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September 2009

Better reading about it than visiting.

I don't read a lot of travel books, unless they're by British humorist Tony Hawks, in which case I am required to. But other than that? They don't usually appeal. Travel is the one thing, weirdly, that I prefer to do rather than reading about it. (Although I am not a very good traveler; I'm the person next to you in the airport fidgeting, pacing, and generally making herself sick about possible missed connections and oversold planes.)


But have you seen the Crown Journey series? I love these books. They're slim little nonfiction titles written about various locations by authors who have a history with or knowledge of the location. Ray Blount Jr. wrote Feet on the Street, about New Orleans; Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fugitives and Refugees, about Portland, Oregon. The book in the series that I've been listening to this week is Alex Kotlowitz's Never a City so Real, about Chicago. And, although Chicago is my least favorite big city (that I've seen, anyway--no offense, Chicagoans), I'm finding the book very interesting.*

Kotlowitz is an investigative (some might call it journalistic; I call it investigative) author whose earlier books are There Are No Children Here** and The Other Side of the River, which are both fantastic reads about sad topics (poverty and children in the projects in the former; an ugly crime and racial disparity in the latter). And he brings a clear-sighted but still sympathetic feeling to this book, describing Chicago as a city of contrasts and home to many distinct personalities, including the author Nelson Algren, labor leader Ed Sadlowski, and mural painter Milton Reed. It's a thoughtful, vividly descriptive, and short book on a big city, and it made me feel much more warmly about Chicago than any of my trips there have. I'd highly recommend it.

*Sorry, no quotes today. When I listen to this book, I'm usually up to my elbows in dirty dishes, and don't want to take the time to write anything down.

**No kidding: this is one of the best books I've ever read.

Methland: Part two.

If you read the review and comments from yesterday, you'll see that Robert raised some questions about Nick Reding's book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, and several people noted that they themselves had picked up on Reding's geographical and other errors.

This makes me very sad, because I actually thought Reding's book had some merit as a readable book on an ugly subject.* As Robert already covered, it is an investigation into meth addiction, production, and trafficking, as seen through the lens of its effects on small towns in the Midwest (and one small town, Oelwein, Iowa, in particular). Robert is also right in pointing out that the book is haphazardly organized. And yet...I did not and do not dislike this author. I think he made an effort to get out and talk to some people about this problem (I know I'm not seeking out meth-heads to talk to in bars, nor would I want to), and I think he's a new writer who's not quite sure how to construct a book yet. I can not excuse his geographical mistakes, although I feel part of the blame there rests squarely with the publisher (Bloomsbury USA), who should take some responsibility for fact-checking.

What I did find interesting about this book was Reding's description of how meth works (let me nutshell it: not only does it manipulate dopamine release and re-uptake to provide an incredible and long-lasting high, it also destroys the neurotransmiters in your brain, making it harder or impossible to ever get a natural high from anything else ever again--evil) as well as his history of how similar drugs were first made and prescribed for depression and to help people keep working. In particular, he speculates that meth is a "working-class drug" simply because so many working class people found that it allowed them to work double-shifts in factories, without the need for sleep, food, or even bathroom breaks. Again: evil.

So there you have it. Can you trust a book in which several glaring errors have been uncovered? Can you overlook a book that is a bit rocky in its execution in order to learn about an important but sad topic? If you can answer yes to those questions, I would still say you should go ahead and read this book. I do think it would work well as a companion read to Richard Longworth's Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism (which is also published by Bloomsbury, so I hope it is not as riddled with errors).

*This is small potatoes, but I also think its cover is perfect, both as a photograph and for the book's subject matter. Next time you're in a bookstore take a closer look at it. It gets the beauty and the loneliness exactly right.

Methland: Guest review, and other assorted thoughts.

Today I'm very pleased to offer a guest review of Nick Reding's Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, by my friend Robert Brown. This is partly because I am lazy today, and I'm really not sure what to say about this book. But it is primarily because Robert has written a better review than I ever could. Somebody please give Robert a job reviewing books, would you? I have his contact information. Here goes:


"Meth is a chemical developed a century ago, and with a long history of acceptable use, in the US and around the world. It makes one a kind of invincible robot laborer. Tough times and narrowing options in the rural midwest US opened the door for the explosion of meth onto the national scene, laying waste to the traditional values of the region.

Reding follows the trail of meth's slow, steady spread throughout the country, interviewing politicians, scientists, federal agents, police, and a meth-head or two to get at the truth. What he uncovers is disturbing and bleak. What he attempts to do is to use meth as a tool for understanding the plight of the individual during our current globalized society. Most of the book is given to analysis of the agricultural upheavals of the last quarter century and the decline of organized labor in a distributed labor market. Reding also covers the effects of the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying of the US congress, and courageously opens the immigration can of worms. This gives the book a larger frame, but compromises its depth.

I bought this book because I've been wondering about what meth has been up to the last year or so. I haven't heard much about it, and that makes me nervous. I remember when speed was just a joke, and I hoped for a clearer understanding of how uppers became crank. I now have that understanding, and I'm not sure I'm better off with it.

Methland is not a light read, nor an uplifting one. Reding tries to end on a high note, stressing the small-scale success of the mayor of the town of Oelwein Iowa and his allies in rehabilitating both the material circumstances of the town, and the collective spirit of the townspeople. He shows how one meth addict is trying against his own will to be a good father and stay clean.

The overwhelming feeling engendered by the book, however, is one of weary resignation. Meth is here, and it isn't going away, and the people who now control the supply and delivery of the drug are unpleasant. Things are probably going to get worse: third-world worse.

Part of the reason Reding's attempt to ameliorate the dread his investigation induces fails is that he doesn't believe it himself. His interpretation of events speaks volumes about his own convictions regarding the future, and I happen to find his interpretation and his convictions convincing. The other reason is because Reding's research seems spotty, or perhaps most of his research didn't find its way into the book. He didn't dig as hard as he could have, perhaps. Where are the interviews with a variety of addicts, or regular citizens? How does meth affect the "heartland?" What is the "heartland?" Who are all these people? Reding provides a few perspectives, but not a wide enough spectrum to make an impression.

Methland is an informative book, but it is too brief and too shallow a study to provide anything definitive or lasting. The people we meet are interesting, but we don't meet enough people. The anecdotes and interviews and studies are compelling, and the book is full of insight, some of it all too plausible. But it seems haphazardly organized, and rushed from initial material through final draft. Still, I recommend the book to anyone who wants to understand how uppers became crank."

Thank you, Robert. Actually, reading his review made me re-evaluate this book; more on that tomorrow.

A love affair with books.

For the past few weeks I've been making my way slowly through the title Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, and it's wonderful. It's a literary biography about Oscar, told entirely through the lens of the books he read as a child, owned, gave away to others, and had confiscated and sold when he was put into jail.


I never really knew much about Wilde, and reading this book was a lovely way to get up to speed on his life (although reading about his arrest and imprisonment for "gross indecency" and "sodomy"* was anything but lovely--the prison they sent him to didn't sound good at all). But that is only a very small part of the story; author Wright does a splendid job of exploring Wilde's childhood and education through the books he read, explaining how that reading influenced his later life and his own writing:

"The folk tales and Ossianic legends formed the landscape of Wilde's adult imagination. He spoke fondly 'of the beauty and glamour of the old Celtic legends,' and retold Irish folk tales at dinner parties in Paris and London. During these performances Wilde imitated, in an alien urban context, the seanchai [Irish storyteller] he had encountered as a boy in the West of Ireland. When he picked up his pen too, Wilde drew on the reservoir of images, scenes and phrases he had absorbed in his infancy." (p. 25.)

Even if you've never read any Oscar Wilde** (I've started The Picture of Dorian Gray on tape, but I don't know if I'll be able to stick with it), if you're a reader, you should definitely consider this title. And do make sure to read the afterword, which explains the author's own education, following in Wilde's footsteps.

*Mr. CR read a couple of those chapters and thought that perhaps it might have been prudent of Wilde not to have a love affair with the son of the Marquess of Queensberry, a peer of the realm, who was really the one who was determined to put Wilde away. I have told Mr. CR that sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants, but he's not buying it.

**I still don't know him all that well, but I was charmed that one of Wilde's first requests for books from inside prison was for titles by Gustave Flaubert (like Madame Bovary), another author who had been charged with indecency for that very book. That took some chutzpah, I think.

Interesting, Oprah, very interesting.

I never thought I'd say this, but Oprah's latest book club choice, Uwem Akpan's short story collection Say You're One of Them, is actually an interesting one.


For some weird reason I was on the waiting list for this book before Oprah named it her choice (I used to like short stories, so maybe that's why?), so I was able to get it much more quickly than readers who just requested it. Akpan is an African author, and the stories are set in various African countries. I read the first story, "An Ex-Mas Feast," and parts of the other stories, and it was really very interesting.* Although I am usually distracted by settings that are so far from my experience, or stories written with traces of dialogue, I must say that neither of those things bothered me here:

"We heard two drunks stumbling toward our home. Mama hid the bottle. They stood outside announcing that they had come to wish us a merry Ex-mas. 'My husband is not here!' Mama lied. I recognized the voices. It was Bwana Marcos Wako and his wife, Cecilia. Baba had owed them money for four years. They came whenever they smelled money, then Baba had to take off for a few days. When Baby was born, we pawned three-quarters of his clothing to defray the debts. A week before Ex-mas, the couple had raided us, confiscating Baba's work clothes in the name of debt servicing." (p. 13.)

That's about as cheerful as the stories get. If I'm not able to read the whole thing (and I'm not), it's because I'm not going to be able to handle a whole book of short stories that make me so sad. But at least it's an interesting choice for Oprah, and something a bit different. I haven't liked an Oprah book since James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, and we all know how that turned out, so I'm hoping this book isn't discredited some time down the way.

*It's roughly a million times better than Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, my last disastrous fiction pick.


I'm still percolating on Nick Reding's investigative book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, so I thought I'd interrupt normally scheduled programming for just a moment to point out a small change to Citizen Reader.

In the sidebar, if you scroll down a bit, it is now possible to search Citizen Reader! It's a search run through Google, which makes me really unhappy, but it's the only way I can figure out to add a "search" box (at least, it's the only way I can find listed in the Typepad help files, and which was simple enough for me to understand*) to the blog. So, wondering if we've talked about certain titles? Feel free to plug a couple words from the title into that bad boy search box and go crazy!

I'm also updating the links along the right side, so if you know of any great reading blogs that you read regularly, please consider letting me know what they are so I can add them here. I also won't turn down fun site recommendations, a la Overheard in the Office, where people submit the idiotic things they overhear at work.**

*Does anyone know how to add a non-Google search box to a Typepad blog? Please do consider doing your good deed for the year and letting me know how you did it at [email protected]. Thanks!

**It's like going to work without leaving the comfort of my own home!

Helene does it again.

After struggling through Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs this weekend, I decided I deserved a little treat, so off I went to the library to get the one Helene Hanff book I hadn't yet read: Q's Legacy.


For those of you not familiar with her, Hanff is the author of the fantastic letter collection 84, Charing Cross Road (containing her decades-long correspondence with the British used bookstore Marks & Co, and in particular one of its employees, Frank Doel) and the follow-up title The Duchess of Bloomsbury, in which she recounted her trip to London after the publication of 84. Q's Legacy is kind of a follow-up to the follow-up, in which she explains how she gave herself her own classics and English literature education by reading the lectures of a man named Arthur Quiller-Couch, a professor of English Lit at Cambridge. She also describes her early life in the theatre (you have to say it to yourself, "thea-tah," like I'm doing), her travails trying to find and keep affordable apartments in New York City, and how she came to be writing letters to Marks & Co in the first place. The latter part of the book is taken up with the details of several trips she took to London (after the one described in The Duchess of Bloomsbury), including the one to see the opening of a play based on her book.

Oh, and it's wonderful. It's vintage Helene. She's still full of snappy opinions and surprisingly gentle insights, and if you're interested in London, you get to hear even more about the city here. You also get to learn a bit more about Helene's life (although never enough, frankly), including her stint in secretarial school, where she corrected a teacher's grammar and was taken under the wing of the most popular girl there because of it. It also describes the fan mail and phone calls she got after the publication of 84 (one woman called and said simply, "We can talk as long as you're willing. The phone call is my husband's fortieth birthday present to me. He knew it was the one thing I wanted."). But mainly, it is all Helene, such as when she describes her cataract surgery:

"Fact One: Cataract surgery is simple, painless and (except with implants) risk-free; sight is easily restored by cataract spectacles, contact lenses or implants; the whole procedures is common, routine and nothing to worry about.

Fact Two: Fact One applies only to cataracts on the eyes in somebody else's head." (p. 139.)

It was just what I needed. When you need a treat, or a pick-me-up, or just another dose of Helene, go get this book.

The death knell for fiction.

And who sounded it for me? Lorrie Moore, that's who.

For various reasons I got on the hold list pretty early for her new novel, A Gate at the Stairs. And none of them were bad reasons. For one, if I can remember correctly, I actually kind of enjoyed her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? For another, she works in the city where I live. Also? I write for a reader's advisory database (the fabulous Reader's Advisor Online--and yes, I'm completely unbiased*) and I thought this would be a big fiction title that I should know something about. The consequences of all of those reasons were that my Friday night reading was given over to this book, and what a waste of a night it was. Folks,** this novel is one hot mess.


Now, I'm actually getting weary of enumerating ways in which modern novels suck. (I'm not going to touch the new Dan Brown with a ten-foot pole, sorry, I actually read the Da Vinci Code all the way through and so have completed that homework.) But I think I can tackle this one in a short paragraph: there isn't any subject that Moore doesn't throw in to this novel for maximum effect. We have, just to name a few: 1. a young woman, Tassie Keltjin's, coming of age, in a college city and away from her rural Wisconsin farm upbringing; 2. her mother is a Jewish woman stuck on the farm who seems vaguely unhappy with her lot; 3. Tassie goes to work for an older woman in her college town as a nanny; 4. The child she's nannying is a biracial girl that the older woman has adopted; 5. She falls in love and has a tempestuous physical love affair with a man named Reynaldo; 6. Oh yeah, the events of 9/11; 7. She deals with racism on the street when people yell at her and the biracial child; 8. The marriage of the couple for whom she nannies is falling apart; 9. her younger brother signs up for the military and gets shipped out--guess what happens; and 10. the woman for whom she nannies has a secret past that means she can't handle life with her new adopted daughter.

And somehow? With all that? I was so bored I kept falling asleep, and I never could remember if the main character's name was Tessie or Tassie. Those don't seem like good signs.

Thank you, Lorrie Moore.*** I am officially off fiction until further notice.

*I went to journalism school, people, and if there's one thing you learn, it's that you must at all costs act like you are objective, even when we all know that's impossible.

**The second thing you learn in journalism school is to put a human face on your stories and never, never to sound too elite; hence, "folks." Don't knock it. It got George W. Bush elected twice, and he didn't even have to go to j-school to learn it.

***Moore also didn't have the balls just to set the book in Madison, Wisconsin, although there's some pretty clear references to the city. (Other reviewers have pointed out her "isn't it so cute?" attitude toward Madison in interviews like this one, as well.) Okay. The next time you have your characters visiting a sex supply store in a fictional city, Ms. Moore, at least don't give it the same name as the most well-known erotica shop in the city you're NOT setting your novel in.

This just in: It hurts me to disagree with Bookslut, but I don't think I can agree with Amy Hanridge's review of this book. At one point she even compares Moore to Carol Shields, which also hurts me. It's like comparing Jodi Picoult favorably with Anne Tyler. Yikes. Do yourself a favor; skip this book and read anything by Carol Shields instead.

Amen, my retail brothers and sisters.

Wrong I'll say this for many of the contributing authors in the essay collection The Customer is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles, edited by Jeff Martin: they know their way around a first paragraph. Consider these openings:

"The first rule of retail is that everyone wants to check out at once. I can stand at my cash register for half an hour without a single customer. Suddenly, by some hidden signal, everyone in the bookstore will get in the checkout line."

"The bookstore I work at has been my laboratory for analyzing, diagnosing, and treating assholes of all shapes and sizes."

"Mine is the story of a man who hates ice cream and of the world that made him."

And, hands down, the winner:

"It's been my experience that people don't have the slightest idea what they want, and will stop at nothing to get it."*

The entire book is a series of essays about retail and customer service, and if you've worked in service, I'm pretty sure you'll like it. I was completely amused, although I thought the quality of the essays was a bit uneven. But do give it a try, and consider buying it--if only to help all of these authors to never have to work in retail again.

*That last one is by Michael Beaumier, who also wrote one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time, titled I Know You're Out There (about when he worked in the personal ad department of a small newspaper).

And the winner is...

...not me.

But that's okay. Let's hear a big round of applause for Eva, over at A Striped Armchair, who has won the Best Nonfiction Review Blog award over at the Book Blogger Appreciation Week website. Congratulations! The competition was tough; if you follow the top link in today's post, you'll see the other nonfiction review blogs that were in the running, and finding new nonfiction review blogs is always a good thing. Thanks to everyone at BBAW for running this contest, and I would like to particularly thank Care, over at Care's Online Book Club, for nominating me in the first place. (Thank you, Care!)

As long as I'm in a thanking mood, I'd also like to take a moment to thank all of you. I work at home now, and your comments and discussion are a large part of why I'm never lonely. (Which is a risk: the other day I realized I hadn't spoken with anyone all day, from when Mr. CR left in the morning until when he came home much later--it was one of the best days ever.) So THANK YOU. The Citizen Reader Blog Reader Appreciation Award belongs to all of you, with my very great gratitude.

Not smart enough for pop culture.

The other day this book came in at the library for me: Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry.

I totally don't remember why I requested this book, or where I heard about it. (Sadly, this happens a lot; my memory is a sieve, except of course where BBC miniseries and their stars--about most of whom I can recite their ages, their spouses, and their most well-known roles.) So when I picked it up and saw the cover with the little porcelain doggies, I got excited, thinking maybe it was an actual auction catalog.*

Lenore But then I got it home and saw the blurbs on back from Dave Eggers and Amy Sedaris, so now I'm guessing it's some kind of clever humor book that I'm entirely missing the point of. It's laid out perfectly, just like an auction catalog, with lot numbers, short descriptions, and price estimates, only the artifacts here are the remains of a couple's relationship:

"LOT 1224: Two Aprons. One red-and-white striped cotton, label reads 'Daniel Boulud Kitchens.' One vintage flower print, no label. Laid into pocket of latter is a note on the back of a shopping list handwritten from Morris to Doolan. Reads in full: 'Dear one, Third batch of macaroons definitely the best. X.' 7 x 2 in. Both aprons size small. $5-10." (p. 88.)

So yup, I'm pretty sure that's we have, the story of a couple's break-up (I guess; I haven't looked closely enough to find any evidence of the break-up, most of the blurbs I've seen have been for rather pedestrian couple-type things), in auction catalog form, and now, in real time, I'm going to click over to Powell's and see if that's right...and, yup, here we go: "In Leanne Shaptons marvelously inventive and invented auction catalog, the 325 lots up for auction are what remain from the relationship between Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris (who arent real people, but might as well be)."

I guess it's funny, but it's a bit too far down the rabbit hole for me. Pop culture humor like this usually just ends up making me feel dumber, and if I need that, I'll just go about my daily business--I don't have to read a book for it.

*I am addicted to auction catalogs, and auctions, although the auctions where I live tend to offer primarily bed linens, lawn tractors, and maybe a bit of antique glassware or a few guns thrown in. If you want a totally decadent time sign up for the online catalog service at Bloomsbury Auctions; every now and then I get auction catalogs about rare books and prints and even the catalogs themselves are drool-worthy.

Nothing gold can stay.

Darrel Curtis,* also known as Patrick Swayze, has died at the age of 57.

Yes, I know this is a reading blog. I know I've spent too much time of late blabbing about entertainment and non-reading news. But as much as it is possible to be sorry about the death of someone you didn't know, I am sorry to hear this news. I thought he was a good actor (anyone who can pull off the line "nobody puts Baby in a corner" without laughing is a capital-A Actor) and from what little I have read about his personal life he seemed like a good guy. And who can forget the Saturday Night Live skit where he was involved in a Chippendales dance audition with Chris Farley?

A moment of silence, please. Then go rent Road House.* I watched it this summer on TV because it seemed like a movie I'd always heard of, but never watched. Sure, it's violent and terrifically dated. You still won't be sorry.

*Swayze played one of the Curtis brothers in the 1983 movie The Outsiders, based on the fantastic novel by S.E. Hinton. (What is S.E. Hinton doing these days, I wonder?) It was a great movie, and if you know it, you'll recognize the quote from today's blog heading. If you don't know it, watch it immediately, and see not only Swayze but later luminaries like Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, and Diane Lane.

**And can you believe the movie Point Break was made way back in 1991? I am getting SO OLD. Sorry. I know this is becoming a common phrase with me, but really, holy shit.

Can't get enough of Jancee.

I really, really enjoy author and memoirist Jancee Dunn.

A long time ago I was flying back home from visiting a library conference in Boston, and I remember sitting in Logan Airport, where my flight home was slightly delayed, and fretting that I would miss my connecting flight at O'Hare. You may not know this about me, and I largely try to keep pretty calm about things, but when I fret, it's Olympic-level stuff. (Mr. CR is no slouch at fretting either, although his fretting more resembles the soul-sucking weariness of worrying, while my fretting is often a more jittery affair.) So I sat in that airport fretting, praying, shifting in my seat, fretting some more, and looking at my booking tickets and my flight times a million times.*

And then I took out a memoir I'd picked up at the conference, titled But Enough about Me, by Jancee Dunn, which was a thoroughly enjoyable romp through her New Jersey adolescence and her eventual work at MTV2 and with Rolling Stone. The title of the memoir was perfect; it was in fact a memoir about her own life, but Dunn is so personable, so unassuming, so quietly funny, that you really do want to hear more about her. More importantly: her book was so great that it completely took my mind out of the airport and off flight times, which was a blessed relief. (I made my plane at O'Hare, by the way, but just barely.)

Tattoo So it was my very distinct pleasure to stumble upon her new collection of essays, Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?: And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask. I brought it right home, and, even though I was fretting about other things this weekend, she once again did me the very great favor of lifting me right out of my life and into hers. It certainly doesn't hurt that I think we have a few things in common; here is how she starts the essay titled "Don't Be Weird":

"I ask you: If my definition of total happiness is a long trip to Japan, or India, or Morocco, then why is it that I can't manage to leave my apartment when I'm in America? I never want to go anywhere. I can barely cope with a trip to the dry cleaner." (p. 128.)

Now, I'm not taking any long trips to India, but her phrasing of "I can barely cope" about the drycleaner visit is perfect. Just perfect. When you share that characteristic, it's not that you don't like to go out, or don't feel like you should go out, it's really like you feel you literally can't cope, even with something that isn't that hard. So I know Jancee knows of what she speaks, and I love her for it. This collection is not as strong as her earlier memoir, and it's got a bit of a "slightly older woman wondering if she should have a baby" arc to it that readers not interested in kids might find a bit trying, but overall? Great stuff. And another wonderful way to avoid the frets. I'll take it.

*All over the slight possibility of missing a connecting flight home from a city that is a mere three hours' drive away from where I live. I know. Ridiculous. You start to get the picture why I don't travel, or even leave the house, a whole lot.

Sometimes you just have to re-read a book.

While I wait for all my new library holds (placed after reading yesterday's great suggestions; THANKS ALL!) to come in, I have decided to give up on new materials for the time being and re-read a book that I loved last year: Martin Millar's Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me.* I actually brought it back home for Mr. CR to read, but until he gets around to it, I'm loving it all over again on the second pass. There is a very certain pleasure to be had in re-reading a book, that is entirely distinct from loving a book on an initial read. Sure, you still love the prose of it, and the story, and even though the surprise is gone, there's something about re-recognizing your favorite bits, a settled feeling it gives you in your tummy to think "Yes, this is it, exactly, I love this." I liken it a little bit to the best parts of being married, without all those troublesome marriage bits of having to fight over whose family you're going to visit at holidays.

Wire In nonfiction news, I came across this title in Booklist magazine the other day (I wasn't reading Booklist for fun; as they only run "positive reviews," I think they're the most boring review source on the planet, but it is good for keeping up with new titles): Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Undermines America. Now that is a title I can get behind, even if its author is Barbara Ehrenreich, of whom I am not really a fan. In other new nonfiction book news: Michael Lewis is publishing a title called The Big Short: Inside the Doomday Machine in November (hm, Amazon says Feb 2010), and William Langewiesche has Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson (about the plane crash in the Hudson River earlier this year).

In other book news, Brandon will be hosting a book club discussion of Dante's Inferno this autumn. Now, if that doesn't get me out of my reading funk, nothing will! (Although I will probably go right back in my reading funk when all the Dan Brown and Oprah book hysteria hits next week. Yeah, yeah, I'm just supposed to be glad people are reading. Whatever.) Have a good weekend, all.

*After reading a bit this morning, I wandered over to this computer to get to work, and write this blog post. Decided to listen to a little Zeppelin on YouTube while doing so, and then check out how Martin Millar is these days. And lo and behold, his post today is about listening to a little Zeppelin, and how it cheered him. You're awesome, Martin. I feel cheered too. Thank you.

Jesus Christ Almighty.

I have been having a very cranky week where books are concerned. First, there was this news:

James Patterson signs 17-book deal with Hachette: "He has agreed to a 17-book deal with his longtime publisher, the Hachette Book Group -- an unthinkable commitment for most writers, but for Patterson a mere three years worth of work."

I know there are bigger problems in the world, but that's just ucky.

And then it continued, just one of those weeks where every new book I read about annoyed me on principle. Have you ever had one of those days? Where you cast about for a book to read, and although there were many good choices available, and you knew it, you were just looking for something different, and all you kept coming across were new books like Katrina Kenison's* memoir The Gift of an Ordinary Day, the advertising copy for which reads:

"Kenison, here at middle age with two sons in their teens, pursues with graceful serenity a time of enormous upheaval and transformation in her family's life. As her sons grew out of babyhood and into the 'new, unknown territory' of adolescence, she no longer felt clear about what her life's purpose was supposed to be; their comfortable suburban Boston house of 13 years grew restraining, and Kenison longed for a simpler, more nature-connected lifestyle."

Again, something about that just makes me tired. Now, I am not the target audience for parenting memoirs, or books on women's midlife crises. But must they all sound like this? (I was annoyed with Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for the same vague reasons--"look, middle-aged woman changing her life! She's becoming more genuine! She can be a famous novelist AND an earth mother!") It didn't help to learn that Kenison's first memoir is titled Mitten Strings for God.**

So. Here I am. Books all around but too cranky to read any of them. Does anyone have any good suggestions? Some good, nonsentimental nonfiction? Novels that didn't make you want to toss them after 50 pages? Even poetry that you like? I'm desperate for something to love over here.

*Kenison was the longtime series editor for The Best American Short Stories series, so it's become rather clearer why I haven't found a whole lot of stories in that series over the past decade that really spoke to me.

**That's really the title. I would never joke about mitten strings or God, much less mitten strings FOR God. Sounds like a great name for an ironic college band or something, though, doesn't it?

Book Blogger Appreciation Week.

Need to find some new book blogs to read? Might I suggest checking out the Book Blogger Appreciation Week website? The fine, dedicated-to-books folks (my favorite folks of all) there have been calling for book blog nominations; they are now running the voting for favorite blogs, and during the week of September 14-18, they'll reveal the winners. What they've done that's really lovely is provide a list of links to the nominated blogs, which is like a ready-made list of book blogging's greatest hits.

I in particular owe someone a big ol' heap of thanks, because someone nominated Citizen Reader for "best nonfiction review blog," which makes me very, very happy, and proud. Thank you! I have had a cranky week where books are concerned (more tomorrow), so that made my day. Please do consider voting for me if you have the time; otherwise, simply check out that great list of book blogs. Thanks should also be said to the tireless souls who run the BBAW process and websites; to see such dedication to blogging about books is a wonderful thing.

Evidently I can be charmed.

Wallace Over the course of a couple of nights last week, I read Daniel Wallace's novel Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician. I'm not quite sure why I got the book from the library, except that I recognized Wallace's name (he is the author of the novel Big Fish, which was made into a movie starring Ewan McGregor. I never read that book, but I rather enjoyed the movie, although how much of that is attributable to Ewan and how much to Wallace's story, I couldn't tell you). I also thought the title was kind of interesting, and might even be one that might appeal to Mr. CR.

The question that opens the book is, where is Henry Walker, the Negro Magician (the book is set in the 1950s, hence the corresponding vocabulary)? And the rest of the book is the stories of different friends (although not all of them are friendly) who each try to tell what they know of Henry Walker, who had been working with Jeremiah Mosgrove's Chinese Circus before he disappeared. Their stories are, of course, true in that they are faithfully repeating what they were told by Henry and what they thought they knew. But taken all together? How true are the stories? What do they mean?

I really enjoyed this book. I was actually charmed, and that doesn't happen often (although it has a better chance of happening when the book is around 250 pages long, which this one is). In the end it hammers home rather elegantly this question: How well do we really ever know other people? I love that question. On the first page of the novel, which is a letter (and which you should re-read after finishing the book), one of the characters says: "I think it's better to know what we can about people, to see beneath their skin, especially when it's about our own family--sometimes the most mysterious people we know."

I love that. I love being reminded that people are mysteries. I love books that remind me of it.

Holiday! (Imagine Madonna singing it.)

I love Labor Day weekend. Let's explore the many ways it is awesome: 1. it heralds the beginning of fall, my favorite season; 2. no family get-togethers, therefore, no fights about which family get-together to attend; 3. it's a holiday that doesn't celebrate war; and 4. it celebrates labor, of which I am a fan. (Just because I'm not good at laboring doesn't mean I think it's a bad idea.)

So, forthwith, a list of some of my favorite books about work:

1. Gil Reavill's Aftermath, Inc., in which the author joined a group of workers who clean up death scenes and accidents (particularly those which involve any kind of biohazard). Not for the faint of heart, but a good rollicking read nonetheless.

2. Scott Rosenberg's Dreaming in Code. Hands down one of the most interesting and illuminate books I've ever read about computer programming. I still don't understand it but I have a better understanding of what I don't understand.

3. Ted Conover'sNewjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Good lord, I hope I'm never convicted of anything. I couldn't handle being a prison guard, much less being IN prison.

4. William Langewiesche, The Outlaw Sea. It is William Langewiesche, writing about modern-day pirates. Ask no questions, just read.

5. Stacy Horn's The Restless Sleep; discussed at length earlier this week but an unbelievable look at those who work around murder victims, particularly cold case investigators. Read this one and you'll be halfway there for our next Book Menage!

6. John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers, in which he makes trucking and the profession of trucking fascinating.

7. John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. Well, it's about work, unfortunately the work isn't really voluntary. I quoted this one to my poor mother again just the other day: I continue to be floored by Bowe's brilliant, and brilliantly simple assertion that (I'm paraphrasing, but this is fairly close) "the system isn't broken--the system is working exactly the way the system was set up to work." Holy Christ. Think on that one for a few minutes.


8. The Working Stiff's Manifesto, by Iain Levison. I don't agree with this author's rather casual attitude toward stealing from one's employer (although I'm no innocent--I still have and use the apron I was provided with as a Country Kitchen waitress--and I'm not giving it back!), but it's still a great book.

Happy Labor Day, all. Now go take a load off.

Dream library.

Yesterday I spent a bit of time reading the introduction and looking at the black and white photographs in the oversized book The Photographs of Homer Page: The Guggenheim Year, New York, 1949-50. It was lovely.

Homer I love black and white photography, and I love New York City, and I love the 1950s (okay, it's the very beginning of the 50s, but still). Well, I love the "look" of the 1950s. Actually living in the 1950s probably wouldn't have worked for me. But I do love me some chrome and that lovely low-slung, straight lines, strange pastel colors 1950s furniture. (I have owned a mint-green 50s couch, and do own a 50s coral-colored chair that has most definitely seen better days, but which I can't get myself to throw out.)

So when I saw this book's title in my library catalog, you can bet I had to see it. And I was not disappointed. I've tried to provide a bigger image than usual of its cover image so you can see the photo; four boys playing with a dressmaker's form. The kid on the left just makes me laugh and laugh. Look at his face! He's totally in the moment.

So as I looked through the book, I wondered if there were collections of photographs of New York City from other twentieth-century decades*: the roaring 20s, the not-so-pretty 70s and 80s, etc. And I thought, man, if I was putting together my dream library, I would seek out big books of New York City photography and collect them for it. And then I thought, hm, dream library, that's something to think about. It's a fun fantasy to not only think about what I might like to read but which books as physical objects I might like to own. So far, I have this photography wish, and I'm also always secretly book-lusted after a rare first edition of Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, from the University of Chicago Press. (I saw one once at a rare book sale, and might have lost my head if Mr. CR hadn't been there reminding me of the mortgage.) So there's the question. What would you have in your dream library? Give it some thought. I'll revisit this topic, I'm sure.

*The other day I gave my nephew a book about twentieth-century baseball, and he said, "What's the twentieth century?" I'm old.

British humor interlude.

In the middle of four books today, two which are not really working out as planned* and two which are actually quite engrossing, but not lending themselves to commentary at this time. So as a comedic interlude, please enjoy this clip from the British sketch comedy show That Mitchell and Webb Look (please note one phrase in the clip** is not suitable for the workplace or little 'uns' ears:

And feel free to discuss: Are the British funnier than Americans? I say yes, but we already know I'm biased.

*And many thanks to wonderful citizen reader Beth, who sent a link to a glorious article about leaving books unfinished, which finishes with a Dorothy Parker-esque touch (playing on "this is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly--it should be thrown across the room with great force"--okay, score one for the American humor side). Thanks, Beth!

*Thanks to, of course, AustenBlog for the link.