy in the cookie baking department. And of course, I’ll be a good American consumer and buy some gifts from the stores and shops.

Also, I’ve been asked to work some overtime at the office. We’re going to get slammed with projects. This is good because I need the extra cash (don’t we all?). Because my off-line life is going to be a bit crazy I won’t be able to update this blog as frequently as I usually do. I am polishing off one book review, which should be up sometime next week, and I just finished one book and hope to start working on writing a review for it shortly. And I just picked up a book at the library, though I barely made a dent in it, I find it pretty interesting so I’ll probably review that book too when I get a chance.

Anyway, may all of you have a truly blessed Thanksgiving. Keep on reading. Books are truly something to be thankful for.

’80 by Whit Johnston

80_JohnstonImagine New York City and America as a whole in 1980. The World Trade Center still stood tall. Times Square hadn’t been de-pornified by Rudolph Guiliani. A B-list actor named Ronald Reagan was just about to be elected President and nobody wanted their MTV. John Lennon was unwittingly living his final days. And we were just starting to hear about a “gay cancer” later to be known as AIDS.

Well, with the novel ’80 by Whit Anderson you don’t have to imagine life at the helm of the 1980s. You can live it (or if you’re old enough—relive it) through the diary of one Mary Louise Weeks, a denizen of Manhattan, fledgling photographer and part-time party girl.

Long before people wrote blogs or revealed their darkest thoughts and secrets via social media, people kept diaries. Mary Louise, or ML as she is referred to, is one such diarist. Like many people who keep a diary, ML chronicles her day to day experiences living in Soho, taking on photography assignments that don’t always line up with her artistic vision, and navigating the heady world of love, sex and relationships. She relates both the exciting and the mundane of her life, including frustrating photo gigs, fun times at night clubs and the heartbreak of being left by her boyfriend pondering if she’ll ever find true love.

But ML looks beyond her own private realm, and also uses her diary to chronicle the world around her. She admits her dismay over Reagan’s election at a time when America had grown weary of the Carter years and was looking forward to “Morning in America.” She’s disgusted by the creeping element of commerce to the world of art. And like so many Beatles’ fans, she is shocked and saddened when John Lennon is gunned down in the final month of 1980.

ML also describes artists, musicians and celebrities that she comes into contact with that the reader can easily recognize through Johnston’s highly descriptive prose. ML mentions noticing simplistic yet striking subway graffiti that is clearly the work of the late Keith Haring. She also mentions a beyond wild performance of a punk band, which includes destroying a car. Anyone with an inkling of musical knowledge will recognize this punk bad as the Plasmatics, featuring the controversial and frenzied front woman Wendy O Williams. At turns, ML drops the names of John Belushi and Yoko Ono. This might come across as celebrity worshiping, but I suppose living in New York City one is going to come across famous folks. ML is hardly bragging; she’s just remarking on her life. Hey, I’ve been known to mention that I met my city’s mayor and I got a very sweet kiss from a lead singer of an Irish rock band (no, not that one).

To some people, ML just might be another Big Apple hipster artist, but I think readers will be touched by ML’s questioning, wistfulness, ambition and struggles as a young woman and as a creative person. This is all part of the human condition no matter what place on the map you call home. Despite being living in fly over country and being a pubescent during ML’s life in 1980, I found myself relating to ‘80’s twenty-something diarist. I have no doubt the feelings, emotions, ideas and thoughts ML had in 1980 will be just as genuine in 2080.

ML’s diary abruptly ends just as 1980 is turning to 1981. Undoubtedly, some readers will find this maddening, and will want to know what became of ML. However, I kind of liked this ending. It made me ponder ML’s life. Would she remain true to her artistic vision and maybe become a famous photographer? Or would she sell out during the “greed is good” decade and become a trader on Wall Street? Maybe she’s hang up her camera, move out to the suburbs and become a mini-driving soccer mom? Who knows? I have no idea what ML would become but it is fun to use one’s imagination and try to figure out ML’s future.

What I liked about ’80 is how it encapsulates a brief time in history through the eyes of one particular person. I also liked a having a glimpse of a New York City that I never experienced, but always wanted to. And what is truly interesting about ’80 is how Johnston, a man, can write so thoughtfully about a woman. The last book I read that did just this was Blake Nelson’s Girl.

So far, ’80 appears to be the only book Johnston has written. I hope it’s not too long before he publishes another one. According to his literary agent, he is working on another novel I’ve Come for Your Blondes. Good.  I’ll definitely read it.

Book Marks

lets read book markMichelle Cottle of the Daily Best writes an epic review of Sarah Palin’s latest tome, Dreck the Halls. Oops, I mean, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas.

The cleanse the palate of Palin’s spew, the fine folks at Good Reads offer up their favorite Christmas-related books.

More cleansing, here is a list of the 2013 National Book Award Winners.

Margaret Atwood writes a wonderful tribute to the recently deceased Doris Lessing.

Awesome California 4th-grader sending 3,000 books to start library in Botswana. Zane Pickus, you are amazing!!!

Retro Review: I’m With the Band-Confessions of a Groupie by Pamela Des Barres

I'm With the BandBefore Pamela Des Barres was known as a writer and the now ex-wife of rocker Michael Des Barres, she was a Pamela Miller, a girl from Reseda, California. She lived for rock and roll and wanted to be around all of that musical energy. However, she didn’t just go to concerts and hang up posters of the Beatles on her bedroom wall. “Miss Pamela,” as she was later nicknamed, actually met many of her favorite rock stars, had relationships with them, and lived to tell the tale.

Pamela got hooked on rock and roll at a very young age. She loved singer Dion, the Beatles and later became a fan of the Rolling Stones, which made her a bit of pariah among her friends who found the Stones dirty and repugnant. Before long Pamela ditched her bouffant for long hippie goddess tendrils and fully embraced the counter-culture lifestyle of the 1960s.

Whereas Pamela’s high school classmates went off to college or to the work place after graduation, Pamela hightailed it to Hollywood and joined the scene. Getting close to musicians was a lot easier back then and it wasn’t long before Pamela started meeting musicians like the Doors (she made out with Jim Morrison), Frank Zappa, and the Byrds.

Macking on Jim Morrison was a fleeting moment, but Frank Zappa and the Byrds truly became a part of Pamela’s life. Pamela befriended Frank’s wife Gail and later acted as a nanny to the Zappa’s young children. Blown away by Pamela and her friends’ unique style and energy, Frank turned them into the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously). The GTOs weren’t so much a band as they were a living and breathing piece of performance art.

As for the Byrds, Pamela fell hard for bass player Chris Hillman. Pamela and Chris struck up an on-and-off again romantic relationship, and Pamela later followed Chris when he formed after the Flying Burrito Brothers after the Byrds broke up.

Pamela had romances, dalliances and hook-ups with other musicians and famous folks. Among them included Keith Moon, Mick Jagger and Waylon Jennings. She loses her virginity to Nick St. Nicholas from Steppenwolf. And has her first orgasm with Noel Redding who was in the Jimi Hendrix Experience. And she also nearly gets her hands on the King himself, Elvis Presley!

Pamela falls hard for Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and he flies her all over the United States until dumping her for Lori Maddox who was all of 13 at the time. Poor Pamela, who must have been in her early twenties at the time, felt ancient against the pubescent Maddox. How could she possibly compete?

Pamela also has a romance with a pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson who later takes up with a very young Melanie Griffith (damn, what is up with men and their obsession with adolescent tail?). Interestingly, enough Pamela remains friendly with Mr. Johnson and she and Melanie have become total besties. Pamela doesn’t allow bitterness to get the best of her.

When Pamela wasn’t indulging in carnal delights, she tried her hand at acting, traveled all over the United States and Europe and pretty much tried to find herself during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. She admits to experimenting with drugs. Fortunately for her, drugs never took the toll they did on others and she escaped being a casualty.

As Pamela approaches her thirties she begins to embrace maturity. She marries rocker Michael Des Barres and they have a son, Nicholas. Though the marriage doesn’t last (Pamela covers this in her follow-up Take Another Piece of My Heart), she and Michael remain friends. Pamela continues to write, teaches creative writing and is considered quite an inspiration to groupies and rock fans everywhere.

What I love about I’m With the Band is how it gives me a front row seat to a time I can only imagine. Pamela doesn’t just give the reader a sneak peek; she flings the curtain wide open and nearly shouts, “Take a look, dolls!” We get a glimpse of the good, bad and ugly of rock and roll excess. Plus, in an age where reality show starlets think sex tapes are the road to fame and politicians text their junk, Pamela’s sexual exploits are downright quaint!

But what truly makes I’m With the Band work is Pamela’s lively and distinctive writing voice. It’s honest and descriptive, with a fun, gossipy flair. And Pamela’s never afraid to show her real self, sharing her personal journal entries, which could be quite cringe-inducing. And despite heartbreak and the loss of friends, Pamela remains an optimist and a total sweetie. She’s a lover of men, a supporter of women and still believes in the power of rock and roll.

Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke by Rob Sheffield

Turn Around Bright EyesRock journalist Rob Sheffield just gets it. He understands the importance of music and how it shapes our lives. In his first book, Love is a Mix Tape, Sheffield wrote about the power of mix tapes in a relationship and the sudden death of his first wife. In his second book, How to Talk to Girls About Duran Duran, Sheffield wrote how pop music (and loving and meddling sisters) helped him relate to girls during his awkward adolescence. Now Sheffield is back with his latest book, Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke.

It’s early 2000s New York City, and September 11th was about to break the heart of the city that never sleeps. Rob Sheffield had just moved to Manhattan after living in Virginia. He was a devastated widower, losing his wife Renee, and trying to get his life back together. Professionally, he was successful, working for Rolling Stone. But personally he was a wreck.

Then Sheffield discovered karaoke. One night his friends dragged him to a West Village karaoke bar. And it’s not too far off the mark to say, singing along to the likes of Journey, Bon Jovi, and David Bowie gradually gave Sheffield’s life some meaning. And soon it would give him so much more.

It was during this time, Sheffield met another karaoke devotee, a young woman named Ally. Ally was a student, studying to be an astrophysicist, and working as a DJ. Not surprisingly, Sheffield and Ally bonded over music (though Sheffield did think he blew it when he mentioned his favorite Pavement disc is “Slanted & Enchanted” and Ally’s turned out to be “Wowie Zowie”). Soon Sheffield began the uncertain journey of mending his heart, making his way from widower to boyfriend to husband, with karaoke as a musical way to express himself beyond the written pages of “Rolling Stone” and a way for him to connect romantically with one very special woman.

But Turn Around Bright Eyes is about so much more than finding love the second time around and the merits of karaoke. Sheffield writes about those awful days right after September 11th that made me feel I was truly there. I nearly smelled the smoke of the destroyed World Trade Center, and I could see the shell shocked faces of shattered New Yorkers. On a lighter note, I enjoyed the Sheffield’s musings on his new home in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn and the love he has for his boisterous Irish-American family.

And then of course, is Sheffield’s unwavering devotion to music. Sheffield is no rock snob. He writes without irony about the merits of Rod Stewart, Rush, and Neil Diamond. One of my favorite chapters is about Sheffield’s challenging week at Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. Sheffield can’t play an instrument, so he becomes the lead singer of his fantasy camp band even though he admits not having the best singing voice. He also hones his mad skills with a tambourine nearly injuring his thighs in the process. Hmm, who knew the innocent looking tambourine could be so dangerous?

While at camp Sheffield and his fellow campers are mentored by rock and roll greats…and not so greats. Thanks to Sheffield I am now aware George Thorogood is a really cool, down-to-earth guy (hmm, I guess good old George isn’t “Bad to the Bone”), and Eric Burdon is kind of a jerk. Hmm, the more you know. It’s in this chapter where Sheffield also relates how he has embarrassed himself in front of his musical idols like Johnny Marr of the Smiths. This is one of my favorite attributes of Sheffield. He’s not afraid to express what a vulnerable, clumsy and lovable geek he can be at times despite his years of interviewing rock stars.

I also want to thank Sheffield for introducing me to the term “Rockholm Syndrome,” a phrase his “Rolling Stone” colleague, Alexis Sottile coined. What is Rockholm Syndrome you ask? It’s when you hear a song you pretty much hate so many times that you eventually begin to like it. My Rockholm Syndrome song? Well, thanks for asking. It’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I’ve never been the biggest Journey fan, but when this song was done on the first episode of Glee (R.I.P. Cory Monteith) I must have listened to their version about 836 times in the following week. I became obsessed with that song.

But I digress…

Sheffield titles each unique chapter with the name of a song. Many of them you will know like “Rebel Yell,” “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which lyrics “turn around bright eyes” give Sheffield’s book its notable title. And some chapter titles are of songs that are a bit more obscure like the Irish classic “Bold Thady Quill.” All of these song titles have a way of connecting with each chapter’s content and set the stage for Sheffield’s musical musings.

And of course, there are Sheffield’s musings on the virtues of karaoke. I always found karaoke cheesy, but thanks to Turn Around Bright Eyes I now have a more open mind about it, though you won’t find me singing “What’s Love Got to Do With It” at my local karaoke bar any time soon. Somehow I’m not surprised Sheffield could write about karaoke with both humanity and heart. Sheffield has that unique gift of being able to write about music, loss, music, love and life in general in down-to-earth, amusing and friendly style that draws you into his world without being totally TMI. If Sheffield didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. And his latest memoir, Turn Around Bright Eyes, should be a welcome addition to any music lover’s literary collection.

Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway and Jon Warshawsky

Why Biz PeopleNot too long a headhunter sent me this job ad. I’m paraphrasing and shortening a bit of it so your brain doesn’t explode (and to protect the not so innocent). My comments and translation of the ad copy are in italics.

Job Title: On-line Newsletter Operations Professional (On-line Newsletter Writer)

Principal Accountabilities (Principal accountabilities? Oh, I think you mean job tasks or position’s duties)

• Manages the daily activities necessary to produce the monthly and quarterly newsletters with a focus on the execution of the on-line newsletters (Write and edit monthly and quarterly on-line newsletters)

• Coordinates creation of each newsletter between internal content creators and an external partner (Work on newsletters with both internal and external parties)

• Manages external partner’s efforts to send each newsletter on-time (Make deadlines)

• Acts as primary resource for discussion on the capabilities of the newsletters (Collaborate with staff on how to produce effective newsletters)

• Assists with continuous testing efforts to improve the results of the newsletter program (Monitor newsletter results and create improvements if necessary)

Okay, my comments and translation took just a couple of minutes to write. It really wasn’t that difficult. Sure, my copy isn’t as “fancy” as the original but it does get to the point, right?

Well, getting to the point doesn’t seem to very common in business writing and speaking these days. If you’re a citizen of cubicle land you’ve probably also noticed this when reading internal or external business communications. And if you think reading and listening today’s business communication is a pain try writing it. I have and it’s one of the quickest ways to gaslight yourself.

I’m not only the one who is frustrated by the current state of business communications. Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway and Jon Warshawsky are also frustrated and they tell you why in their informative, smart and very funny book Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide.

Fugere, Hardaway and Warshawsky have spent plenty of time in the trenches writing professional copy so they know bad business communications when they see and hear it. They break business communications down into four key sections:

1. The Obscurity Trap
2. The Anonymity Trap
3. The Hard-Sell Trap
4. The Tedium Trap

You’re probably familiar with the obscurity trap. This is when businesses use pretentious phrasing and cryptic wording, much like the job ad earlier in my review. Business often use the obscurity trap because they believe it makes them come across as important and impressive but it is ultimately meaningless and confusing. Sadly, those proposing this type of writing come across as insufferable twits.

Sometimes businesses are afraid to show personality or a unique voice. This is the anonymity trap. Businesses use customized templates or try to fit into a boring standards because they think that’s what they should do instead of trying something different and making themselves stand out from the crowd. This writing makes it difficult for the reader to distinguish one company from another.

Most of us hate the hard-sell businesses often practice. Sure, we love to buy, but we don’t appreciate being sold to. The hard-sell trap is when businesses use their communications to bludgeon you into buying something just to make some money rather than asking you about your needs, your wants and your opinion on their services and/or products. The hard-sell trap is about seeing clients as dollar signs not individuals. This makes us feel used, not appreciated and understood.

Lastly, we come to the tedium trap. This is when businesses use tiresome and boring communication styles that are completely devoid of a compelling story or an innovative panache and nearly puts us to sleep. You’ve probably come across this during a meeting featuring dull Power Point presentations and even duller speeches. In other words, let’s top using boring clip art and when giving a speech have a little fun. Fun is good!

Why Business People Speak Like Idiots not only examines these traps it also offers suggestions on how to avoid them using clear language, real-life examples, and lots of wit. This book not only offers great ideas on how to avoid banal corporate speak in written communications but also in visuals, slogans, speeches, presentations and meetings. Yes, business communications can be enjoyable and at the same time inform, educate and persuade.

And as an added bonus, I really liked the glossary of terms that should be banished from business speak like “action item,” “best practice,” “deliverable,” “client-focused” and “value-added.” Client-focused and value-added? Well, that should go without saying.

Now, I know I’m not the only one who picked up this book and claimed, “Yes, I’m not going nuts. Business people do speak like idiots!” However, I also fear this book might only resonate with the already converted. How do we get the non-converted to step away from the dark side other than force them to read their business communications “A Clockwork Orange” style? Well, I don’t have the answer to that but I do think Why Business People Speak Like Idiots is an important book that will hopefully enter the consciousness of everyone in corporate America.

Why Business People Speak Like Idiots. Read it. Learn it. Know it. Live it…before it’s too late.

Book Marks

cropped-reading_is_coolMacKenzie Bezos’, wife of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, isn’t exactly too fond on a book about her husband and the Internet giant. And she’s letting everyone know about it, on where else? Amazon.com!

Cosmo’s sex and relationship advice is complete bullshit. Hmm, who knew?

Entertainment Weekly asks, “What is your favorite YA novel of all time?” There will always be a special place in my heart for Judy Blume’s work in my adolescent heart. I also like SE Hinton, Paul Zindel and Naomi Klein. But one of the best YA novels I read as an actual adult is Steven Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Hmm, do I smell a retro review?

Are book covers better with googly eyes? Discuss.

British writer and all-around badass , Caitlin Moran, on why libraries are so important to individuals and communities.