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March 2009

MENAGE Day 2: The Texts.

Might I just take a quick moment to thank everyone who participated in yesterday's Menage, and welcome you back for round 2? Yesterday was already such a pleasure that I feel a bit greedy asking for more, but I will.

Today's question is more in-depth about the text and writing of these two books: George Saunders's The Braindead Megaphone (TBM) and Steven Millhauser's story collection Dangerous Laughter (DL). It is, in a way, an extension of yesterday's questions about which book you liked better, and why, so feel free to expand on anything we discussed yesterday. Today's question is a stand-alone:

Did any particular piece of text* (or story, or essay) in either (or both) of these books really stand out to you? (Another way to ask this: did you bookmark or otherwise mark anything in these books as you read?) If so, why?

*Please feel free to generalize if you can't locate the exact text; paraphrase! We proudly support loosey-goosey and "close enough" here at CR.


MENAGE! Day one: Essays v. Short Stories.

Hi everyone, and welcome to the March Book Menage, featuring George Saunders's book of essays, The Braindead Megaphone, and Steven Millhauser's New York Times Notable book of short stories, Dangerous Laughter!*

And yes, I know when we have these, we normally start off with a few questions and then have a beautiful free-for-all in the comments. Although I am a huge fan of the free-for-all, I thought we'd do things a bit differently this time around:

Instead of having one big discussion in the comments, I thought I'd post a few different questions each day, and each day can then have its own discussion. Also, if there's any questions you'd like to ask about these books, you should ask them in the comments (and I'll pull them out into the next day's post to highlight them) or email me with them at realstory@tds.net. So it'll still be a free-for-all...times five! And whoever comments in any day's discussion will be entered in the drawing to win the next Menage books (meaning, you don't have to comment every day if you don't want to).

So let's start out pretty basic. Here's what I'm wondering:

1. Did you read all of each book? Or did you skip some parts?

2. HOW did you read these books? Straight through? Picking and choosing your essays or stories to read? How did you choose your reading order?

And here's a big one (and one we'll revisit throughout the week, I'm sure):

3. Did you like or not like either or both of these books? Why or why not?

I'll start us off in the comments, because I believe it's only fair to answer the questions one asks of others. Welcome to the Menage!

*Technically, I'm posting this on Sunday night. I couldn't help myself. I always get overexcited about the Menage.


It was bound to happen.

I suppose it was only inevitable. Somewhere between listening to Jane Eyre on tape in the morning, watching old episodes of the BBC series Men Behaving Badly at night, and watching clips of British comedian Russell Brand in between, I have started to think in a British accent.

No kidding. The other day I was looking at two work projects, and I thought to myself, "I don't fink I want to work on eiver of these jobs." (I don't know what region of Great Britain that accent comes from, but if you watch the Russell Brand clip below you'll hear what I'm talking about. Sigh. If only a whole foreign language were this easy to pick up.

And I would highly recommend watching this Russell Brand clip (two notes: language not appropriate for the workplace; and, when it starts, he's talking about his unpopular stint hosting the "VMAs"; MTV's Video Music Awards). Sure, he can be a bit bawdy, but this clip is quite funny and, if you listen closely, you'll hear that he's got quite the vocabulary.*

*Really. How often do you hear the word "tautology" in stand-up routines? I'm quite excited now to get my copy of Brand's My Booky Wook, for which I am on the library's waiting list.


Where has 84, Charing Cross Road been all my life?

Okay, who among you out there has read Helene Hanff's correspondence collection 84, Charing Cross Road?

Anyone? Now, at the risk of sounding stern, if you have read this book, why weren't you telling me to immediately drop everything, get it, and read it? I don't mean to be churlish but you might have told me this perfect little book was just out there waiting for me.*

84 If you haven't read it, let me explain. It is, quite simply, a small collection of letters that passed between this totally awesome New York City broad Helene and the used bookstore, Marks & Company, at 84 Charing Cross Road, London, with whom she did book business for more than twenty years. It started off sedately enough, with Helene responding to one of their ads and asking for some clean secondhand copies of a few books she was looking for. An employee at Marks, Frank Doel, responded to her queries and sent her the books she requested when he could find them. Of course, he didn't always have exactly what she wanted on hand, which prompted a letter such as:

"Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND.

Where is Leigh Hunt? Where is the Oxford Verse? Where is the Vulgate and dear goofy John Henry, I thought they'd be such nice uplifting reading for Lent and NOTHING do you send me.

you leave me sitting here writitng long margin notes in library books that don't belong to me, some day they'll find out i did it and take my library card away."

I swear to God, I'm in love with Helene Hanff.

Eventually other store staff members start writing to her, and she writes back. Because they are in postwar England, and under some pretty strict rationing, she also starts to send them packages of meats and eggs and other goodies.

Have I mentioned how I'm in love with Helene Hanff? I don't care that this book was written in 1970 and Helene has long since passed on. Don't speak to me of these mere trifles.

No kidding. Although nobody told me to go read this book immediately (oh, sure, some people mentioned I might enjoy it, but that was not nearly strong enough language) I'll do my bit here: GO READ THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY. I read it last week (I was prompted because the novel I reviewed yesterday, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, was similar to it) and now I'm busily revising my list of five books I'd take to a desert island with me. It literally made me forget my (admittedly small and stupid) worries for an hour, and for that I am eternally grateful to Helene. I hope wherever she is in the great big ol' crazy afterlife, there's books there with her, and a nice little bookstore to boot.

*I'm not taking the chance of missing something again. I'm going on a total Helene bender now, starting with Letter from New York and moving into The Duchess of Bloombury Street.


Why do I have to fight the crowd-pleasers?

Guernsey One of the biggest crowd-pleasers or sleeper lit hits of the year has been Mary Ann Shaffer's and Annie Barrows's novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It's been getting a lot of press in book review sources, and it turns up as a buy-alike for almost every new novel you can search for in Amazon (meaning, quite simply, that a lot of people who buy and read literary novels have bought it--I almost said "bought and read it," but, of course, it's impossible to know if it's actually been read). I was going to stay away from it but when I saw it reviewed over at Jessica's Both Eyes book blog, I thought I had to give it a try.

There's a number of reasons I should have stayed away. 1. WWII era fiction annoys me (smacking, as it almost always does, of greatest generation hagiography). 2. I have a perverse tendency to dislike what everyone else loves (e.g., The Story of Edgar Sawtelle). 3. I always feel compelled to fight against sentimentality in all its shapes and forms.

All of those reasons, of course, would explain why this was not the book for me. I did read the whole thing, and actually liked it for about twenty pages. It's an epistolary novel, told almost entirely in letters. It's the story of the German occupation of Guernsey (one of Britain's Channel Islands) and the island's feisty occupants, who started a book group to cover up their morale-boosting and other anti-German activities (the "Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" of the title, so named because one of their members cooks up a potato peel pie recipe, as they are short of all other regular pie ingredients). The Society is found out after the war, when one of the Island's occupants, Dawsey Adams, writes to a British author in London to inquire about books by Charles Lamb (he found her name in a book by Lamb that he read; she was the book's previous owner).

So what's the problem? England, great. Epistolary novel, even better. Book about books, best. So why didn't I love it?

Suite Thankfully, I don't have to explain why I disliked it. I am going to steal a phrase from Heather Smith, who, when reviewing book covers over at Bookslut, had this to say about the cover of Irene Nemirovsky's novel Suite Francaise*: "This is probably a bit unfair, but I am so tired of books about World War II and the Holocaust being tarted up as nostalgia porn." That is SO perfect, because that's exactly what the actual text of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society felt like to me. Nostalgia porn.

This particular piece of nostalgia porn simply rubbed me all sorts of wrong ways. In the beginning, when I read things like this, in the protagonist's letter: "Doesn't it seem shocking to have more stringent rationing after the war than during the war? I realize that hundreds of thousands of people all over Europe must be fed, housed, and clothed, but privately I resent it that so many of them are Germans" (p. 17), all I could think was, you know, I don't know that a lot of regular Germans had a ton to say about World War II (just like not all Americans have had a lot of say about Iraq). So that annoyed me. But then, when the authors made a point to make a German character nice, I thought, Oh brother, humanize the enemy, here's a little something for everyone. Frankly, the authors** couldn't win with me, although I really don't think it's their fault.

The moral of the story? I should stop picking up crowd-pleasers. I'm never going to like them...or am I? Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion to this little story.

*Come on, look at those two covers. Total nostalgia porn.

**Mary Ann Shaffer died in early 2008, and from all accounts she did spend many years researching this novel, which was completed by her niece Annie Barrows. Like I needed to feel like any more of a monster for not liking it. Done, and done!


Reviewing, Menaging, etc.

Just a little housekeeping at the blog today, as I mainly want to get out a reminder about our Menage next week. We'll start our Book Menage on Monday, March 30, when we discuss George Saunders's essay collection The Braindead Megaphone and Steven Millhauser's story collection Dangerous Laughter (and here's props to Kim, who got the ball rolling a bit early with a lovely review of the Millhauser). Come prepared to be honest with your opinions--remember, we don't hold with any crap library-style "first say something positive about the boo"-type rules here at Citizen Reader.

In other reviewing news, I'm really proud to say that the Best Business Books of 2008 feature that Library Journal allowed me to write is up. (It was a much better year for business books than it was for, well, business.) I've also got an article in the latest Reader's Advisor News published by Libraries Unlimited, about wishing book reviewers would stop summarizing books and start reviewing them--including mentioning when they don't like books for whatever reason. (The rest of the newsletter is more interesting than my article; Rick Roche's article on biographies was a lot of fun for me to read, as I don't read as many biographies as I should.)

Speaking of reviewing, good old Dale Peck (who was once known for his frank reviews, including his review of Rick Moody's Black Veil, which he began with the infamous line "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.") is still out there fighting that battle. I really enjoyed this interview with him (thanks to Bookninja for the link), in which he answers the question:

"Q: What should readers know about the art of book reviewing that they don’t know already?

A: Aside from the fact that 95 per cent of it is either dishonest (or at any rate compromised) and irrelevant? Not much."

I still like Dale Peck, I'll admit it.


Heaven, in a perfect marriage of engineering and New York City.

Rises Two of my very favorite things in the world are engineering (in a general sense, although I'm also very fond of engineers) and New York City. So when I saw the oversized book titled New York Rises, you know I was all over that.

It's a book of photographs taken by a man named Eugene de Salignac, who was not a famous or artiste photographer, but who worked for the New York City Department of Bridges during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Culled from a collection of twenty thousand eight-by-ten-inch glass negatives that had been sitting around in the basement of New York's Municipal Archives, this is a collection of photos of bridge-building, building building (the Municipal Building, to be exact), city inspectors doing their measuring and inspecting work, accident scenes, and city residents and workers during the Depression.

It's fantastic, absolutely fantastic. The photograph of men just starting excavation for a subway on Delancey Street was taken in 1908; in 2009, can you imagine starting a major subway building job with three or four guys just digging a big hole on the side of the street? And to give you an idea of the mettle of the man we're dealing with here, consider that some of his shots taken from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge were taken when he was 72 years old:

"One year from reluctant retirement, he climbed to the top of the tower holding an eight-by-ten-inch glass-plate camera and at least six sheets of glass. He probably had an assistant to help him with the equipment, which must have weighed about fifty pounds, but he still had to climb the towers himself. There is only one way to get to the top of those towers: to walk up the two-foot-wide cable from the roadway to the tower, 380 feet above the river." (p. 18.)

Get this book. It can be read in an hour, and it will leave you thinking about the beauty of building things for days.


My mission in life...

...I have decided, is to mock Jodi Picoult mercilessly. I can't help it. I know she's popular. I know a lot of people read her, and we just have to be happy people are reading. I know it's not nice to hate people at all, much less people you've never met. But God, do I hate Jodi Picoult.

Care She's got a new book out, Handle with Care, and if you want to read 477 pages of unrelenting and unrepentant ugliness, consisting of a baby being born with a degenerative disease called OI (osteogenesis imperfecta*) and her mother's wrongful birth lawsuit against her former best friend and OB-GYN (contending that her OB-GYN had seen evidence of the disease early enough in the pregnancy that the mother could have aborted, but had not told her), this is the lighthearted novel for you. Throw in the fact that the mother's a former pastry chef and periodically, weirdly, there are pastry recipes thrown in, and the creepy factor of this novel increases exponentially. Oh, and if there was any doubt as to which character is speaking when, even though each chapter is clearly labeled with that chapter's narrator's name--the chapters are actually printed in different fonts.

My God. Is this what we've come to, as readers? I've watched television and played video games that were more intellectually stimulating than this, so if this is the literature we're clinging to, well...I don't know. But it does make me sad. I don't even understand who can read books this ripped from the headlines, this tragic, not to mention this unbelievably long. I think that's why I keep beating my head against the Picoult wall; short, positive schmaltz I can understand. Although Tuesdays with Morrie was not for me, it was short, and it was uplifting. THAT I can understand. But nearly 500 pages of tragic, depressing, not patrticularly thoughtful schmaltz? Who has the energy to read that after a long day of just trying to make it in this world? I simply do not get it.

Now. Because nobody can illustrate how bad Jodi Picoult is better than Jodi Picoult, here's a little prose sampling. Enjoy:

"For two months now, we had known that you'd be born with OI--osteogenesis imperfecta, two letters of the alphabet that would become second nature. It was a collagen defect that caused bones so brittle they might break with a stumble, a twist, a sneeze. There were several types--but only two presented with fractures in utero, like we'd seen on my ultrasound. And yet the radiologist could still not conclusively say whether you had Type II, which was fatal at birth, or Type III, which was severe and progressively deforming. Now I knew that you might have hundreds more breaks over the years, but it hardly mattered: you would have  a lifetime in which to sustain them." (p. 6.)

And:

"The outcome of this recipe is a work of art, if you can make it through the complicated preparation. Above all else: handle everything with care. This dessert, like you, is gone before you know it. This dessert, like you, is impossibly sweet. This dessert fills me, when I miss you the most."

Ugh. Just re-reading that makes me depressed. Have a good weekend, all.

*To her credit, Picoult does suggest at the end of her book that charitable donations can be made to the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation.


Dueling British histories.

Whenever I need a little nonfiction comfort reading, I pretty much always head to British history. I have no idea why. They've got a history as imperialistic, as warlike, as completely bloodthirsty as most countries. But I can't help it. I just find it interesting.

So this week I've had a tough choice of which book to read when I go to bed. On the one hand, I have Jane Austen's England, by Maggie Lane. Now, anything "Jane Austen" is always a crowd-pleaser here at Chez Citizen Reader. It's not a new book, but it is a very interesting one, giving the history and architectural details of every place in England that Austen stayed or lived, as well as how she worked those details into her own writing. Very good stuff.

Thames On the other hand, I have Peter Ackroyd's lovely Thames: A History. It's a cultural and geographical history of the Thames River in England, complete with pictures, and it's also good stuff. I've never read any of Ackroyd's works (he typically writes historical biographies, like Chaucer and The Life of Thomas More), but I'm enjoying this one, and I might have to pick up some of his biographies. Check out his writing:

"The general riverscape of the Thames is varied without being in any sense spectacular, the paraphernalia of life ancient and modern clustering around its banks. It is in large part now a domesticated river, having been tamed and controlled by many generations...It is a work still in slow progress. The Thames has taken the same course for ten thousand years, after it had been nudged southward by the glaciation of the last ice age. The British and Roman earthworks by the Sinodun Hills still border the river, as they did two thousand years before. Given the destructive power of the moving waters, this is a remarkable fact. Its level has varied over the millennia--there is a sudden and unexpected rise at the time of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, for example--and the discovery of submerged forests testifies to incidents of overwhelming flood." (p. 5-6.)

Sigh. Now I want to go to Great Britain and sit by the Thames.

This just in: Just found this at RickLibrarian's blog; I'm all over that!


Double Catholicism whammy: Part 2.

Part two of this week's Double Catholicism Whammy was Veronica Chater's memoir Waiting for the Apocalypse. The author's parents, who were disgusted with Vatican II Catholic reforms, eventually moved from California to Portugal to experience a more pure faith, and then, when Portugal wasn't Catholic enough, moved back to California to start the counter-revolution.

Chater The memoir's an odd mix of the quietly horrifying and the bleakly funny. Although Chater's father is the real mover in the family, dictating their circumstances, the person I couldn't get over was her mother. Who good-naturedly goes along with moving their family to Portugal, then back, all while bearing (eventually) eleven children? Unbelievable. Her mother plays a prime role in my favorite exchange in the memoir, when the family arrives in England en route to Portugal:

"'Look around, kids,' Dad said from ahead. 'England used to be a great nation. Thanks to St. Augustine of Canterbury, who converted the Anglo-Saxon pagans to Catholicism in the sixth century, and then the Normans, who invaded the country in 1066 and reestablished Catholic rule. England has a fine, noble history...[but] She murdered her heroes and crowned her heretics. She embraced the ideals of the Renaissance: humanism, pride, and narcissism. Her gooal was 'The devil's work, done by the devil's ministers.' Yep. England became what she deserved: the whore of Babylon.'

'For goodness' sakes, Lyle. Don't spoil England for the kids," Mom said." (p. 102-103.)

I didn't think I was going to be able to read the whole thing--it's so sad, in parts--but I surprised myself and read to the end. What I found most interesting was how, after a number of cruelties and misunderstandings (at one point when she's a teenager she gets kicked out of the house; for a while her parents make her wear dresses rather than jeans for the sake of modesty--this latter doesn't sound as bad as the kicking out but I agree with the author--it would have infuriated me) she still comes back to loving her family, and particularly thanking her mother for doing her best to keep the family all together.

Chater also notes in an epilogue that almost none of her siblings (herself included) are still practicing Catholics, which, conversely, makes her father happy, as he continues to believe that the Vatican II church is not the real Catholic Church.

All told, it's an intense and sobering story. And it made me really glad that, although my parents sometimes grumbled about Vatican II, they grudgingly went along with the peace handshake in church, didn't move us to Portugal, and let me wear jeans. Sure, we said the odd rosary in public (I did recognize Chater's desire that her family not be so obviously Catholic, breaking out rosaries and scapulars at the slightest provocation), but that was a lot better than being forced to wear dresses.


Double Catholicism whammy: Part 1.

My suggestion, if you are a Catholic and have some doubts about the faith, would be to not read the books The Secret Scripture (a novel), by Sebastian Barry, and Waiting for the Apocalypse (a memoir), by Veronica Chater, simultaneously. It's not that they're bad books. One at a time would be fine. They're both quite interesting, actually. But the Catholic Church doesn't really appear to its best advantage in either.

Scripture In the former, Irish author Barry tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, a woman over one hundred years of age, who is living in a psychiatric hospital that is about to be closed down. It's a twice-told story; Roseanne is writing down her version of events, while the doctor evaluating her is writing down what he knows of her from medical records, past reports, and her conversation. Roseanne, who lived in Ireland during the time of "the Troubles," has not had an easy life, and suffered from living during a time when being seen alone with a man who was not her husband got her branded a nymphomaniac (and committed) by the local priest.

It was an interesting book, and it's got a nice little twist at the end. But a real "upper" it was not. Come back tomorrow for part 2 of the double whammy: Chater's memoir. Oh. And happy St. Patrick's Day!


Menage scheduling.

Braindead Has everybody had a chance to get a look at or read copies of our Menage books, Steven Millhauser's story collection Dangerous Laughter and George Saunders's essay collection The Braindead Megaphone? I meant to finish up Dangerous Laughter over the weekend but didn't get it done--would anyone mind if we moved the Menage discussion to Monday, March 30?

That gives us two weeks from today for reading. By that time I'll very much hope March is going out like a lamb. Remember, anyone who participates in the Menage comments is entered in a drawing to win the set of books for the next Menage, so please stop by and comment and invite your friends to do so likewise. If only we were independently wealthy, we could televise the book drawing and put Mr. CR in a tux to do the honors or something, but for now we'll have to keep it low-key with him picking the names out of one of my hats.


My new favorite subgenre: Art Thrillers.

By and large I am not a big Thriller reader (see earlier tirade against a favorite thriller author of many, Lee Child). But I find that there is one subgenre of thrillers that makes it through the chink in the nonfiction armor of my reading heart: Art Thrillers.

Which is hilarious, because I don't know anything about art. Scratch that. I know that I like to look at art. But I never took an Art Appreciation class (big mistake, that, what the hell was I doing in college?) and so couldn't tell a Monet from a Manet, or name you any artistic style outside of Impressionism. Wait: Cubism. That's one too, right? So I can name two styles.

Garden But I LOVED Arturo Perez-Reverte's novel The Flanders Panel, and any other time art is involved (even in nonfiction), I'm enthralled.* It was no surprise, then, that I loved David Hewson's thriller The Garden of Evil, which is about an Italian police detective, Nic Costa, and his pursuit of a shadowy killer who is apprehended in the presence of two dead bodies and a lost Caravaggio painting, but who escapes and manages to kill Costa's wife in the bargain. I loved everything about this novel; its atmosphere, the Italian location, the description of Caravaggio's paintings, and shortish sections divided into shortish chapters (but longer than three pages, mind). But my very favorite thing about this novel?

The art expert that the Italian police turn to is a nun named Agata Graziano. Actually, she's not a nun, she's a sister (she didn't take the final vows), and she's awesome. I enjoyed this exchange between her and Detective Costa:

"'[Call me ] Agata, please. When I am here, I am here as an academic. When I am at home, you can call me 'Sister.' Except you are not allowed in my home. So the point is moot.'

'I consider myself both enlightened and chastised.'

She laughed. 'Oh...a sarcastic detective. I like that. Convents lack sarcasm. Throw it at me as much as you like." (p. 76.)

She's one of the best and strongest female characters I've ever come across in fiction, and she's totally unique. She also knows a bunch of other nuns, who play a role in the novel's conclusion and who work to exact their own type of justice. Awesome.

I'm actually joining this series in the middle; there's several earlier books featuring Nic Costa, and the first title is A Season for the Dead. I know Sister Agata won't be in it, but I'm going to try it all the same. Have a good weekend, all.

*Matthew Hart's The Irish Game, about art theft, is one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time.


I simply don't have the heart.

I really, really, really wanted to read Leslie Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China.

Factory For a long time I was not very interested in the history or culture or history of China or Asia. Although I am largely a generalist, and a scatter-brained one at that, I definitely have clearly defined areas of interest where my history reading is concerned (likes: British history, ancient history, Vietnam War; dislikes: Asian history, Civil War, World War II, etc.). But lately I have been getting drawn into Chinese society and culture from a different viewpoint: journalistic books that discuss the conditions and exploitation of Chinese workers. Think Alexandra Harney's The China Price, or John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, which devoted a section to Asian workers in South Pacific island garment factories.

So when I saw the cover of Factory Girls and read its description, I really wanted to read it. For one thing, I find the cover completely arresting; I think the girl pictured is beautiful, and I don't know what she's thinking, but she has an interesting face. The jacket copy sounds fascinating: "Chang tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China's Pearl River Delta. As she tracks their lives, Chang pains a never-before-seen picture of migrant life--a world where nearly everyone is under thirty, where you can lose your boyfriend and your friends with the loss of a mobile phone, where a few computer or English lessons can catapult you into a completely different social class."*

But when I started reading the book it made me so, so sad. To think of these millions of migrant workers (130 million of them, according to Chang), desperately wanting to get out of their small villages and farms, and getting into factories where they make very little money (but better than they were making on the farms) to make things for the rest of the world to buy, and where they're often cheated out of their earnings, all made me very uneasy. I'm normally a big fan of the idea that we should all buy less stuff (the news that Wal-Mart's numbers went up in January made me very, very angry), but when faced by these millions of people who are doing anything to get into factories to make stuff to be bought, I don't know what the answer is. So: I don't have the heart for this book right now but someday I hope to be up to it.

*Go to Powell's and read the excerpt, which is the first chapter. It's stunning.


Is it me or is it the book?

Over the weekend I read Kate Atkinson's well-reviewed and bestselling novel Case Histories. It's a literary crime/suspense novel featuring former police detective and current private investigator, Jackson Brodie, and the three different cases he's brought in to investigate: a little girl's disappearance (which happened in 1970); the seemingly random attack on an eighteen-year-old office worker; and a woman's post-partum stress and her murderous attack on her husband.

Case It totally sucked me in; I wasn't really able to put it down until I was done. I liked the characters, including Jackson Brodie, and of course, Kate Atkinson is a British author, lending her narrative that certain British something that I can't define, but I usually recognize and always love.

And yet?

When I was done with the novel I felt bad. There's no more nuanced way to put it. And I don't know why that was. It just made me sad. It's not shocking in subject matter, but throughout the story the author does provide glimpses of the nasty underbelly of her stories. It was actually quite well done; Atkinson did a nice job of slipping the ugly in and not reveling in its descriptions. (I wonder if that didn't almost make it worse.) So what bothered me?

I gave it a little thought, and eventually shrugged and marked it up to the mood I was in the day I read the book. I do believe that one's mood can affect the reading experience, so I was satisfied with that. (Although doubts still niggle--I've read a lot uglier books, like Irvine Welsh's Crime*--and liked them, so is playing the mood card the easy out?) And, I can't say I was completely unpleased with my personal reaction. Sometimes I feel like I'm not much of a book "reviewer," in that I believe in saying what I think about a book, even if I didn't like it; but I do like to think there's a difference between calling a book bad and recognizing that a book is good, but simply not for me. (Hence the two categories in the sidebar; "Phoning it in" is for the bad books, "Not for Me," well, is self-explanatory.)

Case Histories was a good book. Why it made me so unhappy I don't know. When I want to figure it out I might pick up its sequel, One Good Turn, make a note of the mood I'm in when I read it, and see how it makes me feel.**

*Okay, this is really weird, but if you search Powell's for "welsh crime," the top titles, several of them nonfiction, all feature similar cover art of people holding hands with or standing near children, photographed from the back. Did the cover designer for Welsh's book know that?

**I know, life's too short to read books you don't love. But, honest to pete, charting my reading experiences and reactions is a hobby. Then, when people pick on me for not being very well-rounded in my hobbies, I have my own defense: "I don't only read." They don't really have to know that my other hobbies include making notes of my reading experiences, writing about reading, touring area libraries, visiting bookstores when I travel, and watching BBC adaptations of British novels.


Amen to that.

The other day I read something spectacular about the act of reading. It was this:

"That's the thing about books. They're alive on their own terms. Reading is like travelling with an argumentative, unpredictable good friend. It's an endless open exchange." (p. 2.)

Booklover I LOVE that. It's perfect. And I love that it's not only about books OR reading; it's about the two of them together. And the incongruity of "argumentative" and "unpredictable" and "good." Perfect. The line comes in Ali Smith's introduction to a new literature anthology titled (again perfectly) The Book Lover, which is a collection of poems and short excerpts from the literature and authors that have influenced Smith (herself an author--her latest collection of stories, The First Person, is an interesting book) over the years. Represented here you'll find glimpses of Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, Zora Neale Hurston, John Keats, Grace Paley, Colette, Cynthia Ozick, John Donne, A.M Homes, Thomas Hardy, William Blake, Joyce Carol Oates and many, many more. Smith is a British author, and I don't know if that's the reason, but there are a great many names in her collection that I don't recognize at all...which is also kind of exciting.

But I'll admit it. The thing I've enjoyed most so far about this collection is Smith's introduction, and that fabulous line about reading.

I thought that would probably be it for the week, as far as fantastic quotes about reading went. But then I was perusing an article about the Amazon Kindle, by Sven Birkerts, at the Atlantic (link via Fimoculous), and I came across another one:

"I’m not blind to the unwieldiness of the book, or to the cumbersome systems we must maintain to accommodate it—the vast libraries and complicated filing systems. But these structures evolved over centuries in ways that map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world. The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly."

Okay, that one's more about books. But I can't help it. I love reading...but I love reading books more. Either way, though, it's been a fabulous week for reading about reading.


Mmmm...lentils.

I didn't think I was going to be, but I ended up being amused by Sam MacDonald's book The Urban Hermit: A Memoir.

Urbanhermit Finding himself overextended in debt and unhealthily drinking his way through every evening at his favorite neighborhood bar, MacDonald decided to save money by becoming an "Urban Hermit" and living on eight dollars a week eating lentils and tuna. He only means to do it for a month, but eventually ends up Hermiting for a full year, during which he goes to Bosnia and Montana on writing assignments, loses more than a hundred pounds, and meets and marries a woman he works with.

I'm not typically overfond of big drinking guys who are the life of the party (I ask you, who can drink twenty Rolling Rocks in one sitting?)--it's a whole culture I don't understand. But I did enjoy some of his stories, like when he and two friends, in a VW bus, are driving across country in a VW van to attend a hippy gathering in Montana. When they run out of gas, they coast into a gas station, where:

"A copper-colored Eagle Talon pulled up to the gas pump next to ours...It had Massachusetts plates. The backseat was full of junk, packed all the way to the ceiling. The driver and the passenger were both white guys, in their late teens or early twenties. Both were wearing sunglasses and long dreadlocks. The windows were shut tight, but we could hear Bob Marley playing at top volume until the driver turned off the ignition and stepped out into the late-night air.

He took one look at us and he smiled.

'You guys headed to the gathering?' he said.

No shit. That's exactly what he said. We were two thousand miles from Dillon, Montana, but this guy could tell. Maybe it was the Bus. Maybe it was the Slim Jims" (p. 147.)

I thought that was kind of funny, as is this memoir, in a strange kind of way. Although I don't know that anyone who travels to both Bosnia and Montana in on year can rightfully call themselves a "hermit." But I'll overlook it.


Charmed, I'm sure.

Here's a short list of things in which I am completely uninterested: hunting, Western Americana and American history, camping and outdoorsy stories of any kind, and buffalo (or bison; they're the same thing).

Buffalo And yet? I managed to make it a good way through Steven Rinella's new book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon. It's Rinella's travelogue/history/outdoor adventure memoir, in which he tracks both the history and lore of the American buffalo, as well as (more literally) an actual buffalo that he's hunting in the wilds of Alaska. Although he was interested in buffalo and the history of the West for a long time, the impetus for Rinella's narrative was his winning one of twenty-four annual permits issued to hunt a buffalo in Alaska.

So why on earth did I pick up such a book? Well, the short answer is that some authors completely charm me, and when they do, I'm dedicated to tracking down all the books they write. Rinella is also the author of The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine, which was one of my favorite books of 2005, and in which he sought to hunt, trap, capture, or otherwise procure all the ingredients to be used in Auguste Escoffier's 1903 Le Guide Culinaire cookbook. So, even though this is not a book I would have gravitated to because of its subject, I did enjoy a large part of it (I didn't get the whole thing read, although it was very good, largely because I decided what I'd rather do is go back and re-read The Scavenger's Guide). But if you have any interest in the subjects I listed above, I'd recommend this one. Although, if you are not into graphic descriptions of preparing an animal to be eaten (i.e., butchered) then I'd skip it.

But Rinella is charming, no doubt about it. Consider: "The bulk of buffalo history is set in the geologic epoch known as the Pleistocene, which spanned from about two milion years ago to ten thousand years ago. Of the geologic epochs, the Pleistocene is by far my favorite. Its relationship to the modern world reminds me of my own relationship to my grandparents: their lives were distant and obscure enough that it's difficult for me to really know and understand them, but what I do know about them helps explain a lot about how I turned into the kind of person I am."

You just have to kind of like a guy who has a favorite geologic era, don't you? I do. Have a good weekend, all.


New fiction crush: Martin Millar.

Fairies I'm developing quite the little thing for Scottish author Martin Millar, who wrote one of my favorite novels from last year: Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me. After enjoying that book, I picked up another one of his novels, titled The Good Fairies of New York. Although I started it, then stopped, and didn't go back to it until weeks later, I just finished it last night and was completely amused. I even laughed out loud--a completely unexpected and involuntary giggle that just bubbled up as I read--at one bit, and that doesn't happen to me real often with fiction. It was just what I needed.

I don't have to quote copiously from this one to give you a feeling for it. I can just rely on the first page:

"Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practicing gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth-floor window and vomited on the carpet.

'Sorry,' said one.

'Don't worry,' said the other. 'Fairy vomit is no doubt sweet-smelling to humans.'"

Just re-reading that now makes me giggle. If you're charmed by that, you'll most likely enjoy the rest of the book. If not, I wouldn't bother.


Shameless self promotion.

I know, I know, nobody likes advertising. That's why largely there's none to be found here. But when it takes as long to write a reference book as it took me to write this one, I can't help but take a day to announce its publication.

Scoop It's here! My second nonfiction readers' guide, The Inside Scoop: A Guide to Nonfiction Investigative Writing and Exposes, is all ready to go. And I for one am glad. I had a lot of fun writing it, but after you've gone through the manuscript a couple of times and indexed it, you don't really feel like looking at it ever again.

My favorite part of this new book is that it contains, not only annotations and suggestions for William Langewiesche's books, but many, many references to Langewiesche in general, including his quote about the difficulty of classifying investigative works:

"In truth it doesn't really have a label--which is why you can never find the stuff in a bookstore. They don't know where to put it, so they try to force it into existing categories."

Ah, Langewiesche. Even when writing about writing he's got it spot on.

In other administrative news, don't forget that Book Menage II is scheduled to start Monday, March 23. Our two books are the essay collection The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders and the story collection Dangerous Laughter by Steven Milhauser. Remember, you're welcome to comment even if you don't get both books read. (I've got to get going to make sure I get both books read myself!)