Category Archives: Books and Writing

Hemingway on the horror and futility of war

Hemingway World War I
Ernest Hemingway was wounded while serving as a volunteer ambulance driver in 1918 in Italy. (Photo: Corbis)

Veterans’ Day in the United States is used by politicians, most of whom have never seen battle or served in an ambulance corps, to celebrate the virtues of glory, honor and courage. They do this to make themselves look patriotic and to convince a gullible public that spending money on useless wars and sending other people’s children to die are just and proper.

It’s much better to remember what the great American writer, Ernest Hemingway, wrote in “A Farewell to Arms” in which the main character, Fredric Henry, an American ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War, describes the horror and futility of war:

I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

Jason Fried on editing well

Jason Fried says in his post The Class I’d Like To Teach:

It would be a writing course. Every assignment would be delivered in five versions: A three page version, a one page version, a three paragraph version, a one paragraph version, and a one sentence version. I don’t care about the topic. I care about the editing. I care about the constant refinement and compression. I care about taking three pages and turning it one page. Then from one page into three paragraphs. Then from three paragraphs into one paragraph. And finally, from one paragraph into one perfectly distilled sentence . . . This is important because I believe editing is an essential skill that is often overlooked and under appreciated. The future belongs to the best editors.

Each step requires asking “What’s really important?” That’s the most important question you can ask yourself about anything. The class would really be about answering that very question at each step of the way. Whittling it all down until all that’s left is the point.

What Jason is really getting at is this: writing and editing well require the writer to think clearly about what she is trying to say. A scatter-brained person will never write anything worth reading.

People remember well-written stories because they are so simple (although not easy to write). The short stories of John Cheever are an example of this clarity and simplicity in writing, and I recommend this collection entitled The Stories of John Cheever.

Ernest Hemingway once said:

If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There are seven-eights of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.

The ability to reflect carefully upon your message and eliminate unnecessary points also happens to be critical to good design, whether it’s a dress (Jil Sander), a computer (iPhone, Mac, iPad), a software program (Mac OS X) or a house (the Schindler House in Los Angeles).

Unfortunately these days, as Jason Fried says in his post, editing is underappreciated. It takes time. Most online publications want their writers to pump out as much material as possible. It’s quantity over quality because it’s all about the number of pageviews. But such an approach compromises the quality of the writing and in the end, compromises the message.

I fear that the problem goes beyond content factories. As we become more and more distracted by email, Twitter, Facebook, and social games, we become unable to concentrate on any task at hand, least of all writing and editing.

Short story: The Animal Mummies Wish To Thank The Following

A clever, funny short story by Ramona Ausubel begins like this:

“For generous donations in support of their preservation, the animal mummies wish to thank the Institute for Unforbidden Geology, the Society for Extreme Egyptology, the Secret Chambers of the Sanctuary of Thoth Club, and President Hosni Mubarak, who may seem to have been around a long time, though not from a mummy’s point of view. They wish to thank the visitors who make it to this often-skipped corner of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, which bears none of the treasure of King Tut’s tomb. And to the British colonial government, without whom the animal mummies might still be at rest, deep in granite tombs, cool and silent.

They would like to thank Hassan Massri of Cairo, Alistair Trembley of London, and Doris and Herbert Friedberg of Scarsdale, New York, for their support of climate-controlled cases to house the animal mummies for the rest of time. The animal mummies will admit they are somewhat surprised that this is what the afterlife has turned out to be: oak and glass cases, Windexed daily; a small room, tile floor, chipping paint; the smell of dust and old wood. Even for the permanently preserved, the future is full of surprises.”

Read the full text of The Animal Mummies Wish To Thank The Following.

Mixed feelings, mostly despair, on the closing of Borders bookstores in San Francisco

Borders is closing all of its downtown San Francisco stores as part of its reorganization (in bankruptcy). They had already closed the store here in south of Market (SOMA) last year, and now with the closure of the large store on Union Square and the smaller one in the Westfield Centre a few blocks away from Union Square, there will be no more bookstores within walking distance from me except Alexander’s and the small independent store in the Ferry Building, and who knows how long they will last. I still have the venerable City Lights but that’s a 25 minute walk to North Beach. Maybe that’s my last refuge.

I am deeply saddened by the closure of Borders. Ever since I moved back to San Francisco in mid-2008, I have mourned the loss, one by one, of all the bookstores around me including Stacey’s on Market Street. My idea of a perfect afternoon is visiting a bookstore, browsing for hours and coming away with a book I’ve never heard of. It was at Stacey’s that I came upon a book called Post Office Girl by the Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, who was very popular before the Second World War and had been forgotten until the New York Review of Books (NYRB) started publishing his works.

I love independent bookstores and have been a customer of Books, Inc. in the Castro for years but sometimes I just want to walk down to the closest bookstore and until recently, it’s been Borders.

However, I also realize that Borders and its ilk – the “big box” bookstore – have been partly responsible for the demise of the quirky independent bookstore. I used to visit Cody’s near Union Square, in front of the Apple Store, but that’s gone. The original Cody’s in Berkeley closed shortly after that and is now a distant memory in the minds of most people. I have fond memories of Cody’s in Berkeley because it was much more of a real bookstore than the cavernous one near Union Square.

I suppose I belong to a generation of people who still love to read books. But I am also part of a generation responsible for killing off the bookstore. I have ordered books from Amazon. I have an iPad and I order ebooks from Amazon’s Kindle Store, which I read on long flights. Lately I’ve been borrowing books from the public library because I live in a very small flat and I don’t know how long I’m going to be here. I simply can’t bear the thought of having to pack up, once again, my entire library, as I did when I left Amsterdam (and had to give away so many books). I live a nomadic existence literary-wise. I would love nothing more than to have a library like the one that Michel de Montaigne had in his château.

When I lived in Amsterdam, I used to visit four wonderful bookstores all within two blocks of one another: the Athenaeum (a Dutch bookstore that carries a great selection of English, French, German, Spanish and Italian books); Scheltema (another Dutch bookstore with a fantastic collection of Dutch and foreign books); Waterstone’s (the English bookstore chain but with a much better selection than Borders) and the American Book Center. By far my favorite was the Athenaeum. It had small but had a well curated selection of English books. When you walked into the Athenaeum, you fell into another world, far away from the busyness outside, into a world of ideas and great writing. The Athenaeum created an atmosphere that was appealing to lovers of the book.

What Borders and its ilk (e.g. Barnes & Noble and yes, even Waterstone’s) don’t understand is that you can’t sell books like computers or cheap clothes, in a big box store with no atmosphere, where the shelves are mostly stocked with tacky celebrity memoirs ghostwritten by starving writers. Tyler Brûle captured my sense of despair in his column (Fast Line in the Financial Times) when he wrote (in Perfectly Proportioned Bookshops):

Scan the parking lots of many US malls and there’s a good chance you’ll spot a red brick or yellow stucco box belonging to a book retailer bolted on to a bigger yellow stucco box that anchors a host of other similar looking boxes with backlit logos, no windows and zero personality. Inside the book box, the experience is bewildering and alienating. The lighting is bright and harsh, there’s a vague scent of popcorn and there’s not a sales person or shelf-stocker in sight. The store is so big and devoid of any hint of cosiness that you feel there’s little need to return because you never locked eyes with a sales person, never found a welcoming corner to linger and browse, didn’t stumble on any literary surprises and ultimately didn’t connect as a customer. It’s for this reason that the big-box booksellers are failing and not the rise of e-books and various backlit screens.

The closure of Borders may give independent book stores like Alexander’s, City Lights and Books Inc. some breathing room to survive, but I fear for their long-term existence.

Eat Pray Love travel guides to Bali, Rome and Naples

Bambu Indah villas

I have just posted a series of travel guides to Bali, Rome and Naples, following the footsteps of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat Pray Love”, now showing in the cinemas with Julia Roberts in the role of Gilbert.

I went to Bali in September last year, Rome in October, Naples and the Amalfi Coast a few years ago. As a result, I put together a short and sweet travel guide listing hotels, restaurants and things to do in those places. More to come with the Amalfi Coast (Positano, Sorrento, Amalfi, Ravello and Capri).

Eat Pray Love Bali Travel Guide

Eat Pray Love Rome Travel Guide

Eat Pray Love Naples

* * * * *

You can get the book at Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia

Why writers don’t always need to please their readers

“Writing, before it is anything else, is a way of clarifying one’s thoughts. This is obviously true of forms such as the diary, which are inherently solitary. But even those of us who write for publication can conclude, once we have clarified certain thoughts, that these thoughts are not especially valuable, or are not entirely convincing, or perhaps are simply not thoughts we want to share with others, at least not now.” — Alone with Words (Why Writers Can’t Live to Please Their Readers).


Vook is made for the iPad

I just bought Alice in Wonderland from Vook, a website that sells multimedia books (price: $2.99). When you view a “vook”, you don’t just read text as you would on a Kindle, you get video on the side explaining aspects of the book, the location, the author’s biography, a history of the place. In the case of Alice in Wonderland, which is an illustrated book to begin with, you see the gorgeous illustrations on the screen and you watch beautiful video clips made by filmmaker Emma Heald. I love Vook and recommend it to anyone who likes to read and experience the greater depth of a book. I read Alice in Wonderland when I was a child and reading the “vook” is a vastly different experience. You can also buy Vook for the iPhone. My only complaint is that if I want to see the Alice in Wonderland “vook” on the iPhone, I have to buy it again.

Why not have a subscription model where I pay a monthly fee and can view my “vooks” on whichever platform I choose?

Where Vook will really shine is in the world of cookbooks on an iPad. You place your iPad on the kitchen counter, go to a recipe, watch the author making it or giving you tips on how to braise, make a meringue, or a terrine.

Vook takes books to the next level and I can’t wait to see it on the iPad. The publishing industry is NOT dead; it’s just moving on to another platform. There will always be a place for paper books, which I love, especially those made with great care and artistry. But even for a paper book lover like me, the richness of the experience on Vook is something to celebrate. As long as there are good storytellers – whether in print or video – people will want to see their work.


John Cheever on fiction

John Cheever is my favorite writer. His short stories are masterpieces. Here is what he says about fiction (from The Paris Review Interviews, Vol III):

Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction. One never puts down a sentence without the feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation. [my emphasis]

Recommended reading:

The Stories of John Cheever

The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III

Highly recommended summer reading: Julian by Gore Vidal


I am reading “Julian” by Gore Vidal about the Roman emperor Julian (known by many as Julian the Apostate) who lived between 331 and 363 AD. Although it is a work of historical fiction, Vidal had meticulously researched his subject matter (unlike many writers today who play fast and loose with history). The novel is written as a fictional set of memoirs by Julian, with commentary from his teachers, the philosophers Priscus and Libanius. What is most striking and impressive about this novel is Vidal’s scathing attack on the Roman Catholic Church from the perspective of Julian who turned his back on the Church and during his short reign, tried to bring back the Hellenistic gods. If you want to immerse yourself in the politics and mores of the 4th century AD, in Roman history and the early Roman Catholic Church, you must read this book. I am a big fan of Gore Vidal’s work. I’ve read his memoirs, Palimpsest and Point-to-Point Navigation. I also have a collection of his essays, which are among the very best I’ve read. Certainly among American essayists, I think he’s the best.

Strunk and White's Elements of Style offers stupid grammar advice, says professor

The Bible of American grammar and style, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, has come under attack on its 50th anniversary. Geoffrey Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh, says:

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.

Pullum goes on to say that much of the book’s grammar advice is just plain wrong. The obsession with not splitting infinitives has been taken too far and he anxiety and self-consciousness created among American writers completely unwarranted. English, Scottish and Irish writers have been spared the horrors of Strunk & White because the book is largely unknown outside the United States.

I recommend listening to the podcast on Fresh Air: 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

Read the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I have read Elements of Style at least twice in my life, but I could never memorize the grammar rules. What I do remember is the authors’ insistence on writing as clearly and concisely as possible. That is valuable advice for any writer in any language. As for the command “don’t split your infinitives”, I don’t care. Sometimes I split them, sometimes I don’t depending on how the sentence sounds. If the great writers got away with splitting their infinitives, so can I.

Elements of Style, Strunk & White (the beautiful illustrated version)