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July 2011

How convenient is a convenience store without smokes?

The second book about retail/service last week was Ben Ryder Howe's My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store.

Korean This one got a lot of pre-publication buzz, and a lot of good reviews, so I thought, hey, why not? Sounds good. A guy (who happens to be an editor at the Paris Review) agrees to help purchase a convenience store with his wife in New York City that they can give to her hard-working Korean parents, in order to "pay them back" for all the sacrifices they made immigrating to America. They'll help work in the store, too, the whole family will make it a success, they'll get their investment back, and they'll move out of his wife's parents' house and start a family of their own.

SPOILER ALERT: This is not how things work out.

Instead, the convenience store/deli nearly does kill them, starting with Howe's redoubtable mother-in-law. Howe weaves a tale of mishaps and bad luck, and if the stress from running a convenience store in Brooklyn (early on his mother-in-law Kay gives up the dream of owning a fancier deli, with a cash-cow lunchtime buffet steam table, in Manhattan*) isn't bad enough, he also witnesses the end of an era at The Paris Review as he and his colleagues try valiantly to make it more "professional" without stepping on George Plimpton's toes (and especially so in his absence, after his death).

And he does weave a fairly good tale. I started it at night, and then stayed up a bit later than usual to read it (fun in itself, as it's been a while since I've found something, anything, I really wanted to KEEP reading) and ended up blowing through 250 pages, so it's an easy read. And I really felt for him, as I can't imagine trying to serve the types of people he describes serving. It was, in its own way, an interesting look at a type of store I've (mercifully) never had to work in.

But this was another nonfiction book in which topics were raised and then never resolved. There is the incident, for example, where, when the deli/store is already struggling, Howe is seduced by a fancy groceries catalog into buying more than a thousand dollars' worth of upscale foodstuffs. There's some reference to his wife asking him if he placed an order that large, but that's pretty much all that's ever said about it. Now, me, when I hear about $1500 in fancy groceries bought for a convenience store which is mainly known for its sale of beers and lottery tickets, I kind of want to know what happened to those groceries. Did they sell? How fancy were they? Did his wife and mother-in-law ever chew him out for spending so much money when they were already hard up? 

At another point the family is faced with losing their license to sell cigarettes (for one violation for selling cigarettes to someone underage), so they voluntarily stop selling them. I ask you: what kind of convenience store owner thinks they're going to be able to keep the business going without selling cigarettes?

So there you have it: two books on retail/service, and neither of them fantastic reads. I'll have to give up on the subject for a while and wait for something better to come along.

*Howe's writing about the steam table and his mother-in-law is some of the most fun writing in the whole book, and it comes on pages 3-4: "My mother-in-law, Kay, the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers, wants a deli with a steam table, one of those stainless steel, cafeteria-style salad bars that heat the food to just below the temperature that kills bacteria--the zone in which bacteria thrive. She wants to serve food that is either sticky and sweet, or too salty, or somehow all of the above, and that roasts in the dusty air of New York City all day, while roiling crowds examine it at close distance--pushing it around, sampling it, breathing on it. Kay's reason for wanting a deli of this kind is that steam tables bring in a lot of money..." What's really sad is how much that paragraph makes me want to take another trip to New York City.

Retail (non)therapy.

So what's the subject I'm strangely fascinated by?

Malled It's retail. Or, as a close second, food service. I will read anything about the retail environment, even fiction, which is how I found myself with Caitlin Kelly's journalistic memoir titled Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.

Since the majority of my working life has been spent in jobs where I waited on people, I'm always fascinated to read other people's takes on that subject, and about the service environment in general. One of my favorite nonfiction reads is Paco Underhill's Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping--Updated and Revised for the Internet, the Global Consumer, and Beyond, which is a fascinating exploration of how people shop (I read the previous edition, so I may have to check this one out again). In Kelly's book, her take on shopping is a bit more personal: she spent more than two years working in a North Face store.

In a way, this is one of those "year in the life" books; Kelly took the retail job purely to supplement her journalism income and worked only two shifts a week (eventually downsizing to one shift). That's part of the problem here. Normally I enjoy these types of books, regardless of whether they're memoirs or investigative titles (this one is a mix of both), but this one feels phoned in. And I'm sorry, but if your entire service experience is comprised of two shifts (and then one) per week for a couple of years, you have not been a true service worker. Work a few service jobs at the same time, which is invariably what you have to do to make any money, and then come back and talk to me.

Kelly's day job is as a journalist, and she freely admits she got the job just to help supplement her paycheck and to get out of the apartment a couple of times a week. All I can say is: ho-hum. I was no huge fan of Barbara Ehrenreich's similar (but full-time, and more muckraking) title Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, but at least Babs gave it more of a college try than this author.*

The writing wasn't terrible, but a lot of times I felt I wasn't getting the whole story. This is the story she tells of how she was hired: "The money, of course, was sobering, stunningly low. It was less than I had earned as a teenage lifeguard in the 1970s--$9 an hour for part-timers, $11 for full-time, with no commission or bonus, but with a healthy discout on company products. And I would have to pay $8 just to park in the mall's lot for my shift--in effect losing the first hour of my labor. I asked for $11 an hour, working two days a week, Tuesdays from one to nine p.m. and Wednesdays during the day..." (pp. 16-17).

Huh? Never have I worked a service job where I didn't just take the pay they were offering. Are you telling me I could have asked for more? Does that work? Well, we'll never know, because Kelly never finished that story, so I never learned how her boss responded to that request. She also periodically alludes to challenging customers, but she never really describes any of her encounters with either scary or demeaning members of the public (and trust me, there's plenty of them around).

So yes, due to its subject matter, I read the whole thing. But did I enjoy it? Not really.

*By the way, a REALLY good title of this type ("I worked a shitty job to see what it was like") is Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do.

The allure of subject.

I come from a public library background, so I was once very used to thinking of nonfiction in terms of subject. Most library nonfiction collections are, after all, shelved according to the Dewey Decimal classification system. (Academic libraries aren't immune to this focus on subject; they just use the Library of Congress system instead.) But the day I read Matthew Hart's fantastic science/business book Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession, I had a little epiphany: the appeal of nonfiction didn't have to be about subject. I do not have any particular interest in diamonds, and if you suggested a book to me based on its geological information, I can't say I'd be too interested. But that was the book that got me hooked on nonfiction.

So then for many years when I would talk to people about nonfiction, I went too far the other way. Don't think it's all about subject, I said. Sure, a lot of readers will ask for nonfiction by subject (particularly when they want to read biographies or histories), but a lot of readers will read good nonfiction on a variety of subjects in which they don't even know, really, that they're interested. Take a book like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Huge bestseller, big word-of-mouth book, and what is its subject? Causality. I defy you to find reader who has ever asked for a nonfiction book specifically on the subject of causality.

But after the two books I started last week, found myself not particularly enjoying, but still having to finish, I am back to the realization that yes, sometimes, subject does matter. I'll talk about these two books the next couple of days, but in the meantime, can you guess what the subject matter was that had me so enthralled? (And no, it's not British history.) Or, as a parallel, what kinds of subjects will you always read nonfiction on, even if the books you find on it aren't particularly well-written?

Matt Taibbi Week: Day 5

Well, I certainly hope you've enjoyed Matt Taibbi Week. Today, just a quick rundown of his books and his author bio for you. Do give him a try sometime. I know he gave me a lot to smile about this week.*

Taibbi's first book is titled The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia (co-authored with Mark Ames), and is about his years spent in Russia, much of it editing an independent periodical called eXile. This is the only book of his I haven't read.

Then there's Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season, a campaign diary of sorts from the 2004 election.

Next, Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire, another collection of political and cultural essays.

In 2008 he published The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, about his experiments going undercover in various religious and political subcultures. Promoting this book is when he did the great Daily Show segment about casting out the demon of anal fissures. (I liked this book a lot too.)

And then there was 2010's Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, one of my favorite books of the year and a truly depressing read. You should still read it, though.

Now check out one of the guy's author bios. I'm sorry, you've just got to like a guy with a bio like this (although this is an early one, and some info is outdated): "Matt Taibbi is a columnist for New York Press and a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He worked for ten years as a journalist in Russia, where he edited the satirical magazine The eXile. He has also played baseball for the Red Army and professional basketball in Mongolia."

Come on. Professional basketball in Mongolia? I love this guy.

*A friend of mine once opined that she saw him speak at some sort of program and she was disturbed by how chipper he was. As in, how can a guy who knows all this and writes such seemingly cynical things about politics, culture, and finance possibly be chipper? Well, that just made me like him better. (I think he recently got married too, and if that's making him chipper, well, that's just too cute for words.) That reminds me of when Stephen Colbert was interviewing the great William Langewiesche about his book The Atomic Bazaar, and Colbert asked him how he could sleep (knowing what he knows about the inevitability of everyone, even nations that aren't the U.S.--gasp--getting nuclear weapons). Langewiesche didn't bat an eyelash as he answered, "I sleep very well." I don't know why I find that comforting but I do.

Matt Taibbi Week: Day 4

For the last few weeks, I've had the good fortune to actually get back to doing some reading. Mr. CR is aces about looking after CRjr, so lately I've grabbed a few minutes when they're having quality pop-and-son time to read a bit. Imagine my disappointment when I kept reading things that were okay, but weren't exactly had to put down, either. Until I got Matt Taibbi's Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire.

Elephants This book is another collection of political essays, with a few others on such topics as Hurricane Katrina (the essay on that subject is UNBELIEVABLE) and the teaching of intelligent design in schools thrown in for good measure. Published in 2007, it's amazing how long ago some of these stories seem. Jack Abramoff? Does anyone even remember Jack Abramoff? (We should--man, that guy pulled a lot of shit.) And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same:

"Both sides were right, obviously, which made for the usual perfect comedy of American politics: two entrenched camps determined not to communicate, but still engaged in an extravagantly violent public waste of time and money, with no resolution visible, or even imaginable." (p. 92.)

Sounds like a paragraph about the current debt ceiling fight, doesn't it? It's actually about the 2005 legal case Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District et al. and the teaching of intelligent design.

And, anybody miss George W. Bush? This is how Taibbi sums up Bush's 2005 tour to announce victory in Iraq:

"God bless George Bush. The Middle East is in flames and how does he answer the call? He rolls up to the side entrance of a four-star Washington hotel, slips unobserved into a select gathering of the richest fatheads in his dad's Rolodex, spends a few tortured minutes exposing his half-assed policies like a campus flasher, and then ducks back into his rabbit hole while he waits for his next speech to be written by paid liars. If that isn't leadership, what is?" (p. 108.)

I enjoyed his previous book about the 2004 election cycle, Spanking the Donkey, but I think I liked this one even better. And I haven't even told you yet about his masterful essays explaining how Congress (doesn't) work and every idea you have about how bills and amendments get passed is laughably wrong--those are titled "Four Amendments and a Funeral" and "The Worst Congress Ever" and you just plain simply have to read them for yourselves.

Matt Taibbi Week: Day 3, or Happy Birthday, Thomas Friedman, you pig.

Today, a word about who might enjoy reading Matt Taibbi's books.

Taibbi is a political and cultural reporter who is not shy about sharing his opinions. But the great thing about Matt Taibbi is not so much that he shares his actual political opinions; rather, it is that he is not afraid to say opinionated things about all political candidates and many other figures in the news, including head finance honchos and other people in power (as well as his fellow journalists). This makes him, in my mind, one of the few actually "objective" reporters out there. I don't actually know who Matt Taibbi would vote for, or if he even votes, although he did seem rather fond of Dennis Kucinich in his book Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season. A few guidelines, then, for offering Matt Taibbi in reader's advisory situations, or when recommending books to friends:

1. Do not give him to true believer Republicans. That's not going to work.

2. Do not give him to true believer Democrats. That's not going to work either, although he probably does hew more closely in personal politics to what would be Democratic principles, if Democrats had any principles.

3. Do not give him to readers who can't stand swearing. This is the man who called Alan Greenspan a "one in a billion asshole," after all.

4. Do give him to people who have voted for candidates like Kucinich, Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, etc. Any candidate who the media brands as someone who doesn't stand a chance, in short.

5. Do give him to fans of Hunter S. Thompson (Taibbi also makes reference to his own personal drug use, which I don't particularly need but for which I don't particularly blame him). Readers who enjoy Joe Bageant may like him as well.

6. Do give him to readers who enjoy learning about the media; Taibbi always gives great behind-the-scenes information about how journalism really works (or doesn't).

7. Do give him to any readers who are tired of the political choices in America, and who need a laugh. Give him to anyone who might agree with this statement of his, made in Spanking the Donkey: "I believe America's greatest problem is its incivility, its intolerance to new ideas, its remorseless hatred of weakness and failure, and the willingness of its individual citizens to submerge their individual cowardice within the vicious commerce-driven standards of our national self-image." (p. 144.)

7. Last but not least, do not give him to fans of Thomas Friedman. Taibbi is not a fan. And I'm particularly happy to post those links today, on Thomas Friedman's birthday. Happy Birthday, and many more to you, Thomas Friedman!

So there you have it, with only one short birthday wishes digression, a handy-dandy guide to Reader's Advisory involving Matt Taibbi.

Matt Taibbi Week: Day 2

A long time ago, after he did a hilarious interview on The Daily Show to promote it, I read Matt Taibbi's book The Great Derangement, and enjoyed it very much. He also blew me away last year with his title Griftopia, which was the first book I read that really helped me understand the financial events of the last few years. So last week when I wanted to read some more of his books, I picked up Smells like Dead Elephants and Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season from the library.

Today's quote comes from Spanking the Donkey, a compilation of some of his journalism pieces published during the years 2003 to 2004 (in Rolling Stone, The Nation, and New York Press, among others). This is not my favorite book of Taibbi's, but the following quote IS one of my favorite paragraphs of his of all time:

"As it stands, the Republicans are tougher than the Democrats because they will not hesitate to bomb the hell out of anyone, provided that the target cannot meaningfully fight back. But here's the thing: the Republicans are not interested in ruling other countries, any more than they are interested in ruling the United States. All they really want to do is make money. They only use military force insofar as it is necessary to (a) extract another country's resources, and (b) ensure that these countries become and remain markets for American products. Beyond those parameters, they're amazingly squeamish about using the military." (p. 135.)

I hear ringing. I think it's the ring of truth.

Now, a word to the wise: just because that paragraph admirably sums up the Republicans, don't assume that Taibbi agrees with the Democrats either. More tomorrow on who might enjoy reading Matt Taibbi, and more on this book later in the week.

Matt Taibbi Week: Day 1

I have been having a cranky summer.

There is no good reason for this. My life is better than I deserve and than I have any right to expect. But still, I seem to be having more and longer periods of funk. A lot of this is personal and a lot of it is my own laziness, but some of it also comes from listening to NPR while CRjr and I eat our meals. I try not to pay any attention to politics anymore, but the more I hear things like the Republicans sticking to their line on not raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, in order to "encourage the economy" (yeah right), the more I want to puke. And here's something else I know: the Democrats are no better. I always feel toward the Democrats the way Everybody Loves Raymond's Debra often felt about her husband Ray: "Idiots."

And then, like a sparkling little beam of sunshine, into my funk came Matt Taibbi.

For weeks I've been reading nonfiction that didn't particularly set my world on fire. I've been reading a lot of okay books, but I keep finding myself about 100 to 200 pages in and not particularly needing to finish the book. This is not a good sign. So, because I knew I liked Matt Taibbi, I requested some of his earlier books from the library to (hopefully) give myself a reading treat. It worked! I've been reading Taibbi all week and let me just say, I LOVE the guy. I want Matt Taibbi to run for president, except Matt Taibbi would be too smart to run for president.

So all this week, you're just going to have to bear with me as I share some of my favorite Taibbi quotes. In the meantime, make sure you're reading his blog, too.

International Anita Brookner Day reminder.

I'm in the middle of about four nonfiction titles right now, not far enough along to comment on any, and so just wanted to remind you that July 16 is International Anita Brookner Day!*

Head on over there and enjoy some great reviews of novels by a fantastically interesting novelist. Thanks to Thomas for making that happen (and Happy Birthday to Ms. Brookner!).

*Somebody over at this site actually used the word "yonks" in a review ("I haven't read Anita Brookner for yonks and welcomed the return"). I had to mention it here because "yonks" is my new favorite word.

Graphic Novels: The Challenge, Part 2

As you may or may not know, I started the reading summer out being challenged by Beth to read ten graphic novels. Because I am allergic to being told what to do, I suggested a compromise of me reading two graphic novels. Beth agreed and a mini-challenge was born.

Her first choice for me was Hope Larson's YA graphic novel Mercury; I reviewed that book last week. Another suggestion she made was Hannah Berry's Britten and Brulightly, although she noted it was a bit strange.

Britten Turns out I don't mind strange. This is a completely different novel from Mercury: much different story (crime/mystery/noir), much different art. One of the things that makes it strange (I'm not going to be a spoiler and tell you what it is) didn't really bother me all that much, although I did wonder why Berry used it as a plot point. I thought it would have worked just fine without it. The book opens with Britten describing his career as a private investigator--and his nickname "The Heartbreaker"--earned after telling people what they hired him to find out but which they really don't want to know anyway. I enjoyed that aspect of the story, and the actual mystery he is charged with, very much. Although towards the end I did think the story got both unnecessarily complex (and then was resolved too quickly)*, that's a criticism I have of a lot of modern-day noir and mystery.

But I did love the art of this one. Very dark, with lots of line detail of the city in which the story is set. It reminded me of Paul Madonna's work, which I love, and looked to me the way a graphic novel "should."

So, thanks, Beth. These were both interesting reads and when I passed the graphic novel section of my local library yesterday, I didn't run past it the way I normally do. I slowed down a bit and actually thought about perusing it. (I didn't, but the next time I might! Baby steps.)

*Mr. CR read it too and also thought the ending was too abrupt. Interesting that our reactions to these graphic novels has been quite similar, as we both have quite different reading tastes.

Science lite.

Every now and then I really like a good science read. I don't read science all that often, but if I find a title I can understand, I enjoy the subject much more than I ever did in high school.*

Clockwork I was able to understand most of Edward Dolnick's history of science title The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, so the book met my first criteria for science reading. Although the subtitle includes that bit about the Royal Society, this is much more a book about some of the luminaries who were part of that organization (Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, and eventually Isaac Newton) and those whose discoveries they built upon (Descartes, Johannes Kepler, Galileo).

For the first hundred pages, I really enjoyed the book. I understood it; the writing was quite vivid; the chapters were short; all things I typically enjoy in my nonfiction. But as the narrative wore on I started to feel that the chapters were a little too short and the writing a bit too choppy: I finished it, but in my opinion it never really coalesced into a cohesive narrative about the Royal Society, some of its most noteworthy members, or science in the seventeenth century as a whole.

But Dolnick does have a nice touch with setting the stage (his first chapters are all about plagues and fires sweeping across Europe in the 1660s): "Making matters harder still, London was not just built of wood but built in the most dangerous way possible. Rickety, slapdash buildings leaned against one another like drunks clutching each other for support. On and on they twisted, an endless labyrinth of shops, tenements, and taverns with barely a gap to slow the flames." (p. 31.)

He brings that same descriptive power to Newton's struggles with and eventual mastery of mathematics, planetary movements, the power of gravity, etc. And it's wild to realize how much some of the thinkers of this age accomplished, and how much they accomplished separately but concurrently. Newton and one of his main rivals, Gottfried Leibniz, evidently worked out calculus within years of each other, although Newton was too paranoid to publish his work as soon as he theorized it.

Huh. Imagine just "working out calculus." So yes, there are quite a few interesting tidbits like that in this book, but still...I finished it feeling a bit disappointed that it hadn't read a little smoother.

*Being a lazy student, I signed up for "General Physics," which was my school's version of "Physics for Dummies." I didn't want to be a scientist, I figured, why kill myself with regular physics? Our textbook even considered us too dumb for regular pronunciation guidelines; it said things like "joule (rhymes with tool)" and "torque (rhymes with fork)." Ha! I was so busy laughing at that textbook I never even learned what a joule really is.

Don't buy Melissa & Doug products.

Excuse me while I digress from nonfiction for a moment. I'm only telling this customer service story because some of you sent CRjr gifts when he was born, so I know you have been consumers of baby products and toys. It's a long post today, so please bear with me.

Recently a friend of mine gave CRjr a new Melissa & Doug wood ring stacker toy. Because I am both a paranoid twenty-first century mother, and I believe in doing small things that probably don't matter but set my mind at ease in an "I've tried" sort of way, I did rinse the toy in cold water and wipe it down (and then let it dry thoroughly) before giving it to CRjr to play with the next day. Approximately 30 seconds after receiving the toy, we noticed the paint on one of the rings had started disappearing in large chunks, presumably into CRjr's mouth and tummy. I took the toy away from him and considered what to do. I didn't care whether he had the toy or not, so I considered just giving it to Goodwill and being done with it, but honestly, it wasn't in good enough shape to give to Goodwill. So I wrote to the company's customer service email address and attached a picture of the ring. I stated very clearly that I was not using the toy, would be throwing it away, and that I expected a refund check in the amount of $7.99, made out to my friend. (I provided my friend's name and my mail address.)

Two days later I received an email that "Lisa" really wanted to talk this over, could I call an 800 number or provide a number where she could call me? Okay...

At this point in the narrative there's a few things you should know about me, customer service in general, and Melissa & Doug. Here's the first thing: I am one of those people who's largely very easygoing in matters of customer service. I've worked behind counters, so I'm endlessly patient when there are lines, or when staff are trying their best, especially under management-type constraints. Most of the time if I'm not out too much cash I prefer to just let things go, as time is more important to me than money (to an extent). Once a local library charged me $10 for a scratched DVD, which I hadn't even opened or watched. Rather than fuss, I just paid it, because I figure that's the usage cost of checking out literally thousands of CDs, books, and movies from the library system over the years. That's the type of consumer I am.* So: I had a problem with this product, and I didn't care about tossing it, but I didn't think my friend's money should be wasted, so I tried to be polite and state in an email what my quick (and seemingly easy) refund expectations were. When I was told to call back, then, I pretty much realized this was already going to be an unsatisfactory engagement--had I wanted to talk to someone on the phone, I would have called in the first place. And here's all I have to say about Melissa and Doug in general: they're not really losing a consumer in me, because I don't buy their stuff anyway. When looking at it in stores, I can see that it's all made in China, but because it's wood and they once had a good reputation, they can charge a premium for it. They target the crowd that has a bit more discretionary income than your typical Wal-Mart crowd, and they take advantage of that audience who wants to use their slightly more money to buy toys they think might be slightly better than plastic. Whatever. If it's all cheap crap made in China, which it is, I'd rather just buy some really cheap plastic crap from China. That way I can save five bucks here or there, which I will use for popsicles if my son ever gets some sort of plastic-induced cancer, needs chemotheraphy, and therefore can use the popsicles to soothe his mouth during the treatment. So that's the back story. Basically, I had a few minutes to spare and nothing to lose, so I went ahead and called Lisa up.

To the credit of M&D, the 800 number did get me to a person, I asked for Lisa, and after a very short hold I got to talk to Lisa. She then proceeded to assure me that she really did want to help me and that she was just going to ask a few questions to learn more about the situation.

I told her that we opened the toy, I rinsed it, and then my son played with it briefly before chunks of the paint started coming off. At this point she did let me know that their toys should not be rinsed--"the paint is water-based"--so it wasn't really meant to be rinsed. She wasn't blaming me or anything, but I should have contacted them to find out that their toys should really just be wiped down with a damp cloth.

I suggested that I hadn't immersed the toy or used soap, and had dried it immediately after the rinsing, and perhaps there isn't that much difference between that and wiping the toy with a damp cloth. She re-iterated that she wasn't trying to say it was my fault, she was just letting me know how wood toys work.

So that's the first thing you should know: Don't rinse off Melissa & Doug wooden toys.

I did explain that in playing with it, my ten-month-old son probably got the toy wet himself when he put it in his mouth, because babies put everything in their mouths (the toy was marked for 6+ months, and I'm guessing my boy isn't the only 6+ monther who still puts some things in his mouth). I also suggested that if cold water was going to disturb the water-based paint, a child's mouth probably was going to as well. At some point in here she did let me know that she knew kids put things in their mouths--"I have two (or three; I didn't hear the exact number) kids myself."

Here's the second thing to know: Empathy is the big thing in customer service these days. I LOVE watching how this training gets played out in actual practice. "Chuckle chuckle, I've got two kids myself, we're all just mothers here chewing the fat!" I don't know if this actually works on some people, but it doesn't work on me. I think, Oh, they're ticking off the "show empathy" box on their customer service checklist, and the calculated nature of it pisses me off further.

Lisa also proceeded to tell me (again, not my fault, she assured me) that the Ring Stacker Toy was not meant as a teething toy. I know, I told her, he's really not using it as a teething toy or biting into it (he doesn't have teeth yet), he's just sticking it in his mouth to check it out and then taking it out again. (Today's philosophical question: is a child's mouth more like a damp cloth or a water rinse?)

So we could have gone on like this for a while, but Lisa really wanted to solve my problem. Would we like a replacement toy or a cloth teething toy (which she proceeded to describe) of some sort? I said, no, I very clearly explained what I wanted in my email: a $7.99 refund check made out to my friend, sent to me so I could send it to her. I further noted that I had dealt with other companies over defective materials before and hadn't had a problem receiving refund checks, so I expected no less from them.**

But, Lisa said, Melissa and Doug doesn't sell directly to consumers, so she had no way to exchange money with me. (I thought about quibbling with this, as what I was looking for wasn't technically an exchange of money.) Okay, I said, then I don't have any more time to spend on this. If I can't get a refund check, I can just recognize I'm out a gift and my friend is out her cash, and I respect that she's done her job as far as she can within the constraints of her company. In her defense, Lisa did offer to send both me and my friend a free toy each, but I couldn't think of a nice way to say I wouldn't ever be touching any Melissa & Doug stuff again.*** We did work out that I would forward the emails about this issue to my friend, and if she chose to pursue it, she could contact Lisa for a free toy. I will do this.

Lisa also asked for a couple of identifying numbers off the toy, so they could "note and track the problem." With this I couldn't help her, because a sticker on the bottom of the toy with that information was too smudged to read.

This was all pretty much what I expected from the moment I picked up the phone, and I'm not really upset, because frankly, I've already had eight bucks' worth of amusement out of it ("I'm not blaming you, but you killed the toy when you rinsed it!"; the textbook empathy; the continuing repetition of the theme that the company REALLY wanted to help me; the slightly judgmental tone of well, ma'am, I'm just trying to help you, if you don't want a free toy for you and your friend you are IMPOSSIBLE to please****; etc.). I just wanted YOU, possible fellow toy purchasers, to know. To complete the review: even without the paint issue, I would consider this a substandard toy; the edges inside the little wooden rings are very rough and could easily, I think, cause splinters to soft little hands.

To sum up: Don't bother paying extra for Melissa and Doug toys. And, when calling customer service, don't tell them anything other than that you opened the toy and it was immediately defective (although they won't "blame" you for anything you've done, even though you are probably the one who caused the whole problem, just so you know). And for the love of God, people, don't rinse anything that's painted with water-based paints.

Idea for further research: What I may actually do is see if Melissa & Doug is a public company in which I can buy some stock, because if they're this good about hanging onto eight bucks, I can only imagine their profits and stock price will keep going up.

*I think of myself as a simple consumer, with pretty simple desires and expectations. However, as Mr. CR has informed me many a time, "simple" is not synonymous with "easy."

**I had a very good experience with SafetyFirst, for instance, who promptly sent me a refund check for a leaking $20 bathtub when I emailed them about it.

***I am the Mr. Darcy of consumers: "My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever."

****I've replied to Lisa's email, letting her know about this post. If she wants to, she can defend her company in the comments. I don't think she did a bad job--I think she did what she was trained to do. I'll freely admit that, short of giving me what I asked for in my initial email--a refund check made out to my friend and simply mailed to me--there was no way she was going to "resolve this issue" for me satisfactorily.

I must see it.

Have you seen the preview for the new movie coming out, based on Michael Lewis's excellent book Moneyball? Take a gander:

I love baseball. And I love Michael Lewis. And when I'm not thinking about him being with Angelina Jolie (who gives me the heebies) I still love Brad Pitt.* I'll always love Brad Pitt, for his part in A River Runs Through It, if nothing else. I've got to see this movie.

*And he's still so, so pretty, even as he ages. Men are disgusting, how they can do that.

Graphic Novels: The challenge, part 1.

If you'll remember, a while back Beth challenged me (in the comments) to read ten graphic novels this summer. Because I have a deep, deep antipathy to being told what to do (ask my parents, siblings, spouse, and former employers), I bristled at the "ten" part of the challenge, but I did compromise and say I would read ONE GN, of Beth's choice. She was a good sport and made some suggestions--and they were good suggestions. So good that I read TWO whole graphic novels, and am still trying to track down the third. So today, part one of the graphic novel challenge.

Mercury The first of Beth's picks that I read was a small YA graphic novel titled Mercury, by Hope Larson. It's very much YA material; the protagonist is a teen girl (two teen girls, actually, as the story pivots back and forth in time between a current-day story and an historical one) experiencing some family issues, first love, and even a bit of witchcraft (or, more accurately, cases of "second sight") thrown in.

The modern story centers on Tara, a girl staying with her aunt and uncle and cousin in a fictional town in Nova Scotia, after her and her mother's home has burned down (and her mother is working a job on the other side of Canada). The historical story follows events in the life of Tara's ancestor, a girl named Josey, whose life is turned upside down when a gold prospector arrives at her family's farm to look for gold on their property, and eventually enters into a mining partnership with her father. Different events are causing upheaval in each girl's world: Tara is about to go back to high school after being homeschooled for several years, and Josey finds herself falling in love with the mysterious gold prospector.

So what happens? Well, the copy on the back cover takes it from there: "As Josey's story plunges into tragedy, Tara's emerges with the promise of gold." Because it's a YA novel, and a graphic novel at that, if you're so inclined, you'll be able to read the whole thing in not much longer time than it will take you to read this review, so that's all I'm going to say about the story. But as for the experience of reading the graphic novel:

I liked it. I did. It was a fast read; one of my favorite things about graphic novels is that it usually takes me all of a half-hour to read all but the longest ones. And I liked certain conventions of the art--about halfway through the book I noticed the page background on the historical story was black and on the modern story it was white, which was a nice touch (and I was dense not to notice it sooner). But...I didn't love it. The art was basic cartoon, simple but nothing special. Ditto with the story--interesting but not fascinating, and when I finished it, I had too many questions to feel satisfied. (Mr. CR read it too, and we concurred in our opinion that the book and story ended too abruptly.)

Part of the problem, I thought maybe, was that I am unused to reading fiction. After Mr. CR finished the book and I asked him my several questions, he finally opined, "I think you're supposed to fill in some of the story yourself." Oh man, I thought. I have become such a slave to nonfiction that I need everything spelled out for me in fiction too. That's no good! So I worried about that until, a week later, I read Anita Brookner's novel The Debut, and I didn't have any questions about that at all. (I mean, I had questions, but not the "am I missing something here" type questions...) So, ironically, in this graphic novel, spelled out in both pictures and text, I felt unsatisfied.

But all in all, for a YA graphic novel? Not bad.