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February 2009

Ah, restaurants.

I sometimes think I like eating out in restaurants so much because I have worked in many restaurants, and know what goes on behind the scenes. Some would argue that knowing what goes on in restaurant kitchens might make you less likely to love eating out, but I just don't think about the less savory aspects of that knowledge.* What I focus on is the unrelenting shittiness of restaurant work, and how much you need the camaraderie of your co-workers just to get by.

Lobster Which is where Stewart O'Nan's lovely little 146-page novel Last Night at the Lobster comes in. It's exactly what its title proclaims it: the chronicle of the day's events at a Red Lobster restaurant that has been slated for closure. Also part of the story is Manny's (the manager's) affair with Jacquie, one of his servers, and how that affair is over, as Manny's girlfriend is pregnant and Jacquie is staying with her boyfriend. That story was done well. But the real glory here is Manny, and his somewhat endearing hope that he and his staff have one last good night.

"Walking along the line, he passes his hand like a magician over the Frialators and the grill to make sure they're off. The ice machine's on and full--good. He crosses to the time clock and punches in before he hangs up his jacket, checks to make sure the safe is secure, then pushes through the swinging door to the dining room.

It's dusk in here, rays of soft light sneaking around the blinds, picking out a glossy tabletop, a brass rail, the sails of a model schooner. By the main wait station, a point-of-sale screen glows, a square of royal blue. He hesitates at the switches, appreciating the dimness." (p. 5.)

That's just perfect.** At times Manny seemed a little too good to be true (he seemed to be a hard worker who cared about both the company bottom line and his employees, which is a rare combination in managers, I've found) but that was okay with me. It's a great little novel.

*Yes, I've seen kitchen staff spit in food. If you ask me if I have I'll take the fifth. I will say this: usually people who evoke this kind of behavior really, really deserve it. I mean REALLY deserve it. Restaurant staff are busy, after all, and don't always have time to exact retribution. So just don't actively try to piss off your server and you'll be fine.

**The cover is perfect too. It doesn't show up well here, but it's a beautiful cover.

Trying too hard.

I thought the book Elsewhere, USA: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety, by Dalton Conley, sounded rather interesting.

Elsewhere A mere twenty-five pages in, however, I decided that it wasn't as interesting as it sounded and that I'd be taking the book elsewhere, all right: right back to the library. It's one of those nonfiction titles that's very much in vogue these days: the "big idea" book, like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point or Outliers or Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, and What It Says about Us. Conley's big idea is that our daily lives are changing because "boundaries between leisure and work, public space and private space, and home and office have blurred and become permeable" (from the front jacket copy). Throughout the first chapter he points out that many of the people working all the time, from home and at the office, are actually high in socioeconomic status, and should have enough money, but have extreme anxiety because they think they're not doing as well as their very well-off neighbors.

As I said, it's not a bad question to consider. I actually rather enjoyed Robert Putnam's sociological classic in this area, Bowling Alone. But Conley, like Thomas Friedman, strikes me as trying too hard to make his writing catchy, throwing out phrases and words like "the elsewhere society," "intravidualism," "weisure" (work and leisure combined), and "convestment" (consumption and investment). I don't think it's a bad book. I think it's probably got a lot of very interesting things to say about modern society, technological changes, buying habits, our "service" work which doesn't give us the fulfillment of production work (wherein people actually make things), and family life.

But when he starts describing scenarios of rushed and harried family members, all of whom bring their own laptops to the dinner table? My patience starts to wear thin. That starts to seem less like a societal problem than an individual one: stop buying your kids laptops. Or make them turn them off over dinner. Doesn't seem like you'd need a whole book to figure that out, does it?

Was it because of Valentine's Day or what?

Last week I chuckled when I looked over at my TBR pile and saw the following titles in close proximity to one another:

The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry, by Legs McNeil;

Snuff, by Chuck Palahniuk;

Intercourse: Stories, by Robert Olen Butler; and

Sex Collectors: The Secret World of Consumers, Connoisseurs, Curators, Creators, Dealers, Bibliographers, and Accumulators of "Erotica," by Geoff Nicholson.

All in all in put me in mind of the Simpsons episode where Homer comes home with a bag of porno magazines, panty liners, illegal fireworks, and an enema, and as Marge unnpacks the bag, she says, "I don't know what you had planned for tonight, Homer, but count me out." And yes, I am aware that this is a slightly sacrilegious Ash Wednesday post. But my mother doesn't have internet access and no one's going to tell her, right?

Another burned supper.

I've always had a little thing for Denis Leary. I don't know why. I just think he's funny. On his comedy disc No Cure for Cancer he does a bit about NyQuil and how its warning label says "may cause drowsiness" when it should say "Don't make any fucking plans." Even the label means business, to Leary: "Big N, little y, big fucking Q." Whenever I need a giggle I think, "Big N, little y, big fucking Q" and it never fails.

Leary So of course I had to look at his latest book, Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid. By and large it's a forgettable book, with chapters (and by chapters, I mean collections of rambling thoughts on the chapter subjects) about Anna Nicole Smith, Britney Spears, why cats suck, and self-esteem (as well as a variety of subjects meant to shock, including things like "testicle-colored towels" and "this is your brain on semen," which is really just an extended rant on how men and women differ.)

So yeah, a good half-hour perusal is enough to get all the laughs this book is going to get. You know what else a half-hour is long enough for? To completely burn supper. I had something in the oven while I read this book, and partway through it, the oven timer went off, but supper wasn't quite done. So I made the biggest kitchen mistake ever: "I'll just leave it in a few more minutes, without resetting the timer." A chapter and fifteen minutes later, mmm, burnt supper. Primarily because I was amused by the transcript of a phone conversation between Denis and his mom:




How are you?

Good. Listen, Ma--

Sheila Turbody has bad cancer of the face--it spread all down her neck and into her throat and into her brain.


The doctors say she should never have been spending all that time out in the sun without a hat or sunscreen or anything at all plus she was smoking and--

Ma--who is Sheila Turbody?

You know who Sheila Turbody is. She lived around the corner all her kids got straight A's? Remember?

Oh. Those kids--yeah. Nobody liked them.

Listen, Brian--you had better stop that smoking and wear some suncreen and--

It's Denis, Ma.

Don't change the subject." (p. 116.)

I was completely amused by the Sheila Turbody non sequitur--do all Moms do that on the phone, or just mine and Denis's? I also love that she eventually ends the conversation by asking if Denis went to mass that week, and whether or not he knew it was Ash Wednesday, and he responds, "Really? I just thought people suddenly decided to start putting cigarettes out on their foreheads." On that note: Happy Mardi Gras!

But the book itself? For hardcore Denis Leary fans only. Just remember to set your oven timer while you read it.

I love it when writers get sick.

Well, not really. But nobody can write about illness and recovery, like, well, people who write for a living.

A while back I read and enjoyed American journalist Sarah Lyall's book The Anglo Files, about her encounters with British culture. Lyall, it turns out, is married to former editor and publisher Robert McCrum (who is a Brit, and has written a biography of P.G. Wodehouse). When I did some more looking into this couple, I learned that McCrum is also the author of a memoir, titled My Year Off: Recovering Life After a Stroke, and thought, hmm, I'd like to read that.

It's fascinating.

Yearoff I read the book over the course of two nights. At the age of 42, McCrum suffered a severe stroke that left him paralysed (I mean paralyzed; wow, have I been reading a lot of British books lately) on his left side. Only a few months previously he had married Lyall; when he suffered the stroke, she was on a business trip and he laid in his house for an entire day before he could fight his way to a phone. That part of the narrative is scary enough, but the genius of the book is his recounting of his very slow recovery and his growing realization of what it really means to live in a human body (augmented by his and Sarah's diary entries from the time).

If you've had a health scare of any kind, or spent time in any hospitals or recuperating from an illness, this is the book for you. I myself didn't suffer anything like this guy did, I simply went from a lifetime of no doctor visits to a lot of doctor visits, but a lot of his thought processes were very similar to the ones I found myself having.

Take this entry, from his diary about a month after suffering the stroke: "I have developed a concept of the 'good' waiting period and the 'bad' waiting period. A 'good' waiting period is one where you know the outcome, and where you know that you are going to leave when they say you'll leave, or where you will be doing things when they say you'll do things, and a 'bad' waiting period is when you don't know what is going to happening, and you are just hanging about." (p. 113.)

Now, I guess no one really needs to get sick to figure that one out. Somehow, though, you don't, until you get sick, or the unknown is hanging over you.

Sarah's diary is also quite interesting, including her entry from the same day as Robert's, above. "I don't know what it's right to hope for--I have to learn how to hope for the best but prepare myself if it doesn't happen. And so does Robert. He seems sure that it will be okay, but I wonder if he really believes it, and I wonder how realistic he's being, and I wonder if his hopes, too, are going to be dashed in the end. I pray to a God I don't believe in. But I had an absurd thought the other day, that the thing about God is that even if you don't believe in him, he listens to you. Maybe there's some religion in me after all." (p. 114.)

I won't tell you how it ends, but I can say that the book ends on a happier note. It's fantastic. If you know anyone who's had a stroke or you want to understand it better, it's particularly valuable; otherwise, for anyone who's struggled with sickness (and that's pretty much everybody) it's a great, great read.

What is the appeal of Curtis Sittenfeld?

I really don't understand why Curtis Sittenfeld is such a popular author.*

Wife named her latest novel, American Wife, as one of its best of 2008, and it made the New York Times Notable list** (although I was pleased to note that reviewers at both Publishers' Weekly and Bookmarks magazine called it "uneven" and providing a "pat, unsatisfactory" answer to some of its key questions). You know this novel; Sittenfeld herself describes it thus:

"American Wife is a work of fiction loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady. Her husband, his parents, and certain prominent members of his adminstration are recognizable. All other characters in the novel are products of the author's imagination, as are the incidents concerning them."

The first lady in question is Laura Bush; Sittenfeld got a lot of her information from the biography The Perfect Wife by Ann Gerhart. (Her characters are named Alice Lindgren and Charlie Blackwell, and they're from Wisconsin, not Texas.) I don't have a problem, really, with Sittenfeld's writing; she's a competent, if not graceful, prose stylist, and you can actually get through the first 100 pages of this novel pretty easily and quickly. But here's the problem: Laura Bush is boring. So any book you base on her is going to be boring too. And even if you don't think she's boring, she's a woman who clearly and literally beds down with evil every night.*** Either way, is that a character you want to read about?

Give this one a pass. Sittenfeld does not need to be rewarded for her average prose and her "ripped from the headlines" plot device, which smacks ickily of a Jodi Picoult-like move to capitalize on news headlines and current affairs.

*Full disclosure: I've not been fond of Sittenfeld ever since her catty review of Melissa Bank's novel The Wonder Spot. Which, by the way, is about ten times the novel that American Wife is.

**Why am I still bothering to read New York Times Notable books? And I find it hilarious that Publishers' Weekly provided a much more astute review of this book than did the Times.

***Literally. Do you want to read and think about Laura and George having sex? I didn't.

A trip I'm jealous of.

What I enjoyed most about Mike Walsh's Bowling Across America: 50 States in Rented Shoes was his opening chapter about he and his five siblings' arranging of their father's funeral (their father died suddenly in his mid-sixties):

"We continued to cry aplenty, but the fine emotional line between that release and laughter enabled us to find humor in the grimmest of situations...At the cemetery, the woman helping us select a resting place for Dad (and de facto for Mom, since she would one day be buried alongside him) bore the real brunt of a sarcastic family's grief.

'Now, this plot is nice because it faces south, so it gets a little more sunlight," she said of one site...

'It's nice,' someone replied, 'but could you move the Calvano grave away from it? I don't want my parents to be buried next to any Italians.'

'Yeah, where are all the Irish graves?'

'Where might we find some existing graves where the wife's dead, but the husband's still alive? We're looking for a rich widower for our mother.'

At some point our saleswoman began showing us sites of five graves together, suggesting that some of us might want to make a down payment on our own graves so that we might be buried with our parents. That or she was wishing more of us dead." (p. xvii.)

Bowling That's a lot of quoting, but I found the whole exchange hilarious and perfectly representative of the weird humor that pops out in families (especially big families) in the face of death.

The rest of the book is a travelogue of Walsh's quest to bowl in all fifty states (undertaken after he learned his father had had a similar goal of playing handball in all fifty states, but had died before he could achieve it). The chapters aren't too long and the stories are very enjoyable; it's sort of a Charles Kuralt "on the road" quest for younger readers. And he makes his trip sound like a lot of fun, even though he does, in pursuit of his goal, put more than 25,000 miles (on his mom's car) and inhale a lot of secondhand smoke.

Sarah Vowell: still trying to decide how I feel.

Sarah Vowell is one of those authors I respect but I don't particularly love. If I'm being completely honest, I'd say I'm pretty neutral about her. Our relationship, if you can call it that, is this: I always put her new books on hold at the library, but I never say, "Yippee!" when they come in for me. I don't know why this is.

Wordy Her latest, The Wordy Shipmates, is a case in point. I picked it up at the library and decided a few days later to peruse it while I made supper. (Are you starting to see why I burn a lot of suppers and have a very messy stove?) And really, I thought, this might be the Vowell book that tips me from respecting her books into loving them. It's a popular history of the Puritans who settled in Massachusetts after 1630 (Vowell points out these Puritans aren't as well known as their Mayflower compatriots, who arrived roughly a decade earlier), their political and religious beliefs, and most particularly the individuals who dreamed of keeping political influence out of their church and founding a "city on the hill"--most notably, two men named John Winthrop (Massachusetts Bay Colony governor) and Roger Williams (one of Rhode Island's founders).

For the first forty pages or so, she totally had me. The history's interesting and the writing's snappy. Consider her opening line:

"The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don't mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed."

And it continues:

"Here we arrive at the reason why this here tale of American Puritans is more concerned with the ones shipping off from Southampton for Massachusetts in the Arbella in 1630 than with the Pilgrims who sailed from Southampton toward Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620: because the Plymouth colonists were Separatists and the Massachusetts Bay colonists were not.

Before I explain that, I will say that the theological differences between the Puritans on the Mayflower and the Puritans on the Arbella are beyond small. Try negligible to the point of nitpicky. I will also say that readers who squirm at microscopic theological differences might be unsuited to read a book about seventeenth-century Christians."

That's good writing. She's funny. She's smart. And I love, for the most part, where most of her logic ends up (as in the case where she deduces that preemptive wars to "spread democracy" all started when Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife, thereby causing the Church of Rome/Church of England split, thereby encouraging the Pilgrims to settle in America, etc.). But, as much as I loved the first fifty pages, by the time I made it to page 100, I was ready to be done. Isn't that weird? It happens to me EVERY TIME I read a Sarah Vowell book.

I do have a couple of thoughts on why this might be. For one, there's no chapters in this book, just section breaks, and I like chapters. Preferably short chapters, so I can really feel like I'm getting somewhere. I need a good chapter ending, for one thing, to feel good about putting the book down. Without chapters I'm adrift. Secondly, as much as I like the writing, it always seems to me that Vowell needs some larger organizing principle. Her text always feels a bit rambling to me; like I'm not sure where we're going or how we're getting there.* And third? I've never been all that interested in American history, which is the territory Vowell usually covers. I did perk up a bit when she started talking about the Magna Carta, a copy of which, by the way, was the document I most enjoyed seeing when I visited Washington D.C.**

But overall, it was still a good read. I'll definitely get her next book too. But I'm still kind of hoping it has chapters.

*The only part of high school education I really enjoyed was writing five-paragraph essays. I LOVE five-paragraph essays. Introduction with theme statement, three supporting paragraphs, conclusion. Form following function. Beautiful.

**I know. I'm a terrible American. I've been told.

Book Menage II: The continuing saga.

Forgot to say yesterday: Please remember that anyone who joins the menage and comments on the books is automatically entered to win the next menage's pair of books. Just this morning I shipped The Braindead Megaphone and Dangerous Laughter out to last time's winner!

So please do invite your friends; the more the merrier. If they want to know what it's all about, please feel free to send them this link:

Book Menage II

Anybody ready for another Book Menage? I am!

Dangerous If you've not joined us for a Book Menage before, what we typically do is read two books and then have some questions and discussion about them. How does this differ from a regular book club? Well, for one thing, nobody has to host it and clean their house. For another, we read two books. For a third, we dispense with library-esque book club rules like "Say something positive about the book first" or any of that kind of nonsense. Normally we also do this democratically, with me offering some book pairings and everyone voting for the books, but this time? We're shaking things up a bit.

At first I thought I might pick two books off the New York Times Notable lists, one fiction and one nonfiction, and quickly selected Steven Millhauser's Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories, because I don't read enough stories and I definitely don't read enough NYTimes Notable books. So then I wanted to pick a book of essays, but there weren't any on the Notables list (I looked at the 2007 list too). Why don't essays get as much play as collections of stories? Hm. This seems to me an interesting question to explore, so I decided we had to read a book of essays. The choice? George Saunders's The Braindead Megaphone.*

Saunders Why don't we welcome spring with a book discussion? If we plan to discuss these books in the comments starting on Monday, March 23, will that give everyone time to read them? And, for an added twist, I thought after that, for anyone who lives in the vicinity of Madison, Wisconsin, we could get together in a coffee shop for further discussion of these books and reading in general. How exciting does that sound? I've decided that a) I need to meet more readers, and b) I like to hang out in coffee shops and it's harder to find excuses to do so once you're out of college.

So: to recap. The books are Steven Millhauser's Dangerous Laughter and George Saunders's The Braindead Megaphone. The discussion start date is Monday, March 23. And after that? A reader's club meeting IRL? To be continued...

*Meant to say this earlier: Next time we'll go back to voting for the Menage pairing, I promise.

Now THIS is history, part 2.

The other day a friend said to me, "Hey, did you know that Terry Jones [of Monty Python fame] has written a book on the Crusades?"

Crusades Well, I hadn't, but I immediately set about correcting that situation by requesting the book from the library. It's the companion to a BBC/A&E TV special (which I also want to see now) and it's a very, very readable account of the Crusades, and the Middle Ages by extension. It's not really funny, which you might expect from a Monty Python guy, because funny is hard to pull off where anything as senselessly tragic as the Crusades are involved, but it's definitely got style:

"During the battle a Norman eyewitness noticed that the Turks went into the attack with a distinctive war-cry: 'These Turks began, all at once, to howl and gabble and shout, saying with loud voices in their own language some devilish word which I do not understand.' Tancred's biographer, Radulph of Caen, explained that this 'devilish word' was "Allachibar,' that is, Allah al-Akhbar or 'God is great.' The two sides were hurling themselves into battle against each other, one side yelling 'God's will! God's will! God's will!' and the other 'God is great!' Both sides were addressing the same god. Neither could understand what the other was saying." (p. 49.)

In detailing the Crusades' leaders desire to amass land and booty, the author also subtly points out that love of money, perhaps even more so than love of God, had a little somethin' somethin' to do with these wars.

The book is great. But it was also fun picking it up from the library, where the check-out clerk got very excited when he saw it and said, "Hey, you're the second person to check this out this week, how interesting, I think now I have to request it!" It IS interesting that I was the second person to get it, since it's an oldish book (pub. date 1995). And I appreciated the clerk's telling me so, and we had a nice little chat about it, which I enjoyed. Evidently the library I go to now, as opposed to the library I worked for, doesn't have any stupid rule about clerks not talking to patrons about books. Can you believe I was ordered not to talk to people about any of the books they were checking out?* I know the reason for it; we weren't supposed to be prying. But I was always annoyed that my bosses thought my fellow circulation clerks and I were too brain-dead to know the difference between making a statement like, "So, I see you've been checking out a lot of divorce books, how's that working out for you?" and "Hey, a book by Terry Jones on the Crusades! Interesting! Let me know what you think of this, I'm considering getting it for myself."

And...end rant. Sorry about that. Clearly the no talky talky rule still rankles.

*Many librarians will disagree with me on this, citing that patrons have a right to privacy. I maintain that it was kind of a dumb rule, since when I sat at the reference desk (same library, different desk) I was supposedly allowed to talk about books to the patrons all I wanted. Which was weird, considering I was the same person regardless of which desk I was sitting at.

Now THIS is history, part 1.

Why did they make us read those boring history textbooks in school? Even though Tony Perrottet's Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped wasn't available a million years ago when I was in high school, I'll bet there was something, anything, that was better than our crap textbooks.

Privates I'm really enjoying Napoleon's Privates (hmm. That doesn't sound quite right, I realize.). Perrottet, who is also the author of the fun history books Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Greek Games, has done a nice job of telling some of history's sauciest stories, including the removal of Napoleon's privates after his death (and their subsequent travels), Hitler's one ball, the development of chastity belts and condoms, and many, many more. Each chapter is only about two to five pages long, and in a move custom designed to endear this author to my heart, he lists related reading and sources at the end of each chapter. It's a cornucopia of further reading suggestions and other histories and biographies that sound too good to pass up. Damn it. I barely had time to get this one read, and now I want to read all the books he used for research!

This book also included a number of handy charts, my favorite of which was titled "How Wretched Were the Impressionists?", in which Perrottet dishes on the following aspects of the artists' lives: childhood, start as artiste, early humiliation, romantic anguish, career low, and wretched dotage. My favorite tidbit was about Edgar Degas: "Despite fascination for ballerinas and women's clothing, never marries. ('Imagine having someone around who at the end of a grueling ay in the studio said, 'that's a nice painting, dear.')" (P. 87.)

Gutsy babe.

Sometimes the bravery of other women astounds me. Perhaps because I am a huge scaredy cat.

A while back I reviewed Deborah Copaken Kogan's novel Between Here and April, and while I basically liked it, there were a few elements that rubbed me the wrong way. In the comments for that review, however, a friend of mine we'll call Minnesota Sarah (hi up there!) reminded me that Kogan has also written the memoir Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, which I promptly went and got from the library. 

Shutterbabe Now, how anyone decides they WANT to go to war zones and take photographs among largely hostile crowds has always baffled me. But when a woman does it? Then I'm really stymied. For one thing, I'd say I personally place a pretty high value on my own safety. I'm a big believer in hoping to minimize trouble by not going out to look for it. This must be a trait that Kogan has never had, because the book opens with her traveling with a bunch of Afghani fighters in Afghanistan--by herself. Holy crap. Other chapters detail her experiences covering wars in Zimbabwe and snapping pictures in Romanian orphanages (photos are included throughout the book), and unless you have a high capacity to read about human suffering, I wouldn't say this is the book for you. She also, of course, dishes on the personal details of being a globetrotting photography correspondent, including a (what seemed to me) somewhat unhappy affair with another photographer.

But I digress. This is one gutsy woman. Consider her photography thesis project for college:

"[My] thesis was called 'Shooting Back,' and it was a series of photos of men who had accosted me in various red-light districts up and down the Eastern seaboard. New York's Forty-second Street. Boston's Combat Zone. South Philly. The whole project evolved as a sort of radical form of self-therapy after I'd fallen victim to a number of armed robberies (two) and assaults (four). It was the equivalent of an acrophobe tackling Mount Everest, or an agoraphobe facing down the mall at Christmas: I was a bad-guy-o-phobe, hanging out in the belly of the beast.

I'd troll the seedy streets outside the strip clubs and the porno shops and wait for the inevitable comment, which ran the gamut from 'Hey, baby, wanna get it on?' to 'Suck my dick, bitch.' To every proposition I would quickly and confidently reply, 'No, thank you, but I would like to shoot your photo.' This retort and the presence of my camera changed the entire dynamic of the encounter. My clunky old Nikkormat became my weapon, turning hunter into prey, and as I held my wide-angle 28-millimeter lens mere inches from these men's faces, distoring their images, I felt the universe tipping for a moment in my favor." (p. 44.)

I ask you: who does that? I stand in awe of the gutsiness of other women.

Good nonfiction, bloggy style.

One of my favorite things about people who read a lot is how good they often are at writing about that reading. It's been a particularly rich week in nonfiction about books and reading in the virtual world, so I thought I'd share some of my online reading haunts from the last week. Can you start to see why it's so hard to get any work done on my computer, with all this good writing just a click away?

Brandon at Bookstorm is always an enjoyable reading stop for me, but I particularly enjoyed his link to author Mary Gaitskill's interview in The Believer and the discussion that has ensued about marriage and writing in his comments. (The interview itself is also pretty interesting.)

Tripp at Books Are My Only Friends has been putting up a ton of great posts the last couple of weeks about his eclectic mix of reading. I tend to stay away from the big historical and WWII fiction and nonfiction books, but in reading his reviews, I feel like I've learned something about them and I don't have to.

Cindy Orr over at the Reader's Advisor Online always offers a ton of great book and reading news every Monday. Full disclosure: I work for the Reader's Advisor Online. And yet their product is so good I actually don't feel like I'm whoring it up to link there. Wait a second--is this what it feels like to have pride in your work (or, more accurately, Cindy Orr's work)? Wild.

The Daily Beast, which is my second favorite time-waster site after OMG Yahoo, is now offering books coverage. My third favorite site, AustenBlog, has also been livelier than usual the past month. And, a shout out to the Lesbrarian, with whom I have been duking it out over literary fiction in last week's comments. Madam, I salute you.

Last but not least, for your viewing pleasure, a short clip condensing the subpar movie Becoming Jane, which I wasted two hours on last week. Let's hear it for lovers of Jane Austen who stand up for their heroine!


What makes it sentimental claptrap?

I was already in the middle of Stephanie Kallos's new novel Sing Them Home when I got the uneasy feeling that what I was reading was sentimental claptrap.

Normally I don't really enjoy sentimental claptrap. Books like Jennifer Chiaverini's The Quilter's Apprentice (group of women quilts, shares life's challenges and joys) or any Jodi Picoults (take any topical tragedy, add simplistic characters, voila, instant bestseller!) make me break out in hives.

Home So what is it that makes a novel sentimental claptrap? (And yes, I am aware that anybody who enjoys chick flicks as much as I do doesn't have much of a high-culture leg to stand on. How did I spend last night? Why, watching Becoming Jane, about Jane Austen and with James McAvoy, of course!) The story of this novel is a bit circumspect; the three Jones children of Emlyn Springs, Nebraska, have a reunion of sorts when their father dies; nearly thirty years earlier they had lost their mother (who was also suffering from MS) in a tornado, and her body was never recovered. In between chapters detailing their lives and the life of their father's longtime mistress, Viney (Alvina) Closs, Kallos intersperses portions of their mother Hope's diary.

Hm. Any novel with a character named something like "Viney Closs" might, in fact, be predisposed toward sentimentality. And yet? I liked it. Consider this (longish; sorry about that) interlude about how people grieve:

"'Also,' Mrs. Bauer continued, 'your grandmother is not going to hell. Believe this. And lazy she is not either. Nor Mama. They have the grief bacon.'

'The what?'

'Hmm.' Mrs. Bauer paused and looked away, thinking. She brought one of her red, veiny hands to her face, burying her thumb in the fleshy spot beneath her chin, fanning her fingers out over her mouth. She started tapping her fingers across her lips, slowly, one by one, as if she were playing piano...

'It is difficult, but I will try to explain,' Mrs. Bauer said finally. 'When someone we love very much dies, it makes us tired. Very tired. It makes us want to sleep and sleep, the way the animals do. You know the word? For what the bears in winter do?'


'Yes. Hibernate. It is the body's way, this tired. And like the bears, the body sometimes grows heavy, puts on...' Mrs. Bauer gestured as if she were dressing to go outside in the snow.


'Yes. Layers. To protect. To keep...' She gestured again, shrugging her shoulders and crossing her arms in front of her body as if she were wrapping herself up in a heavy blanket. 'It is hard to say, to translate to English. My family called it Kummerspeck. The grief bacon.'" (p. 281.)

Okay, it's sentimental. It also seemed about right. It made me want to call Kallos up and ask if she's lost someone close to her, and anytime I want to phone an author up and ask them some questions (a la Holden Caulfield), I feel that's a novel that I can enjoy without beating myself up about its sentimentality.*. And also? She thanks Joan Didion (for her "unwitting guidance in navigating the confounding, slippery landscape of grief") in her acknowledgments. I can get behind that.

*Although, frankly? The novel (at 540 pages) should be at least 100 pages shorter. My kingdom for a good editor!

I went out walking...

Geoff Nicholson's The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism is a very strange little book.

I liked it a lot.

Walking I'd never heard of Nicholson but I did pick the book up based simply on its title. I love to walk. It's the only exercise I've truly ever enjoyed, probably because it's not very strident exercise. Nicholson loves walking too; the entire book is nothing but a collection of ruminations onwalks that he's taken, walks that other people have taken, how walking has been portrayed in writing and music, and a variety of other topics. He opens his narrative with an account of how he fell when walking in Los Angeles and managed to break his arm in three places, which made further walking surprisingly difficult. He describes the sick sensation of falling perfectly:

"The older you get, the bigger a deal it is to fall down. When you're age five you can hit the deck, skin your knees, bleed profusely, and be up playing again in five minutes. The older falling man is so much more vulnerable...

Even as I was falling I thought, Oh crap, I'm not really going to go all the way to the ground, am I? I'll stop myself somehow. I'll kepp my footing. I'll regain my balance. And then I knew I was wrong about that. I was going all the way. I'd passed the tipping point. Oh crap, indeed."

The narrative drags a bit in some points, but that seems only appropriate in a book about walking. (Sometimes, midpoint on a walk, it feels like you've been slogging for a while.) But overall it's a great read, and describes such great cities as New York, London, and L.A. from the sidewalk. (I'm particularly grateful to Nicholson for finally helping me understand the British phrase "council estates": "An English council estate is similar to, but culturally very different from, an American housing project, and I think the name says a great deal. Both are places where the poor, underprivileged, and undereducated live, but Britain likes it to sound as though its poor people are on some grand country manor, while America prefers to think they're part of a science fair experiment," p. 218.) And he includes a wonderful bibliography of walking books.

Hm, in looking over the book I see that Nicholson is also the author of some interesting-sounding titles: Sex Collectors, Female Ruins, Bleeding London, Everything and More. Further bulletins on those books as events warrant.

First great novel of the new year.

Have you hugged your librarian yet today?

Lost When I worked at my local public library, I had the pleasure of working with many well-informed and interesting people who did a lot of reading. (This is largely because I worked with other public service desk staff, who were invariably better read than individuals higher up the organization's food chain. But more on that another day.)

So when my co-worker posted a review of Catherine O'Flynn's debut novel What Was Lost at MadREADS and told me to read it, I took her seriously, even if it did take me a few months to get around to it.

It's a superlative novel. Kate Meaney, the kind of fictional ten-year-old kid that makes you dare to dream such real ten-year-olds exist, has a fledgling detective agency in 1980s Birmingham, Great Britain. She's also got a good friend, 22-year-old Adrian, who works in his father's shop in her neighborhood. Unfortunately, when Kate goes missing, Adrian is the last one to have seen her, and suspicion naturally falls on him.

Fast forward nearly twenty years, and the story turns to the actions of Kurt, a security guard at the mall where Kate often loitered, watching people, and Lisa, the younger sister of Adrian. They're leading normal enough lives of suburban and soulless work despair when Kurt changes both their lives by spotting what looks like a small lost girl on the mall's security cameras.

No quotes; the novel's more powerful in its entirety than in pieces. It's also completely sickening that it's O'Flynn's first novel: it's perfectly put together.

Katharine? If you're out there, thanks, hon. I owe you one. You are a librarian extraordinaire.

Taibbi v. Friedman.

I know, by now by disdain for Thomas Friedman is well known. So why keep harping on it?

Well, for a few reasons. Number one, it's easy. I finally got my library copy of Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America. And I know the guy has to perpetuate his own brand, but does he really have to use his phrase "hot, flat, and crowded" five times in the first 37 pages? (Yes, I counted. I'm petty.) The only thing his "hot, flat, and crowded" catch phrase needs is the little "TM" after it.

Number two, I feel that I am in good company. Recently I found Matt Taibbi's review of this book, and it is so, so funny. (And accurate.) What I love about Taibbi is his ability to put into succinct and sparkling writing all the angry thoughts that are rolling around in MY head. He hates Friedman for all the right reasons:

"along comes Thomas Friedman, porn-stached resident of a positively obscene 114,000 11,400 square foot suburban Maryland mega-monstro-mansion and husband to the heir of one of the largest shopping-mall chains in the world, reinventing himself as an oracle of anti-consumerist conservationism.

Where does a man who needs his own offshore drilling platform just to keep the east wing of his house heated get the balls to write a book chiding America for driving energy inefficient automobiles? Where does a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie and even a motherfucking Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to the rest of us about the need for a “Green Revolution”? Well, he’ll explain it all to you in 438 crisply written pages for just $27.95, $30.95 if you have the misfortune to be Canadian."


"I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of stuff that only another writer would really care about—in particular his tortured use of the English language...

Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? 'It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,' he wrote, 'as long as you remember you’re driving without one.' Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman’s analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May:

'The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging.When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.'

First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the fuck is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never, ever happen."

Okay, I've already quoted too much, but I can't help it. I love Matt Taibbi* as much as I hate Thomas Friedman, and that's saying something. I am particularly grossed out by Hot, Flat, and Crowded because I learned that Friedman and I share a birthday--not the year but the same date. Gross! Now every birthday I have is going to be a little bit marred by the fact that I'll think of Friedman somewhere celebrating his birthday at the same time. Although maybe I can view it as another birthday closer to the end of his writing career (i.e., his death). Of course that will have to remind me of my own mortality but I can take it.

The fact that Friedman's book made the New York Times Notable list and Taibbi's (The Great Derangement) didn't shows that the editors at the New York Times, as Friedman might say, "know which side their porn-stache is buttered on."

*Incidentally, if you don't enjoy swearing, you may want to avoid this review.