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January 2009

The Losers Awards.

The problem with taking a day off and promising something big the next day is that, well, you should provide something exciting the next day. I hope I didn't promise too much, but here goes...

So, hot on the heels of all the Best Books of 2008 lists, all the awards lists have now started coming out. Two in particular that I checked out were the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists, and the American Library Association 2008 Notable Books. (Okay, three lists; I also perused the New York Times Notable Books list when it came out.)

In a word? Snore.

In a few more words: Really, New York Times? You're really calling Philip Roth's novel Indignation and Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded "notable"? How do I come to work for your books page and start phoning it in for the big bucks?

Okay, of course, there's good books on all of those lists. The people who chose them are people after my own heart--book critics and librarians. And yes, just because a book gets a lot of press and sales attention, doesn't make it bad. To steal yet another line from Broadcast News, "I grant you everything." But I have to say it: these lists, along with the National Book Awards lists, totally put me to sleep. Come on, Jane Mayer's The Dark Side and Dexter Filkins's The Forever War? Would they have to be on all the lists? Patrick French's long biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is? Did anyone actually make it all the way through that book? And how that Mark Harris book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood keeps making it on these lists, I don't know. I mean, it was okay, but it wasn't all that thrilling. I can't say the fiction choices on either list did a ton for me either. I'm so tired of seeing Marilynne Robinson's name, I can't tell you.*

I don't know why these lists have left me feeling so cantankerous. But they did leave me with the very strong impression that we need some new, or at least some different, types of book lists. So, without further ado, I would like to present the (patent pending) Citizen Reader List of the Year's Most Wrongfully Ignored Books of 2008.** For short, I'm thinking of calling them simply the "Losers," as I didn't find them on many other award lists. Here goes!

The 2008 Losers, Nonfiction

The Oxford Project, Peter Feldstein and Stephen J. Bloom. Feldstein photographed all 700 residents of Oxford, Iowa, in 1984, and re-photographed as many as he could 25 years later.

The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich. If Jane Mayer's political book The Dark Side is on every "best list," this succinct title should be there as well.

The Food Life: Inside the World of Food with the Grocer Extraordinaire at Fairway, Steven Jenkins. Longtime Fairway manager and cheese guru Jenkins ruminates on the New York chain and his love affair with food.

Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff, Fred Pearce. British journalist Pearce investigates where all his stuff, including his gold wedding ring and his food, comes from.

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, Darby Penney and Peter Stastny. Historians re-create the lives of long-term mental health hospital residents by examining their suitcases, which were found in the hospital's attic.

The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories, Pagan Kennedy. A charming group of essays about the man who wrote "The Joy of Sex," as well as more personal subjects.

Trailer Trailer Trashed: My Dubious Efforts Toward Upward Mobility, Hollis Gillespie. Contains one of the most perfectly formed essays I've ever read.

Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block, Judith Matloff. Matloff and her husband buy a fixer-upper in Harlem and set about making it home.

Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, Kelly McMasters. McMasters grew up in a Long Island town perilously close to a government research lab with spurious environmental practices, and examines its affect on her hometown and its residents' health.

Vanishing America: The End of Main Street Diners, Drive-Ins, Donut Shops, and Other Everyday Monuments, Michael Eastman. An unsettling but beautiful photography book.

The Great Derangement, Matt Taibbi. Again, listmakers, if you're desperate to list a political book, why not this one??

The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, Vincent Bugliosi. I'm not surprised no one had the balls to list this one. No one had the balls to review it in the first place. And yes, it's a totally partisan choice. But if you want to read one book that proves why W. is a very bad man, this is that book.

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, Sudhir Venkatesh. Venkatesh is a little in love with the sound of his own voice, but I ask you: who just walks into the projects in Chicago and asks to witness gang activities? Fascinating and unsettling.

Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, Richard Longworth. Everything you need to know about our country's lack of a manufacturing base, basic economics, and immigration, all in one book.

Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus, Gregory Gibson. Gibson spins tales of a seedy, lost, and wonderful New York City, with great empathy and gentleness.

The 2008 Losers, Fiction

A Country Called Home, Kim Barnes. Reviewed earlier this week.

Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, Martin Millar. A softly beautiful novel about love, friendship, Great Britain in the 1970s, and Led Zeppelin.

Frida's Bed, Slavenka Drakulic. A short but meaty novelization of the life of Frida Kahlo.

Crime, Irvine Welsh. A British cop coming off a tragic case takes a holiday in Florida to get away from his problems, and stumbles on a pedophilia ring.

She Was, Janis Hallowell. Doreen Woods's past and her inadvertent crime as a Vietnam War protestor catches up with her.

Hatched Honorable Mention for the Best Book That Looks Like a Kid's Book but Isn't, 2008:

Hatched: The Big Push from Pregnancy to Motherhood, Tanen Sloane. Okay, it's a 2007 book, but I just found it this year. Pregnancy, hilarity, and little yellow chickens. Need I say more?

So, there you have it. My list of Losers that deserved much, much more attention than they got. How's about it? What books do you feel were unjustly ignored this past year?

*And no, I didn't read her newest novel Home, but her novel Gilead was so boring it put me to sleep, after which I woke up and threw it across the room.

**In other news, all links at Citizen Reader now go to Powell's online book store. I don't get any kickback or anything, I just wanted to start linking to the (independent) Powell's rather than the (behemoth) Amazon. Also, Amazon's pages take forever to load lately and have been pissing me off for quite some time.

Fill for a second.

As Holly Hunter once said to William Hurt in the fantastic movie Broadcast News, "Fill for a second!"

I'm working on a longer post that I won't get done today, but it'll be up tomorrow. Just to build buzz, I'll let you in on the secret that it's going to be a new award list--not Best Books, not Worst Books, not Books by Authors I Most Love to Hate (I'm looking at you, Thomas Friedman)--but something completely new. It's gonna be fun!

In the meantime, if you need some books and reading news, might I suggest the fabulous Readers' Advisor Online blog? Or, if you're in the mood for lighter fare, try the always amusing Overheard in the Office. See you tomorrow!

Okay, add France to the list...

...of the roughly zillion places I'd like to travel and visit.

This is awkward, since I never really wanted to visit France. Sure, everybody tells you to go to Paris, but sadly, when you're dealing with time and money constraints, you have to pick and choose vacation spots very carefully. Mr. CR has never been to Great Britain and I always wanted to drag him there first.

Brittany But then along comes a great book like Mark Greenside's I'll Never Be French (No Matter What I Do): Living in a Small Village in Brittany.* This is one of the first travel books I've read that actually made me want to GO to the place the author is describing, rather than just glad that I could read the book and not have to go. It doesn't hurt that the France being described by Greenside is actually Brittany--the northwestern part of France that juts up nearly to meet Great Britain and which is more Celtic in character than French.

Greenside tells the story of how, in his late forties, he followed a girl to Brittany. The love affair with the girl soon ended; his love affair with Brittany was just beginning. Part of the joy of the book is that he doesn't fit in and he knows it--he knows no French and he accepts that he's largely helpless. (His first morning in France he can't figure out his house door, hops out the window, makes it to the local bakery, and gets bread and coffee, largely through hand signals and the goodwill of the shop owner.) Thanks to some very helpful neighbors who are just happy that he's American and not English, he eventually starts to learn how things work in France and, by the end of the summer, buys his own house there.

I'll admit it. I liked this book largely because I liked this guy. I am charmed by middle-aged men who have no money, but have no problems taking advice from French women about which houses to look at, and who also are secure enough in their manhood to borrow the money from their moms. I also liked that he admitted he was helpless, and he was never going to actually be French (or Breton), but that he could appreciate them all the same. I also liked his take on the differences between French and American children:

"French parents treat their kids like adults, knowing they're children and they'll lapse. American parents treat their kids like babies and get short with them when they don't act grown up. One of the saddest sights I've seen is American parents bringing their two-year-olds to the movies and getting upset when the babies begin to cry." (p. 67.)

There's plenty of food and landscape description, as well. Tell me if this doesn't make you hungry: "We buy a hunk of white bread cut from a loaf the size of a truck tire, local cheese, a tomme and chevre, dry sausage with pistachios, pate de campagne, strawberies from Plougastel, two pears, two green apples, a bottle of local cider, and a huge chocolate truffle for dessert--and drive to Pointe de Corsen on the Atlantic for a picnic." (p. 204.)

It's an awesome book. I won't tell you you have to go to France, but you do have to read this book.

*Follow the link to, where there's also a cute video of Greenside talking about the book.

Back to the land, not so idyllic.

I absolutely loved Kim Barnes's novel A Country Called Home. I started it one night with the intention of just looking at a couple of chapters and then tossing it aside, but before I knew it I was hooked, and I got up early the next morning to read it, and when I stopped reading it, I not only had to put it down, but I had to take a couple of minutes to let my mind swim, unwillingly, back up to daily consciousness.

Barnes The story was an interesting take on a couple's desire to "go back to the land": Thomas and Helen Deracotte go to Idaho to live on the land; it turns out be not quite what Helen wants. They have a daughter, Elise, and a hired hand, Manny, who is in love with Helen. Of course, a variety of tragedies ensue, and although not all the characters are lovable, they do at least seem real. For instance, Thomas is a doctor who, it turns out, doesn't really want to be a doctor. His is an attitude toward doctoring I can understand:

"All through his internship and residency he'd sheltered himself from his growing self-doubt. But then the pediatric ward, the twelve-year-old girl, pallid and shivering with fever. She'd cried as he examined her, covering her face with both hands like a child playing hide-and-seek. He remembered how hot and dry her skin felt beneath his fingers, how the organs bulged and rolled away from his prodding, as though desirous to keep their contagion a secret. Finally, the girl's muffled sobs, the pain his hands invoked, had been too much for him to bear, and he had moved to the next room, where a boy lay whose prognosis was definite..." (p. 36.)

I'm not going to say much more because part of the pleasure of this novel was watching it unfold.  Barnes is also a memoirist; I've read and enjoyed her book In the Wilderness. Check either one of these out.

Two takes on urban sufficiency.

Urban I applaud the spirit behind The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City (by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen). I really do. I'm on board with their opening projects: composting, a little raised garden bed, container gardening, etc. But when it starts to veer into hardcore, I'm afraid I have to get off the train. A few things I will not be doing:

1. Well, pretty much anything from the "Urban Foraging" chapter. I will not be harvesting and eating weeds (I have eaten weeds--Mom used to make dandelions like endive; chopped up and mixed with mashed potatoes and a bit of bacon--but I got enough of that in my youth) or dumpster diving for food.

2. I know it's all the rage right now, but I will also not be keeping chickens.

3. Composting toilets, making use of my own waste? No freaking way, man. I LOVE my flush toilet, I'm clinging to it until civilization ends, and then I'm just going to give up and die. If that makes me a bad person, environmentally, then so be it.

So I will not become an urban homesteader. There were still a few interesting things in the book, although I found a similar title, Kathy Harrison's Just in Case: How to Be Self-Sufficient When the Unexpected Happens, to contain more helpful information about being prepared and what to have on hand for basic emergencies and first aid. Over the weekend I also picked up R.J. Ruppenthal's Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square Inch Gardener's Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting, which I predict I will find interesting until it actually comes time to plant something. Further bulletins on this book as events warrant.

Time to move on, Garrison.

Okay, Garrison, you're starting to phone it in a little bit. It's been a good run, but the Lake Wobegon well might actually be running dry.

Keillor I listened to Keillor's Never Better: Stories from Lake Wobegon last week, and I'll admit I may disagree with the title. And not because I dislike Keillor on principle (which I know some people do). The stories were fine, covering all the bases of community life, family life, and Catholics vs. Lutherans that we have come to expect. Keillor's in as fine a voice as ever; the stories are just lacking a little something.

But, I still enjoyed them, particularly the Christmas story where he points out that the people who want traditional Christmases with all the frills from their childhood are the rebellious adolescents, while the old ladies doing all the work are ready to chuck the traditions. I also had the joy of listening to it while Mr. CR was home--anything and everything Lake Wobegon makes him batty, in much the same way my love for the Red Green Show does. He's not really a big city guy, but homespun doesn't do much for him either.

So. There's a nice lukewarm review to head into the weekend on. If you're a dedicated Lake Wobegon fan, this volume will be fine. If you're looking for a great introduction to the series, start with some of the earlier versions (like More News from Lake Wobegon).

Medical books have been ruined for me.

I get the feeling that Paul Austin's book Something for the Pain: One Doctor's Account of Life and Death in the ER is actually a pretty good book. I won't be able to tell for sure, though, because I'm not going to be able to read it.

Pain Ever since I was in the hospital last year (and that was for a scheduled surgery; not an emergency room situation) I find that anything on medical subjects has been ruined for me. I can't watch Scrubs on TV any more; commercials for ER cause nearly instantaneous nausea; just the thought of typing "" into the Internet makes my hands start shaking. Likewise, I can no longer read books on medical subjects. This is a shame, because I used to like books like Atul Gawande's Complications Pauline Chen's Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality, and Richard Selzer's Down from Troy: A Doctor Comes of Age. I have read all of Robin Cook's medical thrillers and loved them; I was never really a squeamish reader. But now? All I have to read is Austin's intro:

"Thirty minutes later, the CT technician wheeled Ms. Lowery back to her cubicle, and then walked over to the nursing station. The technician sat down next to me, and pulled her chair close. 'She's got a mass this big,' she whispered, forming a circle with her thumb and middle finger. 'It's the size of a golf ball. The radiologist's going to call you in a minute with the formal report, but the mass is pretty obvious.'

The radiologist called. I spoke with Dr. Davis, the neurosurgeon on call. He asked a few questions, and said he'd be right in. I was glad I'd be turning Ms. Lowery's care over to him. Some of the on-call doctors try to dodge admissions. They look for reasons that I should send the patient home or to another hospital--anything to keep from having to come in and deal with the admission...

I sat in the dictation booth, not looking forward to telling Ms. Lowery she had a brain tumor. But the sooner I talked with her, the sooner I could go home." (pp. 19-20.)

And...we're done here. I did read a little bit more; it's a memoir of how Austin became a doctor and how his work in the emergency room has affected him--and it is actually very good stuff. But I just can't do it. The frailty of the human body, the knowledge that any of us can go from having a headache to having a brain mass overnight, is something that I don't want to read about. Maybe someday I'll come back for it. But most likely not.

You're killing me, YouTube.

The one thing I didn't really need was to find an easier way to make YouTube work. Have you seen their "Playlists" feature? It works like this (or something like this; I don't really know all that much about it): some people who have uploaded videos and sound clips have made them into a playlist, which you can then set to "autoplay." This means, even though clips of movies and soundtracks are still uploaded in roughly ten-minute increments, you can just set them to play one right after another. There's one great soundtrack in particular that I've been playing all weekend; I'm not linking to it because I don't know how this copyright thing works, and I don't want to draw attention where it's not wanted.

And yes, I know I should buy the soundtrack. I still might so just ease up there, judgey judgersons; I'm still an old-school girl without an MP3 player so I still prefer to play music on CDs on my stereo.

In other viewing news, please note that Masterpiece Theatre is showing Wuthering Heights next Sunday night (part 2). If you missed part 1, you can view that at their website as well (damn Internet; I'm never going to get anything done this way). My favorite part of that movie so far has been watching a rather spicy love scene with Mr. CR, who then turned to me and commented that "Masterpiece Theatre seems to be a lot less boring than it used to be."

And, speaking of videos, enjoy the one below from the online show called "I'm Just Saying." I don't watch it religiously but I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this episode. Remember a while back when I shared how embarrassed I was to prefer reading men's magazines like GQ, Esquire, and Details (and how funny I found it that browsing those magazines in airport bookstores was awkward because they were next to the nudie mags?). Well, these women agree with me, and I love them for it.

Why Do Women's Magazines Suck? (Episode 46) from ImJustSayin on Vimeo.

The Oxford Project.

No cutesy post headings today, and no time to waste: If you haven't yet seen or bought Peter Feldstein's and Stephen G. Bloom's beautiful and oversized photography book The Oxford Project, you're missing out. To say it is a good book would be entirely understating the case. To say it is one of those rare books that stops time and is transcendent might get a little closer to the mark.

Oxford Which is so odd, considering it is a book of photographs of the residents of a small town (Oxford) in Iowa, and is almost oppressive in its subjects' normality. It helps that it is a unique idea: in 1984, art professor and photographer Peter Feldstein set up a small studio in Oxford and invited all the town's residents (population: 693) to have their photos taken for free. Twenty-five years later he went back and took the residents' portraits again (nearly a hundred residents had died; another hundred had moved away; but the rest were there and were largely amenable to having their pictures taken again); he also took along writer Stephen Bloom, who recorded anything the Oxfordians felt like telling them. Between the historical pictures, the present-day pictures, and the text of what the residents had to say, believe me when I say this is a book like no other.

Do you know what I mean when I say a book is so good it stops time? It doesn't happen very often but when it does it's one of those experiences that makes life worthwhile. It might be more strictly accurate to say such a book speeds up time, but for some reason it feels more like time is stopped. I started this book at 10 p.m. on Saturday night, and when I looked up from it the first time, it was 10:45, and it felt like only a minute had passed. The next time I looked up it was 11:30, and then 12:20. Finally I forced myself to put it down because I knew I was going to be tired on Sunday. Then, Sunday morning, I picked it right back up and was lost for another hour. It was wonderful, except I was bereft when I finished it, because lately I have particularly wanted books that, as one might beg Calgon, "take me away from all this."

So what did I particularly notice about this book? Well, the pictures, for one, which are nothing fancy and are in black and white, but which are fascinating. One thing I was particularly drawn to were the older peoples' hands; there is something about the curl of the hand when people have worked with their hands all their lives that is fascinating, individual, and yet strangely universal. In the older women you notice it in their fingers and in the flesh around their wedding rings; in the older men you see it in the permanent crook of their hands and fingers hanging at their sides.

I also enjoyed the text. I can't say I understand the appeal or atmosphere of small towns; I was raised in the midwest as well but, even though I lived on a farm, we were near enough to a bigger city that we never really felt like we had a cohesive small community. But I love reading what people said about living in small-town Iowa, as well as the number of viewpoints that were represented. Some people loved the town; one woman never felt like she fit in; some men and women are happy and fulfilled in their families; some are lonely; many have suffered terrible injuries, hardships, and the deaths of either their (too-young) parents or children. I'll just share one quote, because you simply must go and read this book yourself:

Bob Tandy: "I still get a lot of grief for having a college degree. My family is proud on one hand, but it's really not talked about because it makes me different from my brothers and the extended clan. I wanted to get out of Oxford in the worst way...

Our first child, Britton Elise, died as an infant almost three years ago. The doctors believed she died of placental abruption, which is a Latin term for Bad Fucking Luck. For six days my daughter lived in the hospital. She got to meet all of her cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and two great-grandmas...

That's Oxford. People have family feuds. They bitch. But when the shit hits the fan, people who on Wednesday were pissing and moaning, they'll be helping each other get through whatever you need them for. Then by Friday they'll be calling each other assholes again." (p. 30.)

New fiction crush.

Where has British author David Mitchell been all my life?

Swan His novel Black Swan Green is one that went in and out a lot at the library where I worked, and I always thought it had an interesting cover, but I never felt like bringing it home. For one thing, I think I kept getting him mixed up with Mark Danielewski, and I was definitely never interested in him (as I perceived he was one of those authors who did too much playing with language and form to appeal to me, like Salman Rushdie and Michael Chabon).

So why I just lately requested and checked out Black Swan Green I can't tell you (ah, I'm already getting so old, I've forgotten why I've requested half the books on my library "hold" list). But I'm so glad I did. I loved it. It's a coming-of-age tale (don't groan--those can be painful but they can also be very, very good) of a young teenager, living in the British suburban town of Black Swan Green, striving to make it through school without being ostracized because of his stutter, and watching the slow breakdown of his parents' marriage--although he doesn't want to believe that's what he's seeing.

It's hard to give you a flavor of what I mean, as this is a book that shines as a whole but doesn't offer up too many short, quotable examples. But I really liked the 13-year-old protagonist, Jason Taylor. It's very funny, but often my favorite novels feature male adolescent characters, which is ironic because I think of teen boys as completely foreign to myself and somewhat closer to animals than human beings (I've never been overfond of most teen girls, either, snotty as they can be, which starts to explain why I'm SO glad not to be in high school anymore). When teen boys are icky, they're very, very icky. But when they're likable? They're SO likable. Think Holden Caulfield. Think John Green's male characters in Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns. Think Michael Cera's character on Arrested Development. See what I mean?

I'll leave you with one bit that I did find amusing, in which Jason is trying to figure out the related mysteries of girls and sex:

"Girls and girlfriends're worrying. Sex education's only about how to make babies and how not to make babies. What I need to know is what you do to turn ordinary girls like Sally from Blackburn into girlfriends you can snog and be seen snogging. I'm not sure if I really want to have sexual intercourse and I definitely don't want babies. Babies just poo and bawl. But not having a girlfriend means you're a homo or a total loser or both.

...I don't know whether or not I know the facts of life. You can't ask adults 'cause you can't ask adults. You can't ask kids 'cause it'd be all round school by first break. So either everybody knows everything but nobody's saying anything, or else nobody knows anything and girlfriends just sort of...happen." (p. 172.)

See what I mean? That's pretty good stuff for a coming-of-age novel. I hate to break it to this kid, but that's a lot what adulthood is like too. Everybody who knows nothing is talking a lot, and those who know something are keeping pretty quiet. Sigh. Have a good weekend, all.

Eternal light indeed.

I have always been fascinated by ancient Egypt.

Egypt tops my list of places that I'd go if time, money, and personal safety were no objects. I used to absolutely devour books about King Tut, Queen Nefertiti, and egyptology. I even read Robin Cook's Sphinx when I was about ten (and decidedly too young for some of the subject matter) because it had a picture of a pyramid on the cover. (I'm still not sure where that book came from; it wasn't my parents', and it wasn't a library book--a sibling's, maybe?) For years afterward I wanted to be an egyptologist, and remember feeling crushed when I put it together that job openings for egyptologists in the midwest (where I have always intended firmly to stay, negative temperatures notwithstanding) were few and far between.

Eternal To this day, whenever I see a book about ancient Egypt, I bring it home. The latest such treasure was The Eternal Light of Egypt: A Photographic Journey, by Sarite Sanders. It's published by Thames & Hudson, and even though the photography is all black and white, it's still beautiful. I particularly love the close-ups of statues and carvings of human torsos, particularly those on buildings where light and shadow comes into play. They had such a beautiful way of carving--these torsos, most of them featuring bare midriffs or chests, look like they could breathe any second. To make stone look like it is a living thing is a pretty fantastic thing to be able to do, particularly way back in BC times.

The photographs are beautiful, but still they're only half of the book. The other half of the book is quotes and texts from ancient Egyptian sources (as well as a few more modern ones), and those are beautiful too. Consider:

"I live on Truth, and I have my being in Truth, I am Horus, who dwells in the heart, who dwells in the centre of the body. I live by saying what is in my heart, and it shall not be taken away from me. My heart is mine, and it shall not be wounded. No terror shall subdue me..." --The Book of the Dead, Chapter 29b.

That feels eternal to me. Take that, Julian Barnes.

Nothing to get all that excited about, either.

I don't know why I picked up Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Oh, wait, yes I do: it's been getting great reviews, has just been named a New York Times Notable book for 2008, and is by an author with whose name I'm vaguely familiar but whose novels I could never find the energy to read. Whenever I see nonfiction by a novelist I feel like I should read but never have, I'll invariably pick it up.

After reading the first line I had high hopes for this book:

Barnes "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him. That's what I say when the question is put. I asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva, and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: 'Soppy.'"

That, as one of J.D. Salinger's characters once said, had the possibility of being an interesting answer, so I read on. Seventy pages later I was annoyed, bored, and I hadn't found another sentence that lived up to that first one, so I stopped. The book jacket here promises that Barnes, "an atheist at twenty, an agnostic at sixty, Barnes looks into the various arguments for and against and with God," but I didn't find much of that. In one other aspect the jacket is entirely correct: he also writes about "the writers--'most of them dead, and quite a few of them French'--who are his daily companions, supplemented by composers and theologians and scientists whose similar explorations are woven into this account." He also offers an account of his own family and their relationship with religion and believing, which I also couldn't get interested in...

...and I just realized I am doing a terrible job of describing this book and why I didn't like it. Although I find religion very interesting, I can't say I've ever been all that fascinated by any atheists' manifestos. The way I see it: Believe what you're going to believe (or not), and that goes for God, the afterlife, and everything. The atheists aren't going to convince me to give up a belief in God, and I know I couldn't convince them. And, frankly, I TOTALLY don't understand being afraid of death if you are a true atheist. I may just be a total downer, but "nothingness" actually sounds kind of relaxing, so why fear it? But most of all, I am tired of old men telling me about their religion or their lack thereof. Why do these guys (Richard Dawkins, Barnes, Christopher Hitchens, etc.) think their personal lack of belief is so fascinating? Does anyone know of any female atheists writing these types of books? It'd be nice to read one of these by a woman, just for a change of pace, if nothing else.

Heavy-handed fiction.

I am not a fan of heavy-handed fiction.

April I started the novel Between Here and April, by Deborah Copaken Kogan, and was completely sucked in before I knew it was happening. It's got a compelling opening: Elizabeth Burns, mother of two little girls, is at a production of the play "Medea" with her husband (one of their few nights out) when something about the play's plot of Medea killing her children trips a wire in her memory. Suddenly remembering her best friend April, and how she abruptly disappeared from the first grade, Elizabeth passes out.

She eventually tracks down what happened to April (and her sister, and her mother), and as a former journalist, sets out to make a documentary about the tragedy, while dealing with her own issues with marriage and motherhood. I won't lie to you: there's something compelling about the whole novel, and there were many bits I really found interesting (even, particularly, when they had nothing to do with the plot). Consider:

"Because I'd waited for Mark outside the theater before the play, instead of going to the bathroom as I'd needed, I spent intermission waiting my turn to use one of the three stalls available, watching the men move in and out of their facilities with the efficiency of cars on an assembly line. I pictured the inside of their bathroom, the wall of urinals like stops on a conveyor belt, the swift zip-release-zip motion of fingers and genitals, the hands washed and dried or perhaps not, with nary a glance in the mirror, while on our side precious time was lost to spreading toilet paper over seats, pulling down hose, hiking up skirts, tugging on tampons, locating flushing mechanisms, pulling up hose, straightening our skirts, and fidgeting with locks which never seemed to want to close...

I thought about all those mothers and mothers-to-be, chugging along, finding detours around all those inconveniences and compromises that would have to be weighed and measured and fought over and swallowed while the men went about their business, zip-release-zip, unhampered and unfettered, along the conveyor belts of their lives." (p. 4.)

Now that's an interesting, thoughtful passage, and the book was worth it for moments like that. Somewhere, though, it went off the tracks, and became too heavy-handed; of course the mother of her friend who disappeared had had a male psychiatrist who had just put her on pills; postpartum went undiagnosed in several cases; there's a rape involved. It seemed odd that an author who had such a light touch (while making a heavy point) with the scene quoted above needed to throw in so many tragedies to make this a serious novel. I'd still recommend it; it was still well-written. But at points I found myself thinking, okay, now, this is getting a "little too Jodi Picoult." And that's NEVER a good thing.

Music and youth and British authors, oh my.

Somewhere in the middle of Martin Millar's novel Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, I stopped being "eh" about it and started loving it with my whole heart and soul.

I LOVE it when that happens.

Suzy I can even pinpoint when it happened. It was when I read this: "My tea is always good. You have to make it in a pot and let it brew. However, not many people do this now. In restaurants, and even friends' houses, you're quite likely just to get a tea bag dumped in a cup. Most people in Britain have forgotten how to make a proper cup of tea. Useless television and bad tea. The nation is in chaos. It's a shambles." (p. 94.)

I loved that. I'm not sure why the world is in a shambles, but the loss of our ability to make tea seems as good a reason as any. And then, if I had any doubt about loving this novel, the author hit me with this: "When Led Zeppelin played at Green's Playhouse it was the best feeling in the world. I will never feel that way again. No group of musicians can affect me that way now. I'm too old for it to happen. I regret this." (p. 144.)

The whole book is a guy telling the story of how Led Zeppelin played a concert in Glasgow when he was fourteen, and how he and his friend went, and how they were both in love with a beautiful blonde girl named Suzy, in awe of her cool boyfriend Zed, and plagued by a nerdy girl who was in love with him (who turns out not to be so nerdy). For a book about a rock concert in 1970s Glasgow, it is surprisingly gentle, and although we never learn the protagonist's name, I felt quite close to him. Particularly because of the relationship he has with Manx, the girl to whom he is telling the story, and her Nefertiti hat.

It's a great novel, one of the best of 2008 (although of course I wasn't able to find it on any "best of" lists for the year). Still have doubts? Fine. I'm gonna hit you with one more, and then you're on your own:

"I don't have any desire to persuade anyone that Led Zeppelin were any good. You can think whatever you like. You either feel it or you don't. The same as any music. The same as any art. You feel it or you don't. The same as being in love. You can't be persuaded. You either feel it or you don't. I'm not going to try and change anyone's mind." (p. 212.)

Chick flick update.

I have now progressed in my chick flick habit from watching them to reading about them. I actually found myself combining obsessions when I read some chapters in I'll Have What She's Having: Behind the Scenes of Great Romantic Comedies while I was watching the movie Definitely, Maybe, starring Ryan Reynolds.

Meg The book first. I really enjoyed the book. It is exactly what it says it is: a series of chapters about various romantic comedies, from early classics like It Happened One Night and Some Like It Hot to later movies like When Harry Met Sally... and Love Actually, and how they came to be, as well as numerous tidbits of trivia. It's well-written and even the chapters about movies I hadn't yet seen made me want to see the movies immediately (Clark Gable in It Happened One Night? I'm going to hook that up.). And the chapters about movies I had seen made me want to re-watch them: Did you know that Rob Reiner, Nora Ephron, and Andrew Scheinman wrote the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally... over the course of years, during which Ephron "essentially interviewed the two men about their relationships and their feelings about love, sex, and women in general. Some of it was hilarious, some of it was appalling, and all of it was grist for the mill"? And that the woman in the diner who said "I'll have what she's having" after Meg Ryan's mock-orgasm was Reiner's mother? Good stuff. I'm seeing the book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood popping up on a lot of "Best of 2008" lists, and I don't think that book was half as readable as this one. But serious trumps humorous on the "Best" lists every time.

And this week's chick flick nutshell review? Definitely, Maybe was okay. I don't mind Ryan Reynolds (I actually think he was kind of hilarious in the strange and underrated movie Just Friends) and, with the exception of Rachel Weisz, whom I CAN'T STAND, the women leads were also quite likable. But, at an hour and 52 minutes, it was 22 minutes longer than any romantic comedy really needs to be, unless it is superlative. So if you're jonesing for a chick flick, any chick flick, it'll do, but I wouldn't run right out and rent it or anything.

Second verse, same as the first.

This is what my sister has been saying about the new year, and although I have high hopes for 2009 (in my own pessimistic way; mainly I'm hoping it's no worse than 2008), I figure she's probably right.

Evidence for that can be found in my long list of overdue books from the library. It's time to own up and admit I'm never going to get everything that's currently overdue read and just take them back. The most ironic title on the stack? The Experts' Guide to Doing Things Faster: 100 Ways to Make Life More Efficient, by Samantha Ettus.

Faster On the bright side, I don't think I'll be missing much. I did page through this one, and although parts of it look intriguing ("Clean Your Home," "Cook a Meal," "Make Your Computer Run Faster,") most of it looks like things I don't want to be doing at all, much less faster: "Tackle Your To-Do List," "Choose a Healthy Snack," "Style Your Hair." It's a very odd little book, each short chapter being written by a different expert, and even the chapters that seemed like they might be helpful weren't all that fresh ("Recover from Surgery: Push yourself through the mental pain that accompanies every part of rehabilitation." Not all that clever, although the fact that this chapter was written by an NFL player who's been through 29 surgeries was mildly interesting. Here's what I actually learned from that chapter: Encourage nephews to never, ever take up football.).

What I'm really looking for, I guess, is the Guide to Getting Out of Things I Don't Want to Do (Chapter 1: Cleaning, Chapter 2: Working, Chapter 3: Anything that isn't reading, really), not a guide for simply doing things faster.

Norman Maclean Reader, part two.

Yesterday I got all sidetracked trying to talk about The Norman Maclean Reader: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings by the Author of A River Runs through It. I can't help myself. Whenever A River Runs through It comes up, I have to think about it a little bit. But today I'm ready to move on.

Maclean was not a prolific writer, which is understandable, as he worked as an English professor at the University of Chicago until he was seventy, and only started writing after his retirement. So he only has two real published works: the novellaA River Runs through It, which included two shorter novellas/stories, and a nonfiction work of research about a disastrous forest fire and the men who died fighting it, titled Young Men and Fire (and which was published posthumously). In this volume, then, Maclean fans get a clearer look at Maclean himself: it includes chapters from an unfinished manuscript on George Armstrong Custer, a few short speeches, an unpublished essay on why he wrote Young Men and Fire, a few other essays, an interview he gave in the late 1980s, and a collection of his letters to colleagues and friends. It also includes a few pictures of him, his wife, his brother, and other writers he knew and corresponded with.

I appreciated the introduction, which was written with skill and helped me to better understand what was fictional or autobiographical about A River Runs through It. I'll admit it--I totally skipped the Custer chapters--not even Maclean can get me interested in Civil War history. But the interview, and the letters? Fantastic. Consider:

"In "A River Runs through It," you talked about God's rhythms. I wondered what you meant by that. One of my fascinations about my own life is that every now and then I see a thing that unravels as if an artist had made it. It has a beautiful design and shape and rhythm. I don't go so far as some of my friends, who think that their whole life has been one great design. When I look back on my life I don't see it as a design to an end. What I do see is that in my life there have been a fair number of moments which appear almost as if an artist had made them. Wordsworth, who affected me a great deal, had this theory about what he calls 'spots of time' that seem almost divinely shaped. When I look back on my own life, it is a series of very disconnected spots of time. My stories are those spots of time."

And, from this very telling bit, I understood why the movie version of A River Runs through It, was also spectacular:

"But you're still true to the spirit of the stories? I hope so. As I told you, I'm engaged now with several others in trying to make a script out of "A River Runs through It." They're always saying, 'You make it too tragic. A movie audience, unlike a literary audience, won't accept that much tragedy.' It's just too bad if they won't. I didn't ask to write this script. It wasn't my idea. I'm unbending about this, just totally unbending. I'm not going to compromise."

You tell 'em, Norman. Hot damn. What a guy. What a writer. Just for today, that it what I wish for you: a spot of time you feel is divinely shaped, and the courage and the opportunity to remain unbending about something.

Reading resolutions, already shot to hell.

I should have known better than to resolve to turn off the TV and read on the day when Gossip Girl episodes returned. We can't help it. We are powerless to turn off Gossip Girl. Watching it is essential to our mental health; it makes both Mr. CR and I feel young and problem-free when we watch these Manhattan teens drinking, smoking, and dealing with much more complex problems than we'll ever have.

I also did not read any poetry yesterday. But I got close: a new book came in for me at the library about which I was so excited that I simply held it in my hands and felt pure delight for a moment. And then I came home and read it so engrossingly that I forgot where I was. The book? The Norman Maclean Reader: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings by the Author of A River Runs Through It.

Maclean Although I could never, ever choose a "favorite" book, A River Runs Through It comes close (I have to read it, and J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, at least once a year to maintain my version of equilibrium). I think it is beautiful in both its story and its writing. Perhaps it speaks to me because it is a fictionalized story of Maclean's youth and young adulthood in Montana, and particularly his drive to understand his family and his younger brother. As part of a large family I certainly understand trying to understand one's parents and siblings. What I find particularly telling is that Maclean wrote his masterpiece when he was in his seventies (in the 1970s), and his brother had been killed in the late 1930s. Can you imagine working over the death of your brother to try and understand it for forty years? Without getting too personal, all I can say is, I can. Although I loved this book long before I could understand that. Perhaps that is why I love it so: I loved it before I needed it, and after I needed it, I only loved it more. That is rare for me, as I am often need help but resent needing it (hence my hatred for doctors).

Well, I've wandered a bit. More about this book, which is interesting in its own right, tomorrow. Today, just a small example of Maclean's poetry, from his novel, which is excerpted in this collection:

"Yet even in the loneliness of the canyon I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as 'our brothers' keepers,' possessed of one of the oldest and possibly one of the most futile and certainly one of the most haunting of instincts. It will not let us go."

Reading resolutions.

I liked Tripp's list of resolutions over at Books Are My Only Friends, and so thought I'd copy the idea (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, after all). Also, reading resolutions I've got more than a snowball's chance in hell of keeping (unlike, you know, health or general "being nicer to other people" or "more social" type resolutions). So here goes!

1. This is the year I read Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. I try every year and never get it done. Which is weird, as I love Something Wicked This Way Comes, but I am an autumn person, not a summer person.

2. This is also the year I read Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Sure, it's going to be a downer (did anyone catch it on Masterpiece Theatre last night?) but I, for whatever reason, have a deep appreciation for Thomas Hardy (Far from the Madding Crowd was one of my favorite reads last year) and want to read this one.

3. More poetry! More poetry! I must have me more poetry! Starting with a little Ted Hughes, perhaps, to ease myself into it.

4. Whenever I turn the TV (or, more disturbingly, YouTube) on, I need to turn it off and read instead. Unless, of course, Masterpiece Theatre is on.

Okay, let's get this year started!