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January 2011

Award-winning history in my book.

I really, really enjoyed Alice Sparberg Alexiou's history title The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose with It.

Flatiron Most people are familiar with the Flatiron Building in New York City, even if they've never been there, because it is nearly as iconic as the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building. It's been widely photographed and painted, largely because of its unique triangular shape and old-world styling. In this history of the building, Alexiou* offers a broad architectural and social history tale, describing the business of Harry Black, the man who contracted to have it built (and who wanted it named the Fuller Building, after his company, but that name never stuck), the construction of the building itself, and the broader social and architectural history of New York City. Consider:

 "People gasped at the sight of the skyscrapers. They waited for them to collapse, but none did. Critics denounced what they considered the sheer ugliness of the new buildings. There was no possible way, they shouted, for skyscrapers to be made beautiful." (p. 13.)

I really enjoyed the tidbits like that; they helped me feel the context of the times. Imagine thinking, now, that skyscrapers might fall down.

There's nothing fancy here, but Alexiou does a great job of mixing up personal stories with architectural and engineering details; it is simply a very readable history on an interesting subject. Perhaps its subject isn't "big" enough, but this is the type of history book I'd like to see win a few more awards. I tend to think of this type of book as good journeyman nonfiction--a subject that hasn't been done to death, good straightforward prose, strong storytelling but not necessarily story-driven or breathlessly told, good basic research, endnotes and indexing. In short: two thumbs up, and definitely a book you'll want to read if you're interested in New York City, architecture, or early twentieth-century American business and social history.

*Alexiou is also the granddaughter of a man who once owned the Flatiron (along with several others), giving this narrative a nice personal touch as well. (And it looks like she's also written a biography of Jane Jacobs, Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, which I will have to look into.)

My latest love affair.

It's official: I'm in love with Diana Athill.

Now, I know there's a slight age difference (she's in her nineties, although I rather suspect she might be more young at heart than I am) and that historically I have favored boys over girls as dating partners. However: I would be willing to make an exception for Diana Athill, if she would have me.*

Stet I just finished her memoir Stet: An Editor's Life, and it's awesome. It's exactly what she promises in the subtitle; she describes her work as a longtime editor with the publishing firm Andre Deutsch Limited**, and concludes with several chapters about specific writers with whom she worked.

The first part of the book, in which she describes her life and work, were my favorites. I particularly enjoyed learning how she just sort of stumbled into her job, primarily through her friendship with Andre Deutsch. And the rest of her work chapters tick merrily along through her career milestones, from their early days with just a few authors, to their huge success with Peter Benchley's novel Jaws (and books by V.S. Naipaul, early Margaret Atwood, Jean Rhys, and John Updike), to the buyout of the firm.

After finishing the first part of the book, I thought I might not finish the rest, as Athill's concluding chapters are more in-depth considerations of some of the authors with whom she worked. This would be fine, but most of the writers she references are not ones with whom I'm familiar: Mordecai Richler, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, and Molly Keane (I'm familiar with V.S. Naipaul, but have never read any of his novels). But I found I just couldn't bear to return the book to the library without reading the whole thing, and I'm glad I did, because in the last chapter I found this:

"The chief difference, it seems to me, between the person who is lucky enough to possess the ability to create--whether with words or sound or pigment or wood or whatever--and those who haven't got it, is that the former react to experience directly and each in his own way, while the latter are less ready to trust their own responses and often prefer to make use of those generally agreed to be acceptable by their friends and relations." (p. 244.)

I found that really interesting. I can see why this woman was a good editor. Plus, look at that picture of her on the cover. Doesn't she just look like a woman who knows how to have a good time? If you love writing, books, words, etc., do give this memoir a try.

*This might also be awkward to arrange with Mr. CR and CRjr in the picture. And also, Ms. Athill states early on in this book that she first fell in love with the gardener's boy, Denis, when she was four. So I'm pretty sure she wouldn't be interested. I can dream.

**The lovely people who brought you Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road.

Snore, part two.

And now the nominations for the National Book Critics Circle annual awards are out.

Just like the ALA Notables list, I can't say there's a lot on this list I want to read*, which is a shame, because the NBCC has made some interesting choices in the past (please note my beloved Diana Athill won their award last year). I think I'm just starting to realize that I read and prefer nonfiction that's never going to win a lot of big awards--I like memoirs, essays, offbeat histories, business books, investigative titles (a category that particularly gets the shaft, in my opinion--why doesn't William Langewiesche** win more big awards?), some biographies...okay, well, I guess I like a lot of nonfiction types, but none of the specific titles I read are ever the big award-winning (or even nominated) titles. Typical. I always have to be opposite.

*But at least there's some. I do want to read Skippy Dies, and I wouldn't mind tackling that Somerset Maugham biography either.

**Minnesota Sarah, I threw this in there for you.

Let's hear it for the boys.

I'm not going to be able to finish Amy Dickinson's memoir The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them.

Freeville There's nothing wrong with it, and I didn't pick it up with any strong desire to read it in the first place. (For some reason, it popped up in my catalog search for cookbooks, and I liked the cover, so I thought, okay, I'll try it.) It's Dickinson's story of how, after her separation and divorce from her husband, she returned with her daughter Emily to her hometown of Freeville, New York (population 458). Raising a daughter as a single mother was not without precedent in her family--her mother and sisters shared the experiences of divorce and single parenting--but Dickinson recounts how they all supported one another, and how their community supported them.

Dickinson may be better known to you as the author of the advice column "Ask Amy," and the book reads just like her advice columns do. It's pleasant enough stuff, but pretty vanilla, even when she's discussing the disintegration of her marriage:

"He had always been extraordinarily nice to me, so I jumped through hoops of decreasing circumference trying to get him to be nice again. But then he picked a fight with me about Benazir Bhutto--who in the late 1980s was Pakistan's newly elected prime minister--and I knew that we had turned a corner and wandered into the volatile Middle East of our marriage. Granted, in general I think that looking to Pakistan for common ground in a relationship is probably a sign it is ending. The State Department should be called. Diplomats should get involved." (p. 16.)

All right, well, that's not unfunny. But still. Memoirs and novels reveling in women and girl power just tend not to do much for me. It comes down to this: I like guys. Granted, when you're in the kitchen, you usually want a girl there with you.* But otherwise? Books without the proper number of female AND male characters are boring to me.

*The other day Mr. CR was looking for one of our two juice pitchers in one of our four cupboards, and after rooting about for a bit, he came to ask me where it was. Honestly. I had to tell this college-educated man that the cupboard is, in fact, a FINITE space (not Narnia), and if he just applied himself, he could find the pitcher by himself. He eventually did. A giant leap for mankind, indeed.

Edgar award, baby!

Scoreboard I'm so excited--a book I indexed last year, Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity, is up for an Edgar Award in the True Fact Crime category.* I hope it wins--it was a great and thought-provoking read, if disturbing, which pretty much describes all good True Crime. If you do read it you should be warned: you'll probably never look at college football players the same way again.

The full list of Edgar nominees is up at the Reader's Advisor Online, if you're a mystery/crime/true crime reader and are looking for some good suggestions. Now: go forth and have a great weekend.

*I'm really excited and all I did was index the book. I'd hate to think how excited I'd be if I'd actually written the book.

A little help, please.

Who wants to earn their keep as a reference librarian today?

My sister has asked me if there is any sort of manual or reference book about different TYPES of writing; not a grammar guide, mind you, but a book which might provide an overview of different types of prose writing (persuasive, essays, etc.) and/or one that might even include fiction or storytelling conventions. I told her I'd look around, meaning primarily in my basement (where most of my books are), as I thought at one time I had some sort of wire-bound book with just that sort of information in it.

I can't find anything, though, aside from my beloved copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style, my outdated AP Style Manual and Libel Guide from my short, in-college-only journalism career, and a few other grammar guides. Anyone out there have any ideas on this one? What's in those MLA and APA style guides? Just rules for citation formats and things like that?

I will continue to look around places that aren't my basement as well, but in the meantime my sis and I thank you for any assistance.

Too much prison nonfiction.

Here's a high-level nonfiction reading tip: Don't read two prison memoirs in a row.

Orange This week I started Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, by Piper Kerman. And I really liked it. She doesn't waste any time explaining how she ended up with her fifteen-month sentence, explaining how she wanted some excitement after college, met a thrilling woman who seemed to have plenty of money, and eventually became involved in a drug and money smuggling ring. Although her own experience of carrying a suitcase of money to a certain airport was on the very fringes of the ring's activity, drug sentencing laws mandated that her crime be considered part of the much bigger picture. I like the way she described her crime; she takes responsibility for it right from the start,* and moves through that part of the narrative quickly.

The bulk of the story centers on her experiences in a Danbury, Connecticut, prison. (I've not read it closely enough to say for certain, but she seems to be in some sort of minimum security prison camp, as opposed to the facility's more maximum security area. It's still prison, though.) The story moves right along and Kerman has good powers of description; she draws a good picture of how loud the women's prison dorms are and how lousy the food is. And, I'll give her credit: she kept her memoir to 300 pages.

BUT...I'm on page 117, and I just don't want to read any more. I think this is a function of just having read Avi Steinberg's memoir Running the Books, about his work as a librarian in a prison, and I just simply don't want to read any more about prisons. The thought of all these people locked up and just killing days and months of time is even more disturbing to me than any of the more violent stories in Steinberg's memoir or the tales of guards and bureaucratic prison staff lording it over the prisoners in Kerman's. Maybe someday I'll come back and finish this one--it really does hurt me to put it down, as it's interesting, but I just don't want to think about the subject anymore. That happens sometimes with nonfiction.

*Our local bleeding heart liberal weekly newspaper sometimes is too quick to excuse people--I still remember a feature they ran about someone who got caught either taking drugs into or using drugs in a foreign country, and the guy was complaining about being prosecuted too harshly. Me, I figure if you're mucking about with drugs in any foreign country, well, you shouldn't be too surprised about whatever prosecution they hook up for you.

Follow-up: Running the Books

If you'll remember, a while back I briefly reviewed Avi Steinberg's Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.

When I reviewed it, I hadn't quite finished it. I just wanted to follow up here and say I did finish it, and I really did like it all the way through. The last 25 pages are actually quite spectacular, which is noteworthy (so many memoirs start strong, and then start sputtering on to less-than-memorable endings). My one quibble with the book is that I think it could be about 75-100 pages shorter, but that's primarily because I believe most memoirs shouldn't be longer than 300 pages.*

Still and all: a good read.

*This is a corollary to my rule about movies only needing to be 90 minutes long.

Now I'm even starting to forget nonfiction.

I have a terrible memory.

Really. I always have. I always hated those memory games in school where you had to remember what pictures were on which face-down tiles, and it has not gotten better over the years. It does not help that I live with Super-Memory Man. We're to the point now where I'll tell Mr. CR something, and he'll say, I know, you told me that last week, and I'll say really?, and he'll say, good lord, do you remember any of our conversations? Pathetic.

Joseph But there is one area where I have always had a stellar memory: nonfiction books and titles.* For the most part I am very lucky in being able to recall books I read years previously, or the titles of books I never read but took note of. But it looks like even that is starting to go. Last week in browsing in the library I came across the title I'm Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog, by Diana Joseph. It seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn't remember if I'd read it or not. Then, this week, while I read it, I kept having the nagging feeling that I've read it before. But I couldn't honestly say with certainty one way or the other, which is disturbing, particularly since I rather enjoyed it. Maybe I read it and enjoyed it but not enough to make a note of it or imprint it to memory? Yikes. Even the nonfiction memory is going.

My memory aside, though, I enjoyed this book. It's a collection of essays about Joseph's relationships with her father, significant others, colleagues, and son. I liked it because I don't know that I have a lot in common with this woman (she sounds like kind of a wild child, and the high point of my misspent youth was skipping classes in college to take naps), yet there was something appealing about her stories and writing.** And, although we might not have much in common, I laughed out loud when I read this, in one of her essays about her son:

"My thirteen years of parenting this boy can be summed up in three sentiments:

I adore you.

What the hell do you want from me now?

I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" (p. 101.)

Ha. I've only been parenting a boy for four months and those are EXACTLY the thoughts I've been having. It's a good essay. It's a good book. Give it a try--and then a few months down the road when I talk about it again, please remind me I've already read it.

*I also used to have a spectacular memory for movies, movie trailers, and the personal lives of BBC actors, but that's starting to go too.

**She reminds me a bit of Hollis Gillespie, who is another wild woman who knows her way around the essay form.


Every year the American Library Association publishes their Notable Book List, and every year I check it out immediately to confirm one thing: I am always completely bored by the ALA Notable Book LIst.

I don't think they pick bad books; it's just that they always pick books that I've heard of, but have ZERO INTEREST in reading. This is weird, as I will read pretty much anything, especially titles I find on best of or other themed lists.*

But this year is no exception. I didn't pay much attention to the fiction list, as that's not really my thang anyway (but really? Who actually liked Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad? It appeared on every "Best of..." list there was this year, and I couldn't make it past page 25, although I actually do like Jennifer Egan. And Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist? Can anyone else say "overrated"?). But the nonfiction list left me yawning, as per usual.

Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow. God, another Founding Father biography. If I never have to hear about another Founding Father biography, much less read one, it will be too soon.

Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier. Frazier's one of those writers who seems to pop up a lot, but I've never, EVER heard anyone say they're a real Frazier fan. I can never make it through his stuff--and this one scares me off because it's over 500 pages.

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour, by Lynne Olson. Oh, of course. Wouldn't be a notable list without a World War II book on it. Even if this one is set in Britain, I still can't drum up any interest. There sure were a lot of darkest finest hours in World War II, weren't there? I think that era sucked up all the darkest finest hours available down through history.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. Well, this one I might actually have to read, someone I trust said it was fantastic.

So yeah, snore. I don't know about you but I'd pay a lot to see a good humor book, meaty collection of essays, well-done memoir, or anything by William Langewiesche make this list one of these years.

*This corollary is related to my rule that I will eat anything that somebody else cooks. I am sick of cooking lately.

Worst Business Books 2010

Per Robin's fantastic suggestion last week, I thought it might indeed be fun to list some of the business books that most annoyed me on my search for the best business books of the year. They are as follows, in no particular order:

Dave Ramsey's The Money Answer Book. This one I actually reviewed for Library Journal earlier in the year, and it really pissed me off. Ramsey is one of those financial writers who take one simple idea (don't use credit cards) and leverages it to the hilt*; he's known as a financial guru for helping people get and stay out of debt, with a twist of right-wing Christian fanaticism (this book also contains numerous questions and answers about the necessity of tithing to one's church). What REALLY pissed me off about this one is that it's a reprint, but it's a reprint no one cared about updating, because at one point Ramsey refers to the importance of putting the maximum amount toward one's yearly IRA limits, and he cites $3,000 as the individual max, which is wrong (it's 5,000 currently). Now, that is a big error on a pretty basic and important piece of information, and it shouldn't be a hard piece of information to verify during the reprinting process. Lame, super lame. Wonder what Ramsey's faith says about greediness in reprinting books quickly for the maximum amount of profit. I suppose if he gives 10% of that profit to his church all will be forgiven.**

Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us, by John Quiggin. It's got a catchy title and cover, but this is still a very dry academic text about popular economic ideas and how they don't always hold up.

Overhaul: An Insider's Account of the Obama Administration's Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry, by Steven Rattner. I was hoping for more out of this one, but it is just TOO BORING. What I'd like to read on this subject is a really good, insightful, and short article about it by someone like William Langewiesche.

The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison. This one ended up on a lot of other "best business books" lists this year, but I thought it was completely dull and never really did figure out what the authors were saying. Under the heading "What to Expect in this Book" the authors say this: "Pull is about expanding our awareness of what is possible and evolving new dispositions, mastering new practices, and taking new actions to realize those possibilities." (p. 6.) Bleah. I ask you, doesn't that sound like an undergraduate trying to pad with business research paper with words that don't mean anything? Snore.***

Those were the biggest offenders. Anyone else read any lousy business books last year and want to share?

*Mr. CR thinks Ramsey is actually pretty good at what he does, making the simple point that some people can't handle credit cards and therefore shouldn't have them. I don't know how a person lives without a credit card, especially if they have to do ANY traveling or purchase anything online, and would argue that the true nuance would be having a credit card but learning to control yourself with it, at which point Mr. CR points out that sometimes nuance is just beyond people. It's a fair point.

**I lied about the no particular order. I hated this one the most.

***No links to books today; I don't want you to buy any of these.

Best Business Books 2010

My article on the best business books of 2010 has been published in Library Journal!

I had a great time doing the list this year; I got to read a lot of good business books. I wasn't as happy that part of my introduction to the article was cut, but I know the magazine has space constraints. A variety of cuts were made, but the paragraph that was cut wholesale was:

"This emphasis on the personal—personal financial responsibility, personal career development, and even the personalities behind the biggest business stories of the past few years—indicates that business books, along with all of us, are living in a world where the individual has many new opportunities, but also serious responsibilities and fewer institutional or governmental 'safety nets.'"

I worked on that paragraph a depressingly long time (it takes me forever to string together coherent thoughts these days) so I had to include it here. Next week I'll (hopefully) post a few reviews of some of the business books from the list I particularly loved. In the meantime, have a great weekend!

More dark reads in the middle of the night.

So another book I've been reading after CRjr's early morning feedings is Avi Steinberg's well-reviewed title Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.*

Running It's taking me forever to get through it, because as much as I love reading in the wee small hours, lately I've been so tired that I can only keep it up for fifteen minutes or so at a crack, and it takes a long time to get through a 400-page book in 15-minute increments, even if you are a fast reader. That doesn't mean I'm not enjoying it, although "enjoying" might be the wrong word.

Steinberg details the time he spent as a prison librarian after he decided he needed a steady job with health insurance benefits.* In addition to narrating his work experiences (complete with working with prison inmates on work detail, teaching writing classes, sweeping the library after each period of visitors to clear out the numerous letters and notes (or "kites") left behind in books for other inmates, and even helping one inmate write his pimping memoir) he discusses his own career direction, or lack thereof, which he admits is less than focused and therefore reviled within his own Jewish community.

It's an interesting read but it's another one I'm finding sad. Thinking of all these people locked up in prison just makes me sick--not because I feel they don't deserve it, but more because the thought of all that roiling, always-in-danger-of-exploding violence and aggression in one place makes me very, very uneasy. And the author does do a good job of explaining things about prison that make it too horrifyingly realistic:

"There are various reasons to cry in prison.

Crying as initiation rite. Dice claimed that any inmate who tells you didn't cry when he first came to prison is a liar. As he said this, the three inmates standing around us nodded. One of them confessed he was so stressed his first day in prison he could hardly breathe. When he heard the door of the cell bolt shut for the night, he panicked and began pacing, beating on the door and shouting...

His cellmate was an old guy who took pity on him. 'He just said to me, 'Get into bed, son. Let yourself cry. There ain't no shame in that. Just do it, and then you'll be done with it.' And so that's what I did.'" (p. 338.)

To his credit Steinberg doesn't sugarcoat his own role in the prison hierarchy or attempt to make excuses for any of the inmates--a particularly strong chapter is the one in which he questions his helping with the pimp memoir, after seeing a different inmate out in "real life," (a Dunkin' Donuts, to be exact) pimping out another former inmate). So yes, I'm finding it interesting. But to say it makes for light or humorous reading would be all wrong. I've got about fifty pages to go--I'll let you know what I end up thinking about it.

*It's got a great cover, too. You probably can't tell here, but the images making up his face are library date due stamps.

**So sad that this is the only reason I figure about 80% of people keep going to their jobs. Good old health insurance.

Dark reading in the dark hours.

One of the books I looked at this past week while up at 4 a.m. was Jessica Stern's Denial: A Memoir of Terror. I forgot where I first read about it, but it sounded interesting to me: in it, Stern recounts how, in 1973, a stranger entered her house with a gun and raped her and her sister (at ages fifteen and fourteen, respectively) and how that experience shaped her. Eventually she became an expert on terrorism and post-traumatic stress disorder, even while the crime from which she suffered went unsolved and she continued to try and deny its effects on her life.

Denial I know: Yuck. I was a bit worried about myself when I read that description and wanted to read this book--who voluntarily picks up a book on this subject? Well, me, I guess. I was particularly intrigued by a sentence of the jacket copy: "After her ordeal she could not feel fear in normally frightening situations."

And the book is really good. Stern's account of the rape is told as she looks back over the original police report that was filed, complete with the notes she made for herself to try and tell the police the complete story; it's not really graphic, but it is horrifying all the same. And it's even more horrifying that the police at the time didn't knock themselves out trying to solve the case, as they believed the sisters were lying about not knowing their assailant--and their rapist most likely went on to commit other crimes.

I knew I was going to like it from the first, thoughtful paragraph: "I know that I was raped. But here is the odd thing. If my sister had not been raped, too, if she didn't remember--if I didn't have this police report right in front of me on my desk--I might doubt that the rape occurred. The memory feels a bit like a dream. It has hazy edges. Are there aspects of what I think I recall that I might have made up?" (p. 7.)

This book reminded me a lot of other superlative books I have read about violence (particularly to women) and its after-effects on the human soul and psyche: Alice Sebold's Lucky, Terri Jentz's Strange Piece of Paradise, Jeanine Cummins's A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, Lori Amy's The Wars We Inherit: Military Life, Gender Violence, and Memory, and Ron Franscell's Fall: The Rape and Murder of Innocence in a Small Town.*

But I couldn't finish it. I made it through about fifty pages, and I realized I just couldn't take it right now--I've got another depressing book (that I have to read, for review purposes) and I just need to read something a little lighter. But when I get this book back I'll talk about it again. Meanwhile, you readers who can handle a thoughtful mix of true crime and a personal story of self-understanding might like to give this one a try.

*Wow, I hadn't realized how much I gravitated towards these types of books. I abhor violence but I think I keep trying to figure out how people recover from it, which I find very inspiring in its own way.

Truly the most wonderful time of the year.

Happy New Year!

Traditionally, I like January. I like the annual ritual of carrying as many bags of stuff out of my house as I brought in from the holidays (although this year it's tougher, as Mr. CR informs me that CRjr's stuff is not really mine to give away--decision still pending on this point). I like that there are fewer places to go and fewer things to do, meaning I don't worry about snow and the weather as much. I like getting back into routines, although the routine of trying to eat less and lose the mummy tummy is not one I'm enjoying much. Oh well. There has to be some downside to January.

One routine which I am thoroughly enjoying is my middle-of-the-night reading. CRjr is starting to sleep through for longer stretches at night, but he's still usually up once sometime in that 3 to 5 a.m. corridor. After I put him back down, I have been reading in the living room, which is lovely. It's a time of day when I don't feel guilty for not doing something else (can't clean! don't want to wake people up, and can't work! can't think clearly enough to do a good job) so I can just relax and enjoy a book. Granted, I'm reading some depressing things (reviews to come in the week ahead), but that happens sometimes. Anybody else got a favorite time of day for reading?

No new reading resolutions--although they're usually the only ones I keep. I am going to try and resolve to get more things done in the morning--if I leave stuff until the afternoon or night, I can pretty much guarantee it's not going to get done. Any resolutions out there? That said, I haven't yet done anything very productive this morning. I'd best get on that.