Book Review: The Productivity Project

Title: The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy

Author: Chris Bailey

Format: Hardcover

Published: 2017

It’s almost time for New Year’s resolutions. I make the same resolution every year: to not make any resolutions. Am I successful or not? Someone ask Schrödinger, because I have no idea. Normal people, however, make New Year’s resolutions, so let’s talk about a book that will help you make some good ones and maybe even stick to them: Chris Bailey’s The Productivity Project. Bailey did something I find fascinating: he took an entire year off after college to study and write about productivity. He tried all sorts of productivity hacks and life changes, from meditating 8 hours a day to getting up at 5:30 AM for several months. In The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy, he shares the methods that worked along with a few of his misadventures along the way.

I’m a bit of a productivity nerd, and I’ve read quite a few books on time management, personal development, and other techniques to squeeze more meaningful activity out of a 24-hour day–and The Productivity Project is the best book I’ve read on the topic in years and the second-best one ever (after David Allen’s classic Getting Things Done). The Productivity Project is chock-full of great ideas on a variety of topics: setting priorities (this one alone may revolutionize how you plan your days), reclaiming your attention, delegating tasks, meditating to increase focus, changing how you consume food and caffeine to ensure you have energy when you need it most, how to schedule different kinds of tasks based on your level of energy and focus, and much more. Even better: Bailey writes with lots of humor and no judgment. This is a book you’ll read for fun. Yes, really.

As someone who works full-time at a demanding job while caring for a family and writing a novel, I need every productivity hack I can find. Based on the last three months of trying some of Bailey’s recommendations, I can tell you that they work. You’ll still only have 24 hours in your day, but The Productivity Project can help you find ways to make the most of them while staying healthy and sane. That sounds like a good foundation for a happier and more productive new year. 5 stars.

Book Review: How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method

Title: How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method

Author: Randy Ingermanson

Format: Kindle ebook

Published: 2014

In case you haven’t heard, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you choose to accept the NaNo mission, you try to write 50,000 words of a novel in–you guessed it–November. Some writers just sit down and write (“pantsing” – for writing by the seat of your pants), while others make detailed outlines that cover every plot detail. Then there are the rest of us, who, like Goldilocks, want a solution that’s neither too hot nor too cold. And speaking of Goldilocks…

She is the main character in the business parable that makes up the bulk of Ingermanson’s ebook, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. Goldilocks goes to a fiction writing conference to learn how to make her dream of writing a novel come true. She tries Papa Bear’s outlining seminar, but outlining is too structured for her. She tries Mama Bear’s workshop on writing “organically,” i.e. pantsing, but that doesn’t work for her either, so she ends up in Baby Bear’s workshop on the Snowflake Method. What follows is about 40,000 words of Goldilocks’ adventures with various fairy tale characters as she learns how to plan her novel using the Snowflake Method.

As a beginning fiction writer, I’ve found the Snowflake Method exceptionally helpful for thinking through my first novel, and Ingermanson’s book presents it in a way that’s both fun and informative. We learn how to go from a one-sentence summary to a complete list of scenes using a method that provides just the right amount of structure. We also get to see the Big Bad Wolf as a literary agent (yes, really) and Robin Hood as a loveable sleazeball. There’s even a murder, because, you know, fiction needs to have conflict.

The book ends with a summary of the Snowflake Method and the snowflake for the book itself, so readers can see exactly how the method works with a real book. If you’ve ever thought about writing a novel–or if you just want to learn more about fiction writing and how novels are structured–join Goldilocks, Baby Bear, and the Big Bad Wolf for some edifying fun. 5 stars!

Book review: Shrill by Lindy West

Title: Shrill

Author: Lindy West

Publisher: Hachette

Published: 2016

Version reviewed: Kindle edition

One of the things I wonder about in my spare time is how historians will portray these times. I celebrated my 50th birthday this year, which makes me officially an Old Fart (™), and these are the most turbulent times I can remember living through. I could fill many blog posts inventorying that turbulence, but I’m here to review books and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of bubble gum, so I’ll get to the point. Wherever you stand politically, it’s hard to miss the fact that women are getting more vocal about sexual harassment and sexual assault. As I write this, the Harvey Weinstein scandal is a few weeks old, several women have accused Louis C.K. of sexual harassment, and several other prominent men have been accused in recent weeks (make that days) of less-than-honorable behavior toward women. One of the young, fresh voices of this latest women’s movement is Lindy West, New York Times columnist, founder of an advice column on Tumblr for teens, I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault, and creator of the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign on Twitter. Apparently I’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, because I’d never heard of her till Amazon recommended her 2016 memoir, Shrill, when I finished Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me on my Kindle. The title caught my attention, so I took a closer look. I’m very glad I did. West’s memoir is fierce and funny and brutally honest, and I loved every bit of it.

Before we get into the meat of the review, I want to get a few things out of the way. First, West is a loud and proud feminist, as you might guess from the title. Wait, wait, don’t close that browser tab! She is neither a misandrist nor a boring academic who requires twelve pages of two-dollar words to explain a simple concept. West is a comedian. Yes, you read that right. A funny feminist is not an oxymoron (I’ve spent most of my life trying to be one, though West is way wittier than I’ll ever be). And despite the title, she is not shrill. Her writing is full of confidence and sharp wit, the voice of a woman comfortable in her own skin and unwilling to silently tolerate those who would strip away that hard-earned comfort.
In Shrill, West writes about everything from her own life (and, yes, her abortion, though only for a few pages) to comedy, feminism, and surviving the Internet troll brigade (note: the internet is not kind to women guilty of Writing While Female, Feminist, and Fat). Whether she’s talking about the trials of growing up geeky or rape jokes in comedy, she is sharp and funny and self-deprecating and ruthlessly honest. West has a gift often shared by both comics and poets: the ability to condense a thought into a a few well-sharpened words that convey more than the wordiest tomes produced by academics like me. Here are just a few of West’s best Twitter-sized punches:  

On women:

“Maybe women would finally be considered fully formed human beings, instead of off-brand men with defective genitals.”

And internet trolls:

“Why is invasive, relentless abuse—that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field—something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs?”

“Internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings who’ve lost their way, and they just want other people to flounder too.”

“People say it doesn’t matter what happens on the Internet, that it’s not real life. But thanks to Internet trolls, I’m perpetually reminded that the boundary between the civilized world and our worst selves is just an illusion.”

And rape jokes in comedy:

“You get to decide where you aim: Are you making fun of rapists? Or their victims? Are you making the world better? Or worse? It’s not about censorship, it’s not about obligation, it’s not about forcibly limiting anyone’s speech—it’s about choice. Who are you? Choose.”

“Women, it seemed, were obliged to be thick-skinned about their own rapes, while comics remained too thin-skinned to handle even mild criticism.”

On being fat:

“Being fat and happy and in love is still a radical act.”

On empathy:

“It’s hard to feel hurt or frightened when you’re flooded with pity. It’s hard to be cold or cruel when you remember it’s hard to be a person.”

People who claim feminists have no sense of humor have never read West–and they should. She is a more eloquent version of the smart, snarky friend we either had or wished we had in high school. But that last quote above captures an element of West’s voice that underlies the snark and anger. Like all of us, West has suffered, and that suffering and her own vulnerability seem to have imbued her with a deep sense of empathy. In one of my favorite parts of Shrill, West talks about a time when she reached out to an especially cruel internet troll. The exchange is touching and illustrates beautifully that we (all of us, not just women) can care about people (even mean people) and still take no crap from them.

As I read Shrill, I found myself wishing I could hang with West in a dive bar somewhere, laughing at trolls (because it beats crying) and sharing inside jokes about music and old TV shows and geeky books normal people don’t read. If you’re offended by the very notion of feminism, this isn’t the book for you. But if you appreciate a confident woman who refuses to let other people define or limit her–and who can bare her soul and share her passion with crackling wit and self-deprecating humor–you’ll love Shrill.








Book review: Off Script by Josh King

Title: Off Script: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide

Author: Josh King

Publisher: St. Martin’s

Published: 2016

Version reviewed: Audiobook from Blackstone Audio, read by the author defines an advance man as, “A staffer sent ahead to prepare for the arrival of a politician at a campaign rally, media appearance or other large event” ( In Off Script, advance man Josh King takes the reader through the good, bad, and ugly of presidential advance work in what he calls the Age of Optics, from Michael Dukakis’ failed campaign in 1988 through the early days of the Trump campaign in 2015.

King started his career in advance work with the Dukakis campaign, served as Director of Production for Presidential Events in the White House Office of Communications during most of the Bill Clinton years, and created the Sirius/XM radio show Polioptics. He shares his wealth of experience and war stories in Off Script and lets readers (and voters) go behind the curtain to see how campaign events are scripted and candidate images crafted. Spoiler alert: if you think every move a candidate makes is carefully planned, you’re right. King will show you how and why those plans are made. He will also show you lots of instances when a seemingly small incident had a huge negative impact: Dukakis’ tank ride, George H. W. Bush’s encounter with a supermarket scanner, the Howard Dean scream, and John Kerry’s windsurfing–to name a few. Having followed politics since the late 80s, I’ve often found it disturbing how silly things like these could make or break a campaign for the highest office in the land. King’s book helped me understand why that happens–though I still find it disturbing.

The biggest downside of Off Script is its slow start. King spends the entire first section of the book–at least 2 or 3 hours of the audiobook, maybe more–on Dukakis’ tank ride. Yes, really. It may have been the biggest campaign failure in modern presidential history, but I’m not convinced it warrants that much page time. But if you’re interested in either politics or marketing (and sadly, they’re becoming so intertwined, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes), it’s worth persevering through the seemingly-endless tank ride. King’s book will help you understand how optics trump (no pun intended) substance in modern presidential campaigns and therefore make you a more informed–if also possibly more disillusioned–voter.

And if you’re wondering who the heck Dukakis was and what the heck he was doing in a tank, congratulations on not being older than dirt. Here’s a little history lesson, courtesy of Politico:

And here’s the infamous George H. W. Bush campaign ad that effectively ended Dukakis’ chances:

One final note: you’ve probably guessed that King is a Democrat, since he worked for Dukakis and Clinton. In the book, though, he is refreshingly unbiased. He speaks respectfully of presidents and candidates from both parties; if anything, he’s more critical of his own party’s candidates. He shows no partisan intent in Off Script–just the intent to explain and educate.

Book review: A Life on the Road by Charles Kuralt

Title: A Life on the Road

Author: Charles Kuralt

Format: Hardback, Putnam

Published: 1990


Some of us are old enough to remember when most people got their news from the evening news on one of the big 3 networks. We trusted anchors like Walter Cronkite to report the news of the day–wars, political scandals, natural disasters–with truth and gravitas. Charles Kuralt was a newsman of this era, but he was best known not for the big serious stories but for for finding the unique and fascinating people and stories hiding in small towns all across America. In A Life on the Road, Kuralt tells the story behind the stories, chronicling his career as a newsman in the glory days of TV news as well as some of the people and events he discovered on the back roads of America.

It’s fitting that I found this book serendipitously–specifically, on a dusty shelf at an estate sale in Phoenix–since Kuralt and crew relied on plenty of serendipity (he called it dumb luck) when searching out stories. In a time before cell phones and the Internet–heck, some of us didn’t even have a private phone line (raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember party lines)–Kuralt and crew would roll up to a farmhouse in a rickety old RV and ask to do a story about whatever interesting thing the family was involved in. No appointment, no string of emails explaining exactly what and where and how, in some cases no advance planning at all beyond, “Look, a story!” and off they would go, RV trundling down a country road toward the nearest local color.

The stories themselves were (and are still) interesting, but part of what made them so was the warmth and wit of Kuralt the storyteller. Those traits are evident in A Life on the Road. Kuralt blends his own story and that of his crew with the colorful characters he encountered. Here’s a sample:

We went to Sopchoppy, in the Florida panhandle, to look into a story about worm grunting. Worm grunting is not practiced just everywhere. Maybe I’d better explain it.

You go out into the woods and pound a hardwood stake into the ground, preferably using a heavy truck spring to do the pounding. Then, you rub the truck spring sensually, but with a certain pressure, across the top of the stake. This sets up a vibration in the ground which you can feel in the soles of your feet. Earthworms must find the vibration disagreeable, for to escape it, they wriggle to the surface; whereupon, you pick up the worms and go fishing.

I didn’t believe this when I first heard about it, but it turns out that some people around Sopchoppy make a living at it, selling their worms by the canful to Mr. M. B. Hodges’s bait store. It will not surprise you to learn that if you go worm grunting in the National Forest, you have to have a federal Worm Gathering Permit displayed in the window of your pickup truck. (p. 149)

If you’d like to see as well as read, some of Kuralt’s pieces are on YouTube–just search for charles kuralt on the road.. Here are a couple to get you started (unfortunately the one about worm grunting doesn’t seem to be available):


So if you get a chance, pick up a copy of Kuralt’s book and lose yourself in another time, a time when people still watched the same news–and some of them even made a living selling worms. Kuralt’s pieces may have seemed like fluff next to the tumultuous events of the late 1960s-1980s, but they are a reminder–then and now–that the United States is a rich tapestry of quirky places and resourceful, creative, diverse people. 4 out of 5 pages.


Book Review — Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Title: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Author: Edward Abbey
Format: Paperback
Published: 1968


Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paxson Woelber. Creative Commons licensed.

A colleague at work was shocked that I’d never heard of Edward Abbey, so she gave me a copy of Desert Solitaire. I read all but the last few pages and wrote most of a draft of this review before I looked him up in Wikipedia and discovered that Desert Solitaire is, “regarded as one of the finest nature narratives in American literature.” So now I feel ignorant, but at least this review is a genuine reaction to the book, not influenced by its reputation.

Desert Solitaire chronicles Abbey’s experiences as a seasonal ranger in Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) in 1956-1957. “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” That’s the opening sentence of the first chapter, and Abbey spends the rest of the book showing the reader that beauty. His prose is as poetic and vivid as John Muir’s but with more snark and bite. Abbey was a philosopher, an environmental activist, and an anarchist; all three of those identities are on display here. He blends rhapsodic odes to the beauty of Utah’s canyonlands with misanthropic rants about the evils of cities, cars, development, tourists–and especially the Glen Canyon Dam, which was being built during his time at Arches and which he considered an abomination.

Even if you don’t share Abbey’s environmental views, Desert Solitaire is worth reading if you have any interest in the stark, stunning landscape of the Four Corners region (Confession: I live near there, so I’m biased. This region is breathtaking. You need to see it. Start packing.) Whether describing a cattle drive or the Colorado River rushing through narrow red rock canyons, Abbey immerses you in the otherworldly beauty of the canyonlands. He’s also one heck of a storyteller, regaling you with hair-raising tales of him doing extreme (and occasionally really stupid) things like sliding down waterfalls or hiking into The Maze (now part of Canyonlands National Park) with little more than a bottle of water and some trail mix.  My favorite chapter is also the longest: Abbey’s tale of rafting Glen Canyon, which was later flooded after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. I’ll never see Glen Canyon as he did, because much of it is at the bottom of Lake Powell, but at least I got to see it through his eyes and prose.

I’ll leave you with two passages from the book, which, taken together, will give you a sense of Abbey’s writing style. The first is from near the end of the book, as his time at Arches is coming to a close:

October. Rabbitbrush is in full bloom. The tumbleweeds on the move (that longing to be elsewhere, elsewhere), thousands of them rolling across the plains before the wind. Something like a yellow rash has broken out upon the mountainsides–the aspen forests in their autumn splendor. Sunsets each evening that test a man’s credulity–great gory improvisations in scarlet and gold that remind me of nothing so much as God’s own celestial pizza pies.

Now whenever I look at the aspens on the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks in fall, I’ll think of a yellow rash. Thanks, Mr. Abbey.

The second passage is from the end of the introduction:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

I disagree with Abbey on at least one point: I think you should hop in your car and get out here, and seeing this area from a car is better than not seeing it at all. But if you can’t get here–or you’ve been here and want to relive the experience–pick up a copy of Desert Solitaire and let Abbey be your cranky, crotchety, yet oh-so poetic guide.

Rating: 5/5 for people who enjoy nature writing; 3/5 for everyone else.

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