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July 2009

Tom Bissell: Class Act.

So yesterday we heard from Michael Perry, and today I have a note from Tom Bissell, author of The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam (as well as Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg), to share with you. I asked him this question:

"One of the questions we discussed was what to classify your book. Could you enlighten on us on what you would call your book (if you had to, say, find one shelf location for it in the bookstore)?"

And this is what he answered:

"This is a question I try not to think about too much, because if I did I´d probably throw myself off a bridge. The nonfiction writers I like tend to write books that escape categorization. I´m thinking of Ryszard Kapuscinski and Geoff Dyer just off the top of my head. I wrote TFOAT very much under the spell of those two fine gentlemen. So I would say, if it had to be shelved anywhere, why not in Travel Narrative. I´ve seen it in history, which I don´t think it has the heft to belong so much, and in biography, which just seems odd. I wish bookstores had a Weird section for nonfiction, because that´s where I think it belongs, ultimately.

Finally, thank you very much for the links. I´m reading them in Spain, having just walked across the country, and it gave me a nice return-to-normal-life feeling. My new book is coming out in the spring, which I think may probably escape your blog´s attention: Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter--and Why They Don´t Matter More."

So there you have it, a new nonfiction heading: Weird Nonfiction. The thing is, I think I know exactly what he means. And the first author I would place next to Bissell in Weird Nonfiction is William Langewiesche.

Well, how fun was that? Two great books, two class acts, and one totally spanking book discussion. Thanks again, all, and have a great weekend.

Michael Perry: Class Act.

Population Well, we rather knew that all along, didn't we? But boy, have I got a treat for you today. I emailed Michael Perry, author of Population 485, and asked him two of the questions from last week's Book Menage. And boy, how he answered them! Here were the questions:

Did you ask your whole family to read the "Sarah" chapter before you published? Or, how did you choose such divergent activities as writing and being an EMT? (I said "or" because I didn't want him to feel he had to answer both, if he didn't have time.)

And here is what he emailed back:

"My mother read the 'Sarah' chapter.  She corrected some things in it.  My brother gave me permission to write about it, but said he didn’t think he could read it.  Sometime later (a year or two) he did read it and sent me a kind note.  I actually already had a final chapter already written (I don’t work in a straight line) when Sarah’s death occurred.  I wrote the new final chapter with my brother’s permission because those events so synthesized what I was trying to convey about the good side of small town/rural life even/especially in the face of tragedy.

Mom is my number one fact-checker.  I have removed at least one delightful anecdote after she told me I got it wrong.  I really do my best to get the facts right (Truth with a capital “T” is a much more elusive matter).  Double-check, confirm in print when possible.  Consult with family, other folks.  Check old newspapers.  But sometimes I flat-out make mistakes.  When I discover them, I try to be very open about it.  I even have a tag on my blog called 'OOPS!'.  If you click on it you’ll find mistakes I’ve acknowledged about the most recent book.

Then there are times when three of us in the immediate family simply remember an anecdote differently.  Obviously nobody is 'lying' in the standard sense.  So in those cases I usually do my best to synthesize and/or check the stories against each other in an attempt to identify the items that do match up.

Memoir is a much-mangled form.  I try to write honestly and from the heart and check the facts.  But of course the books are a distillation…what may be missing is any given Tuesday in dirty socks, the standard boring stuff, filling out insurance forms, renewing the license plates, being grumpy and boring for days on end, straightening up the garage, and so on.

As far as the divergent activities of writing and EMT-ing, there was no plan.  I became an EMT somewhat on a whim because I wanted to be able to do something if someone fell over.  Plus I admit to wondering about what went on inside the fast-moving vehicle with the flashing lights.  I became a writer after a lifetime of incidental coincidences beginning when I fell in love with books as a toddler, continuing when a 7th grade teacher let me write a free-verse poem and my first short essay, on through a college creative writing course and gigantic nursing course papers, right up until a friend mentioned she had written a piece for a magazine and sold it and it occurred to me that maybe I could try the same thing, so I went to the library and got a book on freelance writing and now here we are.

As a young freelancer looking for work, it made sense to start writing about what I was already doing.  That included being an EMT.  So I wrote about that for rescue magazines and non-rescue magazines, and just kept doing both.  Nowadays I continue my involvement with EMS because it is a daily reminder that I am not a writer but rather a human and one day I’ll be the one needing help.  I find it keeps me utterly grounded to reality and grateful for life itself, whereas writing – for all the delights it has brought and continues to bring – often allows me to remain (quite happily) in the floaty little world I carry between my ears.

So rather than a divergence, I see these two things as an essential knot holding me together."

I don't know about you, but I'm going to steal his "floaty little world I carry between my ears" line. What a guy. What an author. Thanks again for all of your participation in the Menage (and thanks to Michael Perry as well). Now go forth and read all his books! And do please tune in tomorrow for another Book Menage treat!

And people wonder why I don't like doctors.

Yes, I know doctors are there to help you. I know when you need an operation or someone to clear an airway and jam a breathing tube down your throat, you have to go to doctors. That doesn't mean I have to like them.

Normal It probably doesn't help that I keep reading books like Normal at Any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry's Quest to Manipulate Height (by Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove). The title and subtitle there don't leave a whole lot to the imagination; basically it's a book about how doctors and others in the medical profession have "treated" people whose final heights will fall outside the bounds of what they consider "normal." Told chronologically, the story first focuses on girls whose parents feared they were growing too tall (and would grow themselves right out of the marriage market--this was in the 1940s and 1950s) and who were given hormones to speed up their puberty and stop their growing. It then moves pretty smoothly into the discovery that human growth hormone could be extracted from human pituitary glands, and how that hormone was used to treat all sorts of children who seemed too short.


That's a very quick nutshell synopsis of the book; if you're interested in the subject, you should definitely pick it up, because the authors do a good job of telling a very detailed and complex medical story. (At times it was actually a little too detailed, and because I had been working on the book for a while and just wanted to finish it, I'll admit I did start skipping a few pages here and there.) But I can hit the salient points, and try to give an indication of why I found this book so, so interesting, and why it may be worth some of your reading time:

1. Jesus God, I don't know if they're still this way, but doctors in the 1950s and 60s certainly seemed a bit carefree about just injecting patients with any old thing to see how they'd react. That's how you got girls whose mothers worried they'd be over six feet tall receiving DES, a synthetic hormone with a chemical structure similar to that of DDT, and which was also used to prevent miscarriages (but which may have actually caused miscarriages).

2. When the doctors aren't the problem, parents are. There is much discussion in this book about kids who didn't want treatments--especially girls who weren't in a big hurry for puberty and boys who didn't feel particularly bad about being short--and the parents who pushed their doctors to prescribe "treatments" anyway.

3. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is how hormones used to be collected from the pituitary glands of cadavers, and how nobody really thought that was a problem--until, ahem, kids that had been treated with those pituitary hormones started dying from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (also known as the mad cow disease that affects humans). Would that be worth an inch or so of extra height? Nor is this story exclusively about America; the authors also discuss similar cases from Australia, France, and Great Britain.

4. The science of height prediction is unscientific in the extreme. Basically, your doctor has about as good a chance of predicting your kid's eventual height as the weatherperson has of predicting the weather a month from now.

5. Here's a surprise: pharmaceutical companies who are still selling growth hormones keep working to expand their markets, and are trying to make "shortness" a disease that qualifies for insurance coverage.

If you've got the stomach for it, it's a really interesting read. It's not a perfect book; sometimes it's a little dry, but all in all it's an eye-opener. I'll let the authors sum it up; this is what they have to say on the back cover: "In the end, short stature is a multibillion-dollar business that is still growing like a weed."

Now that's poetry.

So lately I have been trying to work more poetry into my regular reading schedule. I'm doing it the way I do everything--in a completely disorganized and unplanned manner, relying largely upon the serendipity of lucky discovery--but so far I've been enjoying myself.

Last week I became interested in the poet Sappho (after reading a Salinger novel in which she was quoted) and took a wander through my local library catalog to see what I could find. What I came up with is a slim volume called The Soldier and the Lady: Poems of Archilochos and Sappho, translated by Barriss Mills. I don't know anything about it, or who Archilochos was, but the last page of this book informs me it is only one of 400 that was printed by The Elizabeth Press. I love finding books like that. And the poetry's, well, rather blunt and lovely. Consider this:

"That bulge under your dress
makes it obvious to everyone
what you've been up to, slut.

Hipponax, the well-digger
knows all about it, and so
does your husband, Ariphantos.
(It's a lucky thing for him
he never did catch the thief
flagrante delictu.)

                            But he
had his eye on Aischylides,
the potter, while Hipponax
was getting his pick and shovel
in the door.

       Now the whole story's
showing, under your robe."*

That's a poem that'll make you sit up and take notice. I've read this book once (it's only about 40 pages long) but I'm going to read it again and just let it soak in. I've enjoyed it very, very much. Here's another poem, slightly less Jerry Springer-ish than the first: "Soul, o my soul, you're beaten down with trouble. Lift your chin and fight back against whatever torments you."

*Now that's poetry! This reminded me of the Simpsons episode where the psychiatrists are trying to get Homer to goad Ned Flanders into anger by having him read off a card that says "I slept with your wife/significant other," at which point Homer looks up and says, "now THAT'S psychology!"

Disappointment, NPR style.

Books-on-tape versions of NPR programs are always really popular in my library system, so I've been waiting months to receive a copy of NPR Funniest Driveway Moments on CD. When it finally came in, I was pumped. I love listening to comedy routines on tape.

Npr Imagine my disappointment, then, when I found out that these sixteen (or so) tracks were mainly of NPR commentators interviewing comedians about comedy.* I'm not saying it was a dull listen, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I thought it would. Comedians spoken with include Dame Edna, Steve Martin, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, and Larry David, so they did break out the heavy hitters for this collection.

There were, however, two very bright moments. One was David Sedaris's track, which was indeed Sedaris reading one of his essays (which is rather what I thought the whole collection was going to be). He talks about his experiences with health care in France, where he had a ton of dental work done for a mere $40, and once went to the emergency room, where all of his care cost a total of $100. He further points out that if he had been a French citizen, he would have been reimbursed for those costs, and that no one ever asked him if he was insured or how he would be paying before they cared for him. (Ahem--how do they make THAT work? That's the system we need.) He concluded his essay by asking his male nurse for an ashtray--which was brought and which he used--and how that was the moment when he realized there was no real reason to ever return to the United States. 

The other bright spot, if you can call it that, is a quote from a 1983 interview with Richard Pryor, in which he replied to a question about the obscenities in his routines by saying, "You know what's obscene to me? The president of the United States stands on television and tells people that we are helping to fight communism in South America by killing the people. I would never do that."

What I have learned from this is that I have got to go find some Richard Pryor routines on CD, somewhere.

*Also? Sometimes the commentators sound like they're forcing their laughter, and I found that very annoying. I don't think they were forcing it, but it didn't sound quite right.

Summer Book Menage: The Conclusion.

Well, first off, I just wanted to thank everyone for joining in our Menage this time around. I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed the books and the questions and the discussion. I have emails in to both Michael Perry and Tom Bissell (Bissell is out of the country until August 3) with a couple of our questions, so if I hear back, I will post their answers here in the future. One bright side of the new world of book publishing and book marketing is that (this is my opinion, anyway) authors are very aware that book clubs can help sell books, so if you put "book club question" in your email subject line, I would imagine they're more into answering it.

That is not a dig at authors. I salute them for doing all the marketing and traveling and selling they have to do.

So now my thoughts to our next Menage. Does anyone have any ideas? Are we up for a fiction/nonfiction pairing again? If we were, I might suggest Penelope Fitzgerald's novel The Bookshop, perhaps paired with a travel book? (Fitzgerald's novel is all about a town where everybody knows each other, while travel books are often about outsiders getitng to know a place, and might provide a neat contrast.) Or is there some nonfiction genre we still haven't tried? Nonfiction graphic novels? True Crime? Do let me know if you've got any ideas, and we'll take a vote before our next Menage. And have a great weekend, everybody.

Book Menage Day 4: The wrap-up.

I know, I know, I thought the original title for today's post would be "On Memory." I thought we'd talk a little bit about memoirs and how they're written, but I think we had a great talk about that yesterday. So I thought I'd skip ahead to the big questions, and tomorrow we can consider which books we'd like to read for the next Menage.

So here we go:

1. How did you feel about these books? If you haven't yet read them, do you think you will, based on the other days of our discussion?


2. Would you read anything else by these authors? Why or why not?

I've said it before, but I think this has been a great discussion. If I can track down email addresses and the necessary energy to stalk authors, I might email both of these men and see if they want to answer or speak about any of the questions we had earlier this week. If I get any answers I'll post them.

Tomorrow: Suggestions for the next Menage?

Book Menage Day 3: Exclusively Bissell.

I'd like to start off Day 3 by saying that I realized as I re-read The Father of All Things that it was really quite a meaty book, and kind of a tough one to read quickly. It is most emphatically not what one would think of as either a "beach read" or "summer read." But I'd like to thank you for giving it a try all the same.

So here are my questions for you about this book. Feel free to answer any or all; likewise, if you'd like to answer yesterday's questions for this book, that's fine by me too. As you know, "Loosey Goosey" is one of the few operating principles we follow here at CR.

1. What do you think of the structure of this book? If you had to give it one label (e.g., History, Memoir, Travel, War, etc.) which one would you choose, and why?

2. Was this book what you expected it to be? Why or why not?

3. At one point Bissell quotes his father, who suggests that "war is an illness caused by youth" (which is also used by Bissell as a heading for one of his book's sections). What do you think that means? Do you agree with that statement, or not?

Okay, please do have at. I know I say this every time, but I think this is the Menage I'm enjoying the most, so far. Thank you!

Tomorrow: The Power of Memory

Book Menage Day 2: Exclusively Michael Perry.

Today I thought we'd consider Population 485 on its own. Tomorrow, if it's okay with you, we'll do the same with the Bissell, and then on Thursday we'll throw them back together.

So today's questions are pretty simple, again. Please answer any or all in the comments!

1. Do you feel like you know Perry after reading his memoir? If you could ask him a question, would it more likely be about his personal life or about his book (or is it hard to separate the two)? What question would you ask?

2.Which part of the book did you like, dislike, or remember the most? Why? (Spoilers are okay; but do feel free to write SPOILER ALERT at the top of your comment if you are so inclined.)

Okay, have at. Tomorrow: Exclusively Bissell.

Book Menage Day 1: Starting slowly.

Hello, all, and welcome to the summer edition of our Book Menage discussion! I'm so excited to start this round of discussions, that I'm not even going to let the fact that this is Thomas Friedman's birthday get me down. Friedman, anyone who has the balls to ask for a $70,000 appearance fee does not deserve happy birthday wishes.

So our two books for this round are Michael Perry's Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, and Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam. As we did last time, we'll spread this out over the week; I'll pose some different questions each day and we'll answer in the comments. Just to shake things up a little bit, I will not be asking, on this the first day, which book you liked better and why (as I did last time); we'll save that for the end. I also will not be answering first in the comments today, because I'm worried that sometimes I overly direct the tone of our discussions (I will comment later, though). Also--if you have questions about these books, simply post them in the comments as well and I'll add them to the main posts! And remember! Anyone and everyone who comments on any day will be entered into a drawing to win the two books for the next Menage, absolutely free! So invite your friends.

All right, them's the rules and regulations. As far as the questions go, we're going to start slowly today.

1. Just looking at these books, are either one of them books you would have selected to read on your own? Why or why not?

2. Let's look at the beginnings of these books. How did you read them? Did you read Bissell's "Author's Note," or did you skip ahead to the main text? What kind of experience did you think you were in for when you read their corresponding first lines?

Perry: "We are in trouble down here. There is blood in the dirt. We have made our call for help. Now we look to the sky."

Bissell: (Depending on what you consider the beginning) "More than thirty thousand books on Vietnam are currently in print." or "It would have been spring. The neighborhood yards still yellow and concrete hard, the side panels of the cars you pass on the way home from work spattered with arcing crusts of road salt, the big oaks and elms that loom along Lake Shore Drive throwing down long pale rows of shadow."

Tomorrow's topic: Exclusively Perry.

Wanna read, wanna read, wanna read.

As you know, normally the only thing I feel like doing is reading. And normally, I feel like reading anything and everything, including nonfiction and fiction (although nonfiction remains my one true master). Very rarely, however, I'll admit, do I pick up either plays or poetry. I'll wander through some poetry as I find it, every now and then, but with the exception of being IN plays, way back in the dark ages of high school, I don't think I've ever actually READ a play.

That may have to change, as last night Mr. CR and I saw a performance of George Bernard Shaw's "The Philanderer," and it was AWESOME. Full of good stuff about the ongoing battle between men and women, and what it means to be a manly man and a womanly woman. (It was also quite funny, and, by play standards, relatively short, which also made me happy.) But in the second act I started to lose the thread of the conversations a little bit. So now, I think I may actually look into reading a play for the first time ever. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Sappho In other wanna read news, the other night I couldn't sleep and, as per usual, hooked up a little J.D. Salinger comfort reading, in the form of his novella Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. Of course one of my favorite bits in that book is his character's quoting of a line of poetry from Sappho: "Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man." Other than being a bit concerned at the comparison of a bridegroom to the god of war, I think that's a stellar line of poetry. And now I may have to hook up some Sappho as well.

May you all have a good weekend, filled with things you want to read and actually get the time to read. And on Monday? Report right back here for our Book Menage, starring Michael Perry's Population 485 and Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things! I never say this about a Monday, but it's the way I feel: I can't wait!

Links around town.

Well, today's the last day for all of us guest-posters to go nuts over at BookNinja, so I just wanted to take this opportunity to say THANK YOU to all of you who took the time to vote for me over there. It's been a super good time, and I hope George (owner of the site) isn't kidding when he says we all get a pair of BookNinja thong underwear in return for our efforts. I don't want it to wear, mind you. I want it because the idea of owning anything as stupid as a pair of thong underwear makes me giggle. How on earth can women stand wearing those things?

Now, before I went into a thong digression, I was going to say I had a lot of fun at BookNinja yesterday because I took another cheap shot at Jodi Picoult (it just never gets old). Also, thanks to AustenBlog, I posted a link to British actors reading literature excerpts (as advertisements) at the Carte Noire site. It doesn't seem fair that I haven't yet provided that link here, so here you go: Dominic West reading Pride and Prejudice. Super. I don't quite know how that sells coffee, and frankly, I don't care.

Also, just in case you missed it, William Langewiesche had an article in the June issue of Vanity Fair about the plane that landed in the Hudson River early this year. I've not read anything else on the subject, but I'm going to read this, because....well, you know.

Underneath our feet.

Up the street from me they're tearing up a major cross street, and replacing all sorts of pipes and fire hydrants and big cement things which Mr. CR thinks are drains of some kind, but really, how would we know? So we walk up regularly to take a look at progress, and all I can think every time is that I wish I could see a cross-section of everything under our street and house, to see how all that sewer and stuff works. I'm just glad someone understands it all. (Or at least I hope they do.)

Solis The whole thing has put me a bit in the mood for a book about the underground, so which better book to choose than New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City? It's not been quite what I expected it to be, but it is really interesting nonetheless. The author, Julia Solis, points out that many of the underground tunnels and secret spaces she details and has photographed for her book are no longer accessible, because access to anything underground after 9/11 has been seriously curtailed.

"The underground is being policed like never before. Hatches have been sealed, subaquatic tunnels are guarded, and cameras have been installed. Information is disappearing off Web sites, archives are closing to the public, and photographers of infrastructure are increasingly met with suspicion. I was lucky to have discovered nearly all of the spaces in this book before the terror attacks and to have found a few kindred spirits among those who work below the streets, since it is now a bad idea to venture into the city's tunnels." (pp. 6-7.)

That makes me kind of sad, but at least we have this book to see the utility tunnels, subway and rail tunels, underground passages, and building foundations. For a book about dark and underground spaces, it's weirdly illuminating and totally beautiful.

In other neighborhood news, this morning I stumbled out to the curb with my trash, three-quarters asleep and wearing my fifteen-year-old robe, and some guy driving by stopped and said, "Hey, I haven't seen you for a hundred years!" And I didn't know who he was, which I felt bad having to admit. I'm guessing he was someone from high school, but he only told me his first name, and that didn't really help. I just wish I'd had the presence of mind to say, "Dude, I have blocked out almost all of high school." I don't know why it bothered me so, or why I'm boring you with this story. This must be one of the side effects of freelance working at home; you are all now my co-workers who I must bore with my stories. Good working with you!

Cocktail party fun facts.

Does anyone actually host or go to "cocktail parties" any more? They sound like fun.

I spent the majority of my weekend indexing, so I didn't get a whole lot of time to read much else. (That's not entirely true; I am, in fact, re-reading David Eddings's fantasy series The Belgariad, which I was going to leave until the winter, but which is turning out to be a lovely and relaxing summer re-read.) So I had to take a small hiatus from nonfiction pleasure reading. But the books I was indexing were interesting--it's a series for middle/high schoolers about famous economists. So, here's what I learned:

Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and a favorite quotation source for proponents of unadulterated free trade and capitalism everywhere, was a long-time customs commisioner and tax collector. File under "I" for Irony.


John Maynard Keynes was bisexual, or at least had relationships with men when he was younger. (And one of the men he had a love affair with was Lytton Strachey, who became famous for writing the biography Eminent Victorians, and who is often credited for jumpstarting the popularity of biographies.)

Who said learning had to be dull?

Menage reminder.

Didn't get much reading done last night; gave in, instead, to my mad Paul Rudd crush and watched the movie Role Models with Mr. CR. And we really, really enjoyed it. It's not for young kids, but if you're looking for awesome sarcastic humor, Paul Rudd's your man. Seann William Scott surprised us too; I wonder how those two actors get along in real life, because they play off each other nicely.

So instead I thought I would take this opportunity to remind everyone that our next Book Menage starts on Monday, July 20. Our two books? Both memoirs, this time around, but of slightly different types; Michael Perry's Population 485: Getting to Know Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time is gentler, while Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things combines memoir with travelogue and war history for a triple punch. Can't wait to see you at the Menage!

David Denby, you're the most boring man alive.

And if you want to call that snark, that's okay with me.

David Denby is one of those nonfiction authors I keep trying, even though I've never, ever read anything of his that made me say, "Yeah, that's right!" He's a film critic for The New Yorker magazine, which goes a long way toward explaining why I never really find anything I like reading in The New Yorker.

Snark His latest book is titled Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation. Denby spends 128 pages describing what he thinks is and isn't snark, which he defines as "a strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation--a tone of snarking insult provoked and encouraged by the new hybrid world of print, television, radio, and the Internet." Of course that's not all there is to it; he goes on for some time describing what snark ISN'T (it's not Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; it's not Internet "trolls," it's not irreverence or spoof.)

I'd like to offer a better overview of Denby's premise, but I think the major weakness of his work is that he never really gets around to explaining it himself. Instead he gets all sanctimonious, at the end of his first chapter:

"We are in a shaky moment, a moment of transition, and I think it's reasonable to ask: What are we doing to ourselves? What kind of journalistic culture do we want?...Journalism is a vast sea of good and bad, but surely some demands can be made, and the distinction between toughness and cynicism, incisiveness and fatuous sarcasm, satire and free-floating cruelty--these are differences worth fighting for in any medium."

Whatever, Mr. Denby. Methinks someone sniffed a market for erudite earnestness (also known as the same people who purchased Harry Frankfurt's dreadfully dull but creatively titled books On Bullshit and On Truth) and decided to exploit it for all it was worth. I expected no less of the man who wrote Great Books, one of the few boring books about books I've ever read, a compilation of his not-so-fascinating remarks on the great books of Western civilization, and American Sucker, about his adventures losing money in the stock market he wasn't smart enough to exploit before the dot-com bubble burst.* I don't care if you need the money, Mr. Denby, but for once would you consider selling out by writing an interesting book?

Yes, this is all very snarky. And I'm doing it on the Internet, on one of those disgusting snarky little blogs. So be it. Not all of us can luck onto film reviewing gigs because we were disciples of Pauline Kael.

*I probably shouldn't be so mean about this. He got into the stock market because he was going through a messy divorce and wanted to make enough money to be able to buy his wife's half of their New York apartment so he could stay in it.

Shameless self promotion: continued.

So are any of you librarian types out there going to the big ALA conference in Chicago this upcoming weekend?

If so, I certainly hope you have a great time. And, somewhere in between the sessions and the networking and the sneaking out of the conference to go eat in good Chicago restaurants, might I make a small suggestion? Please do pop by the ABC-CLIO booth in the Exhibits (they're in booth #3918, I'm informed) and see all the new readers' advisory books that Libraries Unlimited has published in the last year.

Inside In addition to new guides for historical and women's fiction, I'm very excited to announce that my new book, The Inside Scoop: A Guide to Nonfiction Investigative Writing and Exposes,* will be there! This is really exciting to me (not only because it means I'm done writing that book, whew), but because it means that the Libraries Unlimited Real Stories series is now a reality. Just like LU's Genreflecting series, these books will examine different genres and types of nonfiction, and I say, it's about time too. Also at this conference will be Rick Roche's brand spanking new book Real Lives Revealed: A Guide to Reading Interests in Biography,** which I am dying to get a look at. So please do stop by the booth and check out these new guides--I'd love to hear what you think of them!

Also, don't be shy about asking anyone in the booth to show you their spectacular reading database, the Readers' Advisor Online. I've spent some time in the LU booth in the past and everyone who works there is always so, so nice, and they'd love to show you what they've got, and answer any questions.

And, of course, have a good conference. Safe travels!

*My first Libraries Unlimited book, The Real Story: A Guide to Nonfiction Reading Interests; will be at the conference at well; Jessica Zellers's Real Stories book Women's Nonfiction: A Guide to Reading Interests, will be published later this year.

**I intend to talk more about Rick's book after I've seen it--it's just been published.

I'm officially giving up on Michael Chabon.

I am officially giving up on Michael Chabon. If I never, ever have to read anything the guy writes ever again, I will be one happy camper.

I didn't want it to be this way. I loved the movie Wonder Boys (although I don't think I ever did get around to reading the book) and people I know and respect keep liking his books, so I keep trying to like him. I've tried several times to make it past the first thirty pages of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and I made it all the way through his action adventure historical fiction title Gentlemen of the Road (which he originally wanted to title "Jews with Swords"). I've tried. But they don't do anything for me. And I'm so confused by the very concept of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which seems to be about Judaism but has cover art that signals a Native American theme and which is evidently set in Alaska, that I didn't even bother starting it.

Maps So I was very excited to see that he had a new nonfiction collection out, titled Maps and Legends. At last, I thought. Maybe I'll have a fighting chance of understanding his nonfiction writing. It's a book about writing and reading, so naturally I thought I would find a lot to love in it.*

But, sadly, the Curse of Chabon continues, and I have decided I have to stop trying to read him or I'm going to end up hating him as if I knew him personally. Normally I don't have a problem describing what I don't like about authors, but with Chabon I'm at a loss. Take the opening sentence of his opening essay, titled "Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story":

"Entertainment has a bad name. Serious people learn to mistrust and even to revile it. The word wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights."

Now that's okay. That's good, evocative writing, and I'm with him. But the high doesn't last for long. Before I know it, he's on to a paragraph like this one:

"...I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka's formula: "A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.' I could go down to the cafe at the local mega-bookstore and take some wise words of Abelard or Koestler about the power of literature off a mug. But in the end--here's my point--it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles."

What I was going to say was that I get bored of that paragraph in the middle, just like I get bored in the middle of all his paragraphs. But then as I typed it I started to get it, just a little bit. But not enough to like it. So I think this is a case where I am too lazy for the author, and me not liking him is not his fault. I'm sure Chabon'll be able to sleep easier at night, knowing that.

*I don't know what is up with Mr. CR and his willingness to look at nonfiction lately. When I told him this book wasn't for me, he said, "Yeah, I looked at it too, but...seemed like a good concept, but most of it was just really boring."

Not your typical cozy British village.

Good lord, if you've got any kind of trend toward depression, don't pick up Nicola Monaghan's The Killing Jar.

Jar Monaghan's slim novel is set on a council estate* in the British city of Nottingham, where life's anything but cozy cups of tea and Miss Marples and Christmas crackers and any other jolly British stereotype you can come up with. This novel is filled with poor people, mothers addicted to heroin ("brown") who can't be bothered to care for their children, and children themselves who start selling drugs and living together as young teens to form their own family units in lieu of any kind of other normal childhood and young adulthood.

And yet? I really, really liked it. I liked Monaghan's main character, Kerrie-Ann Hill (most frequently called "Kez"), even though or perhaps she grew up in a shitty world and did what she could to survive, including falling in love with Mark Scotland, her childhood friend and, in the beginning, a fairly sweet guy who looked after her younger brother when she got sent to the British equivalent of juvie and her mother spent most of her time high.

But I'm not going to kid you. It is a relentlessly dreary novel. If you don't think you can stomach reading about junkies and beatings and people who never stop letting other people down, I can't recommend it. But it does offer moments like this:

"They reckon you feel love in your heart but that's bollocks. True love, the type what strikes you down and makes you change forever, you feel that kind of love in every fucking organ inside you. Liver, kidneys, heart, and spleen. Every tiny cell what makes up your brain and your spine, your bones and blood and muscles. It keens through you." (p. 270.)

Oh, that gave me shivers. That gave me Emily Bronte-esque shivers, the way I shivered when I first read Wuthering Heights and found Cathy's monolgue about Heathcliff: "My love for Heatcliff is like the eternal rocks below, a source of little visible pleasure, but necessary."

*Evidently council estates in Great Britain are the equivalent of our "projects" here, found in urban areas. If you'd like to see what they look like, check out an episode of Shameless, which is set on a council estate (in Manchester, I think) and leaves VERY little to the imagination.

Last of its kind.

For years Nick Hornby wrote a column in The Believer magazine about his monthly reading habits; in each column he would list the books he bought that month, the books he read (and those two lists seldom corresponded), and then shared his thoughts about what he was reading. Because he is British, he also somehow managed to work tidbits about the soccer matches he was watching into every column.* Previously, two books collecting his monthly pieces had been published, titled The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt. Both were highly enjoyable reads.

Shakespeare So it's no surprise that Hornby's gone back to the well one last time, and published his last collection of Believer columns under the title Shakespeare Wrote for Money. (Subtitled: Two Years of Reading Begat by More Reading, Presented in Easily Digestible, Utterly Hysterical Monthly Installments.) And it truly is the last of its kind, as Hornby has stopped writing his column for the magazine (as of September 2008).

I don't know why he's stopping, but one guess is because, like anything else, it feels like the column has run its course. Although this was a very enjoyable read, I just don't think I enjoyed it the same way I enjoyed the first two books. Although this volume does have a hilarious introduction by Sarah Vowell, proving to me that I do like Sarah Vowell, just in small doses, and flashes of hilarity are still there, it just doesn't have that kick. Also, Hornby continues the Believer's policy of not sharing the titles of books he really disliked, which bugged me in the first and second volumes and continues to bug me, because I think it's dishonest.

But I'd still recommend it. For one thing, in this volume, Hornby discovers the entire genre of YA fiction, and is shocked by how much he loves it, and it's always fun to watch a passionate reader discover a new love (he read such books as M.T. Anderson's Feed and David Almond's Skellig, although I'm disappointed he never made it to John Green's Looking for Alaska). For another, parts of it are still just very, very good:

"I recently discovered that when my friend Mary has finished a book, she won't start another for a couple of days--she wants to give her most recent reading experience a little more time to breathe, before it's suffocated by the next. This makes sense, and it's an entirely laudable policy, I think. Those of us who read neurotically, however--to ward off boredom, and the fear of our own ignorance, and our impending deaths--can't afford the time." (p. 97.)

I hope you get some time this weekend for yourself, to read neurotically. Have a happy Fourth, everyone.

*The lust for soccer is one of the few attributes of the British soul that I don't understand. I have this theory that soccer is how Britons relase their aggression, just like I believe hockey is an outlet for Canadians, and Americans have, you know, handguns and shopping in Wal-Mart on the day after Thanksgiving.