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January 2010

The entirely predictable post about J.D. Salinger.

A late post today, and a short one, as I have been even lazier than usual today.

You know, I'm a little bummed about the passing of J.D. Salinger. Not just because I loved The Catcher in the Rye (which I did; I read it in college* and still have my old copy, which I earnestly highlighted on the second or third pass through so I could easily find all my favorite Holden moments), but because the man was such a puzzle. Have you ever read his novel Franny and Zooey? No kidding, along with Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, it is one of my primary secular religious texts. His stories about the Glass family are also wonders of family dynamics; I have multiple older siblings myself, and although I love them all (as Franny does, in Franny and Zooey) sometimes they can be a little over-interested (in the most kindly meant ways, of course). If I hadn't loved Holden, my love for the Glass family would have made me a Salinger fan for life anyway.

But it did always puzzle me that the man who could write so beautifully and yes, profoundly**, could also be such a jerk. It is probably not fair of me to think he's a jerk, and I haven't even read his daughter Margaret's memoir (Dream Catcher, which evidently gives some scary evidence of his jerk nature as well), but I did read Joyce Maynard's memoir about her ten-month love affair with him titled At Home in the World, and that was quite the eye-opener. I can't even remember what he did that was so jerkish, but I do remember thinking after I read it that he may not have been the kindest man.

Anyway. That's all I've got. Rest in peace, anyway, J.D. In other news, Howard Zinn (author of A People's History of the United States) died this week as well. I don't know very much about him, but I can steer you to a fabulous and recent interview he did with Bill Moyers.

*Thinking about The Catcher in the Rye makes me miss mass culture a little bit too. Remember whenever you saw the red paperback copy with its yellow title, you knew just what book it was? In fifty years, what will be the book we all, even high school and college students, will have read? The Da Vinci Code just isn't quite the same.

**I'm pulling out all the big lit crit words today.

No one should feel like this in their twenties.

My goal for the weekend: I have got to find some lighter reading material.

Last night I was looking for something new to read on my pile of library books, and my glance fell upon a slim book titled The Two Kinds of Decay. I had requested this book at some point, but I couldn't remember why I had asked for it or what it was about.

Decay Turns out it's a memoir of a young woman in her twenties, who suffered from mutliple bouts with a rare disease called chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP), which (as far as I can understand) is a disease in which the immune system attacks the healthy myelin around nerves, leading tingling and numbness of the extremities, and eventually difficulty breathing.

The author, Sarah Manguso, is also a poet, and that sensibility can be seen easily throughout her memoir, which is comprised of short chapters of short paragraphs, all displaying a masterful use of language. What's disturbing are the procedures she's often describing (such as apheresis, in which the plasma in her blood was replaced) with that economy of language:

"The fresh frozen plasma was thawed before it was infused. The four half-liter glass bottles of albumin were left at room temperature.

For the first twenty or thirty apheresis sessions, I lay under several blankets, which didn't help the cold but helped me think at least I was trying.

The temperature in blood vessels is warmer than room temperature, of course, by about thirty degrees Fahrenheit. I was very clowly infused with several liters of fluid that was thirty degrees colder than the rest of my body." (p. 39.)

And that's one of the less scary descriptions; it only gets worse from there. This is an unsettling book, and I won't tell you how it ends or what happens (although, mirroring my thought when reading the above of, "Christ, they can't warm the albumin up a bit first?", they do eventually address that issue). But it's quite different from anything else you'll read, and I would recommend it. I must say that I for one am impressed at Manguso's lack of hysteria, considering that she is a woman who knows a little something about idiot doctors and half-ass nurses.

But the fact remains: I need to find something lighter going into the weekend.

The problems with "more for less."

I have been reading Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture,* by Ellen Ruppel Shell, for a hundred years.

Cheap Okay, not really. But it was starting to feel like it. Make no mistake: that's not because it was a bad book. It's because it was a really good book. It was everything nonfiction should be: interesting, detailed, well-researched, and thorough. It was also as depressing as hell.

Shell describes the American (and to some extent, world) love affair with "cheap," and how our identification with consumer culture, rather than working class or production culture, is leading to a breakdown in many of our social and business systems. She does so systematically, discussing the history of discount stores and pricing in America (starting way before Wal-Mart), and she does so convincingly, examining all aspects of the "cheap" worldview such as pricing strategies and global trade imbalances. She covers a variety of retailers and products, from IKEA to our food supply. Really, it's an incredible book.

She's also upfront about how much we all enjoy bargains,** and how that might have to change if we really want to improve working conditions and wages and lifestyles worldwide. Honestly? There's so many and interesting and sad things to quote in this book, I wouldn't even know where to start. Oh, wait, I did stick in a couple of bookmarks; heres one paragraph I found interesting, from a labor scholar Shell interviewed:

"'Corporate giants have become our heroes,' he continued. 'We are so focused on the dream of wealth that we identify with billionaires, with whom we have nothing in common. Where fifty years ago we had labor identity that pit workers against management, today we have a system that pits worker against worker. And that includes workers in the United States against workers in the developing world.'" (p. 203.)

The book's also jam-packed with scary statistics about how much the overall price of food has dropped since 1970--and what that says about what we're eating--as well as numbers showing how real wages for the majority of Americans have mostly gone down, especially in the face of out-of-control health care costs.

It's a sobering book. Make some time to read it, and then read it. I think it will make you wonder just a bit about where bargain prices come from and how much they actually cost us.

*Please do click on this link, and read the review of this book listed there from The Washington Post. Now THAT is a review--and is right on. Although I liked this book, it did have its shortcomings. Reading that review highlights how my little blurbs here are not really "reviews" but are instead light "opinion pieces."

**I recognize this. The other day I was excited to find pork chops on sale for 2 for $2. I love pork chops, so I snapped some up, but when I think about is that even possible? And this coming from a person who will not shop at Wal-Mart and mostly tries to avoid shopping at all. So the desire for cheap really is in all of us.

Go find a reader to hug.

In the next few days a friend of mine is leaving town. This is a good thing for him, as he is starting something afresh. I am happy for him. But I am also bummed, because, in addition to being a very nice guy, he is also a reader. It's always been a pleasure for me and Mr. CR to go out with him, because he reads nonfiction (for me) and science fiction and fantasy (for Mr. CR). He also worked in a bookstore, so we got to hear all the trends the bookstore workers wished would die. ("We all thought this Twilight thing would be over by now, but it just keeps going on!")

So: my only suggestion for today is that you appreciate and cultivate your reader friends. They're becoming increasingly rare, but when you find one, never let them go. And if you see any of your reader friends today, give them a hug. Then ask them to rip into James Patterson or Thomas Friedman with you.

And, a small aside to my friend: You will be much missed. "What falls away is always. And is near. I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go." (Theodore Roethke, "Words for the Wind."*)

*I know, Kurt Vonnegut quoted it first, and better. It's still a fabo poem.

Hijacked by the TV.

I should have done more reading yesterday, but I'll admit that I was hijacked by my television for most of the evening. First, I enjoyed the Vikings loss (as only a Packers fan could) to New Orleans, and then Masterpiece Theatre ran the first part of its new production of Emma. I don't know that it will become my favorite Austen adaptation, but I already feel quite warmly toward it, as I saw an hour of it last year when I was in Great Britain. If I could have stayed there four weeks to catch all four hours, I would have!

I'm also enjoying it because it's a joy to watch Jonny Lee Miller knock the part of Mr. Knightley out of the park. Jeremy Northam was a good Mr. Knightley too, but Miller's bringing a bit more humor and a very appealing down-to-earth aspect to the role. Good stuff:

His double take at 1:40 makes me laugh every time. The dialogue here with Emma sarcastically asserting that a woman with a pretty face and not much wit will be "right at the back of the queue" with men is also spectacular. Kudos to screenwriter Sandy Welch, who also wrote the fantastic BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South.

I think most PBS stations will re-run the program tonight after prime time if you missed it; otherwise, do check it out on DVD. Some people say there have been too many new Austen adaptations in recent years, but I am not one of them.

When blogging time gets in the way of reading time.

Just a short post today, as I am a few chapters away from finishing up Anne Tyler's new novel Noah's Compass, and if I skip doing much blog-writing today, I will have the time to do that. Welcome to my selfish nature.

Compass I will say this, by way of review: I'm enjoying it. I think I always prefer Tyler's novels when her protagonist is a man, and in this story, sixty-one-year-old Liam Pennywell is the main character. I don't think it will end up to be one of my favorite Tylers, but I must admit that I pretty much always enjoy her books. They're such a weird mix of surreal (her characters often have strange jobs, or family relationships) and utterly everyday that I can't help but find them really interesting, and this book is no exception.

I'm describing it poorly. If you like Tyler, though, by all means check out one of her latest interviews. I got a real kick out of some of her shorter answers. I can't decide if I'm jealous of the interviewer (how great would it be to meet Anne Tyler?) or if I would have been terrified to be the interviewer. A little of both, I suppose.

Have a good weekend, all. Take some time to ignore some of your household or work duties to finish up a book; it's about as decadent a good time as can be had without breaking any laws.

P.S. In other news, I just read a short post about the Kindle over at Tripp's Books Are My Only Friends blog, and it's perfect. It sums up pretty much how I feel about the Kindle, too, but with more flair. Please read it.

Classics smackdown.

Over the past few months I have taken to listening to "classics" on tape while I wash the dishes. As we don't have a dishwasher, I actually end up listening to books quite frequently.

Last year I started with Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, which I really enjoyed and which had eerie overtones considering our current financial crisis (everyone in Trollope's book was "speculating," and there's a character who's definitely Madoffesque). Then I moved it along to E.M. Forster's A Room with a View*, which I enjoyed the hell out of. I chose that one because I saw a bit of the Masterpiece Theatre production of it on PBS, and thought, oh, I'll just get the video from the library. Then I further smartened up and realized I could actually read the book, or at least listen to it. What a novel idea!

This year, however, things have stalled a bit, as I'm making my way through Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. It's interesting, but am I correct in guessing that ol' Edith didn't have much of a sense of humor? I chuckled quite a bit through the Trollope and the Forster turned out to be way more amusing than I thought it would, but any chuckling I'm doing during this one is because her main character, Newland Archer, is such a dud (and also because I keep picturing Daniel Day-Lewis in the role, from the 1993 movie, and it makes me giggle).

Now, I am predisposed to liking British authors, and thinking they're a bit more humorous than most. Is that true, do you think? Are British classics funnier than American ones? If anyone has an American "classics" author they think is rather lighthearted, please do let me know.* I'll need a new book tape soon.

*It also has my vote for some of the best character names ever: Lucy Honeychurch and Cecil Vyse.

**I hate to rain on any parades but please don't suggest Mark Twain. I have never understood the appeal of Mark Twain's humor.

I hate people with multiple skills.

Take a book like David Watts's The Orange Wire Problem and Other Tales from the Doctor's Office. Watts is a practicing doctor, and the stories in this essay collection all come from his experiences working as a doctor. To which I say, what? It isn't enough that you have the skills and drive to be a doctor, you get to be a good writer, too? Leave something for the rest of us, would you, pal?

Orange I don't often read books about medicine, with the exception of medical thrillers by Robin Cook, which I used to eat up with a spoon (today's fun trivia: Rent the movie "Coma," based on Cook's first book, if you want to see Tom Selleck in a very early movie role). This is for a very good reason. Even before I had a not-fun surgery a couple of years back, the medical establishment gave me the heebies. It may be very wrong of me, but you know the way most people hate lawyers? That's the way I hate doctors. I recognize they're necessary but for the most part I never want to talk to one ever again. And nurses? Don't even get me started on nurses. Especially the evil ones that never call you back when they say they're going to.*

So reading this book was an education. For one thing, the essays are written in a rather dreamy, poetic style, with few quotation marks and (what seems to be) a thoughtful doctor's take on interactions with his patients. But the essay that most stands out in my mind is the one in which he describes his own experience as a patient, while undergoing a colonoscopy, titled "The Soft Animal of the Body." In the essay, he describes how he chooses no anesthetic (being a control freak), has chosen a doctor friend of his with years of experience to do the procedure, and how during the procedure, he suggests that the doctor turn him onto his back. This is what Watts normally does for his patients, as it helps minimize the pressure of the scope against the bowel walls. His dcotor responds only that it's okay. Meanwhile the nurse is relating the information that Watts's pulse rate is fluctuating alarmingly, and then you go to this:

"Time to stop, I said, as if from nowhere in particular. The words just popped out and surprised especially me. If I had had time or inclination I would have tried to imagine where that voice had come from.

No response.

George, I said.


And while I was figuring out what to say, the voice took over: PULL IT OUT.

There was a delay, then a soft, Yeah..."

And, later, as Watts was thinking about the procedure in the recovery room:

"I was thinking how in this situation, that of the first sustained low heart rate, I would have been out of that colon in a flash. A different appreciation of risk? A difference of style, I told myself.

Then I wondered: could it be that my style is determined by what the soft animal of my body knows about itself, knows about what it can take and cannot? And what it fears? I was astonished to learn that, despite my comfort with the whole idea of colonoscopy, my body had a different take on the process." (pp. 97-98.)

That really hit me, for some reason. I was interested that even when a doctor is telling a doctor to stop, they don't always listen as fast as they should. And it made me feel better about the soft animal of my body. Read this book. And next time you have to go to the doctor, I will hope you find a doctor who is respectful of the soft animal of your body, too.

*There are exceptions to prove the rule. I have been lucky enough to come across a few stellar doctors and nurse practitioners, and I'll say this: you appreciate them all the more after you deal with any of their multitude of lackluster colleagues.

The Poetry Project 2010

One of my reading resolutions (I've given up making any real ones, like eating healthier or being a nicer person) for 2010 was to try and find and read more poetry. Poetry is often considered part of the Nonfiction Universe, after all, so I feel like I should at least try to read it sometimes. I have found it hard to read and enjoy poetry in the past for several reasons:

1. I don't know anything about poetry; 2. I don't understand most poetry even when I do stumble across it, and 3. I like for people just to say what they mean, damn it.

But there is no denying I have found some joy in poetry. Although I loved Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-5, one of the things I remember most about it was not written by Vonnegut, but rather by the poet Theodore Roethke, and it is one of the lines from a poem: "I learn by going where I have to go." Likewise, I have never found a string of words more beautiful than the lines from Aeschylus that Robert F. Kennedy* spoke in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., and which are carved on Kennedy's tomb in Arlington National Cemetery:

"In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."**

I have attempted poetry before, but it never took. So what I am going to do this year is try to find and enjoy some poetry the way I always do: without putting pressure on myself to understand it. To stop reading poetry I'm not enjoying at all. To read snippets of poetry, and enjoy the cadence of words and thoughts, even if I don't make it through the whole poem or book. And I'll post snippets that I like here.

Koethe So, to kick things off, a snippet from a poetry collection titled Ninety-Fifth Street, by John Koethe, which I really only picked up because I liked the cover. Evidently Koethe is the first Poet Laureate of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so consider this post a nod to my state pride, as well. On Wisconsin! The snippet below is from a poem titled "Clouds," and I love it because it explains exactly why I love travel, even though I am not good at the mechanics of travel:

"I love the insulation of strange cities;
Living in your head, the routines of home
Becoming more and more remote,
Alone and floating through the streets
As through the sky, anonymous and languageless"

*I am conflicted in my feelings for Robert J. Kennedy, but the man could really use poetry.

**We owe translator Edith Hamilton for the beauty of this line as well.

Up for another Book Menage?

I'm in the middle of a few books right now, so as I was reading this morning, I thought, hm, what should I post about today? And then I got thinking about having another Book Menage.

I can illustrate exactly how that came about: I'm reading a book called Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, which I am finding interesting. So this morning I looked at it, and thought, "it's good, but it's not rocking my world like John Bowe's Nobodies did." Then of course I started thinking about the Book Menage* where we discussed Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the Global Economy.** Which got me thinking about the Menage, and how I often suggest books I've already read and loved and want to re-read. But this time around, I thought, I don't particularly have any books or subjects which I need to suggest. That's new.

Which throws the gates open: Do you have any subjects or titles you'd like to tackle for our next Menage, which we could set up within the next month or so? Let me know in the comments, and we'll see what we can put together.

In other news, my friend Sarah Nagle has had a spectacular article on collection development (which is really more interesting than it sounds--it's the job whereby librarians and library staff build and maintain their collections of books) in the latest issue of RA News. Do check it out, and nicely done, Sarah!

*For any readers new to Citizen Reader, our Book Menages are where we pick two books, usually nonfiction but sometimes one nonfiction and one fiction, and discuss them singly and in relation to each other in the blog comments over the course of a week. We call it the Menage because it's 1 reader + 2 books; get it? Kinky!

**Which, frankly, I think was my choice for Best Book of the Decade. In terms of sheer new thoughts and insight gained, nothing in the past few years has hit me as hard or stayed with me as long as that book has.

Dude, if you think zoos are okay, you've lost most of your credibility with me.

After all my complaining about it, I still ended up reading a lot of Jonathan Safran Foer's nonfiction manifesto Eating Animals.

It really wasn't for me. First off, Foer explains one of the larger reasons why he decided to investigate America's food supply (and factory farming specifically), as:

Eating "Unexpected impulses struck when I found out I was going to be a father. I began tidying up the house, replacing long-dead lightbulbs, wiping windows, and filing papers. I had my glasses adjusted, bought a dozen pairs of white socks, installed a roof rack on top of the car and a 'dog/cargo divider' in the back, had my first physical in half a decade...and decided to write a book about eating animals..."

And, a few pages later:

"As my son began life and I began this book, it seemed that almost everything he did revolved around eating. He was nursing, or sleeping after nursing, or getting cranky before nursing, or getting rid of the milk he had nursed. As I finish this book, he is able to carry on quite sophisticated conversations, and increasingly the food he eats is digested together with stories we tell. Feeding my chld is not like feeding myself: it matters more." (p. 11.)

Brother. Yes, I know your life changes completely when you have children, blah blah blah, but it's never been my favorite reason for authors to write their books. For one thing it always seems like kind of a prick move to me--maybe you could think about the state of the world before it becomes important to you because you now have children to worry about? Maybe even if you don't have kids you should be thinking about some of these things? Anyway. That's a small, very personal quibble.

It's not that I disagree with Foer, really. I don't think factory farming is right either. I didn't enjoy reading the chapter about how the chicken you buy in the supermarket is "water-cooled" after it is processed, which means it cools in what industry insiders refer to as its own "fecal soup." It's just that most of his arguments fall flat with me. I was particularly annoyed when he talked about taking his son to zoos and thinking about animals--as I think zoos are maybe as cruel to animals as factory farming is (except zoo animals aren't put out of their misery by premature deaths, but are rather kept alive to be gawked at in their tiny little cages).

It's also telling to me that my favorite part of the book was the part not actually written by Foer, but rather by a person who works in the chicken industry (whom Foer quotes):

"It's a different world from the one I grew up in. The price of food hasn't increased in the past thirty years. In relation to all other expenses, the price of protein stayed put...

People have no idea where food comes from anymore. It's not synthetic, it's not created in a lab, it actually has to be grown. What I hate is when consumers act as if farmers want these things, when it's consumers who tell farmers what to grow. They've wanted cheap food. We've grown it. If they want cage-free eggs, they have to pay a lot more money for them. Period." (p. 96.)

I want to read a book written by THAT guy. He seems to have a better grip on reality than Foer.

In all? There's at least two books out there that are MUCH better than this one: Mark Bittman's Food Matters, and Catherine Friend's The Compassionate Carnivore. I would highly suggest reading either one (or both!) of those books instead.

Back away from the nonfiction, James Patterson.

Normally I'm content to live and let live where author James Patterson is concerned. Sure, I think he's an unbelievable hack and all that is wrong with the state of American fiction and consumers' current reading habits. But, as he typically writes (or contracts with others to write) thrillers, which are not my cup of tea, I don't tend to think much about him at all. I don't, for example, hate him with the heat of a thousand white-hot suns, the way I hate Thomas Friedman. Thomas Friedman is special for me that way.

Tut But now the man is starting to come out with nonfiction titles, which is where I'm going to have to draw the line. His first title was a "medical thriller" titled Against Medical Advice (co-authored with Hal Friedman), which I glanced at but didn't read. I did note, however, that it was at least superficially a book that could pass for adult reading--more than twenty words on a page, chapters that were sometimes longer than 2 or 3 pages, and at least a half-hearted attempt at putting together a cohesive medical tale. But now? Now he's come out with something called The Murder of King Tut: The Plot to Kill the Child King--A Nonfiction Thriller (it's co-authored by Martin Dugard). I thought, well, I'm interested in Egypt. I thought, I should really keep up with what Patterson is doing, because readers do seem to love him. So I checked it out.

And, much like Jodi Picoult, I find that nobody can illustrate quite how bad James Patterson is better than Patterson himself. I submit, from the second chapter:

"'This is James Patterson calling. Is Michael around? I have a mystery story to tell him.'

As most people would expect, I love a good mystery, and I thought I might have unearthed a real doozy to write about, which was why I had put in a call to my editor at Little, Brown, Michael Pietsch, who is also the publisher.

As I waited for Michael to come on the line--he usually takes my calls, night or day*--I looked around my second-floor office. Am I completely mad? I wondered.

The last thing I needed right now was another writing project. I already had a new Alex Cross novel on the fires, and a Women's Murder Club brewing, and a Maximum Ride to finish. In fact, there were twenty-four manuscripts--none of them yet completed--laid out on the expansive desk surface that occupies most of my office..."

The mystery that Patterson was calling Pietsch about was a book about the life and supposed murder of King Tut, with alternating chapters from 1300s BC, and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries  when Howard Carter was excavating Tut's tomb. Even a cursory glance at his book indicates something is slightly off. If your third-grader brought this book home, you would look it over and say, "Honey, shouldn't you be reading something harder than this by now? Where are my tax dollars going?" It literally looks like an easy reader for kids just out of picture books.

I should have put in the half hour it would have taken to read the whole thing so I could critique it properly, but I'm now getting to an age where I am too protective of each of my half-hours. Fie on you, Patterson, and your book assembly line.

*I'll bet he takes your calls, since I'm assuming you've made him massively rich and he is, in fact, probably contractually obligated to kiss your ass at all times.

The infinite pleasures of the finite.

It's really sad that my soul-easing moments now seem to be happening in corporate behemoth stores, but hey, that's the state of our culture.

Over the past weekend Mr. CR and I visited our "local" Barnes and Noble; he had a gift card and I just had a jones to look at books.* Once we got inside we went our separate ways, as per usual, with Mr. CR peeling off for science fiction, fantasy, and magazines, and me pausing briefly at the new nonfiction tables before heading directly upstairs to the sale and used book section. So there I stood, looking over their selection of used books (I happened to be in the fiction and literature section, where they actually had some neat old used books and biographies of literary types). And as I was quite happily looking the shelves over, the Elvis Presley song "Can't Help Falling in Love" came on the radio, and I had a little moment of pure happiness.**

Yes, the Internet has everything. You need never look away from the Internet again and there will always be something to look at. But there is such pleasure in looking at a finite shelf of books; I had almost forgotten it. When you look at a shelf of books, particularly when it's nonfiction, it gives you the feeling that you might actually be able to read and know something about a subject. You read a book, you read a shelf of books, you might actually get somewhere. The Internet? You've never going to hit the end of that shelf, and you're going to feel like you're never going to know anything about everything, particularly as lots of other people out there know way more about everything you're interested in than you ever will.

So yes, I had a little moment of bliss in the belly of the corporate beast. That'll happen.

*You know, different books than the ones piled on our shelves and stacked on our tables and floor.

**In other "doing my soul good" news, my email interview with author Stacy Horn was posted this morning over at the Reader's Advisor Online blog; part 2 will run tomorrow. Please do check it out--not just because I love Stacy Horn and think you should too, but because she's got some really interesting things to say about books and author promotions.

Substance over style.

You may know this already, but I am constitutionally unable to pass up any book about New York City without reading it, even when it turns out I'm not that crazy about it. I am addicted to books on the subject.

Roberts The latest book I picked up to feed my addiction was Sam Roberts's Only in New York: An Exploration of the World's Most Fascinating, Frustrating, and Irrepressible City. It's a compilation of podcasts, in written form, that Roberts (who is the Urban Affairs correspondent for The New York Times) originally published on that newspaper's website.

There's nothing wrong with Roberts's writing, and his observations and research about New York City seems comprehensively done. It's just that these pieces don't, for lack of a better term, sparkle. Although I read the whole thing, this was not my favorite book about the city. Consider a piece on Manhattan's cemeteries:

"It's tough enough to find a place to buy or rent if you want to live in Manhattan temporarily. It's even harder if you're planning to remain permanently. Sure, people are dying to live here. Not the other way around, though...

I was reminded of that history the other day when former mayer Ed Koch told me he wanted to be buried in Manhattan. After he dies...But Manhattan's burial grounds have run out of room." (p. 100.)

Now that's kind of interesting stuff. And the writing is fine. But yet...I'd still say there's tons of books about New York I'd offer instead of this one. Randy Kennedy's Subwayland. Helene Hanff's Letter from New York. Even Melissa Plaut's Hack: How I Stopped Worrying about What To Do With My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab gives a better sense of the city. Do consider this one if you too are addicted to tales of the city. Otherwise, give it a miss.

What'll you have?

I had a wonderful time this weekend, reading the book Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress, by Candacy A. Taylor.

Counter It's a slim but meaty book featuring interviews with waitress "lifers"--waitresses the author sought out who have made working in coffee shops and diners their life's work. In between the interviews the author offers historical and sociological tidbits about the waiting life, including chapters on tricks of the trade, regular customers, and tips. It's also beautifully illustrated, with multiple photographs.*

I enjoyed the interviews and the different women** the author spoke to, particularly as I have a bit of history with the career myself (although I was one of the part-timers just doing the job for cash that these old-timers scoff at as mere flashes in the pan). But I was particularly amused by author's history of how women came to be the staffers of choice for diners during World War II. She cites a 1941 article from The Diner magazine, which lists the reasons why women make superior diner staff:

"1. Women will work for less pay. 2. Women won't stay out late drinking and call in sick the next day. 3. Women belong around food. 4. Women will work harder than men. 5. Women are always happy. 6. Women are more efficient workers. 7. Women are more honest than men--they don't steal. 8. Women can talk and work at the same time. 9. Women clean diners better than men. 10. Women are cleaner than men. 11. The customers like women better. 12. Customers don't swear in front of women." (pg. 18.)

Now, I don't know that I agree with much of that list, but I was charmed by numbers 4,6, and 8. It took me back to my own restaurant days.

This is a great book. Although I'm just glad it was published by someone (in this case, the Cornell University Press), this is the sort of book that should be published by a mainstream trade publisher, and which should become a bestseller. If there were any justice in the world, anyway, that's the way it would be.

*Why aren't all adult nonfiction books illustrated? It would be so much more interesting.

**The frank nature of the interviews reminded me, in the best possible way, of the superlative title The Oxford Project.

Letting it all wash over.

My apologies for the continued quiet (cue crickets) here at Citizen Reader. This is a very novel situation for me; normally I am apologizing for things I've said, not for things I HAVEN'T said.

I have been back to reading, but I have not felt compelled to write about any of the reading I'm doing. That doesn't mean I'm not thinking about the blog, though. For instance, I am currently indexing a book titled In the Shadow of the Moon, by Francis French and Colin Burgess, about the space missions leading up to the moon landing. In one chapter, one of the astronauts muses about a spacewalk he took when his colleagues told him just to relax for a couple of minutes while they peformed experiments, and he used the time to observe the Earth and just let the entire experience wash over him. (How cool is that, by the way?) So, although I am not doing anything as cool as hanging out of a spacecraft in Earth orbit, I have been just letting a variety of readings and books wash over me.

This may not seem like a big distinction, but it is very different to read without formulating thoughts for "publication"*. I started this site in May 2008, and since then a lot of my reading has been enjoyed for itself, but has also been undertaken with an eye to what I thought about the reading, or how I would review it. That changes the reading experience, a little bit. I would like to ask some of the members of the dwindling field of book criticism if they feel writing about books for a living has significantly changed how they read.

So what's been washing over? Well, while still selfishly keeping most of my reactions to myself, I can nutshell the week in review:

I really enjoyed Chuck Klosterman's essay collection Eating the Dinosaur. I don't love him, love him, but I rarely find Klosterman dull, and I appreciate that. His concluding essay on Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) is a work of beauty, ruminating on technology, society, and how "not all crazy people are brilliant, but almost all brilliant people are crazy." See? You may not agree with it, but that's not a dull thought.

Ny400 A wonderful friend sent me the gorgeous illustrated history book New York 400, which is a history of the greatest city in the world. (I think it just barely edges out, in my personal list of top cities, Montreal and London.) I have been starting each morning this week by plugging in the tree lights (yes, I am resisting taking down the tree), having my fiber cereal (still not as exciting as Pop Tarts, but what's an old lady to do?) and reading this gorgeous book and looking at the pictures. Thank you, my generous benefactress (you know who you are).

While reading for indexing is not really the same as reading for fun, I would highly recommend French and Burgess's history title In the Shadow of the Moon. If you wait for the new edition being published this year by the University of Nebraska Press, you can also use its new index, created by yours truly!

I also plowed through Louise Rennison's British YA chick lit novel Are These My Basoomas I See Before Me? It's the last title in her Georgia Nicolson series, and it was worth the wait. Not only do I want to be British, I want to be a hilarious British teen like Georgia Nicolson. (I have in fact adopted one of her phrases, which makes Mr. CR nuts: when it's cold outside, I say "Brrr! Nippy noodles."

I also had the good fortune to be assigned to review the collection The Best American Magazine Writing of 2009 for Library Journal, and not to ruin the suspense of my review, but it's fantastic. The profile of David Foster Wallace (by Sam Lipsky) made me cry, and Chris Jones's feature "The Things That Carried Him," about the preparation for burial of a soldier killed in Iraq in 2007, pissed me off. (My opinion is: it's very nice that the army treats the bodies of deceased soldiers with respect, and carefully polishes the buttons on the uniforms of even the soldiers who are being cremated. But wouldn't the soldiers be better served if the higher-ups took a little more care with their bodies BEFORE they got killed? I ask you.) Any book that can elicit both of my personalities (Mr. CR's famous assessment of me is: "you have two moods: angry and weepy.") is, I think, a book worth reading.

So there you have it. Carefully unformed thoughts from a careless but highly enjoyed reading schedule. I think 2010 is going to be even more disorganized for me than last year, and I'm looking forward to it. Happy New Year to all of you!

*This is a blog, so we can't take it as seriously as things that are actually published. But I have to justify the time I spend here somehow, as it is not time when I am being an active salary-producing American citizen, so I call it a "publication" to kid myself.