It can be difficult to be a writer sometimes. Not just because one’s prolonged ability to stare at a blinking cursor seems to improve and lengthen with each looming deadline. What if you’re the sort of writer who doesn’t have deadlines? you ask. I would venture to say that all writers have deadlines. Some are mandated by a publisher, like the end of the year, or month, or week, or day.
Other writers, like freelancers, or those whose income doesn’t depend upon their turning in (or even finishing) their work, have less concrete deadlines. These types of writers might feed their ambition by setting personal goals for themselves, like so many words per day, of anything, no matter what; or to finish a novel by the time they’re thirty. I am the type of writer who employs these more flexible deadlines for myself. My deadlines hover in the realm of, Write that blog post about the upcoming election sometime before whoever gets elected finishes serving his/her full term. Or, Finish your novel before you are dead (but maybe after Grandpa dies, so as not to offend him with your copious use of the d-word).
Yes, it’s difficult to be a writer. Especially when there are so many times that I come home planning to spend my evening writing but then am met with any number of obstacles that would wear upon my conscience and motivation until I shelve the laptop and succumb to temptation. These temptations, of course, manifest themselves in the form of tasks and responsibilities such as cleaning the bathroom, snaking the basement drain, clearing my attic of squirrels’ nests, or promising social enticements like the conversationally awkward, unable-to-grow-facial-hair guy in his mid-thirties who’s been pestering me for a date for the last six months, or going with Grandpa to pick out a cemetery plot.*
Last but certainly not least, being a writer can be difficult when you have friends who also fancy themselves writers. Because sometimes your friends end up being funnier than you, or more eloquent, or more concise, or more published. Such is the case with my recently acquired friend Katie Savage. Now, to be fair, Katie has managed to do a lot of things before me in life, such as be born, get married, have children, reach the age of thirty and still wear makeup, etc. So she’s obviously superior to me in many ways, and I shouldn’t take it personally that writing happens to be one of them.
But (as briefly as possible because I know I’m losing those of you who don’t even know me and are only here for what you thought would be but are now beginning to suspect is not a review of Whirlybirds) I did take it personally, at least at first. Before I even knew Katie, people were telling me I needed to know her. Mutual friends of ours told me on multiple occasions that we had a similar sense of humor and similar writing styles. I was not closed off to these comparisons or (what I would learn later were) compliments, but the fact remained that there existed no feasible way in the course of normal life to get an introduction to this mystery person, so I shrugged it off.
Until one day. On that day, I walked into my boyfriend-at-the-time’s apartment to pick him up for whatever we were planning to do that night. He was in a particularly good mood and couldn’t wait to tell me why. He had just finished reading his friend’s “thesis,” I think he called it. I’ll let you eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation.
“Oh? You read someone’s thesis?” said I, mentally calculating how long a legit thesis would have to be in comparison to my fledgling and surely-not-thesis-length novel, which had been in his possession for some months now, and which he had not yet finished reading.
“Yeah, it’s my friend Katie Savage’s. It’s more of a collection of essays, really. I think she’s going to turn it into a book or something.”
Of course I recognized the name. I also felt slightly deflated by all this information but nodded, smiled, and did all the supportive-girlfriendy things a woman will do, as congenially as she possibly can, when her boyfriend is praising another woman.
However, I was also ready to drop it and move on. “So. You ready to go?”
“Yeah. You know, I really think Katie is probably the best writer I’ve ever known.”
And there it was. Heart: cracked. Balloon: deflated. Self-esteem: vanished.
Some of you might want to defend this mistake, but before you do, let me just try to explain why his parting comment was so hurtful.
My identity as a writer is everything to me. Absolutely everything. If I don’t have my writing, what do I have? Nothing. And if I don’t have the support of the person I’ve given my heart to, what do I have? Nothing. To be compared to a peer by mutual friends and thereby feel in immediate competition with her was bad enough, though tolerable. To be told, however, to my face, by the love of my life, that she was better than me was insufferable. Even if it’s the truth.
If you occupy the role in my life of Holder of my Heart, then you can tell me any truth you like except this one. Tell me I’m too short, too plain, too weird, too stubborn, too rude, too blunt, too emotional, too callous, too poor, too smelly, too unkempt, too attached to my dog, too crass, too analytic, too obsessed with baseball, too Democrat, whatever. I can take all those truths. But – and I’m sorry if this is asking too much of any potential suitors out there who might be reading – if you claim the title of my boyfriend (or someday husband) and don’t think I’m the cleverest, most articulate, most fun, most talented writer you’ve ever personally known, well, then, my heart just won’t be able to withstand that.
Now, I didn’t bring you through all of that to focus on what a poor decision that particular boyfriend made on that particular day. I brought you through it to help you understand the jealous, competitive obstacle I had to overcome in my heart when I actually, finally met Katie for the very first time. Luckily, to be concise, her writing is as good as everyone says it is, and she is as cool a person as I had been told, so it wasn’t easy to dislike her, even though I tried very hard. (Sorry, Katie – both that I tried to dislike you and that you’re finding this out for the first time in a public blog post.)
I’ve also brought you all this way to set up the proof that you can trust me. Katie and I have known each other for about a year now, and though I think we can legitimately be called friends, I don’t think we can legitimately be called close. Therefore, you know now that whatever I have to say about her book (which I swear I’m getting to) will not be driven only by my sappy desire to praise my friend.
So, if anyone besides the author-in-question herself is still reading, I shall thus commence my review of Katie Savage’s first published book, Whirlybirds and Ordinary Times: Reflections on Faith and the Changing of Seasons.
Quickly, I’m going to get out of the way the things about the book that did not particularly push my happy-reader (or, as the case may be, happy-editor) buttons. And then we’ll get to the flowery stuff. First, without knowing much about the book beforehand, I wasn’t exactly enticed by the vague, wordy title. Without the cover design (which I’ll get to in a second), I wouldn’t have even been able to deduce what the word whirlybird refers to. I’d never heard that word. On the cover, however, is a framed depiction of what I grew up calling a helicopter. Not an actual helicopter, mind you, but one of those seed-pod things you throw up in the air as a kid and watch as it twirls down to the ground, much in the manner of (duh) a helicopter. So there was that mystery solved.
But I didn’t particularly love the “ordinary times” part of the title either. It just seemed so bland, and to be perfectly honest, a book that purports to be written about one’s personalized reflections of faith already isn’t likely to be one I’m gonna pick up off the shelf unless I happen to know the writer in real life because I’m just not that interested in very many people’s personalized reflections on faith. That is an aspect about my personality and reading self that many may view as a character flaw, and I guess that’s fine. We all have our literary preferences. But the point is, I was disappointed with the term ordinary times. Until, that is, I received the book in the mail and opened it up to the table of contents, wherein I discovered that Katie has organized her essays in a manner that follows the calendar of the Christian church – a large portion of which includes something we call Ordinary Time.
Ah, of course! I thought. It’s a play on words! How clever! And so, I came to quite like the title, and all the more for the fact that I greatly respect titles that seem vague and meaningless until one has read some portion (if not all) of the book. It’s like a reader’s reward, or something. It’s nice.
As for the cover design, it’s cutesy and pretty-looking. But it’s not the most engaging, most compelling, most tempting cover I’ve ever come across. Part of the reason for this is that, though I’m not exactly a design specialist, I have had the luxury of knowing some really amazing cover designers. My former coworkers Joey and Tyler, and my personal friends J.R. and Arthur, are all better designers than whoever designed the Whirlybirds cover, and that’s not Katie’s fault at all. That’s the fault of Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster), for not employing more creative, more talented designers. (If any representatives from Howard Books are reading this, please click the links from J.R.’s and Arthur’s names above. They really are very good designers, and you could use their help; I’ve seen your other covers.)
The last thing I was disappointed with (which, again, is not Katie’s fault) was some of the editing. There are a few minor, fairly inconsequential things I would’ve done differently, and that’s okay. But the one thing I could not abide through the entire book was the capitalization of pronouns referring to God. It is a common misconception in Christian writing circles that God pronouns (he, him, his, himself) ought to be capitalized. The truth is, they’re abysmally distracting, and nothing uglies up a layout faster than a page full of capital H’s. Plus, it’s a basic tenet of the Chicago Manual of Style.
So, Howard Books, you’re 0 for 2 on your book production staff. Might want to do some hiring in the near future. I am available, if you’re handing out jobs. Oh, and if you are handing out jobs, you might want to hire new layout designers too. The layout of this book employed a magazine-article style, which is intolerable. There are pull quotes on almost every page, which is, again, so distracting. Helpful in a magazine article – when you’re skimming because you only have five or ten minutes in a waiting room. But this is a book. People are reading every word. Release the pull quotes. (I did end up not hating them, though, at certain times when I wanted to write a long comment in the margin next to one and they afforded me extra space for doing so.)
Okay, so now we get to the stuff I like about this book, which is, honestly, everything else. Everything that Katie did herself, in fact. Since I am a woman, I can’t comment on an audience for this book. I mean, she does talk about things like the relative size of her breasts, and breast feeding, and breast pumping, and squashing her sore, milk-filled breasts with the strap of a heavy bag. (Don’t worry, if you think you’re sensing a theme. If I remember correctly, all of the breasty references are constrained to one chapter…two, max.)
Katie writes about other stuff too. Like a difficult summer she experienced as a teenager when a friend died at church camp. And a harrowing, riddled-with-misadventure trip through Europe one Christmas holiday. And the hilarious shortcomings she views in herself (such as the fact that, for a long time in her life, she never cleaned underneath her oven knobs). And an awkward evangelism experience she had to participate in one time, in which she was to play a drunken demon, even though she had never actually been drunk and wasn’t sure what it looked like.
The best thing I found about Katie’s book is that, despite the subtitle potentially scaring off certain readers, with all its mentions of faith and reflections, it’s really just a book about the human experience. And it just so happens to be written by someone whose experience includes believing in Jesus. It’s true, there are references and allusions to Christian-y things that might escape a non-well-read, non-Christian reader, but that won’t really detract from the quality of the reading experience. Katie writes with both a depth comparable to theologians and an accessibility that will invite and welcome anyone who isn’t actually interested in all the God stuff. She spends enough time talking about non-God stuff that anyone who is not drawn to those parts will still remain engaged and interested, but for those who are drawn to them, she also ties everything together beautifully in a way that any author I’ve edited could only hope to do.
The margins of my copy of Whirlybirds are filled with my notes, mostly of laughter. But there’s also a fair amount of assent and agreement because, as it happened, the further I got in Katie’s book, the more convinced I became that we are twins separated at birth (never mind the fact that she’s two or three years older than me). There were even a couple of times when I read my own thoughts on the pages. Sometimes I loved this. However, the third or fourth time it happened, I began to feel I was running out of material for my own future book. When that happened, I underlined the sentence and wrote in the margin: Dammit! She’s stealing all my lines!
Which brings me to the d-word I alluded to before. Which I finally feel comfortable admitting that I (sometimes) like to use in my writing, and Katie is the reason I’m finally willing to admit it publicly, in front of Grandpa and the world. See, Katie uses this word no fewer than four times in her book, and once, at the very end (when she must’ve thought we all stopped reading), she uses the s-word! So, I’ve succumbed to this self-inflicted peer pressure and have decided that if Katie can do it publicly, then by golly, so can I, dangit. Well… I’m still getting used to the idea.
Anyway, the point is, this book is really good, and if you know Katie, you should definitely read it. Heck, you need to buy it! If you don’t know Katie, I still think you would enjoy it. And if you are not a Christian and don’t know Katie, well, I still think you’d like it. If for no other reason than the abundance of one-liners, or, as stand-up comics like to call them, zingers. There’s a lot of them, and I’ll just give you one because one of the Amazon reviews quotes a whole bunch, and that made me mad because I felt that those particular lines were spoiled for me, even though they really weren’t, and even though the book is pages and pages full of them, so it didn’t really spoil anything at all.
The one I liked in particular is actually one of the ones having to do with breasts. It’s near the beginning, and Katie talks about the changes her body went through during her first pregnancy. It reads thus:
My pregnant breasts were as dainty as my regular breasts, and my delusions of bountiful cleavage – even cleavage that lasted only a few months – rapidly faded.
The reason I liked this line so much was that it produced this margin note: And now, so have mine! :(
And those delusions of mine have faded even more now that I’ve finished the book and realized just exactly how similar Katie and I really are. So, that’s a bummer (about the breasts, not the similar personality thing). But here’s the thing: Katie’s a damn good writer, and everyone should know it. And now, I can agree with that old ex-boyfriend of mine. She probably is the best, most talented writer I have the pleasure of personally knowing. And, it’s actually pretty cool that now my shelf reserved for Authors I Personally Know has two books on it!
Thanks, Katie, for being brave enough to publish a book. You’re a great author. And thanks also for making it all the way to the end of the Most Tangential and Off-Topic Book Review Ever. By the by, can I come to dinner sometime soon? I’d love to get my book signed.