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November 2009

Book Menage Day 1: Stacy Horn and Rick Geary

Welcome to Day 1 of our Rick Geary (The Borden Tragedy) and Stacy Horn (The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad) Book Menage! Thanks for popping in; and here's hoping everyone had a good Thanksgiving.*

Restless I have been sitting here and looking at these books for some time today, wondering where to start. What to ask is not really the problem; I have a whole list of questions. When to ask what, is more what I'm struggling with.

So: there's nothing else for it but to start, and leave organization to work itself out. (This is the principle I follow for pretty much everything else in my life, which sometimes made it hard to be a librarian, and around other people for whom organization IS life.) In short, here's the two questions I most want to know about today. As per usual, please do provide your answers to both or either (or ask new questions of your own) of the questions in the comments. I used to jump in first, but now I wait a bit, because I don't want to unduly "steer" the conversation.** I won't be able to not answer, mind you; I just would love it if someone else went first!

Borden 1. Did any lines/stories/anecdotes/pictures in either of these books stand out to you (in short: what bits were most memorable?) and if so, why?

2. Were either of these the first "true crime" books you've ever read? If so, what did you think about reading on this subject? If not, what did you think about either or both of these books as examples of the "true crime" nonfiction genre?

Let the Menage begin!

*And that no one had to get up and shop at 4 a.m. on Friday, which always seems like a retail environment that must closely resemble at least one level of Dante's hell, if not all of them rolled together.

**I'm not usually much of a forceful personality but I can be a bit overbearing when it comes to books.

Oh, stop acting like you're working.

I'll admit it. Days before holidays are not high productivity days for me. (Are they for anybody?) All I really feel like doing today is waiting for tomorrow, when I get to sit around and eat turkey. I like turkey, and we're not having company, so I don't even have to clean my house, which is all it takes to make it a successful holiday in my book.

So, not much today, but I did want to mention that I got an email from a polite person named Willy Blackmore yesterday, about a new short film based on a Tom Drury story. Remember Tom Drury? I read his book The Driftless Area, and loved it, back in June. (I got some great comments on that post, too--someone suggested I read his book The End of Vandalism, which I never did, so I've got to get on that.) Anyway, the point of this anecdote is that, if you want to see a short film (titled "Path Lights") based on a short story by Drury, visit the David Lynch Foundation web site at Evidently you can watch the film there, for free, during the week of December 2nd through the 9th. I know I try not to advertise stuff here, but I'm happy that other people out there like Tom Drury. And, also, I just like the name "Willy Blackmore." Doesn't it seem like the perfect name for a character in a short story? But I digress.

Oh, and one last reminder: Our Book Menage starts next Monday, and we'll discuss the books The Restless Sleep: inside New York City's Cold Case Squad (by Stacy Horn) and The Borden Tragedy (by Rick Geary). Invite a friend and come ready to chat; all participants in the comments will have their names entered in a drawing* to win the books for the next Menage FREE! Also: we'll do the Menage the entire week, and have different questions about the books each day. (That seemed to work pretty well last time.) There's no rule saying I'm the only one who can ask the questions; if you've got questions about these books that you want to pose to the other participants, please do share them in the comments today or send them in an email to me at [email protected].

Now get out there and put extra Cool Whip on your pumpkin pie.

New York so pretty.

Just when I've pretty much decided that London is the city for me, along comes a book like New York Skyscrapers (by Dirk Stichweh)and makes me realize that I've been a fickle lover. Oh, New York, you're still my only one--will you still have me?

Skyscrapers I really loved this book. For one thing, it's oversized, and I love oversized books (now that I no longer work in a library, and I don't have to bitch and swear about shelving them). Any book of photography about New York City really needs to be an oversized book; it's particularly necessary when you're trying to do credit to its skyscrapers.* In this collection are photographs, histories, and facts about seventy-nine of the city's best known high-rise buildings, including the years when they were completed, their architects, and their height. The photographs, done by Jorg Machirus and Scott Murphy, are universally beautiful, and I'm getting just old enough to appreciate that even the text in this book is slightly larger than typical. And, in addition to the rather straightforward historical and arhictectural information, you get very readable tidbits like this:

"The unusual ground plan of the [Flatiron] building makes for a lack of standardized office spaces, but at the same time almost every office unit admits daylight." (p. 67.)

I was impressed by that, because who doesn't like to work where there's some daylight? Kudos to Daniel Burnham, the designer of the Flatiron Building, on that one. So if you need some New York eye candy, after checking out Stacy Horn's blog for her near daily New York pictures, you should definitely pick up this book.

*The cover of this book, featuring a rather standard shot of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler building, doesn't really reflect the many aerial and atypical (but beautiful) angles used for the photography of the seventy-nine buildings profiled.

Monday at low ebb.

For some reason I am at low ebb this morning; my apologies. So: A short post, and the fervent hope that the holiday-shortened week does good things for all of us. It is my sincere hope that none of you have to travel too far, or get up to go shopping at 4 a.m. on Black Friday. Word is that Wal-Mart has been doing some planning to try and cut down on, you know, their workers getting trampled, so at least that's good news.

Symmetry It's odd that I'm not really feeling like writing about books, because I read some great books over the weekend. One of my favorites was Audrey Niffeneggers's new novel Her Fearful Symmetry, which I loved.* If this helps at all, this is the description of it that I just wrote for Nancy Pearl's and my forthcoming book, Now Read This III: A Guide to Mainstream Fiction**:

"When Elspeth Noblin dies, she leaves her London flat and her entire estate to her nieces, identical twins Julia and Valentina Poole, who, at twenty-one, are still living with their parents in a Chicago suburb. There is one stipulation, however; they must agree to live together in the flat for one year before selling it, and their parents (including their mother Edie, Elspeth’s identical twin sister) are not allowed to enter the flat if they visit. The more dominant of the pair, Julia, decides the flat is just the thing they have been waiting for, and the pair travels to London and moves in, discovering as their downstairs neighbor their aunt Elspeth’s boyfriend Robert, while their upstairs neighbor is a man suffering from OCD. They are not the only residents of the house; Elspeth, too, makes her residence there (as a ghost, and one who “works out” so that she can contact the living through various means) with plans of her own."

What I didn't mention much there is that the book is set in London, so every time Niffenegger had one of her characters do anything London-y, it made me heartsick for London. "Oh, they're going on the Tube!" "They're eating at a Pret!" (Pret a Manger are these great chain coffee/deli restaurants they have all over in London; nearly every morning when we were there we went to one--I know, we're creatures of habit, even on vacation--and had chocolate-filled croissants and bananas and coffee. Yum.)

All of the above doesn't really begin to do this book justice. It's weird and haunted and I love the way it ends, and I'm not going to say anymore about it, because if you do decide to read it, you should really go into it fresh. Suffice it to say, I really enjoy Audrey Niffenegger. I like that her books are kind of magical and sort of romantic but they're definitely not sweet. What I don't like is that one of the blurbs on the back of her book is from Jodi Picoult, which I don't understand at all. But I have to remember that Jodi Picoult's name doesn't activate most people's gag reflexes the way it sets off mine.

*If you'll remember, I was very fond of her novel The Time Traveler's Wife, as well.

**You like how I just slip my advertising in there? Dreadfully unsubtle but that's the way advertising is sometimes.

Yes, yes, our power comes from our vagina, okay.

So as I was reading through Jessica Zellers's stellar Women's Nonfiction: A Guide to Reading Interests, I found her annotation for Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, and thought, hey, I've never read The Vagina Monologues, and I probably should.

Ensler This will probably come as no surprise, but I was decidedly meh about The Vagina Monologues. It was interesting enough to read, and quite short (which I always enjoy), and the edition I read was published in support of Ensler's V-Day organization (which campaigns against violence against women), so I can support that. And I know the idea was to take a closer look at, and reclaim, the vagina, and I totally enjoyed this tidbit, in Ensler's introduction:

"In the first place, it's not so easy even to find your vagina. Women go weeks, months, sometimes years without looking at it. I interviewed a high-powered businesswoman who told me she was too busy; she didn't have the time. Looking at your vagina, she said, is a full day's work. You have to get down there on your back in front of a mirror that's standing on its own, full-length preferred. You've got to get in the perfect position, with the perfect light, which then is shadowed somehow by the mirror and the angle you're at. You get all twisted up. You're arching your head up, klling your back. You're exhausted by then. She said she didn't have the time for that. She was busy."

I enjoyed that, quite a bit. But I've always felt that reducing gender to genitalia was a bit misleading, myself, so although I don't think this was a bad read and it might be interesting for all women (it only takes an hour or so to read), it wasn't really for me. If I had to put my finger on gender, actually, I've always thought it rather boils down more to a quality of practicality, or helpfulness. One of my favorite things about women is how they often wade right in without asking; when Mr. CR comes in the kitchen, he will sometimes ask what needs doing (which I do appreciate), whereas when women come into my kitchen, they'll usually assess what needs doing and start opening cupboards and drawers until they find the tools to help.* I have felt this way for a very long time; when I got my first off-the-farm job, at 16, I worked as a busperson in a nice restaurant, and my female co-worker and I heard this from our boss (a no-nonsense woman herself) on a nightly basis: "Would you help David and John in section 3? Boy busers are so clueless. Thanks."

So: I will add Eve's "vagina power" thoughts to my conception of women as helpful, and practical. It's never a bad idea to expand one's horizons, after all.

*I am, of course, stereotyping like crazy. I have in fact known both helpful men and completely helpless women.

Women's Nonfiction: Feisty Womyn Forever.

I recently got my copy of Jessica Zellers's new nonfiction reading guide, titled Women's Nonfiction: A Guide to Reading Interests, and it's spectacular.

Zellers Now, you should know, I am the new series editor of the Libraries Unlimited Real Stories series, of which this book is a part (although Robert Burgin edited this volume, and did a fantastic job of it to boot--thanks ever so, Robert, for leaving such big shoes for me to fill), and I LOVE nonfiction reading guides, so I am probably not ever going to give one of these books a bad review. But I think my appreciation for this volume (and Rick Roche's guide to biographies, Real Lives Revealed) goes beyond mere interest as the series editor. Even if they sometimes have small problems in execution (and all of these types of books do, mine included) I simply love that they are available. They not only make it possible to find great books to read, but I think they make it clear that knowing something about books and authors is a valuable and hard-earned skill. In a world that is increasingly fragmented and which moves too fast and in which people speak endlessly of boring things called "apps," I think it's refreshing to find, gathered in one handy collection, lists of books that are similar in both subject and style.

But I digress. Perhaps the most valuable thing Zellers does is explain what Women's Nonfiction is: "a reading interest comprising titles that speak to women's experiences." Her chapters, therefore, include titles that speak to women's experiences in several genres and formats: Biographies and Memoirs (Life Stories); Personal Growth titles; Health, Wellness, and Beauty; Women's History; Adventure and Travel; Feminism and Activism; Women at Work; and Women and Society. Looking for a book similar to Sue Monk Kidd's The Dance of the Dissident Daughter?* Zellers suggests titles like Judith Duerk's Circle of Stones: Woman's Journey to Herself; and also suggests other memoirs like Deborah Kanafani's Unveiled: A Woman's Journey through Politics, Love, and Obedience.

What I particularly love about this volume is Zellers's writing style; she's witty.** Consider this, from the introduction:

"I dimly recall from my tenth-grade English class that Hercules had to perform twelve impossible labors. If memory serves, one of those twelve labors was to cull through all of the titles that are, or might be, Women's Nonfiction."

Her book annotations are all like that too; of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, her description opens with "It began simply enough, with Eve Ensler chatting with her friends about sex."

What we have here, then, is that rarest of things: a reference book that's fun to read. I highly recommend it--and this, coming from someone who has never met a "goddess narrative" she enjoyed (or would read all the way through, for that matter), should be taken as the highest praise indeed.

*I won't be, as Kidd is not for me, but there's plenty of other books suggested here that I might try.

**I am trying to be the bigger person here and not admit how jealous I am of her ability to turn a phrase.

Reading doldrums.

I am once again in the reading doldrums, where I've got a few books going but nothing is really lighting my fire, which makes me not feel like reading at all. (Always a very strange sensation.) Mr. CR blames the selection of books I currently have home from the library--"you have crappy stuff home right now," he noted the other day, with all the nuance of a true critic--but I think the reading doldrums are just something you go through every now and then no matter how many great books you have access to.

So, nothing to report today, which makes it as good a day as any to remind everyone of our upcoming Book Menage discussion, featuring Stacy Horn's true crime nonfiction The Restless Sleep, and Rick Geary's true crime graphic novel The Borden Tragedy. Our discussion will start on Monday, November 30, which is getting much closer than one might think. Remember: Anyone who participates is entered in the drawing to win the two books for the next Menage, so invite your friends, and we'll party this puppy up proper.*

*I have no idea what that means. I just like alliteration.

A good graphic novel, but not one that I'm in love with.

I am a huge, huge Brian Fies fan.

His graphic novel Mom's Cancer is not only one of my favorite graphic novels, it is one of my favorite memoirs, and favorite books, full-stop. It was his take on his mother's battle with both lung and brain cancer, and a family story of how he and his siblings dealt with her illness. It was, of course, horribly sad, but it was also fantastic. The rare graphic novel that I loved without reservations, and in which the art and the text were easy to integrate, and which complemented each other.

So I was very, very excited to see that he had a new graphic novel out, titled Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? This one starts at the New York World's Fair of 1939, and charts the course of scientific and future discoveries and aspirations in different decades, including 1945, 1955, 1965, and 1975.

I did read the whole thing, but it turned out to be not for me.

Tomorrow This is no reflection on the quality of the work, which is once again very, very high. I love Fies's clean drawings, simple text, and how easy it is to integrate the two while reading. However, I have never been enthralled with science and progress* OR comics, which are two things that clearly had a big effect on Fies; in fact, this book is like an extended love letter to both. In fact, in between the chapters, Fies has inserted what appear to be classic comic books, titled "Space Age Adventures" and printed on what appears to be pulpy comic/newsprint pages. Unfortunately, the beauty of much of his work is lost on me, as I am not and never was a comic reader. (I am such a person of inaction that most action/adventure stories, which is what a lot of comics are, completely bore me.)

I was also a bit confused by the characters in the story, as Fies uses the same father/son pair in each decade, without the kid growing up for several of the first decades, which I found disconcerting. (He explains this in a foreword, commenting on the wonder of "comics time" which allows characters never to age or change.) Anyone else have this problem?

Still and all, though, Brian Fies is a super-talent. Immediately upon finishing this book I went and re-read my copy of Mom's Cancer, and appreciated him all over again. Give this one a try if you're interested in science or comics; I don't think you'll be disappointed.

*I am in fact usually quite cranky about both science and progress, although I am a fan of indoor plumbing.

Not really my cuppa.

Once again, I'm not really sure why I requested Jonathan Ames's essay collection (with a long short story in the beginning to kick things off, and a few more stories at the end) The Double Life is Twice as Good from the library, but one day there it was, waiting for me. So why not?

Ames I brought it home, and I read almost the whole thing, but now I can't remember much about it except that it wasn't really for me, and also that one of the essays is Ames's interview with Marilyn Manson, which was actually quite interesting. The short story wasn't dull, I'll give it that: titled "Bored To Death," it is the story of a man in his forties who places an ad on CraigsList that he's available to take on missing persons cases (although he is qualified to do no such thing), and who ends up getting in a little over his head. The persona of the main character seems somewhat similar to Ames's persona in his essays, so I was too distracted wondering how much of the story was autobiographical. Mr. CR, however, in an interesting dissenting opinion, actually liked the story quite a bit.

At the risk of sounding like a prude, some of the essays were a bit too personal for me, although I was quite amused by the one in which Ames takes a class on how to please a woman (that's right, ladies, there's some women out there trying to teach men how to please us, using such props as peaches--let's hear it for those hard-working gals!). That essay contained several of my favorite quotes, including: "There was a brief period in 1990, when I was twenty-six and read a book on the female orgasm called For Yourself, that I had, momentarily, a firm idea where the clitoris is, but it was some kind of high math and my mind could not hold on to the information for long."

In looking back on it, I think I enjoyed The Double Life is Twice as Good more than I thought I had. Will I look up any of his other books, though? I don't think so.

Cry And then there's Augusten Burroughs's new Christmas-themed collection titled You Better Not Cry. I don't know why I keep bringing Augusten home; I think it's because a reader I respect really loves him. But again, this collection is not for me. In the first story, Augusten remembers how he couldn't keep Santa and Jesus straight, since he kept hearing about them both around Christmastime. Which is kind of amusing. But then it turns into a story where he ate the plastic face off of a life-size Santa that his grandparents brought his family, and at some point it all just becomes too sad. Normally I don't mind dark and I certainly love cynical and bitter, but sometimes when books are THIS sad they just don't work for me. Writers like David Sedaris (not my favorite, but I do prefer him and Rakoff to Burroughs) and Hollis Gillespie are kind of sad, and definitely dark, but something about them doesn't make me want to lay down and give up and die, which is what reading Augusten always does to me. This book will not be making it into my holiday routine.

Men I Love: Second in a Series.

I have always had a little thing for Jimmy Carter.

Carter Which, let's face it, is pretty much the only reason I picked up Kevin Mattson's new book "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr President?" Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country. For one thing, I'm not a big history reader (unless it's about British history, or labor history, or the holy grail of my history nonfiction reading, British labor history); for another, that's not really a title that inspires a whole lot of "wow, I've got to read this one!"*

But I do find it interesting that there's actually a growing little subgenre of nonfiction books in which authors look at history and presidents through specific speeches**; I'm somewhat interested in speeches and rhetoric (as only the nerdy author of a public speaking handbook for librarians can be); and what the heck, it was only 217 pages long. 

The book takes as its subject the summer of 1979, primarily its gas shortages and cultural ennui, and examines how President Carter sought to address the energy crisis and what he described as America's crisis of confidence. One of the most interesting things (to me) about the story is how Carter sought to hear a variety of viewpoints, and duly invited groups of people (people other than politicians and lobbyists, note) to the White House to talk these issues over. When he was done, he charged his speechwriters with creating (with his input) the speech he would give on July 15, 1979. The entire text of the speech is also provided as an appendix, so you can read it for yourself, and I would do so:

"In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God,*** too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose...

We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate...We believed that our nation's resources were limitless until 1973, when we had to face a growing dependence on foreign oil.

These wounds are still very deep. They have never been healed." (p. 212-213.)

I won't lie to you; although it's not obnoxious, this is not an author who is being very critical of Carter, although he does point out his many and obvious missteps. But he's also an author who has managed to weave a compelling slice of history out of a speech that has been largely misremembered by an entire nation. If nothing else, he also does a good job of placing the speech and Carter's presidency in historical perspective as the one that paved the way for Reagan (and the Cult of Reagan and all that went with it), as evidenced in this quote:

"I remember the exact moment I knew Ronald Reagan could beat Jimmy Carter. The date was July 15, 1979." (Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan's pollster.)

It's an interesting book. If you're up for a historical stroll through the late 1970s, this might be a good place to start. Now off with you, and have a good weekend.

*Or is it? I think it's kind of a clunky title, myself. I might have chosen How to Lose the White House: Endeavor to be Decent and Intelligent.

**David Maraniss's The Clinton Enigma is also a fabulous little book.

***I would guess that most atheists are probably not Carter fans.

Men I Love: First in a Series

Today's book and tomorrow's book are about as different as books can be, but they share one trait: they are both about men I really, really like. "Love" was probably a little strong, but sometimes I just like to get your attention.

Swayze I am on record as a certified Patrick Swayze fan. I was, therefore, quite excited to find my copy of his (and his wife Lisa Niemi's) book The Time of My Life waiting for me at the library the day before yesterday. So excited, as a matter of fact, that I blew through it yesterday. (It's not a dense text, and it's got two sections of photos.) And, my high opinion of Patrick remains intact. If anything, I'm even more impressed with him than ever. I hadn't known anything about his dancing and ballet career (which ended when a serious knee injury, suffered during high school football, become too much of a problem to ignore) or his longtime marriage to Niemi (no small feat in show business).

The writing's nothing to write home about, but it's serviceable. It's not overwrought, I'll give it that, and for a man who's writing about his life and career while trying to beat pancreatic cancer,* that's pretty impressive. And then there's stories like this:

"We did a lot of rewriting for the big final scene [in Dirty Dancing], but one line that I absolutely hated ended up staying in. I could hardly even bring myself to say 'Nobody puts Baby in a corner' in front of the cameras, it just sounded so corny. But later, seeing the finished film, I had to admit it worked. And of course, it became one of the most-quoted lines in the entire movie. I even quote a version of it myself these days, saying 'Nobody puts Patrick's pancreas in a corner' when people ask how I'm doing.'"

Come on. That's funny.

I am not one of those people who mourns celebrities like I knew them. But I am still sad that Patrick lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. If you must read one celebrity memoir or bio this year, consider this one.

*This now makes two books about pancreatic cancer that are better than Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture: the other is Miles Kington's How Shall I Tell the Dog? And Other Final Musings.

What exactly are people loving about this book?

I was completely annoyed by Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea. A little background:

Tea I kind of knew I was going to be annoyed by this book. I've avoided reading it for years, even though it was a big crowd-pleaser when I worked at the library, and I can't recall that I've ever read a bad review of it. As noted earlier this week, I am one of those nasty people who often dislikes the crowd pleasers, so I thought I'd save us all some time and skip it. But then my dad asked for it, as a neighbor had told him to read it, and he wanted to know what I thought of it, so I had to explain to him why I hadn't read it.* Then, because he was going to read it, I thought I might as well listen to it on CD and then we could at least chat it over when we were done.

But it's not going to happen. I have listened to six CDs (of an 11-CD set) and I can't listen to any more. The subject matter is fine: Mortenson tried to climb K2 in Pakistan in tribute to his sister, who died at too young an age; failed in his attempt because he rescued someone else; was assisted in his descent by some of the Pakistani locals; and was so touched by their generosity and their stoic acceptance of their harsh environment that he pledged to return and build a school for their community. Which he did, and then did in other communities. I'm bailing out of this narrative right after he got a bridge built in Pakistan (he had to build that before he could build the school) and married his soulmate, so I'm going to have to live without knowing what happened with all the other schools.**

So what is the problem(s)? Well, for me, they are, in no particular order:

1. A large part of the first chunk of the book describes Mortenson's climbing exploits. I do not like mountain climbers. Just thinking about them (not all of them, but enough) leaving their spent tanks of oxygen all over the worlds' mountains annoys me.

2. Mortenson seems to have a bit more self esteem than I enjoy in a person. He introduces himself to some Pakistani children as "Greg" and "good." Who does that? I'd quibble less with the word "friendly," and sure, maybe I'm being overly picky, but the fact remains that I like people with a little more doubt in their soul. ("Citizen Reader. Hopefully good, but, you know, given the right circumstances, I'll bet I could do some pretty petty and/or scary shit.")

3. When he meets his soulmate and future wife, they go back to her apartment together, where she tells him "Welcome to my life," and he tells her "Welcome to my heart." At that point I snorted with laughter, said to the dishes I was doing, "Who are these people?", and then turned off the CD.

Please note: I am not against inspiring personal stories or philanthropists in general. It's just that there are many better books out there about people trying to make the world a better place: Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, for one, and Melissa Faye Greene's There Is No Me Without You for another.

*Trying to explain to your father that you're a bitter and snobby person is always just a bit awkward.

**I'm pretty sure I can live without knowing.

Surprise of the year.

Just when I think I'm never going to like another bestselling novel again, along comes something like Audrey Niffenegger's novel The Time Traveler's Wife.

Timetraveler I really, really, really liked The Time Traveler's Wife. I totally didn't expect to; it was a bestseller and a very popular book at the suburban library where I worked.* I'm not entirely sure why I did. But there you have it. I started it at the beginning of the weekend, and it felt like a mere blink of time when I finished it at the end of the weekend.** I even liked its cover, which for once, seemed made for the book, rather than a bit of phoned-in stock art.

Maybe I liked it because it was weird? The story is this: Henry is a time traveler, but he can't really control when or where he goes; as a consequence, he sometimes visits Clare, the woman he marries, when she is still a child; he often also visits earlier versions of himself, which are the really mind-bendy parts of the narrative. And that's it, really. (Well, there's more, but I don't want to give away any secrets.) I think what I loved is that, although this is a love story, is not really a sentimentalized love story. Henry can actually be quite the jerk sometimes, and Clare both accepts their decidedly strange life together and rails against it. Even when tragedy strikes (and it does, and you knew it was going to), Niffenegger, to her credit, doesn't try to spin it into any larger kind of life lesson (a la Mitch Albom), unless that lesson is "well, not much we can do about all this."*** Now that is a life lesson I can get behind.

I also knew there was some element of an older man (in his 30s) hanging out with a young girl who was going to become his wife, and I thought that might be weird, but it really wasn't. When I thought about it, I realized, yes, I wish I could go see Mr. CR in grade school, just out of curiosity, so that made that aspect of the book a little less weird. I know, I'm really selling it, aren't I? It's not as creepy as you think it might be!

So come on, read it. I'm dying to talk it over with someone.

*Yes, I'm one of those awful snobby people who don't often enjoy the books and authors everyone else loves.

**It's a surprisingly fast read, for not really having all that much of a driving plot, and for being a pretty thick book.

***"This" being life, generally, and Henry's time-traveling predicament, specifically.

Rick Steves, bad boy?

Normally I think Rick Steves is the most boring travel writer/presenter on the planet. I often watch his shows on PBS because I like travel shows, and because every time Mr. CR and I see his "Back Door" productions logo, we giggle, because we are immature. But if I want witty travel talk, I watch Burt Wolf.*

Politicalact So I was pleasantly surprised by Steves's new travel narrative, titled Travel as a Political Act. Although Steves makes his living writing straightforward tour guides and running tours, this is more of a thoughtful book on travel, explaining how the cultures of other parts of the world differ from our culture in America. He strikes a nice balance; he's unabashed about saying he loves being American,** and he's actually thankful to be operating his small business in America, but he's also generous about pointing out how other cultures may have figured out different and very valid lifestyles; in Denmark, for example, residents pay much higher taxes but are also highly content with the health care, education, and other services their government provides. He also describes a number of Islamic countries, including Turkey, Iran, and Morocco, and is particularly interested that Morocco seems to be prospering while largely ignoring America and its cultural mandates (he found that Tangier had three languages on all of their street signs: Arabic, French, and Spanish). I also liked his idea, stated in his concluding chapter, that the "ultimate souvenir is a broader outlook."

But perhaps my favorite part of this book was reading about Europe's different approaches to drug use and their emphasis on "harm reduction," particularly where hard drugs (like heroin) are concerned. By pointing out that other first-world nations can and indeed do function, even in countries where you can go to "coffeeshops" to smoke marijuana, I think Steves is providing some valuable insight. I was also just tickled to find out that he is a former board member of NORML and sometimes speaks to groups in America about Europe's approach to drug laws and enforcement. Rick Steves, bad boy. Who knew?

*I have a huge crush on Burt, which disturbs Mr. CR.

**Steves's patriotism doesn't particularly bother me, as he seems to have developed it by learning about other cultures and giving it some independent thought, which is not a typical hallmark of patriotism (or so I've found).

Authors to boycott.

Lately I've been seeing a lot of new book releases that have me thinking, "God, I hate [insert author name here] and I wish we could set up an Author Boycott." I've actually been thinking of listing those authors I consider boycottable in the sidebar, sans links to their books, but then I thought, do I really want to be reminded of all the authors that annoy me on a daily basis? Not so much. So I've decided to work out all my crank* here, today, in a special Fall 2009 edition of "Authors I Dislike on Principle, Even Though That's Not Very Open-Minded of Me."

1. Mitch Albom. Albom is the male equivalent of Jodi Picoult, and reading him is making our nation dumber by the minute. This fall he has come out with another book supposedly designed to instill quasi-religious self-discovery in his readers (Have a Little Faith), but which is really produced and sold only to make Mitch Albom yet another bucketful of money, since evidently he didn't invest the bucketful of money he's already made from Tuesdays with Morrie wisely. Albom is also noteworthy for getting in trouble for reporting on a basketball game as though he was there (which he wasn't) when he was a sports reporter. What did Morrie have to say about the ethics of that one, Mitch?

Superfreak 2. The Freakonomics guys have come out with Superfreakonomics, which is actually subtitled "Global cooling, patriotic prostitutes, and why suicide bombers should buy life insurance," but which might as well be titled "hey, our first shitty book, wherein we just made stuff up and tied it to economics and statistical theory with the most tenuous of links, sold really well, mainly because we wrote about all shocking and provocative topics and stuff." Other researchers have pointed out how their oh-so-controversial (by book-selling design) "abortion has lowered crime" conclusion** from their first book is based on flawed research; I'm sure, given a little time, similar articles could (and hopefully will?) be written debunking each chapter in this new piece of pseudoscientific trash. In his defense, Levitt got it completely right when he was interviewed on The Daily Show and pointed out that he's no scientist. I couldn't agree more, sir. Anyone who accepts this book as acceptable "nonfiction" never gets to complain about the lack of facts and/or "truth" in the nonfiction publishing sector, ever again.

3. Jonathan Safran Foer, whose appeal as a novelist I have never understood, has written a book about his newly minted vegetarianism titled Eating Animals. Thankfully, I don't have to pick on this one; Jessa Crispin over at Bookslut has already done that for me. Here's what she had to say: "I am trying so hard to be nice to Jonathan Safran Foer, by which I mean I am trying to forget he exists on this planet. His book Eating Animals, however, is making this goal very, very difficult. It was bad enough when he was writing shitty novels, but now he's indulging in my least favorite form of nonfiction: the 'I have never thought about this thing before until now, and despite the fact that other people have thought about this for years and wrestle daily with the implications, I think my brand new thoughts should be shared with the world.'" Amen, sister. Also? I don't like anyone who picks on Anthony Bourdain. Don't pick on Bourdain, dude. You're going to lose. He's smarter than you AND he has a sense of humor.

4. Any author whose book is being sold for $10 this week, and I'm looking at you, Barbara Kingsolver and John Grisham. I don't know if you had any say in that, but if you could've said no to that and didn't, I'll be very unhappy with you. Like it isn't hard enough for new authors to break into the system, now you're using your fame to offer your books at half the prices of theirs? What is the point of that?

5. Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story, by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor. Woman power, life changes, midlife crises, will marriage consume me?, blah blah blah. I know. As the cynical daughter of a no-nonsense farm woman, I have no business even looking at a Sue Monk Kidd book. But I can never help myself, particularly when she helps her daughter to get in on the publishing bounty of schmaltzy womanly topics (another master of this is Jeffrey Zaslow: see The Girls from Ames). Consider Sue's story about getting her own wedding dress: "It was the first wedding dress I tried on. I fell in love with it at first sight, but when I noticed the price, my heart sank. Six hundred dollars, a fortune.*** I tried to be stoic about it, and Mother and I kept looking, trudging from shop to shop, until finally she proclaimed she didn't care what the dress cost, we were going back to get it. 'It's only money,' she said, as if steeling herself." (p. 150.) Now THAT is the proper way to go into a marriage, caring only that you get what is perfect for yourself, no matter how much your loved ones have to scrimp and save to get it for you. That's beautiful, man.

Okay, I think that's it. Thanks for letting me vent, especially going into the weekend--I feel a lot better! Have a nice one, all.

*Well, a lot of my crank, anyway. I've got crank to spare so expecting to dump it all in one day's worth of posting is probably unrealistic.

**Full disclosure: I am in fact anti-abortion so that conclusion particularly annoyed me, especially in light of how the authors massaged their data to arrive at it. It's only fair you know of my bias; but I think even without that I would think the Freakonomics books are poor examples of "nonfiction." They are, however, good examples of a tenet I believe in, which is that you can make numbers and statistics prove anything you want them to prove.

***Please note: that's 600 dollars in 1968 money. Anybody know what that amounts to today? Oh wait, I do, thanks to The Inflation Calculator: "What cost $600 in 1968 would cost $3673.94 in 2008." 

A little memoir with a bit of heart.

I have no idea why I requested Mark Millhone's memoir The Patron Saint of Used Cars and Second Chances; all I know is one day it was there, at the library, waiting for me, so of course I had to bring it home. (Books to me are like puppies or kittens. I want to adopt them ALL.) Once I got it home, I read the dust jacket to see what it was about: a man buys a used BMW online and, after picking it up, roadtrips it back to his home with his father in tow. The twist? The year the author is coming off of has not been a good one: one son spent weeks in intensive care after developing pneumonia at birth; his mother died; his other son was horribly bitten across the nose by the family dog; and his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Add a marriage situation that's teetering on the edge, and I think it's fair to say Millhone was under a bit of stress.

Usedcars Enter the car: he thought, if his family could just start over with a new car, new roadtrips, new memories, etc., they'd be able to get on with their lives after their annus horribilis and find more strength in one another.

I won't reveal if the car worked; the memoir's only 192 pages long so if you're interested in finding that out it won't take you long to do so. The memoir's not perfect; after a while, the author's reliance on the details of his horrible year starts to sound a little overdone (hey, it was a really bad year. I get it. But other people have bad years too, and a lot of people across the world have really bad luck all their lives), and there's a couple of incidences in his treatment of the family dogs that made me a bit uncomfortable,* but there were also parts of this memoir that charmed me. For example, when his son sees the jagged line of stitches across his nose for the first time:

"'Why'd this have to happen?! Why?!' he cried, burying his face in my shoulder...

'You're the bravest boy,' I repeated, not knowing what else to say.

'I don't wanna be brave!' he cried.

Me neither, kid. Me neither." (p. 151.)

That's kind of honest, and I couldn't help but be touched by it just a bit. In the end, though...I think I mainly appreciated that it was short. That's a terrible reason to like a book, really, but I can't help it. I appreciate authors who recognize I've got lots of other things to read and who keep their books, accordingly, under 200 pages.

*I won't say too much, but I'll say this: dogs bite, and it's horrible when it happens, and I wouldn't want to think about what I would do to a dog that bit my child, but...kicking a dog in anger just doesn't seem like it's going to help any situation. Animal lovers, consider yourself warned.

A sigh-worthy British read.

Yeah, here's a shocker: I'm more interested than ever in reading books about British history.

Leicester1 I also thought it might be fun to combine the side of my personality that responds to chick flicks (yeah, that would be the "big sap" side) with the side that demands British history details, so I picked up Sarah Gristwood's Elizabeth & Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics, about Queen Elizabeth I and her longtime friend and counselor Robert Dudley (the later Earl of Leicester).

All in all, it should come as no surprise that I found this one a satisfying read. There's a bit too much "did they or didn't they?" speculation, but in all fairness, I suppose that's the question a lot of people have about the Virgin Queen and, by all accounts, a man she honestly loved. It's not the thing I find most interesting about their relationship, though, particularly not when you consider the speculation about how Dudley's first wife died (did he or didn't he have a hand in her death, so he had a better shot at marrying Elizabeth), and the overall question of Elizabeth's personality. Why didn't she--and, as the author points out, the best evidence that Elizabeth really didn't want to marry is that she never did--want to get married? That is the crux of the matter that I find the most fascinating. Was she afraid a marriage would be the end of her power? Was she afraid of the risks of childbirth? Did watching her father's treatment of his many wives, you know, sour her on the whole idea?

Leicester2 This is an interesting book, but it may not be the best place to start if you're looking for a full biography of Elizabeth; it really does focus on the relationship. It is, however, a librarian's dream: it's got lovely source notes in the back about related reading, a short appendix on film versions of Elizabeth's life, and a very comprehensive index. Kudos to the author and publisher for all those things.

Incidentally: I included pictures of two different covers for this book, neither of which I am particularly fond. By all accounts, Elizabeth ruled just as much with her head as with her torso. So why don't we get to see it? For some reason these beheaded women portraits on any covers--fiction included--creep me out.

Well, I'm with you in theory, but that's about it.

I was amused by the jacket copy on Charles Pierce's Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free:

Idiot "The culture wars are over. The idiots have won. This pisses Pierce off immensely. Like all cynics, he's secretly a romantic at heart, and his disbelieving anger is fueled by the knowledge that America doesn't have to be this way. Like an Old Testament prophet (albeit an agnostic, funny one), Pierce lets loose on the foibles of society in the secret hope that, somehow, being smart will stop being a stigma and idiots will once again be pitied and not celebrated. But don't get your hopes up."

Pierce is a journalist and appears regularly on NPR; he can write and his prose is reasonably entertaining. But I'll admit I never got past the first chapter, in which his chief evidence that idiots are taking over is a line from a New York Times article about intelligent design, in which the reporter wrote that the ID movement "have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin's defenders firmly on the defensive."*

Really. That's the sentence he holds up as the shining example of the ridiculousness of the idiocy in our society.

Nothing against Pierce, but if that's the best he can do, I'm not impressed. I might suggest that a greater break with reality is evident in the phrase "keep government out of my Medicare," which I actually saw people say on the news last week. I think a bigger problem is that very few people could probably tell you what the theory of evolution actually is, or how it differs from intelligent design; and that another large chunk of the population simply hates the New York Times on principle because they think it is elitist or too smart. But that's just me.

In all, don't bother with this book. Pick up Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War instead--it's a million times more interesting and provides a nice mix of empathy and frustration, which Pierce's book totally misses.

*Authors always lose me when they start pointing out that only idiots would ever have any questions about evolution. I find the entire debate deeply uninteresting (I've never really understood why it's even a debate, frankly, since one of the major religious tenets seems to be that if you believe in God, you believe God can do anything, so why couldn't God set evolution in motion?), but I always think it's hilarious when anybody holds up a belief in evolution as the gold standard of intelligence. Richard Dawkins falls firmly into that camp too, and you know what? He's boring too. Maybe boringness and the tendency to sound like an asshole evolved along with the need to make everyone accept evolution as gospel** truth in writers of this sort.

**Pun intended.

Sadness, illustrated.

I don't have much to say about David Small's graphic novel memoir, Stitches.*

Stitches Small, an artist and illustrator,** did not, by all conceivable standards, have a happy childhood. His mother and father had an unhappy marriage; his mother had all kinds of issues of her own (including health issues: she was born with her heart on the opposite side of her chest, and personal problems: Small describes "her furious, silent withdrawals" that "could last for days, even weeks at a time"); and he suffered from multiple illnesses, including a sinus condition, which his father, a radiologist, treated himself, with (you got it) radiation. The end result of that? At the age of 11, Small developed a cyst on his neck, which wasn't removed until three and a half years later, and which of course was cancerous.

That's right: his dad gave him cancer.

Why don't I have much to say? Well, other than saying that you should read this book (which I am indeed saying), I just don't WANT to talk about it. There are a few topics I just don't like to explore. Kids suffering is one of them. Health problems of any kind and the scariness of various health procedures is another. And the graphic novel format of this story? Not making it any easier to take, really. Not that I think it should be easy to take. But for some reason I just never have a lot to say about graphic novels of the nonfiction type. I always find them interesting; they just never stand out as my most memorable reads, even when they are very memorable. Maybe the pictures make them too REAL, and not enough like books? I don't know. Evidently I'm just too much of a text girl, and that's that.***

*I know, it doesn't happen very often, so try not to fall over in shock.

**He often collaborates with his wife, children's author Sarah Stewart, as he did on the wonderful picture book The Library.

***Goodness, evidently I had more to say than I thought about this one.