Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

2012 Reading challenge, book 2: How to Win Friends and Influence People

Title: How to Win Friends and Influence People
Author: Dale Carnegie
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

My 2012 reading has continued apace. Here are my thoughts on the first non-fiction book I read this year, which I finished over a week ago.

About the book: This was one of the books, if not the book, that launched the self-help genre. The title pretty much says it all. However, the subject matter is deeper than the title suggests, as it also talks about effective leadership skills, and talks about interpersonal skills in greater context.

What I liked: I liked the sense of Dale Carnegie’s voice that shone through the text. Yes, the tone is a tad fusty (the book itself is over 75 years old), but I got a more authentic sense of the author’s voice here than I did when reading other famous self-help books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or Getting Things Done.

Those other books sounded fake because the anecdotes used to illustrate key concepts were so heavily paraphrased that they ended up sounding like the authors themselves. They also packed a lot of fluff – GTD, in particular, could have been just as useful at half the length. In contrast, How to Win’s chapters were succinct, and the letters and anecdotes that Carnegie quoted really did sound like they were written by other people.

I also liked that this book had such practical information; it contained little jargon or technical-sounding acronyms. Instead, there was just good, old-fashioned psychological insight, the most important of which can be boiled down into five words: people like to feel important.

What I disliked: Yes, the book explicitly states on the cover that it’s all about how to influence people, but I was still uncomfortable with some of the pieces of advice offered – they felt downright manipulative. On top of that, I’m unsure whether the now-dated references to celebrities and captains of industry detract from, or add to, the book’s charm.

The verdict: I liked it, and felt that a lot of the book’s suggestions were practical and easy to implement. It says a lot of true things about human nature, even if the book’s method of attack is flowery and old-fashioned.

Next up: Empire State, by Adam Christopher.

2012 Reading challenge, book 1: Zoo City

One of my goals for the year is to read at least 40 books (at least 25 of which must be fantasy or sci-fi), either on paper or in digital format. So far, I’m off to a good start, as I’ve already completed two books and am partway through a third. After that, there are at least three more books (all non-fiction, all about the process of writing) that I want to read. With that in mind, I’m going to posting reviews of my 2012 books. So here goes: my thoughts on the first book I read this year.

Title: Zoo City
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook

The plot: Zinzi December is a disgraced pop journalist with a Sloth on her shoulder who pays off the debts she incurred as a junkie by writing 419 scam emails. Like all residents of “Zoo City,” a slum in Johannesburg, she’s been “animalled” – that is, she’s done something so awful that she’s now been spiritually conjoined with an animal familiar.

Like all “zoos,” her animal has also given her a unique power, or mashavi. Normally, while Zinzi uses her mashavi of finding lost things to earn some money on the side, she refuses to find lost people. However, the shady associates of a music producer have asked her to find a missing teeny-bop starlet, and the payment for doing so is too great to turn down. When she digs deeper into the girl’s disappearance, she gets tangled up in a world of drugs, lies, and black magic…

What I liked: I loved the merging of fantasy aspects with real world ones. No one knows what first caused the mysterious “zoo plague,” but interstitial chapters within the book flesh out the world of Zoo City by providing snippets of academic and pop culture material written about the “zoo” phenomenon. Cleverly, one of those snippets contains a citation to an academic article reinterpreting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in light of the zoo plague.

On top of that, the setting of Johannesburg is both familiar (in that it’s wonderfully textured and realized) and strange (in that the only other major spec-fic story I can think of set in Johannesburg is District 9). Finally, Zinzi December is a marvelous character. She’s smart, tough, self-serving, and able to think on her feet. She’s hard to like but easy to admire, and I take my hat off to Lauren Beukes for writing a main character that is so complicated. I wouldn’t want Zinzi to be my friend, but I would want her to have my back.

What I disliked: I feel that the book’s chief misstep was the mystery itself. Of course, as with many crime/detective stories, nothing is as it seems and the people asking Zinzi to take on the job have ulterior motives.

Ultimately, the resolution of the story – involving murders, kidnappings, blackmail, and a heck of a lot of black magic – seems too bloated and frenetic to appreciate. Although I’ve muddled my way through some of the unspoken motives of the perpetrators, now that I’ve finished the book I feel that there are a lot of plot holes I still can’t patch over.

The verdict: I liked it, but not as much as I had hoped to. I came to this book with high expectations based on some interviews with the author that I listened to and on the book’s surprise win of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. However, I’ve never been a big fan of detective fiction, and the book’s melding of it with speculative fiction/magical realism left an odd taste in my mouth. I wanted to see more of the slums of Johannesburg, hear more South African slang, and read more about how zoo people have become a new global underclass. I also wanted to see more of Zinzi’s backstory, which I think has been left too much to the imagination. Instead, I got a detective story mixed into all of it, and it dampened my enjoyment of the book.

Next up: How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie.

When a book grows up with you

Happy holidays to all! As you unwrap your presents and spend time with your family, I hope that today’s pleasure has been heightened by the gift of a book. Here’s a story of how a book I received for Christmas had a profound effect on me.

Note: This post was originally published as a guest blog post on October 17th, 2011, for Linda Poitevin’s blog in the wake of her recent book release. It has been reposted here with her permission.


With the recent launch of Linda’s book (Congrats!), I thought it would be helpful to look back on a favourite book of mine. It’s one that took me a long time to get through, especially when I first read it as a child. It’s a book that’s bounded over the walls of “bestseller” territory to become firmly ensconced in school curricula. And, of all things, it’s a book about rabbits.

It’s Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Simply put, Watership Down has helped frame my life. I first got it as a Christmas gift when I was about 10 years old. Over the next 2 years, I tried to read the book multiple times, but stalled before the Sandleford rabbits reached Cowslip’s warren. When I finally managed to gather enough steam to plunge through the rest of the book when I was 12, I was amply rewarded:  Catastrophes, death, cunning escapes, and a poignant ending – everything was exciting!

However, a funny thing happened as I got older and read the book over and over again: It turned out to be much richer than I originally thought. I now firmly believe that it is a masterpiece, and here are some of the reasons why:

Depth of characterization­

Watership Down features a cast easily stretching into the dozens. While some of the characters have little to distinguish themselves beyond a name, the care with which so many are drawn is astounding. Off the top of my head, here are 10 characters in the book who are truly distinct from each other, with a unique voice and outlook on life:

  1. Hazel – Essentially, the every-rabbit who is sensible, loyal, and caring. He ultimately becomes the leader of his warren because he shows bravery, foresight, and consensus-building skills.
  2. Fiver – A rabbit with extra-sensory abilities. His otherworldly talents are disdained by the group at first, but they become increasingly essential to the Watership warren’s survival.
  3. Bigwig – The leader of Watership’s Owsla. Muscular and brave, he eventually learns the value of humility, delegation, and subterfuge.
  4. Blackberry – The thinker. His clever tricks save lives and confound Watership’s enemies.
  5. Dandelion – Watership’s fastest rabbit. He also acts as the warren’s storyteller, and it is these stories that provide the reader with glimpses into the mythology of rabbits.
  6. Holly – The author conveniently sums him up like so: “Sound, unassuming, conscientious, a bit lacking in the rabbit sense of mischief, he was something of the born second-in-command.”
  7. Bluebell – Holly’s companion and the only other known survivor of the Sandleford massacre. He uses humour as a coping mechanism.
  8. General Woundwort – The novel’s antagonist. A rabbit of truly astonishing size with the ruthlessness, political ambition, and fighting skills to match.
  9. Hyzenthlay – A resilient doe in Efrafa. She befriends both Holly and Bigwig during their time spent in Efrafa, and recruits other does to participate in Bigwig’s escape plan.
  10. Nethilta – One of Hyzenthlay’s recruits, who flaunts her status as a rebel before she is detained and tortured for information by Efrafa’s officers.

Of course, what’s interesting is seeing how these characters interact, and what’s really interesting is seeing how they take advantage of power politics.

A fleshed-out and evocative alien culture

By “alien” I mean “foreign” rather than “extra-terrestrial.” In the novel, the rabbits have their own language, political structure, and spiritual beliefs. They also have an elaborate mythology passed down over the generations that helps them understand their world and their relationships to other animals, both predator and prey alike.

Dandelion’s stories provide the clearest window into this, as they explain the antics of El-Ahrairah (the rabbits’ culture-hero) and act as an inspiration for various schemes that Hazel’s group uses throughout the novel.

A reinvention of deeply-embedded cultural tropes

Here’s an extremely rough summary of the novel’s plot:

Hazel and his male comrades start a new warren at Watership Down and realize that to ensure its survival, they must find does to reproduce with. They send emissaries to Efrafa , a neighbouring warren, and are rebuffed after they ask Efrafa’s council for does to take back home. They then send Bigwig to infiltrate Efrafa and escape with as many does as possible. After the escape, Efrafan officers, including the fearsome General Woundwort, attempt to invade Watership Down and are nearly successful before they are ultimately defeated.

Now, here’s an extremely rough summary of The Rape of the Sabine Women, the story of Rome’s founding population:

Romulus and his male comrades found the city of Rome and realize that to ensure its survival, they must find women to marry and start families with. They attempt to negotiate with the Sabines (a neighbouring tribe) for women to marry, but are rebuffed. They then create a fake religious festival and invite neighbouring tribes to attend, during which the Roman men abduct the Sabine women after receiving a signal to do so from Romulus. After the abduction, the Sabine men, including their king Titus Tatius, attempt to invade Rome and manage to capture Rome’s citadel before they are ultimately defeated.

I don’t know about you, but any author who can take a story about the founding of Rome, replace the main characters with rabbits, and turn it into a bestseller is a genius in my book.

Stopping to smell the flowers

Adams takes the time to explore the world beyond the concerns of the warren and goes into detail about the down itself. These passages don’t push the plot forward, but serve as a chance for Adams to walk around and get some pretty prose out of his system. Here’s an example:

We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms. It falls upon the banks and the grass, separating one long blade from another; turning a drift of brown, frosted leaves from a single heap to innumerable, flashing fragments; or glimmering lengthways along wet twigs as though light itself were ductile. Its long beams pour, white and sharp, between the trunks of trees, their clarity fading as they recede into the powdery, misty distance of beech-woods at night.

– Chapter 22, The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah

So what does all this mean?

There are many more things I could elaborate on – political allegories, morals about the environment, gender roles in the rabbit world – but these themes have probably been trampled to death in various classrooms. All I want to do is talk about why I think this novel has good bones.

So what does all this mean? It means that the best stories often have a lot going on underneath the surface, and grow in meaning as the reader grows in maturity. It also means that a novel meant for children (Oh look, it’s about bunnies!) can be a lot deeper than we give it credit for.

Margaret Atwood: Impressions

Two days ago, I had lunch with Margaret Atwood as part of the contest sponsored by the Toronto Public Library. I won’t go into exhaustive detail here, as I’m still trying to recall everything that we saw and talked about that day, but here’s a mental Impressionist painting of some of my memories of the event:

My realization, when I first saw her in person, that she looked like any other regular person walking down the street.

My idiotic grin, miles wide, when she shook my hand. I was worried that it still felt greasy from my hand cream.

A bridge over a ravine in an uptown Toronto neighbourhood. The snow was falling, and everyone was coated in grey. People walking by with their dogs.

The faces and personas of the other contest winners I met – by turns gleeful, knowing, hopeful, and animated.

Passing by the memorial statue on University Avenue which Margaret Atwood called “Gumby Goes to Heaven.

The feeling of surprise and appreciation when she gave me and the other three contest winners a limited-edition silkscreen of one of her poems on thick, handmade paper.

The intense flavour of the lemon tart I had for dessert at the meal we shared. It was so wonderfully sour that my tongue became sore and I couldn’t finish it.

The hug I gave two of the other contest winners as I left them and boarded the subway that would begin to take me home. Again, my smile, still miles wide.

How I got my writing mojo back

I knew from the age of 7 that I wanted to be a writer. That idea grew with me as I grew up, when it reached its most distorted apex in high school. You see, I didn’t want to be just any writer – I wanted to be that writer.

You know the one. The one who becomes a smash success with their first book. The one whose crystal-clear, vibrant prose would make readers weep and publishers bow in awe. The kind of writer who lives in a trendy apartment downtown, dispensing insightful bon mots in coffee shops, wearing black, and generally living the bohemian dream.

Despite this unrealistic ideal, one family member in particular was supportive of my goal. Too supportive, in fact. She constantly asked to see what else I had written lately, and said I would be famous. I grew very resentful of her constant interest, but still kept on writing – I was a teenager, of course, and this sort of irrational thing is a teenager’s specialty.

I hit my final year of high school and took a creative writing class. In that class, I wrote a short story that I had considered my best up to this point. It was about a high school girl who was incredibly gifted but had a lot of pressure put on her, who nearly got killed in a skating accident and then recovered from her coma by going through some sort of spirit-quest while being guided by a painfully obvious Jungian archetype figure.

In other words, my story was pretentious as fuck.

Unsurprisingly, I eventually grew dissatisfied with it. I tried so hard to sound distant and thoughtful and pretty, but it just wasn’t getting anywhere. I likened it to having a “membrane” separating my mind from the story I really wanted to tell, and concluded that I would never be a good writer, because I couldn’t break through it.

At this point, I finished high school and entered university. This meant essays. Lots and lots of essays. Some of them were interesting. A lot of them were meaningless. But all of them required effort and time spent writing. It was at this point that I concluded I would never really be a writer, because the writing I used to enjoy was fiction and would never amount to anything, whereas this writing – the important stuff – was hard and boring. Besides, my “fun” writing was pretentious and disappointing and distant, right? So much for the downtown dream!

Things stayed like that both throughout my university studies and for a year or so after I graduated. “Leisure” reading was fun, but I was just too burnt out to take the next step.

Then a funny thing happened. I got an iPod and started listening to podcasts. I subscribed to “I Should Be Writing” and “Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing” and “Variant Frequencies” and the “Seventh Son” trilogy. I was exposed to the heroin of genre writing, and it was fun. On top of that, I decided that freelancing would be an excellent fallback plan in light of my current employment situation. And what did I think I was good at? Writing, of course.

I got to networking. I joined organizations. I blogged. And slowly but surely, I started to write for myself again. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m now doing NaNoWriMo. I also got myself out of the “fine Canadian literature” ghetto that I was in and embraced reading non-fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror books. Now I’m writing something that is unabashedly a genre novel, and doing so with glee.

Will I “win” NaNoWriMo? Who knows. Will my writing be good? Who knows! The difference this time is that I know that real writing – satisfying writing – takes time and tenacity.

All that really matters is that I’m doing it again, and that I’m doing it with more realistic expectations. And that’s why I’m happy that I’ve got my mojo back.

 


This originally appeared as a guest post on the blog of Valerie Haight. She has recently been signed on to Turquoise Morning Press. This post was originally published on November 14th, 2011. It has been slightly altered from the original version.

NaNoWriMo, Days 12 and 13

I’ve hit the dreaded “Week 2 Wall” in NaNoWriMo.

Last weekend I wrote over 8,000 words – 3,000 of backstory and notes, 5,000 of plot – because I knew that the following Monday, I wouldn’t have the time to put anything down because of a WCDR Board meeting. However, the loss of momentum was deadly. Between Monday and Friday, I wrote only 3,700 words, less than half of what I should have been aiming for. Then, on Thursday, a certain special sweetheart and I went out for a birthday dinner. So yes, my week has not been distraction-free, and I have broken the first rule of NaNoWriMo: get’cher bum in the chair!

To atone, I’ve been listening to copious amounts of I Should Be Writing and Writing Excuses. The latter podcast has been particularly enlightening, especially the episode called “Hollywood Formula.” I’m not writing a piece of experimental, literary, Giller-worthy fiction here, so  hearing about some “tried and true” methods behind story structure and characterization has been invaluable.

Yesterday and today have been spent in catch-up mode. Or rather, today has been. Yesterday was the WCDR’s monthly breakfast, which always makes me tired once I come home, necessitating a nap. After that, I got caught up in playing Portal 2 (selfish! I know!). Today has involved a tremendous goal for myself: 5,500 words in one day. So far I’ve gotten past the 3,000-word mark, but it’s been tough.

However, it would have been much tougher without the purchase and installation of Scrivener. I am in love, love, love, with the corkboard and outlining features, as well as the character sheets and drag-and-drop method of organization. I haven’t used the camera/snapshot feature, and I don’t intend to, but I can see what a valuable tool it would be for the revision process. It has made my “wattle-and-daub” non-linear writing process much more manageable. I’m delighted that the Windows version finally came out this week. I was considering purchasing a copy of WriteWayPro instead, but the trial version didn’t impress me. The software was ugly, and the tutorial method was a help file that contained huge chunks of text worthy of a “tl; dr” response.

In addition to the WCDR and the sweetheart business, this week also contained another noNaNo focus, but one that is sufficiently writerly that I think it deserves to get off scot-free: I got a phone call confirming the date of my library lunch with Margaret Atwood. Now it appears that I have a new project in addition to NaNo: catching up on all of her books!

NaNoWriMo, Days 5 and 6

I have to admit at this point that I’m beginning to flag a bit. I’ve made a good amount of progress so far – over 12,000 words in total – but both yesterday and today were days where I had to struggle to think of what to put down next.

This does not mean I didn’t get a lot of writing done. I got a ton of writing done – over 8,000 words, in fact. However, at least 3,000 of those words don’t count towards the 50k mark because they’re part of the backstory that I realized I needed to create for myself. I am proud to say that I’ve got a majority of my novel’s plotting out of the way.

However, I’m chagrined to say that even though I’ve now set up an “official” plotline for myself, it feels that the characters and circumstances aren’t conforming to it as easily as I thought. Things just don’t seem to make as much sense in the world of the story if they adhere to the plot I’ve ginned up, so I’m still playing things fast and loose.

On top of that, I wrote a guest blog post for someone else and sent it off, and here I am writing again. I guess it’s true that the more you write, the easier it is for the dam inside you to burst.

One last note: A few nights ago I tinkered with saying my story out loud, recording the spontaneous dialogue that resulted, and then transcribing the recording. It was an interesting experiment,  but one that I’m unsure of repeating. I got some great dialogue at first, but once it ran out I stopped the recording due to dead air. Once I transcribed the result I still wasn’t sure where to continue, but in the midst of typing I came up with an excellent incident to illustrate the main characters’ abilities, advance the plot, and highlight the incipient insanity of one of the story’s antagonists. I still consider that my best piece of NaNo writing so far. So yes. while the method had good results, it requires real improvisation and momentum.

NaNoWriMo: Taking the Plunge

Yesterday a social-media friend of mine (Hello, Jonathan!) asked me if I was thinking about doing NaNoWriMo this year.

Short answer: Not really.

Long answer:  I’ve thought about it in the past but have always said no; I sincerely doubt that I’ll have the time to write 50,000 words in 30 days while working full-time, and I’d rather not start and end up failing.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the idea appealed to me. After all, I did have a bunch of story ideas rattling around in my head, and there was one story in particular where I had even gone so far as to take notes on what the main plot and the complementary subplot would be. Why not go for it?

So yes, I have decided: I will be doing NaNoWriMo.

However, I’m not doing this to prepare a manuscript for publication. I’m going in with a few reasonable assumptions:

  • My book will suck.
  • My pacing will be off.
  • My characters won’t be realistic or three-dimensional.
  • My setting will not engage the reader.
  • My diction will be poor.

If I’m so convinced my book will be horrible, then why am I doing it? Well, for reasons both personal and professional:

  1. I want to prove to myself that I have the discipline to complete a novel. I’ve never attempted writing anything as long as 50,000 words (I didn’t need to write a thesis paper to get my BA), and almost every writing resource I’ve read stresses that the most successful writers aren’t necessarily the best or most-skilled – the most successful ones are the ones who don’t stop and keep on hustling. NaNoWriMo provides an excellent platform for this because of the social aspect.
  2. I feel that writing a novel will make me a better editor. You know that old saying “those who can’t do, teach”? Well, I’m sure a lot of writers out there feel that “those who can’t write, edit”. If I actually take the effort to write a novel and realize how hard it is to do so (creating an engaging plot with believable characters, understandable motivations, evocative settings, and more), I’m sure that my understanding of how to make novels better will also improve. Plus, I’m sure I will be more tactful in my comments and critiques to the writers I end up working with.
  3. I feel that there is a good novel in me somewhere. I have lots of stories in my head that I want to develop further in text. But I want to give each story the attention and skill it deserves. I figure that if my first novel is something that I’m not too worked up about (remember, I’m assuming that this first novel will suck due to inexperience), I’ll feel more confident when I start subsequent projects. I’d rather not ruin a really amazing idea with bad execution when I can wait and really do it well once I have more practice.

In the meantime, I’m trying to gather up more resources about writing build up a cushion of support and encouragement. So far, I’m focusing on StoryFix and the I Should Be Writing podcast by Mur Lafferty. What writing resources do you have to share? Let me know in the comments.

Cookbooks: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Note: This was originally written as a guest post for Rachael Stephen of Mythic Flux, a blogger who talks about writing and cooking. This post was originally published on her blog on September 26th, and has been re-posted with her permission.


Rachael writes a lot on here about writing, and she writes a lot on here about food. So, in the interest of picking some very low-hanging but interesting fruit, I’m going to discuss a way in which the two intersect: cookbooks!

They’re a staple of any kitchen, and if they’re any good, they inevitably get rippled and covered in stains. So, if I went into someone’s kitchen and saw a roughed-up cookbook – stains, grease spots, cracked spines, notes in the margin – I would immediately think that book’s a keeper.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of cookbooks out there (even several in my kitchen!) do not meet this lofty standard. So, in the interest of sparing future chefs some heartache, I’m going to tell you about some of the thngs that I love – and loathe – seeing in cookbooks.

Bad: Sloppy, incomplete indexes

Ooh, does this one ever get me riled up. A lot of the time, when I want to cook something, it’s because I’m craving a certain ingredient or flavour. Most cookbooks don’t organize their chapters on the main ingredients of each recipe, so where do I turn to instead if I want a recipe that contains, say, cumin? The index! Yet, so many cookbook indexes contain, at best, only a rudimentary outline of the recipes inside. For example, I have a Rachael Ray cookbook that contains a wonderful recipe for corn and black bean stew with chicken and chipotle peppers. The ingredients include 1 tbsp of cumin and the juice of 1 lime. Yet if I look in the index, the “C” and “L” headings contain no listing for “cumin” or “lime” at all – in fact, the very last word listed underneath “L” is “lasagna” – not very far down the alphabet, is it?

To get an idea of what a truly excellent cookbook index should be like, check out the cookbooks released by Janet and Greta Podleski. Not only are their recipes healthy, but almost every ingredient of every single recipe is cross-referenced in the index. On top of that, non-recipe information about health provided in the sidebars of their recipes is also included in the index. I cannot stress enough how good their indexes are, and wish more cookbooks would follow their example.

[Another note: I just noticed today that the Podleski sisters are releasing a new cookbook this November, and it looks like it will be a door-stopping doozy. Yippee!]

Good: Binder or coil-style binding that allows me to lay the book flat on the table

Have you ever had to weigh down a cookbook with cans and heavy potatoes just so that it could lie flat enough for you to read while you were cooking the damned recipe on the stove? It’s frustrating. I just want to be able to let my veggies fry in the pot on the stove, and then mosey over to the kitchen table so I can see what ingredients I have to add next. Is that so much to ask? Publishers, why do you insist on giving perfect binding to all of your cookbooks? I need to be able to read the book without touching it because my hands are wet and dripping!

Bad: Recipes that involve lots of time-intensive preparation before you start cooking

One particularly egregious offender of this rule is the cookbook Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld. The cookbook’s main gimmick is that you can get fussy kids to eat healthily if you sneak pureed fruits and vegetables into their favourite meals. However, this means, you know, actually pureeing and storing said veggies ahead of cooking the meal itself. Ms. Seinfeld sets aside Sunday evenings every week to make enough purees to include in her recipes. She says that it takes her only an hour to make all the purees she needs, but I sincerely doubt that it would take under an hour to roast a whole butternut squash before you even start peeling and pureeing the damned thing – and you have to let it cool first anyways.

Please note that this doesn’t mean that all meals that require preparation before you cook are bad. I’m totally fine with marinating something overnight before you cook it. But the point is that the effort you put in ahead of time should be minimal and lead to great flavour.

Good: Recipes that allow for the inventive use of leftovers

I like using the slow cooker, especially when my mom is travelling and I have to make meals for my partner and I while she is away, which is why I love, love, love a particular cookbook called Cook Once Eat Twice. Each 2-page spread in the book contains 2 recipes. On the left-hand side is the slow cooker recipe; since slow cookers can cook a lot, the recipe explicitly states how much of the finished product to set aside for leftovers. And here’s the brilliant thing – the right-hand side of the spread contains a recipe that allows you to use those leftovers in a completely new way! For example, the leftovers from “Creamy Basil Chicken” are then recycled into “Chicken and Wild Rice Chowder.” I really appreciate cooking that allows me to be versatile.

Bad: Recipes that are lazy or uninventive

Several years ago I got a cookbook on heart-healthy cooking. Its big selling point on the cover was that it had over 700 recipes. So far, so good, you’re thinking. But I swear to god, the cookbook contains this following recipe:

Quick microwave chicken

Ingredients:

  • 2 whole chicken breasts, skinned, boned, and halved

Instructions:

Place chicken in a glass pie plate, placing larger pieces to the outside of dish. Cover with plastic wrap; prick a hole in the plastic for steam to escape. Cook at full power 8 minutes; turn.  Rearrange pieces in dish; cook 6 minutes longer, or until done.

That’s it. Even if you don’t eat meat, you have to admit that this is a half-assed way to cook chicken. This single recipe is why I have not used this cookbook in 5 years.

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list by far – as someone who’s learned about what goes into creating books, there are all sorts of pet peeves I could tell you about. But these are things that heavily influence how often I use a cookbook in my own kitchen.

A review of the Ryerson publishing program – Part 2

Last week, I wrote a post outlining my opinion of some of the Ryerson publishing courses I took. This week, I’m following up with a discussion of two other courses I took at Ryerson. I’ll round out the course summaries in a third post, and also talk about other facets of the Ryerson program.

(Update, August 7, 2011: Post #3 is here!)

Production for Books, Journals, and Reports

Perhaps the best thing about this course is the teacher I had – David S. Ward. He works for McLelland and Stewart. He’s got a major in Celtic Studies and listens to industrial  music. He’s charismatic as hell. And oh yes – this is the man who loves Caslon and hates Comic Sans with a fiery passion.

All joking aside, this was a very useful course because it talked about what happens to take a book from a (possibly messy) pile of pages to the fully-bound, typeset thing that we all know and love. In other words, it goes beyond the typical face of publishing (book launches! authors! schmoozing!) and goes right into the messy, ink-ridden bowels of it all: trim sizes, typefaces, scheduling, and shipping.

Even though I don’t plan to work in-house in a production department, I consider this course to be one of the most satisfying, because it allowed me to look at books in a new way: not just as collections of words, but as physical objects. After learning how paper is pulped, how a printing schedule is determined, and what an actual printing manufacturer looks like, it’s hard not to savour the texture of paper or the crispness of a book’s trim.

(Note: I took this course on campus during the winter of 2010.)

Publishing in the Electronic Age

Do you want to learn about eBooks and how they’re changing the publishing industry?

Do you want to learn about digital rights management?

Do you want to learn about the format war between .epub and .mobi?

If so, then you’ll need to look elsewhere. Because honestly, this course either doesn’t discuss, or barely scratches the surface of, these topics. Instead, it talks about how digital data is created, stored, and managed. Except that there are major holes in this education too. For example…

  • You’ll learn what XML is, but not how to write code in it.
  • You will learn about programs like Flash, Shockwave, and Director, but you won’t be told that the developer of those programs, Macromedia, was bought out by Adobe over 5 years ago.
  • You’ll learn about how Netscape Navigator stores cookies (seriously!), but not that Netscape’s current browser market share is around 1% and that Firefox’s current share is around 30%.
    • Actually, scratch that – you won’t hear a peep about open-source software at all.

However, I must admit that I took the online version of this course – it’s possible that the on-campus version is quite different.

In short, while this course does teach useful things, it doesn’t live up to its name. “Publishing in the Electronic Age” implies learning about how the publishing industry is reacting to things like the self-publishing movement, print on demand, and eBook piracy. Instead, what you’ll get is a discourse on content management, file types, and metadata. These things are good to know, but I think a far more accurate name for this course would be “Content Management in the Electronic Age” – however, I doubt that would get as many bums in seats.

(Note: I took this course online during the summer of 2010. However, I have been informed that this course was discontinued in 2011. It has been superseded by a course called “Digital Publishing and Production”, which I haven’t had the chance to take.)