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July 2008

Nope. Not for me. (Part 2.)

Welcome back to this second part in a series about my unenjoyment of Lee Child's thriller Killing Floor!

So yesterday we learned about one of my reading "deal-breakers," namely, military and ex-military characters. Today's subject is even more unreasonable (are you surprised?):

Thrillers piss me off.

Thrillers, by their very nature, are manipulative. Particularly when they're done well. They are often written with chapters that are two to five pages long, with lots of short action words, lots of action, period, and often some punchy dialogue. Their chapters often end with tiny cliffhangers. They usually set forth some sort of puzzle that the reader's supposed to want to solve, or else they offer suspenseful foreboding, making you wonder what's going to happen to the characters next. They are called page-turners because they are designed to make you want to turn the pages faster. And you know what? I resent that.

This is the point where Mr. CR would say I am over-thinking my reading (or, in all honesty, my mother would tell me I over-think everything). But I do not like being manipulated. If I wanted to be manipulated I would go to a full-time job with a boss schooled in management techniques who would try to motivate me using the "levity effect" or "total quality management" or some other bullshit scheme. I do not need to be manipulated in my downtime. When I finished Killing Floor, which I had to do, and quickly, because I'd been manipulated into needing the ending, I felt angry, just like I'd felt when I finished Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns. Yes, I'd cried over it, and was pissed that I'd cried, because I felt that the author had manipulated me into it.

And here's where I have to ask the question I invariably have to ask after I've totally started babbling about a book and my reaction to it: Does any of this make sense?

Okay. We're done here. I'd leave you with a cliffhanger but I don't want you to feel manipulated into reading this blog tomorrow. I will share my favorite part of reading this book, however. It was a book I checked out from the library, and at one point in the narrative, there was this sentence: "'Pluribus?' she said. 'Isn't that something to do with politics? Like on the podium when the president gives a speech?'"

In the library copy that I had, someone had crossed out "podium" with pencil and written in "lecturn." That made me very happy. (And it didn't really manipulate me into feeling happy, either.) I couldn't decide what was cuter: that someone felt strongly enough to write in "lectern," or that they'd spelled it "lecturn." What's your vote?

Nope. Not for me. (Part 1.)

Every now and then, reading outside of one's favorite genres or comfort zone can be a very good idea. I say this for at least two reasons: 1. it is always good to see what other people like to read, in a "can't we all get along" sort of way; and 2. It makes you that much gladder to get back to your preferred type of reading.

Killing Floor (Jack Reacher)Rarely had I felt so glad to get back to nonfiction than after forcing myself through Lee Child's thriller Killing Floor, the first in his popular Jack Reacher series. Actually, "forcing through" is the wrong phrase. I did read the whole thing, and I raced through it, which is what you're supposed to do with thrillers. More on that later.

One reason it was not for me? Reacher is ex-military. I am to the point where I can't read anything with remotely military characters. Even ex-military characters. It makes me too sad to think of all these servicepeople out there, moving from base to base and raising children feeling no ties to and no particular fondness for anyplace. Not to mention growing up and continuing the lifestyle themselves. It is close-minded of me, and probably wrong, and there you have it. Not to mention, how in the hell could someone as "lone wolf" as this character is made out to be have managed to stay in the military so long?

I'm still forming my thoughts on this one, so I'll end it there for today. I just thought the ex-military thing was an interesting stumbling block, and a good reminder that even when a book is written serviceably well (the writing here is roughly one thousand times better than that of James Patterson), you just never know what's going to be a deal-breaker in a particular book, for any particular reader. Doesn't make it a bad book. Maybe just not right for readers with close-minded hang-ups about the military. And really, how could anyone predict that?*

More tomorrow. I know, you're all just on the edges of your seats, aren't you?

*I throw this out there because a lot of times librarians, bookstore staff, and anyone who suggests books to readers takes it personally when someone doesn't love a book the way we think they should. It's not personal. It's proof that reading is a mystery, and people are a mystery. And a little mystery is necessary in life, let's face it.

If she cleans houses like she writes...

...I bet there's some beautifully clean houses around.

A Broom of One's Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning, and Life (P.S.)I LOVED Nancy Peacock's A Broom of One's Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning, & Life. It's just what it sounds like: essays by Peacock, who has also published two novels, about her double life spent cleaning houses for cash and writing fiction for her soul. I loved the way she described her pain-in-the-ass cleaning clients:

"The Ages house was a problem right off the bat. For one thing, Dr. Ages, recently retired and therefore home, was a prick. There is no other way to say it. He was a mean-spirited, tight power-tripper who used his money as a relationship tool. He also liked to take a poop and then leave it there for me." (p. 55.)

Literally, on so many levels, you could not make that shit up.

I also love the way she describes her writing;

"All of us have a certain amount of work we have to do to keep our lives afloat, and whatever work I choose to do, my writing life is there. Even with a room of my own, writing is not a separate enterprise. It is not a jewel I keep in a velvet box and take out only when conditions are perfect. Writing is more like the yellow rubber gloves I pull on every day. I need my gloves to keep my hands from getting too dry. And I need my writing to keep my life and my mind moist and supple." (p. 136.)

It's awesome. If you know a writer, or are a writer (ditto with housecleaning), get them this book. Immediately. Siupport this woman. We need more housecleaning authors, fewer James Pattersons and Jodi Picoults.

Why don't I love her?

This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided NationI don't know why, but I've never been a huge Barbara Ehrenreich fan. This is awkward, since I agree with her on most (not all) issues of political policy. I always check her books out when they come out. A lot of times I even chuckle at a lot of her writing. But for some reason, I never get her book and say, "At last! My new Ehrenreich is in!" At most, I give a little shrug of "hm, I should probably read this, I guess," and then leave it until right before it's due to read it.

Her latest, This Land is Their Land, has not done much to endear her to me. Again, there's nothing I disagree with here. It's basically a book of essays about the growing gap between the rich and the poor and the increasing classism in our society. Parts of it are very amusing; she's always had a nice ability to turn a phrase. Consider:

"Twenty years ago it was risky to point out the growing inequality in America. I did it in a New York Times essay and was quickly denounced, in the Washington Times, as a 'Marxist.' If only. I've never been able to get through more than a couple of pages of Das Kapital, even in English." (p. 23.)

Now, that's amusing. I also enjoyed her chapter outlining a connection between modern calorie-counting and high carb diets and modern fat-deprived executives therefore never feeling sated by food or money. With that she contrasts her own diet when growing up:

"We ate eggs every morning, meat for lunch, and meat again for dinner, invariably accompanied by gravy or at least pan drippings. We buttered everything from broccoli to brownies and would have buttered butter itself if it were not for the problems of traction presented by the butter-butter interface." (p. 30.)

She's also very, very sharp. This is a powerful statement: "According to Wal-Mart defenders, those low prices hinge not only on improvements in productivity but on the low wages and benefits offered to Wal-Mart's workers. In other words, you've got to squeeze one part of the working class--the 1.3 million Wal-Mart employees--to fill the shopping carts of the others." (p. 137.)

So there's nothing wrong with the writing.* But part of the problem, at least with this book, is my uneasy feeling that she's just as big a slave to the market economy as the rest of us: this collection feels hastily stapled together, in my opinion. The essays are just kind of jammed in here, from minimum wages to illegal immigrants to Wal-Mart to health care. I think part of the problem may be that publishers and readers are expecting everyone, even nonfiction authors, to crank out one or two books a year, a la James Patterson (although he exceeds expectations by farming his writing out and offering three to four craptacular money-making wastes of paper and ink annually, the greedy fucker).

So yeah, it was all right. But I just don't need a book a year from Ehrenreich.**

*For the record, Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus is a very similar, and much better, book about polarized American society.

**My favorite Ehrenreich Anecdote is when my mother shocked the hell out of me by telling me, out of nowhere, that "that Nickel and Dimed book was pretty good." This from the woman who, when I once quoted something from Harper's Magazine, asked me if I was reading "THAT Communist rag!" now. Hmm.

Midsummer gift-giving idea.

Do you know someone who thought the Iraq War was a good idea? Then I would heartily recommend buying them a copy of Rob Simpson's very interesting and somewhat depressing new book What We Could Have Done with the Money: 50 Ways to Spend the Trillion Dollars We've Spent on Iraq.

What We Could Have Done With the Money: 50 Ways to Spend the Trillion Dollars We've Spent on IraqSure, you may not want to send it to friends, if you want to keep them as friends. But maybe there's someone you dislike already who might enjoy it? I'm going to send a copy to John McCain! (And, frankly, Barack Obama could take a look at it too.)

My favorite thing about this book, other than the fifty alternatives that range from the serious to the silly ("rebuild New Orleans" vs. "Let's all go to the movies!") and all of which seem like better ideas than war? This paragraph, in the very begininng:

"A portion of the royalties from this book are being donated to Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that assists severely injured servicemen and -women and their families by building homes or adapting existing homes for handicapped accessibility."

That's what it should say in the front of Scott McClellan's What Happened, but it doesn't. Buy this book instead.

Ah, somebody gets it right.

Sometimes I am annoyed by the "behind the scenes" and "undercover" work books issued by some writers such as Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel & Dimed) and Alex Frankel (Punching In). Mostly I am annoyed because these authors work jobs for a couple months or a year and then think they're ready to comment on their experiences. To an extent, they are. Even if these immersion journalists put in just a couple of months on their chosen subject, it does tend to open their eyes to some of the nuance of what they're studying.

But when it comes to profession memoirs and books about jobs, I'd just as soon have something written by a real practitioner. This is why Debra Ginsberg's Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress, was one of the most satisfying books I'd ever read. She worked as a waitress when she was young, she worked as a waitress through school and young adulthood, she worked as a waitress as she had a child and neared middle age. She offered a viewpoint I could trust.

Norm Feuti has done the same thing with his oddly titled Pretending You Care: The Retail Employee Handbook (when I first picked it up at the library, I almost returned it immediately, thinking it was an actual business book for providing better retail service). Feuti is perhaps better known for drawing the comic Retail, but has also spent nearly two decades working in retail and retail management. I had a feeling his viewpoint would be one I could trust, and I was right. Here's what he has to say about different co-worker types in retail service, particularly the "slacker" type:

"Many people are under the misconception that slackers are lazy, when actually the opposite is true. Slackers are extremely fast and competent workers who simply don't want to be punished for their efficiency by having to do more work than is expected of others. If running ten boxes of stock takes the average employee two hours to omplete, then the slakcer thinks he should get two hours to do the job as well. When the job only takes the slacker thirty minutes, he just figures he should get so spend the other hour and a half any way he pleases.

Employees who slack a lot but don't get their work done are not true slackers. Don't confuse slackers with animosity generators. Slackers avoide extra work, not work in general. They are good at what they do, and have social graces. They don't make things harder on others. Slackers are good to associate with because they have a lot of free time. If you're swamped with your own work, a slacker friend is usually available to do you a solid and help out." (pp. 75-76.)

Now, that is a fine distinction, well made. Few people are smart enough to notice that many slackers are not so much lazy as they are interested in equity. Earlier in the chapter he also describes "animosity generators," who ARE the half-ass co-workers who cock everything up and just get customers all mad before they get to you (Feuti notes that this type are "predominantly responsible for the negative stereotype that all retail workers suffer from").

Throughout there's also strips from Feuti's comic "Retail," and he offers chapters on finding a job, coworkers, customers, sales techniques, and managements. I highly recommend it for anyone who's ever worked in retail--as well as for those who haven't. It's a valuable (and fun, although sometimes sad) introduction.

A little too McSweeney's.

The other day Mr. CR and I took turns reading the short pieces in The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes. I don't mean anything sickening like we read aloud to each other or anything. (Outside of novels, does anyone actually ever do that?) I mean Mr. CR would read a chapter, and chuck the book aside, where I'd come across it, read a chapter, and chuck it aside. Lather, rinse, repeat. We've been doing this for several weeks now, as the book slowly makes its way around the different rooms of our house, and we still haven't gotten the whole thing read.

In fact, with the exception of a piece titled "Re: Hardy Boys Manuscript Submission"* by Jay Dyckman, which made me laugh out loud, most of the chapters have been largely forgettable. It is just what it says it is: a collection of short humor pieces and essays featuring decidedly highbrow humor and literature references (James Joyce figures liberally in these pages).

But the Hardy boys chapter was very enjoyable, and I like to give credit where credit is due. This is how it starts:

"Dear Sir:

Thank you for your submission of a Hardy Boys mystery. As explained in our submission guidelines, to appeal to today's readers, the Hardy Boys series seeks to bring a contemporary feel to its newest offerings. While we here at Simon & Schuster fully appreciate your efforts to modernize the characters and their adventures as per our instructions, we have some concerns with your draft. First and foremost, we are unpersuaded that the subject matter of The Case of the Secret Meth Lab is appropriate for our readers." (p. 23.)

That's pretty good stuff. Mr. CR's a tough crowd but that even got a smile.  I also enjoyed the chapter titled "Phrases on the Marquee at the Local Strip Club to Cater to a More Literate Crowd," by Jonathan Shipley. Included in the phrases: "Ahab, Check out Our Great White Tail," "Strippy Longstocking," and my personal favorite, "Our Girls Even Drive Oscar Wilde." (p. 69.)

After we'd both read a bit out of it, I opined to Mr. CR, "it's good, but some of it's a little 'too McSweeney's' for me." (By that I meant the book was just like going to the McSweeney's web site; I get about 20% of the pieces, and of that share, I find 5% hilariously funny. But the other 80%? Eh.) He agreed, the dear,but then pointed out that saying anything as completely nerdy as "it's a little too McSweeney's" marked me as a total geek.

What can I say? When he's right, he's right.

*Okay, "John Updike, Television Writer," by Jared Young, was pretty good too. "Newhart: Dick Loudon, growing increasingly depressed about his middling career as a writer of do-it-yourself books, purchases a Connecticut guesthouse and moves there with his emotionally distant former mistress, Joanna..."

The Laundress strikes again.

I have a good friend who goes by the name of "The Laundress." The Laundress is a very skilled and interesting person, and she also possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of graphic novels, manga, and anime. This is very useful to me, as I know very little about all those things (and I'm not going to learn: really very little interest, and not enough time). But when the Laundress tells me to read a graphic novel, I listen. She has never steered me wrong.

IncognegroSo when she suggested Mat Johnson's Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery, I listened. And I'm so glad I did. This one is fiction, but the author's inspiration came from the story of Walter White, a former head of the NAACP, who was so light-skinned that he could "pass" for white and often attended lynchings in the deep south to investigate them and tell the story.

I mean, lynchings. I do not understand how anyone thought lynchings were a good idea.*

So this is a graphic novel set in the early twentieth century, following the adventures of "Zane Pinchback," the "incognegro" who attended lynchings and wrote about them for newspapers. The story's not important but the idea is. This is one of the few books I've read this summer that I'd say you absolutely, positively, have to read. Don't worry--the Laundress won't steer you wrong either. (A word to the wise; parts of the graphic novel are truly graphic, language and violence wise. That's what happens when you tell a story about a violent and ugly history.)

*Whenever I think about race relations in America, I always picture this picture: people yelling at Elizabeth Eckford because she wanted to attend school. Look at her wearing her crisp blouse and 1950s glasses. How could anyone yell at such a girl?

New York on my mind.

Sloan I'm having a really visual summer. Of course, I've always been able to see (which I appreciate), but I've never been what you would call a "visual" person. Sometimes I literally have to stand outside public restrooms and give the little graphic people pictures on the doors some thought. Most often because I'm usually wearing pants and not a skirt. I couldn't tell you what colors go with what other colors if my life depended on it (which has made for some interesting outfits in the past). When dealing with maps or directions of any kind, I need words, or I am screwed.

But this summer? I'm watching every single movie I can get my hands on. I'm taking walks and noticing gardens and flowers where I hadn't before. And I'm very interested in art. Right now I'm working my way through a DVD series about artists called The Great Artists (presented by art historian Tim Marlow, who has a British accent, which doesn't hurt). It's a great series because every program is about 24 minutes long, which is perfect to watch while I eat lunch or supper. The program about Van Gogh? Nothing short of spectacular.

Sloan2 Which explains why I was so pleased to get the book John Sloan's New York at the library the other day. This is one of those books that I must just have seen on the "New Nonfiction" list and requested, because I'd forgotten all about it, and I had no idea what it would be about when I brought it home. So imagine my pleasant surprise when I found it full of Sloan's beautiful oil paintings of New York City, circa 1871-1951 (his life span). Isn't that picture in the left corner gorgeous? (It's "The City from Greenwich Village," 1922, with lower Manhattan and Wall Street glowing pink in the distance.) Mmm, I love the rich dark colors and I love the subject. I like the laundry picture too; look at the light! What an artist. What a city. I'll always be a words girl, thinking one word is worth a thousand pictures, but I'm starting to come around.

Forget about teaching: those who can't, read.

I'm not overly fond of working jobs. It's weird, then, that a lot of the memoirs I really enjoy are "working life" memoirs: Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, Debra Ginsberg's Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress, Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, etc. Yet another interesting entry in this pantheon is Melissa Plaut's Hack: How I Stopped Worrying about What To Do with My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab (it's newly out in paperback, but I prefer the hardcover cover).

I really enjoyed this one. Truly casting about for something to "do" with her life, Plaut decides to get her taxi license.  There's nothing fancy here; it's just a "year in the life" of a New York City cab driver, complete with pictures of other drivers giving her the finger, as well as some nice shots of the city itself.

So, yes, my whole life is about avoiding work. But that doesn't mean I don't like to hear about other peoples' jobs, mainly because they wow me. I mean, really. Can you imagine driving a cab in New York City? I can barely get downtown in my Midwestern "city" without whimpering. (Okay, there's really very little I can do without whimpering, but still.) Color me impressed:

"That first day, it took me two hours to get my first fare. She was a middle-aged Spanish waitress just coming off work from a diner on 14th Street and Avenue B in the East Village.

I was so nervous, mainly about going the wrong way, but she soothed me. 'How long have you been doing this?'

I didn't want her to know how green I really was, so I lied. 'About a month.'

'Do you like it?'

'Um, yeah. It's okay so far.'

She said, 'I've actually been thinking about getting into it. Was it hard to get your license?'

I explained the process and encouraged her to try it, said we needed more women drivers on the streets to balance things out a little bit. I tried to act like I knew what I was talking about.

At the end of the trip, she said, 'Here, I'm giving you everything I made in tips tonight,' and handed me a total of $14 for a $10 fare.* I couldn't thank her enough." (p. 40.)

If there's a heaven, I hope it's filled with waitresses and cab drivers. Have a good weekend, all.

If your bosses try and pull this shit, walk out on them.

I have found a book that you must hope your bosses never find. It's titled The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up, by Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher. It's a terrible, evil, painfully optimistic book, and in chapter 7, the authors list "142 Ways to Have Fun at Work." What follows are the highlights:

2. Offer to shave your head if your team reaches a goal. If you're already bald, offer to paint your dome.

13. Have a theme day and have employees decorate their cubicles and compete for prizes.

19. To get a meeting started with a bang, have employees come up with two truths about themselves one one lie. Everyone else must guess which one is the lie.

21. Cari Gray, HR director of Panera Bread, says, "My recruiter and I do a 'hiring dance' every time we get an accepted job offer for a management fill.  Whoever is around at the time gets to see it."

50. Instead of all day, have a casual day that starts at noon on Wednesday. Have people bring their casual clothes to change into over the lunch hour.

58. Without changing your voice, page yourself over the intercom.

89. Have a shoes optional day.

Holy Christ. If your bosses try any of those, kill them. I'm sorry, but that's the way it has to be. No jury of your working peers will convict you.

Human Smoke: Let's talk about it.

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of CivilizationHas anyone else heard about this book Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker? I'd been on hold for it forever at the library, and it finally came in. I hadn't heard much about it, just that it was going to be controversial. And so it has been:

Anne Applebaum called it a "profoundly bad book about World War II."

William Grimes, for The New York Times, called it a "self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book."

And, holy cow, in this roundtable discussion at Ed Rants, they say lots of things about the book, most of which I don't understand, but all of which prove they a) read this book much more carefully than I did, b) know Nicholson Baker better than I do, particularly as a novelist, and are just c) way, way smarter than I am.

So, WHAT is it? Well, that I can nutshell for you. It is a history book about World War II, told entirely in disparate anecdotes, culled from newspapers, diaries, and other sources of the time, and which ends on December 31, 1941. I don't think there is any big secret that Baker means to skew it in the direction of stating "maybe World War II wasn't the best idea" (in his brief afterword, after all, he dedicates the book to American and British pacifists: "they tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right."),

And HOW is it? Well, I'd be lying if I said I think Baker's on the wrong track with his pacifist bent. I also must say that I found the first forty pages of the book very, very interesting. But I will not be able to read the whole thing, and this was a surprise, because I've never thought of myself as a particularly story-driven reader. But to read 475 pages of something that has absolutely no narrative and few comprehensively drawn characters? That's tough.

That said, this would be a book I might actually buy, because Baker cites all his sources, and it does give you a lot of food for thought. When I read something like this:

"Franklin Roosevelt, now a lawyer in New York City, noticed that Jews made up one-third of the freshman class at Harvard. He talked the problem over with Henry Morgenthau, Sr., and he went to the Harvard Board of Overseers, of which he was a member. 'It was decided,' Roosevelt later explained, 'that over a period of years the number of Jews should be reduced one or two per cent a year until it was down to 15%.' It was about 1922." (p. 9.)

I don't immediately believe FDR was a huge anti-semite. But it makes me want to learn a little bit more about him. The whole book, in fact, made me want to learn a little bit more about World War II, which is more than I can say for any of those crap-pandering Greatest Generation books or Stephen Ambrose's cottage industry tomes. Can that really be so wrong?

No, Baker is not a historian, which Applebaum points out so aggressively that it makes you wonder if she thinks her own career is secure (it should be; she won the Pulitzer Prize for Gulag: A History). Nor is he an expert. I think the New York Sun review had it right: "No one who knows about World War II will take 'Human Smoke' at all seriously." And maybe that's why I think it's got merit, and it's unique, and it deserves at least a look. Perhaps people who don't know very much about World War II need to start getting educated--so we have a leg to stand on when we converse with people who know (or think they know) everything about World War II. I think that has value.

Forgot to add: There's an interesting post about this book over at Books Are My Only Friends. Also, the blurbs on the back of it are very interesting as well, from Daniel Ellsberg (author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers), historian Simon Winchester, Gar Alperovitz, and Chalmers Johnson. Johnson is the author of the superlative titles Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire; I will look at anything he puts his name on.

We're screwed.

Okay, I get it. Times are hard. We're screwed financially. The country is heading toward bad things in the way of war debt and foreign debt. We've also bankrupted ourselves morally by waging war and encouraging torture. I know it. Sometimes I can read books on these subjects, and sometimes I cannot. This is shaping up to be a week when I've looked at the following titles and have decided that if I read them, I won't get anything done except curling up in a fetal ball and weeping, so I have decided not to read them for the time being:

(Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class, by Nan Mooney.

The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, Steven Greenhouse.

Standard Operating ProcedureStandard Operating Procedure, by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris (about Abu Ghraib).

The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, by Joseph Stiglitz.

and Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries), by Jared Bernstein.

I want to read them at some point; my passion for Gourevitch in particular hovers on the maniacal (not quite on a level with my love for William Langewiesche but close) and I've been waiting for the Three Trillion Dollar War book forever. But just for today I can't do it.

So what did I do this morning? Read a little Agatha Christie. Ahh, escapism.

Two scoops of awesome.

First off this morning, a big shout out to Vincent Bugliosi, whose book The Prosecution of George W. Bush is climbing the bestseller lists even as it has been completely ignored by mainstream media* (cowards). Way to go, Vincent; I can't wait to get your book. (Bugliosi is most well-known as the author of the bestselling true crime classic Helter Skelter, and was also the prosecuting attorney in the Charles Manson case.)

I also read one of the best nonfiction statements about writing and life that I've ever read this weekend. I went to a used book sale, and on a whim picked up a slim book titled The Writer on Her Work, primarily because the first two names I saw on it were Anne Tyler and Joan Didion. I love both Tyler and Didion, and the essay from Tyler, titled "Still Just Writing." Here's an excerpt from the last page:

"I feel I am only holding myself together by being extremely firm and decisive about what I will do and what I will not do. I will write my books and raise the children. Anything else just fritters me away. I know this makes me seem narrow, but in fact, I am narrow. I like routine and rituals and I hate leaving home; I have a sense of digging my heels in. I refuse to drive on freeways. I dread our annual vaction. Yet I'm continually prepared for travel: it is physically impossible for me to buy any necessity without buying a travel-sized version as well. I have a little toilet kit, with soap and a nightgown, forever packed and ready to go. How do you explain that?

As the outside world grows less dependable, I keep buttressing my inside world, where people go on meaning well and surprising other people with little touches of grace..."

I am in love with Anne Tyler.

*Thanks to Cindy Orr at the Reader's Advisor Online for the link.

Updates and a question.

A long time ago (May 14, to be exact), I had the exceedingly pleasant opportunity of speaking with a roomful of Ohio librarians and library professionals about nonfiction. I know. Eight hours to talk about nonfiction. It was like a dream come true. Mr. CR can only bear to talk with me about nonfiction for five minutes tops, so you better believe I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Those librarians were nice enough to look at some nonfiction books with me and list some attributes they thought the books offered to readers, and I had always promised to update the web page we used as an outline to share their comments. That page is now updated, and also includes a list of questions about reading from the book The Solitary Vice, which I thought were a great way to start thinking about reading (but which we ran out of time on the 14th before we could discuss them).  The page is at:

And the new info is at the bottom. Everyone in Ohio, if you're still visiting here, thanks again for such a lovely and informative day.

In other news, if anyone else out there is a library-type person or runs book groups, the other day I asked a question over at the Reader's Advisor Online blog, and didn't hear any answers. Does anyone here have any thoughts on ready-made book group questions, and why they're so important? I myself chafe at being told what to ask of readers, so I wondered how everyone felt about that.

That's all she wrote. Have a great weekend, everyone. I wish I could report I'll be woman enough not to watch Pride and Prejudice on PBS this Sunday night when they show it for the nth time, but I won't be.

A very nice little history.

The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755Obviously, there is nothing nice about a natural disaster that wipes out a whole city. When I use the word "nice," referring to Nicholas Shrady's book The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, what I mean is, Shrady does a great job of relating a lot of history in 209 pages.

Perhaps I just appreciate it more because I'm STILL, what feels like five years later, trying to get through Alison Weir's biography Queen Isabella on CD. Why are her books so long? I know I should stop checking her stuff out, but she does write biographies on a lot of major characters in British history (and mainly women to boot) so I feel like I have to. But 528 pages? Come on.

I don't know how he did it, but Shrady manages to tell the entire story of the 1755 earthquake, tsunami, and fire (what a trifecta) that completely leveled the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon. He also manages to relate a pretty good history of Portugal, its exploration and exploitation of its colonies (particularly Brazil), how the Catholic Inquisition* played out in the region, the life story of the man who masterminded the rebuilding of the city, and how philosophers and religious figures of the day responded to the disaster. In 200 pages.  That's pretty impressive. And talk about descriptive:

"In the choir, the priests had just begun their sonorous chant of the introit Gaudeamus omnes in Domino, diem festum...when the whole church began to pitch and sway like a ship tossed in a tempest. The great bronze bells in the twin towers rang in violent fits, their chimes muddled and flat below the deafening roar of seizing earth. Candles toppled and snuffed, stained glass shattered, saints were knocked from their pedestals, and priests and parishioners alike panicked. Dozens were crushed by falling timber and a rain of marble...Those who did make it outside found the square enveloped in a cloud of dust and as dark as a moonless night. Whole blocks of houses had been reduced to rubble; chasms had swallowed lanes; and landslides had smothered alleys..." (p. 14.)

Geez. And I'm nervous when severe thunderstorms roll through. All in all, fascinating stuff. I'm toying with the idea of getting his other books, Tilt: A Skewed History of the Tower of Pisa, or Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail.

*Actually, what sticks with me most about this book is not the natural disaster, but the question of, who thought the Inquisition was a good plan? Yikes. Time to read a history of that too.

An open letter to Random House.

Dear Random House:

God, do you suck.

The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular FictionCan you tell me why you chose to have some author bother writing a book called The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction? I mean, it's a good idea and all. I was very excited to read it, because I am nerdy and like to read books about reading. Before I settled in to read the whole thing, I wanted to check what the author said about James Patterson, because I hate James Patterson (mainly because he's, as one of the characters in the movie "Office Space" referred to Michael Bolton, a "no-talent ass clown."). I know that also makes me nerdy. Still.

So imagine my consternation when I flipped to the index to research Patterson and found THAT THERE WAS NO INDEX.

I ask you, what the hell is the point of a book like this if you're not going to offer an index?  You think a whole ton of pleasure readers are out there dying to pick up a book titled The Triumph of the Thriller? Somehow I doubt it. Students, researchers, librarians, nerds like me, that should have been your bread and butter.

And do you know what nerds like me say to books that need indexes and publishers who don't provide them? Fuck you, you cheap bastards. After all, just because I'm a nerd doesn't mean I don't believe in profanity.


Citizen Reader

Truth AND beauty.

Last week I read what was, hands down, the best paragraph I've ever read about memoirs (as a genre).  I wish I had enough brains to memorize it, so that I could rattle it off when people denigrate memoirs for not being "the truth."  This is the paragraph:

"Once we hold memoirists to the standards of journalism and privilege agreed-upon truths to emotional interpretation, the whole genre falls apart--it loses its reason for being.  I'm not at all speaking for best-selling memoirists who pass off wholly invented episodes as experience.  That's an entirely different matter.  But let's save our righteous indignation for the conscious manipulators of facts in our times. (Do you hear that, Oprah?)  And we know exactly who they are."

How AWESOME is that?  Okay, I'll admit, the fact that this paragraph stopped me in my tracks is nerdy.  I give entirely too much thought to memoirs and engage in too much anger about uninformed readers who are shocked that they don't always contain "bible truth."  (I have always maintained that any semi-rational person who has tried to remember, verbatim, conversations they had yesterday, would clearly realize that some things in memoirs have to be made up, but that's not really what makes them "true" or not.)

The paragraph was by a writer named Paul Lisicky, who has written his own novels and memoirs (Lawnboy and Beautiful Builder--the latter of which I tried and was unable to finish) and is in a book of essays called Truth in Nonfiction, edited by David Lazar.  Most of the essays are a bit too intellectual for me, but the Lisicky essay and the Vivian Gornick one that follows it ("Truth in Personal Narrative") are well worth checking the book out for. 

"Save our righteous indignation for the conscious manipulators of facts in our time..."  Awesome.  Just awesome.

How far I got this weekend, and why.

After this weekend of reading, I'm going to have to start describing myself as flighty.  Fickle. Short-attention-spanned.

I would go on but I've lost my train of thought.

I started all kind of books this weekend.  I didn't finish them.  What follows is my very own walk of shame, or a recounting of how far I got in the books I read, and why I wasn't woman enough to finish them.

Title: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach. Pages read: 117. Discussion: The title says it all, really. No one can fault Mary Roach for dull titles (Stiff and Spook). And it was interesting. And well-written. And amusingly foot-noted. But by page 117, I'll admit it, I simply could not read about vaginas anymore.  I was wearying of penises too but up to page 117 Roach's narrative is decidedly vagina-heavy.

Title: When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris. Pages read: 109. Discussion: This was a tough one to give up, because I am starting to like Sedaris more and more as time goes on. I was completely bored by his earlier books Me Talk Pretty One Day and Naked, but somewhere in the middle of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim he started to win me over a little bit. And I enjoyed the parts of this book that I read, including his essays on his boyfriend (boyfriend? significant other? lover? I'm not sure what word to use, as Sedaris simply refers to "Hugh" and seems to assume that everyone knows all about their couplehood by now) Hugh's traveling style, a horrifying but somehow still hilarious experience he and his siblings had with a babysitter, he and Hugh's first apartment and their neighbor, and many other completely unrelated topics.  My favorite story was when he described how his sister Amy takes him shopping:

"'Buy it.' This is my sister Amy's advice in regard to everything, from a taxidermied horse head to a camouflage thong. 'Just get it,' she says. "You'll feel better.'

Eye something closely or pick it up for further inspection, and she'll move in to justify the cost. 'It's not really that expensive, and, besides, won't you be getting a tax refund? Go on. Treat yourself.'

The object in question may be completely wrong for me, but still she'll push, effectively clouding my better instincts. She's not intentionally evil, my sister, she just loves to see that moment, the split second when doubt is replaced by complete conviction..." (p. 56.)

That little story ends with Amy talking him into a sweater from the women's department, which is truly hilarious.  And the above is very, very, very well-written. I know just that moment that Amy Sedaris likes, the doubt-replaced-by-conviction moment, and Sedaris describes it with a miracle of economy.  Really good stuff.  So why did I stop reading?  I don't know.  Even when I really like him, I find 100 pages of Sedaris is about all I need to get by. I'm checking these books out from the library, after all, not buying them, so I can afford to read around wantonly.

Title: Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea, by Chelsea Handler. Pages read: 149. Discussion: I really enjoyed the essays that I did read in Handler's collection. Better known as the host of E! network's Chelsea Lately and the author of a former memoir titled My Horizontal Life, about her collection of one-night stands, you can bet there's very little Handler won't say, which I enjoyed.  How she even managed to make getting hauled to jail on a DUI is beyond me (her sister had reported her for license fraud, as Chelsea had been using her older sister's ID before she turned 21, which is why she got thrown in jail). While there, I'll hand it to her, she does try to adjust:

"'What the fuck you thinking?' asked the woman in front of me waiting for the phone as she ran over and retrieved my sandwich from the trash. 'You can trade that for something.' Then she handed it back to me.

'What can I trade it for?'

'Candy, soda, pills, whatever,' she said. Finally, someone was speaking my language.

'What kind of pills?' I asked." (p. 57.)

Trust me when I tell you this woman is WILD.  Funny, but wild. And I can only read so much of that sort of thing before I start to get too nervous by proxy. Reading Chelsea Handler is like hanging out with a friend I had in college who was so seemingly unconcerned about her own personal safety that at one point she told me how she'd spent the previous night rambling around the north side of Milwaukee, at 2 a.m., in a formal gown, looking for the bus station to get back to Madison. She was exhilirating to know but exhausting to worry about.  Ditto with Chelsea Handler.

And there you have it. A weekend with very little closure, at least in the way of books. Here's hoping all the books you read this week are so good you'll have to finish them!