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August 2010

Has Anthony Bourdain jumped the shark?*

This is a question it hurts me to ask.

Bourdain I love Anthony Bourdain, and was very excited to read his new book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. So it was very disappointing to find that, while I read the whole thing, very few of its chapters really did anything for me, and I got the distinct feeling in the earliest chapters in the book that Bourdain has started to phone it in in order to keep publishing new collections (to do which, I'm sure, his publisher is always pushing).

My apathy started with the prologue, in which he describes a group of food notables and a special meal in which they were invited to partake. Now, Bourdain has never been one to mince words, or his love of eating animal flesh. So, if you're a bit squirrelly about delicacies like little birds that are meant to be eaten bones and all, you may want to skip the first chapter. I'm just sayin'. I am emphatically not a vegetarian (let's put it this way: I have eaten cow the same day I have helped butcher it) and it was a little much for me. In subsequent chapters he just seems to be trying too hard to maintain the hard-living facade, sharing stories from when he visited the Caribbean with a mentally unstable rich woman and holding forth on what luminaries in the food world he thinks are heroes and villains.

Which is not to say there's not any good material here. As always, he's at his best when describing food and how people prepare food. The absolute best piece in the whole thing--and it's toward the end, wait for it--is a chapter describing how one of the employees of Le Bernardin restaurant in New York City cleans and prepares the restaurant's daily fish portions. It's fascinating, and beautifully written:

"...every one who passes by and sees me standing there with a notebook in hand has to linger for a second, to determine if I've gotten it yet, how phenomenally, amazingly, supernaturally fucking good Justo Thomas is at doing this job. They appreciate this better than I ever could, because when Justo goes on vacation, it will take three of them to cut the same amount of fish that Justo, alone, will scale, gut, clean, and portion in four to five hours...**" (p. 237.)


"'This knife only for monkfish,' says Justo, producing a long blade that might once have been a standard chef's knife but which has been, over the years, ground down into a thin, serpentine, almost double-teardrop edge. Once the monkfish meat is cut away from the bone, one loin at a time, he grabs the tail ends and runs the flexible blade down the body, pulling skin away. With a strange, flicking motion, he shaves off any pink or red." (p. 244.)

Frankly, that chapter made the whole book worth it. I'll still read whatever Bourdain writes, but I'll be happier if he goes back to describing, primarily, the kitchens and the food he loves so much.

*For the record, I thought of this phrase and title before Bourdain used it describing the work of another chef on p. 153. Weird coincidence.

**Normally italics bug me, but Bourdain doesn't use them often, and I like the emphasis they give here.

John Hughes in book form.

I know I'm not the only John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, etc.) fan out there because I waited for Susannah Gora's new book You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation on hold from the library for a LONG time.

Gora The book is quite simple; Gora describes each of the "Brat Pack" films of John Hughes in separate chapters (she doesn't bother with his later blockbusters like Home Alone), and also throws in bonus chapters about the magazine article that first named the Pack, what that label did to the actors' careers, and on related films that John Hughes didn't direct, like St. Elmo's Fire and Say Anything.

I didn't actually mean to blow through this one as fast as I did, but I've always been a big John Hughes fan and I must confess it was a lot of fun reliving his movies through this text. I also enjoyed getting the inside scoop on the relationships between the young actors on whom Hughes relied, and other film trivia tidbits. It was also interesting learning a bit more about the youth and personality of Hughes himself--turns out he was a bit mercurial, which, for whatever reason, I wouldn't have pictured. In the end, though, I'm still willing to cut the man who gave us Ferris Bueller's Day Off a bit of slack. Sure, he may have been difficult. But he could sure show joy on film.

If you've ever watched and enjoyed a Hughes film I'd recommend this one. If nothing else it's easy to read the chapters just about your favorite movies and leave the rest (I'll admit I skimmed some of the chapters that focused on the Brat Pack actors).

Let's hear it for University of Chicago Press.

Martin Preib's essay collection/memoir The Wagon and Other Stories from the City is not going to be for everyone.*

Wagon But if you like it, you're going to really like it. It's a slim little volume, but it packs a lot in its 165 pages (which is always my favorite kind of book). It's a collection of tales from Preib's life in Chicago--both from his time spent working service jobs such as being a hotel doorman and bartending, and from his career as a Chicago police officer (a job at which one of his first duties was picking up dead bodies from around the ciy in "the Wagon"). He also slips in tales of his free-form education (sounds like he studied Latin and Greek at some point, for whatever reason) and his adventures hitchhiking around the country.

I wasn't wowed by the first essay, but after that, I couldn't seem to leave the book alone. Even when I wasn't aware that I was loving it, I resisted taking it back to the library on time so I could finish it, and I'm glad I did. Sometimes the writing is a bit, well, for lack of a better term, "writer's workshop" for me, but that's okay. I'd rather someone went for lyrical, for something a bit deeper, and failed, than if they hadn't tried at all. And, after all, the brutal nature of his cop work stories kept things real. When he and his partner are called to a cab fare dispute, in which three drunken yuppies are alleging they're being overcharged by their cabdriver (Preib assesses the fare and distance on the scene and points out that the fare seems about right), I loved his thought process:

"I calmly ask the drunken woman what happened, as if I am interested in her side, but my mind is already made up. She has to pay. I nod my head calmly as she rants, raising my eyes a few times and saying quietly, 'Take it easy. I'm listening,' hoping that she will run out of air, calm down. Instead she states over and over that she is a teacher and very educated. Her voice is loud, abrasive, condescending. The educated part is thrown at me as much as the cabdriver. It dawns on me that this cabdriver can probably speak at least two or three languages. I want to look at her and tell her that a monkey could pass education classes." (p. 79.)

Okay, I just found that really, really awesome. Because 1. I have to laugh that people always have plenty of money for their own food and booze, but none when it comes to tips or cab fare; and 2. I was just ranting to Mr. CR the other day how sad I think it is how so few of us in this country speak a second language (and we continue to fight learning another language, tooth and nail). I think this came up after I watched the German winner of the weekend's PGA championship answer the announcer's questions in fluent English. How many of our golfers (arguably probably some of the better educated athletes out there) could go to Germany and answer in fluent German? Or anywhere? How embarrassing.

It's a fascinating little book, containing ideas that are anything but little. And this author had to overcome my reading prejudices--Chicago is my least favorite city on the planet (of the few I've visited). And he STILL managed to make the city seem harsh and beautiful and interesting all at once. Kudos to the University of Chicago Press for publishing this one--and I hope we see more from Martin Preib.

*My blogging program changed a bit, offering this slightly larger font. How does everyone feel about it? I kind of like it.

How does that keep happening?

Waking up a few times every night and not being able to get back to sleep is not doing much for my daytime productivity, but it is doing wonders for my reading track record. Several times this week I have caught myself not particularly enjoying books, but finishing them nonetheless. There must be something about the wee small hours that make them very efficient reading times.

Crosley The book I started and finished in the dark this week was Sloane Crosley's essay collection How Did You Get This Number. I read Crosley's first essay collection, I Was Told There'd Be Cake, and although it got raves from every single critic there is, it didn't do a whole lot for me. So I'm not sure why I got this next volume, but there you have it. And again, there's either something about Crosley's subjects or writing that just doesn't light me on fire.

But yet...I read the whole thing. And in the last essay I got a little bit of Crosley's appeal: she's got the "essay twist" skill (this is what I call it when an essay takes a turn from its subject matter to its deeper meaning, usually aided and abetted by some sentences that take my breath away). In "Off the Back of a Truck," she combines the topics of a love affair gone wrong with her acquaintance with a furniture store employee who helped her get some questionable deals on merchandise. Sounds simple, but it's one of those essays where you know a lot more is going on than you're appreciating. I hope I'm not giving too much away, but in the end she gives up her furniture deals and her sadness over the failed relationship:

"Time passed, and I found myself wandering into Out of Your League [the store in question]--where I was apparently wearing an outfit that indicated I should be followed around like a fourteen-year-old shoplifter...I went over to the carpet wheel and spun, but I couldn't find one to fall in love with. I think I had just outgrown my fascination with the store in general. A thin, older saleslady in pearls lowered her glasses and asked me if she could help me with anything. But I could tell she didn't mean it.

'I think I'm set.' I waved, repeatedly pressing the button for the ground floor while she pretended not to judge me.*

What can you do? Time grabs you by the scruff of your neck and drags you forward. You get over it, of course. Everyone was right about that. One mathematically insignificant day, you stop hoping for happiness and become actually happy. Okay, on occasion, you do worry about yourself. You worry about what this experience has tapped into..." (pp. 270-271.)

There's more, in a totally fabulous conclusion, but I don't want to ruin it in case you read it. I just love the "time grabs you by the scruff" bit, because that's exactly what it does. Damn talented essayists, even when they're not my favorite essayists.

*I must always look pretty low-rent because this is how I usually get treated in stores too. Oh well. I can live with it.

The Wars We Inherit.

I have never, ever read anything like Lori E. Amy's The Wars We Inherit: Military Life, Gender Violence, and Memory.

I placed it on hold during one of my monthly trolls through the New Nonfiction list my friendly local library publishes, simply because I often do read titles about the military. But whatever I was expecting, it wasn't this. I only read it this past weekend because it's coming up due, and I thought, I should at least see what it's about. I wasn't particularly in the mood to start it, or feeling like a book about the military or violence. Although I could put it down after I started it, I found myself reading it again the morning after I first picked it up--at five a.m., when I couldn't sleep.

I don't know what I was expecting, from the title, but I wasn't expecting a mix of memoir and scholarly dissertation on the nature of violence in our world and in all of our lives. Amy opens the narrative with several chapters about her own child- and young adulthood, describing in particular her relationship with her father Frank, and his relationship with her mother and his other children. Raised as an army brat, while Frank served in both Korea and Vietnam (and then on various bases throughout the country), Amy tells a (sometimes horrific) tale of sexual and psychological abuse. She doesn't go into great detail, choosing instead to focus on how she went about remembering her childhood, and talking with her other sisters and brothers to piece together the stories of their family life.

So, you say, it's an abuse memoir--there's (so sadly) tons of those. No. Where Amy takes this book into new territory is her use of her own history, including her marriage as a young woman to a Navy officer, to "illuminate the relationship between the violence that we experience in our homes and the ways that we organize our culture." (p. 1.) In the second half of the book, Amy continues to explore not only her own family dynamic--and the dynamics of her sisters' families--but she also, ambitiously, takes on broader issues of militarization, gender roles, and violence in all aspects of our society.

It's a work you have to take as a whole, and at 189 pages, it should be taken as a whole. But there is one part I can't resist quoting, as the author remembers an experience she had while she was teaching school in 1991:

"I heard about it during third period--that Todd's stepfather had come back from Kuwait, where his reserve unit had been deployed during the Persian Gulf War, with pictures. He has these pictures displayed in the auditorium, and studnets have been going in all day to look at them. Photographs of dead Iraqis--limbs missing, blood everywhere. I can't believe the high school principal let him bring these pictures to school, set up a public display. I can't believe this school is sending students in to look, with pride, at pictures of dead Iraqis. The boys come back from the auditorium, euphoric, happy, proud...What are we doing to these boys? They are children--fourteen, fifteen, sixteen--they don't even shave! And these words are coming out of their mouths, dehumanizations, obscenities. They are learning to forget that these are human beings they are looking at...

I told my students: This is wrong. This war, these deaths, these things are cause for grief, for mourning, not for celebration. I told the principal these pictures should not be displayed. I had my students watch the news, explained to them the history of the 1980s, when the United States was funding Saddam Hussein and building his army. I tried to give them some of the historical context of which they were completely ignorant--about the Shah of Iran, the revolution and the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the Iran-Iraq war. My students told their parents what I told them. Their parents compalined to the principal. The principal told me not to talk about the war anymore.

Amnesia. Denial. A blind patriotism that, in its blindness, loves killing." (pp. 122-123.)

I repeat: This is an extraordinary book. It is a university press book, but it belongs in every public library. Book groups should read it. Even if you don't agree with what the author is saying, I think you would have to agree that she is trying to be thoughtful and fair while she is saying it. In fact, speaking of high school, it should be required reading, along with Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam (Vintage Departures) and Theodore Nadelson's Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War.

A bit of housekeeping and Nathan Fillion as supertalent.

Good morning, all. I know Mondays aren't our favorite place to be but I hope you have a good week nonetheless.

Just a bit of housekeeping this morning before we get back to reviews: I have officially become a "Powell's Partner," which means that now, when you click on a book title link and go to the Powell's web site (which is where I have been linking anyway, as I am conflicted about Amazon), if you actually buy that book at Powell's, I will get a small commission. I will add this information to my "About" page as well. I just thought you should know. And--in case any of you do buy anything at Powell's after clicking through from here, THANK YOU.

And, just because, here's a fun video of (Canadian!) actor Nathan Fillion reading aloud from some of the saucy bits of the new Richard Castle mystery title. For those of you not familiar with this story, Fillion stars in a TV mystery drama titled Castle, about a mystery writer, and now they are starting to publish books under the fictional name "Richard Castle." It hurts me that Fillion is garnering attention for this role (I think the show is a total snore; and feel about it the way I feel about "Two and a Half Men"--happy that Jon Cryer is getting some success, but sorry he had to get it that way); he should have had kudos for his work on Firefly instead. But anyway. Enjoy the clip--the guy is pretty hilarious.

She can really write, I'll give her that.

I did not like Meghan Daum's Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House as much as I liked her essay collection My Misspent Youth (remember? "Carpet is Mungers.").

Daum This is not to say that I didn't like it. I did read the whole thing, and enjoyed parts of it immensely. I think Daum really knows her way around nonfiction prose. The whole book is nothing but a dissertation on Daum's fascination with her own living arrangements: her childhood home, her desire to live in New York City (a certain kind of apartment/place in NYC, mind you), her move to Nebraska, her living situations there, and her eventual search (at the height of the real estate boom) for the perfect house in Los Angeles.

Her descriptive powers are at their height when she describes the house she ended up buying in L.A. (for $450,000), especially when she discusses its "fixer-upper" qualities:

"And then there was the garage. I realize that this is the kind of statement that makes people think women are not equipped to own property other than full-service condos, but I'll just come out and say it: I didn't really look at the garage right away because I was afraid to. But let's understand something: many a grown man was also afraid of this structure (a weirdly endearing macho man who I know owns a gun refused to even approach it; another man told me he wouldn't go near it without a life insurance policy). What wusses, I thought, though undoubtedly they just thought I was a moron and a sucker...The property had been sold in as-is condition, not least of all because the garage, which was presumably built in 1928 or shortly thereafter, had been completely caved in for decades. Somewhere along the line, the slabs of broken concrete from the roof had even bisected a Volkswagen bus parked inside." (pp. 175-176.)

Interestingly, the parts of the book set in L.A. were my favorites (which surprised me, as I am not an L.A. fan). But mainly what wowed me about this book was hearing how Daum got by on a writer's salary and without health insurance until at least her mid-thirties (at least that's the way it sounded). I salute her. But I also don't think that's what I was supposed to take away from her book.

Quick review of a book I DID read, but can't much remember.

It's always a bad sign when I read a nonfiction book and can't remember much of anything about it. This ist he case with Lee Eisenberg's Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep On Buying No Matter What.

ShoptimismI was really excited to get this one, too, because as much as I hate actually shopping, that's how much I love reading books about shopping, retail, and consumerism. Eisenberg is best known for his bestselling nonfiction title The Number, which was a book about retirement goals and attitudes (he's also a former editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine). He's a serviceable writer, and although I read this whole book, I can quite honestly say that nothing in it particularly resonated (there's absolutely no bookmarks in it marking parts I want to revisit or quote) with me, and I can't for the life of me remember much of it. This is weird. Normally the nuances and plot points of nonfiction books are all I have a superhuman memory for.

I think what bothered me most about this book was how Eisenberg failed to follow through on his subtitle: I didn't really get an idea of WHY the American consumer will keep shopping no matter what, and that's what I was really interested in. The book is organized into two parts; the view from the side of people trying to sell you things (Eisenberg introduces this by letting the reader in on his own shopping tours and habits), and the view from the side of the people doing the shopping (that is, YOU). Each half is filled with anecdotes of Eisenberg's experiences as both a shopper and a shiller (he also was an executive vice president at Lands' End ), historical tidbits about shopping, and explanations of research about how people shop and buy.

But, for whatever reason? The text just never coalesced for me. I wasn't particularly interested in Eisenberg's efforts* to formulate his own "Unified Buy Theory," and even though his explanations about different types of buyers ("classic," "romantic," etc.) were interesting, I still didn't finish the book feeling that the American consumer would, in fact, "keep on buying no matter what." I think the current economic/retail climate would side with me on this one.

*I also found his tone sometimes, annoyingly, to resemble something I think of as "old annoying slick businessman who's done pretty well out of the system, although I'm not sure how or why." He reminded me of Thomas Friedman, just a bit, who I tend to sum up more succinctly: "smug."**

**Interestingly, Thomas Friedman's rich wife's family made her/their fortune in malls and real estate. It's a wacky world.

Quick reviews of books I haven't read.

Now that's the kind of expertise you visit Citizen Reader for, isn't it?

Hay Through no fault of my own, I'm coming up against all sorts of library due dates for books that I really wanted to read, but which I have to return before I get the chance. The first such book is Angela Miller's Hay Fever: How Chasing a Dream on a Vermont Farm Changed My Life. I did read the first few chapters of this one, which seems to be a completely typical "driven city person tackles life on farm" narrative. Miller is a literary agent who still works several days a week in New York City, but who has also been moonlighting as a farmer and goat cheese maker on her Vermont farm for the last several years. The writing was okay but nothing special (it's actually co-written with another author, Ralph Gardner Jr., which isn't often a very good sign) and I must admit that I'm getting a little weary of the "back to the land" genre. I was particularly annoyed by this title because I don't understand how a woman past the age of sixty could have the energy to commute four hours back and forth to NYC once a week, be a high-powered literary agent, and also farm on the side. Where do these people get all the drive?

I was also annoyed by this, on the jacket's front flap copy: "Angela Miller and her husband set their sites on a charming nineteenth-century farm in Vermont." I know that's not the author's fault, but still...hacky. I will not be getting this one back.

God The second book in question is Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter. I only read the Introduction of this one, but I totally want to get it back and read it someday. I think Prothero's a good writer about religion; knowledgeable and open and not necessarily connected to any one dogma; I particularly enjoyed his earlier title Religious Literacy. And I like no-nonsense paragraphs like this one:

"Yet we know in our bones that the world's religions are different from one another. As my colleague Adam Seligman has argued, the notion of religious tolerance assumes differences, since there is no need to tolerate a religion that is essentially the same as your own. We pretend these differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral. But pretending that the world's religions are the same does not make our world safer. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous." (p. 4.) Awesome.

The last book that has to go back is a novel, David Nicholls's One Day, a new novel by the British author of the novel A Question of Attraction (which I really enjoyed, and which was made into an equally enjoyable movie, titled Starter for Ten, starring James McAvoy). I really wanted to read this one, and now I'm just not in the mood for its love story, told over the course of twenty years. Perhaps some other time.

Looking for a few good library staff members.

Just a short request today. Over at the other blog for which I write (the Reader's Advisor Online blog, edited by the fabulous Cindy Orr) we are thinking of doing a feature about reading and reader's advisory resources that actual library staff--you know the ones, the librarians and clerks and pages and everyone else actually working service desks in libraries--use for their own reference. It may be just me, but I am tired of reading the same old articles about RA and library service written by the same people (I include myself in this group) and would like to hear from staff actually "in the trenches."

If you have any interest in contributing to or discussing this feature (we're mainly looking for suggestions for blogs, books, web sites, etc., and other tools that you use, and why) please contact me at [email protected]. Thanks so much!

Both ends of the spectrum: Death.

I enjoyed the hell out of Tom Jokinen's Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training.

This is weird, I know, but I ALWAYS seem to enjoy books about death and funerals. I really liked Lisa Takeuchi Cullens's Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death, and I loved Jessica Mitford's classic The American Way of Death. I know three books does not a whole lot of experience make, but I have this feeling I've read other books on the subject and am just not remembering them right now.

CurtainsJokinen is a Canadian author who takes some time off from his job in order to become an undertaker's apprentice; basically, helping out at a local funeral home business with such tasks as transporting bodies, assisting at embalmings, and just being a general all-around helper. I know, it sounds morbid, doesn't it? But it's really not. His personal reaction to the jobs he's given is interesting, his insight into his employer's funeral home business is fascinating, and his wider look at current trends in funeral services (including "green" burials and cremation, of course), especially as they become ever more separated from tradition and religion, is also really well done.*

I liked it for its non-sentimentality. Consider this job tip: "Summer at the Factory [Jokinen's name for the funeral home] means the smell of freshly turned earth from Brookside cemetery, and Zep bug spray, which Shannon uses to fog the dressing room to keep flies off the customers. 'The last thing you want is to open the casket and have a fly come out of someone's nose,' she says. Shannon's full of helpful hints. When threading a needle in the prep room, she says, resist the urge to put it in your mouth. Moisten the end with water from the sink. 'Never lick anything in a funeral home.'" (p. 75.)

Now that's good advice. It's a great book--give it a try if you can handle the subject matter.

*Plus, he's Canadian, which means I love him by default. At one point he references the band Blue Rodeo, which is a great Canadian band, and one of my favorites, which made me feel very Canadian myself. Please, Canada, just adopt me already?

Both ends of the spectrum: Birth.

I have decided, eighty-nine pages into it, that preggers ladies should probably not be reading Jennifer Block's Pushed: The Painful Truth about Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care.

Pushed Which is a shame, because I've been finding that it's a really interesting book. There's some fascinating, FASCINATING, stuff in it about how many labors are induced (and for what reasons), how many c-sections are currently performed in America (and why), epidurals, "rushing" natural labor, and all sorts of other labor and medical history bits and bobs. It's my favorite type of medical nonfiction book--pretty detailed, offering historical context (the history on episiotomies, the different types of drugs used during labor, and forceps alone make this book worth it), and a bit questioning of the medical establishment. There's also a lot of interesting stuff about the dynamic between nurses (and midwives), who are often more open to letting labor start when it's going to start and take as long as it's going to take, and doctors, who tend to be a bit more into what they call "active management."

If you have a better attitude toward the medical establishment than I do, this may not be the book for you; it's a bit argumentative (you can tell that from the opening line of the publisher's description: "In the U.S., nearly half of all mothers are chemically induced into labor whether they want it or not; almost a third give birth via C-section." I've known loads of women who were most pleased with both their inductions and their epidurals, but this wouldn't be the type of book I'd probably suggest to them.

Weirdly, I think I'd like to get this book back when I'm not pregnant. It's an eye-opener, that's for sure--and I might even suggest it to go along with another interesting book on the subject, Peggy Vincent's Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife.

Worth the whole month.

While I took my fiction reading vacation over the past month, I couldn't entirely neglect nonfiction (of course). Earlier I alluded to a nonfiction book that took me a month to read; the book in question was Suzanne Strempek Shea's Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip In Search of Christian Faith.

Sundays It didn't take me a month to read because I didn't like it, or because it was hard to read. It took a month to read because for once I gave myself the luxury of simply slowly chipping away at a book--I read it three or five pages at a time, and yes, although this may be too much information, I read much of it in the bathroom.

It was perfect for that kind of reading. Shea did exactly what her subtitle promises; she spent a year going to different Christian religious services, and then wrote about each week in short chapters about five to ten pages long. She roamed all over the country to do so, although many of her experiences were based in her native New England. The result is a thoughtful, fascinating book, not only about religion, but also about a personal search for meaning (told from the perspective of someone who is primarily observing others' searches for meaning). As a Catholic who "had experienced a spiritual disconnect," she relates her memory of watching the outpouring of grief over the death of John Paul II, and wishes she could feel such passion about her religion and spirituality again. Hence, her quest to "to on a pilgrimage of sorts, tour a few other houses of worship, finally find out just what goes on in those churches I grew up forbidden to enter, and understand what makes for devotion to a religious community." (p. xi.)

She only chose various Christian denominations (she was particularly interested, as a Catholic, in those "banned" Protestant churches she'd heard more about during her childhood) to visit, and each of the chapters describing her experiences in Baptist, Quaker, Greek Orthodox, Episcopalian, Pentecostal (and many other faiths) is a fascinating window into new worlds. As is my habit, I stuck bookmarks in wherever I really enjoyed something or thought I might want to quote it; rather than trying to put any such quotes in context, I'll simply say that this book collected no fewer than seven bookmarks, which is pretty impressive.* My favorite chapters were the ones where she really felt at home, and I also enjoyed her chapters about several "megachurches" she attended, as she managed to be much less judgmental about Rick Warren and Joel Osteen than I would have been.

I wouldn't have minded a little longer conclusion, discussing a bit more how she felt after her year and what services particularly stayed with her, but that's a small quibble. If this isn't the subject matter for you, I can also recommend her earlier memoir, Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama, and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore.

*It's always very satisfying to me to finish a book and see it still stuffed with bookmarks. I feel like I really got something accomplished.

That pesky little issue of subject matter.

I love, love, LOVE Tom Bissell. If there was a nonfiction author who was going to come close to challenging my allegiance to William Langewiesche, Bissell would be that author. Remember our Book Menage about his travel/history/memoir The Father of All Things? The guy is a super-talent.

So when I saw he had a new book coming out, of course I had to put myself on hold for it, even though I knew that its subject matter was video games. This was optimistic on my part, because if there's one subject that bores me, it's video games. Not only have I never understood the appeal (although I do remember playing some sort of "shoot aliens" game on my brother's first Apple computer when I was little), but I am one of those tiresome people who won't even give them a try. Sometimes Mr. CR goes to a friend's and plays Wii, but the very thought of playing Wii games or any other video game is so boring I can't stand it. Again: it's not that I need to be intellectually stimulated every minute. I am perfectly capable of re-watching movies more than twenty times (so sad, but I know it's been at least that many viewings for Broadcast News and the BBC version of North and South). I think I tried to play something once and was literally so bored while people tried to explain to me what buttons did what that I gave up before the game even started.

Extra BUT...I wanted to give Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter a try anyhow. And, although I made it fifty pages in, I wasn't able to stick with it. Once again, his writing is stellar.* The man can make even his first time playing the game Evil Dead compelling. And I do get the feeling he's got a lot of interesting things to say about why people play video games so obsessively, and what these games mean to our culture, and how their narrative structures and the experience of playing them leads to their players' other experiences of entertainment, art, and culture. Or, in his own words, "I wrote this book as a writer who plays lots of games, and in these pages you will find one man's opinions and thoughts on what playing games feels like, why he plays them, and the questions they make him think about." (p. xiv.)

But in the end...I couldn't do it.** And, for the record, I still can't get myself to believe that video games matter. But, if you have an interest in gaming, or in youth culture, I would still recommend this one. I'd actually love to see who is buying and reading it, because for the life of me I can't see it appealing to the vast majority of those who play these games. But I wish him luck with it anyway. In the meantime I'll probably just go re-read bits of The Father of All Things.

*I love this quote: "I have somehow spent more than two hundred hours playing Oblivion. I know this because the game keeps a running tally of the total time one has spent with it. I can think of only one personal activity I would be less eager to see audited in this way, and it, too, is a single-player experience." (p. 5.)

**Although I did cheat and read the last chapter, which is a dual tour-de-force about what makes the Grand Theft Auto games so compelling, and how the author played them while frequently doing cocaine. For some reason this surprised me, and I actually have to give Bissell kudos--he puts it all out there. I realize I don't know him at all, but he makes you feel like you do, and that's part of his charm. Even when I can't finish his books I find him, and his writing, fascinating.

Housekeeping odds and ends.

Well, the saga of the new laptop computer is nearly over (or so she hopes). The new laptop is here, and I spent a good chunk of time over the past few days moving over old emails, old files, and setting up new Internet antivirus stuff and all that jazz. I'm pretty sure everything has been set up incorrectly, and that whatever steps I have taken against viruses will not be sufficient. But that is status quo on whatever computer I have. Mainly: my email is working, which took no small amount of finagling (I will not use either Outlook or gmail for my main email), so I'm going to mark this one up in the win column. And, I once again have sufficient computing power to watch YouTube videos. Let the time-wasting commence.

I do have one remaining question: Does anyone out there exclusively use Open Office for their Word document processing needs? I wouldn't mind skipping out on buying the Microsoft Suite all over again, but I don't know that I trust Open Office, either. Opinions, please.

Last but not least, I can also finally load the Huffington Post Books page (which wouldn't load, or loaded VERY slowly, on my old computer). So there the other day I found this fun article about the Most Overrated American Authors, and Jonathan Safran Foer was on it. This made me very happy.

Not quite sure I liked it until I finished it.

I've never been a big Truman Capote fan, Audrey Hepburn is a movie actress I can largely take or leave, and I was completely bored throughout all of the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's when I watched it a million years ago. So why exactly did I get Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Womanout of the library? I have no idea.

Fifth What's even weirder is that I read the whole book, and enjoyed it. It delivers exactly what its subtitle promises: an in-depth look at the making of the classic movie, from Capote's writing of the story on which it's based, through its screenplay development, casting, and filming. It didn't hurt that it was only about 200 pages long.

I would think any film buff would enjoy this book; likewise, anyone who's ever had any interest in Truman Capote or Audrey Hepburn might find a lot to like here. It's a nice look at film and social history, and it's very readable, broken up into workable chunks throughout each chapter. (I particularly enjoyed the bits about how Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe to be cast in the lead, and how the screenwriter had to fight the studio/film censors on every teensy little risque item. It must have been a different world. 

The Great Fiction Reading Adventure of 2010: Part 5

And now for something completely different: historical fiction!

Now, normally, I'm almost perfectly ambivalent about historical fiction. When I chance across a great title in the genre, I tend to really like it, and even if I don't remember all the plot points, I can usually remember the tone and feeling of such books (a few examples: Jane Urquhart's superlative The Stone Carvers; Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus), which is a vast improvement over how poorly I remember other fiction titles that I read.* But the majority of historical fiction doesn't do much for me--it tends to be too long and too detailed.

Fierce So when I picked up Lauren Belfer's A Fierce Radiance, I was actually kind of pumped to read it, as I remembered reading and enjoying another historical novel of hers titled City of Light (about Niagara Falls). Imagine my disappointment, then, as I struggled through about 150 pages of this one and had to give it up.

The story's compelling enough; the main character is independent 1940s woman Claire Shipley, a freelance photographer with Life magazine who is assigned to cover an early story on advances using penicillin, the new wonder drug. Claire's interest in the treatment goes beyond the professional; her daughter died years previously of blood poisoning, one of the diseases that penicillin would become useful in treating. While photographing the patients and doctors involved, she falls in love with Dr. James Stanton, but his duty during World War II interrupts their love story.

There's actually much more to the novel than that--read the Powell's annotation if you're looking for the full version--but I had two problems with this book. One, I hit the obviously insurmountable (for me, at least) subject deal-breaker of World War II. Two, I thought the writing was a little phoned-in, which was a disappointment after her first novel. Consider:

"Even in the restaurant's half-light, she was more beautiful than he remembered, with a combination of wayward sexiness and demure elegance that he hadn't registered before. She was dressed simply, in tailored trousers and a close-fitting sweater. Without her ubiquitous cameras and equipment bags, she was more vulnerable and feminine than he recalled. He wanted to reach across the table and caress her hair. Actually he wanted to do much more than that--making love with her flashed through his mind--but he held back. He didn't want to make her uncomfortable by moving too close too fast. He was willing to wait for her." (p. 138.)

I don't know..."making love with her flashed through his mind"? Am I the only one juvenile enough around here to get a giggle out of that? Once I started giggling at what was supposed to be a serious story I  knew it was time to hang it up.

*Mr. CR is continually amazed at my amazing swiss-cheese memory. Nonfiction titles, film trailers of any kind, and BBC actor names are in my brain forever; novels I read yesterday and most conversations or events from last week are gone forever.

The Great Fiction Reading Adventure of 2010: Part 4

Today's feature is a double: two thrillers for the price of one!

Monkeewrench I'd been meaning to read P.J. Tracy's Monkeewrench for ages and finally got it done. For one thing, it's the first book in a popular thriller series; for another, it's written by a mother-and-daughter team, and I always find co-written books, if not great reads, at least interesting to consider from a mechanical point of view (how did they work together? Did one person come up with the plot and the other person do the writing? etc.). It's also been heralded here in the Midwest for its dual setting in Minnesota and Wisconsin.*

As is typically the case with thrillers, the plot is not really the point, but here it is: An uber-religious couple is found shot dead in a church in Wisconsin. At the same time that law enforcement there is trying to unravel that case, a series of grisly murders is playing out in Minneapolis. What do those murders have to do with a software/gaming company called Monkeewrench? Well, the murders are copycat versions of murder scenario's in the company's new crime investigation game, several of which have been previewed on the company's website. Is somebody who accessed the website re-creating the murders, or is it one of the employees of Monkeewrench, all of whom, by the way, clearly have their own dangerous secrets?

And again, as is typically the case with thrillers, I had to read the whole thing--so the prose was clearly compelling. And actually, for a thriller, the character development was pretty good too. I particularly liked the feisty head of Monkeewrench, Grace MacBride. So yeah, okay read. But, unfortunately, the thriller genre and I are destined never to be one. For one thing, somewhere in the middle, I always desire simply to be done with the book, at which case I either start skimming to finish or I simply read the last couple of chapters and call it a day. I don't know why this is. Secondly, I always feel vaguely dirty when finishing them--they never seem like something I should have enjoyed. Weirdly, I don't have this problem when reading True Crime books.

Ritual The other thriller was Mo Hayder's Ritual, which again, I plowed all the way through (you can't really read these books slowly, I find--if there's one thing these authors are really, really good at, it's pulling you through chapters and making it hard for you to ever put the book down until you're done). Ritual was a bit more disturbing than Monkeewrench; Hayder's a Brit author and they just seem to do DARK, even in thrillers, better than American authors. Her book opens with police diver Flea Marley finding a hand--that's it--in a small inlet in the port town of Bristol. The greater scheme the hand was part of--having to do with the city's underground and some unsavory ritual practices being adapted from their African roots to very modern criminal settings--is quite complex, but readers are warned this is one of your more graphic variety thrillers.

Hayder was recommended to me a long time ago, by a thriller-reading friend, for her book Birdman, which was also creepy as hell. I can find no fault with Hayder's writing, plotting, or characterization, and of course I love her British tone--but the fact remains that when I was done with this book I just felt sick, and didn't really want to talk about it at all.** I just don't enjoy ending books on that note, so why do it?

*Mr. CR liked Monkeewrench okay, but was endlessly annoyed at this quote: "'I am not one of your abuse cases, Sharon, and I don't need analysis from a kid with a penny-ante U of W psych degree, so give it a rest.'" They're referring to the UW-Madison, which anyone from Wisconsin knows is referred to as "the UW." He thought, even if one of the authors was from Minnesota, not Wisconsin, they should still know that. Mr. CR can be very demanding about the details, and that's why we love him.

**This does not mean I think people who love thrillers are sick or wrong. I routinely read True Crime and other disturbing NF titles that would disgust most people--three of my favorite books of all time are a true crime classic, a book about torture, and the true story of the assassin who was hired to kill the Palestinians who killed the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics--so I'm not judging anyone else.

The Great Fiction Reading Adventure of 2010: Part 3

I did not read exclusively mysteries or thrillers during my Great Summer Fiction Read of 2010 (although I know it is starting to sound that way). I also read a romance by Nora Roberts titled Vision in White. After finishing it, I have just the one questions about Nora Roberts:

What's all the hubbub, bub?

Vision I chose to read a Nora Roberts because the woman is a publishing behemoth. For all intents and purposes, she is to romance what James Patterson is to thrillers. It's stated at Wikipediathat she's published more than 165 novels*, and she sold more than 12 million books in 2005 alone. I've been meaning to read her for years, figuring you can't say you've read any romance until you've read one of hers. Plus, I'd always heard that she was quite a good writer.

I didn't see it. I mean, the book was okay, but I can't say I even really enjoyed it the way I've enjoyed many other romances over the years (particularly the spicier titles by Lori Foster and Erin McCarthy, or historical romances set in the Regency period). In this novel, Roberts is clearly opening what is going to be a series of four books about four women friends who work together in their own wedding planning firm. This title focuses on Mackensie "Mac" Elliot, a professional photographer who has some trust issues, mainly as a result of her mother Linda's often-married-and-divorced lifestyle (and her continuing habit of contacting Mac only when she needs help or more money). So when Mac meets Carter Maguire, a local teacher who had a crush on her way back when, she has to work through those issues, even though Carter's pretty much perfect for her (and everyone can see it except Mac).

Ho-hum. Like I said, it's all right, but the prose struck me as workmanlike (and not in a good way--in a "I need to turn out three more of these titles this year yet, can't be bothered to fuss with graceful sentences" way) and the characters are dull, dull, dull. There's a few steamy scenes, but again, they're not so much titillating as they are fill-in-the-blank. I know. Once you write 165+ of these things, how creative can you be? But still:

"Mac crouched to aim up as the bride and her father stood at the top of the stairs, holding hands. As the bride's music swelled, he lifted his daughter's hand to his lips, then to his cheek.

Even as she took the shot, Mac's eyes stung.

Where was her own father? she wondered. Jamaica? Switzerland? Cairo?

She pushed the thought and the ache that came with it aside, and did her job.

Using Emma's candlelight, she captured joy and tears. The memories. And stayed invisible and separate." (pp. 18-19.)

Yeah, I'm sticking with "ho-hum." Anyone a big Nora Roberts fan? Is her earlier stuff better? Her historical stuff? Please enlighten me as to why this woman is making money hand over fist for what seems to me a perfect example of "Madlibs Romance"--formula at its least inventive, just plugging in the different names.

*I know I shouldn't be using Wikipedia as a reference source. But I was originally just going to state Roberts's sales as being in the "a lot a lot" category, so I wasn't really gunning for complete and total accuracy.

A little announcement.

A little something different today, and then we'll finish up the great Fiction Reading Adventure of 2010, and get right back to nonfiction, I promise!

People who know my less-than-stellar work habits might question why I have been alluding to tackling various work projects this summer with such tenacity. Well, in addition to loving FINISHING jobs (always much more fun to me than starting them), I have been trying to plan ahead for an anticipated event this fall: the arrival of a Citizen PreReader, as I have decided to dub the baby boy or girl (we don't know which, yet) we are hoping to meet in a few weeks.

So why announce today? Well, sometimes it's fun to announce news on a Monday. And, for various reasons, we've been informed this baby might want to come into the world a bit early (is this kid going to be outgoing? It didn't get that from ME), so I wanted you to have some idea why posts might be interrupted in the coming months. And there you have it.

In other news, yesterday I was in my car in the grocery store parking lot, and a song came on that was so beautiful it turned my soul to liquid. It made me want to laugh and nap and scream and stand on a high windy cliff all at once. Do you remember hearing a song like that for the first time? I wish I could have it pumped directly into my veins through an IV, although then I would further wish that every time I heard the song could be the first time, because, although it is beautiful on subsequent hearings, nothin's quite like that initial listen. It's Dan Wilson's (formerly of Semisonic) "Free Life." Apologies if it's not your kind of music, but I wanted to share that too.

And that completes today's round of Baby and Tune News. Seems like a program I should develop for the E! Network or something.