Previous month:
July 2008
Next month:
September 2008

August 2008

One person.

The secret at the core of Doreen Woods's life is that she is not Doreen Woods. She was someone else, a long time ago, when she was responsible for the war protest and the making of a bomb that took someone's life in 1971.

Shewas That's really the story of Janis Hallowell's novel She Was, which has a beautiful cover and is a transporting novel. (Literally. I finished it just the other day and when I was done I felt like I had to unsubmerge and poke my head back up into my life from out of the literary slipstream.) It's really well done, complete with Doreen's relationship with her brother Adam, who helped her go (and successfully stay) underground for nearly thirty-five years. Adam himself is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and at least part of the narrative here is his flashbacks to Vietnam, as well as her flashbacks to her protesting days.

What struck me most was not the story, or the writing, or the characterization, all of which are very well done. What struck me was the nature of Doreen's secret; that she was directly responsible for the death of ONE person, and how much that affected every day of her life immediately thereafter. It made me think, and then it made me sad. 319 beautifully written and horribly sad pages about the death of one person. How many more people will die needlessly across the world today, and how many novels could be written about them?

Hm. I'm not sending you into the weekend (and my favorite holiday weekend of all--Labor Day--finally a celebration I can get behind) on the happiest of notes. Doesn't mean I don't hope you all have a happy and a healthy.

Good old Thomas Frank.

God, am I sick of political books.

I am also sick of politics, but that's a whole other story. (Nothing encourages turning off the TV like national political conventions, particularly when you don't have cable.) So why do I keep picking these political books up? Well, because there's so many of them right now. And I don't have all that many areas of expertise other than nonfiction books, so I try to keep that knowledge up when I can. And, because, I rather enjoy Thomas Frank. So I had to at least look at The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule.

Crew It's pretty standard stuff, with Frank looking at the rise of the conservative faction of the Republican Party over the last fifty years or so, paying special attention to their genius at a) indulging in huge amounts of government spending while b) pretending to their voters that government is the problem and they want to make it smaller. As always, Frank is a skilled writer, and not reliably partisan; he has just as many harsh words for corrupt Democrats as Republicans. Particularly interesting is his opening chapter on how Washington D.C. itself has changed, from a town of low-level bureaucrats who were pleased with their nearby not-overlarge brick homes (which didn't even have garages), to a town of corporate high-rises, surrounded at length by gated wealthy suburbs with huge McMansions. Interesting point, that.

What's frustrating is that progressives or populists or liberals or whatever you want to call them are the only ones who will read books like this, and then, what's the point? I myself can't read the whole thing because, although I am not all that smart, I can get the point of what he's saying in the first 50 pages, and I agree. Although I couldn't help looking at the last chapter, and I was not disappointed. It's lengthy, but stick with me, there's a payoff at the end:

"At least we know where to begin: understanding conservatism's cynicism for what it is, and for what it has done to our world...We can now say of that philosophy which regards good government as a laughable impossibility, which elevates bullies and gangsters and CEOs above other humans, which tells us to get wise and stop expecting anything good from Washington--we can now say with finality that it has had its chance. Whenever there was a choice to be made between markets and free people--between money and the common good--the conservatives chose money. It's time to make them answer for it."

I think that sums it up pretty succinctly. However, if you're looking for a great Thomas Frank to read, skip this one and his popular What's the Matter with Kansas, and head right for One Market Under God. There's much more there about the economic and political ramifications of our growing income gap, with less in the way of partisan argument. It's an unbelievable book.

The power of place.

Most nonfiction books can be easily categorized into one or two genres. Lost on Planet China? Travel book. The Great Derangement? Political book. Tuesdays with Morrie? Crap book.

See what I mean? Easy.

But every now and then a nonfiction book comes along that could easily be categorized into three or more interest categories or genres or subjects or whatever you want to call them. And invariably these turn out to be thoughtful, well-writen, very interesting nonfiction books. Kelly McMasters's Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town. Let's break it down:

Memoir. Well, that's an easy one. McMasters put that in the title. It's true. This is a personal story, told by McMasters, and based on her youth spent in the Long Shore community of Shirley, including how its prevalence of young families provided her with lots of great friends of the same age, how it felt like home, and how many of she and her contemporaries went away for college or work but a lot of them came drifting back in, seeking the sense of community they'd felt there as kids. As memoir, it's extremely well done.

Shirley Relationships, Community Life. This is a nonfiction category that doesn't really exist anywhere except in my fevered imagination. And, maybe because it feels so personal, it's a category I'm very fond of. A lot of Relationships books do happen to be memoirs and biographies, because those are the nonfiction books that deal primarily with people as characters, but sometimes "memoir" just doesn't give the whole flavor. A book like Michael Perry's Population: 485, about his return to his small hometown in Wisconsin? That's Community Life to me. Same here. McMasters's love and appreciation for the community she and her parents found in Shirley, among their neighbors and friends, appears on nearly every page. As a Community Life book, it's extremely well done.

Environmental Writing. Unofortunately, Shirley also happens to be a town sitting smack dab on tons of chemical and nuclear waste, emitted for years by the Brookhaven National Laboratory just up the road. This is a town with unbelievably high cancer rates, and McMasters spends part of her research time on this book taking tours of the facility and asking questions of its scientists. Perhaps my favorite line from the book, about the fact that Brookhaven, as a federal facility, mixed its sloppy work with hubris: a federal investigator actually asked the parent of a child who had cancer, "'Didn't you ever think that you'd have to live with additional risks because of the good this lab has done for the community?'" (p. 221.) As Environmental Writing, it's extremely well done.

It's a phenomenal book. Sad as hell of course, but also weirdly uplifiting (and not in that horrible "just have a better attitude and everything will get better" way). This book is roughly 100 times the book that Randy Pausch's horrible The Last Lecture was. Of course, it won't sell nearly as many copies.

Also? The cover is perfect. Idyllic at the bottom, ominous on top, the town caught in the middle. Kudos to Pete Garceau on jacket design.

I hope this one does.

The above is my not-so-witty reply to the title of today's book: Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

But of course, that is not true. If I'm going to waste time wishing that people go to hell, which just seems mean anyway, I'm going to start with bigger fish than this author Thomas Kohnstamm. Plus, there's any number of reasons why I should go to hell, so I guess I'm going to retreat into my own glass house now and hope no one out there's got any stones.

Travelwriters But anyway. The book is Do Travel Writers Go to Hell: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism. It's by a Lonely Planet writer who's out to debunk the idea that travel writers visit all the destinations, hotels, and restaurants out there before they write about them, primarily because it would be very nearly impossible to do so, from a deadline and financial standpoint (he also points out that travel writers really aren't supposed to accept free meals or other perks from people they're evaluating, which is also nearly impossible). Is this so shocking? I rather assumed travel writers who wrote guidebooks were mainly popping in to a few places, doing internet searches on others, and making the rest up, but maybe that's just me. So I didn't find this book all that shocking from an ethical viewpoint. Who uses a guidebook except for the maps and a few general ideas of what to see anyway? Especially the Lonely Planet guides. They're nice to get a basic idea, but I can't imagine that the travelers who use LP don't know how to use the Internet to do their own hotel booking, etc. You know what I'm saying? I just don't think it's an older people crowd, like the Frommer's and Fodor's sets.

Actually, I wouldn't have minded a few more stories about the travel writing itself, or about Brazil, which is where Kohnstamm traveled for his first assignment. Instead, the book opens with Kohnstamm quitting his job in New York and then going on a bender with his friend "the Doctor." It's a little narrative that goes on for about twenty pages, but it feels a lot longer than that:

"I wish I could relate the exploits of the evening during and after the party, but the details are foggy. I know that we were at the party for many hours and I managed to avoid the Doctor and his girlfriend for most of it. I don't think that the cocaine lasted through the soiree loaded with stimulant-hungry Ivy League nostrils...I rarely black out, but I lost a few hours there. Eventually, somebody introduced Red Bull, which pulled me back out of the miasma. Now we have wound up in line at some pseudochic lounge/club in western SoHo, cleverly named after its numerical address.

Everybody has abandoned us. Were other people with us before? I am staring at the tips of my shoes trying to steady myself while finishing off the Red Bull. The Doctor, still with a vomit stain on his Hawaiian shirt, is talking to a guy he kind of know from LA who is working the door..." (pp. 42-43.)

And that's what the entire book is like, except in different countries. Every now and then there's a page about the writing life and/or Brazil, but certainly not enough to make this one interesting. If you want to read about frat boy sex and alcohol exploits, do yourself a favor and just get Tucker Max's I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, which is much more honestly a book in which nothing happens except Max's zany (said ironically) sexual exploits in every chapter. If you want to read a real travel book, don't start with this one.

What I learned over the weekend.

I learned that it's really, really stupid to read some dark apocalyptic quasi-horror fiction right before bedtime.

I know. I'm a real genius.

Road2 I finally got around to reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and geez, if you're looking for scary imagery, depression, and cannibalism, do I have the book for you. As when discussing True Crime, "enjoy" is not really the word that can be applied to reading a book like this. But I did read the whole thing, and then spent a couple of nights working it out in my subconscious with nightmares. Yikes:

"He wrapped their coats each in turn around the trunk of a small tree and twisted out the water. He had the boy take off his clothes and he wrapped him in one of the blankets and while he stood shivering he wrung the water out of his clothes and passed them back. The ground where they'd slept was dry and they sat there with the blankets draped over them and ate apples and drank water. Then they set out upon the road again, slumped and cowled and shivering in their rags like mendicant friars sent forth to find their keep." (p. 106.)

No, I'm not going to share any of the disturbing cannibal bits with you. I will not be held responsible for your nightmares. The story is simple: the end of the world is come, everything's destroyed and smoking, and a man and his son are out wandering the road, trying to make it to the coast, scavenging what they can to eat, and avoiding the few other humans still alive. And, if you want to know what the end of the world looks like, they're filming the movie: outside Pittsburgh.

In another interesting twist, Mr. CR spent the weekend reading The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, a nonfiction account of what the world would look like, well, without us. Hm. I'm reading fiction and he's reading nonfiction? Up is down! Black is white! Maybe this is a sign of the end times. If it is, I can promise you I'm going to lay right down wherever I am and die. No walking to the coast with a grocery cart, avoiding other deranged and starving remnants of the human race, for this girl.


Well, I feel a bit like I've really accomplished something this week, when all I've really done is listened to all eighteen CDs of Alison Weir's biography Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England. I've been working on it for a month. If I'm this tired after listening to it, I can only imagine how tired Weir must have been after writing it!

Isabella I've been reading enough English history that I'm starting to feel the real story in British history has been the women. Seems like most of the men Kings kept themselves pretty busy with mistresses (male and female), tournaments, and fighting battles on and off, while Queens, like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella, were negotiating peace treaties, pulling political strings, and oh yeah, having all the babies. Just think about it; the sheer mass of ruling time, particularly during the past few centuries, for one thing, has been all girl: Elizabeth II and Victoria (not to mention, a bit further back, Elizabeth 1). Pretty wild stuff.

The book itself? Pretty good, but more suited for listening to than reading. Weir's always a bit detailed for me (but then,I always was a lazy student, so that makes sense) but it's perfect to listen to while washing the dishes. She started a chapter, I got the gist, I daydreamed for a while and washed a couple of plates, and when I came back to reality chances were pretty good that she was still on the same story so I didn't feel like I'd missed much. All in all I'd recommend it simply because it did give me the impression that Isabella was one formidable woman (you don't just overthrow your husband, the King, and set your son up in his place if you're the retiring sort, nor do you earn the nickname the "She-Wolf of France").

And, as a special (and coincidental) bonus fun fact: Isabella died 650 years ago today, on August 22, 1358. Weird, huh?

Why is THIS America vanishing?

I LOVED the picture book Vanishing America: The End of Main Street Diners, Drive-Ins, Donut Shops and Other Everyday Monuments, photographed by Michael Eastman.

For one thing, it's beautiful. It's not happy, but it is beautiful.

Vanishing It consists entirely of photographs of theaters, churches, hangouts, doors, signs, stores, services, automobiles, hotels, and restaurants, many of which are defunct but some which are still operating. The pictures alone make this book a great one to cuddle with on the couch and to flip through at your leisure. Although it's got less text, it reminded me a lot of James Twitchell's superlative book Where Men Hide, which showcased pictures of men's hangouts (like the garage, barber shops, auto shops, etc.).

But I also loved the introduction, which was written by Douglas Brinkley. First he described the pictures thusly: "Where some might find gloom in these anti-Rockwellian photographs, I find a liberation from the glaring rat race of American life. In Eastman's images a scent hangs in the air like that before a thunderstorm--a time when another Chapter of Life is being closed with the slam of a screen door. Darkness is falling, but a red brick afterglow lingers in Eastman's work so you can still marvel at another crumpled calendar page being tossed away..."

I loved the imagery of the screen door slamming on a chapter of life. And then he concluded with this whopper:

"Eastman has brought us back to a place of holy remembrance in Vanishing America. J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur in Letters from an American Farmer wrote about pioneers brimming with 'forlorn hope' (which is, in fact, the meaning of the word pioneer in the Dutch language). I like that phrase. Somehow Eastman's art doesn't leave me depleted or shut down. I'm left with a 'forlorn hope,' a recognition that America is a land for transients and the unsettled. Always has been. Always will be."

Forlorn hope. I love that. And that is exactly what I think you'll feel looking at this book. It's beautiful. Check it out.

No, I can't forgive you.

I did not enjoy Lee Israel's Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger. The story's simple. Israel, who was, for a time, a bestselling biographer of such titles as Estee Lauder: Beyond the Magic and Miss Tallulah Bankhead, recounts her freefall into authorial obscurity and poverty (particularly after sales of the Estee Lauder bio tanked). So what did she do to make her living? Why, she started forging letters from such luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and film star Louise Brooks, of course. Isn't that what anyone would do?

Forger Israel explains her methods, which included visiting letter and author archives, tracing signatures, and stealing old, blank pieces of paper from those collections to use as the authentic antique paper for her forgeries. Eventually she graduated to stealing letters and re-selling them, along with an accomplice, until she was caught by the FBI in 1992 and eventually sentenced to five years' probation. I'd like to explain the whole sordid affair better, but I'll admit I only skimmed the 127 pages of the narrative, as, in addition to sounding snarky, Israel managed to make her tale dull as well.

Wondering if she feels any remorse? Nah. Here she explains it:

"The forged letters were larky and fun and totally cool. Parodies of icons--Coward, Ferber, Mrs. Parker, Louise, Lillian Hellman, and poor Clara Blandick. They totaled approximately 100,000 words, give or take...I still consider the letters to be my best work. Reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman's summing up in Tootsie, I was a better writer as a forger than I had ever been as a writer. Any remorse I experience about this phase of my life in crime has nothing to do with the money various dealers might have lost; I think most of the dealers came out ahead. The remorse here is personal. I betrayed some people whom I had grown to like." (p. 127.)

Wow, how very heartfelt. Oh, and Ms. Israel, your forgeries of Dorothy Parker? I'm pretty sure anyone who read them was probably convinced by her forged signature, while they simultaneously thought, hmm, Mrs. Parker must have been having an off day. You, madam, ARE NO DOROTHY PARKER.

What a stupid book. Skip it.

Why did I wait so long?

I'll admit it: sometimes my devotion to NOT reading books that seem inordinately popular bites me in the ass.

A few years ago at the library EVERYBODY was checking out Ian McEwan's book Atonement (it also won the National Book Critics' Circle Award), so of course, I didn't feel like checking it out. But in my new devotion to reading fiction, I thought I'd give it a try.

Literally, I had to dole out chapters of this one to myself because I was loving it so, so much. It's not a complex or fast-moving narrative. The book opens in 1935, in an Engish family home where the mother often takes to her room with migraines, a daughter in her early twenties (Cecelia) is home for the summer, another pre-teen and precocious daughter (Briony) is home as well, and they're all awaiting the arrival of their older brother and his friend.

Hilarity does not ensue.

Atonement Another person present on the estate is Robbie Turner, the son of one of the family's servants; and before the day is over he and Cecelia will realize they've always loved each other, Briony will witness a rather, ahem, personal moment between them in the house's library, and, in a horrible twist, Robbie will eventually be accused of the rape of Cecelia's and Briony's young cousin (who is also staying at the house, with her two younger brothers, as their mother has run off with a man who is not their father).

The writing's slow, but beautiful. And I don't mean flowery, or overwrought, or highly stylized. I mean, sometimes it literally planted a picture in my brain:

"She took her daughter in her arms, onto her lap--ah, that hot smooth little body she remembered from its infancy, and still not gone from her, not quite yet--" (p. 4.)

That's just a snippet, and I don't have kids--but that's JUST WHAT IT FEELS LIKE to hug my oldest niece, who I also remember in her infancy. Impressive. And there's moments like that all the way through.

The story's pretty incredible after that, and eventually returns to the theme of Briony's accusation of Robbie (false, as it turns out). There's even a twist at the end.

Incredible. Makes me wonder, what else have I been missing because I eschew the popular books like a total book snob? (But then I remember: Jodi Picoult is also popular, and I didn't end up loving HER when I finally read her.) But McEwan? I am now into it. Time to go on a McEwan bender as well!

Lost on Planet Maarten.

I'm not a huge travel reader. But there are a few authors who I make sure to pick up whenever I see they've got a new title, and J. Maarten Troost is one of those authors. His latest, Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation*, was no exception. Although I don't often read books about China, I couldn't resist the lure of Troost (whose The Sex Lives of Cannibals is one of my favorite travel books ever).

It's good, but not as good as Sex Lives. J. Maarten has a very funny style, but as he does not speak the language it's hard for him to have a whole lot of run-ins with the natives (those types of run-ins were my favorite parts of his other books). He himself becomes aware, early on, of just how difficult the language barrier is going to be to overcome: 

Planetchina "I want to be very clear about this. I am not blaming anyone. No one is at fault. I am even willing to consider the possibility that it wasn't done on purpose. But, as I delved into Chinese for Dummies, I couldn't help but conclude that the Chinese language is the Great Wall of languages, a clever linguistic barrier erected to keep outsiders out. What, frankly, is wrong with Esperanto? Or alphabets?...I am even, dare I say it, fairly good at languages. Typically, it takes me no more than few weeks of study until I can more or less function: I can get myself from point A to point B, I can discern the general drift of a conversation, I can sit in a restaurant and feel reasonbly confident that the dish I just ordered wasn't the Monkey Penis Special. But, as soon became coldly apparent to me, there was not a chance that I was going to even manage that in Chinese. And that worried me." (p. 16-17.)

So, a qualified thumbs up on this one. If you're looking to learn more about China (particularly in light of the Olympics having just been held there) or need a good basic travel read, this is a good choice. If you're looking to laugh a lot, go back to The Sex Lives of Cannibals.

*The subtitle to the subtitle, "Or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid" should indicate that those readers who can't abide any kind of animal cruelty might want to give this one a miss.

Let's write a manifesto!

Okay, Brandon has thrown down the "C" word (Communist, that is) in yesterday's comments, so I figure what better way to bounce back from that than to write a Manifesto!

Unfortunately, I've never been much good with manifestos, or theories, or making statements of any kind (unless it's "I quit." I am spectacularly good at that one). So I thought maybe you would help me? This is all I have so far:

The Citizen Reader Manifesto

1. Reading is a right.

Reading is not a privilege. Reading is a right. Reading is not something human beings should only get the time to do for a few minutes each night, before they fall asleep. It is not something only children and old people should have the time to do.

Come on, one measly point? We can do better than this. Comments? Suggestions? Let's be total pinko commies and write this bad boy together.

One just for me.

Lots of times I can't wait to bore you with every little thought I have about every little thing I read, nonfiction and fiction. Partly I do this to keep track of what I'm reading, and partly I do it because the conversations we invariably end up having have really added something to my enjoyment of my reading. (And I already enjoyed my reading, so that's saying a lot.)

But you should also know that sometimes I read things that I end up wanting to keep to myself. Often these books have to do with personal topics that, well, are just too personal. Sometimes these secret books get me thinking about people I know, and our interconnected lives, and then I keep quiet because other people's secrets are not really mine to blog about. But a lot of times it's just because I figure too much about me, not enough about the books is just a boring mix.

But then again I come across a book that I want to keep for myself, and yet I feel there are certain readers who might enjoy it, and then I feel a conflicted need to babble about it. So before I talk about today's secret book, there are some things you should know about me: I am Catholic. I like being Catholic. This does not mean I think everyone has to be Catholic (I didn't even think Mr. CR had to be Catholic so I'm not about to start in on y'all). I know, boy do I know, the Catholic church has many many problems, and has much to apologize for and fix. So, frankly, do the federal government and most large corporations, and yet we keep them around.

So today's book is A Nation for All: How the Catholic Vision of the Common Good Can Save America from the Politics of Division, by Chris Korzen and Alexia Kelley. I'm really only mentioning it because I strongly feel that if there are any Catholics out there, or people who are interested in (or, okay, repelled by) Catholicism, this is a great book to read, as it hammers home the point that we are all meant to care about and for each other, for the common good. It's got interesting things to say about politics and voting, which has been a real bitch for Catholics since Roe v. Wade was passed and abortion took over as the issue most likely to be used by the Conservative Right to obtain the Catholic vote. But most of all? I loved its whole chapter on the Catholic social tradition, including the tenet of "the dignity of work and the rights of workers":

"Because each human person has inherent dignity independent of his or her economic value, work is designed to benefit the person, not the other way around...In this era of economic globalization, it is all the more important to remember that people should always take priority over profit. Workers, in the Catholic social tradition, have essential human rights: to a just and living wage that will support workers' families, to organize and bargain collectively through trade unions, to safe and to humane working conditions, and to leisure time to spend with their friends and families. Employees have a responsibility to hold up their end of the bargain, but so too must employers take an active role in protecting these essential rights." (p. 27.)

Isn't that beautiful? Frankly, I think we should make THAT a prayer and start reciting it. You hear me, Catholic Church?

Okay, I've said too much. Sorry for boring you with my secrets.

Now THAT'S a love letter.

For the most part, I was pretty completely bored by Other People's Love Letters: 150 Letters You Were Never Meant to See, edited by Bill Shapiro. It's not that I think gathering together other people's love letters, emails, and cards is a bad idea, it's just hard to really enjoy them out of context. (I have this problem often with the PostSecret books, where people share their secret thoughts, hopes, confessions, etc.; I much prefer the Found books, which are also random, but I prefer the "found" nature of the contributions rather than the "shared" type.)

Loveletters So I just flipped through this one and was ready to take it back to the library when I read this card:

(Below the greeting card picture of a cartoon man and woman in a tub with the sentiment "Happy Mother's Day, Honey.") "To my incredibly sexy wife,

You don't actually have to share the bath, as the picture shows, but since I know you're in desperate need of some relaxation (and getting into the bath isn't your idea of the most hygienic way to do it), this card comes complete with a promise from me to clean both our bathrooms thoroughly--including scrubbing the tubs. Love, Charles."

Boys, take note. THAT is how you write a love letter.*

*I also enjoyed this succinct but heartfelt email: "I don't know what got me higher last night all the herb we smoked or our kiss. We're gonna have to try both again so I can be sure. ;)"

Highbrow weekend reading.

So what highbrow reading did I do this weekend? Some literary criticism? A scholarly monograph on Jane Austen? A well-footnoted work of epic history or biography?

Pants Oh, blimey hell, I might as well admit it: I spent the weekend reading a book titled Stop in the Name of Pants!, by Louise Rennison. Yes, it is a "young adult" book. Yes, other entries in this series including titles like Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, Knocked Out By My Nunga Nungas, and Startled by His Furry Shorts. And I have loved them all, do you hear me? I have waited for this ninth book in Louise Rennison's series featuring her teenage British character Georgia Nicolson for months, so you can bet I read it first thing when I got it home from the library.

It's a pretty basic series to sum up. Georgia Nicolson is a very silly British girl who spends most of her time trying to decide which boy to like, applying make-up with her friends in the bathroom at school (which they call the "tarts' wardrobe"), and being annoyed by her parents, little sister, and fuzzy and violent cat Angus. Think Bridget Jones, only for the middle school set.

And I loved it. I love Georgia, I love that she can't decide whether she likes the hunky guys or the one who makes her laugh, the appropriately named Dave the Laugh (who stands as one of my favorite male characters in literature ever). I love her crazy little sister Libby and I love the British slang. To use a phrase from the book, it is vair vair marvelous.* Come on, you've got to love the word "brillopads" (in place of another word I wish I was British enough to use: Brilliant!), as well as "nunga nungas." Don't let the titles scare you. These books are absolutely harmless. Actually, if you could steer your pre-teens away from Gossip Girl and toward these books, you'd be a lot better off.

All of that said, Ms. Rennison, please end this series. I can't keep waiting for your books this way. And for god's sake, let Georgia date Dave the Laugh. I can't take it anymore.

*I also owe Rennison for the phrase "nippy noodles," which I use whenever it starts to get cold outside.

Friday free associating.

I have no cohesive thoughts today. This happens a lot. But it is particularly bad today. So how's about we just do some free associating?

I am currently knee deep in English history and enjoying it very much. On CD I have Alison Weir's comprehensive and somewhat academic Queen Isabella (that's right, I'm STILL working on it--it's 18 CDs long for the love of pete!), while in book form I have Leslie Carroll's Royal Affairs: A Lusty Romp through the Extramarital Adventures that Rocked the British Monarchy, which, as you can probably tell from the title, is not as academic. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Also, remember when we discussed the Rust Belt and dying cities? There's an interesting article on Yahoo today about that. Sad, but intereresting.

Last but not least, the Olympics have started, and I could care less. I can summon some enthusiasm for the Winter Olympics, as I am a winter gal, but the Summer Olympics? Swimming, track and field, basketball? None of those things do anything for me. If you too will be looking for something to do other than watch the Olympics, might I suggest Tony Perrottet's very fun The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. And also? You should all have a very good weekend. I'm off to learn more about the lusty romps of British royalty.

Damn it, he got me!

I am so tired of politics, political ads, and political books, that the thought of reading yet another political book, this time Matt Taibbi's The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, made me very sad.

But, Taibbi gave a great interview on the Jon Stewart show, so I determined to give it a try. And, damn him, I couldn't stop until I read the whole thing.

Derangement It's deeply disturbing, I'm not going to lie to you. Tired of political reporting himself, Taibbi heads off to Texas to join Pastor Hagee's infamous (and huge) Cornerstone Church to see what the whole Religious Right has going on. As an atheist, he finds that it's quite the scene, but also a lot easier to fit in than the originally thought it might be (you can never throw too many "Gods" in your sentences, he finds, even though it might feel like you are). After a weekend church retreat, where he and the others spend at least part of the time vomiting their demons into paper bags, this is what Taibbi concludes:

"By the end of the weekend I realized how quaint was the mere suggestion that Christians of this type should learn to 'be rational' or 'set aside your religion' about such things as the Iraq war or other policy matters. Once you've made a journey like this--once you've gone this far--you are beyond suggestible. It's not merely the informational indoctrination, the constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc., that's the issue. It's that once you've gotten to this place, you've left behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent opinion about such things. You make this journey precisely to experience the ecstasy of beating to the same big gristly heart with a roomful of like-minded folks. Once you reach that place with them, you're thinking with muscles, not neurons." (p. 87.)

Wow. That's quite a statement. And it's not the only one. Taibbi's got lots of scary stories about government, the press, the 9/11 Truth Movement, and much more.

So no, I didn't enjoy it. But I enjoyed Taibbi's voice. I don't think the guy's got a dissembling bone in his body. I haven't read something I simultaneously didn't enjoy but loved all the same since John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy.

Right on, Vincent Bugliosi.

I LOVE Vincent Bugliosi. If you don't know him, he's the attorney who not only successfully prosecuted Charles Manson for his many crimes, but also wrote a page-turning and bestselling true crime classic about the case titled Helter Skelter. He's written other books too, including another true crime/legal thriller And the Sea Will Tell, as well as last year's massive Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I don't know how the guy gets it all done, frankly. He must have a long-suffering spouse who doesn't care that he's a workaholic.

But his recent title has cemented my affection. Check out this shot across the bow: The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder. You can see why he wins all his jury cases, can't you? The guy doesn't pussyfoot around, I'll say that.

I flipped through the book but will not read the whole thing because, frankly, Bugliosi's preaching to the choir here. He doesn't need to lay out logical, numbered, and legally argued points to convince me that W. is a liar and a murderer. I can tell you what I think reviewers who don't like it (I have to make this up, since few have had the cojones to review it at all)might say:

There's a bit too, well, too much "Vincent Bugliosi" in the front of it (and there is a lot of talk about his own career, which I think he's offering as some sort of explanation for why he's written this book). Some of it can be very legalistic, and dry. (Much of it appears in the form of numbered points which Bugliosi is trying to make as though he were standing before a jury.) It's blatant political writing (well, it's not really, but try convincing any Republican of that). The illustrations included are meant outright to outrage and manipulate: There are several pictures of military cemeteries, crying families, Iraqi mothers holding dead babies, followed by a two-page spread of pictures of W. smirking, laughing, smiling, and leaning on the podium.) Okay, that's pretty blatant. But let's not forget Bugliosi is, first and foremost, a trial lawyer dedicated to putting on a show. Also, he meets the�charge that the picture montage might be a bit over the top preemptively, by adding this note:

"As for the photos of Bush himself, the prologue proves beyond all reasonable doubt that throughout the sea of blood and the screams and cries of men, women, and children, even babies, coming out of the hell on earth he created in Iraq, unbelievably, he laughed and joked, had fun, and enjoyed every day of his presidency. I mean, he told us this. I'm going to have a 'perfect day,' he said. Laura and I had a 'fabulous year' and we're 'having the time of our life.' Bush, in addition to his transcendent criminality, has added a snapshot view of extreme grossness and vulgarian audacity to this otherwise sacred selection of photos."

The whole book's pretty much like that, with Bugliosi quoting the president and the vice-president at every turn, and using those statements to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

So, you go, Vincent. I wish I could be on the jury of the case you want to bring.

The morning after.

You know you've enjoyed a book when you wake up the day after you've finished it and feel a little bereft that you don't have any more of it to read. This is what happened to me with Richard Russo's novel Nobody's Fool.

Nobody's FoolI really, really, really enjoyed it. It was 549 pages long, so you'd better believe I loved it or I wouldn't have made it through all of that. It's a novel where not much happens, except sixty-year-old Donald Sullivan ("Sully") who wanders through his small-town life in North Bath, NY, limping on a bad knee he doesn't have the money to fix and doing his best to maintain relationships with his downstairs neighbor and landlady, his friends, his ex-wife and his son, all without, you know, having actual "relationships" with any of them (largely because he spends most of his time trying to forget his relationship with his dad, Big Jim Sullivan, a card-carrying small-town blowhard asshole, who died years before).

I know, I know, it's all sounding a little Oprah. It's not. The hardest type of character development of all to pull off is present here: no one really changes, but at the end of the book, everyone's a bit different. That takes skill. Anne Tyler can do it too but it's hard to find in modern novels. Parts of it are funny, and during most of it, Sully's so real that you actually wish you could go find him and tell him to stop being such a moron.

Also? Richard Russo must know some old ladies, because he's got them down:

"Mrs. Gruber phoned midmorning, wondering if Miss Beryl's mail had been delivered and if she'd looked over the circular that announced the grand opening of the new supermarket out by the interstate exit...She had pored over the circular with mounting excitement and regret, the latter caused by the fact that she did not drive and that the supermarket was five miles away. The circular had been six full pages, and each page was in full color, picturing deep red cuts of beef, Kelly green vegetables. Even the most mundane items, like toilet paper and laundry detergent, looked exotic and thrilling. And all at incredible savings. Mrs. Gruber wanted to go to the supermarket and find out for herself if the circular truly represented the wonders of the new store." (p. 51.)

Okay, that's really got nothing to do with the story. But if you know any old ladies, or if you've ever watched any wandering around Shopko or Walgreen's clutching their ad circulars, you know that it's PERFECT.

Make no mistake: it's not cozy. People are assholes, Sully included, and there's plenty of adultery, swearing, and even a bit of violence to go around. But it is gentle. That's hard to do too. I'm seriously thinking of going on a Richard Russo bender.

Oh, and one more thing. Here's a bonus quote: "'I must be losing patience with my fellow humans,' Miss Beryl went on. 'Anymore I'm all for executing people who are mean to children. I used to favor just cutting off their feet. Now I want to rid the world of them completely. If this keeps up I'll be voting Republican soon.'" (p. 94.)

Oh, yeah. I've got to get me some more Russo.

Oh, Generation X.

If we're all as long-winded and as boring as Jeff Gordinier's book X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking, I can see why we don't have time left over to save the world.

X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from SuckingI'm 90 pages in already and I can't for the life of me think of one thing to say about this book, or what Gordinier's point is. It's not that it's poorly written, it's just kind of, well, underwhelming. I think the basic point is that X is a generation stuck between the narcissistic Boomers and the hyper-connected Millennials, and it's a generation that can "do the old stuff really well--maybe as well as anybody ever could--but nobody seems to give a shit about the old stuff anymore. And this new stuff? You could do it well, too--you're flexible--if you could only figure out what it is. Because sometimes it looks like selling air." (p. xxx.)

Well, okay. That makes sense. But then Gordinier is off on a first-person tangent (his phrase) and pop culture references*, and I didn't pay much attention again until I got to the chapter where he picks on the Millennials, which I'll admit, I really enjoyed:

"These new kids cared about belonging, they cared about the group. They did everything in groups, they even dated in groups. They moved in noisy little packs, they only read books if there was a book club with which to share them, they networked, they sought out mentors, they kept each other in line. The wanted to connect with everyone; they wanted the world to cuddle up with them on Friendster and Facebook. They were unfamiliar with the notion of privacy. Solitude made them...uncomfortable." (p. 70.)

Well, I think he's honed in on why Millennials make me vaguely uncomfortable.

So I did what any slacker Gen Xer would do: I skipped to the end. Gordinier suggests that all Xers try to keep things from sucking by getting out there and...daring.

See? Underwhelming.

*At one point he compares the music videos for Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit and Britney Spears's Hit Me Baby One More Time. Never having had MTV, I went and checked them out on YouTube--I'm flexible--and must admit I'm old enough to have been a bit shocked by the Spears video. Frankly, I even like the song,** but holy cow, that's quite the four-minute walking, talking definition of "jail bait."

**I mainly like the song because of this cover version by Scottish band Travis.

But I don't want to drive on biofuel.

Normally the "let's go back to the land" books annoy the crap out of me. Take Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. It's not that I disagree with her idea that all of us should try to live and eat more locally. I'm down with that. I just didn't happen to enjoy Kingsolver's overbearing, self-righteous, and completely humorless take on the subject.*

Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local LivingSo why do I keep reading these sorts of books? I don't know. Maybe because when I find one I like it's such a pleasant surprise? Such was the case with Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living. Fine, a writer and journalist, buys a ranch in New Mexico and sets about trying to live his life off the grid. Unlike most of these books, he does it in a rather funny way. Take his goals for the year:

"1. Use a lot less oil. 2. Power my life by renewable energy. 3. Eat as locally as possible. 4.Don't Starve, electrocute myself, get eaten by the local mountain lions, get shot by my UN-fearing neighbors, or otherwise die in a way that would cause embarrassment if the obituary writer did his or her research." (p. 4.)

Now THAT is the proper attitude toward going back to the land. In various chapters Fine outlines how he learned to drive on used fry oil, hooking up solar panels on his house (another plus: he admits that the batteries used in solar energy systems are themselves environmental nightmares--that's nice and honest, for a change), raising a couple of goats, and trying to keep the coyotes from his chickens.

So yeah, thumbs up on this one. Although I must admit, part of it also made me sad. Me? I came from the farm. I don't really want to go back to the farm. There was a lot of hard work there. And biofuels? With my bad luck in cars I can barely keep a vehicle running on normal gas, much less biofuels. Can't I just drive less and call it even? 

*Wow, did that feel good to say out loud.