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March 2010

I need to remember to read this when I'm retired and have months to kill.

There are detailed biographies, and there are detailed biographies, and then there is Jenny Uglow's biography Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories.

Gaskell I really love Elizabeth Gaskell. (And reading her books too--not just watching the BBC versions of North and South and Cranford, although that's how my interest was piqued.) And a friend of mine is a very big fan of Jenny Uglow's writing. So I thought this would be a very happy marriage of interesting subject and recommended writer.

But I just can't do it. I made it all the way to page 27, and I have to admit that I am not going to get any further (for now) and take it back to the library. In all fairness, twenty-seven pages of this biography are equal to at least fifty pages in a less strenuously researched one. Consider:

"The whole 'Holland clan,' as their friends called them, played a part in Elizabeth's early years. Her uncle Peter Holland, an irascible, humorous man, who limped from a leg injured in a fall from a gig, was the local doctor. He lived in Church House at the other end of town and when Elizabeth was small, she travelled in his dog-cart on his rounds in the country practice--much as George Eliot, nine years younger, was to travel with her land-agent father. His practice flourished, and his apprentices (like those of Mr. Gibson in Wives and Daughters) lodged in Church House with his large family. His first wife, Mary Willetts, who died in 1803, was a niece of Josiah Wedgwood, and Peter, linked to the wider Unitarian network, was an influential figure, more involved with political and mercantile life than the term 'local doctor' implies." (p. 16.)

There is a lot going on in that paragraph. I can find no faults with Uglow's research or writing--both are very skillfully done--but I simply do not have the time right now to finish a biography in which every page is that dense, and there are more than 600 said pages. So, like I said: someday, when I am retired, and have the weeks and months to give this book that it deserves, I'll be back for it.

A unique picture book.

The other day I read about a book of photographs published by the author Jeff Bridges, titled simply Pictures.* I am a sucker for photography books, and I have always thought Jeff Bridges was a smokin' hottie, so I checked the book out from the library.

Bridges I was not disappointed. Evidently Bridges has a habit of putting together small books of photographs from the films on which he works, and giving them out to fellow cast and crew members as gifts when the production concludes. As a result, many of the photographs in this book offer a real "behind the scenes" look at the magic that is movie-making. Shots of actors and actresses include all the microphones, booms, dollies, ladders, and other pieces of movie detritus along the sides of sets that movie watchers never see. Because Bridges uses something called a Widelux camera (you'll just have to get this book for the explanation of how it works--as is typical with me and technical information, I just skimmed it to get the basic idea of how the camera uses a slower exposure time to capture a broader panoramic view of the subject) his frames include all sorts of wonderful extraneous sights.

It's a big old coffee table book, so you get to enjoy the photographs in oversized glory. I enjoyed it for its broader take on the film world, for Bridges's explanatory notes, and for the reminder that I really, really need to watch The Fabulous Baker Boys one of these days. In all, I haven't been so charmed by a photography book by a movie star since Leonard Nimoy's title The Full Body Project, which featured photography of full-figured women wearing very few clothes.

*Unfortunately, I have forgotten where I first read about this book, because my memory is just laughably bad.

Menage reminder.

Not much to report today, other than a reminder that our next Book Menage, in which we will read Tony Horwitz's Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before and Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country, starts next Monday, April 5. Is everyone ready? We'll discuss the two books all next week!

In other reading news I picked up Shirley Jackson's horror classic We Have Always Lived in the Castle over the weekend, and am very much looking forward to it. Thanks again to everyone who submitted horror suggestions last week--I plan to refer to that list for my horror reading for a long time to come!

Icky, but definitely educational.

As March Madness gears up for another weekend, I thought now might be an appropriate time to recommend a university press book I recently indexed, titled Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity, by reporters Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry.

Scoreboard It's about the University of Washington (in Seattle) Husky football team that won the Rose Bowl in 2001, but it's less about their triumphs on the field (although there's plenty of that action too, for sports readers) than it is about the difficulties many of the football team players caused others and themselves. The two highest profile cases discussed in the book are a rape case and a burglary involving a shooting, so these are not trivial crimes being investigated.

What's REALLY fascinating (in a horribly sad way) about the book is the numerous ways in which family members, friends, team members, school administrators, sports boosters, the legal community, and especially the coaches were complicit in helping to either cover up or delay the cases so that the players being charged with very serious crimes could keep on playing. I was particularly disgusted by the local judges' (many of whom were Husky fans, naturally) lenient sentencing and the prosecuting attorneys' offices reluctance to try cases at all. (They had one suspect dead to rights with both DNA evidence AND an eyewitness and still declined to prosecute.) Another aspect that was eye-opening is how afraid those in power were to "mess up" an athlete's future with criminal charges--as if the victims of the athletes' vicious attacks and crimes hadn't had their futures messed up.

In many ways it's a hard, hard book to read, but it's also very, very educational. And it's very well-written; intensively researched and yet very quickly paced. It's a university press book, but it deserves to be in every public library around, and as a $19.95 paperback, it packs a lot of punch for its price.

Reading: The love affair continues.

Before I get to today's post, I have to be mercenary for a second and make some announcements about my own writing. (I know: obnoxious. I'll try to be quick.) If by any chance you are a librarian or library staff member, and you are at the PLA conference in Portland today, AND you are reading this blog (what are you doing here? Go to the exhibits and get some free advance reading copies already!), you should know that Nancy Pearl is signing copies of our new book, Now Read This III: A Guide to Mainstream Fiction, at the ABC-CLIO/LU booth (#1723) from 2:30 to 3:30. (Other good signings are taking place there today too.)

Also: A new book about readers' advisory to which I contributed a chapter is now available! The Readers' Advisory Handbook, edited by Jessica Moyer and Kaite Mediatore Stover, has been published by ALA Editions. My chapter is about "Nonfiction Speed Dating"--getting to know nonfiction books in a few easy steps--and if you'e so inclined, you can preview it here (my chapter starts on page 6 of the PDF file). The book also includes contributions about audio books, how to write reviews and annotations, preparing materials like bookmarks and booklists, and how to host author events. Good stuff!

Memoir And now: the love affair with reading stuff. Something you should know about me is that I continue to struggle to find ways to make a living that include reading and writing.* To some extent I have been borderline successful at this, but the thing about reading for a living is that you put in a lot of hours that aren't, for lack of a better term, billable. For example, yesterday I started a book titled Memoir: A History, by Ben Yagoda. I'm reading this book for work, as I hope to review it over at the Reader's Advisor Online blog. But the time it takes me to read the book is time that I can't really bill to anyone. So sometimes I do feel I should stop mucking about, and go back and get a real hourly job already. But then...something happens. I've only read the first chapter of the book so far, and it was wonderful. I took notes, and it felt so good to be learning and doing something that wasn't (to me, anyway) pointless. And it was satisfying because I know something about memoir and many of the landmark titles Yagoda mentions (and everyone sometimes likes to know they know what they should know). So I decided, what the hell. Even if I have to put in ten unpaid hours for every paid one, I am going to find a way to make this life work.

The feeling was compounded when I walked to the library and home yesterday, and picked up a book I had requested, titled Pictures, by Jeff Bridges (yes, the actor). It was big and beautiful and I was so excited it came in that halfway home, when I had a long block to walk, I took it out of my bag and looked at the pictures while I walked. I hadn't done that for ages, and it felt really good. Just for today, if you can--rekindle your love affair with reading. Take a book outside at lunch. Take a small book with you wherever you have to wait in line. Ignore a household duty to read an extra chapter. You'll feel better for it, I promise.

*And by "making a living," I don't mean anything crazy like getting rich or even borderline affluent. I mean being able to buy my own health insurance for me and Mr. CR (and have some cash left over for food), which I couldn't do at this point. It's so sad that that's the real yardstick for success in this country. Greatest country in the world!

Horror suggestions needed.

Just a quickie today, as I only have a question. I have been feeling in the mood to read a good horror book, but don't read horror often, and need some suggestions. Does anyone want to make a recommendation? I'm thinking something short-ish (there's a shocker), and creepy without being too gory. Thanks in advance!

And please, no Stephen King titles. I like King okay but I still haven't forgiven him for The Tommyknockers.

Magazine madness.

I was too restless to read this weekend, so imagine my disappointment when not much was on TV other than "March Madness"--the beginning of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

I have always been a bit stymied by the popularity of this tournament. I never knew that many people watched or cared about college basketball; I don't mind watching the last minute or so of close games, but other than that, who cares? Then Mr. CR explained that lots of people have lots of money riding on the tournament in lots of ways, and that made it more clear.

Anyway, Mr. CR IS a fan, so that's what was on our TV. To block it out I turned to a different sort of reading than I normally do: magazines! I went crazy with them, because they're nice to read if you just want to read a bit here and there. Mr. CR had just been to the library, so he had Kiplinger's and Wired sitting around, and my sister bought us a subscription to New York magazine, and we had a pile of Economists recycled from the same sister. Throw in the Sunday paper and I was pretty much set.

So which did I enjoy the most? Well, I inhale the New York Magazines the day they come (I read them literally cover to cover, even all the profiles of New York City people, although I have no idea who they are), so they weren't really part of the mix.* I do enjoy Kiplinger's, because you can find some interesting financial tips and tidbits, although most of it is over my head (Mr. CR tries on a weekly basis to explain the difference between ETFs and mutual funds to me, and I just can't get it). But Wired magazine I can only glance at, as its focus on technology, gadgets, and how great both of those things are making our modern lives makes me a little bit depressed. And then there's The Economist. I like this magazine, but you can only read about 1/90th of it before you start to poop out (it's unbelievably packed with articles). All in all, though, all of these magazines made for kind of eclectic reading and thinking. I'd recommend taking an all-magazine weekend sometime.

*I also like looking at the real estate ads and fantasizing about the million-dollar, one-bedroom lofts available.

What do you suppose I like about it?

I often think the phrase "what do you suppose I like about it?"* when I finish a book which I enjoyed, but didn't expect to. I had this thought last week when I blew through Lisa Scottoline's collection of short newspaper columns titled Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog. Let's run down the case for why I shouldn't have liked this book:

Dog 1. Scottoline's target audience is probably at least a decade older than I am, and can likely chuckle along with her stories about idiot ex-husbands (she calls them Thing One and Thing Two), grown children, and midlife womanly issues;**

2. She likes dogs. I do not.

3. She's perky. I am not.

So, you may be thinking, why did I pick this book up? Well, friends and neighbors, the title charmed me. And once I started reading it, I got sucked in by Scottoline's admittedly snappy writing*** and three-page chapters. I'll admit I was completely amused by her essay "Body Parts," in which she explains that while men are busy trying not to check out women's chests, women are busy trying not to obviously check out ring fingers. She describes one exchange where she was having a conversation with a charming man and they were both desperately trying not to look where they wanted to look. And this is how that ended:

"Then he kept talking and being more charming and getting handsomer by the minute, and I kept wondering, is he married or not? I kept waiting for the right moment to sneak a peek at his ring finger, but I knew he would see my eyes look down because he was staring so fixedly into my pupils, because he wasn't allowed to sneak a peek at my chest. I knew I wasn't supposed to reduce him to a finger anymore than he was supposed to reduce me to a chest, and for a time, we were almost in danger of getting to know one another...

He turned away first, and I got my answer. Married. So I wasn't interested.

Then he got his answer. 34A. So he wasn't interested." (p. 6.)

Sure, it's cliche. It's also kinda funny. The whole book is that way, and I'm not ashamed to say I read it all.

*I found this phrase in the Jean Kerr book Please Don't Eat the Daisies, in which an illustration of Jean and her husband staring at a monstrosity of a house is captioned, "What do you suppose we like about it?"

**At one point Scottoline describes her experiences with menopause and hot flashes, and how they make her feel enjoyably tingly and warm. Now, this is where I have to draw the line at good-natured acceptance of womanly life changes. For various and sundry health reasons we are not going to go into here, I have experienced temporary and premature menopause, and hot flashes are NOT ENJOYABLE. They are horrible and they wake you up about twelve times a night and every middle-aged woman who is cranky deserves to be so.

***Scottoline is better known as a bestselling mystery author, so she knows how to move her prose along.

This man loves biographies.

The other day I was charmed when I visited RickLibrarian's blog site* and found that he had devoted an entire post to the subject of picture sections in biographies. I was enthralled because pictures are sometimes my favorite parts of biographies; no matter what, I'll always flip to the picture section and read all of the captions carefully before reading the book.

Rick is a librarian and the author of the fabulous nonfiction readers' guide Real Lives Revealed: A Guide to Reading Interests in Biography, and he has posted many times before about various topics in biography. I love his attention to the detail and nuances of biographical writing; this is the sort of in-depth studies librarians should be doing of all types of nonfiction, although I know that no one has the time anymore for that sort of thing. (And if you work in a library, you're mainly just too busy trying to keep the printers unjammed, unsavory characters from following children into bathrooms, and explaining to patrons why you are not, in fact, really qualified to do their taxes for them for free.)

Have a good weekend, all, and happy spring.

*I was further charmed this morning when I visited his site and found a positive review for Nancy Pearl's and my new reference volume Now Read This III. Thanks, Rick!

A tale of two fictions.

Over the past week I've been trying to match the nonfiction I'm reading, book for book, with fiction. It's not working--the current count is three nonfiction titles, two fiction titles.

Historian The first novel I'm reading (well, listening to, as I do the dishes) is Elizabeth Kostova's title The Historian. It's a big old thick book which takes on the legend of Dracula, told from the multiple viewpoints (and during different time periods) of a historian's mentor, the historian, and his daughter. I wanted to like it, because it got a lot of good reviews, and the Lesbrarian* loved it. But I can't help it--I'm totally bored. I've been bored from the very first tape--and I'm only listening to the abridged version. (I do not believe in abridged books and would have preferred the unabridged version, but it wasn't available at my library.) It is so boring that I've actually started to make up my own dialogue for it. When the historian's love interest wakes up in the morning and discovers she has been attacked by Dracula, I supplied new dialogue: "Helen, you've been cheating on me with that mad fox Dracula, haven't you, you hussy?"**

In all fairness, I still have a tape to go; maybe that'll turn it all around. But the author simply takes too long to tell too little. Honestly, if I could tell modern fiction authors just one thing, it would be that you don't have to write a 600-page book to write a good book. Really.

Hunger The other fiction I've been reading is Suzanne Collins's YA novel The Hunger Games, which I loved. I had to summarize it for another project last week, and here's how I did so: "It’s set in a (maybe not too distant?) dystopian future, in which the ruling powers of Panem, ensconced carefully in their Capitol, keep the rest of the population under control by demanding 'tributes' from different regions of the country to compete to the death in the annual Hunger Games. The tributes are, of course, people’s children–every child between the age of 12 and 18 has their name entered in a drawing, and each region of Panem has to send a male and female tribute to the games. But when Katniss Everdeen’s younger sister is chosen, she does the unthinkable–and volunteers to enter the Games in her place."

I loved this book, and was happy to pass it along to Mr. CR, who blows through fantasy and science fiction at an alarming rate (and is thus difficult to keep fully supplied), and he also enjoyed it. In addition to liking the action part of the novel (which is rare enough for me; I usually prefer character-driven fiction to story-driven fiction), I loved the love triangle--both of Katniss's love interests are viable characters (unlike in Stephenie Meyers's Twilight books, which purport to feature a love triangle, but don't). And the best part? It's a very readable 374 YA pages. That's the way to do it!

*This post is dedicated to the Lesbrarian, who wanted me to read The Historian. Our tastes continue to be nearly exactly opposite! It's a wonder of nature, I tell you.

**Also, just once? I'd love to read a Dracula book where Dracula has a sense of humor. Really. I think you can be both evil and hilarious. In fact, I think a funny Dracula would be even more terrifying, in a weird sort of way.

WANTED: A few good bloggers.

So is anyone out there going to the Public Library Association conference next week in Portland, Oregon?

If you are, I have a great offer for you. Over at the Reader's Advisor Online blog we just put out a call for guest bloggers to email their impressions of the conference sessions they attend to us, which we will then post, with your byline. As an added bonus, Libraries Unlimited has offered a free book of the blogger's choice to anyone who has a conference report published. It's not a bad deal--blog posts are best when they're brief, after all, so if you do summarize a session for us and tell us what you thought about it, you get a free book for writing something that shouldn't take too long.

We're most interested in the sessions that have to do with reading, books, authors, and RA (all those programs were listed at RAO a few weeks ago), but we'll consider publishing a report of any session you attend. And please note--you do not have to be a librarian, a Library Journal Mover and Shaker, or other big name in the field. We're democratic at the Reader's Advisor Online, and we like to hear from everyone.

Have questions? Want to participate? Pretty please? Just comment below or email me at [email protected]. Thanks! (Oh--and if you know anyone who's attending, please pass on this announcement--the more the merrier!)

Christ, I hate technology.*

Wedlock Last night I had a big long post going about Wendy Moore's historical biography titled Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore. You'll just have to take my word that the post was one I was really proud of: I summarized the book masterfully and threw in the perfect amount of witticisms.** But then I went to save it and either my Internet blipped or something happened in TypePad, because all of a sudden I got kicked out of the program. Gone! All gone! And, of course, although the "back" Internet button works just fine when your boss wants to see the last twenty web pages you've looked at at work, it's no good when trying to recover blog posts--they just disappear. The skinny of the story is that I am tired and mad at the blog this morning, and so will simply dump my main thoughts about this book out there in list form.

1. I really enjoyed this book, which is about Mary Eleanor Bowes, a coal heiress in eighteenth-century Britain, who first married a title- and land-rich but cash-poor Earl (of Strathmore), endured nine years of an unhappy marriage and had five children before he died, and then was snookered into marrying a dastardly bounder named Andrew Robinson Stoney. How she was snookered is unbelievable, so I won't spoil the surprise.

2. The poor woman then spent the next decade+ of her life being knocked around and having her money spent by Stoney, before she finally had enough and tried to get a divorce. Divorce courts in the eighteenth century were not kind to women. Eventually the only people who were any help to her were her servants, many of whom went unpaid and incurred the wrath of her violent husband themselves.

3. This book needs pictures, although it ticks along at a nice pace, which historical biography sometimes struggles with (often being too detailed for my taste).

4. Let's just face it: women have never had it easy (even the rich ones).

So there you have it. Read this book, and save your work frequently when working online. That's my little public service announcement for the day.

*The irony of saying this on a blog is not lost on me.

**Not really. But it was a post and it was done, which to me constitutes the perfect post.

How do I get this guy's life?

I know, I know, I said I was off memoirs, but who can pass up a book titled Eating: A Memoir?

Eating Well, not me. The book is by a man named Jason Epstein, who is better known as the former editorial director of Random House and the man who was responsible for the (hugely successful) Vintage paperback line. He has written all about that life in a book titled Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future (which I think I read a long time ago but would like to revisit), but in this book he describes his life in terms of food he has eaten and cooked during it. Early chapters about his youth in Maine and New England include family memories and recipes for things like chicken pot pie and linguine with clams; later he on describes meals that he has cooked most recently. Along the way he provides recipes,* which are more short stories than they are lists of ingredients and instructions; it's like your mom is telling you over the phone how to make a dish she's made for years ("I made a spciy marinara in a large porcelain cocotte by softening in olive oil some chopped onion, garlic, jalapeno, and celery, then adding a large can of San Marzano tomatoes...").**

But what really fascinated me about this book was Epstein's stories regarding his early days in publishing. Consider:

"In those pre-jet days, when all but the most intrepid transatlantic travelers sailed to Europe, book publishers went first-class. Book publishing has never been a very profitable business. To make money, you went to work in a bank. Book publishing was a vocation. Without money you might go hungry. Without books you would not know who you are or where you came from or where you might be going. For me and many others, the work we did in those years was its own reward. The annual three-week scouting trip to England and the Continent by sea was a traditional perquisite. First-class passage was compensation for monastic wages. Barbara and I were going to meet the important postwar European writers. We were twenty-five and fearless." (p. 67.)

Let's examine some things in that paragraph, shall we? Somebody working for a publisher got to go anywhere first class? They got to take weeks on a ship and in Europe doing their job? They got to do this when they were twenty-five? I'm pretty sure this guy was a publishing wunderkind who worked hard, but man, reading this, I know I was born at least fifty years too late. From what I can see of the publishing world now, you still get paid monastic wages (if you get paid at all) but you don't go anywhere first class. Sigh. I'll admit that after that I didn't have the heart to finish the book, which was actually quite good (it was making me too hungry, too, so I thought it prudent to stop reading).

*His recipes are interesting, but many involve things that aren't real practical for me, like lobsters, calamari, and duck.

**This is one of Epstein's recipes. My mother's narrative recipes more often begin with this phrase: "You take some hamburger..."

A lovely fluffy weekend read.

Last weekend I blew through Freeman Hall's very breezy, very readable, often quite funny memoir Retail Hell: How I Sold My Soul to the Store. It was the nonfiction equivalent of eating a box of Russell Stover (or insert your favorite candy brand there; I'm cheap, so Russell Stover it is) chocolates. Hugely enjoyable and decadent going down, but not real good for you in the long run. But that's okay. Sometimes you need to be a pig with a box of chocolates*, and sometimes you need a good fluffy weekend read.

Retail Hall worked for many years in the handbag (dear God, don't call them purses!) department of a major department store (he refers to it throughout as The Big Fancy, but he's talking about Nordstrom**). As a new arrival and screenwriting hopeful in Los Angeles, Freeman found that he needed a day job and applied at The Big Fancy, hoping for a generous employee discount and the chance to end up in the Men's department measuring men's inseams. (Hall freely admits that as a gay man, he was drawn to the retail world by interests in both fashion and cute men.) Something goes terribly wrong and he ends up in the handbag department.

If you've ever worked retail, you'll be able to guess what ensued. Customers take advantage of return policies. Customers steal. Co-workers do anything to cut you out of a sale and commission (except for a friendly and hilarious group of saleswomen who befriend Hall and show him the handbag ropes). Management is either clueless or evil. And yet? Somewhere in the middle of it all Hall became really good at his job, and I actually found the chapters where he discussed both his most difficult and most lucrative customers to be the most fascinating.

But don't worry: he still ended with a chapter that involves fitting rooms, women's swimsuits, and massive amounts of pooh. Yes, you read that right.

So: the weekend's here. Looking for a way to spend it that would be cheaper than actually going handbag shopping? Consider picking this memoir up instead. (Hall is also the founder of the blog Retail Hell Underground, but that site kind of freaked me out--if you visit it you'll see what I mean--and I much preferred the book.)

*Come to think of it, why didn't I eat a box of chocolates WHILE reading this book? That would have been awesome.

**When I was in college I went to the Mall of America with some friends, and we visited Nordstrom because it was supposed to be so fancy. They had phones in the dressing rooms (I was in college a million years ago, before the advent of cell phones)! This farm girl was out of her league.

Evidently I'm just reading the wrong graphic novels.

Rall I read all of Ted Rall's and Pablo Callejo's graphic novel The Year of Loving Dangerously: A Graphic Memoir, and about the only lasting impression I have of it is that it left me depressed as hell.

And then I thought, every time I read graphic novels I end up depressed as hell. Consider: David Small's Stitches. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Art Spiegelman's Maus. Neil Gaiman's first episode of Sandman (Preludes and Nocturnes).* What I can't decide is, do I end up depressed because so many nonfiction graphic novels deal with somber and graphic stories, or do I end up depressed because I either don't understand the book (this is always the case with Gaiman) or because literally picturing things is too intense for me? It's a quandary.

But. Back to Rall's graphic memoir, in which he tells the story, and Callejo provides the drawing. The teaser for this story is "dumped, fired, arrested, expelled, and evicted--Ted Rall lost everything in the summer of 1984. Survival meant breaking all the rules." And that's pretty much it, really. Through no real fault of his own (and due to an unforseen medical emergency), Rall got booted out of Columbia University in the summer of 1984 and didn't have any place to stay in New York City. What he did then, basically, was put together a string of one-night stands and amorous encounters so he usually had a place to stay at night.

Which is resourceful, to say the least. But I still found it depressing. (Mr. CR didn't understand me at all when I was trying to explain my feelings. I think he was just impressed by the chutzpah of the solution.) Maybe it's because the cartoon of Rall on the cover doesn't look all that happy (although the women around him do). Maybe it's because later in that summer he had a slight STD scare, and nothing puts me off the idea of a summer of free lovin' more than the idea of an STD. But all of this is neither here nor there. As an attempt at a graphic memoir, there's nothing wrong with this book. I picked it up primarily because I find Ted Rall to be a very interesting writer, in the same camp as Matt Taibbi,** and I'll always look at anything he writes. But this one just wasn't for me.

*There are exceptions. Brian Fies's Mom's Cancer, although it was really sad, didn't actually leave me depressed, nor did Mat Johnson's Incognegro, which was just such an unbelievable story I didn't know how to feel about it.

**And like Matt Taibbi, he is completely underrated, which is wrong. If you've never heard of Rall, please do look into anything he's written.

You'll never look at shampoo the same way.

If you buy stuff (and we all do), you should read Paul Midler's book Poorly Made in China: An Insider's Account of the Tactics Behind China's Production Game.

China Midler lived and worked in China for many years (in the manufacturing city of Guangzhou) as a sort of facilitator for global companies hoping to have their products manufactured, cheaply of course, in China. Speaking the language and understanding the culture a bit more than did many of the executives he helped, who often flew in for just a few days for brief factory tours and meetings, he was perfectly placed to someday write a tell-all from both sides of the story. And so he has.

The book's not perfect. The prose is a bit clunky, and it starts a bit slow. But all in all I'd put it right up there with John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the Global Economy as one of the biggest perspective-changers I've ever read (I also listed it as a best Business Book of 2009--The Economist liked it too so I felt I was in good company). What's surprising is not learning about all the way that Chinese manufacturers cut corners and save costs to help their bottom lines (Midler works extensively with an American soap and shampoo company manufacturing in China; hence, the title of this post) but how they view their business practices, and how, eventually, people who want cheap crap (yeah, that would be everybody) won't always be in the role of being able to dictate what we want and how we want it. I wouldn't say this narrative is frightening, but it's definitely unsettling.

Libraries won't own enough copies of this one to be able to hold a book group about it, but they should. But whether or not anyone would have the heart to discuss it after reading it, I don't know. Either way: take a closer look at all your stuff, think about what you paid for it, and ask yourself if it would still be such a bargain if you'd had to buy it in a three- or four-dollar store, rather than a one-dollar store. There should be interesting days ahead.

Tuesday housekeeping.

Yes, yes, I know, eventually I should talk about some nonfiction books. I have some all read that are sitting here staring me in the face, but I am just not motivated. So I will take care of some reading housekeeping instead.

In today's news, a new issue of the Reader's Advisor News, published by Libraries Unlimited and sponsored by the Reader's Advisor Online, is available, and it's a particularly good one this time around. There's a great article for librarians about the value of floating collections, and a very practical article on creating a mobile web site for your library. Do consider checking it out; it's an email newsletter that you can also subscribe to (should you so choose).

In other news, Stacy Horn's latest book Unbelievable: Investigations Into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology Lab, is now out in paperback. Stacy Horn, you'll remember, is the author who so generously shared a lot of insight about the nonfiction book writing process with us (and whose book The Restless Sleep we read for the last Menage). Even if a book about the history of parapsychological research and the search for proof of life after death isn't your cuppa, do consider suggesting that your local library purchase a copy so others can enjoy it. Horn is everything a nonfiction author should be: independent, able to perform stringent research, the writer of thoughtful prose and complete endnotes, and whose books are often indexed. Unlike some nonfiction writers, like, say, Thomas Friedman (who I can't imagine has any use for his ill-gotten buckets of money other than stuffing hundreds into the mattresses in the many bedrooms of his 11,000-square foot home), Horn could actually use a few sales so she can keep writing new books.

I was also going to link to a hilarious interview between Jacquelyn Mitchard and Lorrie Moore, two of my least favorite women writers*, in this month's edition of the UW-Madison alumni magazine On Wisconsin, but the good old alumni association doesn't have their new issue online yet, so I can't. Sorry about that; I'll link someday when it's available. What's particularly funny is that most of Mitchard's questions are longer than Moore's answers. Gotta love an interviewer in love with the sound of her own voice. This is my favorite exchange:

 "Q: Which brings me to another question. If we write in the Common Era, as it were, are fiction writers obliged to give a nod to 9/11, as Bugs Bunny constantly referred back to World War II? (I regret the unfortunate example, but Warner Brothers cartoons were significant in my cultural anthropology.)"

A: Hmmm..."

Scintillating, ladies. And, Jacquelyn Mitchard? Stop using phrases like "cultural anthropology."

*Well, I didn't really mind Moore until I read A Gate at the Stairs, which I'm going to go out on a limb and call the most overrated novel of 2009.

Book Menage Travel Edition: It's a go!

Sunburned Okay! The votes are in, and the two books for our next Menage discussion are going to be:

1. Tony Horwitz's Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going where Captain Cook Has Gone Before;


2. Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country.

Thanks to everyone who voted, and I'll be contacting the winner of the two books (drawn from among the participants of the last Menage) a bit later. Why don't we be optimistic and plan to start the discussion on Monday, April 5? Please do invite your friends or consider posting a link to this page on your blogs--the more the merrier!

In other news this morning I'm very excited to have my article about the Best Business Books of 2009 posted at the Library Journal BookSmack! page. (The print article will appear in the March 15 edition of Library Journal.) We had a little more fun with the list this time around--the titles at the end of the article were particularly fun to write up. Please do check it out; it was a rather lively round of business books this year. Of course, most of them were about the continuing financial crisis, and so were depressing as hell, but they were interesting.

Book Menage: Travel Edition.

First off, let me apologize for the sporadic posting this week. What with one thing and another, it's just been one of those weeks. Nothing's wrong, I'm just, for lack of a better word, dull. I'm not very exciting on the best of days, so be assured when I say dull I mean DULL. But then I thought, what better way to get un-dull than to set a new Book Menage* rolling?

After we discussed a new Menage last time, many of the comments (and thank you for those) seemed to be in favor of a Travel theme, which I thought was a great idea, since I don't read a ton of travel on my own, but I often do like what I read. So here's where I need your help once more. I think our books will be:

Latitudes 1. Tony Horwitz's Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before; and either

2. Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country (which is kind of related to the above, as Cook explored Australia and this book is about Australia); or

2. Bill Bryson's I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away (which I'm only listing because I kind of want to read it).

So! If you'll kindly vote in the comments for your choice between the Bryson books (voting will be open between now and Monday), I'll announce the winners next Monday, get in touch with the reader from the last Menage who has won personal copies of the two books, and we'll be on our way!

I'm eager to start, but will about four weeks be enough? Then we could start the Monday after Easter, April 5th (although if you feel strongly about it, mention that in the comments too and we could always go with Monday April 12th instead). I can't wait!

*If anyone out there is new to Citizen Reader, our Book Menages are where we read two books and then discuss them over the course of a week in our comments. (Two books + 1 reader = a very kinky and very right book discussion.)

Langewiesche strikes again.

Here's a real shocker: I enjoyed William Langewiesche's short book Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson, about US Airways flight 1549, piloted by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, that crash-landed in the Hudson River in New York City on January 15, 2009.

Fly Now, if you know me at all, you know that I love William Langewiesche's writing beyond all reason. His writing is what I think of when I think of "well-crafted nonfiction prose." I am particularly enamored of Langewiesche because he can make highly technical information sing, and he can make any subject interesting. I promise you that I've read nothing else about the Hudson crash, and I have no real interest in the story whatsoever.

Langewiesche starts the story with the investigation of the crash, and then offers short chapters describing what happened on every step of the short flight, which took off from LaGuardia around 3:30 p.m., hit a flock of Canada Geese mere minutes after take-off, and made the emergency landing in the river a few minutes after that. He also manages to discuss the airline industry and its labor issues, as well as (and I found this the most fascinating part) the differences between Boeing and Airbus airplanes, and how Airbus has endeavored to engineer not only "crash-proof," but also, to some extent, "pilot-proof" planes (which are referred to as "fly-by-wire" planes). This is how he begins his description of the Airbus A320:

"Without doubt, it is the most audacious civil airplane since the Wright brothers' Flyer--a narrow-bodied, twin-turbofan, medium-range jet with the approximate capacities of a Boeing 737, but with extensive use of composite materials, a brilliantly minimalist flat-screen instrument panel, sidestick controls without tactile feedback, and, at the core of the design, a no-compromise, full-on digital fly-by-wire control system that radically redefines the relationships between pilots and flight." (p. 103.)

All right, I may not have picked the most exciting bit to quote, but I found it all very interesting nonetheless. The book will probably face the same criticism that Langewiesche usually faces--that it was first published as a series of magazine articles and is not as cohesive as a book, but I'm never really bothered by that. Mainly I enjoyed his writing about flight and the insight into the airline business (the author is a pilot himself, so he knows his stuff) and the fact that he got his story told in fewer than 200 pages.