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May 2011

The summer reading plan.

Evidently it is summer now. I know this because instead of turning on the furnace (which I had to do last week), I now have to turn on the air conditioning. Well, okay, I probably wouldn't have to. But I get warm whenever it's over 65 degrees out, so yeah, the AC's on.

Anyway. Normally summer comes and goes without making any sort of blip in my life. I don't camp, I don't swim, I don't go to the beach, I don't garden, etc. ad infinitum, so normally summer doesn't make any sort of impression on me except that I don't have to put on my scarf and hat when I go out for walks.* (In fact, one of the things I most miss about winter is my long coat--I have worn some scary outfits out and about, under the cover of my long coat.) But this year I feel like I should mark the season in some way, especially as the months are starting to fly by scary fast. So what's on the menu?

Well, perhaps fewer nonfiction titles. As you can probably tell, I am not flying through nonfiction the way I used to. Some of this is due to the arrival, last year, of CRjr. Now, CRjr is awesome. He's the tops. But he's also a bigger time suck than the Internet. (That's only fair. He's a lot more fun than the Internet too.) So I thought what I would do this summer is allow myself a more leisurely pace through some nonfiction I really want to read, and then spend a few posts talking about such titles in more depth.

On a related note, I'm planning to delve into my "basement books" a little more. Should be interesting to see what's down there. That collection consists mainly of books that I wanted around as a ready reference/reading library of sorts, so maybe I'll even learn something.

And, for the first time ever, I'm going to do a challenge! I'm totally doing this one, it looks like fun. This week I'll be selecting the Anita Brookner book I'm going to read. Delicious!

Any other suggestions for something I should tackle this summer? Some more fiction? Kids' books? Planting at least one pathetic tomato plant in my backyard so my farming parents and gardening sisters don't think I'm a total city person weenie (even though I am)?

*Oh, and instead of worrying about snowstorms and my loved ones driving in snowstorms, I worry about hail and tornadoes and my loved ones driving in thunderstorms. Same shit, different season.

Tuesday Article: Twitter making us twits.

Many thanks to the Lesbrarian for pointing me to this article in the New York Times:

The Twitter Trap

Now, keep in mind, I never use Twitter because I can't figure it out. AT ALL. How dumb does that make me?

I'll say this: ever since I deleted my Facebook account a few weeks back (I was primarily on it for work reasons, and due to some of my work changing, I no longer have to be), my life really has been better. Take that, Mark Zuckerberg.

Book Menage Day 5: The wrap-up.

Well, I can't begin to tell you all how much I enjoyed this Menage. I'm going to wait a week and then re-read all the comments; there was so much good stuff here it's almost hard to take in over the space of just five days.

No questions from me today. But if there's anything else you'd like to discuss about Sherwin Nuland's The Doctors' Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis or Joanna Kavenna's The Birth of Love, please feel free to do so in the comments. Any last thoughts you have on either book or the experience of reading both books together are also welcome.

Although, I lied. I do have just a couple more questions. Did you like the fiction/nonfiction Menage or should we go back to two nonfiction titles? Any suggestions for next time?

Thanks, all, and have a wonderful holiday weekend.

Book Menage Day 4: Questions, questions.

And welcome back to our Menage discussion of Sherwin Nuland's NF title The Doctors' Plague and Joanna Kavenna's novel The Birth of Love! I have so, SO enjoyed this discussion so far; in fact, after I write this I have to dive back in to the comments of previous days and make sure I'm catching everything. What a great time--thank you all for participating.

I didn't have much planned for today other than to leave it open for others' questions. Here's the two, both about The Birth of Love, that people have asked:

1. What WAS the switching of the ultimate birth gender in the scifi part trying to suggest?

This question was asked in the comments yesterday, and now I have to go back and re-read TBOL to see if I missed that. This question is from Care--thanks, Care!--but I'm a bit confused. Care, could you tell me where the gender changed? (If you don't have the book anymore, no worries.)

2. The details of the birthing in TBOL seem pretty accurate--do you think the author has given birth? Did she keep journals about the experience, or does she just have a great memory?

If you've got any other questions, don't hesitate to ask--we can discuss any and all questions in addition to these! Thanks again for all the great comments. Have a good Thursday, all.

Book Menage Day 3: The Birth of Love

And welcome to Day 3 of our Menage, in which we'll discuss Joanna Kavenna's 2010 novel The Birth of Love.

Again, in case you haven't read it, I can provide a quick synopsis. Kavenna tells four interrelated stories of childbirth, medicine, and personal choices: that of nineteenth-century doctor Ignasz Semmelweis and his sojourn in a mental asylum; that of a modern-day author publishing a novel about Semmelweis; that of a modern-day woman laboring to give birth to her second child; and that of a woman being questioned for her role in helping a laboring mother escape the oppression of the dystopian society of the year 2153.

These are the main questions I've got for you on this one:

1. Which part of the narrative did you find most interesting, and why?

2. Where did the section headings of "The Moon," "The Empress," "The Hermit," and "The Tower" come from, or what do they mean?

3. There's already been some talk about the title of this one. Do you think it was a good title? If not, what would you have titled it instead?

As always, please feel free to ask your own questions in the comments; if there are any we can cover them tomorrow.

Book Menage Day 2: The Doctors' Plague

Welcome to Day 2 of our Book Menage! I thought today we'd discuss Sherwin Nuland's The Doctor's Plague (nonfiction first--after all, we're primarily about the NF around here), tomorrow we'd handle The Birth of Love, leave Thursday open for any questions you might want to ask of the group (leave them in the comments or send me an email with them at [email protected]), and Friday we'll have a round-up. Sound like a plan?

For anyone who hasn't read it, Nuland's The Doctors' Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis is an entry in the "Great Discoveries" series published by Norton, and it relates the story of Dr. Ignac Semmelweis, a nineteenth-century Hungarian doctor. Dr. Semmelweis is best known for tackling the problem of "childbed fever," which was responsible for the death of hundreds (if not thousands) of women who went to European hospitals in the mid-1800s to give birth. The problem? Most of the doctors in such hospitals were dissecting cadavers and working with other patients with communicable infections directly before they would perform not-always-so-gentle internal exams on laboring mothers, introducing the bacteria that caused the infections that would kill them. The solution that Semmelweis found? Doctors washing their hands better (basically). The problem with Semmelweis's solution? He wouldn't do experiments to prove it, he wouldn't write down his case in article or book form, and he basically alienated everyone around him until his premature and sad end.

So what to ask? Here's the questions I had:

1. Did you enjoy this book? Did you find it interesting? Why or why not?

2. What aspect of this story (if any) did you find most intriguing?

3. Did you find Semmelweis a tragic character? Why or why not? Do you think his "difficult" nature was part of what helped him solve the initial childbed fever riddle?

4. If you had to pick one, how would you categorize this book? Biography, history, or science?

Have at, and have fun!

Book Menage: Day 1

Welcome to our first-in-a-long time Book Menage, featuring the titles The Doctors' Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis by Sherwin Nuland and The Birth of Love, by Joanna Kavenna!

I thought what we'd do is open today with a few general questions about both books, and then cover each book individually in the next few days. On Friday we'll have a wrap-up. As always, feel free to leave a question for the group in the discussion comments, and I'll happily pull those out and post them. So here we go! Thanks for participating, and enjoy the Menage!

1. Which book did you choose to read first, and why?

2. Do you think the order in which you read the books affected your experience of them?*

3. How do you think men and women would react differently to these books? Do you think men would read them, based on their subject matter?

4. Were you more interested in this subject after you read these books, or was that "more than quite enough, thank you"?

As always, feel free to answer any or all of the questions in the comments. I'll wait to participate--I don't want to skew the discussion.

*This question is from Care, who posted her reviews of each of these books last week. If you'd like to post reviews of these books, let me know in the comments or send an email to [email protected] with your links and I'll include links to your reviews in Friday's post.

Romance at its cheesiest.

Now, I should have known when I picked up And the Rest Is History: The Famous (and Infamous) First Meetings of the World's Most Passionate Couples (by Marlene Wagman-Geller), that I probably wouldn't be getting the most rigorous of nonfiction texts.*

Wagmangeller And I didn't. But that's okay. The book delivers what it advertises: short, four- to six-page chapters outlining how some of the most infamous love stories in history began. The coverage starts out broad, with historical stories like those of Jacob and Rachel (from the Bible) and the twelfth-century couple Heloise and Abelard, but the focus is on the twentieth century with chapters on Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek, Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, Johnny Cash and June Carter, and many others. It's a nice book to read a few chapters at a time, before bed, although some of the assertions might wake you right up:

"and while visiting Peking she [Wallis Simpson] discovered ancient Asian sex secrets, which were later to stand her in good stead." (p. 113.)

Now I don't know about you, but that's the sort of information for which I wouldn't mind a footnote. Stand her in good stead how, exactly?

And some of the writing is a bit "romance novel 101" for me (consider this, from the chapter on Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman: "In June 1968, Paul flew to Los Angeles to promote his new Apple label, and two days later he phoned Linda in New York to ask her to join him at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The sexual chemistry was such taht before Paul could ask if she had a good flight, they were discovering that their physical connection matched their emotional one"--p. 189), but what the hell. Put this one down under enjoyable romantic escapist nonfiction.

*Although it does have a really nice bibliography (even if it is decidedly Wikipedia-heavy).

Tuesday Article: What you get on the Internet.

Something to watch today, rather than something to read:

That link takes you to a really interesting talk by Eli Pariser at TED 2011 about what the Internet really shows us. It's about nine minutes long, and it's totally worth it. And it'll give you more food for thought about Mark Zuckerberg, who I personally believe is a ginormous tool. But I am not a fan of Facebook, so maybe that's just me.

Weekend fluffy reading.

I have been reading a lot of stuff lately that I feel like I have to read--books about babies' first years and developmental milestones (which CRjr is mainly hitting, but about which I am nervous all the same); books I'm indexing; books I'm not really into but that are coming due at the library; books to review for outside sources that I don't feel like reading; finance books because I am just desperate to understand something, anything, about investing; etc.

Diana So this past weekend I saw the title After Diana: William, Harry, Charles, and the Royal House of Windsor by Christopher Andersen on my TBR bookshelf and thought, well, hell, I'm just going to read that this weekend and enjoy myself. So I did. And I didn't do any other reading I thought I should do--I read this book, and the paper, and I did the New York magazine crossword, and in general slacked off disgracefully. It was awesome.

I enjoyed this book because it didn't look or feel particularly fluffy, but man, was it a fast read. It was also fun to read it after watching the big Royal Wedding a few weeks back; I'd never read that much about the Windsor family, so it was fun to learn more about Wills and Harry. (Particularly hilarious was the part about Wills attending college at St. Andrews, in Scotland, and heading over to campus on a street called Butts Wynd--I have a picture of that street sign from when we visited St. Andrews ourselves! Also funny--when it was announced he was going to school there, admissions for that year shot up 44%, accounted for by almost all women.) Although I did learn MORE than enough about some of the goings-on among Diana and the rest of the royals, Charles and Camilla, the Queen and Charles, etc. There were some wild stories here.

But all in all I don't think I'll search out any more bios by Christopher Andersen. This one was okay, as I was interested in the subject matter, but the chapters seemed somewhat disjointed and there wasn't much of an overall story arc. But that's okay. I wanted fluffy reading and I got fluffy reading, so I can't complain.


Sorry for the lack of posting this week; I got Anna Dean's Austen-esque mystery novel, A Gentleman of Fortune, or The Suspicions of Miss Dido Kent from the library and I've gotten sucked into that.*

We will return to regularly scheduled nonfiction posting as soon as I finish Dean's delicious little novel. In the meantime, here's a reminder that our Book Menage, wherein we will be discussing Joanna Kavenna's novel The Birth of Love and Sherwin Nuland's The Doctors' Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis, will be starting in a couple of weeks on May 23? I figure, reminders are good. I don't know about the rest of you, but lately when I blink entire days and weeks seem to disappear. Time is a wild beast that will not be tamed, I tell you.

*Although it'd be a lot more fun to read this in the winter, when I could get all cozy inside and read it while drinking hot chocolate. Reading it while springtime temperatures outside boomerang from 50 to 80 and back again, and while fearing hail from scattered thunderstorms, just isn't quite the same.

Tuesday Article: David Foster Wallace

Not so much an article today as David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College.

I read this in book form for the first time this past winter and now I think of it every time I go grocery shopping. I think of it when I see kids and college students and feel badly that they have a lot of adult experiences in front of them. I think of it when I'm annoyed in my day and I need to get a better attitude. In short, I think of it a lot. Seems like a good time to post it, as graduation time approaches.

Pity the girls.

I didn't particularly care what sex CRjr turned out to be, but after reading Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, I'm just as glad he's a boy.

Cinderella Not that there's anything all that shocking in this volume. Orenstein, the mother of a daughter and the author of other books on girls and culture, set out to explore some of the cultural forces working on girls today. Throughout her book she covers the Disney princesses (as a money-making juggernaut), Miley Cyrus, the nonsensical forces that coerce girls into wanting to be older younger and then stay younger older (good luck with that), "grrl power" in the 90s, tiny tot beauty pageants, and "mean girls" on Facebook and other social media.

Sound a bit disjointed? Well, it is--which is my sole criticism of the book. It seems a little scattershot, but I think that's because this is a topic that's near to Orenstein's heart. I get the feeling she's trying to work out how to raise her own daughter amid all these cultural forces, and that's distracting her a bit from constructing a more linear narrative here. But it's still an interesting book, and the overall picture reflects something my sister's always quoting from someone: you may try to do things differently, but by and large you end up raising your kids like your neighbors do, just because that's the everyday milieu you're all in together. Sigh.


What I particularly like about Orenstein is that she does some research, asks some questions, and still puts her own personal stamp on the material. Consider this, from her conclusion:

"Meanwhile, the notion that we parents are sold, that our children are 'growing up faster' than previous generations, that they are more mature and sophisticated in their tastes, more savvy in their consumption, and there is nothing we can (or need) do about it is--what is the technical term again?--oh yes: a load of crap. Today's three-year-olds are no better than their predecessors at recognizing when their desires are manipulated by grown-ups. Today's six-year-olds don't get the subtext of their sexy pirate costumes. Today's eight-year-olds don't understand that ads are designed to sell them something. And today's fourteen-year-olds are still desperate for approval from their friends--all 622 [on Facebook] of them." (p. 183.)

That pretty much sums it up, I think. If you've got girls, or you're interested in parenting culture in general, I'd give this one a read.

Nonfiction book group titles, spring 2011.

When I gave the talk on nonfiction (memoirs and biographies) last week, I had in mind to mention some nonfiction titles that would be good to read in book groups. There was only one small hitch with this plan: I don't really know what makes a book good for book groups or clubs. As an added complication, library staff trying to plan their book discussions are always limited as to the types of books they can choose: they have to choose titles that aren't too new or hugely popular, because then the waiting lists for patrons to get them will be too long; but they also have to choose widely available books that their library or system owns sufficient copies of so that all the book group members can check the book out from the library at the same time. It's a quandary.

So here are some of the newer or classic memoir and biography titles I thought might make for good discussions. What do you think? Agree or disagree on any of the titles? And what makes a title a good "book group" title anyway?



I should go to a library book group this spring or summer, especially if I can find one that reads nonfiction.

Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: The re-read.

Sometimes I really like to re-read books. I do that more with fiction, but I always enjoy a second (or third, or fourth...) toodle through favorite nonfiction titles as well.

A case in point? Hollis Gillespie's memoir/essay collection Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood. I have no qualms reporting that I first read this one because I loved the title, and then I kept reading it because I really enjoy Hollis Gillespie. Although it can be taken too far, basically, I like people who swear. And Hollis swears. A lot.

Bleachy I re-read this title because I was going to be giving a talk on memoirs and biographies to a lovely group of library professionals, and I wanted to have some examples of titles ready that have different "tones." The tone of Gillespie's book is much of what I love about it: feisty, profane, yet strangely gentle. That's hard to pull off. But she does it well:

"When I was seven I had a crush on Satan. Not that I knew who he was, I just based everything on his picture. In the illustrated children's Bible I remember one picture in particular, in which Jesus had just pushed Satan off a cliff, and Satan is sailing down through the air, a trail of red robes billowing behind him. He looked only slightly irritated at the inconvenience. He had hair as black as octopus ink, styled like Lyle Waggoner's, an impeccably groomed beard, and a deep sunburn. 'Course that cloven hoof was kind of a downer, but hey, other than that I thought he was hot.

When my mother came home from work that day I told her I wanted to marry Satan when I grew up. She looked at me gravely, then said, 'Kid, whatever you do, don't get married.'" (p. 274.)

Ha! What was also interesting to me about this book was how much I'd mis-remembered it; I remembered it as much more about her search for and making of a home in Atlanta, when really her home-buying adventures just take up a few chapters toward the end. It's also a bit more repetitive than I thought, and not quite as polished. (On the other hand, I think her collection Trailer Trashed: My Dubious Efforts Toward Upward Mobility is one of the best essay collections ever, that one's feisty AND polished.) But that's okay. It was still a fun re-read. And I even got Mr. CR to partake--I left it in the bathroom, and although at first his opinion of the book's author was not high ("she annoys me"), he eventually admitted that he enjoyed some parts of it.

It's like crack in book form.

I am not enjoying it at all, but for some reason, I cannot stop reading The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels: A Love Story.

Pioneer Except now, about fifty pages from the end, I am MAKING myself stop. Unlike with the two baskets of Easter candy I received (well, CRjr received, but he has no teeth, so I took matters into my own hands), I am going to exert some self-control and put the book down.

It all started when I saw a cookbook titled The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl on the bestseller lists, and because I have been on the hunt for new recipes, I checked it out. I haven't made anything out of it yet, but some of it does look good, and each recipe is illustrated with numerous step-by-step photographs, which is kind of a nice touch. The cookbook is based on Drummond's blog, The Pioneer Woman, and evidently those photographs are a big part of what has made the blog hugely popular. Periodically in the cookbook there are photographs of Drummond's husband (referred to as "Marlboro Man") and her kids, as well as stories about how she, a city girl, met and fell in love with her husband and moved to the ranch.

The cookbook was published first; Black Heels... came out in February of this year. This one is pure memoir, in which Drummond relates the story of her love affair with Marlboro Man, how they got married, and the birth of their first child. And, let's face it, it's cheesy. There's lots of stories about how the MM's sexy gravelly voice makes the Pioneer Woman go weak in the knees, how they spent all sorts of time making out, and how she gave up her dream of moving to Chicago to stay near and eventually marry the MM. Consider this story, about her reaction to becoming engaged:

"Then my whole body relaxed in a mushy, contented heap as I remembered all the times I'd walked back into that very room after being with Marlboro Man, my cowboy, my savior. I remembered all the times I'd fallen onto my bed in a fizzy state of euphoria, sighing and smelling my shirt to try to get one last whiff. All the times I'd picked up the phone early in the morning and heard his sexy voice on the other end. All the times I'd longed to see him again, two minutes after he'd dropped me off. This was right, this was oh, so right. If I couldn't go a day without seeing him, I certainly couldn't go a lifetime..." (p. 131.)

There's a LOT of that type of thing in this book. And yet I still read to page 158. I don't know why, really. Perhaps because none of the other nonfiction I have in the house is turning me on. But this is it. I'm putting this book back in the library bag, because I can't quite believe I've already read this much of it. Ever read a book like that? One you can't stop reading even though you know you should, that there's a ton of way better books out there?