Friday, November 21, 2008

SHOP UNTIL YOU HAVE TO: Trimming the Claws

(NOTE: Spare moments are few and many moments are a lot. The non sequitur remains the same while logic avoids the stain of fun by staying indoors when the sun shines bright outside. Have a heart or two as the days grow shorter and the chill winds blow. Call those less fortunate who shovel snow in Wisconsin and watch network television as they wait for antidepressant medication to be delivered. Tell them the truth: you are having a terrific time not being there.)


Our economy may be taking its last swirls around the drain, yet we still have our health (without affordable health insurance), our homes (only for renters; home owners wait for eviction notices), and our jobs (except those who have been tossed out due to cutbacks). A thinner wallet this holiday season means we can celebrate without giving expensive and hard to maintain gifts from Versace and Sony. Go straight ahead to books for everyone on your list, even those you owe money. The spectacular books below are written by fine people and deserve your best ribbons and bows. Log on to for the nearest independent bookstore. Get something for yourself while going through the shelves. No, that one is a complete waste of time. These are better.

THE HOWLING MILLER by Arto Paasilinna (NY: Canongate/Grove, 2007), $14.00

After fighting in World War II, Gunnar Huffman retreats to a small village in Northern Finland and refurbishes a forgotten mill. The locals accept the newcomer until he starts howling late at night. Sometimes a man just needs to let a good one out, a scream against loneliness and loss or as a celebration of fortune’s arrival in the form of an attractive horticulture adviser. The villagers turn on Gunnar for being too much of an individual and send him to a mental institution. He escapes, howling through the woods. This fine storytelling has been kept away from non-Finnish readers until now. Paasilinna, the author of over twenty other novels, published MILLER in 1981 and we have had to wait 26 years for the English translation. Give to the Gunnar on your list, who needs this more than a rechargeable nose-hair trimmer.

THE PARROT WHO THOUGHT SHE WAS A DOG by Nancy Ellis-Bell (NY: Harmony Books, 2008), $23.00

Nancy wanted a bird for the usual reasons: bright plumage, companionship, and fun. What she found was Peg Leg, a one-legged blue and gold macaw that she renamed Sarah on account of Satan was taken. This ultimate idiopathic three-year old is given to loud curses, steals the dogs’ food and stares them down, and rearranges Nancy’s life as she heals the bird from years of captivity. People who like animals, not people who are animals, will take to this memoir. Some readers will be shocked when Nancy admits to letting Sarah take sips of her gin and tonic. I mean, it’s not like she was drinking Tanqueray. Sarah preferred Gordon’s.

ROCKABYE: FROM WILD TO CHILD by Rebecca Woolf (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008), $15.95

Hipster, club-hopping, pointy-toed shoe wearing, and serial dating Rebecca finds out she is pregnant, and her response is a panicked “holy shit.” She goes bravely into motherhood without the help of the usual vices or dippy guidebooks, only a whole bunch of heart and her boyfriend, Hal. Her loss of reckless independence is balanced by what she gains in the birth of her son, Archer. What a woman! Okay, I’ve known Rebecca since before she became a mom and I still like this book. In October of this year she gave birth to a daughter, Fable, who already shows signs of being as strong-willed as her mom. The royalties from ROCKABYE go toward a decent education for both children and also keep Rebecca writing. Buy lots of copies and buy often.

THE CAREFUL WRITER: A MODERN GUIDE TO ENGLISH USAGE by Theodore M. Bernstein (NY: Free Press, 1993)

Any writer who says they know everything about how to write is a twit. Writers need reference books, especially beginning writers. This absolutely vital and necessary handbook was originally published in 1965 and does not show its age. Two thousand entries show how words are used, and the intricacies of grammar and punctuation, and with gentle wit. Bernstein was a consulting editor for THE NEW YORK TIMES who spent his entire working life engaged with the English language, not as a watchdog with bad teeth but a fan. His pleasure in the written word comes across on every page except for the copyright notice. There is no way to make a copyright page interesting and he accepted this fault.

GRAMMAR GIRL’S QUICK AND DIRTY TIPS FOR BETTER WRITING by Mignon Fogarty (NY: Henry Holt, 2008), $14.00

You want self-serving? GRAMMAR GIRL is based on the Web site ( hosted by Mignon Fogarty. Every week she posts new podcasts that address the many questions that confront anyone who puts finger to keyboard. I’m a semi-regular guest writer for her site, and by putting in this mention of her book I get another extension on the latest deadline I’ve missed. Mignon solves each problem with a practical solution, and no stops in between for pedantry. How utilitarian is she in regular life? The woman gives batteries for Christmas gifts.


I’ll tout this book until the American Booksellers Association pries the last copy from my cold, dead fingers. Just try. Many nice people have said nice things about THE DOG. Here is my favorite from Mr. Detroit: “Ink and paper have never been combined so artfully as in THE DOG WALKED DOWN THE STREET. Writers of all stripes, shapes, and sizes will thrill to the wisdom within. Of great benefit are the chapters on how publishing works, writer’s health, and the need for successive drafts. That THE DOG was passed over for several prestigious awards and grants still astounds me. Can I go now?” Yes, you may.

NEXT: Another Collar

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