Review: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott by Matt Burkhardt

Bird by Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life

by Ann Lamott

Description (courtesy of

"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said. 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"

With this basic instruction always in mind, Anne Lamott returns to offer us a new gift: a step-by-step guide on how to write and on how to manage the writer's life. From "Getting Started,' with "Short Assignments," through "Shitty First Drafts," "Character," "Plot," "Dialogue." all the way from "False Starts" to "How Do You Know When You're Done?" Lamott encourages, instructs, and inspires. She discusses "Writers Block," "Writing Groups," and "Publication." Bracingly honest, she is also one of the funniest people alive.

If you have ever wondered what it takes to be a writer, what it means to be a writer, what the contents of your school lunches said about what your parents were really like, this books for you. From faith, love, and grace to pain, jealousy, and fear, Lamott insists that you keep your eves open, and then shows you how to survive. And always, from the life of the artist she turns to the art of life.

Frequently, I find myself treating books like fine wine.  I purchase them or get samples of them on Kindle, and I let them age for a while before I decanter them and sample their goodness.

Someone suggested, or I read somewhere that Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

was a great book about writing.  I dutifully filed it away and at some point even downloaded a free sample (a few pages, it may have been a chapter).  And I let it age.  And age.  And age.  I had been smack in the middle of John Green's The Fault in our Stars, which I had hoped to finish this week.  Although I love the characters and I think it's well written, I didn't feel anything pushing me forward in it.  Every time I picked it up, something else would demand my attention.  So I let that sit and age for a little while.  And then, this past week, something funny happened.  I felt like Bird by Bird called to me, inviting me in, telling me it was ready for me, or perhaps I was ready for it.  I turned on my Kindle and began to read.  I liked the tone.  Ms. Lamott is quite funny, laugh out loud funny at times, and she doesn't pull any punches when it comes to telling the truth.  I was two percent into the Kindle version of the book when she was talking about the need for a writer, especially at the beginning, to be willing to try things and make mistakes. She quoted Thurber as saying "You might as well fall fat on your face as lean over too far backwards."

As a perfectionist, this spoke volumes to me.  I had put my creative writing on hold (indefinitely) when I got tired of staring at a blinking cursor or a blank page and stewing in my own juices of self-loathing and (perceived, erroneously, but no less potent) lack of ability to meet my unreasonable expectations.  So rather than deal with that, I stopped writing.  The rub is, I'm a writer.  I will always be writing.  Journals, reviews of television, books, plays.  In some form or another I will always be writing.

So I continued reading.  I loved the tone and hearing about Ms. Lamott's beginnings as a writer.  A few "pages" later, I came across something that floored me, so strongly did it resonate with my own experience. She was speaking about how when she was in second grade she wrote a poem that won an award and appeared in a collection:

I understood immediately the thrill of seeing oneself in print.  It provides some sort of primal verification:  you are in print, therefore you exist.  Who knows what this urge is all about, to appear somewhere outside yourself, instead of feeling stuck inside your muddled but stroboscopic mind, peering out like a tiny undersea animal--a spiny blenny, for instance--from inside your tiny cave?

It was at this point that I understood that this book had the potential to change my life, because what she said reverberated so strongly with my own struggles as a writer.  When I first started taking writing seriously in around December 2011, I was in the throes of an identity crisis.  I loved writing, but at the time, I was clinging a little too strongly to Writer as an identity, fearing that without some such label, I might evaporate or something.  So when my writing inevitably failed to live up to my own tastes, I was back where I was before it began, no matter how many times I tried chanting one of my college rhetoric professor's mantras:  "A writer is one who writes. A good writer is one who writes well."

Using an honest and easy tone of voice and employing a great sense of humor, Ms. Lamott quickly won me over. In this book that has more to do with living than with writing, she talks about growing up with her father, also a published author. She talks about dealing with death and grief and jealousy.  She talks about being a single mother, about losing her father and a close friend to cancer.  She talks about rejection, about failure, and about success.

She advocates focusing on small assignments.  She tells the story of when her older brother was ten and he had a report to write on different types of birds.  He procrastinated and it was due the next day and was panicking.  Their father told him to just take things bird by bird, one at a time. I am going to try and take that advice to heart.

Like Stephen King's On Writing, Bird by Bird is part memoir, part advice for writers.  What's truly beautiful about this book is that it makes an argument for a way, not just to write, but to live in the world.  Remembering to breathe, paying attention, and commitment to craft are just the tip of the iceberg of what you can learn from this book.  Even if you're not a writer, there's valuable advice in here for everyone.

Like when I read King's On Writing, I have not yet read any of Ms. Lamott's fiction, but you can be sure that her books will appear in my to-read list shortly.

I felt called to finally crack open this book I'd heard somewhere or other about, and I was richly rewarded with a new perspective on writing, and on life.  Because God seems to work in mysterious ways, it so happens I was at Union Square in Manhattan the afternoon before I finished reading Bird by Bird, killing time before my night shift at work.  It turns out Ms. Lamott will be giving a reading and signing of her new novel in March. I plan on going, if only to tell her that Bird by Bird changed my outlook on life.

Review: Thank You, Jeeves. by P. G. Wodehouse by Matt Burkhardt

Thank You Jeeves 

by P. G. Wodehouse

Unabridged Audible version narrated by Jonathan Cecil

Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):

When Bertie insists upon playing the banjolele, to the distress of his neighbors and his impeccable valet Jeeves, Jeeves is forced to take drastic action. He leaves B.'s service. But Bertie is entirely dedicated to his art, and decides to rent one of his friend Lord Chuffnell's cottages so as to pursue his banjolele studies away from the madding (and maddened) crowd... only to learn that Jeeves has taken employment as Chuffy's valet at Chuffnell Hall. Right-ho, then. There is the usual romantic imbroglio; a former fiancée of Bertie's, Pauline Stoker, enters the picture as Chuffy's guest while her father, the American millionaire J. Washburn Stoker, considers the purchase of Chuffnell Hall. Of course Pauline and Chuffy proceed to fall madly in love, and when they fall out, it's up to Bertie to set things to rights again. Only, without Jeeves, it's a deuced awkward business, wot? 

Note:  There is something of a plot spoiler in here, but I think it would entice rather than spoil. Still, you've been warned.

When I watch a television show, regardless of how long it's been running, I always start at the beginning. So, for example, when I started watching the reboot of BBC's Doctor Who, I started with "Rose," episode one of series one, and watched every single episode from 2005 to the most recent, "The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe."

By and large, I'm the same way with books when I know that a book is a part of a series, I try and seek out the first book in the series.  However, having been familiar with many of the stories of Jeeves and Wooster from the A&E series starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, I've relaxed this habit a bit when it comes to reading the short stories and novels of P. G. Wodehouse featuring Bertie Wooster and his man, Jeeves.  Thank You, Jeeves, serialized and later published in 1934, is the first full-length novel featuring this duo and I find I'm of two minds about it.  On the one hand I didn't feel as anchored to the plot as I did with The Code of the Woosters (1938).  This caused my attention to wax and wane despite Jonathan Cecil's thoroughly enjoyable narration of the audiobook.  I recognize Bertie's banjolele playing as the inciting incident for the entire plot and I understand how it escalates and causes Bertie to leave for the country and Jeeves to leave his service.  It's when we get to the country that I get a little fuzzy, mostly as regards Sir Roderick Glossop.  My understanding of his role in all of this is a bit shaky.  I'm sure a second reading would clear that up.

Having said that, my less than rock solid handle on the plot and Glossop's character allowed me to focus on things like language and Bertie as the narrator, more than I did when listening to The Code of the Woosters.  What I love is the way that, based on the two books I've read so far, Wodehouse manages to lightly introduce a tension-creating idea, hinting at it or anticipating it and then just before Bertie deals with it, a related but also slightly tangential idea is introduced.

A perfect example of this is when, towards the end of the novel, the cottage where Bertie is staying in the country comes to be on fire.  He's made aware of this fact but instead of reacting the way we would expect a character to do, his circumstances and his character lead him to think of Robinson Crusoe (if, as he would say, it was Crusoe he he means) making a "credits" and "debits" list of his situation, and he starts listing off positive and negative things about both the macro and micro situations he finds himself within.  I found it so funny I literally laughed out loud and it tipped the scale from "I'm not sure if I'm going to review this book because I'm shaky on the plot" to "this scene is worth the price of reading the whole book."

As when I was reading The Code of the Woosters, I love the subtlety of Wodehouse's writing that's evident here.  The way he manipulates conflict and employs jokes by touching on a potentially difficult situation and lets his characters react in what may be a very British way, I'm not sure.  There's a lack of directness in his British characters like Bertie that we don't glimpse in Pauline Stoker and her father, both Americans.

I gave the book three stars out of five on Goodreads because, although I do appreciate the subtleties I picked up on with the way Wodehouse seems to approach conflicts in this series, I was disappointed that I didn't have as firm a grasp on the plot as I had with The Code of the Woosters.  That may have been my fault, and perhaps on a second reading I'll reconsider.

One thing's for certain:  I will continue to read more Wodehouse.  If you like light, fun, British comic lit, you can't go wrong with P. G. Wodehouse.

11/22/63 Read-along Parts 4-6 by Matt Burkhardt

You can read my review of parts 1-3 of Stephen King's 11/22/63 here.

What follows are my thoughts on parts four through six and the novel as a whole.  I have tried to refrain from including plot spoilers as much as possible but if you're sensitive to that sort of thing, it's probably best you finish reading the novel before checking out my comments.

Having said that, I thought this book was brilliant.  King expertly brought the time period of 1958 through 1963 to vivid life for me. Through his simple yet elegant prose, his complex characters, and setting, he managed to create a sense of nostalgia in me for an era before I was born.  I identified with protagonist Jake Epping, not because he and I have a lot in common, but because I tried to imagine what it would be like to be told there's a wormhole in time in my favorite restaurant that would allow me to travel back in time for an indefinite amount of time and, although I would age accordingly, when I returned to the present only two minutes would have passed since I left.  Then to be charged with the task of picking up where the amiable proprietor of said favorite restaurant left off and attempt to prevent the Kennedy assassination.  I can't imagine what I would do. I had no idea, so I had to find out how Jake managed this quest.

Right along side Jake Epping, we plunged down the rabbit wormhole and into 1958 where he financed his operations by using information about major sporting events to lay substantial bets on things where he knew the outcome.  He got a job, first substitute teaching and then teaching full-time, and he fell in love.  More than anything else, it's the texture of the novel that really brings it to life.  This is not just about a man on a mission.  This is a novel about a man who travels back in time and fully immerses himself in it.  Of course, on some level, at least, he's got to, lest he stick out more than he already does.  He meets Sadie Dunhill, and falls in love.  This causes at least as many problems as it solves.

There's a nod to conspiracy theorists, too.  Before Al, the diner owner who charged Jake with this quest, could feel certain enough about Oswald, Jake was asked to look into the attempt on General Edwin Walker's life, citing that if Lee Harvey Oswald was alone and not convinced by a third-party to assassinate the general, then it was 95% probable that Lee acted alone in the Kennedy Assassination.

The second half of the novel takes Jake Epping (or George Amberson, as he is known in the past) through to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository and beyond.  The "obdurate" past is after him with a vengeance.

Does Jake succeed in saving Kennedy and thus providing a better future, or past, depending on how you look at it?  I highly recommend reading this fantastic book to find out.

Review: The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse by Matt Burkhardt

The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse
Unabridged Audible version read by Jonathan Cecil.
Description (courtesy of

The Code of the Woosters is the first installment in the Totleigh Towers saga. It introduces the characters of Sir Watkyn Bassett, the owner of Totleigh Towers, and Roderick Spode, later known as Lord Sidcup after his ascension to Earldom. The story opens with Bertie recovering from a bachelor party he has thrown the night before for Gussie Fink-Nottle, his fish-faced, newt-fancying friend. While still convalescing, he is summoned before his somewhat beloved Aunt Dahlia and ordered by her to go to a particular antique shop and "sneer at a cow creamer." This is an effort to sap the confidence of the shop's owner and thus drive down the piece's price before it is purchased by Dahlia's collector husband Tom Travers. While in the shop, Bertie has his first run-in with Sir Watkyn (another collector of silver pieces) and Spode (whose aunt Sir Watkyn is planning to marry). Bertie escapes this ordeal relatively unscathed, but later learns that, via underhanded skulduggery involving lobsters and cold cucumbers, Sir Watkyn has obtained possession of the creamer ahead of Uncle Tom and spirited it away to Totleigh Towers. Bertie was already headed there in a frantic attempt to patch over the sudden rupture in the engagement of Gussie and Madeline Bassett, Sir Watkyn's droopy and oversentimental daughter, but now he has been assigned an additional impossible task by Aunt Dahlia: recovery of the cow creamer, which is being guarded both by Spode and the local police. His situation is complicated further by the presence at Totleigh Towers of Stiffy Byng, Sir Watkyn's anarchic young ward, who draws Bertie into her plan to marry the local curate, another old pal of Bertie's named "Stinker" Pinker, and a certain leather-covered notebook of Gussie's, in which he has lovingly and extensively detailed Sir Watkyn and Spode's many character failings, and which has escaped Gussie's possession to roam freely about the local community.

The Code of the Woosters is, surprisingly, the first P.G. Wodehouse book I've finished.  When I was growing up, my mother often borrowed the television series Jeeves & Wooster, starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, from the library and we'd watch it together.  I had been acquainted with many of the characters in this novel before I'd picked it up.  I'd been meaning to dig into some Wodehouse but for some reason only managed to get through one or two of his short stories.

This novel is fantastic.  Wodehouse's prose is a delight to read and Bertie Wooster, charming yet somewhat dimwitted aristocrat, makes for a fantastic first-person narrator.  The story begins with a visit from Bertie's Aunt Dahlia who asks him to go to an antique shop and literally "sneer" at a silver jug of cream shaped like a cow that his uncle Tom wishes to acquire, so as to warm the shop owner up for negotiation when his uncle wishes to haggle for it.

What's wonderful about this novel is how much is made of so little.  Therein lies the humor of the book.  What begins as sneering at a cow creamer quickly escalates as Bertie is presumed to be stealing the creamer by a judge who, in the past, fined Bertie five pounds for stealing a policeman's helmet.

The plot thickens as other characters enlist Bertie in various schemes and I found myself wondering how he would avoid serious consequences including, but not limited to, the destruction of Gussie's engagement and an unwanted engagement to Angela Bassett for Bertie, the loss of Aunt Dalia's incomparable cook Anatole, and even the threat of imprisonment.  Yet, in the end, with the help of his inimitable manservant, Jeeves, all is, eventually, worked out in the end.

I didn't realize that this was the seventh Jeeves novel.  I will surely be tracking down the rest and reading those as well.  For those that enjoy audiobooks, while Jonathan Cecil could never replace the voices of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in my mind, he does an admirable job narrating this novel and bringing the characters of Wodehouse's universe to life.

Weekly Roundup 1/20/2012 by Matt Burkhardt

It's been a good week for me in the reading realm.  I finished Stephen King's 11/22/63 and started putting together my review of the second half of the novel, which I hope to post in the next week.

Following that, I consumed the audible version of Mario Puzo's The Godfather.  I don't have enough to say about this to warrant its own independent review.  Suffice it to say that, having seen the film first, the first half of the novel was the slightest bit slow.  I found Johnny Fontane a whiny unsympathetic character who, if I'm recalling correctly, benefitted from the film taking the pressure off of him as a major player. In the book, he gets a whole section where he's the point of view character, and I just found it impossible to sympathize with someone who gets his way just because Don Corleone is his actual godfather.

I thought the second half of the novel, by contrast, picked up and made reading the book worthwhile.  The screenplay being co-written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, they nailed the task of adapting the novel into a brilliant film. Unfortunately, perhaps because of this, the beginning of the novel didn't give me more of what I wanted in the way some books turned into films do. I wanted to delve deeper into the characters and their world and it felt like I was just getting the facts. However, once Don Corleone is shot and Michael begins his ascent, the book really starts to shine.  I was on the fence about reading the next novel in the series but, in the end I think I will eventually pick it up.

I initially borrowed this book from my public library in ebook format, but I didn't finish 11/22/63 before the loan expired, so I ended up using one of my monthly credits and getting the multi-voice performance recording from and I was very pleased.

I said I was going to start John Green's new novel, The Fault in our Stars, when I finished with The Godfather.  I didn't get to it this week, but I intend to over the next couple of days.  For the time being, I'm almost finished with the audio version of P.G. Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters, a thoroughly enjoyable novel about Bertie Wooster, slightly witless British aristrocrat, and his remarkable butler, Jeeves.  I had grown up watching the television show starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, long before he took on the titular role on House, M.D.  The novel does not disappoint.  Bertie Wooster makes for an outstanding first-person narrator and Wodehouse's writing is a pure treat.

As I posted earlier this week, I'm going to be hosting a weekly poll to help me decide which of the ever-growing list of books I wish to read I should read next.  I'll pick four or so books from my to-read list on Goodreads and you can vote for your favorites.

Coming Up:

I've acquired a few books of late that I'm eager to sink my teeth into.  First thing's first, I'll finish up The Code of the Woosters.  Next shall likely be finishing off the Doctor Who Brilliant Book 2012, which I'm currently fifty pages into.  Following that, I most recently acquired a two-volume set of The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle, Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks, and the aforementioned A Fault in our Stars by John Green.  Other possibilities include Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, and any of another hundred books I probably can't think of at this precise moment.

When the week is out, I'll have finished one book and also read two complete ones.  I think I've gotten into the groove of near-constant reading.  Now I just need to figure out when I'm going to write about everything.  The good news is, the more I read the more I understand what's missing from my own fiction and, knowing what my own fiction lacks, I can begin to work on improving it.

Keep an eye out this coming week for my review of the second half of Stephen King's 11/22/63 and possibly P.G. Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters.