Category Archives for Book and Podcast Reviews

Commemorating Arabian Jews in Spies of No Country

I didn’t know much about the creation of Israel before reading Matti Friedman’s book, Spies of No Country. I still know very little, but at least now the emotions its creation evoked have become real.

By focusing on four Jewish men who were born in Arab countries, Friedman offers readers a tiny glimpse of the struggle Zionists have always faced.

He doesn’t try to outline the creation of Israel. Nor does he comprehensively describe how Israel’s military agency began. Instead, he profiles four specific men who risked their lives to spy for the people setting up Israel from January 1948 until August 1949. He doesn’t glamorize them either.

“Their mission didn’t culminate in a dramatic explosion that averted disaster, or in the solution of a devious puzzle. Their importance to history lies instead in what they turned out to be—the embryo of one of the world’s most formidable intelligence services…1

Founding of Israel

After reading about the exploits of the four spies and their colleagues, it’s clearer to me why peace in the Middle East has been so fleeting. I’ve always known that David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s birth as an independent country on May 14, 1948. I didn’t know that Britain and the United Nations worked hard to stop them though. Until reading Spies of No Country, I never gave any thought at all to the Jewish minorities in Arab countries. That’s the point of view Friedman highlights.

His book works brilliantly. Friedman’s decision to tell a straight-forward narrative about four young men working for a cause that was far from assured at the time keeps readers hooked. At the same time, in his role as the narrator, he provides context that makes it clear to a modern reader that people living within Israel and in neighbouring countries still seek their versions of justice, none of which agree with one another. Revenge seems never-ending.

Storytelling Technique

By allowing us to live side-by-side with Gamliel, Havakuk, Isaac and Yakuba over a period of 20 months, we get to feel their fears and his concerns all at once. He does this by describing particular moments and allowing us to feel what the people he describes feel. Even at the end, as he takes us through his own process, he helps readers identify with the spies’ humanity.

“Two young men look out from behind the counter. They move easily beside and around each other. They know each other very well. Both have mustaches. One wears glasses. I have a photograph of them grinning at the camera, hair slicked back and collars open. They seem capable of both humor and violence..Don’t be fooled by their relaxed manner. Five of their friends are in shallow graves, and fate isn’t done with them yet.”2

After finishing the book, I combed through Wikipedia articles and news stories to find out more about the birth of Israel. I always knew that the Ottoman Empire ruled the area that includes Israel and Palestine from 1516 until World War I, but I didn’t realize the extent of the roles played by Turkey, France and Britain prior to and during the Arab-Israeli war.

More about Matti Friedman

I also read more about Matti Friedman’s work. Initially, Spies of No Country attracted me as a book with good reviews that was written by a Canadian. Friedman’s website talks about his birth in Toronto and the fact that he now lives in Jerusalem, but says little more.

Youtube videos are more helpful in getting to know who he is and why. The most recent features a discussion with Joe Yudin about what he’s been doing recently via an interview conducted on April 15.

The article featuring criticisms about how the international media cover Israel that they speak about at the beginning as Friedman’s best-known work appears in The Atlantic.

Throughout all of these articles and information, it’s clear that Friedman works very hard to make sure that all of us remember that more than half of the people who helped create Israel are Jewish people who used to live in Arab countries.


1Friedman, Matti, Spies of No Country: behind enemy lines at the birth of the Israeli secret service; Toronto: Penguin, ISBN 9780771038839, 2019, pp 27-28.

2 Ibid, pp 797-798.

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Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma changed how I think about food.

Until reading the now classic 2006 tome by Michael Pollan, I never noticed the extreme lack of diversity in the modern North American diet due to its evolution since World War II. Events have since conspired to show me the extent that corn, dairy and wheat join salt and sugar to form a significant part of a Canadian diet too. Often we think we are eating one thing and it turns out that we are actually eating something else.

Food Industrialization

The industrialization of our food system has separated us from natural systems while hurting our health, our planet and our soil. Despite that understanding, reversing the habit has been an ongoing struggle. As Pollan points out in his conclusion, everything in our culture encourages us to rely on the convenient, unemotional and often unrecognizable food-like products offered in bulk by giant industrial companies.

For countless generations eating was something that took place in the steadying context of a family and a culture, where the full consciousness of what was involved did not need to be rehearsed at every meal because it was stored away, like the good silver, in a set of rituals and habits, manners and recipes. I wonder if it isn’t because so much of that context has been lost that I felt the need, this one time, to start again from scratch.” (p 411)

Travel Across America

For Pollan, starting again from scratch meant travelling across America to discover the basic ingredients within four meals: a McDonald’ meal eaten in a fast car, a Whole Foods organic dinner, a Polyface Farm meal, and a foraged meal. Pollan takes readers along with him, detailing every element in each meal from start to finish. He brings us with him into industrial food operations, to small and large farms, and into the forest in search of mushrooms and big game to hunt.

In between the descriptions of places and people, Pollan carefully outlines every element within every meal. Often, many of these elements turn out to have the same source.

Corn Prevalent Everywhere

In his description of his McDonald’s meal, for instance, he described how three people chose 45 different products almost totally made of corn.

It would not be impossible to calculate exactly how much corn Judith, Isaac, and I consumed in our McDonald’s meal. I figure my 4-ounce burger, for instance, represents nearly 2 pounds of corn (based on a cow’s feed conversion rate of 7 pounds for every 1 pound of gain, half of which is edible meat). The nuggets are a little harder to translate into corn, since there’s no telling how much actual chicken goes into a nugget; but if 6 nuggets contain a quarter pound of meat, that would have taken a chicken half a pound of feed corn to grow. A 32-ounce soda contains 86 grams of high-fructose corn syrup (as does a double-thick shake), which can be refined from a third of a pound of corn; so our 3 drinks used another pound. Subtotal: 6 pounds of corn.” (p115)

Food Science No Longer Occurs

The Omnivore’s Dilemma also contains a great deal of information about how many societal norms and regulations have radically transformed when it comes to food. Often these changes were due to marketing by various members of the agricultural industry.

Back in the fifties, when the USDA routinely compared the nutritional quality of produce from region to region, it found striking differences: carrots grown in the deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than carrots grown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida,” wrote Pollan, on page 178. “Naturally this information discomfited the carrot growers of Florida, which probably explains why the USDA no longer conducts this sort of research. Nowadays U.S. agricultural policy, like the Declaration of Independence, is founded on the principle that all carrots are created equal, even though there’s good reason to believe this isn’t really true.”

Food Link to Health

In other places, Pollan speculates about the extent that changes to our food system might be creating problems with our health.

One of the most important yet unnoticed changes to the human diet in modern times has been in the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6, the other essential fatty acid in our food. Omega-6 is produced in the seeds of plants; omega-3 in the leaves. As the name indicates, both kinds of fat are essential, but problems arise when they fall out of balance. (In fact, there’s research to suggest that the ratio of these fats in our diet may be more important than the amounts.) Too high a radio of omega-6 to omega-3 can contribute to heart disease, probably because omega-6 helps blood clot, while omega-3 helps it flow. (Omega-6 is an inflammatory; omega-3 an anti-inflammatory.) As our diet—and the diet of the animals we eat—shifted from one based on green plants to one based on grain (from grass to corn), the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 has gone from roughly one to one (in the diet of hunter-gatherers) to more than ten to one.” (p268)

Despite multiple examples of dense information, the overall impression a reader has of Omnivore’s Dilemma is an exploration of America through its food and communities. Pollan aptly outlines his deep concern about deep problems in the food system while demonstrating how caring individuals can change how things are done.

Pollan has nicely captured the hurtful and healing attributes of America’s food system. Omnivore’s Dilemma remains a treasure and a great source of hope.

Reading it may force you to change the way you eat, the way you shop and the way you see your local community as it did for me.

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Business Profile Tips

A group of students are just getting underway in my Profile Your Business course right now, so I’ve been looking for examples of business profiles that captivate readers.

In that process, I found this blog post that I wrote in 2014. All the links still work, and I still love the business stories featured, so I thought I’d post it again so you could enjoy some great nonfiction business writing. Some of the information in these stories might be dated, but they are still well-worth reading. Enjoy!

What do the former Canadian Wheat Board, twist ties and the International Monetary Fund have in common?

They’re all topics in three of my favourite business stories by excellent writers. Jake MacDonald’s “Why so many farmers miss the Wheat Board,” Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s “International Monetary Fund Overview,” and Paul Lukas’ “Twist-Ties vs. Plastic Clips: Tiny Titans Battle for the Bakery Aisle” find entertaining ways to present company facts while asking important questions about a particular company, industry and economy.

Despite using completely different structures, the following three business stories are similar in that all of them make readers understand complicated insider business issues that normally seem opaque.

Business Profile featuring the Wheat Board

Jake MacDonald’s narrative feature outlining the demise of Canada’s wheat board begins in 1996 and continues until the summer of 2014. The freelancer’s opus appeared on November 27, 2014 in the Globe and Mail.

Slow-moving, yet compelling, the story’s narrative style makes it difficult to find a crucial section, but here are two paragraphs, just to give you a sense of how it reads.

The old multigenerational family farm is gradually being replaced by the vast acreage managed by the partnership, the corporation or the absentee owner. Harvesting machinery keeps getting bigger, more efficient and more expensive. Basic equipment for a small farm—trucks, tractor, swather, combine and so on—might cost well over $1 million. A couple of generations ago, a good-sized farm was a square mile (640 acres). Now, 2,000 acres is considered small. Rising costs keep pushing in from one end of the bench and farmers keep dropping off at the other. Is that such a bad thing? Farming, after all, has been in a state of constant revolution since the first nomadic hunter poked holes in the ground with a stick and scattered seeds of einkorn grass. What’s wrong with corporations taking over?”

Well, for one thing, they’re not as good at it,” says Byskal. “The small family farmer is often the best farmer. He’s been on the same land all his life, and he’s got a feel for the soil. He lets the land tell him what crops to grow, and the crops change from year to year. The corporate guy doesn’t have that same rapport with nature. He’s got a very businesslike approach. And that’s not always the best for the land, in the long run.”

Read the entire story for yourself.

International Monetary Fund Profile

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s summary of a paper published by the International Monetary Fund in The Telegraph on January 2, 2014 is a great example of a journalist’s capacity to make difficult economic thought clear for anyone.

Written with a traditional news style structure, the initial paragraph says everything detailed in the rest of the piece:

Much of the Western world will require defaults, a savings tax and higher inflation to clear the way for recovery as debt levels reach a 200-year high, according to a new report by the International Monetary Fund.

Read the rest of this non-fiction story for yourself.

Read more stories from the same author.

Kwik Lok vs Burford Business Profile

It’s well-worth reading Paul Lukas’ “Twist-Ties vs. Plastic Clips: Tiny Titans Battle for the Bakery Aisle,” which was published in Bloomberg Business Week on March 13, 2013.

This story highlights the battle for market share between Kwik Lok and Burford for the type of fastener used on bread, bagels and other consumer goods. Its genius is an easy-reading style that communicates industry information without making it seem boring.

The author uses the feature structure. His nutgraph is:

This was the latest move in a business war that’s been under way for more than half a century now. It’s a battle fought by the makers of inconspicuous little products that cost a fraction of a penny to produce—the ones that everyone knows and nobody thinks about, but which represent more than an estimated $10 million in annual sales. Insiders describe the turf as the bakery bag closure and reclosure market; this is the battle of the plastic clip vs. the twist-tie.

Read this non-fiction brilliance for yourself.

Read more about the author on his website, which is itself one of my favourite-ever profiles.

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Improve your Craft with a Writing Reference Book

Are you a word nerd? If so, consider getting a writing reference book from the following list and support your passion and my work at the same time.

If you choose to buy one of these books through my affiliate links, I get a few cents although you don’t pay any additional fee.

Then we can both sit back and explore the world of nonfiction. Very few people in the world understand how wonderful it is for word nerds to pick up a good writing reference guide and read a few pages for fun.

I’m not talking about those moments when grabbing it quickly confirms a particular grammar point, although that’s useful too. No, instead I’m speaking about those lazy days when anything is possible and yet somehow the whole day passes by because I chose to sit and read The Chicago Manual of Style for a few minutes.

In addition to thinking about language and getting tips to improve your craft, writing reference guides can trigger new research ideas.

Research Ideas Triggered

Once while reading the section about citing sources, for example, I discovered a new potential source for research. On page 748, it says:

Command papers are so called because they originate outside Parliament and are ostensibly presented to Parliament “by command of Her [His] Majesty.” The different abbreviations for “command” indicate the series and must not be altered. No s is added to the plural [Cmnd. 3834, 3835].

That made me curious. Turns out that Command Paper 3834 is a book called “Review Body on Armed Forces Pay: 1998, 27th Report by Great Britain, Gordon Hourston (Paperback, 1998).” This exercise made me realize that researching under the term “command papers” in the UK National Archives might lead to detailed policy analyses that are unavailable elsewhere. Awesome lesson!

While the Chicago Manual of Style contains depth beyond its key strength, most writing references are less diverse. Each one meets a precise purpose for a particular situation.

As with many works of notable nonfiction, that purpose depends on whether you’re looking for story, structure or style advice.

I have selections of books to help inspire me about all three challenges, yet there are still a few highly recommended books on my wish list. I’ve listed all of these below to give you an idea about which books cover which topics best. Books with reviews or affiliations links on this blog are hyperlinked to those resources.

Story: Books about Being a Writer

Brown, Rita Mae. Starting From Scratch. A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual. New York: Speakeasy, 1988. ISBN 0-533-34630-X.

Cheney, Theodore A. Rees Writing Creative Nonfiction. Berkeley: Tenspeed Press, 1991. ISBN 0-89815-411-1.

DeBartolo Carmack, Sharon. You Can Write Your Family History.  Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2003.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. New edition. Shambhala, 2005.

King, Stephen. On Writing. A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Simon & Shuster Inc., 2000. ISBN 0-671-02425-6.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

Nieman Foundation. Telling True Stories. Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. ISBN 978-0-452-28755-6.

Pen Canada. Writing Away. Edited by Constance Rooke. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1994. ISBN 0-7710-6956-1.

Structure: Books about Writing Presentation

Best American Essays 2000. Edited by Alan Lightman and Robert Atwan. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. ISBN 0-618-035580-x.

Bishop, Leonard. Dare to be a Great Writer. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1992. ISBN 0-89879-464-1.

Kuriloff, Peshe C. Rethinking Writing. New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc., 1989. ISBN 0-312-00274-2.

Larsen, Michael. How to Write a Book Proposal, Writer’s Digest Books; 4th edition (April 18, 2011), ISBN: 158297702X.

Law Hatcher, Patricia. Producing a Quality Family History. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1996.

Moffett, James. Points of Departure. An Anthology of Nonfiction. New York: New American Library, 1985. ISBN 9780451627285.

Ross, Raymond S. Essentials of Speech Communication. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1984. ISBN 0-13-289173-5.

Sands, Katharine. Making the Perfect Pitch; How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye.

Strathcona County Board of Education Communications Handbook. Edited by Paula S. Goepfert. Scarborough: Nelson Canada, 1982. ISBN 0-17-6015 07-8.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998. ISBN 0-941188-70-1.

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. ISBN 0-06-272027-9.

Style: Books about the Art of Writing

Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, edited by Christopher W. French et al. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1986. ISBN 0201100916.

Board for Certification of Genealogists Genealogy Standards. Edited by Thomas W. Jones. Washington: Turner Publishing Company, 2014. ISBN 978-1-630-26018-7.

Canadian Press Stylebook. Edited by Bob Taylor. Toronto: The Canadian Press, 1986, ISBN 0-920009-01-8.

Canadian Style. Edited by Malcolm Williams and Vitalijs Bucens. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997. ISBN 978-1-55002-882-9.

Carroll, David L. A Manual of Writer’s Tricks. New York: Paragon House, 1990. ISBN 1-55778-314-4.

Casagrande, June. Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite.  New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Coles Handbook of English Grammar and Composition. Toronto: Coles Publishing Company Limited, 1980.

Gordon, Karen Elizabeth. The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.

Hart, Jack. Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction Paperback, University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (Oct. 12 2012), ISBN 0226318168.

Kleinschmit, Nathalie. Borderless English. Manitoba: Global’ease, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9783825-06.

Mahan, Margaret D. F. The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition. The University of Chicago Press, 2003, ISBN 0-226-10403-6.

Merriman, Brenda Dougall. Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Family Historians.  Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010.

Shown Mills, Elizabeth. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Revised edition.  Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009.

Strunk Jr., William and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 1999, ISBN 0-02-418200-1.

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books, 2003. ISBN 1861976127.

Venolia, Jan. Write Right. A Canadian Desk-Drawer Digest of Punctuation, Grammar and Style. North Vancouver: Self-Counsel Press, 1983. ISBN 088908-554-4.

Weber Shaw, Fran. 30 Ways to Help You Write. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1980, ISBN 0-553-24073-0.

If you’re new to writing, or if you’ve never used books to inspire you to improve your craft, you might consider judging the “sound” of these books to select those that might appeal to you.

Use Sound to Select Your Top Three

When I say sound, I’m referring to how we hear books in our head as we read them. Readers are used to judging poetry by sound, which encompasses mood, rhythm and tone, but they often forget that other books have the same qualities.

Authors also change how quickly they want readers to read by playing around with how they present their work.

Narrative voice, wordplay and book chapter and sentence structure encompass the mood of a work, whether argumentative, playful, intense or light.

The layout of a written text captures rhythm and reflects whether an author wants readers to quickly skip over sentences or pause and meander through them slowly.

Prose style captures the tone of a work.

Long words, sentences and paragraphs encourage deep thought and slow reading, while short precise sentences present a conclusion as though already formed in a reader’s mind. Is a work divided into small bite-sized chunks that encourage a reader to read sections separately whenever encouragement is needed? Do quick sentences make it difficult to put a book down? Do chapters end on cliffhangers that keep readers wanting more or do they end at clear conclusions to encourage readers to think?

Thinking about sound when judging a book can help readers understand what a writer wants to project.

Choose the Top Three for Your Writer Type

Most writers fit into a particular type: reporter, researcher or storyteller. All writers have characteristics from each type, but your key tendencies determine your type. In brief, reporters focus on events and news; researchers love information-gathering and storytellers create narratives easily.

Take my family history quiz to find out which type of writer you are and then get the ideal books to help you with story, structure and style.

If you’re a reporter, you’ll appreciate

If you’re a researcher, I’d suggest:

If you’re a storyteller, you’ll probably like:

As a Canadian, I also reference the Canadian Press Stylebook frequently. Rules in Canada sometimes match American rules, while at other times we use British rules. The Canadian Press Stylebook, which was first published in 1940, helps me keep the exceptions to Chicago straight.

If you’re a family history writer, you need Genealogy Standards for style.

Obsessive writers like me own all thirteen of the above books, plus a great many more. We are the word nerds.

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