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May 2010

Don't want to think about Memorial Day.

I am in the middle of Sebastian Junger's new book War, which I am not particularly enjoying, but which I thought it was important to read all of so I had a leg to stand on if I reviewed it. I also promised my favorite library worker I would try and get through it fast and return it, as he is a ways down the waiting list for it. But, as of page 114, I don't know if I can continue.

It's a fast read, and Junger is a skilled writer. But I have read so many of these books from the "soldiers' point of view" lately that I literally cannot read any more. So, in honor of Memorial Day, a short list of books about soldiers, and what they go through and inflict on others, and why war is stupid and pointless.*

Finkel, David. The Good Soldiers. Embedded reporter Finkel relates the experiences of Battalion 2-16 (nicknamed the Rangers), serving in Iraq during the height of the Iraq War.

Frederick, Jim. Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent Into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death. Frederick tells an ugly story of atrocities against civilians, perpetrated by soldiers, but he tells it with nuance and empathy.

Key, Joshua. The Deserter's Tale.** Enticed into the Army primarily because of his poverty and because they were offering dental care and sub sandwiches, Key found himself serving in Iraq but eventually went AWOL to Canada because he felt he could not, in good conscience, return to Iraq.

Mason, Robert. Chickenhawk. A classic from the Vietnam War, told by a helicopter pilot.

Pyle, Ernie. Here Is Your War. Pyle was the original embedded reporter (during World War II), and the soldiers loved him for his dedication to telling their stories and for living along with them and enduring the same danger and hardships they did. He actually died in a battle on the Pacific island of Ie Shima.

*Sorry for the grouchy tone. Unlike Labor Day, which is my favorite holiday ever, Memorial Day makes me grouchy. I am not interested in the glorification of war, and I am only interested in supporting soldiers by never sending them to die in any war.

**If you only read one book on this list, make it this one.

Something a bit lighter today, methinks.

Switzerland David Rose has a new sequel out to his great, great book They Call Me Naughty Lola. This one is titled Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland, and it's more of the same greatness: personal ads from the London Review of Books, most of which give new meaning to the word "quirky." Traditionally I'm not a huge fan of the humor books you just have to dip into a little bit at a time, but I'll make an exception for these books. Here's some of my favorite ads:

"They gave me this personal advert for free because I moaned, whinged and complained like a mo'fo' over my last advert not getting any replies. Who's the winner now LRB? Me. It's me. I'm the winner and don't you ever forget it. Man, 29. Deprived of affection and most forms of human contact since birth, now just wants a ton of free stuff and to be loved."

"I am not as high maintenance as my highly polished and impeccably arranged collection of porcelain cats suggests, but if you touch them I will kill you. F, 36. Likes porcelain cats. Seeks man not unused to the sound of sobbing coming from a bedroom from which he is strictly prohibited."

"Rich old buggers about to peg it, write to attractive, nubile young filly."

"Don't refer to your biceps as 'guns' and you may stand a chance of me not wanting to kill you at the next LRB singles night. You know who you are. F, 37. Always remembers a face and any subsequent associatoins of despair."

Tee hee. That's good stuff. I want to live in London. Failing that, I want to subscribe to the London Review of Books. We'll have to wait and see which dream I make good on in my lifetime.

*If you enjoy these books you might also enjoy Michael Beaumier's fantastic memoir I Know You're Out There: Private Longings, Public Humiliations, and Other Tales from the Personals.

A book so good it actually put me off chicken.

Once again, it doesn't really sound right to say that I "enjoyed the hell out of" Gabriel Thompson's new book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won't Do, but that's really the only way to say it. The book is horrifying and depressing and stupendous.

Working Whether you call this type of work immersion journalism or "stunt lit," the style is becoming familiar: a journalist or a memoirist decides they are going to do something over the course of a set time period, and then write about it. One of the best known examples of this genre is Barbara Ehrenreich's now-classic title Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, in which she tried to live on the wages she could make as a waitress, cleaning person, and Wal-Mart employee. This book is very similar to Ehrenreich's, but for some reason it resonated with me more.

Thompson set out, not to live on the wages he could make, but simply to experience the types of jobs in this country that are often filled by immigrants and undocumented workers. He decided to spend two months each working in the agricultural field, a chicken processing plant, and the kitchens of New York City's restaurants. Each job is described over roughly a third of the book.

Let me tell you this right now: his first job, picking lettuce in Yuma, Arizona? One day of it would kill me.* Thompson joined workers who worked longer than eight-hour days, continually bending and cutting lettuce, all for $8.37 an hour. And his second job, at a chicken processing plant in Alabama, only got worse. Ehrenreich did a good job of describing the toll these types of jobs take on the human body, too, but for some reason, when Thompson was describing the pain and chronic conditions he was developing, I could actually feel how terrible he felt. The very fact that there was a vending machine of painkillers next to the pop and snacks machines at the chicken should indicate what workers are going through. 

This has been my favorite "eye-opening" book since John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. And I promise you, I've read many, many books about the horrors of chicken processing plants, but before now, I've gone the way of most Americans and tried not to think about where most of my food is coming from when I shop in the grocery store (although I also try to shop at markets and find alternative sources for my meat). But now? It'll probably wear off again, but even the thought of buying chicken breasts in the store makes me ill. What makes this book so different? Because of paragraphs like this (in Thompson's conclusion):

"At the moment, many of the issues being raised are centered on the consumer: Is the food safe for my children? How far did it travel to get to my grocery store? We should expand these concerns, demanding that the foods are produced in a way that is not only safe for consumers and environmentally sustainable, but also safe and sustainable for workers. This, in turn, demands that we rethink our notions of the benefits of cheap food, because much of the pressure driving down wages comes from companies in competition with each other for contracts with national chain...An order of twenty hot wings for less than $10 might seem like a great deal, but the hidden costs are borne by workers in places like Russellville." (p. 291.)

That says it pretty plainly, doesn't it? Check this book out.** If it doesn't make you a. more thankful for whatever job you might have (and I know about hating jobs, believe you me, and I sympathize), and b. slightly more interested in food issues and immigration reform, I'll eat my made-in-China shirt.

*And I grew up on a farm, so I am not unfamiliar with long days and hard physical work.

**It's a great book for another reason: Thompson's stories of worker solidarity are weirdly and totally inspirational.

Right on, mister.

Once every half-decade or so I get the urge to set my house in order. I don't get the urge to clean, mind you,* but I do get the urge to collect the various piles of paperwork, bills, work papers, personal papers, correspondence, and pictures that I often stash in various rooms and nooks and crannies, and get them organized in some way. Both of the men I have lived with as an adult (my brother and my husband) have commented that I don't bring much in the way of knick-knacks into the house ("for a woman"), but I do move in a kind of perma-clutter of paper and books. Fair enough. Either the women I have lived with didn't mind this as much, or they had the good grace not to mention it.

So as I was filing papers the other day, I came across an envelope full of strange odds and ends that I had kept from previous jobs. I still have the lengthy note some teenagers once left me when I was a waitress working at Country Kitchen, apologizing that they only had a little change left over for my tip; I also kept the note a co-worker wrote me at a different job, after I took some abuse from a nasty customer (it says: "Yup, everyone's out to rip you off, just you, asshole."). And I have a little note that a patron from the last library I worked at wrote me after I made him up a list of nonfiction titles I thought he might enjoy. In the note he thanks me for the list, but the pertinent part is this:

"I am presently reading Omnivore's Delight [editor's note: he means Omnivore's Dilemma]. The book is full of information but a little too much of himself for me."

In light of our past conversations here about Michael Pollan, I found that quite hilarious. And I had totally forgotten this note. I'm keeping it, but I am going to file it away in a better place than at the bottom of my phone table. Wherever that patron is, I hope he has a summer of reading only great nonfiction.

*I do clean after I organize, but only in a half-ass way that doesn't involve actually washing anything or moving furniture.

Stupid talented essayists.

I read an article in my New York magazine a few weeks back about Meghan Daum's new memoir, Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House. Daum is most well known for her 2003 novel, The Quality of Life Report, for her essay collection My Misspent Youth, and for moving away from New York City in her late 20s so she could live more cheaply in Lincoln, Nebraska.

She has now moved to Los Angeles, and her search for a home there is what her new memoir is about. Strangely enough, though, when I read the article, I didn't feel like getting the memoir, but I did wonder about the essay collection, so I checked it out.

Misspent And I really enjoyed it. It's not a particularly broad or profound collection, but it was definitely worth the time. Her essay topics range from an online flirtation to working in the publishing business, being successful in New York but still having to move away from it to how much she hated dolls.* But the essay that really annoyed me was titled "Carpet Is Mungers."

Well, I should explain that. I loved the essay. But I hated it because it was SO GOOD, and I want to write essays like that. Frustrating, to see where you want to be and not know how to get there.** But I digress. The entire essay is about nothing more complicated than how and why Daum doesn't like carpet. And here's how she explains it:

"Carpet makes me feel the way I felt when I was twelve and 'went out' with Stephen Mungers, a boy from homeroom who I barely knew, for a week. In seventh grade, 'going out' signified nothing more than a mutual agreement that the term would be applied to the parties involved; no physical contact or verbal exchange other than 'You wanna go out?' and 'Okay' was required. And even though the situation was entirely reversible, I remember that week as an unprecedented and traumatic psychological jaunt into a self that was not my own. I had, in the context of seventh grade and the various ideas I'd developed about who I was, become 'other' to my own self. I felt somehow that I had betrayed a basic premise of my existence...

Carpet is Mungers. Carpet is otherness." (p. 64.)

How awesome is that comparison? Who combines a memory of going out with someone in seventh grade with trying to describe how they feel about carpet? And makes it interesting? This woman, that's who. Disgusting. All weekend I walked around muttering "Carpet is Mungers" and shaking my head. Mr. CR simply let the muttering pass without comment. Smart man. I wouldn't have been so annoyed, but I also spent the weekend re-reading one of the essays (multiple times) in Daniel Nester's book How to Be Inappropriate because it was so good. I'm hoping that writing skills can be learned by osmosis, obviously.

I'm going to try her memoir now too, but if you're looking for a good summer read that includes essays this one might be a valid place to start.

*I loved this essay, as Mom informs me that I often would toss whatever dolls I owned in the trash. I didn't hate them, I just wasn't using them.

**For this reason I can only read so much Joan Didion at one time, too. She's scary good.

Just too much cheese.

I really, really wanted to love Gordon Edgar's Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge. But alas, it was not to be.

Cheesemonger Edgar, who works as the cheese buyer and expert (or "cheesemonger," as he calls it) at the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco, relates the story of how he learned to know and love cheese through his job there. In various chapters he describes the arc of his career, but the bulk of the narrative is given over to a very detailed consideration of all sorts of cheese, cheese production methods, cheese producers, and really, all things cheese.

Now, I love memoirs about people's jobs. I like reading about food. I enjoy cheese. But I just couldn't get into this one. I think it was too many paragraphs like this:

"There are differences in the components of feed-based milk and pasture-based milk. Feed-based milk is higher in protein and fat because those are desirable properties in milk, especially milk for cheese, and the animals are fed accordingly. However, recent studies have shown that grazed cows have two to five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than other cows. Some preliminary studies have shown that CLA may be an effective cancer inhibitor." (p. 31.)

Now that's good information,* and someday when I'm in the mood and I want to learn more about cheese I may try this book again. I think this was simply a case of wrong expectations: I was expecting more of a lighthearted romp about food and retail and cheese (something along the lines of Steven Jenkins's The Food Life: Inside the World of Food with the Grocer Extraordinaire at Fairway), but it's much more than that. If you're a cheese lover, and interested in learning a lot more about cheese? Then this is the book for you.

*A little later on in the book he includes some great information about raw milk and raw milk cheeses, which is pertinent information to me because my home state, Wisconsin, is currently debating if it should be legal to sell raw (unpasteurized) milk.

The unbelievable life of Henrietta Lacks.

I was absolutely blown away by the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. In the best possible way. And I loved being blown away by it, because it's been getting a lot of attention this spring, and every now and then I like to see a hyped book that is actually worth it.

Henrietta If you haven't heard of it, it's the story of an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Only her story didn't end there; when the tumor on her cervix was originally studied, the doctor who took a sample of it at Johns Hopkins passed it along to a researcher named George Gey, who was trying to find a way to grow cells that could be used in medical experimentation. He hadn't been having a whole lot of luck, until he received Henrietta's cancerous cells, which grew, and grew, and grew...until they became known, formally, as the HeLa cell line, and went on to be used in hundreds (if not thousands; I'm not sure of the exact numbers) of medical experiments in labs around the world. Hence Henrietta's "immortal life."

I was not only blown away by the science of this book, but also by Henrietta's own story (growing up in poverty; having five children before dying at age 31; and still having the time to be a friend to those around her, cook meals for any family member who showed up, and even going out dancing with her girlfriends) and by Skloot's telling of it. In the course of researching the story, Skloot became involved in the lives of several of Henrietta's children, most particularly her daughter, Deborah. Often her relationship with the family was tense; they didn't really know what was happening, even after they were told (many years after the fact) about how their mother's cells were used, and many of them lacked health insurance, money, or access to decent health care, which understandably made them even more wary of the establishment.

Don't worry if you're not a science reader. Skloot makes the pertinent details easy to understand. Likewise, if you're a science reader and don't care much for the human interest stories, give this one a try anyway. If nothing else, it's a valuable narrative at a time in our history when, every time you go to the doctor, they like to get some urine and blood from you that you never hear about again.* I don't know that there's anything to be done about it, but it never hurts to be aware of facts like, once doctors remove tissue from you, that tissue no longer counts as you (even though it still contains your DNA) and they can pretty much do whatever they want with it.

It's a great book, one of my favorites of the year so far. I plan to hand it off to several other family members, which is going to be easy, since I spilled my Fiber One cereal all over it while reading it and eating breakfast, so I just had to buy my copy from the library. (I cleaned it up enough so that it is readable, but never let it be said that I shirk at my duty of paying for books I damage. This is the first one in thousands, so I can't feel too terribly about it. However, Mr. CR has suggested, and I have agreed, that I should no longer read library books while I eat my cereal.)

*At least this always seems to happen to me at the doctor. I mean, I guess it's good that they never find anything bad enough that they have to call me, but still. I give blood, I'd like to hear what they're finding.

The evidence mounts.

This week we have still more evidence that I am not smart enough for the magazine The Believer, or for the people who write it. Recently in my library catalog I came across this title: You're a Horrible Person, But I Like You, which of course I had to request immediately. The problem was the subtitle: "The Believer Book of Advice."

Horrible The entire book is a collection of humorists' pieces giving advice, but every chapter is written in the format of advice letters written to the contributors, which they then answer. Let me give you an example, from the chapter written by Paul Feig*:

"Dear Paul: For years I have tried to make my Hungarian grandmother's cucumber salad. She improvises her recipe, so she wrote down the steps for me to follow. But try as I might, mine never tastes as good as hers. What am I doing wrong? --Linda Nagy, Fort Wayne, IN.

Dear Lisa: You're trying to crash your grandmother's party, that's what you're doing. Did you ever stop and think that maybe your grandmother isn't giving you the exact recipe because she wants your salad to be worse than hers? What's next? You going to try on her clothes? Steal her boyfriend? Pretend you're from Hungary, too? My advice is to let your grandmother be the master of her cucumber recipe. Tell her she's the only one who can make it, then take a bowl of it to a lab and have it analyzed. Then you can make the exact recipe in the privacy of your home and she'll still believe she's the queen of cucumbers. --Paul." (p. 67.)

Now, taken alone, I guess that's kind of funny. But a whole book of chapters like that? It's too much. Even with contributors like Feig, Aasif Mandvi, Amy Sedaris, Sarah Silverman, and Sarah Vowell, I just couldn't sustain the interest. Plus, I'm just too literal to enjoy things like this. Did they write the letters themselves? Or did they actually come from somewhere?

*I love, love, LOVE Paul Feig, author of the memoirs Kick Me and Superstud.

Evidently you can go home again.

Because I was staring down a library due date, last night I started Rhoda Janzen's memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home,* and this morning I finished it. Although it did not set me on fire, and I do not feel the need to tell everyone I meet to read it, I did get a lot of good, solid enjoyment and thought out of it. And I appreciate that too.

Mennonite Janzen grew up in a Mennonite family (she also provides a handy appendix explaining some things about Mennonite faith and history: please note, they're not Amish), but when she left home to pursue her education and career, she largely left the Mennonite community and ways behind, without much in the way of regret. However, after her husband of fifteen years left her for another man (and after she had largely supported him financially and lived through his problems with depression and bipolarity), and after she was involved in a car accident that broke many of her bones and caused other health problems (all in the same month!) she decided to spend some time living with her parents, recuperating and hoping perhaps to understand more about her youth and her reaction to her upbringing.

The book is not so much a memoir as it is a series of interconnected essays, and in each essay she relates a different piece of her childhood, marriage, and Mennonite culture memories. For being a pretty short book, it's also profound in the best possible way: without belaboring its point, without endless pages of poetics and/or unnecessarily drawn-out stories, and with a great deal of humor. Consider this exchange she had with one of her friends, when she is reading to start dating again:

"One of my friends, Carla, who said I could use her real name in this memoir as long as I described her as a svelte redhead, offered to run my love life for five bucks. 'What are you looking for in a guy?' she asked, whipping out a little notepad.

'Hmm,' I said thoughtfully. 'He has to be kind. And culturally literate. And on the path to consciousness...reflective, open. No cynics or angry atheists. He has to have a sense of humor. That's important. And he should be tall. And employed at work he loves. And--'

'Whoa there, Nellie,' Carla interrupted. 'I'm gonna give you some free advice. You ready for this? How about we lower the bar? How about we look for someone who's straight, for starters?'" (p. 21.)

I found that really depressing, but also really hilarious, and it seemed to sum up everything I love about women: you can hope for the best, but most of the time you've just got to get down to the nitty-gritty and do the best with you can find. In all, I liked this book much more for Janzen's overall positivity, which was not of the cloying type, but of the accepting type, and for her female perspective. The Mennonite stuff was interesting to me too but not as fascinating as it might be to some others--although my childhood surroundings weren't as austere as hers (quite), my mother was the type who made arrangements for someone at Girl Scout camp (which I went to maybe twice or three times in my life) to drive me to a mass anywhere nearby if the trip went over a Sunday morning. (So I was not entirely unfamiliar with the theme of religion playing a big part in one's upbringing.) My point is: it's a great little memoir, and there's more than one reason to like it.

*A big shout-out to one of my favorite book recommenders, Katharine. If she hadn't championed this book I probably would have just returned it without trying to get it read first.

Easing into the weekend.

Not much reading news today, as I am still working on Daniel Nester's wonderfully surreal essay collection How to Be Inappropriate, and I just started a novel titled The Kingdom of Ohio, by Matthew Flaming, and it's too early to tell how that's going.

By the way, I LOVE the name "Matthew Flaming." What a great author name. Although I wonder if other little kids made his life a living hell with it through grade, middle, and high school.

In other news, I was perusing yesterday (love that site for pre-pub news) and found this tidbit:

"Sarah Palin’s publisher announced this week that she will release a new book in November (America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag). It is currently at #98 on Amazon."

Oh, brother. Someone's got a taste for publishing. I just don't know if I can look at two of the woman's books in one year, though. Seriously, if you haven't yet read the New York magazine article on Palin, please consider doing so now.

And that's all! Have a nice weekend, everyone, and remember to neglect at least one household duty in exchange for reading a book.

Not an instruction book I needed, but I'm enjoying it anyway.

Nester Of the books I started last weekend, I've only been back to continue reading one: Daniel Nester's humorous essay collection, How to Be Inappropriate. I think I originally requested it from the library because I was charmed by its title, and when it arrived and I saw the cover, I really got a chuckle.* Of course, I do not need instruction on how to be inappropriate. It is one of the few skills I have down cold; every report card and work evaluation I have ever gotten in my life included some variant on "needs to think before she speaks."

Nester offers a collection of often very funny, sometimes surreal, humorous essays. He won me over right off the bat in an essay called "The Puerto Rican Lockhorns Reunion," in which he describes meeting up with an ex-girlfriend with whom he had a tempestuous (and loud, evidently) relationship; their neighbors used to call them the "Puerto Rican Lockhorns" (based on the comics couple, the Lockhorns, who are always snarking at each other). I also really enjoyed an essay called "Queries," which were comments written on student papers by Nester, when he worked as a creative writing professor. My favorite series is below (although I've taken out other interspersed comments, in the interest of time):

"Is a 'Drow' the same as the 'Dark Elf'?
Is the 'Darkened Elf the same as the 'Dark Elf'?
Why is Drow--or, the Dark/Darkened Elf--not revisted until he's killed?
Is the 'White Elf' the same as the 'Light Elf'?
Listen--if you're going to dub an elf the 'elf of light,' give the elf some uppercase love, why don't you?
Why is the Darkened Elf both kindred and lover to the Light Elf? Are they related? If they are in different tribes, then that's the only other meaning I've left to assume?
Wait--the Dark Elf and the White Elf are sisters?" (p. 144-145.)

I don't know why, but I found that completely amusing. Consider checking this title out. Although it's not consistently strong (Mr. CR must have been reading it without me noticing--out of nowhere one night when I was reading it he opined, "Some of the stuff in there is funny but most of it is just kinda strange") I'd say there's more to enjoy here than not.

*The lovely library worker who checked it out to me said, "ahem, I'll just put this one in the middle of your pile."

When subject trumps style.

I tend to be somewhat of a generalist nonfiction reader; I am not so much interested in specific subjects* as I am in well-written and interesting nonfiction titles. This is why I am such a huge fan of William Langewiesche; he writes about a ton of disparate subjects in his magazine articles and books, and no matter what he's writing about, it's always a pleasure to read.

Welch But sometimes even I get suckered in by subjects I find fascinating. This week's case in point is Gina Welch's immersion journalism title In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church. I really didn't enjoy it (although parts were very interesting, and I don't think Welch is an unskilled writer), but I'll be damned if I didn't end up reading the whole thing anyway, for one reason and one reason alone:

I am fascinated by Evangelicals, and Evangelical churches. I mean, really, I can't look away.

I don't really know why this is, although I have always tended to find all things religious, even books about atheism, vaguely interesting. And I don't even mean it in a bad way. I have known and loved many people who are members of more evangelical churches. And, as I am Catholic and very well aware of the disorder and problems in my church's house, I want to emphatically state that I don't really care much one way or the other what religion people choose to practice. But there is something I so deeply don't understand about the Evangelical experience that I just had to finish this book.

Welch, a young writer and atheist who grew up in Berkeley, also seems fascinated by Evangelicals, and she doesn't fool around in her choice of churches to infiltrate: she goes right for Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia. For two years she attended the church, joined some of its classes and ministries, befriended many of its members, and even joined a mission trip to Alaska to "save souls."

As previously noted, the writing here is just fine. It was just more that I couldn't figure out Welch's tone--she seemed committed to staying an atheist, yet she also enjoyed the feeling of warmth and community and the stirring nature of the church music. She was conflicted about lying to people she was befriending, but still became quite close to some of them. She seemed genuinely very sad when Falwell died, but throughout, it quite simply seemed like she was focusing more on the church practices and trappings than on the religion behind it. I'm explaining it badly. But when I read a work of immersion journalism, I just like to have a little better idea of where the author is coming from; in Barbara Ehrenreich's classic in the genre, Nickel and Dimed, the reader is never left in any doubt that she thinks paying people non-living wages to work as maids, waitresses, and at Wal-Mart is complete bullshit. But I could never get a read on this author.

She still provided some interesting information, which showed she really did start to understand the mindset. I liked this paragraph: "Considering the Evangelicals' inclination to trust and support their Christian brethren, it makes sense that there's a strong desire to work primarily with Christian businesses...One directory, Ohio's Blue Pages, polled its users and found that the top two reasons people used it were a 'higher trust level' in Christian businesses and a desire to 'be good stewards of their finances'; payments to Christian businesses, the users assumed, circulated back to the church through tithes and offerings, keeping the money within the fold." (p. 104.)

I just chuckled at that. I typically throw away any business ads with prominent Christian symbols on them, even though I am a Christian, because I always figure if you're low enough to try and exploit God for business, where else will you be cutting corners? But, obviously, the thought process can go a different way. I was also shocked at Welch's many stories of how welcoming and accepting many strangers were of her church groups' proselytizing. Again, something I'll never understand, as my first reaction when anyone knocks on my door or talks to me about being saved is, "I'm Catholic and I LOVE being Catholic," at which point they usually can't get far enough away from me.

So, yeah. I think I'm still waiting for a slightly better or less uneven book on this subject, but if learning more about the Evangelical Christian lifestyle holds any interest for you, I'd still consider picking this one up. And I did like one of Welch's stated reasons for undertaking this project: she considers it more important to understand this lifestyle than to dismiss it. I can't really argue with that--it's as good a reason as any to write, not to mention read, nonfiction in general.

*British history, and, well, all things Brit notwithstanding.

But I don't want to make an apron.

When I first looked at Erin Bried's book How to Sew a Button: And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew, I thought, huh, maybe I should buy this book and actually learn something.

Button But, as with all my good intentions, I got over it. I enjoyed the book, and there are a lot of useful things in it, but the majority of the tips and how-tos cover skills and tasks I'm simply never going to do. Every now and then I would just pick it up to flip through it a little bit, and it always opened to the chapter on "how to make an apron." This was unfortunate, as I have a perfectly good apron that I stole from Country Kitchen the summer I worked there (if you could have seen my tips from all the old couple customers, you'd know I EARNED that apron), and I'm not about to dink around trying to sew a new one. But I digress.

Other chapters include very handy outlines for the following: how to roast a whole chicken (this I should actually learn); how to compost; how to install a clothesline (this I really do want to learn); how to kill mildew; how to shine your shoes; how to unclog a drain; and many, many, more. Actually, the more closely I look at it, the more I think it is kind of a neat little book. Sadly, though, most of the directions are not hand-holding enough for me. The clothesline instructions, for example, are basically: "Dig two holes in the ground about 1 foot wide and at least 1 foot deep in your desired location. Prepare your cement according to the instructions on the bag. Spray one hole with water, fill it halfway with cement, plumb your pole, and then top of with cement..." (p. 70.)

Uh, yeah. It's nice to make it sound that easy, but it seems like plumbing the pole should involve more steps than me eyeballing it in a half-ass kinda way (which is, really, how I end up doing everything). Or maybe I'm just making everything harder than it needs to be.

Anyway, my issues notwithstanding, it's still an interesting concept for a book and I give Bried kudos for throwing it together, and for encouraging self-sufficiency.

A weekend of unfocused reading.

Nothing much to report today, as my reading this weekend was all over the map. (And I was indexing a middle-school book about the reality show The Hills*--which, dear God, kind of took away my appetite for reading for a while.)

I started two books about food and sustainability, a humorous essay collection, an oral history about how Americans feel about love, and perused my latest New York magazine, so I'm mainly just waiting to see what "takes" and if I decide to finish any of them. The New York magazine was, once again, a home run out of the park, as it was the "design" issue and was jam-packed with real estate ads for New York City, which I love perusing. I actually found myself wondering what assets I could sell and where I could borrow the money for a $475,000 loft--that's right, an efficiency that isn't even a one-bedroom--in what I can only guess is a somewhat dodgier part of Manhattan. A girl can dream, right?

I also tried, once again, to read an issue of the magazine The Believer. Every now and then I try to like The Believer, because literary types all seem to, and it's published by McSweeney's, which is Dave Eggers's publishing concern. I used to love Dave Eggers, and I still do, in an intense ex-college-boyfriend kind of way. But nothing he's written since his first memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, has really turned me on. Still. But the fact remains I am not smart enough for this magazine, which sports headlines like "Noun versus adjective: do writers abandon lyricism for facts as they age?" and "Progress as a literal Mexicali prostitute: An El Centro native takes on William Vollmann's sprawling novelistic study of his troubled town." Sigh. I will have to look for another literary magazine, and perhaps one that bridges the gap between those who watch The Hills and take it seriously and those who can understand and appreciate the uber-literary references of The Believer.

*And who says work isn't educational? I now know, finally, who people like Heidi Montag, Whitney Port, Lauren Conrad, and Spencer Pratt are. Although I can't say that knowledge really makes me a richer person.

Becoming a Bryson fan.

I have to own up to it: I'm becoming a Bill Bryson fan.

Bryson I really, really enjoyed his book that we read for the last menage, In a Sunburned Country (about Australia). So then, because I love all things British, I thought I would try his earlier travelogue, Notes from a Small Island: An Affectionate Portrait of Britain. And I really, really enjoyed it, too.

This took me a bit by surprise, as the last book I read by Bryson was A Walk inthe Woods, and although I enjoyed that when I read it, I wasn't in a big hurry to read any more of his travel books. Then I read parts of two of his more recent non-travel titles, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and a memoir titled The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. And neither of those books did anything for me.

But now? Either I'm aging into an appreciation for him or I'm just on a lucky streak with his books. In Notes from a Small Island, he travels (rather aimlessly, he'll be the first to admit) around Great Britain to "say goodbye": he and his family had lived there for 20 years, and they were undertaking a move to America after he completed his travels. The result is a somewhat disorganized but often very humorous ramble around the country, full of trademark Bryson observances like:

"Farther on along the front there stood a clutch of guesthouses, large and virtually indistinguishable, and a few of them had vacancy signs perched in their windows. I had eight or ten to choose from, which always puts me in a mild fret because I have an unerring instinct for choosing badly. My wife can survey a row of guesthouses and instantly identify the one run by a white-haired widow with a kindly disposition and a fondness for children, snowy sheets, and sparkling bathroom porcelain, whereas I can generally count on choosing the one run by a guy with a grasping manner, a drooping fag [cigarette], and the sort of cough that makes you wonder where he puts the phlegm." (p. 221.)

The book isn't perfect--at times Bryson switches back and forth between describing experiences he had when first in Britain in the early 1970s and the experiences he's having on his goodbye tour, and periodically it's hard to figure out which period he's talking about. As it was published in 1995, it's also a bit dated (I'd love to read a newer version, and hear what he thinks about trains and the Brits now). But all in all it was a good light read, perfectly distracting and often very funny. And I was struck once again by the desire to travel with him--does anything sound nicer right now than wandering around England, largely by rail, and stopping often for meals, walks, and coffees? Not really. But I will have to make do with getting another one of his travelogues--perhaps the volume of stories about his return to America, titled I'm a Stranger Here Myself.

Have a great weekend, all, and I hope you get to spend some time with some great and distracting books of your own.

Listening, learning, living.

Or loving, laughing, whatever.

Either we are eating more around here, or just finding ways to dirty more dishes, because lately it seems like I spend a lot of my time washing dishes. Normally I don't mind this, as washing dishes is the sole household chore I don't actively hate (I think because it's connected with food; outside of food preparation and service purposes, I just don't understand the appeal of "clean," and never have) and I usually have a book on tape to keep me company. The last such book (after the travesties that were The Age of Innocence and The Historian) was Thomas Hardy's classic The Mayor of Casterbridge, and man, do I love old Thomas Hardy. I can thumbnail the plot: young man gets drunk at county fair and tries to sell off wife and child as a joke, but another man takes him up on the offer. Years later, wife and child return to the area after the death of the man who "bought" her, to see how the first man is getting on. Quite well, it turns out: he's the mayor of Casterbridge and a merchant of some repute. Soon after their arrival and reunion, however, the mayor's fortunes start to take a turn for the worse, and various community kerfuffles and tragedies ensue. The plots are really not the point of Thomas Hardy's novels; his characters and his turn of phrases are. Consider this zinger, when he's describing a run-down part of town:

"It was the hiding-place of those who were in distress, and in debt, and trouble of every kind. Farm-labourers and other peasants, who combined a little poaching with their farming, and a little brawling and bibbing with their poaching, found themselves sooner or later in Mixen Lane. Rural mechanics too idle to mechanize, rural servants too rebellious to serve, drifted or were forced into Mixen Lane."

It made for good listening, but when it was done, I found I was without a book on tape, but still had dirty dishes. I went looking for NPR but I couldn't find it on the FM tuner (or they were playing classical music on the regular station) so I switched over to AM and spent most of the last week listening to conservative talk radio. Oh, my. That WAS educational. I normally hit the times when either Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity were talking, and of course the burning story of the week was Arizona's new immigration law. I know NOTHING about Arizona's immigration law, and I can't say I'm much further ahead after listening to radio programs about it. But I will say this: forget Limbaugh. He's just out there, and the more his callers were out there, the more he liked them. But Hannity? Hannity's dangerous. Hannity almost makes sense, and if he was your sole source for the news, I'm sure he'd make total sense.

It was an education (combined with a fascinating article about Sarah Palin in last week's New York Magazine); I did a lot of thinking about politics last week. Suffice it to say that this week I got Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'urbervilles from the library on tape, and can retreat to that. Thank goodness for Thomas Hardy.

Hitting the wall on marriage memoirs.

After reading Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed and re-reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, I may just have hit my limit, for the time being, on marriage memoirs. I wanted to like Annabelle Gurwitch's and Jeff Kahn's duo-memoir, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up: A Love Story, but I just wasn't in the mood for it anymore.

Tomato I loved the title, and the format's interesting; in each chapter there's a "He Says" and "She Says" section, so you get each person's take on the one story they're telling, and of course they're widely divergent. Because both of these authors are, as my parents would term them, "entertainment people,"* their problems and issues are, of course, a bit wackier and larger-than-life than the more pedestrian problems among us non-entertainment types. But both are good writers, and I enjoyed the frequently profane language and the honesty. I may get this one back when I need a laugh someday.

But not all is fun and games in this couple's marriage. Fairly early on in the narrative they talk about their experiences having and raising their son Ezra, who was born with VACTERL, a rare series of very serious birth defects. Once again, they're honest about the challenges they faced, and they did so with admirable chutzpah. But it's never easy to read about kids who have struggles from birth (for me, anyway). I firmly believe all children should get a free pass on health problems until at least the age of 18, and it's a terrible deal when they don't. But, bless her, Gurwitch still manages to be funny:

"One of the unexpected side effects of having a kid with a chronic medical condition is that you are always primed to leap into crisis management mode at the smallest sign of trouble, so when Ezra was in kindergarten and he yelled from his bedroom, 'Mom, my tooth fell out,' I screamed, "Oh my God, Jeff, his tooth fell out; let's go to the hospital!' I was already herding a confused Ezra into the car before I remembered that young children's teeth are supposed to fall out." (p. 220.)

Looking for an offbeat double take on marriage? Look no further. I myself am going on the hunt for some non-marriage books.

*Kahn is a comedic actor and writer, and I still have a soft spot for Gurwitch from when she co-hosted TBS's "Dinner and a Movie" feature (when I was optimistic in college and thought I might one day make money, I was actually less cheap and sprang for cable along with my roommates). She is also the author of the book Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, and Dismissed.

Re-reading nonfiction.

Our discussion last week about Roger Rosenblatt's memoir Making Toast put me in the mood, for whatever reason, to re-read Joan Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. So I did.

Is it strange that I find a book about the year after the death of a woman's husband, and a year she spent largely watching her daughter struggle with very serious health challenges, to be comfort reading? I have read it three times now, and each time I find something new, or I appreciate it for a new reason. This time through, this is the part that made me break down first (this book makes me weepy in numerous spots):

"As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself." (pp. 7-8.)

The part that made me weepy was thinking of a wordsmith (a somewhat controlling wordsmith, by the sound of it) being in a place beyond words. The part that made me pause was how you can get in that paragraph and lie down for a while--it has so many things to say about grief, and understanding, and writing, and relationships. Who in any kind of relationship hasn't pondered all the "variant readings of the same lines"? It's an incredible paragraph.

I know I will re-read this book again. I was thinking about re-reading nonfiction this morning, and wondering if memoirs are easier to re-read because they exist somewhere between the hazy borders of truth and fiction more so than other nonfiction narratives. I will have to think about what NF titles I have re-read in the past, and what they were. My suspicion is that I re-read more memoirs than I do anything else. My other thought is that I will have to dig up my Joan Didion omnibus that I have around here somewhere and start sprinkling some of her essays in my daily reading. Now I'm curious to see how she makes herself impenetrable.

Back on the Elizabeth Gilbert train.

I don't have much else to say about Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, other than that I enjoyed it.

Committed Gilbert is best known for the smashing popularity of her last book (which was also an Oprah choice), Eat, Pray, Love. I read that book before the hype machine blew it all out of proportion, and I liked it okay (particularly the part where she ate her way through Italy; the second parts of the book, praying and loving, in India and Indonesia, didn't do a whole lot for me). Then, when women started hailing it as the most influential book for them outside maybe the Bible, I started getting a bit annoyed. Sure, it was an okay read. But to take as your inspirational text a book about a woman who starts over after a traumatic divorce by traveling and writing about it (and had the luxury of doing so)? Meh. I just didn't get that aspect of it, and I'll admit I was doubly annoyed when...***SPOILER ALERT***

the book seemingly found Gilbert coming full circle only to--you guessed it--fall in love with another man. ***END SPOILER ALERT.***

There's nothing wrong with love. There's nothing wrong with men.* I just thought it was rather funny that a book millions hailed as being about "finding yourself" actually had quite a bit to do with "finding someone else." But hey, Gilbert is a good writer, and for many years she was a working writer before she hit paydirt, so her windfall seemed more well-deserved than many in the writing world.**

So I was looking forward to reading Committed (for whatever reason, I always find nonfiction about marriages fascinating), and I was not disappointed. Although the overall arc of the narrative is Gilbert's and her partner's efforts to jump through the necessary hoops to get married and supply him with a more permanent home in America (the man she would eventually marry, Felipe, was Brazilian, and had spent many years traveling between Australia and America), Gilbert also returns to her more reportorial roots and provides some research on different topics in marriage: how it typically works out for women; what it does to one's autonomy; its history, etc. I really enjoyed learning all of that stuff, although I'll admit that a large part of Gilbert's charm is still her personal take on subjects:

"Reality exits the stage the moment that infatuation enters, and we might soon find ourselves doing all sorts of crazy things that we would never have considered doing in a sane state...When the dust has settled years later, we might ask ourselves, 'What was I thinking?' and the answer is usually: You weren't.

Psychologists call that state of deluded madness 'narcissistic love.'

I call it 'my twenties.'" (p. 102.)

So there you have it. I like her. I liked this book. It moved right along, I got a few chuckles, and it certainly didn't make me any dumber. And yes, I'm thinking of making those three things my sole criteria for "nonfiction books I enjoy."

*Actually, my favorite book of Gilbert's remains the one she wrote about a very particular man, titled The Last American Man. Frankly, it may seem wrong to say this, but I think she's a stronger writer when she's writing about men.

**Thomas Friedman, James Patterson, I'm looking at you.