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December 2008

Too good not to post.

I wasn't going to post today, but Andrew Bacevich is blowing me away with his book The Limits of Power. As my brother would say, this guy is a super-talent. Consider this timely nugget, from the conclusion:

"At four-year intervals, ceremonies conducted to install a president reaffirm this inclination. Once again, at the anointed hour, on the steps of the Capitol, it becomes 'morning in America.' The slate is wiped clean. The newly inaugurated president takes office, buoyed by expectations that history will soon be restored to its proper trajectory and the nation put back on track. There is something touching about these expectations, but also something pathetic, like the battered wife who expects that this time her husband will actually keep his oft-violated vow never again to raise his hand against her." (p. 173.)

Holy cow, Andrew, say what you mean, why don't you. I LOVE people who say what they mean. I love Andrew Bacevich.

All is not doom and gloom today: I'm doing some work and listening to Teddy Thompson, who is also a super-talent. Thanks for another great year of reading and talking about reading, and I hope your new year rocks at least as hard as this Thompson song.


The year's must-read.

Power I'm not calling Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism* a best book of 2008. I'm not saying it's a book you have to read. What I am saying is that you should buy it and give it to anyone who thought Ronald Reagan was a good president and a decent man:

"Reagan reiterated an oft-made promise 'to check and reverse the growth of government.'

He would do none of these things. In each case, in fact, he did just the reverse. During the Carter years, the federal deficit had averaged $54.5 billion annually. During the Reagan era, deficits skyrocketed, averaging $210.6 billion over the course of Reagan's two terms in office. Overall federal spending nearly doubled, from $590.9 billion over the course of Reagan's two terms in office." (p. 39.)

In all fairness, Bacevich has some shocking things to say about all the presidents since Kennedy; his thumbnail history of America in the 20th century in the first fifty pages alone makes this book a worthwhile purchase. He is also a succinct writer,** with what seems to me a keen grasp of the obvious:

"Long accustomed to thinking of the United States as a superpower, Americans have yet to realize that they have forfeited command of their own destiny. The reciprocal relationship between expansionism, abundance, and freedom--each reinforcing the other--no longer exists. If anything, the reverse is true: Expansionism squanders American wealth and power, while putting freedom at risk...Rather than confronting this reality head-on, American grand strategy since the era of Ronald Reagan, and especially throughout the era of George W. Bush, has been characterized by attempts to wish reality away." (p. 66.)

Oh, boy. Happy new year, everyone.

*I couldn't quite make it through 2008 without reading another political book.

**Bacevich is also a retired army colonel, and has had a son killed in the Iraq War. So any Republicans who don't think he knows what he's talking about as far as the military is concerned can just shove it.

The Christmas haul.

One thing I find almost as interesting as reading itself is how and for whom people buy books. As any type of shopping except book-shopping makes me break out in hives, I am solidly in the camp of people who give only two types of presents: books, or cash. As I am also too uncoordinated and color-blind (not really, but I have never understood which colors "go" with other colors) to wrap presents, this works out: books are easy to wrap, and cash only requires a card.

I also have longstanding agreements with most of the people close enough to me to buy me presents, that we needn't buy one another presents. The point of this long, somewhat boring anecdote is that I rarely receive books as gifts. But when I do, they mean something to me, even if I don't like the book. I have a shelf of "gift books" that I have been given and will most likely never give away. This is rare, for me. I have no compunction about getting rid of stuff, even gifted stuff. If you give me a Christmas ornament or other tchotchke the chances are good it will be in the bag of stuff for Goodwill before the year is out. I don't do it to be mean. I do it because I only have one box of Christmas stuff, and I'm going to keep it that way; and I also do it because I hate dusting around knickknacks.

But: the books I keep. Because I love looking at my gift shelf and trying to figure out why the various gifters thought I would enjoy the book given, and further, why I did or did not love the book (and because books are easy to dust). All of that said, I got only one book for Christmas, and it's a keeper: Mr. CR gave me Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. He wrote in the accompanying card, "Now you have your very own copy!" It was the perfect gift. (It was also amusing that he borrowed a Christmas card off of me to give back to me.)

I had a wonderful holiday and hope very much you did as well. Did any of you get or give books? Do tell. We're all just killing time at work until the New Year's holiday anyway, aren't we?

I already didn't get what I wanted for Christmas.

All I wanted for Christmas was for David Wroblewski (he of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, one of the Worst Books of 2008) to never write another book. According to the news over at the Reader's Advisor Online, I'm not getting what I wanted, and he's writing another book.

Netherfield I also was hoping it would stop snowing for a couple of days around Christmas, and if you live in the Midwest, you can see how that hope is working out for me as well.

But, it's not over until the fat lady sings...or until the fat man drops down the chimney. I'm packing it in for the week to see some family, not have access to a computer, and rely almost entirely on comfort reading, includingThe Dark Is Rising and a Jane Austen imitation novel, Netherfield Park Revisited. Mmmmm comfort reading.

A merry Christmas to you all and a very festive holiday season and 2009. Here's hoping the fat man brings all of you what you want, and that you all have safe travels as well.

There are few things more disappointing.

Don't you hate it when you see that a new book is out by one of your favorite authors, and then you get it, and you hold it with quivering excitement, and then you open it and start reading...and you just aren't loving it?

Previous This happened to me with A. A. Gill's latest, Previous Convictions: Assignments from Here and There. It's sitll Gill, so it's still good, but somehow, I just didn't love every minute of it, like I did with The Angry Island and A.A. Gill Is Away. For one thing, I think I prefer his travel writing, and this book opens with several pieces that are not travel: Father, Son, Golf, Hunting, Dog, etc. (these essays are the "Here" of the title). I much preferred the "There" essays: Haiti, Guatemala, India, Oman, Pakistan, etc.

I did love the piece about Las Vegas:

"There's one of those plastic laminated nonbiodegradable notes in my hotel bathroom. It's headed PRESERVE OUR FUTURE: 'Preserving the Earth's vital resources is something we can all take part in. In an effort to save water and energy and to minimize the release of harsh biodegradable [sic] detergents...please leave this card on your pillow and we will remake your bed with existing linens.'

I read it twice.

I'm in a hotel that has built a replica of Venice's Grand Canal--on the second floor, so that it won't wash away the crap tables downstairs. This is a city that blows up the hotels when they're slightly soiled, that sweats neon, that sprays ice water from the lampposts and puts dancing fountains in the desert. This is a place that when they started nuclear testing next door sold picnics for those who wanted to get a closer look--and held Miss Atomic Bomb contests with bikinis shaped like mushroom clouds. These are the people who are wagging a finger at me and asking me to be parsimonious with the laundry.

Well, welcome to Las Vegas--where irony just curls up and dies." (pp. 243-244.)

Okay, that's pretty good stuff. I guess this one gets a thumbs up after all.

The Worst Books of 2008

Sure, we could have a best books list. But everybody else is doing that to death, so let's let our freak flag fly, shall we? So here are my nominees, in no particular order (links go to my original bitchy reviews):

1. What Happened, by Scott McClellan. Bush's former weenie press secretary tries to act like he didn't know Bush was evil when he originally took the job, and has now written a book to try and profit from the terrible mess he helped create. Mr. McClellan, you are a weenie, and your boring book filled with information we all already know deserves to be remaindered.

2. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, by Thomas Friedman. I'll admit it. I haven't even read this one, I just hate Friedman on principle. I hate that he's still trying to profit on his last book with the "flat" bit (playing on his previous title "The World is Flat") and I hate that he's such a book whore that he's now riding the "green revolution" to profit. What a jackhole. And, Mr. Friedman? Thanks again for so adamantly supporting the Iraq War. That's working out really well.

3. Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger, by Lee Israel. Israel tells her story of forging famous people's autographs and letters and selling them for profit. How she manages to make her story both boring and self-pitying, I'm not sure, but she sure did.

4. Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes. Yet another old man tells us about his atheism, how it developed, and how it relates to his fear of death. Um, why do I care again? Oh, right, because it's a New York Times Notable book, along with dozens of other boring choices.

5. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. Hamlet, retold from a dog's point of view (basically), over the course of about 200 more pages (562 pages total) than were necessary. Um, why do I care again? Oh yes, it's an Oprah book, and one of the most "buzzed about" titles of the year. I don't know who this Buzz is but I'm thinking he and I don't share the same taste in books.

6. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, by Thomas Kohnstamm. Like reading an account of a frat boy's life ("I drank a lot, women found me irresistible and screwed me, and now I'm relating all the details like the classy guy I am") with more international settings. And not terribly well-described international settings at that.

7. The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner, and Against Happiness, by Eric Wilson. The only thing that made me happy about these books was returning them to the library.

So how's about it? What titles annoyed the hell out of you this year?

It's that time, part two.

Cooper We're slated to get 9 to 12 inches of snow tonight; I can't say I'm looking forward to that. I AM looking forward to re-reading Susan Cooper's young adult/fantasy novel The Dark Is Rising, which I religiously do every December (as religiously as I read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes every October). My eventual goal is to have a perfect book for each month.

If yesterday was about enjoying this time of year, today is about its dark side. And I think a paragraph from early on in The Dark Is Rising gets it perfectly:

"It was then, without warning, that the fear came.

The first wave caught him as he was crossing the room to his bed. It halted him stock-still in the middle of the room, the howl of the wind outside filling his ears. The snow lashed against the window. Will was suddenly deadly cold, yet tingling all over. He was so frightened that he could not move a finger."

And this:

"The next day the snow fell, all day. And the next day, too.

'I do wish it would stop,' said Mary unhappily, gazing at the blind white windows. 'It's horrible the way it just goes on and on--I hate it.

'Don't be stupid,' said James. It's just a very long storm. No need to get hysterical.'

'This is different. It's creepy.'

'Rubbish. It's just a lot of snow.'

'Nobody's ever seen so much snow before. Look how high it is--you couldn't get out of the back door if we hadn't been clearing it since it started to fall. We're going to be buried, that's what. It's pushing at us--it's even broken a window in the kitchen, did you know that?....I don't care what you say, it's horrible. As if the snow was trying to get in.'"

I'm with you, Mary. That's exactly how it feels when it just keeps snowing.

It's the most wonderful time.

Charlie I really like Christmas. Don't tell anyone, okay? I like winter and cold and snow (well, frankly, if I could get the cold without the snow that would be better; I hate driving in snow), I like Christmas lights, I like Christmas specials. In fact, each year I make sure to get the same old Christmas specials I watch every year from the library, because I am nothing if not routine-driven and fearful of any kind of change. When I was little, we had this tree topper that was a light-up star, that I loved. Very 9.99 from Walgreen's, with little lights and colored tinsel around it. And then one year my mom decided to get a different tree topper (the star was actually falling apart): an angel who was holding two little white lights. I was so mad at the switch that I actually hated the angel, the first year we had her and every year after. When I picture trees from my childhood, they are always topped by the star.

Yup. Routine is good. So here's the shows I have to watch, or it just doesn't feel like Christmas:

The Simpsons Holiday Special: The very first one. Accept no substitutes. This is the one where Homer works as a Santa, Marge's sisters visit, and Matt Groening gets the experience of school programs exactly right. When Homer and Marge sit through Bart and Lisa's program, at one point Homer whines, "Awww, how many grades does this school have?" Perfect.

The Vicar of Dibley Chrimstas Special--The Christmas Lunch Incident: If you haven't seen the British series The Vicar of Dibley, starring Dawn French, it's about time you started. In the Christmas special, the very hilarious and very rotund vicar gets asked to three--and then four--Christmas lunches, and has to eat up to everyone's expectations at each one.

A Charlie Brown Christmas: Peanuts kids dancing and Linus--"and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men." Quite possibly my favorite 30 minutes of TV ever.

My fourth holiday tradition (well, midwinter's day tradition, actually) is re-reading Susan Cooper's high fantasy classic The Dark is Rising. More on that tomorrow.

Now that's what I call a book group!

Nothing much this morning. I just wanted to say thanks to everyone who participated in our Book Menage--it was awesome! (And the comments are still open, so if you missed the discussion last week, feel free to join the party in the comments section whenever you want!) Shortly I'm going to have the lovely and talented Mr. CR pick a name, and then I'll contact that person as our winner, who will receive the two books of our next Menage free of charge!

Speaking of, maybe we'll pick two lighter books for our next group. Anyone got any ideas? Likewise, does anyone have any suggestions for how long we should have to read the books before we discuss them? Anything else about the Menage that we could change to make it even better? Please do let me know. I already think it's a great book group, primarily because I don't have to clean my house, but I'm always up for suggestions.

MENAGE! "Nobodies" and "How to Tell When You're Tired"

Let's get it started...

Welcome to the inaugural Book Menage at Citizen Reader. We've done this before, of course, but we did it at the dearly departed Nonfiction Readers Anonymous, now lost forever to the abyss of technical difficulties. Our two books this time around, though, are special: John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, and Reg Theriault's How to Tell When You're Tired: A Brief Examination of Work.

These books are special not only because you chose them, but they're dear to me because 1. Nobodies was one of my favorite books of the last several years, and contains one of my most quoted lines ever; and 2. I bought the Theriault book from the used bookstore where I worked for a blissful year, and that bookstore was where I had my own perfect union of work that needed to be done and work that I needed to be doing. But all of that is neither here nor there. We are here for the discussion.

So how does this thing go down? Well, I ask a couple of general questions (any or all of which you are welcome to answer), and then we open it up to comments. Then, if all goes according to plan, everyone brings questions of their own, and then we answer those.* We do this for a week, and hopefully we have a good time. I think we will. Oh, and whoever comments is automatically entered in a drawing (with the lovely Mr. CR, as ever, choosing the winner out of a hat) to win the books for the next Menage.

My questions for you are:

1. What part/quote (if any) of each book particularly stuck with you, or made you think? Why did that part stand out?

2. What was your gut reaction to the writers of these books? Which author would you prefer to meet and chat things over with? Why?

3. Did Nobodies depress the hell out of anyone else or was it just me?

Okay! Go forth and menage. I'll start us off, because I don't expect others to answer questions I wouldn't answer myself. And thanks for joining the discussion!

*A while back when I posted a question about Nobodies, John Bowe popped in and answered it. So if you have questions for him or Reg, I'll try to track them down and get them answered. Just let me know.

Friday Free Associating: Music and NYTimes edition.

Here's a nice little song to enjoy before your weekend (listen at least through all three of them singing together):


Wow. Also: The New York Times Notable list is out, and it's totally boring. I have decided that the New York Times Book Review has no relevance to my life at all. Case in point? Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Frightened Of is on it, and I'm in the process of reading that and being completely underwhelmed. I'm getting really tired of old men atheists and agnostics telling me all about their lack of religious beliefs (Barnes, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett), particularly since it seems to guarantee them a spot on the Notable lists. Annoying. And, might I ask, where are all the woman atheists? I'd love a book on atheism by a woman, just for a change of pace. Think on this.

Have a great weekend all, and remember to finish up John Bowe's Nobodies and Reg Theriault's How To Tell When You're Tired. The Menage starts first thing next Monday!! I can't wait.

The occupational hazards of proofreading.

I used to do some proofreading work for a publisher* of magazines and books for teachers and childrens' librarians. It was an okay job (and of course, could be done in my pyjamas, which it often was), but I remember one pet peeve I had with the job very clearly. Several of the authors whose work I proofread didn't understand the difference between "i.e." and "e.g.," which always made me crazy. Even crazier than authors who didn't understand the difference between "its" and "it's."

I don't actually know what "i.e." and "e.g." stand for, although I think it's something in Latin. But I do know that "i.e." means, approximately, "that is..." while "e.g." means "for example." So it's very easy to work out which one you should use: i.e., you should try them out in a sentence (e.g., like I just did).

Those are messy examples but you take my meaning. So yesterday I was reading along in Candace Bushnell's (she of Sex and the City fame) new novel One Fifth Avenue, and I came to this paragraph:

"'Isn't that some kind of record for you?' Schiffer asked. 'I thought you never went more than four years without getting hitched.'

'I've learned a lot since my two divorces,' Philip said, 'i.e.: Do not get married again. What about you? Where's your second husband?'"

Now there's really nothing wrong with that. "That is, do not get married again." But I don't know. I think I might have used an e.g. there: "For example: do not get married again." It's debatable, I know. But once I had that in mind I couldn't get it out of my mind, and fifteen pages later, I was still thinking about it. So I ditched the whole book. (I wasn't really enjoying it all that much anyway.)

*Speaking of proofreading, I'm pretty sure publishers have just quit doing it. On the very first page of American Prince: A Memoir, by Tony Curtis: "All my life I had one dream, and that was tobe in the movies." Sigh.

Why make it this hard?

I wanted to enjoy Logan Ward's See You In a Hundred Years: Four Seasons in Forgotten America, but I just couldn't.

I could sympathise with he and his wife's decision to leave behind the rat race and New York City and try to make a go of it living on a farm. But they took it a step further: they decided to literally go back to 1900, not using anything that wasn't widely available after that date (no phone, no computer, no electricity, etc.).

Ward Now that I just don't understand. What, it isn't hard enough to go and try and grow your own food, you had to go and give up indoor plumbing? No way, man. When I read about his wife actually going without modern-day, ahem, sanitary supplies, I was done with this book. And then there were the snake stories:

"Over the next few weeks, as we grind ourselves down preparing to begin our experiment--bickering, fretting, racing to and from town on the single-lane farm roads--the snakes haunt us. I find a snakeskin hanging like a giant condom from a limb outside Luther's second-story window and another poking out of the backyard downspout. I shoo snakes out of the barnyard and the grass encircling the house." (p. xi.)

Ye gods. Paragraphs like that make me want to go join the city rat race instead.

Oh, damn it, now I'm hungry.

Which is not a rare occurrence, granted. But you know how they say you should never go grocery shopping while you're hungry? Well, on a related note, you should never read the book The Food Life: Inside the World of Food with the Grocer Extraordinaire at Fairway while you're hungry.

Fairway It's a beautiful book, first off, with tons of pictures (which I wish were in color, but you can't have everything), and it's fascinating. Author Steve Jenkins (who is also the author of The Cheese Primer) relates the details of his decades spent working for the Fairway grocery store, which has several locations in New York City, describing how he built their cheese department, as well as how all of the store's departments and managers work together. It's primarily a book about food, for foodies (I'll admit I skimmed the chapters on olive oil and vinegar, I'm not a gourmet cook and those chapters could only hold my interest for so long), but it's also one of my favorite types of books: the work memoir.*

Jenkins admits that he got the job and then fell backwards into loving it, eventually becoming a cheese expert. His love and respect for his job, the objects of his expertise, and his co-workers is inspiring. He also has the correct attitude toward shoppers, in my opinion:

"If your kid is cranky and you're on your way to Fairway or on your way home via Fairway, it is advisable to consider dropping the kid at the apartment, tying the little sweetie securely to something, and then going out to shop...If I see one of your children pick up a twenty-dollar bottle of balsamic vinegar just for the hell of it, I'm going to snatch it away from him (her, whatever), glare at you, and hope you get indignant. After all, shopping here is not a right, it's a privilege. You have to know how to conduct yourself." (pp. 111-112.)

*In addition to being a good memoir, this book also includes a ton of good-lookin' recipes.

What I learned over the weekend.

I had a great Thanksgiving weekend. I very much hope you had the same.

So what did I learn? Well, for one thing: people are crazy. Also, that Mr. CR has the correct attitude toward shopping and problem avoidance: As we watched the news story about the Wal-Mart worker getting trampled, they showed a woman with a tiny little baby in her arms pushing against a store door in a mob of people. Mr. CR opined, "You know, maybe pregnant women and people with tiny babies should stay away from that kind of scene." Should but won't, dear.

Also: When he's not busy being annoying, Colin Farrell can really act. We watched the movie In Bruges last night and really enjoyed it, although "enjoy" is the wrong word for what was, in the end, a really sad movie. But interesting. Very interesting. If you don't mind hit men protagonists and a final ten minutes with quite a bit of violence, you may want to consider this movie.

Frida I picked up the novel Frida's Bed by Slavenka Drakulic over the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a novelization of the life of artist Frida Kahlo, about whom I knew nothing. (Well, that's not true; I always thought of her as the "Mustache Lady," which I certainly didn't mean unkindly, as I have my own mustache issues.) But evidently Kahlo suffered from almost constant pain, stemming from her experience with polio as a child, and then from a horrific bus accident when she was eighteen (resulting in numerous surgeries on her leg, foot, and back, just to name a few). Wow. The poor thing. She also married Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist (and he had an affair with her younger sister); and had infidelities of her own (even, notably, with Leon Trotsky). How she managed to do all that, paint, and suffer from constant pain, I can't figure out. I've got to get a biography of her. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Looking for the Book Menage? It starts next Monday, December 8!