How to Tell if a Book is Good

1) The New York Times has a good review of it.

The New York Times is the best reviewer of books there is. If they say it’s good, it’s probably good. If they don’t, it’s probably not. Take The Sisters Brothers, for instance, by Patrick DeWitt. This book isn’t that good. The dialogue is annoying. The lack of contractions is annoying. The fact that you get the feeling the author thinks it’s good is annoying. On the cover it has some rave reviews from places like The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, but The New York Times is conspicuously absent. This is because The New York Times gave it a bad review. This is because it’s a bad book.

2) The cover looks nice.

Big publishing houses have a bigger budget for covers and can hire wonderful graphic designers and illustrators. Big publishing houses (generally) publish good books. Self-publishers and no-name publishing houses generally have smaller budgets and bad covers. Self-published and no-name publishing house books are generally bad books.

3) It doesn’t have the words, “The Girl…” in the title.

The Girl who Fell from the Sky. The Girl with all the Gifts. The Girl who Made Pancakes. The Girl who Woke up Late for School and Missed the Bus and Had to Walk. The Girl who Checked Out a Library Book and (Almost) Forgot to Take it Back. 

Not every book with the words, “The Girl…” in the title is bad, but most of them are.

4) The reviews are short and from publications/people you’ve heard of.

Good book: “Poignant and hilarious…Riveting.” –The Seattle Times (in reference to: A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz).

Bad book: “Christopher Riley’s A Summer of Hummingbirds is an indispensable Baedeker to the American cultural landscape of the nineteenth century. He accomplishes for literature and art what The Metaphysical Club did for philosophy and politics — establishing crucial linkages, both biographically and intellectually, among a diverse group of writers and artists whose work defined a vibrant new aesthetic in the years after the Civil War. And who would have guessed that reclusive Emily Dickinson entertained a secret lover?” (the review goes on and on, but you get the idea). –Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. (in reference to: A Summer of Hummingbirds by Christopher Riley).

5) The author’s name doesn’t have “d’Aprix Sweeney” in it.


6) The author’s name has “Knausgaard” or “Bolaño” in it.


7) It’s written by one person.

This rule is not hard and fast, but usually books with more than one author are bad. Usually they’re sports books and, while the subject matter is sometimes interesting, the writing is usually mediocre.


There it is! Now you never have to spend money or waste time on a bad book.

If only it were so easy…

5 Books to Read this Summer

1) Carry on, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

If you want to learn how to write dialogue, read Wodehouse.

2) Stoner by John Williams

Sad and smooth, like a glass of almond milk.

3) Merriam-Webster’s Spanish-English Medical Dictionary (Spanish Edition)

Do you know how to say “small-incision cataract surgery” in Spanish?

4) El Tercer Reich by Roberto Bolaño

A book all about lying on the beach and looking for your (possibly) dead friend.

5) Min Camp 6 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

It still hasn’t come out in its English translation and won’t until 2018. Which means you can buy it in Norwegian, Swedish, or Danish and put it in Google Translate. Or learn one of those languages. Or move to Sweden.

The Sturgeon Smile

The sturgeon smile is one of my least favorite things about living in Seattle. This unique facial expression is sort of like a smile but more like a frown. To doit, you purse your lips together and let the corners droop. The net result resembles the visage of the great leviathans who roam the bottom of the Colombia River or any other large body of freshwater.

The sturgeon smile is usually seen when passing someone on the street. Neither party wants to take the trouble to actually smile, but neither party wants to be “rude” and ignore the other person. The result? A strange half smile that leaves both people unsatisfied.

What alternatives to the sturgeon smile are there? Well, you could actually smile. You could smile a real smile and says, “Hi!” or “How are you?” But this is not ideal. The ideal thing is to do nothing. Look at the person if you want, but don’t smile. Don’t give them any of your fake niceties. If you’re going to adopt any expression at all, adopt one of bewilderment, as if to say, “Where am I and who are you?”

The sturgeon smile is of course indicative of a larger evil: the desire most Seattleites have to be liked by everyone but connect with no one. Civility at the cost of humanity. The keeping up of appearances at the cost of a slow death within.

Next time you pass someone on the street don’t give them a sturgeon smile. Give them a real smile or nothing at all. Or do everyone a favor and laugh like an ape. Fish or primates, we’re all just advanced animals in the end.

The Travel Plans I Just Posted on Couchsurfing

Originally posted 22 March 2015.


This letter is to inform you that four days hence, on the Twenty-Sixth Day of March the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Fifteen (sic), His Esteemed Highness King Mark Thomas Wetzler I of the House of Wittelsbach, son of Maximilan Joseph, protector of the Realm, dear friend and servant of the Kingdom of Prussia and Her Majesty Louise of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Tyrant of the Forest, Speaker of Kind Words and Doer of Kinder Deeds, The Rake of the Rainy City, etc. etc. Will be paying a visit to the Royal Capital of Krakow.

Under normal circumstances, as is customary, His Divine Grace would stay in his usual vacation residence of Wawel Castle. However, on this occasion, His Excellence has decided to forgo the usual luxury of his vacation estate and stay among the people! Which means, loyal citizens of Krakow, that His Most Serene Highness requires accommodation, and trusts in his most kind and rhythmically-beating heart that there exist those among you most willing and able to provide it.


1) Please arrive to greet and receive His Excellency on the date stated in a carriage pulled by two of your finest draft horses.

2) Have in the carriage a bottle of the finest Argentinian Malbec that the illustrious city of Krakow has to offer (His Grace enjoys South American vintners)

3) Be ready to brief His Beatitude on the current events of Krakow in a way that is both concise and scintillating.

Arrival is nigh and His Most Esteemed Eminence is eager to better make the acquaintance of beautiful Krakow and its faithful inhabitants. Please send a scribe as soon as possible should you be willing/able to meet with the humbly requested elements listed above.

A good day to all,

Scribe for His Majesty Mark Thomas Wetzler I of the House of Wittelsbach, 22 March Two Thousand and Fifteen