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November 2008

Next week is December already?!?

It has come to my attention that next Monday is December 1st, already, and that's when our Book Menage is slated to  begin. However, that seems a bit soon, doesn't it?

So what does everyone say to starting the Menage on Monday, December 8? Same books (John Bowe's Nobodies and Reg Theriault's How to Tell When You're Tired), same type of discussion, different date. Feel free to invite other readers--and let them know that everyone who comments/discusses will automatically be in the running to win the books for the next Menage!

And remember to write down questions as you go, for us to discuss. I'm not the only one who gets to ask questions around here. And here's one I've got in mind and can ask ahead of time: What part/quote (if any) of each book particularly stuck with you, or made you think?

I'm off to conserve energy for a full day of eating tomorrow. Hope you are too--and that you have a very happy Thanksgiving.

Audio book hijinks.

I thought I'd shake things up a bit in my continuing quest to read all of Ian McEwan's novels, so I got Amsterdam* as a book on CD and have been listening to it. And now, on the fourth and final CD, I can confidently say...

I have no idea what the hell is going on in this book.

Amsterdam Well, that's not true. I've just about figured out which character is Clive, and which one is Vernon, and how they're both semi-involved with getting pictures of a cross-dressing politician published in the newspaper. Oh, and there's also something about a woman they both loved, Molly, and how she was involved with the cross-dressing politician, and that's why Clive and Vernon want to take him down.

Okay, when you can't keep two main characters in mind, you know you're just not following the audio book. So now my question is, am I just not enjoying the book, or do I just not enjoy listening to novels? Usually, when I listen to books, they are nonfiction books, I'll admit. And when I listen to books, I'm typically doing the dishes or cooking--evidently I don't have enough brain power to both follow a storyline AND scrub plates? Interesting.

So I'm going to do a little experiment; I got McEwan's book Saturday on tape, and I'm going to try that too. Maybe it's just Amsterdam. Maybe it's just McEwan. Or maybe it's any fiction on tape. I'm going to find out!

*I was just reading about this book at Amazon, where I was reminded that this is the book for which McEwan won the Booker Prize. What? My long tradition of not enjoying Booker Prize-winners continues. Which hurts me, because it's a British award, and as such, I should be all over it.

It's beginning to look a lot like...

...a pain in the ass and dangerous driving conditions.

We have snow here this morning, and at the risk of sounding churlish (particularly this early in the season), I am NOT in the mood. Churlish is what I do best, after all, so why fight it? What really hurts about snow is how I used to love it so--back in those lovely days when I didn't have to drive in it, and I wasn't old enough to worry about my loved ones driving in it. I am not one of those people who wants to go back to my childhood (going through grade school once was enough, thank you very much), but I do miss my uncomplicated love of snow and cold weather.

Holidays I do still like winter, and Christmas, overblown miasma of conspicuous consumption and enforced visits to the in-laws that it is, remains one of my favorite holidays. So I was very pleased to see that David Sedaris has a new and slim book out titled Holidays on Ice. It's a repackaging of his famous essay, SantaLand Diaries, and "six new stories, including one never before published." I usually consider repackagings very weak (especially in the case of Thomas Friedman and his million editions of The World Is Flat, each new one more expensive than the last), but Sedaris's Santaland Diaries essay is so great that it deserves to be found by whole new audiences. It's nothing fancy: he simply describes his season working as an elf in a New York City Macy's. It's a holiday classic:

"This afternoon I was stuck being Photo Elf with Santa Santa. I don't know his real name; no one does. During most days, there is a slow period when you sit around the house and talk to your Santa. Most of them are nice guys and we sit around and laugh, but Santa Santa takes himself a bit too seriously. I asked him where he lives, Brooklyn or Manhattan, and he said, 'Why, I live at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus!' I asked what he does the rest of the year and he said, 'I make toys for all of the children.'

I said, 'Yes, but what do you do for money?'

'Santa doesn't need money,' he said.

Santa Santa sits and waves and jingles his bell sash when no one is there. He actually recited 'The Night before Christmas,' and it was just the two of us in the house, no children. Just us. What do you do with a nut like that?" (p. 27.)

Ah. Now I'm in the mood for the holidays.

Wallowing in the lowbrow.

I have not been proud of my online activities this week. The up side is that I have been working a lot on a variety of projects, but the down side is that, when I do a lot of work on the computer, I feel I've earned "breaks" for my eyes.

Australia My first break? You got it: People Magazine's Sexiest Man list! There's absolutely nothing wrong with Hugh Jackman* and Daniel Craig. When I worked at the library, I always enjoyed the day the Sexiest Man People came out; I'll admit, we kept that bad boy at the counter and in the break room for a day rather than putting it right out on the shelf. (I always preferred Sexiest Man day to Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit day, when the Swimsuit Issue came out, and I would spend the next week pulling it out of the men's bathroom.)

I've also discovered a whole new lowbrow time suck: OMG! Yahoo. The title alone should tell you that the celebrity news, blogs, and photos at that site are meant for a crowd with a low attention threshold. I am addicted to the "What Were They Thinking?" photo sections where they critique celebrity outfits.

So there you have it. I'm not proud of it, but when your eyes need a break, they need a break. Have a great weekend, all, and remember our BOOK MENAGE starts Monday, December 1, with our books: John Bowe's Nobodies and Reg Theriault's How To Tell When You're Tired.

*I'm thinking of going to see Jackman in Baz Luhrmann's new film Australia, even though I'm neutral on Nicole Kidman. I LOVE Baz Luhrman--director of three of my all-time favorite movies: Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge.

Dumbfounded, indeed.

It's been a really weird week, book-wise.

Every book that I've picked up expecting to love has left me underwhelmed (hello, A.A. Gill's Previous Convictions) while books that I didn't expect to read past the first twenty-five pages have floored me. Case in point? Matthew Rothschild's memoir Dumbfounded.

Dumbfounded It's the story of Rothschild's childhood, which was spent in affluence on New York City's Upper East Side, but which wasn't really comfortable by any stretch of the imagination (or, as he puts it on his book's cover: "Why having it all isn't for sissies."). Left with his grandparents at a young age while his socialite mother took off for Europe, Matthew found himself living with a very unique couple in their seventies--meaning he was largely left to his own devices to figure out how to get along in school (or not--he got kicked out of every school he attended), how he felt about Judaism, and whether or not he was gay.

But, hands down, the best part of this story is Matthew's grandmother, who refers to her husband's affluent family as "that damn cult" and very rarely minces words. This is one of my favorite passages:

"My grandmother was not the kind of woman who waited for cocktail hour before she started drinking, and I knew that sometimes she carried a sliver flask with her to events for support. My grandfather, on the other hand, rarely drank anything stronger than coffee, so it's a wonder why it was his health that was the issue.

'I'll tell you why he's so sick,' my grandmother informed me confidentially. 'He was the first one in that damn cult he calls a family not to marry his cousin.'

'That's gross,' I said.

'You're preaching to the choir, little man. And you know they're all insane. Seriously.' She leaned in and lowered her voice, as if we were co-conspirators, and recited her favorite joke about my grandfather's family. 'We're talking about people who've had so much shock therapy that if they held hands, they could provide enough electricity for New York City.'" (p. 53.)

Later on in the book she tells a younger relative who asks if she has any hobbies: "I'm a hooker." I don't think I could have lived Matthew Rothschild's childhood. But I definitely wouldn't have minded knowing his grandmother.

This is why I could never read philosophy.

I think that the book Violence, by Slavoj Zizek, is probably a very good book. I'm not going to be able to tell for sure, because I can't actually read it. It is beyond me.

Violence I like the idea of the book; "Violence, Zizek states, takes three forms--subjective (crime, terror), objective (racism, hate-speech, discrimination), and systemic (the catastrophic effects of economic and political systems)--and often one form of violence blunts our ability to see the others, raising complicated questions." I like that there's a series of books out there (of which this title is a part) called Big Ideas, Small Books, published by Profile Books and Picador. But the actual text itself? Try it out:

"The notion of objective violence needs to be thoroughly historicised: it took on a new shape with capitalism. Marx described the mad, self-enhancing circulation of capital, whose solipsistic path of parthenogenesis reaches its apogee in today's meta-reflexive speculations on futures." (p. 12.)

If I had unlimited time to figure that paragraph out, and if I'd paid more attention in college, I might have a shot at it. But I didn't, so I'll return this book to the library where it can await a more schooled reader.

Whose "budget" are these people on?

I LOVE looking at house decorating and personal style books.

Mizrahi I never take any of their suggestions. I'm too lazy, and I'm too cheap. But I do get a kick out of what professional designers think it means to be "on a budget." Case in point: Isaac Mizrahi's new book How to Have Style. Now, this is a neat, slim little book that actually offers some good pointers. Mizrahi met with and photographed several different women with specific needs; e.g. how to have style...on a budget. How to have style...when traveling in business. And so on and so forth.

But the "on a budget" part? The woman in that section's outfits ended up costing $300 to $400 bucks. To me, that is hilarious. And it's not just because I work at home (although I was always pretty casual at work too). It's because I've been shopping at used clothing stores and online outlets for so long that the mere idea of spending more than twenty bucks tops on a pair of pants and a top is completely foreign to me. Also, consider this line: "her bra becomes a feature of her outfit." I'm sorry. Whenever I think about showing my bra off to the public, I think of that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine gave a bra to her chesty friend who never wore one, and then her friend wore nothing BUT the bra. In fact, I consider it a public service NOT to have my bra be a "feature of my outfit."

So it was a fun book to look through, but of course I'm not going to follow any of the suggestions. Which is okay. For me, that's not really the point of these books. That said, I don't really know what the point of these books is for me. Seeing how the other half lives? Learning how the grown-ups dress?

Finally! A great investigation of consumption.

I read a lot of nonfiction about consumption, as well as about how the stuff we consume gets made. I think it's similar to why I love reading dating manuals...I never understood dating, so I love reading about it. I hate, hate, HATE shopping, so for some reason I find myself reading about it compulsively.

Ecosinner But that's not what's important here. What's important is that you should read Fred Pearce's Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff. Pearce is a British journalist who decides, in the course of his other journalistic work, to track down where his stuff comes from, starting with his gold wedding band. From there, he tracks other things, like his t-shirts, socks, food, electronics equipment, and the metal in his soda can. Those chapters are fascinating enough (you'll never believe how many countries have a hand in making your socks), but then he also tracks where his trash and even his sewage goes. It's fascinating:

"While occupying just 2.5 percent of the world's croplands, cotton uses a tenth of all the world's chemical fertilizers and a staggering quarter of all the insecticides, mostly to fight off whitefly and bollworm." (p. 90.)

That's pretty interesting stuff, I think, and this book is full of those. It's similar to, but about a million times better, than such books as A Year without 'Made in China' or Not Buying It.

So, as we enter the holiday season, this book leaves me with one thought: Buy less, but spend more (I had that thought after the author points out how ridiculous it is to pay $10 for a t-shirt, in light of the cotton, labor, and travel needed to produce it). Or, just buy this book for everyone on your list. Sure, they may consider it a downer gift, but what's the worst that can happen? You'll be kicked out of the gift exchange?

Pretty average, for nonfiction.

It's always challenging to write a review of a book that you found pretty average. The difficulty is compounded when pretty much every other review of said book that you read falls over itself declaring how great a book is.

This is the problem I'm having with Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. Many people have really enjoyed this book. Several people I know who aren't big nonfiction readers have told me how much they enjoyed this book. I very much anticipated enjoying this book.

Whicher And, well, I read it. (That's about the best I can say.) I made it through the whole thing. It's the story of the Kent family, a British family during the 1860s who suffered through the murder of the three-year-old son of Samuel Kent and his second wife. Summerscale's writing is serviceable; the plot suitably salacious. Who killed the child? His much older and half-sister Constance, who may or may not have inherited a bit of madness from her mother, the first Mrs. Kent? Mr. Kent himself and the governess, who may have been having an affair? A disgruntled former servant?

In addition to the murder story, Summerscale also provides a character portrait of Jack Whicher, one of Scotland Yard's first detectives, who investigated the case, and how "detective fever" gripped Victorian England. All the elements are here for a gripping story.

And yet? Well, I finished it. That's all. It was okay but I just didn't feel real strongly about it one way or the other. I wonder if it's getting a lot of press because people who don't read a lot of nonfiction read it and were pleasantly surprised at how good nonfiction could be. But for those of us already in love with nonfiction? We expect it to be at least this good.

On an unrelated note: Here's a big weekend shout-out to Heidi at Two Kitties, who recently tagged me for a "7 things you don't know about me" meme. I'm a big party pooper and don't do memes here (the books are the story, not me), but I encourage you to check out her site to see my answers, and a cute photo of kittens. Hi, Heidi!

Looking and listening.

This fall I read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes and John Green's Paper Towns at nearly the same time, and I was struck by the similarity between two passages in the books. I thought it was interesting what these two quotes had to say about looking at and listening to the world.

From the Bradbury:

"He was marbled with dark, was Jim Nightshade, a boy who talked less and smiled less as the years increased...The trouble with Jim was he looked at the world and could not look away. And when you never look away all your life, by the time you are thirteen you have done twenty years taking in the laundry of the world.

Will Halloway, it was in him young to always look just beyond, over or to one side. So at thirteen he had saved up only six years of staring." (pp. 40-41.)

And, from John Green's Paper Towns:

"That was perfect, I thought: you listen to people so that you can imagine them, and you hear all the terrible and wonderful things people do to themselves and to one another, but in the end the listening exposes you even more than it exposes the people you're trying to listen to." (p. 216.)

Hm. What do these passages say about too much looking at and listening to the world?

John Green does it again.

I have been waiting, waiting, waiting, for my copy of John Green's Paper Towns to come in at the library.

So when it came in last week I immediately started it, even though I've got about forty other books that are going to come due first that I should be looking at. It's not like I've been out partying, having a crazy good time lately, so I figured, what the hell? I've earned this.

Paper For those of you who don't know him (and why don't you? Sure, he's the author of books for teens--"YA" or "Young Adult" books for those in the book and library biz--and may therefore be under your radar. That is no excuse), John Green is the author of the fabulous YA novels Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and now, Paper Towns.

What's important here is not really the story, which can be nutshelled as follows: Quentin Jacobsen, who's harbored a longtime crush on his next-door neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman (known far and wide for her adventurous exploits and hijinks), is shocked when she shows up late one night to take him along on a night of pranks aimed at those who have wronged her (including her unfaithful boyfriend). Immediately thereafter, she disappears, and Quentin and his friends spend the rest of the book trying to find her. Want a better synopsis? Visit Bookshelves of Doom.

What IS important is the world into which Green dumps his readers, and his writing skill. In my opinion, Green is hands-down, one of the best writers at creating quirky characters you wish you could be or know (except, well, maybe with just a few fewer neuroses) since J.D. Salinger. Interestingly enough, when I read his books, I never particularly want to be or know his female characters, who are all somewhat troubled, offbeat, and brilliant but complicated young girls. I want to be his male characters, who always have an interesting group of friends and a thoughtful nature.

Case in point? Q is friends with Ben and Radar. Radar's parents just happen to have the world's largest ollection of black Santas:

"In total, Radar's parents owned more than twelve hundred black Santas of various sorts. As a plaque beside their front door proclaimed, Radar's house was an officially registered Santa Landmark according to the Society for Christmas.

'You just gotta tell her, man,' I said. 'You just gotta say, Angela, I really like you, but there's something you need to know: when we go to my house and hook up, we'll be watched by the twenty-four hundred eyes of twelve hundred black Santas.'" (pp. 22-23.)

That's right, black Santas. I love John Green.

I know, I know...

I had lately broadened my self-imposed ban on political books for the rest of 2008 to include books on the Iraq War, simply because I couldn't take reading them any more.

So, of course, the next week my copy of Collateral Damage: America's War Against Iraqi Civilians, by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, came in. It's a short book, comprised of stories and interviews with US military personnel, in which the impact of the war on Iraqi civilians is made clear in horrifying detail. This is how it opens:

Collateral "Troops, when they battle insurgent forces, as in Iraq, or Gaza, or Vietnam, are placed in 'atrocity-producing situations.' Being surrounded by a hostile population makes simple acts such as going to a store to buy a can of Coke dangerous. The fear and stress pushes troops to view everyone around them as the enemy.* The hostility is compounded when the real enemy, as in Iraq, is elusive, shadowy, and hard to find. The rage soldiers feel after a roadside bomb explodes, killing or maiming their comrades, is one that is easily directed over time to innocent civilians, who are seen to support the insurgents. Civilians and combatants, in the eyes of the beleagured troops, merge into one entity. These civilians, who rarely interact with soldiers or Marines, are to most of the occupation troops nameless, faceless, and easily turned into abstractions of hate. The are dismissed as less than human. It is a short pscyhological leap but a massive moral leap. It is a leap from killing--the shooting of someone who has the capacity to do you harm--to murder. The war in Iraq is now primarily about murder. There is very little killing."

There's not much I can add to that. Read this book if you can stand it. I can't. I literally can't even READ about it anymore. Can you imagine what it must be like to LIVE there?  

*This is what I liked about this book. It is about Iraqi casualties, but it also recognizes how wrong it is to put American soldiers in this situation. The message of the book is clear: war hurts everybody. 

Good on you, Chuck.

I've always enjoyed Chuck Klosterman, in a low-key kind of way. Meaning, I don't have to run right out and read every new book he writes (which I DO have to do with, say, William Langewiesche and Paul Feig, assuming, of course, that Feig ever writes another book--pretty please?), but when I see his name I'll usually give the book or magazine article a quick perusal. I did particularly enjoy his essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low-Culture Manifesto, and he's sometimes got interesting things to say in his Esquire column, but I can't say I ever, you know, liked him liked him.

Owl But I was pleased to see him branching out into fiction with the publication of his new novel, Downtown Owl, and I was even more pleased to check it out and be thoroughly amused by it. Klosterman, a North Dakota native, sets his novel in Owl, a small town in North Dakota, during the 1980s. Ostensibly the plot device (at least toward the end) is a killer blizzard that has repercussions (to say the least) for many of the book's main characters, but it's really a fairly clever little look at small-town America.

"But the one quality that truly drove the citizens of Owl bonkers--and particularly the old men who had coffee at Harley's Cafe every day at 3:00 p.m.--was Chet's intimacy with his dog. Chet had a black Labrador retriever, and he kept it inside his apartment. He turned a hunting animal into a house pet. This was less reasonable than talking to a brick wall. He would bring his dog inside the bar, and the dog often sat in the front seat of his Camaro, a vehicle which supposedly cost sixteen thousand dollars." (p. 18, about a character referred to by the locals as the 'Dog Lover.')

That made me laugh, as there is a certain set of the population that firmly believes animals live outside, not inside. I also enjoyed this tidbit:

"Traditionally, Roman Catholics are not big Bible scholars. Catholics focus on the Gospels; the rest of the Bible is what Protestants arbitrarily memorize for no obvious reason." (p. 84.

It's a great read. Chuck is starting to make me sick, actually, with his proficiency in both nonfiction and fiction. But I'll get over it.

We have a Menage!

Nobodies Okay, the votes are in, and the readers have spoken. Our Book Menage (the discussion will start on Monday, December 1) books are:

Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the Global Economy, by John Bowe; and

How To Tell When You're Tired: A Brief Examination of Work, by Reg Theriault.

I'm quite excited about this choice--nicely done! A few things to keep in mind while reading: What questions do you have about these books? What do you really want to ask other readers of these books? We don't do any wishy-washy discussions here at Citizen Reader (I once went to a book group where we all had to go around the circle and say something positive about the book first--and I still haven't recovered from that bullshit), so don't be afraid to mix it up.

Theriault In other news, the last time I posted about John Bowe's book, he actually commented, so he might be amenable to answering more questions if we ask him nicely. We can try, anyway.

So thank YOU for voting, and happy reading. Remember to invite some friends--anyone who comments at the Menage is automatically entered in the drawing to win the two books of the next Menage. 

Career hazards.

Here's a sentence I never thought I'd type: Jenna Jameson's How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale remains the best sex industry memoir I've read.

Diary That's the thought I have after I read any sexual tell-all (and there's a surprising amount of them). The latest in a long line of "eh" reads was Secret Diary of a Call Girl. It's exactly what you would expect from the title: long on the salacious details, low on literary style, published primarily because of its subject matter. And sometimes that's okay. But there just wasn't much here that seemed all that shocking or fascinating.

What this says about me and my reading habits, I don't even want to think.

There was one diary entry that made me thankful not to be a call girl:

"It used to be simple to buy faintly embarrassing items and hide them in the rest of my there is one chemist I go to for normal things and another for everything else. Typical shopping at Chemist 1: shampoo, toothpaste, bath salts, cucumber gel mask, loofah scrubber. Today's shopping at Chemist 2: tampons, vaginal pessary (for irritation), condoms, sugarless breath mints, lubricant, individual postwaxing wipes, self-tanning liquid, razor blades, potassium citrate granules (for cystitis)." (p. 158.)

Just reading that list makes me uncomfortable. Evidently I do not have a future in call girlism.

Last reminder (I promise): Don't forget to scroll down and vote for the next Book Menage books!


Well, the overwhelming feeling I have this morning is: Thank God it's over.

Also, you've probably already seen this, but author Studs Terkel has died, at age 96. If you've never read his masterpiece of oral history, Working, I would highly recommend picking it up. First published in 1974, it now not only counts as a fascinating sociological read, but also as history for the way work was more than thirty years ago. Amazing stuff.*

I'm in the middle of about five books right now, making it hard to have any cohesive thoughts about any of them. I'll close with a reminder to once more get out the vote and vote for our next Book Menage books

*I've been thinking I should read more Terkel, starting with the book Chicago, which I bought a long time ago when I was trying to like Chicago. I still just can't do it. It's the closest big city I've got, but it doesn't do anything for me.

It's Menage Time!

Back in the halcyon days of my blogging youth, when Citizen Reader was a young and naive Nonfiction Readers Anonymous, we periodically had group book discussions that we called the BOOK MENAGE--short for a trois--because we would read two books and then talk about them in the comments. (Two books + 1 reader = the best kind of disease-free menage ever!)

Well, I think it's high time we did that again.

Are you in? Come on. It'll be fun!

I've got a few ideas about book partnerships. The first set: Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam, and Doris Lessing's new novel/family history Alfred and Emily. (Both examine what war does to the families of veterans, even years after the war is over and done with.) Or, we could try John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the new Global Economy and a shorter memoir about work, Reg Theriault's How To Tell when You're Tired. Or, we could try True Crime and read something like Jeanine Cummins's A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath paired with a novel like Michael Connelly's The Black Echo (first in the police procedural Harry Bosch series).

Here's what I see for a timeline: this week, vote* for your favorite set in the comments or email me with your choice at [email protected]. Voting closes at the end of the day on Thursday, Nov. 6 (Then I could announce before this weekend.) Then, a few weeks to read the books, including the Thanksgiving weekend (in a perfect world, I'd have us all give up Friday-after-Thanksgiving shopping to read instead), and we'll start the discussion bright and early on Monday, Dec. 1. That way we have something to do during the blah month of November, and we can discuss before we have to turn our attention to the last-minute shopping we have to do because we didn't shop the day after Thanksgiving.

Same deal as last time: vote for your favorite, and invite friends to vote and discuss as well. Everyone who discusses gets their name entered in the drawing for the next Menage's books--once we pick these titles, the lucky reader from our last menage will get her set of books in the mail!

So here we go: 1. Bissell and Lessing; 2. Bowe and Theriault; 3. Cummins and Connelly. Let the menage begin!!

*And unlike the political election, in which both candidates are completely owned by corporate interests,** your vote here really matters!

**I know, I'm a total killjoy. You should still vote tomorrow, of course.