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April 2010

Oooh, this is just too delicious.

Note: No new post today (Friday) as I am in the middle of a couple of books, but I just wanted to add to the below that if you have any interest whatsoever in how historians sometimes fudge their research, a great book on the subject is Peter Hoffer's Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud--American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin. It's way more scintillating than the title makes it sound.

I have never been a Stephen Ambrose fan.

Or, to put it another way, I have always felt that Stephen Ambrose is one of the most overrated authors (and a plagiarizer to boot) of the twentieth century. This has puzzled at least one of my reading friends, who sighed when she first heard my anti-Ambrose rants and said, "Oh, honestly, how can you like nonfiction and not like Stephen Ambrose?" It's very simple, really. Ambrose writes about subjects that are not at the top of my interests list, and he writes about them with a tone I don't care for : male adventure (yay!), World War II (double yay!), camaraderie under pressure* (the biggest yay of all!). And what was his defense of his plagiarism, particularly in the book The Wild Blue? Well, he just forgot to put quotes around passages that he lifted wholesale from other books.**

I also have memories of what seemed like a double standard for male and female historians from when I worked at a public library; I could never get older male readers to try Doris Kearns Goodwin ("She's a plagiarizer!") they all said, but they would happily read each new Ambrose title as it came along. (How they heard the news story about Goodwin plagiarizing, but not Ambrose, I'll never know.) Recently I was also annoyed to stumble across yet another history of World War II, titled The Pacific, and written by--you guessed it--none other than Ambrose's son Hugh Ambrose. Oh brother. Lots of authors have now profited off the perennial popularity of the "Good War," but the Ambrose family appears to be turning the profiteering into a family dynasty.

So, yes, I'll admit it: I was rather titillated to visit yesterday and find this little news snippet: "In this week’s New Yorker, writer Richard Rayner reports that the late historian Stephen Ambrose fabricated interviews with former President Eisenhower for the books that brought Ambrose to fame. The information is based on discoveries by Tim Rives, the deputy director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library."

But enough of my invective. Go read Rayner's article--it's short and very, very interesting. And it gives one even more food for thought on the nature of "truth" and nonfiction.

*I fully admit that I have never been impressed by the war platitude that every guy is just doing it for the guy next to them. That's the way everybody in war feels, so who's to tell who's right? Also, camaraderie under pressure is easy to have; solidarity is easy when everyone's in the shit. Camaraderie when there's no pressure would be a lot more impressive.

**Um, Stephen? That is the definition of plagiarism.

Taking a shot at understanding.

I really, really enjoy nonfiction graphic novels that are not memoirs. Specific enough for you?

As previously noted, a lot of graphic novel memoirs seriously bum me out; tops on this list were David Small's Stitches and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. There's something about seeing challenging if not downright horrific childhoods and young adulthoods portrayed in pictures that I very nearly can't handle.

Logicomix But history and biography graphic novels? Love 'em. Another good case in point of this phenomenon is Apostolos Doxiadis's and Christos Papdimitriou's graphic novel Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth.* Although the authors admit the book is more "based on reality" than it is pure nonfiction (they provide a very nice note in the back, explaining how and when they deviated from pure fact), I decided it didn't really bother me. The book is a rather selective biography of the life of philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell, and covers the overlap between the philosophy of logic and the science of mathematics.

Now, I'm not saying I got a lot of it. I certainly don't get the math stuff and most of the logic stuff just seems like semantic wrangling to me, but I must say that the graphic novel format, for whatever reason, makes me feel like I've got a shot at understanding some of the basics of what the authors are trying to say.** Although I most likely won't have time to follow the interest, it also somewhat motivated me to maybe someday read more about Bertrand Russell--his is one of those names I hear a lot but can never really place. (Just so you know: he was born in 1872 in Great Britain, the grandson of former Prime Minister Lord John Russell, became a mathematical logician and well-known author, later became a vocal anti-nuclear activist, and died in 1970.) So thumbs up on this one; it ranks right up there with Jim Ottaviani's historical/scientific graphic novels Fallout and Suspended in Language: Niels Bohrs's Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped.

*Can't remember where I heard about this one. Lesbrarian, did you suggest I read it? If so, thanks!

**I did learn this: I don't think you want to be married to a logician.

Reading outside the comfort zone.

If the weekend before last was all about comfort reading, this past weekend found me reading somewhat outside of my comfort area. Both books were fiction, and both were by authors I'd never read before.

Happiness I brought home Alice Munro's new story collection Too Much Happiness because I'd always wanted to read something by Munro. She's a Canadian author, and I have always wanted to be Canadian; and she's won lots of awards for her many short story collections. And I did like it, but I only finished the first four stories (of ten total). They were interesting enough, and I really liked her writing, but I just didn't want to read any more. I tried to read the fifth one, but my attention kept wandering, and eventually I realized it was because I was just done with this one. I wonder if somewhere along the way I lost my ability to enjoy short stories; I used to really love them, but now I find it very hard to finish many collections of them. This doesn't really have anything to do with liking or not liking the author; I LOVE Carol Shields (another Canadian) and I never have been able to finish her Collected Stories. I will think on this.

Ask The other novel I tried was Sam Lipsyte's The Ask, which I enjoyed in a strange sort of way and finished, but don't know that I'd suggest it to anyone else. Lipsyte's rather a darling of the lit crit crowd (they love him at the Elegant Variation blog, and also at The Believer magazine), and his writing is interesting, but I don't know that I need to read any more of his books. In this one, his main character, Milo Burke, is stuck working as an institutional development officer at a New York City private (and lower-tier) university, charged with getting donations out of people known as "the asks"--and he's not very good at it. Eventually he's fired, only to be brought back provisionally when an old friend of his dangles the prospect of a large donation in front of the school, but demands Burke's involvement. Of course, he wants something in return, but Milo's almost too busy being unemployed, trying to keep his young son delivered to various day cares, and feeling vaguely that something's going wrong in his marriage to keep on task with either "the ask" or the job the ask wants him to do.

The man does have a flair with words. Consider his paragraph describing one of Milo's and his wife's fallback day-care provider's set-up:

"Now we waited for Christine, the neighborhood babysitter. Any moment she would roar up in her minivan and I would take Bernie downstairs, stuff him inside the vehicle with the other kids Christine watched, or maybe abandoned to watch each other while she scouted fiesta-mix specials at Costco. We knew the price of Christine's criminally low price, namely that under her supervision, or lack thereof, Bernie was becoming a criminal. Child care was like everything else. You got what you paid for, and your child paid for what you could not pay for." (p. 42.)

I'm describing it poorly. As noted, it wasn't uninteresting, but it also didn't set me on fire. And is it just me, or do male "literary fiction" authors always have a real fascination with masturbation (and describing it)? Of course, now that I mention it, I can't think of another book illustrating that point, but I do remember reading other novels and thinking, wow, men and masturbation, it must mean more to them than a woman can really appreciate.*

*Well, this paragraph should lead to some interesting search results and traffic. But I couldn't not mention it.

Surely going to hell for this review.

I know. It is the height of bad taste to give a bad review to a book about grieving. So I won't call this a bad review. I will simply call it a "review of a book that wasn't for me."

Toast The book in question is Roger Rosenblatt's short memoir Making Toast: A Family Story. The story itself is insanely sad; Rosenblatt writes about the sudden death of his thirty-eight-year-old daughter Amy, who left behind not only a husband and a career as a pediatrician, but also three very young children. She died suddenly, while exercising at home, of an "anomalous right coronary artery"--in circumstances which seem doubly tragic because her children were the first ones to find her and her surgeon husband tried to revive her but couldn't. Rosenblatt and his wife Ginny moved in with their son-in-law and their grandchildren immediately, and the memoir is his account of the year after Amy's death.

It's really not a bad book. The writing is beautiful and anyone who's lost a close family member or loved one, or watched a parent struggle with the untimely death of their child, will recognize many of the family's struggles and griefs. Although it cannot, by definition, have a happy ending, it does read as a celebration of a beloved daughter's life and a testament to the power of family and relationships, even relationships that turn out to be different than everyone had planned.

But it was not a book I can heartily recommend. I am convinced that Amy Elizabeth Rosenblatt Solomon was a singular person. And perhaps a father can never really look critically on a daughter, particularly when she's died too soon. But I never really felt like I got to know her--and by that, I never got any glimpse of her that was less than perfect, less than beatified. And maybe that's the point. But I must admit that I get more out of stories in which authors explore just a bit more of their loved ones' less saintly qualities. The sadness and loss in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne, was palpable; yet I didn't feel that Dunne was a saint or that their marriage was always perfect. (In fact Didion seemed more than honest about some of their struggles.) It's been a long time since I read it, but I don't think C.S. Lewis's brief book A Grief Observed was solely about how his beloved wife Joy Gresham was perfect. In fact it rather felt like he missed her all the more because she was imperfect (although, arguably, perfect for him). Although it was published as a novel, I also never got the feeling that Norman Maclean's brother Paul was without fault in his title A River Runs Through It--a fact which only made me like Paul, and by extension, Norman, even more.

It's probably very wrong of me, but the small item that stood out most to me in this memoir was Rosenblatt's recounting of his grandchildren's nanny Ligaya's wisdom:

"Ligaya is a small, lithe woman in her early fifties. I know little of her life except that she is from the Philippines, with a daughter there and a grown son here who is a supervisor in a restaurant, and that she has a work ethic of steel and the flexibility to deal with any contingency...Ligaya altered her schedule to be with us twelve hours a day, five days a week--an indispensible gift, especially to her small charge [Rosenblatt's youngest grandson James], who giggles with delight when he hears her key in the front door. No one outside the family could have felt Amy's death more acutely. Yet what she said to Harris, and to the rest of us, was dispassionate: 'You are not the first to go through such a thing, and you are better able to handle it than most.'" (pp. 7-8.)

I think I'm going to remember that one for a long time. I'm going to remember it next time I'm in the depths of despair (and there's always a next time). I think what I really want is to read a book about this Ligaya woman.

Friday short takes.

Ah, the weekend, she's almost here. And I for one am glad.

Nothing particularly pithy today (or any day, yes, thank you, hecklers), just a few short takes on this Friday morning.

I went to look at Joseph Stiglitz's new book Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy yesterday, and it looked quite interesting. But I have to face reality in that 1. I don't have the heart to read it right now, and 2. it's well-written, but it's still pretty dense stuff and I'm not going to have the time to read it right now. So then I flipped to the back to take a wander through the index (I do this a lot; I find that doing indexing has helped me develop the skill of looking at an index and gleaning a lot of information about a book that way) when I was shocked to find that THERE WAS NO INDEX. What the hell? In a complex book about finance and economics? W. W. Norton and Co, and Mr. Stiglitz, you should be ASHAMED of yourselves. I'm no economist but I could tell you how to make one person's economy better: hire a freelance indexer, you cheap bastards.

I only got about two chapters into Ian Mortimer's book The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, and it's a bit too dense to recommend for pleasure reading, but it's a lot of fun nonetheless. I wish there were books like this for every century (and location)--Mortimer talks about every aspect of the 14th century, from costume to traveling to health to eating and drinking to the law (among many other topics), and it's all written in the form of a friendly guidebook introducing you to the culture. Super cool stuff.

Bellfield Anna Dean's Bellfield Hall: Or, the Observations of Miss Dido Kent. If you're a Jane Austen or Regency fan run, don't walk, to get this title. It has nothing to do with Austen, but is set in her time period and features witty writing somewhat similar to hers. And its heroine is named "Dido Kent." You've got to love that. At least I did.

And that's it! Enjoy the weekend, folks, life's too short not to. Or, alternatively, sometimes it feels too damn long. Either way grab a good book and tell the rest of the world to buzz off for a couple of days.

Really, Michael Pollan?

I am thoroughly disgusted with Michael Pollan's new book Food Rules: An Eater's Manual.

Rules This did not come as a complete surprise, as I have never been a huge Michael Pollan fan. I know many people who enjoyed The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I don't think it was a bad book, but (here's a surprise) it was too long for me. And In Defense of Food was one of those books that seemed redundant to me--if you were the kind of person to read In Defense of Food, I figured it was probably likely you were the type of person who least NEEDED to read In Defense of Food. (It is wrong to stereotype. But I figured most readers of that book were probably fairly well-off people, who get a charge out of going to farmers' markets and "getting to know their farmers," and who had the time and money to worry about the origins of their food.) But still, it wasn't a terrible book, and to each their own, although, for my money, I prefer books about agriculture and society by Wendell Berry, or cookbooks by Mark Bittman.

But Food Rules is nothing but a 140-page distillation of In Defense of Food (which the author himself summed up in only seven words: "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.") with a few other folksy bits thrown in. Divided into three parts (what should I eat?, what kind of food should I eat?, and how should I eat?), each "chapter" consists of a rule (in large type) and a short explanation, such as "Eat only foods that will eventually rot," followed by information like "the more processed a food is, the longer the shelf life, and the less nutritious it typically is." What's really annoying is when the rules start to resemble each other, particularly early on; on page 9 you find "avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry," and on page 17, you have "avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce." Hmm.

I have looked the book over and can't discern if any of the money from its publication is going to a charity or something, which would be the only excuse. Otherwise I am going to assume that Pollan was simply looking for a way to squeeze a few more bucks out of his fans. What really hurts me is the fact that all libraries probably had to purchase multiple copies of this little money-grab (as there is usually high demand for Pollan titles of any kind), and for each $11 copy they had to buy, they couldn't buy a different book that had something new or different or better to say. Bah!

Philosophical Wednesday.

I am in a strange mood this week. For one thing, I find that I would much rather listen this week than talk. This is no problem, as I have found that even when you work at home, you can wander out into the world in various places and overhear conversations at will. Which can be much more fun that going to the bother of engaging in your own. But it is a problem when it comes to blogging, which of course demands content. But I will exploit the blogging loophole of comments, as I have several questions for you today.

Last weekend I wasn't feeling very well, and was therefore engaging in mood and comfort reading. (It's been a very moody week. I'm still waiting for the "productive" and "cleaning" moods to wander by, but I don't think it's going to happen.) When I need comfort reading I invariably turn to Norman Maclean, Anne Tyler, Jane Austen readalikes, or J.D. Salinger, so I was re-reading Salinger's novella Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, when I found this:

"Marriage partners are to serve each other.* Elevate, help, teach, strengthen each other, but above all, serve. Raise their children honorably, lovingly, and with detachment. A child is a guest in the house, to be loved and respected--never possessed, since he belongs to God."

That is Salinger's character Seymour, writing in a diary about his forthcoming marriage, and paraphrasing from something called "Vedanta." The next part is Seymour commenting:

"How wonderful, how sane, how beautifully difficult, and therefore true."

For whatever reason, I think those are some of the most beauitful lines in literature. But my questions are twofold: What is this Vedanta? Has anyone out there ever read it?** And, secondly, how does one do anything with detachment? I have thought a lot about detachment this week and find I don't know what to think.

We'll call today Philosophical Wednesday. How's about it? Please comment. I would very much like to listen.

*I read two other books on marriage this week; more on those later, so the subject was on my mind.

**Of course I know I could look it up. I want to know if anyone has READ it, and what they can tell me about it.

Readable psychology.

I do not have children, and I have never been that interested in children (my nieces and nephews notwithstanding). And yet I enjoyed the hell out of Po Bronson's and Ashley Merryman's bestseller NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children.*

Nurture I didn't expect to like it or find it all that interesting, but it was one of those books I picked up because it was getting a lot of word-of-mouth attention, and for some reason, every book Po Bronson touches seems to become a mega-bestseller. Well, I guess I know why he's so popular. What he and Merryman have produced here is a quick-reading, interesting psychology textbook, and that's a rare beast. (Take it from someone who took a lot of credits of psychology in college.)

The premise of the book is to debunk, basically, a lot of the things we "know" about childrearing. There are chapters on how telling your child constantly that he or she is smart actually lowers their motivation (consider instead praising their effort); how the one less hour of sleep modern kids get can lead to increased rates of obesity and ADHD; why kids lie (and they all do--I LOVED this chapter); why IQ tests administered to young children don't work; and language acquisition (among many other topics). All parents should give this book a quick glance, and I think it would be even more useful for people who work with kids on a regular basis, including children's librarians.

*This is why it's a good idea to sometimes read nonfiction out of your regular subject area interests. You never know what you'll find.

Decidedly ambivalent about the Pulitzer Prize winners.

Last week they announced the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winners, and I can't say it was a list that thrilled me. But, I was not surprised, as I am often underwhelmed by the Pulitzer Prize winners. I don't know why.

I was particularly not thrilled about the selection of Liaquat Ahamed's nonfiction book Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, which I read parts of and found dry, even by business subject standards. I couldn't imagine any but the most dedicated of financial history readers really loving it, but perhaps I am wrong. Did anyone else read that one and think I'm dead wrong?

Tycoon I thought the strongest book on the list, the winner for Biography, was T.J. Stiles's The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. That's another one I only got about a quarter of the way through, but I really enjoyed that quarter, and Mr. CR opined that someday we should get the book back again when we had more time to read the whole thing. We found it a very interesting mix of history and biography, with not too much mind-numbing detail of either. I'm also happy that the fiction winner, Tinkers, was published by a small and independent press, although I'd read that book (it was nice and short) and didn't find that it did anything for me. The history winner, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, sounds educational, but the Cold War ranks right up there with World War II and the Civil War as a subject I can never summon much interest in.

Anybody else read any of these winners? Have different thoughts about them? Oh, and this morning I have a question by email from my sister (she just asked me, but I figured, why not harness the power of technology for better answers), asking if I am familiar with and/or have an opinion about Joyce Carol Oates. I don't have an opinion, as it happens. Does anyone? The only book of hers I've read is Zombie, which was a decidedly icky horror novel, but I don't know that it's representative of her usual writing. If one was going to read a couple of Oates books, where should one start?

Maybe if I'd approached it with more positive energy...

I desperately wanted to love Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

Brightsided Scratch that. Halfway through, I was hoping I could just finish Bright-Sided. This hurts me very badly to admit, because, from reading the jacket copy on this one, I REALLY wanted to love it: "Americans are a 'positive' people--cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: this is our reputation as well as our self-image. But more than a temperament, being positive is the key to getting success and prosperity. Or so we are told. In this utterly original debunking, Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the false promises of positive thinking..."

This is, or should have been, the book I was born to read.*

So I was very, very disappointed to find that, for much of it, I was just kind of bored. I found Ehrenreich's first chapter, on how she was diagnosed with breast cancer and immediately told that the best thing she could do would be to "stay positive" (and wear pink ribbons and attend breast cancer fundraising events), quite interesting. I could definitely see her point that that was a rather annoying thing always to be told, and I could certainly understand how sometimes she did just want to feel like she got a raw deal, and cancer sucked--rather than believing she got it for a purpose or it would make her a stronger person. But in subsequent chapters, about the history of positive thinkers (such as Norman Vincent Peale and Mary Baker Eddy), the business of motivational speakers and publishing, the linking of positivity, megachurches, and the belief that "God wants you to be rich," I just got sort of lost. I can't tell if it's because Ehrenreich took too long to say what she had to say in most chapters, or if I just wasn't responding to the organization of the chapters.

I did perk back up for the "How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy" chapter, which made several good points about how, when things are going good in the finance business, no one wants to sound any alarms because a) no one wants to get fired, and b) no one wants to be the one putting a damper on the party, or encouraging more cautious strategies and gains. I think she had a lot of good things to say  in that chapter, and she said them. I also found the chapter on megachurches and Joel Osteen quite informative, if not creepy. Actually, my favorite story in the book is the one in which the megachurch minister Osteen and his wife Victoria gave thanks at one of their services for the dismissal of charges against Victoria for assaulting a flight attendant:

"The incident occurred in 2005, when they boarded the first-class cabin of a flight bound for Vail, the ski resort, only to leave--or be thrown off--the plane after Victoria raised a fuss over a small 'stain' or 'spill' on the armrest of her seat. She demanded that the flight attendant remove the stain immediately, and when the flight attendant refused because she was busy helping other passengers board, Victoria insisted, allegedly attempting to enter the cockpit and complain to the pilots. Victoria ended up paying a $3,000 fine mposed by the FAA, and the matter would have ended there if the recalcitrant flight attendant had not brought suit demanding 10 percent of Victoria Osteen's net worth in compensation for alleged injuries, including hemorrhoids and a 'loss of faith' due to her mistreatment by a leading evangelist." (p. 130.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to meet and shake the hand of the flight attendant who had the chutzpah to sue the Osteens and cite hemorrhoids as her injury.

So, does this review sound all over the place? It is, I know. But frankly, that's a little how I felt about the book. And any book that's only 206 pages long (another reason I wanted to love it) shouldn't be either boring or all over the place. I guess I'm still waiting for someone to write a better book on this subject that is near and dear to my heart.

*I have been reprimanded in so many work situations for "negative thinking"--usually when I was simply asking some pretty simple workflow questions--that I have lost count.

The return of the prodigal laptop.

My laptop is back home after what one hopes was a relaxing week at the laptop repair spa. It is lovely to have it back, although I must say I didn't completely miss it--I have gotten in the very bad habit of popping on to it way too frequently to check email and flip through websites and, in general, waste time. I work in my living room, so what I used to do was leave it on standby all day when I wasn't working, and just bring it back up every time the whim struck me. The nice technicians at the repair shop, however, have informed me that putting my "older laptop" into standby that often is actually very bad for it, and I would be better off turning it on and off if I'd like to continue squeezing at least another year of productivity out of it. So I have made the resolution to try and do my work in more concentrated bursts, and then just turn the computer off  and do other things. I am hoping this is better for the computer and better for me.

Devotional In my extra reading time this past week I chanced across something called The Bibliophile's Devotional: 365 Days of Literary Classics, by Hallie Ephron. I'll admit that what I really found interesting about this one was the author blurb: "Hallie Ephron, Ph.D., is a critically acclaimed writer. Her latest novel is Never Tell a Lie...She is the author of 1001 Books for Every Mood...her book on mystery was an Edgar Award finalist. She teaches at writing workshops throughout the country and is also an award-winning book review columnist for the Boston Globe."

Now that's an author blurb I totally covet. How do I get to be all those things (without the work of becoming a Ph.D., of course)? The book itself is just what it says it is: a listing of days, with a book classic listed for each day, complete with title, author, summary, and quotes. The book for today, April 15 (happy tax day, everyone) is Andre Dubus III's novel House of Sand and Fog (in which a house is mistakenly seized for back taxes). I'll admit I also looked up the book for my birthday, and I checked to make sure that Ray Bradbury's autumnal classic Something Wicked This Way Comes was listed somewhere in October (it was). It's a neat book, and might make a good gift for any dedicated readers you know.

For now, I have to enjoy New York City in pictures.

If I was independently wealthy, I would go to New York City at least once a year. Alas, I am not. So retirement and annual visits to my favorite city in the world will have to wait.

Neighborhoods Until such time as I hit the lottery, I am lucky that other writers and photographers seem to enjoy New York City as well, and that books such as New York: The Big City and Its Little Neighborhoods exist. This is a large-format illustrated book about neighborhoods in the city's boroughs, including Brooklyn's "Little Beirut," the Bronx's "Little Ireland," Manhattan's Chinatown, Queens's "Little Egypt," and "Little Sri Lanka" on State Island (among many others). The author, Naomi Fertitta, grew up in Queens, but moved to Manhattan after college and very rarely left it, until she developed an interest in the city's other boroughs and neighborhoods. The result of that interest is this book.

Each neighborhood chapter includes a 2- or 3-page description, a list of places to visit, and at which to eat and shop, and a number of beautiful photographs. I enjoyed this book very much, but I'll admit I would have enjoyed it more if the photos had included captions. But I really enjoy reading photo captions.* If knowing what you're looking at isn't as important to you, then you won't have any complaints about this book.

*I don't remember for sure, but I'm pretty certain another favorite New York picture book of mine, Steven Jenkins's The Food Life: Inside the World of Food with the Grocer Extraordinaire at Fairway, included photo captions.

War...what IS it good for?

Right now in my house there's more than 1500 pages of information and history about war waiting to be read, spread out over four different titles. I am not going to have the time to get all of those pages read, nor am I going to have the stomach for it, so I will have to pick and choose.

The first book is titled Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, by Susan A. Brewer. This book looks interesting, and I have always been interested in the uses and effects of propaganda (it's the former Communication Arts major in me), but it's a more scholarly book and I'm just not up for it right now. I did read the introduction last night, and must say I lost interest after this sentence: "As we will see, propaganda can promote a legitimate war such as World War II or a flawed conflict such as Vietnam." (p. 7.) Now, "legitimate" is a better word than "good" or "valid," but I still think it itself constitutes propaganda, and, if thought about, only continues to stigmatize veterans of later, more "flawed" conflicts. People think I'm nuts when I say things like this: but can any war really be called "legitimate"? I just don't know.

Stripping The second book is a monster titled Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War, by Mark Danner, and it looks really fascinating. In fact, because I would probably never get through this one in the four weeks allotted me by the library, I have been thinking about buying it, just to have it around and to support Mark Danner, who has written several interesting books based on his reporting career. In this book his journalistic pieces from a number of the world's hot spot--Haiti, Sarajevo, Iraq, Afghanistan--were chosen to reflect what the book jacket promises: "it tells the grim and compelling tale of the true final years of the American Century, as the United States passed from the violent certainties of the late Cold War, to the ideological confusions of the post-Cold War world, to the pumped up and ruthless evangelism of the War on Terror and the Iraq War, and the ruins they have left behind." Please note this book's cover, which I find scary as hell.

No judgment yet on David Finkel's book The Good Soldiers, as I have been waiting for it on hold for a long, long time, and still hope to get it read before it has to go back to the library.

But will I be in the mood for that one when I'm done with Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, by Jim Frederick? I don't know. I only started it yesterday, but it's pretty chilling. In this one, reporter Frederick describes the activities of one specific platoon of soldiers--the 1st Battalion of the 502nd Infantry Regiment the 101st Airborne Division--who were deployed in late 2005 to try and maintain order in the violent triangle between the Iraq cities of Mahmudiyah, Lutufiyah, and Yusufiyah (just south of Baghdad). Under ridiculous amounts of threats and stress, some of the soldiers in this unit engaged in war crimes that I really don't even want to describe, but which involve the murder of an Iraqi family. Atrocities were also perpetrated against them; this is the same unit from which several servicemen were taken, killed, and their bodies mutilated.

I may be ready for some lighter reading when I'm done with any of the above books.

I had to stop reading his book so I could keep liking him.

I was terribly, terribly disappointed in Jeff Garlin's celebrity memoir My Footprint: Carrying the Weight of the World.

Garlin Jeff Garlin, if you don't know him, is a stand-up comedian, and is now most well known for his role as Larry David's manager on David's popular HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. He's very, very funny in that show (the actress who plays his no-nonsense wife is pretty hilarious too), and I've seen him be witty on talk shows, so I had high hopes for his memoir.

Now, this post cannot be construed as anything remotely approaching a "review," as I only managed to read about 30 pages of the book before I had to stop. There are two main themes: Garlin's weight problem and food addiction (and his many attempts to lose weight), and his near-obsession with living green. I knew about the first theme, because I have seen Garlin talk about his weight problem. (My favorite anecdote: he told a story in which he tried on a new shirt, and his wife told him it made him look fat, to which he replied, "in all fairness, honey, I make the shirt look fat.") But the green-living and recycling bits just aren't that interesting, and the whole thing is written in diary style, which always just strikes me as the height of phoning it in when one is writing a memoir. So, nothing against Jeff Garlin (just watch Curb Your Enthusiasm if you want to see him at his best), but this book is going back to the library today.

Book Menage Day 5: The Wrap-up.

Well, and here it is Friday already. Don't you sometimes wish we could all get together after these Menages, and have some afternoon coffee and cake, and REALLY get into discussing these books? I do. I'm trying to tell myself that's what retirement's going to be like--I don't care how poor I am, when I am old I am instituting an afternoon coffee or tea and cake ritual.

But until such time as my cake or retirement dreams come true, I must say this has been a bang-up Menage. Thank you once again to everyone who participated; your comments, of course, are what make the Menages so fun. Anyone got any ideas for the next one?

Just the one question today, and it's another one you know I like to ask:

1. If you could ask these authors one question about their books, what would you ask?

If and when I get my laptop back from the laptop sleep-away camp that is the repair shop, I will try to contact these authors with some of our questions and see if we can get any replies. Until then, please think good thoughts for my poor beleagured laptop; I know it's small potatoes on the scale of problems but man, it's disruptive (and don't forget expensive) to have your computer gone.

Book Menage Day 4: All together now.

And here we are already at day 4 of what has been, if I may say so myself, a very congenial Travel Book Menage. For these last two days of the week we'll just consider a few last questions and do a brief wrap-up. And please do forgive me for not adding pictures or links (to Horwitz's Blue Latitudes or Bryson's In a Sunburned Country) to this post; that information can all be found on previous menage day postings (and I'm getting increasingly lazy as Friday approaches).

So you know at least one of the questions I have to ask:

1. Which book did you like better? Why? Did you dislike either of the books? Why?

And number 2 is related, sort of:

2. Will you read any other books by these authors?

Number 3 is a bit of a broader question, if you're feeling philosophical today.

3. What do you think is the overall "appeal" of travel books for readers?

Travel Book Menage Day 3: Exclusively Bryson.

Hi! And welcome to Day 3 of our Travel Book Menage. Yesterday we looked exclusively at the Horwitz title, so today we'll consider Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country before we consider the two together again for the rest of the week.

I must say, I really enjoyed the Bryson in a way that I didn't enjoy the Horwitz. I suspect I was just in the mood for something a little lighter while I read the two of them, and the Bryson book better fit that bill. A good reminder that, as always, mood sometimes plays a greater role in reading choice and enjoyment than we realize.

But I digress. Today's questions:

1. What was your favorite part (or region) of this book, or least favorite? Did any of Bryson's stories stand out in particular to you?

2. What do you think makes Bryson so popular as a travel writer?

3. Did you read an edition of this book with or without the appendix of Bryson's articles on the Sydney Olympics? Did you read the appendix, and what did you think about its inclusion?

As always, please feel free to pose questions of your own in the comments.

Travel Book Menage Day 2: Exclusively Horwitz.

And welcome to Day 2 of our Travel Book Menage! Yesterday started off with a bang, with great comments and discussion, so thank you for all of that.

Blue As per usual, I thought we could take a day discussing each of these books separately. Today's book is Tony Horiwtiz's Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before. My questions are below; as always, answer as few or as many as you'd like, or feel free to ask some new questions of your own!

1. If you had to classify this book in one nonfiction "genre," what genre would you pick? Or what new genre would you make up for it?

2. Which geographic area/segment of the book did you most enjoy? Least enjoy?


3. Do you think Horwitz did a good job of describing the "real" Captain Cook?

Okay, have at. And thanks again for joining in--the Menage was just what I needed this week.

Travel Book Menage: Day One!

Bryson Hi, and welcome to another edition of our Book Menage--this time, a specially themed "Travel Menage"! The two books we were reading for the week, if you'll remember, are Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country and Tony Horwitz's Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before.

You know how this works. Each day I'll ask a couple of questions, and we'll discuss in the comments (you don't have to answer both questions if you don't want to; answering one is always fine). As always, don't be afraid to ask questions of your own--they can always be incorporated into the next day's discussion. Please do remember to invite your friends--everyone who participates in the comments has their names entered into a drawing to win the two books of the next Menage absolutely free!

So, for today:

1. Which of these two books did you read first, and why?


2. Are you less interested or more interested in Australia and/or the South Pacific than you were before you read these books?

Why read business books?

I'm not quite sure how I ended up with the habit of reading business books.

Well, that's not quite right. I know how I started. Library Journal had an opening for business and economics book reviewers, and I wanted to review for Library Journal, so I applied for it. Then I just started reading business books I didn't have to review, because I thought they would give me insight into the business world. This is something I could use, as I totally don't understand the business world. I mean, I understand it, in that I believe most businesses nowadays are out to screw me (telephone and internet service company, I'm looking at you), and I know from knowing salespeople that one of their favorite methods is to mirror your physical actions and motions so you feel more comfortable around them and are therefore more amenable to their sales pitches.* But real insight, I thought, would be a useful thing.

I don't know that I've gained a lot of insight over the years of reading business titles. But I have found this: when I find a good business book, it's always a book that really gets to me, or completely changes my thinking, or opens my eyes to some new ideas. Sometimes they even make me laugh. And that's worth something, even if I have to read or look at 100 books to find one good one.**

Take a book like Jonathan Pond's Safe Money in Tough Times: Everything You Need to Know to Survive the Financial Crisis. It's a fantastic book (I put it on the Library Journal Best Business Books list this year, and it was one of the picks I felt most strongly about) and if you want to know more about the financial mess we're in OR some great, common-sense ways to approach your own earning, saving, and investing, this is the book for you. In addition to finding it useful, I also found the author's clear-eyed approach to the world enjoyable. This was my favorite part of the whole book:

"Reevaluate any contemplated major purchases, such as a home, home improvements, or an automobile, in light of the current economic situation. While the economy may benefit from these purchases, it may make sense to postpone them. (You can rely on other members of your community to boost the economy by buying things they neither need nor can afford.)" (p. 14.)

Come on. Even if it's in a how-to business book, that's funny. So that's why I hang in there on the business books. Every now and then, as in John Bowe's Nobodies, Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires***, and Paul Midler's Poorly Made in China (as well as anything written by Michael Lewis), they actually open my mind in ways I never expected. So do consider a business book this weekend. It may not make you happy, but it might blow your mind OR give you a laugh. Both good things.


**Really, that's about the ratio.

***About the founder of Facebook, who is icky, and who could care less about your privacy, especially if he can sell it for profit.