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June 2010


That's right, today Citizen Reader officially turns 500 posts old. I think the old girl's holding up pretty well; to me she doesn't look a post over 499.

So, how to celebrate? By writing a really great and informative post about nonfiction in general? Providing a helpful list of theme- or subject-related books to start off the summer with? about using this opportunity to announce that I'm taking at least a week off of blogging?

Yeah, that last one's the one. I'm going to be quiet for just a bit and use that time to a. hopefully lose my general pissiness about (generally) reading, and (specifically) my career prospects; b. hopefully polish off some projects that have been bugging me and c. recharge. I'm hoping when I come back I will be able to report that I have found nothing but good nonfiction reading in the interim (I'm going to study a few genres too, just for fun: first up, Lisa Kleypas's romance Mine Till Midnight-- I don't know about you but I'm titillated already--and Karin Slaughter's thriller Blindsighted), and that everything that bugs me about e-readers has ceased to bug me.*

Oh, and I totally want to plan another Book Menage for a bit later this summer. Be thinking of what two books you'd like to read together, and feel free to suggest them already if you'd like to. I'm totally open as to the subject and style of our next paired reads, although one book should be nonfiction (of course).

And would you like to know the statistic I'm proudest of here at Citizen Reader? It's this one: the blog has had 500 posts, and 3934 comments. That is stupendous. Thanks to all of you who comment or have commented--if this blog is entertaining or educational at all, it has nothing to do with me. It has to do with all of you. Thank you--and see you soon.

*Kudos, once again, to Bookninja, who has perfectly summed up how I feel about e-readers: "I’ve always thought the Nook looked and operated (from what I’ve been able to glean) most like the kind of ereader I’d want to own, were I inclined to rent my books instead of owning them, of course." Ha!

The rare kitty book I don't need to finish.

In what was probably an okay turn of events, I didn't have a lot of chances to read this weekend, and when I did read, I was trying to make it through a monster of a book about Nixon that is killing me (it's a book I'm reviewing for Library Journal), so my general reading pissiness abated a bit.

Oscar I did have a chance to continue listening to David Dosa's (M.D.)* popular nonfiction title, Making Rounds with Oscar. The book is written by a doctor who specializes in elder care and dementia, and works at least part of the time in a nursing home. In said nursing home, he relates the activities of one of the nursing home cats-in-residence**, Oscar, who seems to know when patients are dying and need comfort, and who goes and sits in their rooms when they do.

It's an okay book, but the people who say a narrator really makes or breaks an audio book are right on. This one is read by an actor named Ray Porter, and his voice is pleasant enough, but the narration is too slow and over-enunciated for me. Also, I have a cat, and I know how she acts, so it's no surprise to me that a cat can tell when something's off with people and just go sit near them. This is one of the nicest features of cats, as far as I can tell. (I know whenever I'm sick and dozing in bed or on the couch, I don't have to look around very far to find my furry friend dozing somewhere near me.) But, most of all, I have to stop listening because Dosa focuses primarily on issues in the field of elder and nursing care. Every time I listen to another couple of chapters, I up the ante in my directions to Mr. CR for my own elder care, from things like, "If I get sick in the nursing home, DON'T TREAT ME, for the love of god, just let me die," to "The first day I'm in the nursing home you find someone with pneumonia and park me near them so I get it, and THEN don't treat me." It's morbid as hell and it's bringing us both down, so I'm not going to finish this one.

*Every time the narrator says who the book is by, he's very careful to say "David Dosa, M.D.," with the emphasis on the M.D. This makes me chuckle, as hearing that someone is an M.D. makes me instantly wary and distrustful of them.

**If I do go to a nursing home, I totally want to go to one with pets around. I think that's a cool idea.

Out of sorts.

It's official: I am out of sorts.

This is ridiculous, as nothing is overtly wrong with me, I am not homeless, and I had a good breakfast. Still. There is no other phrase to describe what I am. I am in the middle of about five books, all of which are okay (and one of which is pretty good, actually) but I am just not in the mood. I feel like you feel when you're having a particularly nasty spat with a loved one: you feel very wrong, but you don't know how to fix it, and you feel off because the person to whom you would normally talk about the spat you're having with someone is the someone you're having the spat with. This is how I feel about reading this week.

I am not mad at reading. I just feel like we're not connecting. And, as you know, reading is what I do for work, fun, and what I sneak in doing between work and fun. So when I'm feeling conflicted about reading, everything--and I mean everything--is off.

It doesn't help that most big librarian and publisher and blog stories I'm reading this week are about the relentless march of e-books. And here's what I notice about e-books: no one's ever talking about the BOOKS. They're talking about the gadget--the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, etc., etc.--or they're talking about the ways to download your books onto your gadgets (Overdrive at the library? Wireless from Amazon? Public domain works? Is this software compatible with that gadget, and is the book you want available through that service?) Christ. It makes me so tired, literally. I KNOW that if people are reading e-books, they're still reading. I get that that's where we're going. But for someone who literally begrudges every single minute that they can't read, trying to navigate the nightmare of buying a device (and who has money for all this crap?) that will be obsolete in two years, necessitating a new purchase, as well as figuring out software? NO THANK YOU.

My. I know I shouldn't take it all so seriously. But sometimes I feel like the sailor in that Jimmy Buffett song: "his occupational hazard being, his occupation's just not around." I always wonder, too, if there was some poor bastard papyrus maker in ancient Egypt who loved making papyrus, and who lost his little papyrus shop when the codex took over. I feel very close to that ancient Egyptian.

Still looking for a book that grabs me.

I have been decidedly "meh" about a lot of nonfiction books lately. Sorry about that. I know that these types of experiences make for rather "meh" book blogging as well.*

Darling The latest entry in the Meh Files is Katharine Darling's Under the Table: Saucy Tales from Culinary School. Darling chronicles her stint at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, dishing on the experience as a whole, the chef professors, and her fellow students. She also includes a few personal memoirish details about her life and love affair (she gets engaged over the course of the story), and throws in a few recipes for good measure.

Now, there's nothing really wrong with the book, and I did read the whole thing, and the recipes do look good. But there was something about Darling's tone that didn't do a whole lot for me. Then again, I may just be biased by her author photo, which really bugged me, for some reason. If you can picture it, the tone of the book sounds a little bit like how she looks in that photo; ever so slightly a bit too over-confident for me. Consider:

"It was 8:00 a.m. sharp on our very first day of class, and as I walked into the large room that was dazzlingly bright with the glow of many overhead fluorescent lights bouncing off the stainless steel workstations, ovens, pots, pans, sinks, and even the tools of my classmates, I saw that Tucker [a classmate] had taken up a spot at the front of the room, closest to our chef-instructor's dark green marble-topped lecture station...And my parents thought I was too competitive. If I were competitive, I would have created a diversion and just snatched his spot when he was momentarily distracted. Okay, maybe I was a little bit competitive, but as it turned out, so was Tucker." (p. 18.)

The lady also doth protest too much--throughout she worries about her class standing and never, ever dreams that she deserved to be at the top of her class--and of course she graduates with the top honor. It reminded me a little bit of an old college roommate who used to throw herself on her bed in despair after tests, wailing that she had failed, but who would then tell me later she got something ridiculous like 110% (with extra credit).**

But, if you're a foodie, and you love all things cooking, you might still enjoy this one.

*No, I'm not trying to shunt the blame for lackluster blogging on lackluster authors. Well, maybe a little bit.

**I still love this roommate, she's a sweetie, but I just never believed in bewailing your performance on tests unless you really did fuck it up, with at least a C or lower.

A useful little cleaning book.

I'm still reading various chapters in Leslie Carroll's fun Notorious Royal Marriages, so not much new to report today.

Cleaning However, I did want to mention a neat little book I looked at over the weekend, titled Household Cleaning Self-Sufficiency, by Rachelle Strauss. Now, I hate cleaning, but I don't mind reading about it, primarily because I am a very inefficient cleaner, and I have always had this idea that if I just figured out HOW to clean, it would go a lot better. Because I always leave cleaning too long, I have also always relied on typical and harshly chemical cleaning products, which is a habit I'd like to break.

So I've looked at a lot of "green cleaning" books, and photocopied some recipes for cleaning solutions out of them (like mixes using borax or vinegar to address bathroom mildew spots), but I've never really found one that I thought it would be useful to own. But Strauss's book is the exception. It offers very logically laid out chapters, and succinctly lists what chemicals are in regular cleaning products that you should avoid (and why), what natural ingredients you can buy and use, and then a few chapters of specific ways you can clean various areas in your house. It's only 125 pages long, so it's not overwhelming, and it's pragmatic more than it is "earth mother." (Some of these books are so intimidating it's ridiculous; with recipes saying things like "slaughter your own hog. Then drip its tallow through charcoals to make lye, which you can then use as soap..."*) And, it's only $12.95. If you're looking for one household manual to pick up, or maybe even a useful gift for a change to give at a bridal shower or wedding, consider this one.

*I'm making this example up. Please do not try and make your own lye.

Good fluffy history.

It was kind of a muggy, dreary, cloudy, on-again off-again rainy weekend in Wisconsin, which made it a perfect weekend for enjoying a light little history read like Leslie Carroll's Notorious Royal Marriages: A Juicy Journey through Nine Centuries of Dynasty, Destiny, and Desire.

Juicyroyal I also enjoyed Carroll's earlier volume, Royal Affairs, although I'm still bothered that these books don't provide indexes. Then again, she doesn't really provide source notes, either, so if you simply approach this type of history as a novel, it can be very enjoyable. I also skipped around and only read the chapters I was interested in, which is always nice too--you can read a couple chapters and then put the book down and go get on with things you should be doing, like laundry. I can never get myself to feel guilty about reading when it's done "just a few chapters" at a time.

Books like this also might be good if you've got a high-schooler (particularly girls, I would think, for this type of volume) who doesn't much care for history OR reading. Carroll's chapters aren't particularly long, but they each provide a rollicking (and yes, "juicy") little narratives of some of the worst marriages of all time--royal marriages. It's easy reading* and you can pick up tidbits like Eleanor of Aquitaine had ten kids and lived to be 82--in the 1100s, mind you--which I still can't get over. (She must have been the healthiest woman ever.) I also enjoyed this paragraph, about when the infamous Henry VIII was searching for someone to marry after #3, Jane Seymour, died:

"Gorgeous sixteen-year-old Christina, the Danish-descended Duchess of Milan, wittily insisted that if God had given her two heads she would willingly risk one to marry the King of England, but as she only had one..." (p. 160.)

Nor is the book only about British monarchs. There's good stuff here about Ferdinand and Isabella, Nicholas and Alexandra of Russia, and even Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. I enjoyed it--and would suggest if you need a "juicy" nonfiction read, this might be a good choice.

*Carroll is also a romance and novel writer, so she knows how to tell a story.

Community reading.

I have been thinking a lot about community since reading the book I spoke about yesterday, Peter Lovenheim's In the Neighborhood.*

I liked the book, but I think there were some other books I liked better, or at least made me think about community and neighborhoods in slightly different ways (other than feeling guilty that I don't know many--any--of my neighbors). They were:

Peter Kilborn's Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America's New Rootless Professional Class. Not a perfect book, but it should make you realize what we're up against in our culture, trying to form communities. Kilborn points out that a large portion of the population simply has to move where their jobs are, and they want to live in innocuous, safe, homogeneous suburbs when they get there.

Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. A classic work, if a little dry, about changing participation in civil and public activities in America. I'd actually like to re-read this one; lately I've been wondering where we're going to go, soon, just to be among other people, as I believe video stores, music stores, and book stores are all on their way out.

Sudhir Venkatesh's Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. Again, a bit sociological, a bit academic, but really interesting, and a good look at how people everywhere are still bartering and doing what they can to get by utilizing the resources nearest them.

I know there's more but I'm blanking on them right now. Anyone else have any suggestions? Either way, and regardless of where your community is, I hope you have a great weekend.

*Many thanks to Katharine, by the way, for suggesting this one.

In the neighborhood.

Lovenheim I honestly didn't know what to think about Peter Lovenheim's new nonfiction book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. On the one hand, I thought it was a pretty neat little work of investigative and personal journalism (and I love that it came in at 238 pages, making it easily readable over a couple of nights); but on the other hand, I am too conflicted in my own feelings about neighbors, and what constitutes a community,* to wholeheartedly enjoy anything on the subject.

The impetus for Lovenheim's story came from an incident in his neighborhood in 2000, when a couple who lived just a few houses away from him died in a murder-suicide (the husband killed his wife and then himself). He was shocked to find how little he himself had known about them and their lives, and it got him thinking:

"What would it take, I wondered, to penetrate the barriers between us? I thought about childhood sleepovers and the insight I used to get from waking up inside a friend's home. More recently, my family and I had done summer house exchanges with families in Europe--they stayed in our house while we stayed in theirs. After living in these strangers' homes--waking in their beds, fixing meals in their kitchens, and walking in their neighborhoods--we had a strong sense of what their lives were about, something that would have been impossible to achieve just through conversation...But would my neighbors let me sleep over and write about their lives from inside their houses?" (pp. xvii-xviii.)

In fact, a bunch of his neighbors DID let him sleep over, and his descriptions of those experiences are the most interesting chapters in the book. I really did kind of enjoy it. Lovenheim's a skillful enough narrator, and the stories move right along--he gets to know an elderly neighbor, as well as a number of families, and another woman who is struggling with cancer. Along the way they do all become somewhat more involved in each other's lives--Lovenheim facilitates his older neighbor's desire to help individuals (rather than volunteering) by matching him up with the woman with cancer who needs help driving to some appointments, and he does become friends with many more people on his block.

I wouldn't say this book is a favorite, but it definitely was interesting (I felt the same way about the author's earlier title, Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf, which I read a million years ago and enjoyed but didn't love--and which I didn't realize was done by the same author until I read his bio on this book). Check it out if you're interested in the continuing cultural debate about communities, neighborhoods, and social preferences.

*And when I say conflicted, I mean I want nothing to do, personally, with any of my actual neighbors. Ask Mr. CR: when taking walks, I have been known to cross the street to avoid talking to any of my neighbors who might actually be out in their front yards. I know the names of the people in the houses on either side of me, but other than that I only know other neighbors by nicknames like "the bossy old lady in the house behind us." I know this is not right, but I can't seem to help it. I try to be a good citizen otherwise; I volunteer time for other causes, I take care to keep my house and lawn neat, and I have called the cops before when noticing suspicious behavior at other houses on my street. But that doesn't change the fact that we once went to a movie specifically because we knew our nearest neighbor was throwing a party designed to help all the neighbors meet each other, just so we wouldn't have to go. Part of this is because I have made the choice, along with other members of my family, to stick near them and in my hometown, so I feel like THEY are my community. If you have moved away from or don't get along with your family, I can see how the need for neighbors might be a very real one indeed.

Summer suspense.

Lately I have been trying to read more suspense and thriller books, because it's a genre I know hardly anything about, and it's only growing in popularity. In fact, one of my librarian friends tells me that many books that would have been published in years past as "mysteries" are now being published as "thrillers," because thrillers are more popular.

Now, I am not qualified to say what makes a thriller a thriller, or a suspense novel a suspense novel, or how they differ (and how they all differ from mysteries). If you want to talk about the nuances of nonfiction genres, like True Crime or Micro-histories, I could argue all day about those. But novels? I'm just not fussy enough to make the distinction.

Haunted All of that said, I did recently read Erin Hart's novel Haunted Ground, and really enjoyed it. I think I'm going to call it suspense, because, although it kept me wanting to turn the pages, I tend to think of "thrillers" as James Patterson-esque hack books, with two-page chapters and widely spaced text, with lots of chapter-ending cliffhangers and very little in the way of character development or graceful prose. This book was different; actually, when I started it, I thought the text was going to be a bit too dense. But once I got about thirty pages in, the author had me hooked.

The story is this: an Irish farmer, digging his own peat for fuel, comes across a perfectly preserved human head. The authorities call Irish archaeologist Cormac Maguire and American pathologist Nora Gavin, both of whom have some expertise about such "bog bodies," and soon they find themselves investigating both the historical mystery of who the head belonged to, as well as the more modern mystery of the disappearance of the wife and child of the local British "lord of the manor." Sparks may or may not fly between Maguire and Gavin; I'm not telling. All told there's a couple of great mysteries here, plus lots of fascinating information about British and Irish history.

I'm giving it a big thumbs up (it reminded me, a bit, of another one of my favorite British suspense authors, Minette Walters), and I'm excited to get the next two books in the series. Suspense novels may actually be making a little inroad into my reading heart.

What was the point of this farming experiment, exactly?

I did not enjoy Manny Howard's My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm.

Manny I did end up reading most of it, although I could tell from the start it wasn't really going to be my type of "back to the land" narrative. Although, to be honest, I can't think of one of these types of books that I've really, really loved, other than perhaps Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru, which was at least kind of charming, or Michael Ableman's On Good Land, which was more of a "staying on the land" story. I did not like Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, either. I think I tend to find these books either obnoxious or smug, neither of which are tones I enjoy in most of my nonfiction (unless, of course, the obnoxious is coming from Anthony Bourdain, who has a new book coming out!).

This book grew out of a New York Magazine article that Howard wrote in 2007, in which the magazine challenged him to live the locavore lifestyle by growing enough vegetables and livestock in his 800-square-foot Brooklyn backyard to keep him in food for a month. Perhaps the book just needed tighter editing; Howard seems to bounce, without any sort of plan, from one scheme to the next: growing plants from seed in his basement, growing vegetables through hydroponics, breeding rabbits for food, and eventually getting a few chickens and ducks as well. I was also annoyed that, throughout, he seemed to have endless money and resources for these projects; I couldn't tell if that was because his wife had a great job in the city, or if the magazine was footing all of his expenses. Consider his exploits in the hydroponics store, when he realizes the salespeople probably think he is a narc looking for information about home marijuana growers:

"Have the boys here made me for a narc? Me? Maybe...I may not be a narc or a drug-enforcement agent, but ever since I walked into the store I have been doing what my profession trained me to do, ask as many dumb questions as you can think of...But I neglected to identify myself as a reporter--because I am not, I am a farmer--so I have inadvertently communicated only a deep desire to burn vast amounts of money on a project I know nothing about. I have spent the last half hour asking after only the most obvious covert growing rigs--ones designed to fit inside closets. I can be one of only two things, the dumbest cannabis grow king ever to step through this front door, or a cop." (p. 85.)

I have two problems with that paragraph. First: dude, you are no farmer, even if you do keep trying to quote Wendell Berry. (Anytime you grow something for just the one season, I can call you at most a gardener.) And secondly, I have no patience for people who get to burn vast amounts of money on any project, because I have never had vast amounts of money, and frankly, hearing about other people burn through such amounts makes me both jealous and annoyed. It's the way the entire book progresses; he goes from one project to the next, and eventually does get some garden produce, but at the end of the season a tornado (first tornado in Brooklyn in a hundred years, which was unfortunate) wrecks most of his backyard and most of his animals die off. By the next season he's back to putting sod over his backyard, and that's the end of that. Leaving me with only the one feeling: What was the point of all that?

Meh. If you're looking for a better book on living off the land, do try Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru. Likewise, if you're interested in a more humorous memoir of a man bumbling through the first years of his marriage and home improvement, try Lawrence LaRose's vastly superior Gutted: Down to the Studs In My House, My Marriage, My Entire Life.

Summer reading from someone who doesn't pay any attention to summer.

It was an exciting weekend at Chez Citizen Reader: I was honored to be quoted in our local newspaper's story about summer reading. Let's hear it for Kim, over at Sophisticated Dorkiness, who wrote the article: Kim, you did a nice job, and hey, it's always nice for book news to get a little space in the print media.

What was just a tad ironic about my part in the story was that, as I told Kim, I don't have kids and we don't take vacations or anything in the summer, so we hardly ever notice it IS summer, and because of that, I never really think of or read "beach reads."*

But Kim took all that information with good grace and a willingness to provide nonfiction title suggestions as well as fiction ones, and we had a lovely conversation all about the nonfiction we're reading, which was awesome. (Let's also hear it for my librarian friends Jane and Liz, also quoted in the article, who, as per usual, were more eloquent than me.)

All of this made up slightly for the fact that I couldn't find a damn thing I wanted to read this weekend--plenty of books around, but I just didn't enjoy anything I started. I'm hoping to turn that around this week.

And how's about you? Does summer constitute a different reading season for any of you? Got any big plans for reading this summer?

*Add this layer of irony: I hate beaches, as I can't swim and I abhor hot weather. And no, I'm not going to learn to swim. For one thing, I've already learned, and forgotten how; for another, when I could swim, all I did was get water in my mouth, always leading me to think, "why am I making it harder to breathe?" Plus, if I can't swim and don't go to the beach, I never have to buy a swimsuit. This plan has been working out splendidly for at least the last decade and a half of my life, and I don't believe in fixing what isn't broken.

Quickly quotable.

The other night I was looking over Yann Martel's new novel Beatrice and Virgil, and was pleased to find some lovely thoughts on fiction and nonfiction right in the beginning of it. I don't think I'll keep reading it--Martel's a little "literary" for me--but I did enjoy this rumination by his character Henry, an author:

"But fiction and nonfiction are very rarely published in the same book. That was the hitch. Tradition holds that the two must be kept apart. That is how our knowledge and impressions of life are sorted in bookstores and libraries--separate aisles, separate floors--and that is how publishers prepare their books, imagination in one package, reason in another. It's not how writers write. A novel is not an entirely unreasonable creation, nor is an essay devoid of imagination. Nor is it how people live. People don't so rigorously separate the imaginative from the rational in their thinking and in their actions. There are truths and there are lies--these are the transcendent categories, in books as in life. The useful division is between the fiction and nonfiction that speaks the truth and the fiction and nonfiction that utters lies." (pp. 6-7.)

I enjoyed that. I enjoyed that a lot. And, frankly, that's probably the last thing in this novel I'm going to understand, so I'm going to stop reading it there. Sorry, Yann. I do still mean to read Life of Pi, someday. Has anyone read that one? Should I read it? Thanks for any input on this matter, and have a good weekend, all.

War nonfiction hiatus.

If American readers try to plead ignorance about how wars affect the soldiers who fight them, they're big fat liars. I have now officially read so many nonfiction narratives from American soldiers' points of view, or which tell their stories, that I can't read any more. I am done. I don't even know why I kept reading them in the first place; I keep thinking maybe at some point I'll understand our love for all things military in this country. But I never will.

Junger The latest entry in this canon was Sebastian Junger's War. It's been getting a lot of press attention, so I wanted to see it, but I should have quit reading last week when I was in the middle of it and couldn't tell you why I was still reading it. Junger is best known for his runaway bestseller The Perfect Storm, and he brings a lot of his skill in relating telling details, as well as for describing situations in which hope is pretty much lost, to this book. For a year (2007-2008) Junger was embedded with soldiers fighting in one of the most violent regions in Afghanistan, and this book is his account of, as the jacket copy exclaims, "what war actually feels like."

The book is divided into three sections: Fear, Killing, and Love. What I couldn't discern was how Junger was telling his story; anecdotes in the Love section, for example, seemed like they could just as easily have gone in Fear (etc.,) and I couldn't tell if the narrative was purely chronological, or what. Perhaps that was by design, proving how disconcerting war can be to your sense of time and continuity. Perhaps it was my fault, because I started reading the book pretty fast after page 100 or so. Either way, I couldn't keep hold of any sort of story arc.

What Junger does do well is share his personal observations on how the American soldiers withstand and actually come to love their ordeals. These are the tidbits that started to scare hell out of me after a while. Consider:

"War is a lot of things and it's useless to pretend that exciting isn't one of them. It's insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most excting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. Soldiers discuss that fact with each other and eventually with their chaplains and their shrinks and maybe even their spouses, but the public will never hear about it...In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn't where you might die---though that does happen--it's where you find out whether you get to keep living. Don't underestimate the power of that revelation. Don't underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time." (p. 144-145.)

"It's a stressful way to live but once it's blown out your levels almost everything else looks boring. O'Byrne knows himself: when he gets bored he starts drinking and getting into fights, and then it's only a matter of time until he's back in the system. If that's the case, he might as well stay in the system--a better one--and actually move upward...We are at one of the most exposed outposts in the entire U.S. military, and he's crawling out of his skin because there hasn't been a good firefight in a week. How do you bring a guy like that back into the world?" (p. 233.)

Cripes. This book saddened me like few have. Can't humans find larger meaning in anything except killing each other? Perhaps this book was just a little too much from the soldiers' point of view for me. If you'd like to read something on the subject, but not this book, I would highly recommend Theodore Nadelson's Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War, which was also depressing, but not quite as testosterone-soaked.

Kicking off the summer of Bryson.

When someone asked me about my summer reading plans this summer, I must admit I was stymied. Without kids and with a freelance job that tends to be somewhat constant year-round, and not liking to travel during the summer when everyone else is traveling, I never ever think of summer as its own reading season. I also am not a fan of either a. beaches, or b. beach reads (which seem mainly to be "women's fiction" novels or thrillers, neither of which are my cuppa), so "summer reading" wasn't something I had thought about at all.

But then I did think about it, and thought there might be a couple of goals I could have for the summer. After reading and enjoying Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, I thought maybe I'd work my way through the rest of his books (or at least the travel ones--he's also written books about the English language, but I don't know if I need to be that dedicated about it). I'm also thinking this should be the summer when I finally, finally read Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry (which is periodically recommended to me by one of my very favorite librarians), or perhaps even Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. I have always wanted to know if Rhett was as dishy, and Scarlett as annoying, as they are in the movie.

Continent But I decided to ease myself into things with Bryson's American travelogue, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. Now, I just didn't love this one the way I loved Notes from a Small Island or In a Sunburned Country, but I did finish it, and I've got quite a few bookmarks stuck in it, so I at least enjoyed many parts of it. In this travelogue, first published in 1989, Bryson visited his homeland of the United States (he was then living in Great Britain with his wife and family), and drove around most of it, writing about his experiences as he went, and engaging in nostalgia for the road trips of his youth, organized and run with a frugal hand by his father.

I don't know if Bryson has mellowed with age, but I found him a little more abrasive in this narrative, and the tone, to me, seemed a bit uneven: you could never tell whether he was going to love a place or activity, and even when he was enjoying himself it seemed like a grudging "well, that wasn't a bad time, considering how lousy this whole trip has been" way. Because he was in America, of course, a lot of his time was also spent driving and exploring American historical spots (colonial Williamsburg, the Gettysburg battleground, etc.) and since I am completely bored and annoyed by driving (preferring to travel near big urban centers where we can almost exclusively ride trains or other public transportation) and was never all that interested in American history, I fear much of the charm of this volume was lost on me.

But that doesn't mean there weren't moments. I LOVED his description of Franklin Roosevelt's Georgian retreat, Warm Springs:

"I drove out to the Little White House, about two miles outside town. The parking lot was almost empty, except for an old bus from which a load of senior citizens were disembarking. The bus was from the Calvary Baptist Church in some place like Firecracker, Georgia, or Bareassed, Alabama. The old people were noisy and excited, like schoolchildren, and pushed in front of me at the ticket booth, little realizing that I wouldn't hesitate to give an old person a shove, especially a Baptist. Why is it, I wondered, that old people are always so self-centered and excitable? But I just smiled benignly and stood back, comforted by the thought that soon they would be dead." (p. 75.)

Okay, in all fairness, that's a description of old people, not Warm Springs. But HERE is a further description of Warm Springs that I also enjoyed:

"In every room there was a short taped commentary, which explained how Roosevelt worked and underwent therapy at the cottage. What it didn't tell you was that what he really came here for was a bit of rustic bonking with his secretary, Lucy Mercer. Her bedroom was on one side of the living room and his was on the other. The taped recording made nothing of this, but it did point out that Eleanor's bedroom, tucked away at the back and decidedly inferior to the secretary's, was mostly used as a guest room because Eleanor seldom made the trip south." (p. 77.)

Now THAT is American history. If my school textbooks had been a bit more honest about things like that, I might have actually been interested in American history. I look forward to continuing the Summer of Bryson!

The best part of jobs: reading memoirs about them.

I have always loved a good "work memoir." As much as I don't enjoy working jobs, I do enjoy learning about them, particularly ones I know I am never going to do. This was the case with Claire Lewis's new memoir Exposed: Confessions of a Wedding Photographer.

Exposed I know I'm never going to be a wedding photographer not only because I'm not a very good photographer, but also because I hate all things associated with weddings. I disliked every moment of planning mine (well, picking out the food was okay), even though we kept it as simple as possible, and to this day I rather wish we'd eloped. Live and learn. Lewis's memoir was pretty much what I expected it to be: the unreasonable demands of mothers-in-law; working with bridezillas; wedding day disasters (evidently it never, ever works for your wedding attendees to release butterflies that they sell in individual boxes, just for that purpose--where are the PETA people when that crap is going on?); and rare anecdotes of joyful couples who are just happy to be getting married and take everything in stride.

I also enjoyed the interactions between Lewis and her assistant, Sarah. During one of their meetings, Claire was complaining about one particularly picky bride who was emailing constantly with messages like "We are having a MAJOR PROBLEM.* We want to use an ivory tablecloth on our cake table...People are telling me the ivory doesn't photograph well?!! We're pretty upset about it because it took us a super long time to make our linen decisions and it wasn't easy..." To which her assistant advised her on the following course of action: "Just tell her that ivory won't work and will look terrible. Then she'll have to start the whole linen planning over again. She'll be in heaven. It'll give her and her fiance something to worry about. Happiest time of their lives. They'll never have so much in common again." (pp. 131-146.) Ha!

In between her work experiences, Lewis also relates the story of her own romance, marriage, and childbirth, although those chapters felt a little rushed and slight to me. No matter: this was still a light, fun read. And now I can officially add "wedding photographer" to the long list of jobs I never want to hold.

*I also got a chuckle out of this book because it never ceases to amazes me what people categorize as "problems."