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December 2010

Sleigh bells ring, we can all stop listening.

So how did that all go? To quote my very wise sister: It's nice to see Christmas come, and it's nice to see Christmas go.

I had a spectacular week. Good driving weather to go see some family, lots of eating, Mr. CR and CRjr both in good moods; these are the salad days. The week before Christmas I got a package with a book in it for me and one for CRjr (a thank-you note is on the way, Santa), and Mr. CR got me a new issue of Lapham's Quarterly, which is a magazine I ALWAYS drool over in the bookstore but can't get myself to buy. (As well as a "Bunny Suicides" desk calendar with cartoons such as the one below; I love it!) At one point he also opined that when he sees a lot of plastic kids' gifts, he mainly wonders how much lead-based paint they contain. This pessimistic pronouncement made me swoon, just a little bit--nothing says romance to me like a shared acceptance of plastic crap being bad for you.

Still working on The Dark Is Rising, and loving every minute of it. Here's hoping you all received lots of book gifts, and have new things to read this week!


And to all a good night.

Well, it's getting on a bit for the ordering of holiday presents, so no gift guide posts this week. I would like to say a hearty THANK YOU to whoever out there has been ordering some books from Powell's by following my links--it is very much appreciated!!

As for me, tomorrow is December 21st, which is when I traditionally start re-reading Susan Cooper's YA novel Dark is Rising, and this year will be no exception. (Particularly as we, much like the characters in the book, are experiencing some snowfall.) I've also recently picked up Diana Athill's wonderful memoir Stet: An Editor's Life (about her long career in publishing) and will be spending some quality time with that as well.

But mostly I hope to spend some time sitting around with my boys and watching the Christmas tree lights twinkle.* I wish all of you a week filled with cookies, lights, cozy fires, and whatever other holiday delights** you can find.

*I may also watch DVDs of The Peanuts and the Simpsons Christmas specials. Don't tell, but I get a holier feeling listening to Linus recite the Christmas story at the end of the Peanuts special than I normally get in church. "On earth, peace, goodwill toward men."

**When I was little our Christmas tree sat near a heating register, so I and my older sister often sat on the floor with our backs against the register and wall, and read together under the tree. Reading, central heating, tree lights, and sisterly companionship--unbelievably great. I hope all of you have a chance to make such happy memories this season.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Wrestling with Moses

One of the best books I read last year was Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City.

Moses I know I said enough with the heavy nonfiction reads, but I don't think this one really qualifies as "heavy." It's serious, but for one thing, it's not a really long book. And even though it is a serious historical story, it's also a very personality-driven and lively one.

In it, author Anthony Flint describes how Jane Jacobs (author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I still desperately want to read), a New York City resident and budding urban activist, took on Robert Moses, the New York city planner/builder who dreamed of dropping huge highways right through neighborhoody parts of Manhattan, in the 1950s and 60s. It's a fabulous book, and tells the story from both the urban design and personal activism points of view. I finished this one with a true appreciation for yet another feisty lady--Jane Jacobs--and the rare feeling that individuals can (or at least they were successful once) in taking on unnecessary "progress." Even if you can't think of anyone to buy this book for, consider gifting it to yourself.

So, who might like this book?

Anyone with an interest in or love for New York City.

Anyone with an interest in urban design or architecture.

Readers who enjoy character-driven histories.

Feminist readers who will find a lot to like in feisty (and very smart) lady Jane Jacobs.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: A lighter choice, and one with coupons!

Hey! I thought of a lighter nonfiction read that would make super giving as a holiday present!

Beer This year my friend published an updated edition of his Wisconsin's Best Beer Guide.* And what a fun book it is! Unlike many guidebooks, this one is actually a joy to read, containing many facts about beer and brewing, and the types of anecdotes only an extremely personable fellow can gather while traveling around Wisconsin, drinking beer with its residents.

And, to sweeten the pie: the book includes numerous coupon and freebie offers for brew pubs across the state. Give this one as a gift, and the grateful recipient might even take you along on their pub tour!

*Okay, this one really only works for holiday giving if you live in Wisconsin. But will you be traveling to Madison any time soon? Kevin's also published a very nice Insiders' Guide to Madison, Wi.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: The Classics

I realize that most of the suggestions I've made for gifts thus far have been for serious books. This morning I was desperately trying to think of the last humorous or light title of nonfiction I've read or liked, and heaven help me, I can't come up with anything. Either I haven't been finding many good humorous books (the last one I tried was I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny at All, a collection of humor pieces edited by Judd Apatow, but it didn't do much for me) or my memory is shot, or (as is most likely), a little from column A, a little from column B.

What I might suggest, if you are at a loss for a book gift and you don't want to give any of the downer books I've already listed, you may want to consider giving the book lovers in your life new or pretty editions of classics. When we went shopping at the bookstore last week, I picked up a copy of Anthony Trollope's novel The Warden (the first in his Barset series)*, on sale. It's an aesthetically pleasing little book, and it's a British edition, so its price is listed in pounds, which always tickles me. I've only read a few pages so far, but every time I pick it up it gives me pleasure; it's got that matte paperback finish that feels so good on the hands, and it's a nice square little copy. If e-books are well and truly coming, these may be our last few Christmases to give and get books as beautiful physical items.

So, what classics? Well, it's hard to go wrong with something like Jane Austen's Persuasion (this link goes to a new annotated version), or of course (for a newer classic) Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road.** Or there's always Thomas Hardy, particularly the great fun of his underrated novel Under the Greenwood Tree. For the slightly older kids or tweens on your list, consider Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising (a great winter read, and one I'll be re-reading next week).

But what about you? Anyone been finding any light nonfiction they'd like to suggest? What about classics that make great gifts?

*I listened to Trollope's novel The Way We Live Now on tape last year, and LOVED it.

**There's still a few booklovers out there who haven't read this one, which is a situation that should be rectified.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Working in the Shadows

I know. One of these nonfiction gift choices should be a lighter read. I'll find one somewhere, eventually. But this year all the really good books seemed to be the more serious reads. (At least that's what I found.) And Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do was one of the best books of the year.

Working Thompson spent a year doing the back-breaking and cheap labor jobs that, as of now, are chiefly performed in our society by new legal and illegal immigrants. Along the way he worked cutting lettuce, butchering, and as a delivery man for a New York City restaurant. Along the way he learned that these jobs are poorly paid, demoralizing, and hell on the body. So what, you say, Barbara Ehrenreich did the same thing in her bestselling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.

Well, nothing against Ehrenreich, but this book is better. It makes you think about the big picture--not only the workers who are killing themselves for eight bucks an hour and change, but also what it says about us as a society; namely, that we are willing make people work themselves to death so we can have cheap food and goods.

Okay, maybe you don't give book gifts to make people think about the big picture. But maybe that is something we should be doing. Don't look on it as trying to bum people out; look at it as helping to educate others so we can all try and make the world a little better for each other. Isn't that part of what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown?

So, who might like this book?

Anyone who likes current event or investigative works like those by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Anyone who likes "stunt journalism," wherein an author does something for a year or so and then reports back on it.

Anyone who has shown an interest in learning more about labor history, American society and politics, or our food sources.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Shopping Interlude

Last Friday I took my own advice and made a pilgrimage to a local independent bookstore to buy some presents for my nieces and nephews.* This is a pilgrimage I make annually; usually MomCR (or should I call her GrandmaCR, as her affection for CRjr is unsurpassed?) goes with me, but this year was a real treat: we decided to take advantage of the balmy 30-degree weather, and we took CRjr and DadCR along as well. A great time was had by all, and many books were purchased.

What made me laugh was that MomCR said, "What do you think the bookstore guy will think of you coming in with a baby this year?" I laughed and told her that I was pretty sure the bookstore guy doesn't know or remember us, as we only go to his shop once a year.** So once in the store, she of course asked the guy, who of course, really didn't remember us. I had to explain to MomCR that the glory of booksellers is that most of them really aren't "people people." I don't think she agreed with me that that was glorious, but it's one of my favorite things about old-school booksellers. Sure they're aloof, but this also makes them low-pressure on the sales end. I'll take it.

So: back to the gift guide tomorrow. This was just a friendly reminder to support your local aloof booksellers.

*Really the only people I buy gifts for nowadays, just because it's so fun to buy kids' books.

**Athough we've been going for several years, and we drop a fair amount of coin (by our standards) there.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Wendell Berry

If you're looking for a great all-around author who might work for any readers for whom you are seeking gifts, you really don't have to look any farther than Wendell Berry.

The guy's a super-talent. Not only is he a thoughtful human being, but he writes in a variety of formats, and he writes well in all of them.* And, he publishes often enough that even people who are only interested in new books have lots of options. Some of my top picks:

Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food: A wonderful collection of essays about food, agriculture, and sustainability. This would make a good gift for anyone interested in those subjects, any of the more environmentally aware people on your holiday list, or anyone who simply enjoys good essay writing. Foodie readers might also get a kick out of this one.

What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth: Another great recent essay collection focusing on matters of economy and agriculture. This one would work for the sustainability crowd, but might also be of interest to any people you know who enjoy business or economics books.

Jayber Crow: Berry's finest novel, in my opinion. A classic. It would work for anyone you know who likes character- and setting-driven fiction, and doesn't mind a bittersweet twinge to their storytelling.

Given: New Poems: A poetry collection that might be good even for people who aren't crazy about poetry. Berry's poetry is just like his prose; clear but evocative, and timeless. Everything you want poetry to be.

*It's a bit disgusting, really, that one man got all this talent.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Bellfield Hall (fiction!)

Now, you know me. If you're going to go out and buy a book as a gift for someone, you know I'd prefer it if you bought them nonfiction. But, even I will admit that some people just want fiction. Fair enough.

Bellfield One of my favorite novels of the year was Anna Dean's Bellfield Hall, which I read when I was going through a particularly Anglophile phase (I think the BBC production of Emma had just finished up on PBS or something). I'll leave it up to Melissa at the Running with Books blog to describe the plot (as she does it better than I could) but rest assured that this Regency-era mystery is an engaging read with a delightful main character, Miss Dido Kent, who manages to be both a believably drawn eighteenth-century woman and a somewhat feisty dame.*

So who might like this book?

Anyone who loves Jane Austen but is out of Jane Austen books to read.

Anglophiles of any sort.

Mystery readers who enjoy British settings or historical mysteries. Another great series for those readers who prefer Victorian times is Charles Finch's Inspector Lennox series, starting with A Beautiful Blue Death. VERY British, very Victorian--you could almost believe you were sitting in London while you read them.

*If you can't tell (Diana Athill, Julia Child, Miss Dido Kent), I really enjoy feisty dames.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Paul Dry Books

I am one of those annoying people who will not shop at Wal-Mart. I will shop at Target, if I have to, although I don't feel good about it. Now that I have a child to diaper and I've recently read a gazillion financial and political books that all seem to point to the fact that I can expect poorer economic times ahead, I'll admit I'm on the lookout for cheaper diapers. (Ideas, anyone? I've heard Toys 'R Us, but the last time I was there it didn't seem any cheaper than any other places.)

But by and large I try to avoid the issue by simply not shopping, or buying only secondhand.* When I DO shop, though, I often try to shop at local stores or from independent businesses. With that in mind, I'd like to suggest the purchasing of gift books from independent publishers (there's precious few left) or any local bookstores to which you have access. Hell, at this point I'll even consider Borders and Barnes and Noble local--they're struggling too.

Today's gift suggestions are from Paul Dry Books--a wonderful independent publisher based in Philadelphia. Although their entire catalog looks fascinating, some of my favorites from them include:

The Book Shopper: A Life in Review, by Murray Browne. A short treatise about a life spent around books, by a book reviewer.

Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, and Happiness at America's Most Famous Steps, by Michael Vitez and Tom Gralish. A beautifully photographed and truly inspirational book about people who run up the steps that Sylvester Stallone ran up in the movie Rocky, and why they do so. (It's stupid to say this when my link takes you to Powell's, where I would get a cut of the purchasing action, but this book is on sale at the Paul Dry website.)

Hotel Kid: A Times Square Childhood, by Stephen Lewis. An awesome memoir about a kid who grew up living in the hotel where his parents worked during the 1930s and 40s. 

Just check out their website; they've got a lot to offer. Any booklover, I would think, would find lots to interest them there.

*Although a lot of fun has gone out of this since I have become freaked out by the re-emergence of bedbugs.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Griftopia

There are not enough words to describe how awesome Matt Taibbi's Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America is.

Griftopia And by awesome, of course, I mean depressing as hell. If you want to get a handle on a) how our political system now only functions as entertainment for the masses, and b) how thoroughly manipulated our financial markets are for the vast personal gain of the very few, then this is the book for you. And no one, NO ONE, can lay it on the line like Matt Taibbi:

"Bad political systems on their own don't always make societies fail. Sometimes what's required for a real social catastrophe is for one or two ingeniously obnoxious individuals to rise to a position of great power--get a once-in-a-billion asshole in the wrong job and a merely unfair system of government suddenly turns into seventies Guatemala, the Serbian despotate, the modern United States.

Former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan is that one-in-a-billion asshole who made America the dissembling mess that it is today." (p. 34.)

I'll give him this: he tells the truth, so he makes me cry, but at least I'm laughing while I'm crying.*

Rest assured: he does not blame everything on Greenspan. He goes on from there to describe (in terms a normal person can actually understand) how the financial crisis of 2007-2008 actually got rolling, how the "commodities bubble" caused gas prices to go up (an event which had nothing to do with supply and demand), and how our politicians are currently busy selling our infrastructure to foreign investors for lump sum payments that vastly underestimate their value. The last anecdote I wowed my brother with from this book was how all the parking meters in Chicago have been sold to a consortium of foreign owners, and now they can't have street fairs anymore in Chicago. Why? Because the consortium wants to charge fair organizers for their day of lost meter business--and no one can afford what they're asking. (pp. 165-171.)

So who might like this book?

Anyone you know who feels ripped off by their vote for Obama.

Anyone you know who enjoys indignant profanity.

Anyone who know who might be interested in learning what a credit default swap actually is, without reading a whole boring business book on the subject of the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

*Taibbi must have a great sense of humor and a sanguine personality. A friend told me she recently saw Taibbi speak, and he was quite chipper, especially in light of what he was talking about. This annoyed her--she didn't see how he could be so happy--but it made me feel better. Taibbi's one of the smartest guys around, and if he can write this whole book and understand it and STILL smile, well, that makes me feel better too.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: In the Shadow of the Moon

I am deeply uninterested in most science topics, and particularly space exploration. When my family* debates whether or not people have actually landed on the moon, I typically zone out, as I don't particularly care one way or the other.

Moon So how odd that I'm suggesting a book like Francis French's and Colin Burgess's In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969. But suggesting it I am, particularly if you know a reader who likes a good science read with a few human interest stories thrown in. The format of the book is simple and well-organized; basically, the chapters describe each Gemini and Apollo mission leading up to the moon landing in 1969. In addition to describing the technical challenges overcome in each mission, the authors do a great job of describing the astronauts, their working relationships with one another, and their experiences in space.** These are not your typical astronaut stories--one of my favorites was learning about how Rusty Schweickart (on Apollo 9) suffered from nausea and "space sickness," and then volunteered to be tested so NASA could learn more about what caused it. This did not make him particularly popular with the rest of the astronaut crowd, who wanted to pretend that space sickness was no problem. Another astronaut, Bill Anders, had this to say about Schweickart's willingness to be studied:

"'But Rusty probably over-volunteered to research space sickness, and I don't think the general astronaut crowd appreciated that. I thought it was probably a pretty good idea. But as you know, fighter pilots never get sick, we all know that! And here was Rusty, more or less on his own, volunteering to be a space sickness guinea pig. That probably cost him any further missions.'" (p. 357.)

Typical: volunteer to be helpful, and get penalized for it. The book is full of fascinating stories like that, but it's still rigorous enough to please more hardcore science readers. And, in an added bonus, if you buy the paperback, you'll be getting an index that I created!*** That's right--that's why I read this book in the first place: not so I'd be better informed during my family's moon landing debates, but rather to do the index. What a treat--although I always enjoy indexing, not every book I index is as readable as this one was.

So who might like this book?

Science buffs, particularly those with an interest in the space program.

History buffs--I'm thinking of getting it for my brother, who is not a science reader per se, but who enjoys good history books and is also curious about technology.

*I mean my parents and siblings--Mr. CR thinks we're nuts for debating this issue. What he forgets is that my family likes to debate EVERYTHING.

**Also fascinating is learning how each astronaut felt about the "earth view" they got from space. It's one of those little human reaction stories that often gets lost in the broader science narrative.

***The hardcover edition doesn't have an index at all, which makes no sense, and which many reviewers at Amazon mentioned as a problem with the book. Kudos to the University of Nebraska Press for deciding to put an index in the paperback edition, although it should have been there all along.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: As Always, Julia

Julia Child was, let's face it, one sassy dame.*

You have to respect a woman who didn't find her true calling in life until her forties, and who arguably didn't make a grand success of her business until nearly age 50 (born in 1912, her masterwork, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was first published in 1961). At least I have to respect her--she gives me hope that I may still chance upon something that a) I am good at, and b) I can make some money at.

But all of that aside, Child's life was a fascinating one even before she became television's French Chef. She worked for the OSS (the precursor to the CIA), married her true love, traveled the world, and cooked and cooked and cooked until she knew more about cooking than many great chefs. If you're interested in her at all, or know someone who might be, the first book I would suggest purchasing is Noel Riley Fitch's biography, Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child.

Julia But the book in question for today is As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, and the Making of a Masterpiece, edited by Joan Reardon. It's a collection of letters between the two women, primarily covering the years 1952-1962, when Child was, along with Simca Beck, experimenting on the recipes that would comprise their infamous cookbook. DeVoto was a woman that Child got to know by accident; Child originally wrote to Avis's husband, historian and columnist Bernard DeVoto, about an article he published about the quality of knives used in American kitchens (primarily stainless steel ones, which evidently don't rust but also aren't easy to adequately sharpen). Avis answered that letter, and soon the two were off, discussing knives, food, politics, culture, and eventually, the chances of publishing Child's cookbook (Avis also had connections to several publishing companies).

The letters have a lot to do with food, as one might imagine. What surprised me, though, is how much the women also chatted over current and cultural affairs, politics (particularly Joe McCarthy), and other issues in their personal lives. I knew I loved Julia; what I didn't expect, though, was to start feeling so attached to Avis DeVoto--who seems to have been a fascinating and warm woman in her own right.

So, who might like this book?

Fans of Julia Child, of course.

"Foodies," or people who love to read anything about food--seeing how the cookbook was tested, and how passionate these women were about food and the correct cooking methods is fascinating.

Anyone who likes letter collections--I myself find them the easiest way to pick up social and cultural history, and I love the personal asides that slip in (from Julia: "What a horrible 5 days we have just been through, both snortling with head colds, and I got the curse on top of it." HA!).

Readers who enjoy nonfiction by or featuring strong, personality-rich women, which Child and DeVoto unquestionably were.

*God love her, she reputedly didn't think much of Julie Powell's memoir Julie and Julia, which she derided as "a stunt."