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May 2009

The pleasure of guilty pleasures.

Mr. CR and I typically get along pretty well. Even if we didn't, though, we'd be stuck together for life now, because we now know a very sad secret about each other: We not only are addicted to the TV series Gossip Girl, but we actually went online to Gossip Girl forums last night to see if anyone else was as disappointed with the season finale as we were. At one point, Mr. CR looked up at me and said, "I really wish we were looking at this on YOUR computer, so it wouldn't be in MY search history."*

I can't help it, and I don't care. I love Gossip Girl, and I don't care who knows it,** and I'm actually feeling a bit bereft that there won't be any new episodes until August 31. Let's run down the case for the show, shall we?

1. Beautiful, beautiful New York City. There's always a ton of great shots of the city in each episode.
2. In the first season, there's actually a pretty great love story arc between the bad boy everybody loves to hate, Chuck, and the bad girl pretty much everybody just hates, Blair. In one episode, a very nice moment between them is a perfect marriage of good character development, good film, and a great song. I started college as a film major, and I still have way too much interest in quality cinematography, well paired with a nice piece of music.
3. It's just plain nice to have a guilty pleasure.*** I don't care if it's books or TV or movies or what. You've got to love a show with a promo like the one below, I'm sorry. And I particularly love having a TV guilty pleasure, for which I have to wait for new episodes. There's something pleasurable about waiting for something in our instant gratification and everything's on the Internet all the time world, I think.


*I didn't plan it that way, I swear.

**When I broke down and told my brother, mainly because he happened to be in my house on a Monday night at 7 p.m., and I had to inform him that he either had to get out or keep completely silent so I could watch it in peace, he left. I think he was aghast at my taste. But I don't understand how he can stand American Idol, so we're even.

***Please note, I feel barely old enough to watch this show in my thirties. If I had tween or teen kids, who I would guess are supposed to be this show's target audience, I don't know that I'd let them watch it as THEIR guilty pleasure. I didn't get to watch Beverly Hills 90210 in its first run until I went to college, after all--Mom, bless her, kept a pretty close eye on my TV consumption.

Letting someone else do the writing.

Just a quick note of congratulations this morning to my friend Minnesota Sarah (sorry, Sarah, I just like the way that makes you sound, like a pool hustler or something), who has had a lovely article on World War II nonfiction published in Library Journal. You can, and should, read it here:

This is a very useful article for me, because I do not naturally gravitate to World War II fiction and nonfiction. In fact, I naturally gravitate away from it. I think it has something to do with having to check out way too many copies of Tom Brokaw's shit book The Greatest Generation to, well, too many members of the Greatest Generation. Also, the general glorification of war doesn't do much for me, and WWII is definitely glorified, I feel (unlike the Vietnam War, which is emphatically not glorified, and about which I have read a lot more).

All of that is the long way to say, you may have noticed from this blog that I don't read or post much about World War II. So now I'm lucky to have access to Sarah's article to which I can link!

Hiatus from the hiatus.

Okay, who knew it was going to kill me to stop blabbing my stupid book opinions for more than one day? The dandelions will just have to wait a minute, primarily because I have a question for you.

Believed Has anyone out there ever read a Wally Lamb book? He's the author of the Oprah books She's Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, as well as the new novel (based partially on the Columbine school shootings) titled The Hour I First Believed.

I've never read any Wally Lambs (as I typically stay well clear of books longer than 500 pages, which all of his are), but I'm about halfway through The Hour I First Believed. And here's my question: Would it be fair to describe him as trumped-up, literary Jodi Picoult? That's just a feeling I'm getting, and it may be unfair, but I wondered if anyone else had ever had that feeling as well.

Last but not least, please excuse me while I use the blog as a title dumping ground for nonfiction books from the library that I don't have time to read right now but definitely want to get back in the future. I recognize this will be largely an exercise in futility, as by the time I come back to these books, roughly a million more nonfiction books that I will want to read will have been published, but you can't blame me for trying. So here's a few hiatus quick reviews:

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, by Rose George. This book looks so, so awesome I don't even know where to start. I'll just start where she does, quoting a Nepali sanitation activist: "Just as HIV/AIDS cannot be discussed without talking frankly about sex, so the problem of sanitation cannot be discussed without talking frankly about shit."

The Pessimist's Guide to History, by Doris Flexner and Stuart Berg Flexner. A compendium of horrific and horrifying historical events arranged by year. I totally want to make a line of "What was Happening When You Were Born!" birthday cards listing historical events from this book. But then, I am a pessimist.

The Thoreau You Don't Know, by Robert Sullivan. If any author rivals my love for William Langewiesche, it is Robert Sullivan, author of the superlative micro-history Rats. I love him. I couldn't care less about Thoreau, but I'll follow Sullivan wherever he leads.

Becoming Queen, by Kate Williams. Beautiful and readable looking British history, about the life of Queen Victoria. A must-read for Anglophiles everywhere.

Citizen Reader on hiatus.

Ah, spring. That time of year when my thoughts turn to eradicating dandelions from my lawn by digging them out by hand.

I know that's a stupid way to spend time, but I find it relaxing and it's pretty much the only yard work I do, besides edging the driveway and mowing the lawn. Now, you might say, what does this have to do with reading? Well, nothing, on the surface. But lately I have been feeling the desire to read and not write anything about what I'm reading. It may in fact be the influence of Helene Hanff; I know she wrote for a living but I get the feeling she did a lot of reading just for the joy of it, so I've decided to take a little break from writing myself. The fact that my house could really use a spring cleaning (it hasn't had one in seven years) and I've got a few looming deadlines has nothing to do with it.

I won't be gone long and when I'm back I hope to have a few exciting reading-related announcements. In the meantime, might I suggest such reading material as The Reader's Advisor Online or this great argument about libraries and the Dewey Decimal system, not to mention any of the wonderful reading blogs listed over in the sidebar?

Thanks for your patience. And now, you'll excuse me? I'm off to become death, destroyer of worlds, to a yard full of dandelions.

My literary crush on Michael Perry continues.

If you'll remember, last week I was struggling because I had work to do, but all I WANTED to do was read Michael Perry's memoir Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting.

You should know that eventually I gave up the fight, finished the memoir, and then had to work the rest of the weekend to try and make up for it.

It was totally worth it.

Coop Perry is also the author of the fantastic memoirs Population: 485 (about his return to and life in the small Wisconsin town of New Auburn, where he also worked as an EMT) and Truck: A Love Story (in which he simultaneously restored an old truck and fell in love with a woman named Anneliese). In this memoir, he continues telling the story of his life by describing his first years of married life, including he and his wife's move to a small farm (where Perry is excited to raise some chickens and two pigs), their homeschooling of his "given" daughter Amy, and the arrival of their baby daughter. Along the way he also shares memories of his parents and his childhood, including his family's raising of numerous foster children, and of making a good life with not much money but a ton of love.

If you haven't figured it out yet, you should know that I have absolutely no objectivity where Michael Perry is concerned, so this is less a review than a gushing lovefest. In addition to enjoying Perry's voice, which is always just the right combination of earthy and erudite, earnest and shaply funny, I had the added plus of really being able to picture his parents. Not just because he describes them so well, but because my parents, after reading Population: 485, actually went to his hometown and drove around until they found his parents. Eventually his parents, because they are quite literally the nicest people on earth, stopped by my parents' farm and I got to meet them there. So I was just tickled to learn more about them:

"When Mom was in her first year of nursing school and Dad was a freshman at the local state college, he asked her to homecoming.

In Mom's words, the date was 'a great fiasco.' She agreed to go to the football game, but as she was already a member of the Truth,* which had stricutres forbidding dancing, she refused to attend the dance. Furthermore, Dad had been drinking the night before, and was certain Mom could tell. She says he couldn't wait to get her home and off his hands. At the door, she invited him in for cocoa. I delight in the image of my dad blowing on that hot chocolate, his toes curled tight as a pipe clamp, sweating out the last of the previous evening's booze and just--I have to assume--dying for a real drink. He drank the cocoa and bolted.

One year later, they went on a second date. 'This is getting serious,' said Grandma Peterson. And despite the slow start, it was." (pp. 80-81.)

So you'll not find much criticism of this book here. I loved it from start to finish. As pointed out in earlier comments, though, I should say it's not a perfect book. Sometimes the skipping back and forth between memories and present day is a little jarring, and overall, I don't think it's quite the structured, beautifully formed little jewel that his first memoir was--but that would be a lot to ask. If you haven't read any Perry yet, do start with Population: 485 and make your way up to this one. But make sure and leave plenty of reading time if you do--to start reading Michael Perry is to love him, and you won't want to stop.

*The Truth is the religious sect in which Perry was raised, and he also spends some time talking about his experiences with the church.

Shared vocabulary.

One of the reasons I'm so tickled when Mr. CR actually condescends to read nonfiction is that, for a while after he does, we share a common vocabulary. Last week, when he was done with this own Helene Hanff bender, I did the only sensible thing you can do when there's a Hanff book just laying around the house, and re-read her London travelogue, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

This time when I went through it I was particularly curious about a couple Helene met while there, named Leo Marks (the son of the owner of Marks & Co, the bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road) and his wife, Elena Gaussen Marks. If you've read the book, you know that Helene agreed to let Elena, a portrait painter, paint her. So I found myself wondering, what has happened to that portrait of Helene Hanff? (I would really, really like to see it.)

If I was a good reference librarian I would have an answer for you about where that portrait is and who owns it. Because I never was a particularly strong reference librarian, however, I did what every other person in the world does: Googled stuff for a while, and then gave up. But...I did find a few other paintings by Elena Gaussen (interesting), and I learned that Leo Marks wrote ciphers and did codebreaking during World War II. It is him, in fact, who we have to thank for this poem, which was actually a cipher poem used in World War II espionage circles:

"The life that I have is all that I have, and the life that I have is yours.
The love that I have of the life that I have is yours, and yours, and yours."

So when Mr. CR came home yesterday, I said, "Hey, you know that great poem I told you about? That was written by the husband of the guy who painted Helene's portrait in Bloomsbury Street. Remember?"

And he said, "Really? That's cool. It's a good poem." I still wonder where that portrait of Helene is today but I'll take the small victory of a shared reading experience with Mr. CR.

And now, for an extra special treat (don't say I never give you anything): enjoy Mr. Richard Armitage (of North and South BBC program fame) reciting that very same poem.*

*Scroll to the bottom of the page.

Gotta love writers...

...unless, of course, you're related to them.

I enjoyed parts of One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk about Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love, edited by Rebecca Walker. (What I didn't enjoy was that needlessly long subtitle.)

Polyamory The collection includes essays by Jenny Block, asha bandele, Dan Savage, ZZ Packer, Neal Pollack, and Judith Levine. I skipped the one about polyamory, because, frankly, the idea of two husbands gives me the heebies (please note: this is not because Mr. CR is hard to live with; this is because I am hard to live with). I found Savage's adoption story interesting, and I thoroughly enjoyed Levine's essay about money matters when you don't get married, but I loved Pollack's (Pollack is also the author of the enjoyable memoir Alternadad) essay, about the ugly realities of living together in a marriage, particularly when both partners work at home:

 "I'm not a househusband and Regina isn't a housewife. Neither of us particularly likes to upkeep. Though we're happy most of the time, Regina and I often say that if we could afford a cleaning service, or any kind of service, once a week or even once a month, it would help our marriage enormously. But we can't, so instead we wade through our unspecific roles, doing the best we can, trying to keep the living room free of spiderwebs. This creates mild tension, which manifests itself in conversations, usually when the kid isn't home, like:

'Why don't you do the fucking dishes?'

'Why don't you do the fucking dishes?'

'Because I don't fucking want to, that's why. So can you tell me why the kitchen floor is such a mess?'

'I don't know. Why don't you fucking clean it?"" (p. 140.)

Now that, unlike a conversation about polyamory, is a conversation I can relate to.

The marriage balance sheet.

Over the weekend Mr. CR was casting about for something to read, and because I can't help myself, I gave him 84, Charing Cross Road.

Not only did he finish it in short order, but he merrily went right along onto The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and Letter from New York,* which I haven't had the heart to take back to the library yet. He pronounced all of them great, interesting, and, in an interesting descriptive turn, "soothing." And then he cemented my love for him forever:

"The way Helene said something in the Duchess book reminded me of you."**

As only a woman with a weakness for chick flicks and Jane Austen can melt, I melted, and told him that was the nicest thing he'd ever said to me. Ergo, I have decided to forgive him for all those times during our marriage when he has thought it hilarious to introduce me as his "current wife."

*For Mr. CR to read three nonfiction titles in a row is unprecedented, and yet more proof of Helene's supertalent.

**I'm guessing it was the part where Helene describes herself as a slob who dresses for comfort rather than for style.

And a very interesting world it is.

I'll admit it, I did not read all of Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World (it's overdue, and I just want to get it back so the next reader can enjoy it). But I did read the first several chapters, and I really enjoyed those.

Artworld It's a simple enough idea: Thornton visited seven very different arenas of the art world, and reports back on them. (These are often my very favorites types of books; the investigative ones where the authors give us a look behind whatever scenes they've chosen.) The seven chapters of her book feature details on art auctions, artists' studios, a university art seminar, a prize announcement at the Tate Museum, the editorial offices of Artforum International magazine, and...well, I forget the rest right now, but you get the idea. I actually thought the first chapter, about an auction, made the whole book worthwhile; it was a really interesting consideration of how art is collected, sold, valued, and, basically, a good just like any other commodity. It's also fascinating (to me) to read about the world of big money and what and how it spends its time:

"The salesroom seats a thousand people, but it looks more intimate. One's seat is a mark of status and a point of pride. Smack dab in the middle of the room, I see Jack and Juliette Gold (not their real names), a pair of avid collectors, married with no kids, in their late forties. They fly into New York every May and November, stay in their favorite room at the Four Seasons, and arrange to have dinner with friends at Sette Mezzo and Balthazar. 'The truth is,' confides Juliette later, 'you've got standing room, the terrible seats, the good seats, the very good seats, and the aisle seats--they are the best. You've got the big collectors who buy--they're at the front, slightly to the right. You have serious collectors who don't buy--they're toward the back. Then, of course, you have the vendors, who are hiding up in the private skyboxes. It's a whole ceremony." (p. 16.)

It's an interesting book, and it reminded me a lot of The Billionaire's Vinegar, by Benjamin Wallace, which I also enjoyed. I find it much more relaxing to read about collecting things, wine, art, etc. than actually to collect anything.*

*Although I used to collect kitty knick-knacks when I was little, only to be rather stymied by the collection now. Periodically Mom asks why I don't hang a knick-knack shelf and display them, and I don't have the heart to tell her I don't want to dust around them, but I can't quite get myself to give them away, so they're in a box in my basement.