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June 2008

Maybe nonfiction's not his thang.

This has been a real stinker week for nonfiction.  Either I've just had a run of reading bad luck or I'm getting pickier.  Hard to tell.

So what do you do when a book that has been advertised as a "page-turner" fails to make you want to turn the pages?  This has been the case throughout Douglas Preston's and Mario Spezi's true crime thriller about serial murders in the Italian city of Florence, The Monster of Florence.  Yes, I'm on page 116, but it's been a struggle to get there, and I'm about five pages away from skipping to the end and reading the last couple of chapters. 

So what's the problem?  Sure, it's a true crime book, but I've read a lot of true crime and find most of it interesting (I'll admit, it doesn't feel quite right to type, "I enjoy true crime").  The story is certainly salacious enough: from 1968 through the mid-1980s, there were a rash of killings around Florence wherein the killer(s) hunted young couples, passing the time amorously, who were parked in country lanes.  The killer then shot the couples, and removed "trophies" from the female victims after they were dead.

The writing's not terrible, with Preston relating the history of the investigation with the aid of Spezi, who was the longtime crime reporter who wrote about the case from the beginning.  There's also plenty of history and cultural information, not only about Florence but also about the island of Sardinia.  And it's got a beautiful, beautiful cover.  I fully expected this to be a fascinating book based on the cover alone. 

So what's the problem?

Preston is, of course, better known as the author of fiction thrillers, particularly those he co-wrote with Lincoln Child, starting with Relic and Reliquary.  Perhaps I should try those instead.  Maybe I'm just harboring a secret antipathy toward a novelist-turned-nonfiction-writer? (I don't think so; I am aware that Preston has written other nonfiction.) One thing I'm not enjoying is the three- to five-page chapters in this book, which I'm sure were set up to increase the "thriller" feel, but are just making it feel choppier; I'll have to double-check some true crime titles, but I don't think they're particularly known for such short chapters.

In short?  It's a book that fails.  If you want to read a book about Italy (Venice, in particular), read John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels.  If you want to read some true crime about a long-running investigation, read Ann Rule's Green River, Running Red.  Life's too short to read page-turners that aren't all that page-turney.

Watching, listening, reading, and a bit of Brit trivia.

Do you think you go through different phases in your adult life where your brain needs something different than the usual?  Periods when your usual learning style needs a little break, and you feel like doing something entirely different?

Get SmartI do.  And I think I'm having such a little break right now.  Don't get me wrong: I'm still reading.  It's not even like I don't feel like reading, which I do sometimes after a run of particularly not interesting books.  It's just that I feel like doing something a little different.  I've also been referring to it as the Great Movie-Watching Renaissance of 2008, because I've been more in the mood for movies than I have been for years.

Okay, I know it's a stretch to refer to watching movies (and BBC series on DVD) as "learning."  But I think there's value to be had in watching movies.  (At least that was the story I tried to sell Mom, way back in the day when I was a Communication Arts major, taking classes like "Introduction to Television" and "Introduction to Film.")  Just last weekend I re-watched Bull Durham, and had to appreciate the fantastic writing; the re-watching of Say Anything was a good lesson in character development.  We also saw Get Smart in the theater, and I have to admit, I loved it.  There I learned that Alan Arkin is the finest actor of his generation, and had some good laughs to boot (I also learned that Mr. Citizen Reader has a little crush on Anne Hathaway.  VERY educational.). 

I've also been listening to more books on CD lately; currently I've got Alison Weir's Queen Isabella going, and although it's too detailed, that's okay.  I listen at a leisurely pace, missing some details while I'm busy thinking about others.

All of which is a very circuitous way of saying Ive not been doing much recreational reading.  By the time I've finished watching and listening, I find I am full up for the day, and just don't want to put any more in my head.  Has this happened to you too?

James McAvoyIn apologies for the non-post, I would like to offer (what I consider to be) a fun piece of Brit actor trivia.  Because I am a BBC DVD addict, I spend a lot of time at the Internet Movie Database looking up Brit actors and trying to find out what else they're in.  (I'm learning how to research.  Really!)  While I'm there, I'll admit that I often click on their biographies to see how old they are, where they were born and live, and to whom they're married.  And this is what I've discovered: Brit men, bless 'em, seem to like older women. 

Damian Lewis (from the Forsyte Saga), 37, married to Helen McCrory, 40.  Jack Davenport (of Pirates of the Caribbean and Coupling), 35, married to Michelle Gomez, 37.  James Murray (Under the Greenwood Tree), 33, married to Sarah Parish, 40.  James McAvoy (Wanted and Atonement), 29, married to Anne-Marie Duff, 37.  All I can say is, right on, British men (or, more appropriately, right on, British women!).  And there's your piece of useless trivia for the day.

The Tony Hawks Trifecta.

I have now read all three of Brit Tony Hawks's "travel bet" books: Round Ireland with a Fridge, Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, and One Hit Wonderland (in addition to his not so much bet-based but still very enjoyable A Piano in the Pyrenees).  And I can say, with some confidence:

I love Tony Hawks.

One Hit WonderlandOne Hit Wonderland, the only title I had yet to read (which took me a while to get to, as I had to order it from outside my library system through the magic of interlibrary loan) details Tony's bet that he can't write a hit song within two years.  (The genesis of the bet relies on his earlier success topping the charts, with a spoof song called "Stutter Rap," in 1988, which was evidently a chart-topper in Great Britain.)  So off he goes, to Nashville, Sudan (yes, Sudan), Holland, and Albania, to try and write and record a hit song.

I won't tell you whether he wins the bet.  But I will say that a ton of enjoyable weirdness ensues from his journeys (including his time in Sudan, which he spent at least partially in the company of Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting: "'Is there a bar anywhere in the town?' asked Irvine, his accent sounding all the more pronounced and incongruous in this environment, although to my ears the nature of the request did seem to lend itself to his Socttish brogue.*")

But, hands down, my favorite part of the book was the song Tony wrote to try and break into the Christian country music market in Nashville:

Oh I've got the Lord in my armpit, And I've got holy water on the knee, He's there between my toes and he gets right up my nose, I guess it's just his way of loving me.

Yes, I've got the Lord in my armpit, He's a headache that really doesn't hurt, I can feel his ripples in my pious pointy nipples, And if you're lucky you can see them through my shirt.

He's there in the clenching of my buttocks, And you can have him where you like if you don't sin, The Lord could be your nanny in every nook and cranny, So open up your bowels and let him in.

Hawks did not have a hit in Nashville, as you could probably guess.  I mean, really.  "Pious pointy nipples"?  I'm going to be laughing for the rest of the day.

*Speaking of Scottish brogue, did anyone catch James McAcoy on The Daily Show?  I've never seen any of his movies but I may start.  When I die I hope I go to a heaven that consists of nothing but listening to Scottish people talk. 

When it's just not meant to be.

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the WorldI wanted to like Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World.  A friend told me it was good.  It's got a good cover.  I waited for it on the library's hold list for a long time. 

I wanted to like it.  I tried to like it.  But after reading about sixty pages I can only work up one reaction: BORED.  God, I am so bored with this book.  Self-professed grumpy NPR correspondent decides to travel to places which he considers contented: "India, where happiness and misery live side-by-side," and "Switzerland, where residents believe envy is the great enemy of happiness."

Bored, bored, bored.  Bored by the first line of the first chapter: "It is a fact of human nature that we derive pleasure from watching others engage in pleasurable acts.  This explains the popularity of two enterprises: pornography and cafes." (p. 5.)  Bored by the author.  Bored by his idea.  So bored that I'm not only starting to hate the sight of the book, which has been getting such good reviews that I almost feel required to read it, but also toying with the idea of hating NPR just because this author works there. 

Could anyone else make it through this one?

Still in love with Lloyd Dobler.

Has everyone out there seen the 1989 Cameron Crowe movie Say Anything, starring John Cusack?  I remembered it this weekend when my brother alerted me to Cusack's appearance on Countdown with Keith Olbermann (about his new movie, War, Inc.).


A quick aside: I can now add videos to the blog!  Super cool.

Anyway, the interview's interesting, although I worry about John's voice.  Is he still smoking, I wonder?  It sounds like he may be--which is fine, I like smokers--but I am a bit concerned about his health.  But I digress.  A couple of weeks ago at the library somebody asked for the movie Say Anything, which put me in the mood to watch it again (which I did, in video form, using a video I bought in, and have packed through every move since, high school).

Say Anything and Lloyd Dobler do lead, tangentially at least, back to reading.  Consider Chuck Klosterman's book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, and his first chapter about how Lloyd Dobler ruined girls of his generation for real boys ("It appears that countless women born between the years of 1965 and 1978 are in love with John Cusack.  I cannot fathom how he isn't the number-one box-office star in America, because every straight girl I know would sell her soul to share a milkshake with that motherfucker"); Hank Stuever also wrote about the Lloyd Dobler Phenomenon for The Washington Post.

So here's to you, Lloyd.  And you too, John.  Even though Chuck Klosterman doesn't think I know the difference, I DO know you're not actually Lloyd (and vice versa), but anyone who can form a sentence like "if the Democrats say impeachment's off the table I think that's very troubling" on a news interview program is worth my continuing devotion.

Title of the Year Award.

Men Are Not Cost-Effective: Male Crime in AmericaAnd I'm giving it to: Men Are Not Cost-Effective, by June Stephenson.

Now that's an eye-grabbing title, admit it.  Sometimes when I'm searching for other titles in my library catalog, I scan the other titles that come up in the alphabetical list, which is how I found this title.  So I just had to order it.

I know.  I have the nerdiest bad habits EVER.  I also spend a lot of time on the Internet, watching videos I shouldn't...of Jane Austen adaptations.  That's right.  It's porn for girls, and I'm addicted.

But, I digress.  Now, from Men Are Not Cost-Effective.  Check this out:

"Of the first-timers in state prisons, 73 percent of the males are charged with committing violent crimes, compared with 7 percent of the females.  Of those who had prior violent crime convictions, 98 percent of the males are returned to jail for committing another violent crime after being released, compared with 2 percent of the females." (p. 8.)

"The best case for making the point that men are not cost-effective is found in the group of almost entirely male criminals who are now costing US taxpayers an anticipated half trillion dollars.  These men are involved in the worst financial scandal* in the history of the United States.  Men fraudulently and premeditatively, or at the very least greedily, siphoned off savings and loan depositors' money to their own advantage, knowing that the government, or more precisely the American taxpayers, would make good on their crimes." (p. 126.)

"A consistent element in most rape is the lack of concern for the victim. As a consequence, the most difficult task in rape counseling treatment centers is to get rapists to develop a sense of empathy.  This is almost impossible for men who are devoid of emotions other than anger or frustration." (p. 209.)

June, God love her, goes on to suggest adding a "user's fee" of $100 on men's tax returns (since men are using the criminal justice system almost exclusively).  She also points out, succinctly, that "if guns made us safer, the US would be the safest country in the world."

The pub date on the book is 1995, so I would take all those statistics with a grain of salt.  But I like June's spirit.  How's 'bout it, boys?  Anyone up for putting $100 in the kitty voluntarily?  Mr. Citizen Reader probably wouldn't be in to it, but I could just start taking the money out of his wallet if it's all for the greater good.

*In our current era of government and financial scandal, doesn't the Savings and Loan scandal seem almost quaint?

The memoir train has left the station.

After reading two superlative memoirs, The Late Bloomer's Revolution and Lost in Detroit, I felt recharged about the genre and plunged right back in, only to find Quiet, Please (see earlier post for my lukewarm reaction to that one) and Bar Flower: My Decadently Destructive Days and Nights as a Tokyo Nightclub Hostess.

I now know two things: 1. I have to back away from memoirs again for a while.  And 2. I never want to go to Japan.

Bar Flower: My Decadently Destructive Days and Nights as a Tokyo Nightclub HostessI know that's culturally insensitive.  But I can't help it.  And it's a totally weird feeling, because whenever I read about different cities or countries, I usually feel a strong desire to GO there.  This has never happened with Japan.  When I read things about Japan, like A. A. Gill's chapter on it in his book A. A. Gill is Away, or Lea Jacobson's Bar Flower, or this blog article about Japanese sex shops (ALERT: that link leads to a fairly graphic and completely weird blog post about specialized sex products in Japan), it makes me want to run screaming in the opposite direction.

Bar Flower is not a bad book, and it shed light on a new (to me) profession.  Jacobson went to Japan to teach English, and eventually went to work as a bar hostess in an upscale area in Tokyo.  Evidently a lot of bars in Tokyo offer women for Japanese men to buy drinks for and talk to; they're not prostitutes, they simply provide companionship (including paid "dates," which bar hostesses are expected to line up with paying customers for their off-work hours).  They also differ from geishas, in that they do not wear traditional garb or play that role. 

The bar scenes weren't actually the most disturbing to me.  Early on Jacobson lived with a host family, and she describes some of the unwritten rules for women in the house:

"Because and only because thou possesseth a vagina, thou must: Sit up straight with legs closed at all times; help mother to prepare dinner; serve dinner to the penis-possessing members first; assist in cleaning and dishwashing; not bare thy shoulders even in August, and pretend not to notice when the penis-possessing members stride about in their underwear; and whenever possible, thou shalt not acknowledge thine own presence." (p. 25.)

Now, none of that sounds overtly horrible.  But combine it with a larger memoir where women make money by smiling at, never disagreeing with, and wiping condensation off men's glasses in a way meant to be suggestive, and you've got a memoir I couldn't finish. 

Citizen Watcher: Eye strain.

Lately I've been doing a lot of reading in the name of freelance book indexing.  It's a job I love, although it does not come attached to benefits, specifically health insurance, which is (I would guess) what really keeps most Americans attending their horrible day jobs. 

But, lack of access to affordable health care notwithstanding, indexing is a great job.  I did a lot of it yesterday while wearing my bathrobe.  I'm not saying that just to perpetuate a freelance stereotype; my bathrobe's in better shape than a lot of my regular clothes, so I wear it a lot around the house.  Of course, indexing also primarily involves reading, and we all know how I feel about that.  But the last few days I've had a lot of it to do, meaning I've been reading about major league baseball in the 1950s (specifically how the economics of broadcast revenue affected the finances of the American and National Leagues), the snowboarder Shaun White, and union advocate Cesar Chavez.*

That was a rather weird mix, I'll admit, and it rather tuckered me out for recreational reading.  So I don't have much to report today; in the midst of eye strain I did watch a bit of television the night before last, when PBS played an American Experience episode about Eleanor Roosevelt.  I watched the first half but once Franklin cheated on her with Lucy Mercer, I couldn't watch any more.  Does anybody else wish they could slap the shit out of FDR on Eleanor's behalf?  I do.  Either way, I'm thinking I might get a biography of Eleanor to read.  Suggestions?

*In three different books, mercifully. 

Barack Obama in Bozeman, Mont. on Monday.THIS JUST IN: When I have eye strain, I also browse the Internet quite a bit.  Many thanks to Tripp over at Books Are My Only Friends for his excellent post about Fareed Zakaria's book The Post-American World, which I also haven't had time to read, and the link to a picture of Barack Obama carrying a book (picture provided at right).  I dislike all politicians as a matter of habit but I'll give the man this: he carries a book like a reader, holding his page.  Beautiful. 

Library memoirs smackdown.

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public LibrarianWelcome to Round One of the championship match between two library worker memoirs: Scott Douglas's Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian, and Dan Borchert's Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library.

Okay, let's start.  Douglas's book features a lot of talk about what it means to work in a library and be a public servant.  Borchert's book features shorter chapters telling more amusing tales about the aforementioned oddballs, geeks, and gangstas who frequent the library.

That's one point to Borchert.

Douglas's book also features several boring chapters on his escapades in library school, which failed to capture my interest at all.  Borchert pretty much skips all that in favor of more action-oriented, if scarier, chapters about actually working in the library.

That's two for Borchert.

Douglas starts his chapters which a device this reader used to enjoy but now just finds annoying because it's been overused: "Being the part where our hero discovers library school is pretty much the most absurd thing librarians ever invented* and his faculty advisor is kind of a dick."  Borchert doesn't.

Are you starting to see my point?

I don't know why I didn't enjoy Quiet, Please much, much more than I did.  It wasn't that I thought Free For All was such a great book; I was actually very excited to get Quiet, Please because I thought it might be better.  But it wasn't.  Not for me, anyway.  And I know this because I was able to finish Free For All, and it didn't give me the feeling that I really disliked the author.  Every now and then Douglas gets it right ("the loudest elderly women always had the quietest elderly husbands") but all in all?  Very disappointing.  The book had its origins in McSweeney's Dispatches from a Public Librarian, which I actually like more than I liked his book.  Consider reading those first.

And, one last thing: does anyone else find it strange that in a profession dominated by women, the two memoirs available are by men?  I don't usually have paranoid feminist leanings but this makes me wonder.

*Well, I can't really disagree with this point.

Here's the thing about fiction.

I was so proud of myself over the weekend: I read a whole novel!

LMailiterally, I clapped for myself when I was done with it.  I enjoyed it and all, but it's just so rare that I actually make it all the way through fiction (my usual m.o. is to read about five chapters, get bored, read the last chapter, call it close enough for guv'mint work) that I always get a little thrill of pride when I read the WHOLE thing.

The novel in question was titled Mail, by Mameve Medwed.  So this morning I was thinking about what to write about it, and I started trying to construct a summary of the story, when I just got bored in the middle of it.  And there's one of the rubs, for me, about reviewing fiction: I hate recapping stories.  Nonfiction involves stories, of course, but for some reason they seem easier to relate.  Take John Colapinto's As Nature Made Him: circumcision goes terribly wrong, couple raises one of their twin boys as a girl, boy/girl grows up feeling something is terribly wrong.

Now that summary writes itself, and therefore takes all the really hard work out of the process.  But for a novel?  Okay, let's try it.  Katinka O'Toole, a thirty-something freelance writer, falls in love with her mailman, the appealingly blue-collar Louie Capetti, while also trying to get along with her ex-husband, the professor Seamus O'Toole, her widow mother (who moves in with one of Katinka's upstairs neighbors halfway through the book).  Along the way she meets lawyer Jake Barnes, who is emphatically not her physical ideal but somehow gets under her skin anyway.  Relationship semi-hilarity ensues.

See?  That's just a lot of work.  And I still haven't given you much of a review.  It's okay.  I liked the story and the characters were okay, but I can't say I fell in love with any of them.  I'll probably read some more novels by this author, and I like the author's name.  But that's about all I've got.  This fiction reviewing is going to take some getting used to, evidently.

Memoir Madness: The Late Bloomer's Revolution

It has been an awesome week for memoirs here at CitizenReader Central.

I only brought The Late Bloomer's Revolution: A Memoir home because I loved the title*.  I am more than familiar with the idea of blooming late.  I was about eight through all of high school, turned ten in college, and I'm still rather waiting to become an adult.  I am always at least a decade behind my peers, and I've made my peace with that.  That means I'll live longer, right?  (Yeah, still waiting to bloom into some math skills, too.)

But the book.  By Amy Cohen.  There's nothing earth-shattering here; it is, in fact, another memoir by a single New York City woman in her thirties, out there looking for love.  Because she also works as a dating correspondent for the cable show New York Central, she's also looking for love in all the wrong places, especially considering she hates bars (she is REALLY a girl after my own heart).  Throughout the course of her narrative she moves from her early thirties to her late thirties, experiences a horrible and long-term rash on her face (which sounds trivial, but as anyone who has ever waited for a rash to clear up anywhere, much less on your face, much less when you're trying to look your best and "meet people," will tell you is no small deal), works through various relationships, and has some truly hilarious conversations with her parents and family.

The Late Bloomer's RevolutionI'm making it sound so small.  But it is a beautiful, big-hearted, story, and very well-written, which I always appreciate in a memoir.  It took me a couple of chapters to truly get into it, but when I did, I wished I could invite Cohen over for a drink and some snacks; I not only liked her book, I liked her.  Loved, really.  How can you not love a woman who admits: "Now, I was quickly approaching the age where, when I did decide to have children, I might need the kind of fertility drugs that could cause you to bear so many children at once that it seemed appropriate to give birth in a cardboard box under the bed and then lick them clean" (p. 157)?

And I loved the ending.  I'm not going to give it away but it made me very, very, happy, primarily because Cohen sounds like she was happy when she wrote it.  You'll just have to read it to find out.

*After I got it home I saw the blurb on the back by Melissa Bank, which got me all excited.  Bank's one of my favorite novelists of all time (and also very beautiful and funny in person). 

I just don't know sometimes.

I've been home a lot this week, which, ironically, has found me thinking about people a lot.

It all started yesterday, when I paged through a book titled American Photobooth, by Nakki Goranin.  It's a very strange and completely lovely book which is half a history of the technology and uses of the photobooth, and half a photography book offering pictures of people who had their pictures taken in photobooths.  Okay, you got me, I skipped most of the history.  But I loved, LOVED, looking at the pictures.  Young kids having fun.  Couples kissing.  Single men looking very serious. Old couples looking like they still enjoy each other's company.  And out of nowhere, while flipping through the pictures, I thought, I like people.  In their infinite variety, and in the fact that there is someone out there who cared enough to research and write about something like the photobooth, they really have a lot to offer.

Then later my brother sent me the link to a CNN news article about two little girls getting shot on their bikes in the middle of nowhere.  (I've already given away the ending, but here's a warning: only read the article if you can stand having your heart broken.)  And I thought, I really don't like people. 

I just don't know sometimes.

Memoir Madness: Made in Detroit

For a long time, I wasn't up to reading memoirs.  They're almost like fiction for me in that there's so many of them available, I'm bound not to like the majority of them.  But when I find a good one?  Ooh, baby.

Okay, many people would argue memoirs are like fiction in a good many other ways, but I've never had the energy to join that particular fight.  You only have to try and recall any conversation you had yesterday to be able to put two and two together and figure that memoirs (many of which include events which took place years, not days, ago) are largely creations.  Doesn't mean they're not true.  They are one person's true viewpoint.  And I can happily deal with that. 

Made in DetroitThat's a topic for a different day.  What we have in captivity today is that rarest of wild animals: the memoir I loved and couldn't stop reading.  Paul Clemens's Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir should be required reading in any college class with the word "diversity" in the title.  Clemens grew up in Detroit and makes it a point throughout the book to stress that he and his family lived in Detroit proper, not the suburbs.  In other words, Clemens lived the life described in the book's blurb: "white in a predominately black city, Catholic in an area where churches were closing at a rapid rate, and blue-collar in a steadily declining Rust Belt." 

It's awesome.  I didn't really know much about Detroit before starting this book, although I'd started to get an inkling about the city from reading Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism.  (I'd also seen pictures showing numerous abandoned buildings in the city's downtown on another website, which was informative.)  But in addition to all that, this is also a fantastic story of growing up boy, growing up Catholic, growing up in a largely segregated city, growing up in what sounds like a beautifully no-nonense family, growing up in college, growing up through marriage and family, and living one's life fully while also trying to give it some thought.  There's only one small chapter where it drags a bit, but the whole makes up for it so beautifully I'm not going to split hairs. 

I also love that Clemens doesn't pull any punches.  He tells you how the city was for him then, and how he thinks about it now.  He doesn't waste any time, even in his very first chapter, dropping you right into the middle of the action (his mother wakes him up to follow and retrieve his father, who himself was rudely awakened by someone shooting out the windows in their truck; he chased after them in one car, and Paul chased after his father in another car) and finishing up with a perfectly detailed and surreal thought about "a city where, when your car was stolen and a black Detroit cop happened, several hours later, to arrive on the scene, the quizzical look you were given said, 'What are you doing here?'--as if, at seventeen, I were a doddering British farmer, stubbornly tending land in a country I insisted on calling Rhodesia."  (p. 7.)

Not to be too demanding, but I want all of you to read it immediately and then come back so we can talk about it; it's got a lot of things to say about race and society that I'd desperately love to talk over with someone. 

Any librarians out there? Librarians who want to see a cool database?

Largely to allay my sister's fears that I've become a communist (she wondered; CITIZEN reader, big red banner, etc.) I'd like to put in a good word for a database that has one purpose: to help readers find books they might like, and to offer you your chance to see it!

This Friday, along with Laura Calderone (managing editor of electronic products at Libraries Unlimited), I'll be giving a web-based demo on the Reader's Advisor Online, a database which allows you to find books and reading based on subject, genre, and appeal, and which includes both fiction and nonfiction.  Handy!  Information for attending is below; please consider dropping in* to give it a look.  The demo usually takes about 30-40 minutes, with questions, and we often veer off track and talk about all sorts of reading-type stuff.  It's a good time.

Reader's Advisor Online demo, Friday June 13

There will be a web-based demonstration Friday, June 13, 2008 at 1PM EDT / 10 AM PDT (Noon central time). Attendees will view the training via the web and will call a conference number to enable full participation in the training. Spaces are limited — please register ASAP! You may reserve a seat by emailing [email protected]. Confirmation of registration and access instructions will be sent by email.

*I am lucky enough to do some writing for this database and for Libraries Unlimited.  See?  I'm totally a capitalist.

CitizenWatcher: Movies from Books

This weekend, Mr. Citizen and I had the chance to watch a couple of movies.  And when I say "had the chance," what I mean is, "had other work to do but felt like ignoring it, and also needed a way to drown out the sound of the incessant monsoon-like rain and keep ourselves from running to the basement multiple times an hour to see if any water was getting in."

The movies in question were The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Quiet American, both of which I snagged from the library as someone else returned them, because I'd always vaguely wanted to see them.  Mr. Ripley was a thriller about a poor man stealing other's identities, trying to wiggle his way into the high life, and having to kill people as things increasingly start to go wrong.  The Quiet American is set in 1952 Vietnam, where an older British reporter meets a young American relief worker who is not all he seems, and a love triangle involving them and a young Vietnamese woman takes center stage.

Reviews in a nutshell?  Don't waste your time on Ripley; run right out and get The Quiet American.  Ripley is long and somewhat pointless and the ending annoyed the crap out of me, while The Quiet American was completely engrossing and also passed the patented CitizenReader 90-Minute Test ("if you can't tell your story in 90 minutes, I'm not obligated to watch it"). 

What's really interesting was that before watching the movies, I'd always wanted to read The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, and was completely bored even by the thought of reading Graham Greene (author of The Quiet American).  Now I'm thinking about checking out the Greene, but have no desire to ever pick up the Highsmith, unless I do it just to see if they completely ruined it when adapting it from book to screenplay.

Yup, another productive weekend for CitizenReader and spouse.

Whatever I do end up reading, it won't be this.

Writing like this just doesn't do anything for me:

"The American dream might be a nightmare.  What passes for bliss could well be a dystopia of flaccid grins.  Our passion for felicity hints at an ominous hatred for all that grows and thrives and then dies--for all those curious thrushes moving among autumn's brownish indolence, for those blue dahlias seemingly hollowed with sorrow, for all those gloomy souls who long for clouds above high windows." (p. 9.)

Against Happiness: In Praise of MelancholyNow there's nothing I really disagree with there, and it's from a book titled Against Happiness (by Eric Wilson), which is an interesting title.  But could you actually finish reading the paragraph above?  (I only could because I was typing it, although I nodded off a bit at "brownish indolence.")  I couldn't, and the whole book seems to be like that.

Thanks, but no thanks.  I'm hoping for bigger things from Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World.

Have a good cantankerous weekend, everyone.

Citizen Reading: First in a series.

It should come as no surprise to you that I really, really enjoy reading. 

I enjoy reading so much that it has rather ruined me for any other activities.  The only event that has a real chance of turning my head from a book is mealtime.  I think about reading and the act of reading so frequently that it's like an actual real friend of mine, and sometimes you like to try and figure your friends out, don'tcha?

With that in mind, welcome to some thoughts about the act itself, called Citizen Reading.  And yes, more than anything else, these segments will count as filler, because I don't have a book review ready.  You found me out!

Last night I finished a fabulous book, titled Made in Detroit: A Memoir, by Paul Clemens (incidentally, where has this book been all my life?).  When I was done, I set it down in my lap as is my habit, and thought about it a little bit.  Primarily I do this just to hold the books I love a little bit longer.  I also do it because I always experience Great Book Withdrawal when I'm done reading a really good book. 

Does anyone else experience this?  It was awkward last night because I finished at about 9 p.m., meaning I probably had time to start reading something else.  But I wasn't in the mood for anything else because I was still thinking about Made in Detroit.  And yes, that was time I should have used to wash the dishes.  But you can't go from reading great literature to washing the dishes.  So I looked through the other reading material we had around, listlessly, but then decided I just didn't feel like starting anything else. 

Wanted: one hobby that I could pursue in the half-hour periods of Great Book Withdrawal that occur roughly once every two weeks.  Do not suggest knitting.  I do not like yarn.

Tony Hawks does it again.

No, not the skateboarder.  That's Tony Hawk.

Tony HAWKS is an awesome travel writer who, even when he's slightly off his game, never fails to make me giggle like a little girl.  His travel books Round Ireland with a Fridge and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis are not only two of my favorite travel books of all time, but also high on the list of most favored nonfiction titles in general.

A Piano in the Pyrenees: The Ups and Downs of an Englishman in the French MountainsSo I was very, very excited to browse Amazon and find that he's recently published a new book: A Piano in the Pyrenees: The Ups and Downs of an Englishman in the French Mountains.  I immediately got it from the library and started it that afternoon (although, yes, a number of my other books are coming due first and a responsible person would have read those first).

Screw responsibility.  This is Tony Hawks!

So, although I am not sure where he gets what must be a generous cash flow, I was amused to find Tony wanting to buy a house in France, and move his piano there himself.  That goes about as well as you'd expect, complete with his purchasing his own rundown moving van and enlisting the help of friends to move the piano.  When he finally buys his house and moves into it, there's no shortage of interesting stories about meeting the neighbors, learning the culture, and bringing in a handyman friend from Great Britain to help him build his own pool.

Bottom line?  It's good.  It's not as good as Round Ireland or the Moldovans*, but I still laughed out loud at parts of it.  Although I don't think he'd turn down love and romance, I'm also pleased that Hawks remains a single man in his forties who always has a keen appreciation for companionship but seems more than happy making it through life with his friends and his interests.  For some reason I'm completely enamored with bachelors (although Hawks points out that the French word for his status, "celibataire," is not cool), probably because I'm completely jealous of their lifestyle.  Particularly those bachelors who can afford to buy a house in the Pyrenees.

*Yes, I'm juvenile, but the part where he gets caught peeing outside his house (he just enjoys peeing outside, okay?  Evidently it's a guy thing--as he says, "periodically I felt the need for an occasional wee in my own garden") when some new friends come driving up just made me laugh and laugh and laugh.

I ask you: who just walks into the projects?

Well, evidently, Sudhir Venkatesh does.

His latest book, Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, is so fascinating that I'll forgive him for having a foreword by Stephen Dubner, co-author of the book Freakonomics (I was not a fan of that title, largely due to their half-ass research).  Reading it is like being dumped in a whole other world, with no escape and no recourse (an experience which is echoed by the experiences of the residents of the Chicago inner-city housing projects that Venkatesh explored).

The first night he walks into the Robert Taylor Homes (with sociological surveys that included the question: "How does it feel to be black and poor?") he meets J.T., a leader in the Black Kings gang, who becomes largely responsible for letting Venkatesh trail around with him, and, years after they first meet, actually function as "gang leader for a day."  By that point in the narrative I'd actually grown a little tired of the author's voice--let's just say I don't think he's an unconfident man--but up until then the story is fascinating.  Venkatesh not only got to know gang members, he got to know their families and the other residents, which is the part I enjoyed the most.  Reading about how power runs through certain people, always in exchange for money, actually made me feel like urban Chicago was pretty much the same as anywhere else.  Except, of course, for the fact that no one who lives in the projects would call the police or an ambulance, simply because they would never come.

Venkatesh is also the author of the more scholarly but still really, really interesting books Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor and American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto.

It's a fascinating book.  Not quite as heartbreaking as Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family (set in the Bronx), but a very valuable read nonetheless.

What a great (reading) weekend.

I had a great weekend.  I had one of those great weekends where everything I read seemed to connect to everything else, and I learned new things about places where I've never been, which always feels (to me), physically, like never-before fired synpapses in my brain are activated for the first time.

I LOVE that. 

Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of GlobalismSo how did it all connect?  A week ago I finished Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day (more on that later), which is a fantastic book about how Venkatesh, while in grad school at Chicago, literally walked into the projects to ask the residents questions about living in urban poverty.  That book was a glimpse into a whole other world, and was in the back of my mind this weekend when I read Caught In the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, by Richard Longworth.

Caught in the Middle is a fascinating book,* if sad, about the changing economics and population patterns of the Midwest, from Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, to the northern halves of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio (including a fair bit about cities like Chicago and Detroit).  Everyone who lives in the Midwest should read it, immediately.  I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on the collective character of Midwesterners:

"In other words, Midwesterners are tolerant, narrow-minded, cultured, crass, sophisticated, and naive in pretty much the same measure as other Americans.  What makes them unique, though, is their isolation, especially from each other.  Rural villages, immigrant towns, factory cities, all battle the problems of globalization in isolation from each other, unaware that other people in neighboring states are fighting the same battle.  By nature, Midwesterners can be aloof and uncooperative.  That nature is hurting them now." (p. 23.)

I followed that up by starting Made In Detroit, a memoir by Paul Clemens, a white man who grew up in Detroit (the city proper, not the suburbs).  Further bulletins ahead on that book, but it also nicely dovetailed with the other things I was reading (and is fantastic in its own right).

Unfortunately, now it's Monday.  Time to stop reading for a moment and try to make some money in the global economy coming to the Midwest.

*In it, I also learned that Dayton, Ohio, has more patents per capita than any other American city.  "The cash register was invented here and so were microfiche and the bar code...People in Dayton invented the parking meter, the movie projector, the parachute, the gas mask, and the pop-top can.  The stepladder was born in Dayton."  (p. 28.)  See?  Interesting.