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August 2009

"They just wanted to meet some girls..."

Is everyone on Facebook? You may not want to be anymore if you read Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook (further sutitled A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal).

Mezrich A couple of things. This is a slim book, but there's two definite areas to cover here, so bear with me. First, there is the subject of the book, which is, of course, the founding of the social networking site Facebook by Harvard students Mark Zuckerberg (who "came up" with the concept and did the programming) and Eduardo Saverin (who provided the seed money for the company's initial founding). All I can say after reading this one is, I have seen the future, and it is being run by the computer programmers (or, more particularly, the hackers), and that is a scary thought. Not because they're bad people. (In fact, they have reputations as being quite nerdy people, which you'd think would make me love them, and kind of does, in the same way I have a soft spot for engineers.) No, I'll admit I fear computer programmers* because I so completely don't understand what they do. And, here's the tricky parts: how they can do it so big, and they can do it so fast. Facebook grew from one college campus's worth of users to millions of users--all dumping their personal information into its servers--within a few months. There's something creepy about that.

And then let's consider why the company was formed. I don't actually know how much of this story is factual (please refer to the second part of this review), but if it actually started the way Mezrich describes it starting, that's kind of creepy too. I found it particularly hilarious that the call-out quote on the back of the book is "they just wanted to meet some girls." But here's the story as it starts on page 43:

"Maybe somewhere inside of Mark's thoughts, he knew that blaming it all on a girl who had rejected him wasn't exactly fair. How were this one girl's actions different from the way most girls had treated Mark throughout high school and college?...He was going to create something that would give him back some of that control, show all of them what he could do...

Maybe he grinned as he scanned through the pictures [from a Harvard online "facebook"] that were now spread across the screen of his desktop. Certainly, he recognized some of the guys, and even a few of the girls--but most of them were probably strangers to him, even though he'd passed them in the dining hall or on his way to his classes. He was probably a complete stranger to them, too; some of the girls, for sure, had gone out of their way to ignore him.

[from Mark's online blog, quoted in the text] 'I almost want to put some of these faces next to pictures of farm animals and have people vote on which is more attractive.'"

Sorry for the choppy nature of those quotes, but you do get the idea, right? Zuckerberg first created something called Facemash at Harvard not so much because he wanted to meet girls, but because he was pissed and wanted to get back at them by rating them next to farm animals (although he eventually he classed it up a step and went with asking visitors to his new site simply to rank Harvard girls against one another). And then he created that hacking into the university's online (not public, mind you) and individual picture/facebook collections (evidently Harvard is divided into "houses" that each have their own networks) and downloading everyone's photos.

You think a guy like that, who is now CEO of a company that Microsoft once valued at over 15 billion dollars, is going to have any qualms about doing anything he wants with your personal information? I guess people like Facebook. But it gives me the heebies. The guy who created it gives me the heebies. All the programmers who work for him who create major new software "enhancements"--like video-sharing--over the course of TWENTY-FOUR HOURS (which Facebook has done) give me the heebies. Is all of this really worth putting your photo out there so people you didn't really like all that much in high school can find you?

Hmm, I was going to do both halves of this review today, but I think I have already gone on too long, and am heebied out. Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion.

*The irony of typing this in a program provided for me by programmers, who have made it possible for Luddite idiots like me to shoot my mouth off online, is not lost on me.

Books about Books: Now Read This 3

Sorry for the late post today, but I got all caught up in reading the comments from yesterday. Thanks to everyone for what I thought was the best comment thread ever--it was like the best spontaneous book conversation ever, with everyone suggesting titles and bookstores and talking about true crime and, most importantly, largely agreeing that Richard Dawkins needs to be served a large cup of shut the fuck up.* So thank you to everyone for that.

Pearl In other news, today I thought I'd announce why I've been reading fiction pretty hardcore for the last couple of years. It's because I've been working on a new book with Nancy Pearl called Now Read This 3: A Guide to Mainstream Fiction. Pearl, also known as the Librarian Action Figure and frequent book commentator on NPR, is the author of the first two volumes in the series, Now Read This (along with assistance from Martha Knappe and Chris Higashi) and Now Read This 2. They're the books (along with the Genreflecting series) on which I modeled The Real Story and The Inside Scoop: we list mainstream fiction titles, provide a summary or annotation for them, and then suggest similar books that readers might also enjoy. It's not quite done yet, and I notice in Amazon that the pub date's been pushed back a little farther than I thought it would be, but we're getting very close to finishing it and I couldn't be happier. How often does one get to work with not only an unparalleled reader (which Nancy Pearl most certainly is) but also a librarian icon? Not very often, and it's been so, so great.

I didn't completely ignore nonfiction along the way--I could never do that--the new Now Read This is going to include lists of nonfiction books that might particularly appeal to fiction readers, and we tried to make both fiction and nonfiction suggestions for most of the novels.

And with this announcement, I hereby end this week of somewhat garish self-promotion. Sadly, I have to finish the week out with some bad news: author Dominick Dunne, himself a true crime writer and brother of author John Gregory Dunne, has died at the age of 83.

*Sorry, Robert, I had to steal your line, it was too good not to use.

Books about Books Week: Slightly sidetracked.

I had a completely different topic in mind for today, but last night I spent some time on Stacy Horn's blog, and today I'm feeling more like writing about her.

Restless If you'll remember, I am a huge fan of Stacy Horn, whose latest book is titled Unbelievable. I actually loved her two previous books a bit more, though: The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad and Waiting for My Cats to Die: A Morbid Memoir.

The reasons to love Stacy Horn are legion: she is a fantastic writer. She is beautiful. (I'm shallow, I'll admit it.) She loves kitties, and animals in general. She loves TV. She feeds the birds on the porch of her apartment. She lives in New York City, and regularly posts pictures of things she loves, whether it's other people's apartments or beautiful serving dishes. And she says things like this:

"Richard Dawkins: Yeah, Not a Good Idea.

I just read on Cosmic Variance that Richard Dawkins is wondering aloud if ridicule as a way to deal with people who believe in God is enough.  'I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt.'

Ridicule and humiliation generate one thing (mostly):  anger. And that anger will either be directed inward or outward.  Neither is a good thing. After spending a few years studying unsolved murder in New York, I can also add that for some the only way to restore their self-esteem is to kill someone. (Murder is often about shame, it turns out.) For the bulk of humanity however, shame will result in some smaller, quieter form of destruction, and rarely constructive change.  'Nobody likes to be laughed at,' Dawkins points out. And you think the result might be a quick switch to the position of the tormenter?  I suppose for a sad few it might, but that isn’t a true change of thinking or understanding is it?"

Oh, Stacy. (Can I call you Stacy? I hope I can. I love her too much to call her Ms. Horn.) She also points out that it is very hard to sell books. So I think what I'm tempted to do (besides beg all of you to read her books, her blog, and to either buy or suggest your library buy copies of her books) is propose her True Crime book, The Restless Sleep, as our next Book Menage book,* paired with a Rick Geary historical crime graphic novel. What does everyone say?

*I don't know that that will help her a lot, as that book looks out of print, but maybe if you grow to love her as I have you'll have to rush right out and buy all her books new.

Books about Books Week: Beowulf on the Beach

When I worked in a used bookstore we had a tiny little bookshelf by the front door that held dictionaries, some reference books, and a shelf that was labeled "Books on Books." That was one of my favorite shelves in the whole store. When the store closed (the owners moved; my lack of sales skills didn't do them in, although sales have never been my strong suit) the owners were going to get rid of that little bookcase, but I asked if I could take it. It's still in my house, still bearing its shelf label "Books on Books," and that shelf actually holds some books on books.

Beowulf No point to that anecdote really, except that, like a lot of readers, I am drawn to books that are written about books. A case in point is Jack Murngihan's Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits. I've been reading a few chapters here and there and really enjoying this one. For one thing, if you haven't read a lot of "literature's greatest hits"--and I'm guilty of that, as I've never been able to handle the idea of actually reading Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Henry James, James Joyce, and a ton of others--it gives you a great idea of what these authors' classics are all about. I also like this guy because he pulls no punches. Take his advice about Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita:

"Lolita, Nabokov's ultrascandalous tale of a twelve-yearold nymphet and her degenerate adult admirer, needs next to no introduction. It's rightfully famous and beloved and has one of the greatest first thirds of any novel in any language, so the fact that the second two-thirds are repetitive and lackluster shouldn't bother us all that much, right? Though I fear the gods of literature might be training lightning bolts on my mortal skull as I type this, I can't not say it: I think Nabokov is overrated, and I think people forget how much Lolita falls off after the breathtaking beginning." (p. 327.)

Now that's a literature review! In addition to his brief summaries of the works, Murnaghan includes information about a book's "buzz," what readers don't know about the books in question, the best line, what's sexy about the book (his previous work of nonfiction, after all, was called The Naughty Bits), quirky facts, and what to skip. It's an informative little title,* and about a million times more fun than Pierre Bayard's "buzz" book from a few years back, How To Talk about Books You Haven't Read.

*And funny; I laughed out loud when I read this in the Jane Austen chapter: "If you are a woman, you're probably only reading this chapter to find out how it is that I like Jane Austen...," which is exactly what I was doing.

Books about Books Week: A call to arms.

Yesterday I reviewed Rick Roche's reading guide Real Lives Revealed (about biographies), and anyone who's had to sit through my painful self-promotion on this blog is aware that I've written two nonfiction reading guides, titled The Real Story (about nonfiction in general) and The Inside Scoop (about investigative and expose writing, such as that of William Langewiesche). When it is published I also hope to review Jessica Zellers's Women's Nonfiction guide. All of these books,* thus far, have shared a common series editor: Robert Burgin, a professor at North Carolina Central University's library school and editor of the titles Nonfiction Readers' Advisory and The Reader's Advisor's Companion.

I thought Robert was a fabulous series editor, which now scares me a bit, because with his recent retirement, I've been offered the opportunity to be the Real Stories series editor. Which is really cool. But also scary, because I have some big shoes to fill.

But there's no time like the present, right? Have you ever dreamed of writing a nonfiction reading guide? Do you know someone who has? It's helpful if you have library experience, as these books are written primarily to help library staff (and I mean all staff--I know that a lot of people on the front lines on libraries aren't necessarily "librarians"), but I don't know that it's absolutely necessary. If you have any interest, or questions about these books, please do write me at [email protected]. The more the merrier! Alternatively, if you'd like to see what's involved before emailing, do check out Libraries Unlimited's proposal guidelines.

*If you're more familiar with the Genreflecting guides, written for fiction, these are very similar, except they cover nonfiction.

Books about Books Week: Real Lives Revealed

Last week I got my copy of Rick Roche's new nonfiction reading guide in the Real Stories series (from Libraries Unlimited), titled Real Lives Revealed: A Guide to Reading Interests in Biography.

It is stupendous.

Now, clearly, I am probably biased. I write for the Real Stories series (and more--tune in tomorrow). I also have the pleasure of knowing Rick and knowing what a dedicated and skilled librarian he is. But I'm pretty sure that even if I didn't know Rick from Adam this book would have blown me away.

Real These types of reading guide reference books are designed to help readers (and the librarians who help them find stuff to read, known by the library jargon of "readers' advisors") find titles they might enjoy. To that end, Rick has organized more than 600 titles into biography genres and subgenres, written wonderful summaries of them, given them subject headings (natural language subject headings, a bit easier to use than Dewey headings), and provided "read-alike" suggestions* for all of them. Consider the record for Jeffrey Meyers's biography Somerset Maugham: A Life (a book I've always wanted to read, as I find Maugham very interesting):

"Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was more than just a popular writer of novels, stories, plays, screenplays, essays, and travel books...he was also a doctor, a spy, Red Cross volunteer, art collector, and contract bridge player..Despite the appearance of perfection that he cultivated, he was an unhappy man with low self-esteem, torn between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Jeffrey Meyers combines elements of the adventure story with celebrity reporting and pscyhological insight..."

That is an information-packed description, not only about Maugham, but also about the format of the biography. And then there's his "Now Try" suggestions for further reading:

"[After listing some of Maugham's most famous works]...Like Maugham, magician and escape artist Harry Houdini used his fame when he traveled to hide the fact that he was a spy. William Kalush and Larry Sloman detail Houdini's clandestine operations in The Secret Life of Houdini. British agent T. E. Lawrence traveled under assumed names and met with Arab rebels working to overthrow Turkish rule. Lawrence James tells how Lawrence played up his hero's role to the press and in his memoir in The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia."

That is FANTASTIC. Somerset Maugham to Harry Houdini to T. E. Lawrence. Now I'm not saying every reader who loves the first biography will follow up those suggestions, but they are interesting ones, and they are linked logically (secret lives, etc.). And they are suggestions that were made by a human. They were not simply spit out of a relational database based on sales numbers, and I defy you to find a library catalog that would ever link those books based on subject, even though they are tangentially related.

And that's just the book descriptions (included are such types of biography as Adventure, True Crime, War, Inspirational, Investigative, Coming-of-Age, Cultural, Celebrity, Historical, Political, Science, and Sports). I haven't even mentioned the unbelievable support material, including the timeline and history of biography, list of biography awards, list of biography series, and list of "top biographers," which includes authors' names and the biographies they've written.

Sorry for the length of today's post. I could go on a lot longer, though. All I can say, Rick, is, I am speechless. I've written a couple of these things and you have made me look like an amateur. I know that library budgets are tight right now, but if you work with readers at all I would buy this book for your collection--biographies are always popular with readers, so any tool that helps librarians understand them is well worth it. Especially when it's a tool as comprehensive as this one.

*Welcome to the world of librarianship and its jargon. "Read-alikes" are books that give the reader a similar "feeling" when reading them, while "related reads" are books related to one another primarily by subject. The Maugham and Houdini biographies are "read-alikes," Maugham's biography and Maugham's novels are "related reads."

Links about town, and giving up.

Any interest in business books? I've got a short article in Library Journal this week offering Business book "short takes." Although none of the books I reviewed set my world on fire, there were several serviceable choices published this summer. Two of the best were Daniel Solin's The Smartest Retirement Book You'll Ever Read and Julie Jason's The AARP Retirement Survival Guide: How to Make Smart Financial Decisions in Good Times and Bad. If you're doing any kind of budgeting, looking at your finances, or money planning (not just for retirement) you may want to take a look at either of those books.

In other news, I continue to struggle with Dan Simmons's Drood. I'm on page 400 now, and please note, I really don't have a problem with the story OR the writing. It's interesting enough so that I kind of want to keep going, and if there were only 100 or 200 pages left, I could do it. But 400 more pages? I was wondering what to do last night when I got an email from a friend whom I had earlier asked if he had read this book. And this is what I got back:

"Simmons is a primadonna glorified hack.  He's clever enough to hide his hackiness, but it's there to be despised...he can't edit his own work.  It's distasteful.  It's also indicative of hackiness.  Nobody these days needs to write a novel over 300 pages.  For any reason.  But I'm bitter, so maybe you should take my opinion with the proverbial grain of salt."*

Oh, so funny. So perfect. Everything I was thinking but hadn't articulated. That's it. I'm reading the last few chapters to hopefully achieve a tiny sense of closure, and then I'm going to go into my weekend unfettered to make all new reading choices. Thank you, my friend.

*Please excuse the quoting, you know who you are...if I made any royalties here I would share them with you. Plus? Bitter people are my FAVORITE. Keep up the good work, kindred spirit. You do my soul good.

All right, I'll admit it.

Bring on the chick lit books. Although I pride myself on being honest about books that I think are bad (I'm looking at you, Thomas Friedman), I will freely admit that I have no standards, no cynicism, absolutely no discrimination whatsoever when it comes to chick lit books. I pretty much love them all.

Holly This week's case in point was Holly Denham's Holly's Inbox, which is an entire novel told through the emails of receptionist extraordinaire Holly Denham's life. Although you might find the epistolary (emailistolary?) format tiresome, it does have one big payoff: it reads fast. Sure, this book is 665 pages long. But it can still be read in a couple of hours, which has the added benefit of allowing you to quickly finish the book and slam it down with a meaty thunk and really feel like you've accomplished something with your afternoon.

This novel is also set in Great Britain, which is a second sure way to get me interested (it's been compared to Helen Fieldings's Bridget Jones's Diary, and although I liked it, I must say it is no Bridget Jones's Diary). It also ended a trifle abruptly, I thought, although a sequel is in the works so perhaps that's why. But it is fun; the following is an email from her coworker in reception, as Holly has just started the job:

"From: Patricia Gillot

That's nice for you, darlin. Just keep grinning at people for today, and I'll do the rest. Hopefully by the end of the month you might know your arse from your elbow."

Of course her tough-as-nails co-worker turns out to have a heart of gold; Holly has the obligatory gay male best friend; the perfect guy turns out to be a sleaze; the man who formerly wronged her turns out to have been wronged himself. Formulaic, simplistic, it's got it all. And I ate it up with a spoon. Please refer to my first paragraph, and then feel free to mock me--IF you don't have any reading skeletons in your closet.

Should I stay or should I go?

Well, the question is really "should I keep reading or should I stop?" but that's not nearly as catchy.

Drood All summer long I have been trying to read Dan Simmons's behemoth novel Drood,* set in nineteenth-century London, and I can't quite get it done. Either I don't get it started and it goes overdue at the library, or it just sits around and stares at me balefully while I pick up other books instead. But this week I decided to tackle it; one of my very favorite readers suggested I read it, and I want to be able to tell her that I tried.

And now I have a problem. Although the first fifty pages were pretty slow, I'm now at around the 150-page mark and things are picking up a bit. It follows the rather macabre activities of authors and friends, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, as they chase down a shadowy creature named "Drood." (That's really about all of the story I've gotten so far.) So what's the problem?

The book is 775 pages long, that's the problem. I mean, really. Almost 800 pages? Do I really have the time or desire to devote 800 pages' worth of devotion to a book that I'm not really sold on, as of yet? Add that to the fact that I'm no Charles Dickens fan (although the novel is narrated by Wilkie, who is way more interesting than Dickens, mercifully) and I'm just not sure why I'm slogging through. What I'm feeling like doing is re-reading Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night (which was also long, but spectacular) and finding a good biography of Wilkie Collins instead.

So: what's the verdict? Anyone out there read this one? Should I keep going? Or cut and run?

*Shows how much I know: evidently Dickens's last (unfinished) book was titled The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Do I really have any business reading this book if that's how clueless I am about Dickens?

How is that going to work?

Antelope I have two big questions about Jean Hatzfeld's latest book, The Antelope's Strategy: Living in Rwanda after the Genocide. Number one is a basic question about the premise of the book: In 2003, the Rwandan government started releasing Hutu prisoners who had confessed to and been convicted of numerous murders of their Tutsi neighbors in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. I ask you: how is that going to work? My second question is more basic, and it's about Jean Hatzfeld: how does he stand continuing to write these books?

This is the third in a series of Hatzfeld's books, originally written in French (and translated beautifully by Linda Coverdale). The first book was Machete Season, and was an oral history of the Hutus who did the killing. In the second, Life Laid Bare, Hatzfeld spoke with Tutsi survivors. In this book, he speaks with both Hutu and Tutsi residents of Rwanda, many of whom are now struggling to live as neighbors, side by side with Hutus who hunted them (for the Tutsis) or with the Tutsis they couldn't catch and kill (for the Hutus).

I don't know if it's because it was the first book I read on this subject, or because it was the best, but Machete Season blew me away. That was a book that actually changed my view, not of the world, but of myself. When I recognized, in the Hutus' stories of why they picked up machetes and started murdering Tutsis, that part of why they did it was because farming was a ridiculously hard way to make a living and they coveted what their neighbors had, I could understand what they were saying. When they further explained how they had been hearing bad things about Tutsis all their lives, and how they hated them, I could get that too. Everyone, at some time, I think, has felt some sort of overwhelming disgust or dislike for their fellow humans and often, specific humans at that. I know we like to think, secure here in America with our clean water and our working sewage systems and our grocery stores full of food, that we would never commit atrocities. But couldn't we? If those grocery stores and water and everything else went away, wouldn't we?

I won't say it wasn't a depressing thought. But it changed how I thought about many other things in my life, and about myself. I'm not saying we're all killers at heart. What I am saying is that I don't think any of us are sure what we are truly capable of, especially in horrifying and lawless and threatening circumstances. That is a powerful thing to realize, and it makes you a little less likely to make blanket statements which start with "I would never..."

I can't say that this book gave me that experience, but it's a must-read anyhow. How will these people live together? Granted, I didn't know how it was going to work to keep all the Hutus locked up, either, but to let them all live together again? How can you be a neighbor to someone who once chased you with a machete through a forest, where the only way you could survive in a group was by employing the "antelope's strategy" of scattering out? (Hence the book's title.) I don't know. To his credit, I don't think Jean Hatzfeld knows, either, and he doesn't have much to say about it, as in this book he largely tells the story in the words of those people who he interviews. It's oral history at its finest, and saddest. If you can stand it, you should read it.

A cook after my own heart.

I don't typically "read" cookbooks. (As Mr. CR could tell you, I've got a rotation of about ten meals, heavy on the casseroles, that I bore him with on a regular schedule.) But when Mark Bittman comes out with a new cookbook, I make an exception.

Bittman His new Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express: 404 Inspired Seasonal Dishes You Can Make in 20 Minutes or Less, is nothing short of awesome. I'm particularly happy that he beat Rachael Ray's 30-minute meal times (I dislike Rachael Ray, even though I typically love smokers, I just find her totally boring and her food the worst kind of mishmash that can be thrown together out of cans), and he did it with style. After a short intro about some basic things that you might consider having in your pantry, he gets down to the recipes, each of which are a short paragraph long, including ingredients lists:

"Zucchini and Dill Soup: Grate a couple of zucchini. Cook a chopped onion in butter until softened, then add the zucchini and stir until softened, five minutes or so. Add vegetable or chicken stock and bring to a boil; simmer for about five minutes, then puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper and lots of fresh chopped dill."

And that's it! Now, as I am too lazy to measure anything, a cookbook like this (for me) is glorious. (He does say up front that the recipes are all meant to make about 3-4 servings, so I'm guessing you'd just add enough stock in the above recipe for what you think 3-4 servings might look like.) I realize that not everyone likes to cook that way. But for those of us who just like to slop it together? Yummy.

I also love Mark Bittman because he says things like this: (For the type of dairy you should have around): "For cooking, half-and-half or heavy cream is more useful than milk, but if you drink milk you already have it around*, so that's fine. Butter: unsalted, please. And sour cream and/or yogurt: At least occasionally, I prefer the full-fat kinds." (p. 13.)

I love the emphasis on using what you normally have in the house. Also, I'm touched he put in a good word for full-fat dairy (it's the only way to fly, if you ask me), even if just occasionally. Last but not least, I love that he has a tiny kitchen. Talk about doing more with less.

*IF you drink milk? As the daughter of a dairy farmer and someone who is interested in all of your bone health, I would suggest that, short of lactose intolerance problems, ALL of you drink milk. And you thought I didn't care about you.

It's the little things.

Earlier this week my friend Robert opined in the comments here that it's the little things that make you happiest. I have thought of this comment all week, and Robert, you are totally correct. Because yesterday I found this:

"Movie Title: The Men Who Stare at Goats. Release Date: November 6. Starring: Ewan McGregor."*

Goats I actually had to stop reading and typing and shake my arms in the air like toddlers do when they get over-excited when I read that. I don't know if I've ever reviewed it here, but Jon Ronson's book The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of the best nonfiction books EVAH.** It's all about journalist Ronson's journey to track down everything that is weird and horrible about the military, and then write it up in such a way that the reader doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. You know those creepy guys who you suspect get into the military just to someday be able to cause pain to their enemies, particularly weird psychological and brainwashing type pain? Ronson goes and finds those guys and talks to them. Amazing. And he's British, so he does it with a certain amount of bitter flair that an American just couldn't pull off.

And the Ewan McGregor part? That's just icing on the cake. I cannot WAIT until November 6...and in the meantime, I'm going to read The Men Who Stare at Goats again. I would highly recommend you do the same.

Have a good weekend, all.

*Further down the page I also learned that Michael Lewis's superlative book The Blind Side is also coming out in movie form later this fall. Awesome.

**This is also one of my all-time favorite book covers. It seems to me to sum up all that is ridiculous about men and guns.

Ah, relics, they always make for good reading.

You know you have slightly strange tastes in nonfiction when you see a book about saints' relics and you think, "Ooh, goody!" And you further know you've probably read too much nonfiction when you think, "I wonder if it will be as good as the other relic book I read?"*

Rag I was very, very excited to find Peter Manseau's book Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead in my library catalog. Not only because I find the idea of saints' relics (purported remnants of saints' bodies and other holy items--like pieces of the cross Jesus was crucified on--that are honored and venerated within various religions, including Catholicism and Buddhism) fascinating, but also because I love, love, LOVE Peter Manseau. (His memoir Vows, about his parents, a former nun and priest, and his childhood spent trying to understand their and his relationship with the Catholic Church, was hands-down one of the best memoirs I've ever read.)

This book finds Manseau traveling around to various holy sites, including Jerusalem and Goa, a city in India where the remains of Saint Francis Xavier are kept, and investigating such relics as the foreskin of Jesus (you heard me) and the burnt bones of Saint Joan. He strikes just exactly the right tone throughout; he is respectful without being obsequious, skeptical without being rude. He is, above all, fascinated by and thoughtful about his topic. This is what he has to say about Francis Xavier, who was an unenthusiastic missionary (at best) to India, although that is where his remains are today: "In death Francis Xavier had joined the lives of a people and a place where he had never wanted to remain. These children, born in the country he scorned, educated in a school that bears his name, have lived their lives in his shadow, but now they run in front of his church, casting their own." (p. 52.)

When I really love nonfiction I fall into very distinct feelings when reading it. Some nonfiction is exciting; some is inspiring, some makes me very angry; but my very favorite titles make me feel settled and thoughtful and peaceful. You know what I mean, about different feelings that books give you? This book makes me feel settled and peaceful, and it's wonderful. Right on, Peter Manseau.

*The other relic book was Anneli Rufus's Magnificent Corpses: Searching through Europe for St. Peter's Head, St. Claire's Heart, St. Stephen's Hand, and Other Relics from the Saints, which was also excellent. More personal in some ways, sharper in some ways, less historical and even-toned in others, but still brilliant.

Literary fiction worth reading.

Greatman I spent the weekend* reading Kate Christensen's novel The Great Man, and loving it. It's the story of one Oscar Feldman, a well-known American painter, whose only role in this book is to be the man who was loved by a variety of fascinating women. (The book actually opens with Oscar's obituary.)

The women in question are Oscar's wife, Abigail Feldman; his longtime mistress, Claire (Teddy) St. Cloud; his fellow artist and sister Maxine; his daughters (by Teddy) Ruby and Samantha; even his mistress's best friend, Lila. Each of these women relates her own story of her life with Oscar as they take turns speaking to two very different biographers of Oscar's life. It sounds complex; it's not (or it is, but in the best possible way).

I loved this book. What is totally great is that the women in this book could have been caricatures; the "artist's wronged wife with the autistic son," the "selfish mistress who kept her lover away from their own daughters," the "bitter sister." But they weren't. They were all fascinating, strong, interesting women in their own rights, and in their relations with the "great man," the reader (or at least this reader) gets the sense that they paid their moneys, they took their chances, and they lived with their decisions. Oh--and there's a secret too. An art secret that will make the reader wonder (even more) if Oscar truly was a "great man."

Just lovely. As an added benefit, this book made me feel so young. Lately I have been feeling so tired and old (in my thirties; ridiculous, I know) that to read this book about ladies in their seventies, not without their issues and aches and problems, who are still--and this is a phrase that it hurts me to type but it's really the most appropriate one--hungry for life, made me feel very, very good, and perhaps like I should buck up and try to enjoy what's left of my own youth.

I do think this is a novel that will appeal more to women, although I'd be interested to hear when men think of it too.

*I also spent the wekeend going to see the chick flick The Ugly Truth (which was awful, but we were mainly there to see Gerard Butler, so no harm, no foul) and watching the Guy Ritchie movie RockNRolla with Mr. CR (which was really pretty fantastic). Yup, I'm starting to see why I was having some problems hitting my deadlines.

I'm really not very good with deadlines.

Sorry to announce there'll be no posting today or tomorrow, as I am up against a couple of work deadlines, and I am currently losing. Gosh, it takes a lot of time to make a living.

In the meantime, here's a little something I learned last week: "25 percent of Russian soldiers were sent to the front unarmed [during World War I], with orders to retrieve what they could from their dead comrades." I'm indexing a book titled Picture This: World War I Posters and Visual Culture (which will be published this fall by the University of Nebraska), and learning stuff like that leaves me feeling like I could be knocked over with a feather. Ridiculous.

Have a good start to your work weeks, all.

Death of a legend.*

This is NOT the sort of news I go to OMG! Yahoo for:

"Director John Hughes, who helmed such legendary 80s films as 'The Breakfast Club' and 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off,' died of a heart attack on Thursday, his rep confirmed to Access Hollywood. The director was 59."

This news made me very sad, as I was and am a big John Hughes fan. I loved his movies with the same uncomplicated love teenage girls everywhere harbored for Ferris Bueller (look at him in that cute nerdy chic sweater vest!) when that movie came out. Come on, he gave us one of the best lip-synched movie scenes ever:

And he gave high schoolers everywhere the gift of thinking that skipping a day every now and then was a right, not a privilege.

And, let's not forget, even in his not as hugely popular movies, he showed a genius for combining music, dialogue, and the beauty of Mary Stuart Masterson:

A moment of silence, please.

*I said legend, and I mean legend.

Couldn't have said it better myself.

I'll admit it: e-books give me the heebies. I'll admit that someday in the near future I'll have to adapt to them, but I won't be happy about it, I can promise you. I will, in fact, be very unhappy about it, and will continue to be vaguely so even after I adapt (the way I am still vaguely unhappy about books on CD as compared to books on tape). Kindles also give me the heebies, because they are basically e-books, and because Amazon is starting to make me want to puke the same way hearing the name "Wal-Mart" does.

So the folks at Green Apple Books have done my heart good by presenting a series of videos about the Book vs. the Kindle. Embedded below is my favorite one:

Green Apple Books is a bookstore in San Francisco. If you live anywhere near there, please do stop in and support them. They're doing God's anti-Kindle work.

Nicely said, Virginia.

Virginia Lately I've been finding myself a bit interested in Virginia Woolf. She keeps popping up in (seemingly) unrelated things I'm reading (last week it was a book for high schoolers on British economist John Maynard Keynes that I was indexing), so recently I got a book of her Collected Essays (vol. 2) from the library. And that's where I found this:

"But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print. And that influence, if it were well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere, might be of great value now when criticism is necessarily in abeyance..."

She goes on to explain how readers, even more than reviewers, have a kind of responsibility to keep reading and to form thoughts about reading. But I wish more reviewers of all sorts would take her words to heart and review books in a way that is "vigorous and individual and sincere." Actually, that's not a bad mantra for trying to live one's life, I would think.

But she was barely done with that gem before she launched into this one: "I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards--their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble--the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, 'Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.'"

Both quotes are from an essay titled "How Should One Read a Book." Both make me want to read more Virginia Woolf. Both give reading its proper due. "They have loved reading." Says it all, really, doesn't it?

Small town pictorial records, continued.

I really love photography collections, so whenever I wander through my local library's catalog and see a new photography book out, I'll typically request it regardless of its subject matter.

Ely I particularly love photography books about small towns and communities (such as the superlative book The Oxford Project), and Facing North: Portraits of Ely, Minnesota, is no exception. It is filled with black-and-white photographs of (primarily) the small town's residents, and a few short essays about life on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Only 3,700 residents live in the town year round, but the region hosts at least 200,000 visitors each year, which makes for an interesting conjunction of personalities.

Is the book as good as The Oxford Project? Well, no, but then, that's a tough book to beat. This book does include small informative paragraphs about all the subjects in the photographs ("When we showed up to take his picture, he came outside in an old green miner's uniform--something you see a lot of around Ely--toting his oxygen tank"), but the true glory here is the photographs themselves. You'll have to read the introduction to find out about the camera and film used, but it's some kind of special-format camera (and the skill of the photographer) that makes the faces of the people sharp and the other edges in the photographs gently fuzzy. They're beautiful, beautiful photographs, and it's a book well worth looking at.

But do we see him?

Over the weekend I read a novel titled Now You See Him, by Eli Gottlieb. I liked it quite a bit, and it had a lot of plot twistlets (more like little "ah-ha" moments than big plot twists). The narrator, a man named Nick Framingham, is not so much unreliable as he himself is uninformed, but I do love the air of suspense that even a vaguely unreliable narrator lends to a story.

Gottlieb The entire book follows Nick's struggle in the months after his former best friend Rob Castor shoots his former girlfriend and then himself. As he pieces the puzzle of Rob's life together, his own marriage starts to fall spectacularly apart, particularly when Rob's sister Belinda comes back to their small New York home town and turns to Nick for help (which is complicated by the fact that Nick and Belinda used to date).

I'm making it sound horribly dull; it's not. I think I'm starting to figure out that it's not so much that I don't enjoy reading fiction, it's that I find it very hard to talk about. When it's good, I like it very much, I immerse myself in the story, but when I'm done, I just want to be done with it. With nonfiction, I find myself often wanting to think more about the books and their subjects when I'm done, and that means I like to review and talk about them more. I wonder if I've become such a Puritan that I feel vaguely guilty to simply read and enjoy a novel, and therefore want to move on from it as fast as I can, whereas with nonfiction, I often feel like I've learned something and therefore the time was profitably spent.

Either way--it's a good novel. I'd be interested to hear if others have read it and if so, what they thought.