Book review: The Right Word

book review

Review The Right WordThe Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus is a children’s book, but I think it’s uniquely crafted so that younger kids can “grow into” it and older kids can keep discovering new layers of meaning.

The story told in the text is a sensitive and colorful biography of Peter Mark Roget—his childhood, his love of lists, his interest in science, his work as a medical doctor, and, of course, the thesaurus his name became synonymous with.

And that story is enhanced by the stories told in the illustrations, which present a collage of paintings, drawings, realistic objects, and handwriting fragments as additional clues about Roget’s life and personality. These clues are what give the book its layers of meaning. I think this is why Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet are listed not as “author” and “illustrator,” but almost as co-authors.

Particularly for introverts, shy kids, reflective types

Not only is The Right Word the kind of book that an introverted child could study quietly for hours, but Peter Roget is a protagonist that introverts can relate to. Young Peter is a shy child; his widowed mother has to move the family often, and Peter finds it hard to make friends. He spends time with books instead. Peter’s habit of making lists becomes a way to organize a confusing world, and his obsession with words is a reflection of his desire to express himself well.

Reading together, in a group, with each other

I enjoyed reading the book myself, and I learned a lot about Mr. Roget. (Did you know he invented the pocket chess set?) Then I had my 9-year-old niece read it—she had broken her arm at the beginning of the summer, and I thought she might be looking for things to occupy her mind and her time. As it turns out, she wasn’t. I don’t think her cast slowed her down at all!

So I never got the opportunity to read the book with my niece and study the illustrations and discuss all the layers of meaning. And that might be the best way to read this book. If I were using it in a school setting, I might make it part of an art class rather than a reading class, since much of the story is conveyed through images.

My niece did write up a little book report for me. In general, she liked Peter Roget because, she says, “We both love to read. And write.” All of her observations were about the literal story told in the text of the book (which she thought was too young for her); without some guided discussion about the story told within the illustrations, she didn’t naturally look for those layers of meaning.

My summary, synopsis, recap

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus is a good book for children about 7 years old, particularly if they need a shy hero who successfully and creatively navigates a world that often feels overwhelming. Parents, art teachers, and aunts might find the book provides opportunities to develop observation, deduction, and discussion skills with kids of all ages. The book is available from (the publisher), or clicking on the image will take you to its page on


Related review: Quiet

Time and money

time and money

Time and moneyA few months ago I told you about a project I had started for a client who needed help editing her life story. The project still isn’t finished, but we are getting close. (I think.)

Will my client be happy with the end result? I’m not sure. It has cost us both a lot of time and money.

A high price

She’s paying a high price. We agreed on an hourly rate, and I’ve invested a lot of hours—not just scanning all her photos, but also labeling them in a way that will be meaningful to her children if they decide they want the JPEGs. (Not all the scanned JPEGs will appear in the final printed book.) Many of the originals she gave me were torn, spotted, flecked, and yellowed, so I’ve invested time correcting the blemishes and enhancing the color. (She didn’t ask me to do this, but I think she’d regret it if I didn’t.) Sometimes she gave me the same photo more than once with different instructions, and I scanned it both times but named it and filed it differently, and those duplicates became confusing later.

I feel bad that it’s costing so much. I wish it didn’t. For me, it wouldn’t be worth it to pay this much money for a book like this. I would rather spend the time and do it myself.

But I can do it myself. She can’t. (She tried.) Scanning and organizing 500+ photos, and then choosing, enhancing, and laying out roughly 200 of them, and then preparing high-resolution CMYK files to upload to a printer that will print and bind only four copies—well that takes a lot of time and some specialized knowledge. That’s what costs so much.

A limited budget

My client is on a budget, and I know this. I’m trying to be respectful of this. So each time she drops off a new envelope of “must-include” photos, or emails me new details she wants to squeeze into a caption on an already crowded page, or ignores the specific questions I’m asking and sends a rambling story instead—I remind her of how much money she has left and how much time it will take me to do the new things she’s asking. Her main concerns are that her kids won’t appreciate the book, or that she won’t have equal numbers of photos of each grandchild, or that she’ll offend someone she left out. My main concern is that she’ll spend all her money and she still won’t have a finished book.

A gift given

What she’s paying is a lot of money to her. I suppose it’s a lot of money to me too, but it represents weekends and late nights and vacation days that I spent with my hand on a trackpad instead of a tennis racket, alone in my office instead of out with family and friends. Those are hours I won’t get back. She bought them from me so that she’ll have a gift to give her family.

But when we reach the end of her budget, I’ll keep working. Those are hours I’ll give to her so she can get the book she wants. I’ve decided this already.

A decision made

I’ve also decided I’ll continue to track those hours I’m giving. I’ll continue to submit my invoice each month, with the dates and hours worked, and a description of what I’ve accomplished in each session. The invoice will show the dollar value of those hours, but some of them will be stamped “gratis.”

You see, if I don’t give her this information, she won’t know how much this gift is worth, how much it’s costing both of us. She has already suggested that there are other projects she wants me to do for her. I want her to understand why I’ll have to turn those down. I just can’t afford to give this much time all the time!




I just got a call from my client. I had given her a hard-copy printout of the book and asked her to review it. She was overwhelmed. “Unbelievable,” she told me. “It’s just brilliant. I love the choices you made and the way you put it all together. I cried when I saw it. It was worth every nickel I had to pay.”

For me, that makes it worth every hour I had to spend.

That’s what time and money are all about.

Being ready: a book review of Being Mortal

book review being mortal
book review Being Mortal
(Click this image to see the thousands of reviews of Being Mortal on

This might not be normal, but I think about death quite a bit. And about getting old. This is not depressing for me, or morbid. I just like to be prepared. There are a lot of things I can’t control about aging and dying—but there are certain things I can. By focusing on those things I can be as ready as possible.

So I have a deep appreciation for Dr. Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. For one thing, it’s a very readable book, probably because Gawande has filled it with stories of real people, real families, and real choices. Some of those stories are heartbreaking. Some are inspiring. All are instructive.

For another thing, Dr. Gawande’s analysis is insightful. He places the stories he tells into the context of the history of the American healthcare system, and in doing so he helps us understand why things are the way they are. Essentially, Gawande makes the case that as members of a culture that values independence, youth, and science, we are ill-equipped to face our own mortality—but it’s not too late to become better equipped.


There is so much good stuff that Gawande says in Being Mortal—the hardcover copy I have is full of underlinings that I’ve referred to several times in the weeks since I finished reading it. I’m trying to resist the temptation to over-share in this book review, but let me offer one short quote from the Epilogue. Dr. Gawande says:

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. (p. 259)

This distinction he makes between “health and survival” and “well-being” is a central theme of the book. It’s a distinction you’ve seen played out if you’ve ever admitted a loved one to a nursing home. A decision like that is usually made out of concern for someone’s health and safety, and many nursing homes are pretty good at keeping people safe. Still, no one wants to go into a nursing home. Why? Because we know that life is about more than safety. Nursing homes can offer physical care, but what’s missing is the help we really need to navigate new reasons for living when our physical bodies begin to decline.


Normally a book like this might make me feel hopeless. I have a hard time dealing with systemic problems (like American healthcare) because they seem impossible to solve. But Gawande doesn’t ask me to change the system; he simply makes me aware of its shortcomings. In doing so, he helps prepare me to make my own healthcare choices, no matter what choices the system might pressure me to make. I don’t have to change the system; but I don’t have to let the system change me either.


Perhaps the most practical help Being Mortal offers is an encouragement to discuss four powerful questions before making any major healthcare decision—

  1. What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  2. What are your fears and what are your hopes?
  3. What trade-offs are you willing to make and not willing to make?
  4. What is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

By discussing these questions ahead of time with your family and with your physician, you’ll feel much more ready to face age, illness, and mortality.

Go ahead and order a copy of Being Mortal. I think you’ll find it surprisingly encouraging to read. It is neither manipulative nor indifferent. By the time you finish it, you’ll simply have a feeling of knowing what needs to be done and being ready to do it.

What more can you ask from a book about death?


Other things I’ve written about death:


Simple and deep: a book review of Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a Half

I was first introduced to the writings and drawings of Allie Brosh when a fellow blogger sent me a link to Allie’s post about “the Alot.” After reading it, I immediately subscribed to her Hyperbole and a Half blog.

Allie didn’t blog on a regular schedule, but each time her gently piercing cartoons arrived in my inbox, I rejoiced. When she gradually stopped blogging altogether, I wondered what had happened to her.

Hyperbole and a HalfThen she posted a blog about her struggle with depression and celebrity, and it helped explain where she had been. And I read an interview about her struggle, and she mentioned her upcoming book, and I knew I would need a copy.

Deep words

Allie is recognized for her distinctive drawings (which seem child-like but are carefully nuanced), but I am just as impressed with her writing. She has a wry intelligence that can be both hilarious and poignant. And she is decidedly unique (maybe even strange), yet her stories resonate with millions of people.

Listen to how she describes her depression:

“And that’s the most frustrating thing about depression. It isn’t always something you can fight back against with hope. It isn’t even something—it’s nothing. And you can’t combat nothing. You can’t fill it up. You can’t cover it. It’s just there, pulling all the meaning out of everything. That being the case, all the hopeful, proactive solutions start to sound completely insane in contrast to the scope of the problem.

“It would be like having a bunch of dead fish, but no one around you will acknowledge that the fish are dead. Instead, they offer to help you look for the fish or try to figure out why they disappeared.

“…The problem might not even have a solution. But you aren’t necessarily looking for solutions. You’re maybe just looking for someone to say ‘Sorry about how dead your fish are,’ or ‘Wow, those are super dead. I still like you, though.'”

I love that.

I don’t know how common or how personal depression is, but judging from the 5,000 comments on this post in her blog, Allie’s words are hitting home.

Simple pictures

Her drawings are too. Somehow, in her bright colors and trembly lines, Allie Brosh conveys a range of complex emotions. And she presents her visual story frame by frame with a sense of comic timing that feels like live stand-up. Take a look at the series below (which is of course copyrighted to Allie Brosh and is only included here as a review sample), about her canine companion, Simple Dog:

[Note: An alert reader let me know that the flipbook I created below does not appear on all mobile devices. Sorry. You’ll have to wait until you’re at your desktop to get the full effect.]

[book id=’2′ /]

Notice how Simple Dog’s positioning changes just enough to give you the impression that something is going on inside that doggy head, but she just can’t quite make the connection. And I love the changing expressions on Allie’s face, too.

More about Allie Brosh

I recommend Hyperbole and a Half—the book as well as the blog—for anyone who has pets or children or parents or emotions or ADHD or a tendency toward perfectionism or a love of grammar.

And if you’d like to learn more about Allie, check out these interviews:

  • NPR (read the highlights, but also listen to the recorded story)
  • GoodReads (really good questions asked by the interviewer)