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October 2008

Interesting casting.

Last night I saw a preview for the new movie Yes Man, starring Jim Carrey.

And I thought, that's interesting, I wonder if it's based on the Danny Wallace book Yes Man. So I wandered over to my best pal, the Internet Movie Database, and indeed, Wallace and his book are listed among the screenwriters.

Wallace Even if you're not going to see the movie (I may not, as I'm not a huge Jim Carrey fan) I would heartily recommend the book, which is about Wallace deciding to say "yes" to everything he's asked for a whole year. I read the book a long time ago, but one incident that sticks with me is Wallace sticking with his plan, even in the middle of a pub fight: "Do you want to get punched?" To which, of course, he had to answer yes. Wallace is a decidedly British author, with what I think of as a distinctly British sense of humor (I think the British, by and large, are funnier than Americans. I know. I'm a total traitor to my nation.), so it might be interesting to see how this movie works with Carrey in the title role. But I still may skip it just to take time and re-read the book, or Wallace's earlier title, Join Me, in which he placed an ad in the paper asking for people to "Join Me!" He didn't tell them what for, or anything. Do consider reading either book--they're both a lot of fun.

Back on the Irvine Welsh train.

Previously I've stated that I am not fond of what I call "ugly fiction"--fiction that describes ugly, mean, cruel, or otherwise completely distasteful subjects, for no reason whatsoever (unless that reason is to cash in on morbid curiosity). Jodi Picoult is my favorite example of an ugly fiction author--take ugly topics like school shootings, using healthy children as donors for your unhealthy children, etc., wrap them up in schmaltz, sell millions of copies.

Crime After reading--and loving--Irvine Welsh's latest novel, Crime, I may have to rethink my heading of "ugly fiction." Because this book is about as ugly as it gets: Ray Lennox, of the Edinburgh police, takes some mental-health time off after a particularly nasty murder case involving a young girl. Traveling to Florida for a vacation with his fiancee, Trudi, Lennox is unable to escape his demons, and finds himself alone in a bar hoping to score some cocaine. He gets more than he bargained for: going home with two women, he is there, and high, when other men arrive at their home to join the party, and one of them tries to molest one of the women's pre-teen daughters. Lennox rescues the girl and eventually ends up removing her from the home and trying to get her elsewhere for safety. To make a long story short: he's stumbled on a pedophilia ring, where men get to know single mothers with drug or other issues and then take advantage of their pre-pubescent children.

Okay, that's about as ugly as it gets.

And yet, I loved the book. I loved Welsh's most well-known book, Trainspotting (book and movie version), as well, but I haven't been able to finish anything else of his before this novel. I tried--I love Scottish and British authors, so I always picked up his new books, but I just couldn't get into them. So why this one?

For all its ugliness, I don't get the feeling Welsh was writing about it to cash in on "ripped from the headlines" stories. His characters are complex; I loved Ray Lennox and felt terribly for him and the things he must have seen as a cop. His relationship with Tianna, the ten-year-old girl, is also written very well--he doesn't really want to get in the middle of that situation but he can't quite get himself to leave her until he can leave her somewhere safe. And, just like he did in Trainspotting, Welsh left me with the feeling that, while there are many very ugly things in this world, sometimes it is possible to get through them. That's the difference, I think. Reading ugly Welsh books makes me feel like there might still be hope, even in the presence of despair; reading ugly Picoult books makes me despair that I'll never have hope again.

Either way, I may need to rethink the broad heading "ugly fiction." Maybe "ugly fiction" and "ugly sellout fiction"?

All right, I'm a sucker for orange cats.

Okay, I'll admit it. Usually, any book titled anything as hopelessly sappy as Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World would leave me cold. If I was really feeling myself, I'm guessing I would class such a book among the ranks of titles like Tuesdays with Morrie or Marley & Me.

But, in my weakened state, I'll admit it. I picked this book up because of the beautiful orange cat on the cover. So sue me: I like cats. I'll admit the library aspect had some appeal too. And then I read the whole thing, even though it's no great work of literature (which is typical when a book shares authors; this one is by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter).

Dewey It's the story of Dewey Readmore Books, an orange kitten that Myron found in her library's bookdrop one cold Iowa morning. She nursed the kitten back to health and he became the library's cat, living in the Spencer Public Library for nineteen years and eventually becoming famous the world over for his story and personality. Yup. Unadulterated pap. And I ate it up with a spoon.

Although I must admit that I found Vicki Myron's personal stories almost as interesting as those about Dewey. In one chapter she details how, when she had her daughter, the doctor gave her a double dose of inducing drugs because he was in a hurry, which caused her to have serious and continuing health problems in her early twenties. A short while after that, she went to the hospital for exploratory surgery and woke up to learn the doctor had removed her ovaries and her uterus. Christ, people. I don't care how long ago that was (early 1970s). Can you believe that sort of thing was ever acceptable? And yet Myron relates these tales with an admirable lack of rancor.

So the final word should come as no surprise: if you've got a soft spot for cats, libraries, small towns, or amazingly stoic women who undergo serious health problems but just keep fighting, go ahead and pick this one up. If any of those storylines make you want to gag, avoid it.

Mad lovin' on Matt Taibbi.

Okay, I swore no more political book posts, but this one's about a magazine article, so I figured it was fair game. You must, absolutely MUST, read Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone article titled Mad Dog Palin*. Here's just a sampling:

"And if she's a good enough likeness of a loudmouthed Middle American archetype, as Sarah Palin is, John Q. Public will drop his giant-size bag of Doritos in gratitude, wipe the Sizzlin' Picante dust from his lips and rush to the booth to vote for her. Not because it makes sense, or because it has a chance of improving his life or anyone else's, but simply because it appeals to the low-humming narcissism that substitutes for his personality, because the image on TV reminds him of the mean, brainless slob he sees in the mirror every morning."

Holy shit. And it only gets better (sadder) from there. I am so in love with Matt Taibbi I can't see straight. And when you're done with the article, go get his most recent book, The Great Derangement, and read that too. It'll make you want to cry but hey, what doesn't, these days?

*Thanks to The Morning News for the link, by way of Condalmo.

My deep dark secret.

Hi. My name is Citizen Reader, and I'm...a chickflickaholic.

You heard me. I'm addicted to Chick Flicks. Yes, I know that I abhor sentimentality. No, I do not read Nicholas Sparks novels*. But can bet if a chick flick comes out, I'll be watching it. I don't go see them in the theater or anything. But I do pick them up at the library by the armfuls and slink home to watch them whenever Mr. CR isn't around and can't ridicule me.

So when Mr. CR wasn't around this weekend I watched the movie P.S. I Love You. And you know what? I enjoyed the hell out of it. Let's examine what this movie had going for it:

1. Gerard Butler.** (Frankly, you could stop right there and have enough to go on and rent this movie. But there's MORE!)

Hilary 2. I have a little crush on Hilary Swank. I also like her because she regularly cuts all of her hair off, which is not usually acceptable in Hollywood's leading ladies. She's also likable on-screen, and I don't hear much about her off-screen, which I appreciate. 3. A FABO supporting cast, including Lisa Kudrow, Harry Connick Jr., Kathy Bates, and Gina Gershon (whom I normally don't enjoy but she did a nice job here.) 4. Beautiful shots of Manhattan. and 5. Actually, some really good lines, and more than a few very funny moments. I particularly enjoyed this exchange between Swank and Connick Jr.:

Connick: I shouldn't have said that. I have a syndrome.
Swank: Rudeness is a syndrome?
Connick: It is now. They have pills for it and everything.
Swank: They have pills for rudeness?
Connick: Yes. And yet they can't figure out the Middle East. Huh.

I don't know why that tickled me. It just did. All in all it was exactly what I needed in a chick flick: funny moments, interspersed with moments of looking at Gerard Butler. Check, and check. Sure, it was twenty minutes too long (to be perfect, in my opinion, chick flicks must clock in at no longer than 90 minutes) but I can overlook that just this once.

God, is this a half-assed review or what? I should outline the plot, I guess, although, if you'll forgive my saying so, plot is never really the point of chick flicks. Hilary (Holly) and Gerard (Gerry) are married, he dies young of a brain tumor, and leaves her letters from beyond the grave to help her get on with her life. In between letter deliveries their love story is told in flashbacks.

In other news: last week we also watched Run Fatboy Run, which I desperately wanted to see. It turned out to be average, and frankly, if you watch the trailer below, you can spare yourself watching the whole movie. You'll have seen the majority of the funny parts. I like Simon Pegg, but I LOVE Dylan Moran. If you share my opinion, skip this movie and watch Moran's comedy specials online instead. Hilarious stuff.

*I may have a problem, but I do draw the line at Nicholas Sparks movies as well. Also? Let me spare you some chick flick pain: 27 Dresses, starring Katherine Heigl and James Marsden? Boy, was that movie a piece of shit. Heigl's a no-talent ass clown,*** in my opinion.

**Gerard Butler also starred in the British film Dear Frankie, a great chick flick classic.

***Thanks to another classic film, Office Space, for this phrase.

Potshot at Thomas Friedman.

In yesterday's comments TheBunlessLibrarian pointed out, rightfully, that it's been a while since I panned a book. I'm not sure why that is, really, unless it's been because I'm reading more novels, and it's harder for me to dis novels. Maybe because I don't know them as well? For whatever reason, it's just not as fun to rip into novels as it is to rip into badly written or sell-out nonfiction.

So, in lieu of a cranky review, I'd like to offer a link to the animated cartoon Get Your War On*, which is not only hilarious, but also offers a couple of cheap shots at both Ayn Rand and Thomas Friedman. My hate for Thomas Friedman has only increased with the publication of his new book,Flat, Hot, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America. That guy is such a tool. Here's the thought process: Hot Topic + My Pointless Thoughts on Them = Instant Bestseller that I can issue in hardcover, then reissue in hardcover in a revised edition and charge even more, which is how I milked the public with The World Is Flat!

To sum up: enjoy the cartoon, don't read Thomas Friedman, have a great weekend.

*Please note: This video is not to be watched at work unless you have earphones, an office door, or both. You should also avoid it if profanity bothers you.

History's not only about the famous and successful people.

I need to remember that when I'm in a rather tenuous mood to begin with, I should probably stay away from the heartbreaking books. Unfortunately, I didn't keep that in mind when I read The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.

Behind This was another book that arrived on my library hold list with me having no remembrance of having requested it or where I first heard about it, which is always a surreal experience to begin with. It is a completely unique little book; the authors became interested in the suitcases and personal belongings of long-term inmates of the Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York. Included are pictures of the contents of those suitcases (which were recovered years after their owners died, in the attic of the hospital), as well as the admission photographs of the people to whom the suitcases belonged.

Believe me when I say: You did not want to be committed to a psychiatric hospital in the early and mid-twentieth century. (A scary epilogue points out that it would be best to avoid that these days as well.) Ten individuals are profiled here, and many of them spent decades in the hospital, as treatment was not as important as warehousing. And the majority of the people profiled here were not crazy, screaming, violent inmates. One was a trained nurse whose descent into instability was preceded by the early death of her parents, her immigration to America, numerous stressful health problems, and her bosses' insistence that she change personal doctors, because the doctor she liked was judged to be too far away for her to visit. Despite the fact that her admitting doctor at Willard found her to be "pleasant, agreeable, and correctly oriented," she was diagnosed with "dementia praecox, paranoid" and committed. Thirty-two years later she would die there.

Oh, it's a sad book. And history at its finest. Someone thought the suitcases were worth saving; someone else took the care to document their content. And then these authors came along to construct personal stories from the belongings and the records. Completely uncommercial and enlightening. Stpehen Ambrose, all you other glorifiers of war history that's commercially successful, bow before your true historian masters.

Surprisingly interesting.

Even though I wasn't expecting to, and even though I hate its blah cover, I found myself really interested by Gregory Levey's memoir Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I learned in the Israeli Government. Levey, bored by law school and looking around for something new to do, applied to be an intern at the Israeli Mission to the United Nations. Eventually they contacted him and told him they didn't hire interns, but they might have a speechwriting job for him. Wham, bam, and some scarily comprehensive security checks later, Levey was employed as a speechwriter, working with the Israeli ambassador and other political and United Nations dignitaries.

Levey There's a couple of funny things about that: 1. Levey was all of 25 at the time; 2. He had no experience in speechwriting, and 3. Although Jewish, Levey is not an Israeli citizen--he's Canadian.

On the bright side, this is a fascinating story, told in an appealing way. Levey would eventually end up moving to Israel for a time to work as a speechwriter for Ariel Sharon, so you learn a lot about the UN, politics, and the Middle East. On the down side, any illusions that you have about decisions being made and statements being drafted by the UN or any governing bodies being made by well-informed people with tons of time and resources on their hands will be shattered. It's amazing what all goes on in this world, and who's out there doing what. (In one memorable chapter, Levey even found himself at a UN meeting when he was supposed to vote on a resolution--which was awkward since he had no idea what the resolution was about! The solution? He found out how the US was voting, and voted the same--although theirs were the only two dissenting votes.) Fascinating if alarming stuff.

Read this woman's books. Now. I mean it.

Pagan Kennedy is the best author of her generation.

(I've always wanted to use that line. It's a reworking of Dale Peck's infamous fightin' words, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation," in his review of Moody's memoir The Black Veil. That and many other fine book review sentences can be found in Peck's book Hatchet Jobs.)

I LOVE Pagan Kennedy. The first book of hers I read was The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair and a Twentieth Century Medical Revolution. And it was fantastic. If you haven't read it yet, please do so. And then go get her newest nonfiction collection, The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories. Eye-catching title notwithstanding, it's a straightforward collection of character portraits, opening with one about Alex Comfort, the author of the bestselling 1970s phenomenon The Joy of Sex. Other stories blend science and weirdness, as Kennedy profiles a wide variety of inventors and scientists, some trying to train parrots to interact like human beings, some working on ways that eyeglasses could be cheaply fabricated in third world countries, right on the spot.

Comfort But what I enjoyed most were her concluding essays about her own life, including one in which she described her own "Boston marriage," ("The word 'roommate' jumps out at me. It's an inadequate word, but it's all we have. What else do you call two friends who are shacked up together in a decaying Victorian?") and her homage to her mother, in the three-page essay "Off Season":

"Our family may not be prettier than yours. We may not be smarter. But we do know how to avoid traffic jams. 'You'd have to be a lunatic to get on the Pike after 3 o'clock,' my mother used to say to me, when I was too young to understand the word 'lunatic.' But I took her meaning. There were people out there pushing and shoving to get to the same place at the same time. We would not be among them.

My mother has a theory: eccentricity is efficient. When I was about eight years old, she hoisted a Turkish flag onto the antenna of the family station wagon. 'This way, when we park in the mall, I'll always be able to find the car,' she explained. 'Who else is going to have a Turkish flag?' And so, for several years, my family traveled around like some rogue embassy, the sickle-moon of a faraway nation fluttering above as we drove, motorcade style, on a mission to find a new set of bed sheets...

But now it's clear to me that my devotion to the uncrowded and off-season, the underground and the strange, drived from my mother's obsession with traffic. Always, always avoid the crowds." (pp. 245-246.)

I have only one word for that: Amen.

Best legal book of the year.

Hands down: It's Gerald M. Stern's The Scotia Widows: Inside Their Lawsuit Against Big Daddy Coal.

Scotia Stern was actually the attorney who represented the "Scotia Widows," fifteen women who lost their husbands (one lost a husband AND a brother) in the Scotia coal mine explosion in Kentucky in 1976. And, in a masterpiece of succinct yet suspenseful legal writing, he tells the story of the accident (which was caused at least partially by faulty venting on the part of the coal mining company), the initial trial, the appeal, and the final settlement that would finally achieve some financial justice for the women.

If you're looking for a completely unbiased account, this is not the one; Stern has some strong feelings about the companies in question (and their "dedication" to the safety of their workers--one of the company's mottoes was "Higher Production--Lower Costs") and at least one judge in front of whom he made his case. If, like me, you feel the vast majority of judges are corrupt bastards, this book will not do anything to correct that assumption.

It's a fantastic book. And it tells one hell of a story in a mere 145 pages.

It's that time of year again!

God bless Ray Bradbury. Even when not feeling well, I can always count on desperately needing to read one book each and every October: Something Wicked this Way Comes. Check it:

Bradbury "First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren't rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn't begun yet. July, well, July's really fine: there's no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June's best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September's a billion years away.

But you take October, now. School's been on a month and you're riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you'll dump on old man Prickett's porch, or the hairy-ape costume you'll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it's around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.

But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early." (p. 1.)

God, that's fantastic. Can't write more. Gotta go read.

A thoroughly enjoyable romp.

Although I'm still not back to my normal reading self, watching a documentary on Windsor Castle last Sunday put me in the mood for some English history, and I ended up thoroughly enjoying Leslie Carroll's Royal Affairs: A Lusty Romp through the Extramarital Adventures that Rocked the British Monarchy. Of course it wasn't a book that's going to win any awards for historical research or writing, which is probably what I liked about it. (At one point the author refers to a woman's "boobies," which did seem a bit too casual, even for a casual history.)

Lusty But for the most part? A really well-done, engagingly written specific history. Specifically focusing on the many love affairs engaged in by royals of both the female and the male persuasion. Some of them had a lot of mistresses, and at least one had ten kids by his royal mistress (William IV, who ruled from 1830 to 1837), which leads me to believe that royal types had a lot of time on their hands (although not as much time as President George W. Bush, who has taken hundreds of vacation days in his eight-year tenure, including a week off to get primo seats at the 2008 Olympics).

I thoroughly enjoy getting my history through books like this. If I had to find a metaphor for it, I guess I'd compare it to the misdirection I use when I wrap my cat's medication in raw tuna, and she gulps it down happily because she's a total tuna whore. Hm. Making me an adultery story whore? Okay, I guess the metaphor breaks down. But you know what I'm saying. This book covers the years from the mid-12th century (opening with the Angevins and Henry II) to the present day of Charles and Camilla, so it's impressive in its scope. It's also got a nice little bibliography, although no index, which marks it for what it is, a nice little piece of historical nonfiction fluff. And that's okay. It still hurts me to find nonfiction without an index, but I'm taking deep breaths and trying to deal.

Below? My favorite anecdote from the book, about Nell Gwyn, the mistress of Charles II, who ruled from 1660 to 1685. Enjoy!

"To the lower classes she became a cult heroine. Nell was the goddess of the guttersnipes...and there were others who countenanced Nell's presence in their king's bed more easily that that of his Papist mistress Louise de Keroualle. At least Nell was a protestant. In 1681, during a time of open anti-Catholic sentiment, Nell's coach was stopped in an Oxford street by a mob who believed the passenger to be the detested Louise. The shade was lifted and out of the window popped Nell's pretty face amid a profusion of red curls. 'Pray good people, be civil. I am the Protestant whore!' she cheerily announced, turning the jeers of the angry swarm into a rousing chorus of cheers." (p. 207.)

What do you suppose I like about him?

There's no doubt about it. I have now read enough of Ian McEwan's novels to have formed the opinion that he is one weird dude. His 1981 novel, The Comfort of Strangers, which I finished a few weeks ago, is not only weird, but also deeply unsettling (violence included) in the end.

So why do you suppose I like him so much?

Comfort I can't honestly say that I liked The Comfort of Strangers. It was weird. It was uncomfortable reading all the way through, because I knew something violent was coming, I just didn't know what it was, and when it came, I hadn't been expecting the form it took at all. In my previous crusades against what I call "ugly fiction," I'll admit to not liking books that just seem dark and ugly for no reason. And this seems like it would be a textbook example. But yet...I was hypnotized by it (just as I was by Atonement).

It helps that much of McEwan's fiction (particularly the titles I've been reading) are short; this one clocks in at 128 pages. There's not a whole lot of story here, either, which is usually okay by me. Brits Mary and Colin, an older but not too old (frequent mention is made of Mary's school-age children, left behind at home), unmarried couple are on holiday in an Italian seaside village. They are passing their days with lazing, napping, and uninspired wandering, until they meet a native of the village, Robert, who wines and dines them at his establishment, and eventually brings them to meet his wife Caroline. Robert and Caroline seem to have some rather weird fixations, as well as some interesting ideas about gender roles, and that weirdness becomes horrifying at the end of the book. 

Did I mention that this is one weird book?

But the fact remains, for me at least, that there is something deeply sensual about McEwan's writing. I can't put my finger on it, but just reading his prose makes you feel a bit sultry. Maybe because it's a bit on the edge? A bit deviant? A touch too smooth?

"Through the warm nights, in the narrow single bed, their most characteristic embrace in sleep was for Mary to put her arms around Colin's neck, and Colin his arms around Mary's waist, and for their legs to cross. Throughout the day, even when all subjects and all desire were momentarily exhausted, they stayed close, sometimes stifled by the very warmth of the other's body, but unable to break away for a minute, as though they feared that solitude, private thoughts, would destroy what they shared." (p. 82.)

It sounds lovely, that. Keep in mind it occurs after what had been days of companionship but no real passion, and their renewed intimacy only appears after they dine at the weird couple's house. Hmm. 

Did I mention that this is one weird book?*

Anyway. So I'm now on the quest to read all of McEwan's novels (Enduring Love is up next) and try to figure out why he creeps me out, and why I don't mind. Any ideas what I should call this experiment? Sex, Lies, and Ian McEwan? Adventures in Ian?

*Even weirder? It was also made into a movie starring Rupert Everett, Helen Mirren, Natasha Richardson, and...wait for it...Christopher Walken.

Must be nice... have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on bottles of wine from the eighteenth century which may or may not have belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

That's the crux of the story in Benjamin Wallace's The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine, which I really, really enjoyed.* (I also know it was good, story-driven nonfiction, because Mr. CR read it and enjoyed it too, and that boy needs a good story to get interested.)

Vinegar Wallace, a food writer and journalist, provides a great look behind the collectible wine scene as he tells the story of a bottle of 1787 Lafite wine, supposedly found in a Paris basement, engraved with the initials "Th. J." The wine-world notable behind the find and the eventual sale of the bottle at Christie's, a German named Hardy Rodenstock, is a wily character in his own right. Although questions were initially raised about the authenticity of the bottle of Monticello's Jefferson historians, very few in the very insular wine world questioned Rodenstock's "discovery" of the wine--a policy that would come back to haunt them.

It's a great book, equal parts wine trivia, history, fancy wine parties, and greed and corruption. It ended a bit abruptly for my taste, but I won't hold that against it. And, even though I don't have $156,000 to spend on a bottle of wine (which is what Kip Forbes, son of Malcolm Forbes, paid for that 1787 Lafite), it has put me rather in the mood for either a box of chardonnay or some of Boone Farm's best vintage.

*This is also the last book I read and enjoyed lately, and that was before surgery. I definitely need to find another good read soon.

You're killing me, Internet Movie Database.

Yes, yes, I admit it: I've still been watching rather more TV than is good for me. Blame what seems to be a ridiculously slow healing process, if you will. That's what I'm doing. This weekend I continued my tour through 80s and 90s TV by watching episodes of Remington Steele, Mad About You*, and Northern Exposure, which were all shows I enjoyed the first time around.

So whenever I watch old TV shows and movies, I often take a troll through the trusty old Internet Movie Database and check out what the stars have been doing since. And you know what I found? now offers some full episodes of old shows, just like YouTube, including episodes of Remington Steele and NewsRadio. This is the worst possible news for a freelancer who works at home, largely online, and has a video weakness.

So today will mostly be spent trying NOT to think about full episodes of NewsRadio just one small mouseclick away. Damn you, IMDB!

*Today's funny "everything's connected" story: I watched an episode of Remington Steele, and then I watched an episode of Mad About You. In the Mad About You episode, one of the male characters said, "You know who I had a dream about? Pierce Brosnan. Have you ever seen an episode of 'Remington Steele'?" I thought that was pretty hilarious.

Title of the year.

I haven't read all of it yet, but I was predisposed to love this book because of its title: How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken. (I love its cover, too.)

Broken It's a book of critical reviews and writings by Daniel Mendelsohn, who is evidently a longtime contributor to publications like the New York Review of Books. I'd never actually heard of him; I literally requested this book from the library because the title stood out. But I'm glad I got it. When it's done well, I find that critical reviewing and writing can be really enjoyable to read (Anthony Lane and Lee Siegel are two of my favorite such writers), and can lead to lots of other pleasurable reading (and watching, in the case of movie reviews). In this collection there's reviews of the books The Lovely Bones, The Hours, and Middlesex; there's also movie reviews of 300, Kill Bill Volume 1, and Brokeback Mountain.

But let's get back to that title. Mendelsohn explains it thus: "'How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken' is a quote from the state directions to a play by Tennesse Williams, a great American drama about the victimization of a fragile girl who is tragically in love with beautiful, breakable things: the famous glass menagerie that gives the play its title, and which of course provides a richly useful symbol for the themes of delicacy and brittleness, of the lovely illusions that can give purpose to our lives and the hard necessities that can shatter them...

But to my mind Williams's haunting phrase illuminates not only the nature of certain works that have preoccupied me, but also something about the nature of the critics who judge those works. For (strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even) critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken." (p. xvii.)

That is a good paragraph about being a critic, I think. And let's face it, I just love the phrase, even if it started life as a lowly stage direction. Do give it some thought today as you deal with your daily frustrations, and try to go easily on the world. After all, how beautiful it is, and how easily it can be broken.

On the appeal of true crime.

It was very weird to find that, while I recovered, the only book on my library pile that I felt like reading was a true crime book: I'll Be Watching You, by M. William Phelps. It's pretty standard true crime stuff: icky killer stalks women. Investigation ensues, criminal who thinks he was smarter than the cops proves he wasn't, is convicted, gets out of jail after ten years, kills again, repeat.

Phelps Why would this be something I wanted to read while not feeling very well? I have no idea. I've always found true crime to be a fascinating genre: it must sell, as it's published in handy paperback format, yet I never had anyone at the library ask me for help with selecting titles or finding the section. Are people ashamed of reading it? Have you ever seen someone out and about reading true crime, or do they mainly read it at home? Do primarily women read it or is that just an idea that I have? I don't know how to answer any of these questions, mind you. And I guess I can see why readers wouldn't want to talk about their predilection, but I don't know. I don't think it's any weirder to read true crime than it is to read any number of violent thrillers or novels. But maybe that's just me?

I don't have much else to say about this specific title. One of the killer's intended victims did get away from him, which was a nice twist for the genre, and which I found inspiring. Sometimes I'm shocked at what people can live through. Maybe that's part of the appeal of some of these titles too? 

Live and learn, part two.

So I've been spending a lot of time on my couch.

This is all right. I love my couch. It is purple, and very, very comfy. You pair my couch with a nice quilt and a pillow and you've got a recipe for cozy joy. I also like my couch because when you're napping on it, you get a good view of Mr. CR's bookshelf. As I lay around last week, basically staring into space, it struck me that I've never really looked at Mr. CR's bookshelf. I had a vague idea of what was there, but last week I studied it more carefully:

Back issues of Science Fiction & Fantasy magazine; Rads, by Tom Bates (which I've always wanted to read, by the way), Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin; Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Paradise Lost; Christopher Priest's The Prestige; The Riverside Shakespeare; and a couple John Grishams.

I loathe sentimentality, but I'd be lying if I said carefully studying that bookshelf didn't make me think very kindly on Mr. CR (not to mention the fact that he's been doing the laundry and feeding the cat, as well as helping me off the purple couch). So, are you sick of your significant other? Annoyed at something they did lately? Skip the counseling. Study their bookshelf instead.

Live and learn.


It's nice to be back, even on a Monday. I can't say that I really "enjoyed" my staycation, but I will say this: I learned a few things. Mostly things I could have done without learning, but there you have it. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I picked up, once again, is that things could always be worse, and I should be thankful and grateful and all sorts of -fuls for what I've got. And I am.

Here's another, slightly more-pertinent-to-the-point-of-this-blog thing that I learned: anyone who thinks reading is not really a physical activity should think again. A couple of weeks ago I had surgery, and it kicked my ass. (No worries--I'm on the road to recovery.) I had laid in a pile of novels and DVDs, thinking post-surgery would be a fantastic time to read. I couldn't have been more wrong about that. I watched the DVDs, and must admit that I have warm feelings for the idiot box this week, as it's been a lovely mindless diversion. I've watched a lot more TV this week than I've read, I'm ashamed to admit.

For one thing, I never realized how much I set my books on my tummy while I read. With incisions where I normally rest book spines, I've certainly been thrown out of my physical reading routine. Also: the physical restlessness and antsiness of bodily recovery doesn't readily lend itself to wanting to read, I've found. Why is that? I think it may at least be partially what reading demands: some level of involvement, some mental work on putting the words together and, beyond the words, the greater meaning of the stories the words tell. That, I think, is at least partially the glory of reading. It gives, but it also demands. It is participatory, even when you think it's not. This is also the challenge of reading. And why I worry about its future: in the midst of struggles, it's somewhat hard to find the will to read. To learn. To be engaged. And I worry that we all face more struggles in the near future.

Uh oh. They tell me a positive attitude is imperative to healing, and that last sentence did not sound very positive. I'd better get to work on that.