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August 2011

The view from Detroit.

Even though I live in the Midwest, I sometimes think about Detroit, and it seems as foreign (if not more so) to me as do cities across the world in other countries and cultures. This mainly started when I found some pictures online of an abandoned building in Detroit that was once used to store textbooks and other school items and supplies (the Book Depository). It just looked so sad. Ever since I saw those I have been looking at and reading books about Detroit.

Detroit I found my latest read* on Detroit while I was poking around online looking for reviews of Paul Clemens's superlative investigative title Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant. Detroit Disassembled is a big, gorgeous book of photography, although the photographs are anything beautiful. They document a city in decay.

What we found so jarring about these photographs (Mr. CR carefully looked at the pictures too) is how, whoever abandoned these buildings, seemed to abandon them midway. Nothing seems cleaned out or closed or locked down with any kind of order: in a former high school, desks are piled around haphazardly and science lab equpment sits out on counters; in the book depository, trees grow out of piles of books left jumbled on the floor to rot; in a library branch, the spinner still holds pulp paperbacks. It looks like stills from a horror movie, you know the type, when everyone in a small town just disappears into thin air, leaving their half-eaten meals on a table.

It's a horrible, gorgeous book. It needs to be looked at in conjunction with reading either Paul Clemens's Punching Out or Made in Detroit: A South of 8-Mile Memoir. I sometimes wonder if the whole city shouldn't be emptied and left to decay, and then maintained and visited as some sort of post-apocalyptic theme park (you know: see Alan Weisman's book The World without Us, about the process of how cities would go back to trees without us around, in action!). I'm not saying everyone who lives there would have to leave; maybe they could just live in some new buildings across town and then work jobs in the theme park. Or maybe that's too morbid. It was just an idea. Look at this book and tell me if you don't start having similar ideas.

*I say "read." Mainly I just looked at the pictures, although I did skim the essays by the photographer and by Philip Levine.

Tuesday Articles: The bells continue to toll for Borders.

I'm ashamed to admit that I rarely visited my local Borders bookstore--I never felt like I could spend the money and once CRjr arrived it just seemed like too much to do to bundle him up in the winter and go out--but now that it's gone I find myself missing it. (I liked it better than Barnes and Noble, and most of the few indie bookstores in my city are downtown and not so easy for me to just drop in on.)

So I have been reading a number of articles about the end of the Borders era, written by former Borders employees:

Dispatch from a Dying Borders

The Day Borders Got the Wobblies

Those are two of the most interesting I've seen, and I found them both via Bookslut. Has anyone else seen any "memories of Borders" blog posts or articles around?

Boys will be boys.

Every now and then, because I am a nerd, I read books about reading and how to help others find books they might enjoy. Recently I looked through Michael Sullivan's reference book Serving Boys Through Readers Advisory, and found it to be kind of an interesting little read and handy guide for thinking about how boys read.

Boys I've always been quite interested in gender differences and reading preferences*, to the point where I have actually wandered around Barnes and Noble on a regular basis specifically to see what sections men and women are browsing in, so this book spoke to a longstanding interest in readers and readers' advisory. Also, now that I have a little boy, it's personal.**

The first finding in this book that I found very interesting was Sullivan's citing the finding that "boys read, on average, a year and a half below girls throughout their school years, with a small gap from the first day of school and the widest gap later on." (p. 15.) That's pretty significant, and makes me snort with indignation when I think about "reading levels," "lexile" numbers, and Accelerated Reader programs that make no distinction between boy and girl readers. I also enjoyed the findings that boys read and enjoy nonfiction from an early age, and that they often pick books far ahead of their abilities (including a wide variety of adult books). Sullivan points out that this can actually be just fine--even if the boy doesn't know what five or more words per page mean (a standard distinction for finding whether a book is at a child's level or not, evidently), he can often get what he needs out of the text anyway by just reading and accepting what he DOES understand. I can see, then, why nonfiction appeals--it's easier to skim, and to read in stops and starts.

I also love the section on working with parents and kids--pointing out that a good first question for dads (and, to a lesser extent, mothers and other family members) looking for books for their boys is "what has the boy seen YOU reading?" I have long believed that public libraries in particular are very good about running programs to encourage kids to read, but do not do enough to support adult readers--primarily because I believe that if kids saw their parents reading, they'd be interested in reading too.

The book concludes with chapters of nice sample book talks and booklists for elementary, middle school, and high school age boys; and book lists in a variety of genres, including nonfiction, humor, fantasy, sf, gothic horror, sports, and realistic.

*Much more so than, say, age differences, although I suppose that will change as I age.

**I've been very nervous about and relieved to check off CRjr's various developmental milestones, but the physical skill that made me cry with joy was when he first started flipping the pages of his board books by himself. Oh, and feeding himself. I LOVE watching him feed himself--with both hands, unceasingly, until his food is gone. He's got his mother's appetite.

Geneen Roth, you're beginning to annoy me.

A disclaimer: adult language follows. Bail now if you do not enjoy seeing the f*** word in print.

In my summer of crank, I have taken to using the following phrase a lot: "Are you fucking kidding me?" I know, I know, I shouldn't be swearing around CRjr. But I can't help it. "Are you kidding me?" just doesn't have the oomph that "are you fucking kidding me?" has. And sometimes I like to speak with oomph.

My latest "are you fucking kidding me" moment came when I started reading Geneen Roth's Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations about Food and Money. I know, I know, her last book, Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything, was terrible and this is not the sort of book I enjoy at all. But Geneen is a bestselling nonfiction author, and sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me. I think, deep down, if I read books that many other people like, I will start to understand how other people think, and then maybe I will get along with all other people better and understand the American culture and fit in. Blah blah blah. I don't care so much for myself, but it has come to my attention that perhaps CRjr would have an easier time of it if his mother wasn't an old, profane, grouchy misanthrope.

Lost Here's how Geneen starts off: "I was standing in my kitchen wondering what to have for lunch when my friend Taj called.

'Sit down,' she said.

I thought she was going to tell me she had just gotten the haircut from hell. I laughed and said, 'It can't be that bad.'

But it was. Before the phone call I had thirty years of retirement savings in a 'safe' fund with a brilliant financial guru. When I put down the phone, my savings were gone and my genius financial guru, Bernie Madoff, was in handcuffs. I felt as if I had died and, for some unknown reason, was still breathing." (p. 1.)

That's right, folks, Geneen Roth, of Oprah bestselling fame, lost all her money (money tons of readers gave her) in Bernie Madoff's ponzi scheme.

Here's some more: "In 1992, my fourth book sold enough copies in paperback to spend two weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and when I received the check for this windfall--$106,000--it was like getting a paper bag filled with Monopoly money...Up to that moment, I had had the luxury of not paying much attention to money, partly because I was making enough to pay my bills, after which I'd put what was left over into a savings account, and partly because I had met and married my partner, Matt, and relegated the money part of our lives to him." (p. 5.)

This is a woman writing self-help books for other women? Are you fucking kidding me?

Well, anyway. I was not able to read this book in its entirety, but it seems to follow much the same format of her earlier bestseller Women, Food, and God. She tells some personal stories, she explains what she learned, she applies her experiences to other womens' lives and how they can be more mindful about their money matters. Blah, blah, blah. If you're curious, this is not the book that will make me understand the culture, or fit in, so that CRjr doesn't have a grouchy misanthrope mother. Them's the breaks, folks.

Not quite what I wanted in a science read.

I'm not much a science reader, but when I find a science book or author I enjoy, I really enjoy them. (And their books tend to stay with me.) Ever since I read Carl Zimmer's fantastic Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures, for instance, I've read everything I can by Zimmer and keep an eye out for books about parasites. (As well as, well, keeping an eye out for parasites. Bed bugs--yuck!)

Dunn One such recent book is Rob Dunn's The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today. Dunn's premise is interesting--a take on disease and human health that considers not what goes into our bodies, but what has been taken out of them as we wage war on all sorts of little beasties by living inside, interacting less with nature, disinfecting everything we can get our hands on, and generally trying to make our environments germ- (and worm-) free. In his early chapters, for instance, he discusses Crohn's disease, a painful and largely misunderstood and often untreatable, and increasingly common, bowel disease, and how it might actually be occurring more often because, at least in first world countries, we very rarely suffer from any kind of intestinal worm infestations.* He actually describes treatments wherein Crohn's sufferers volunteer (by many means) to get worms--and in some cases it actually does seem to work.

I wish I could tell you more, but I stopped reading this one at about p. 56. It was interesting, but I felt like the prose was kind of stilted, and the author was taking way too long to tell me his stories. Here's an example, from early in the book, when he's talking about an animal called the pronghorn, and what its strange evolution tells us about evolution and our environmental interconnectedness in general:

"Counting pronghorn is difficult, like counting crows or clouds. They are suddently everywhere and then, just as suddenly, nowhere. In most of the places they live, they remain unstudied, nameless, and totally wild. But there exists a grassland in the National Bison Range of Montana where the pronghorn are well-known. There the grass grows until it is about halfway up their backs and then stops...The National Bison Range is still wild enough that things can live, mate, and die without ever being noticed, but it is defined enough, a world unto itself, that a man and a woman might hope to watch a few animals live out their lives and in doing so learn broader truths. So it was that in 1981, the zoologist John Byers took it upon himself to be such a man, and his wife, Karen, would be such a woman." (p. 24.)

I think he's trying to be dramatic, but to me it just comes off as stilted. Still and all though, an interesting premise, just not my kind of prose.

*I know, ick. Still kind of interesting.

Tuesday Articles: Viva nonfiction!

I just noticed that Kim over at Sophisticated Dorkiness has started, along with a few cohorts, something called BAND--the Bloggers' Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees. It's a neat idea--kind of an Algonquin Round Table with various questions about nonfiction, and it's open to everyone!

I particularly enjoyed the last question about how people got started as nonfiction readers (posed by Amy Reads). And I really enjoyed Savvy Working Gal's answer.* It's so nice to see nonfiction getting a little love.

*I too got into nonfiction when I got tired of starting and not liking novel after novel after novel.

Why are books on reading always so boring?

One book I did NOT put a lot of bookmarks in recently was David Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time.

Come on. Check that title. Can you blame me for thinking this was going to be a really interesting book?

Reading Well, it's not. Or at least it wasn't to me. It turns out that Ulin's one of those book critics and writers who's always writing way above my head.* Maybe if I'd been an actual English major I'd be able to keep up with his references, but I wasn't. And I'm never going to have the time to correct that shortcoming (that is, to go back and read all the stuff I should read: more Romantic poets, Shakespeare, mid-twentieth-century classics, more world literature, etc.), and having that pointed out to me just makes me cranky.

Ulin's starting point is a discussion with his son Noah, who is having to read and "annotate" F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby for school. Noah tells his father, the book critic:

"'This is why reading is over. None of my friends like it. Nobody wants to do it anymore.'" (p. 8.)

Much as that statement disturbs Ulin, he has a feeling his son isn't wrong. From there he goes on to explore his own experience of reading, citing such sources as Frank Conroy's memoir Stop-Time, and explaining the creation of his own private library with such authors as Vonnegut, Mario Puzo, Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, and Joseph Heller. He describes his travels to Paris as a twenty-two-year-old and his discovery of the author Alexander Trocchi.**

As he describes his own lifetime relationship with reading, he does write some nice sentences of his own ("This is what literature, at its best and most unrelenting, offers: a slicing through of all the noise and the ephemera, a cutting to the chase.") but I never really felt this short book*** gelled as a complete or passionate treatise. Ulin himself never cuts to the chase--how and why are we reading differently now, David, and what does this mean for what we will read in the future? He just kind of babbles around, citing an author here and a cultural commentator there, mixing political stories with personal recollections. In the end I can't say there is one bit of this book that stands out to me, or that I could talk about with others.Which, to me, is where the real problem is with reading today. We don't read enough things that are worth talking about with each other, and if we did, we wouldn't have the time to. We're too busy programming our cell phones and Tivos. Or whatever the electronics are these days that people seem to love buying and programming.****

And, frankly? His son sounds like kind of a jerk to me, although I guess I should cut him some slack as a high-school boy.

*Here's a representative paragraph: "All of this suggests a complicated conundrum, between what we once were and what we are in the process of becoming. Such a conundrum is both personal and collective, having to do, on the one hand, with the way that in the floating world of cyberspace nothing is ever truly past or lost and, on the other, with the unintended consequences of this instant access, how it alters identity and memory. These issues, of course, have informed the human experience ever since there was a human experience." (p. 82.) I mean, I understand what he's saying but Christ, what a boring way to get there.

**I've never even heard of this author.

***It actually started life as an article, and I think it should have stayed that way.

****Not me. If I'm in a Best Buy for more then ten minutes I start to hyperventilate and have a panic attack. No fooling. It drives Mr. CR nuts--he once wanted to buy a new TV and get my input but I could never stay in the store long enough to give him an opinion. We still have his college TV.

Here's a surprise: another thriller I didn't enjoy.

Before I go to sleep tonight I have to tell you about the utterly disappointing reading experience that I had with S. J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep.

Sleep This novel's been getting a lot of buzz, and I understand that the author is being heralded as a prodigious talent (who was accepted into the new Faber Academy Writing a Novel course, where this novel was completed). I think it's being marketed as a thriller, although whether it should actually be called a thriller or a suspense novel is a fight I'll leave up to people who do more reading in those genres.

This novel worked in that I had to finish it for some closure, and in that it was a quick read, which seems to be what most people desire in a thriller. Christine is a middle-aged woman who wakes up every morning not remembering any of her life that came after her "accident," which her husband Ben, with whom she lives, tells her happened when she was twenty-nine. Each day, therefore, is a similar one of getting up, being told who she is and what happened, and then whiling away the day at home until Ben comes home and they spend time together. Until, that is, Christine starts secretly meeting with a doctor who has some ideas for how to help her regain her memory, including the suggestion that she start a journal (which he will call her about every day, to remind her of their treatment and to read the journal).

So far so good. And for about 50 pages I was actually interested. But then it slowed down and I started to get the inkling that the solution to the suspense part of the novel was going to be pretty simple. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: if I'm figuring out the mystery, the mystery is TOO EASY. I then shot myself in the foot and read the last ten pages, which I do a lot with mysteries*, but which pretty much confirmed what I already knew. In all the only feeling I can sum up about this one is "meh."** But that's largely the way I feel about thrillers anyway, so no news there.

*I know you're not supposed to do that with mysteries, but it's just habit now. And if it's a good mystery I'm reading, I don't mind...I read the end, then just go back to whatever page I was on and finish the whole thing with no less enjoyment. It's too late to change now--once I read all the Agatha Christies that way the habit was formed.

**Mr. CR read this one too, even though I tried to warn him off about it. He was liking it for a quite a while, but last night when I was reading something else he came into the room to discuss what he thought were a few of the gaping plot holes and the abrupt ending. I agreed with him completely, and also couldn't help reminding him that I tried to spare him the time of reading the whole thing, he just didn't listen. Because that's just the super-special wifely way I roll.

You will need to eat chocolate while reading this book.

Something lighter today than the books I've been discussing lately...

Recently I read Frances Park's and Ginger Park's memoir Chocolate Chocolate: A True Story of Two Sisters, Tons of Treats, and the Little Shop That Could, about how they started a candy store in Washington D.C. in the 1980s, financed largely by a small legacy left them by their father (who died a too-early death). This was an okay book, although I didn't stick any bookmarks in it--there weren't that many memorable passages. The appeal of this book is not so much in the sisters' writing skills (although they do have skill; they've written numerous and well-reviewed books for kids) as it is in the setting of their story: their shop, Chocolate Chocolate.

Chocolate The book opens (in 1983) with the sisters scouting locations for their new shop, and then attending the International Summer Fancy Food and Confection Show to find chocolate suppliers. From there they move on to dealing with the contractor who builds out the space they've rented--or, more accurately, the contractor who cocks up the job of building out the space they've rented. They have a rocky start, but over the years they settle into their groove, put together a group of loyal and regular shoppers, and deal with their own personal life ups and downs.

Each chapter is titled with the name of a different type of chocolate, and the book is rich with candy (and customers of candy) descriptions. I almost made it all the way through, but by the time I hit page 200 I gave in, walked to Walgreens with CRjr, and bought a 3 Musketeers bar. (The big one.) I later consumed it (inhaled it) while finishing the book, and it was a very enjoyable experience.

This is a nice fluffy summer read (see? some nonfiction can be considered "beach reading") but don't read it if you're on a diet.

Rainbow Pie, part 2.

So, with all the caveats out of the way, why did I find Joe Bageant's Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir so fascinating?

Well, first, because Bageant describes a world so like my own. His first chapters describe his youth growing up near his extended family and their farm in Virginia, and how his grandparents ("Pap" and "Maw") were very can-do people. I too grew up on a farm and know people who knew how to do things (and regularly did them) like raising one's own animals, hunting, butchering, raising gardens, canning food, and fixing and maintaining all the farm machinery.* So a lot of that--the missing it and not missing it, which Bageant displays, I can relate to.**

But I also like Bageant because he takes me out of my comfort area. I'm a Northern girl, and there are often things about the American South (culture, history, how anyone can stand the climate) that I don't understand. Bageant makes that world more clear for me. And he does it as a person whose ideology I respond to almost as instinctively as I often respond to Wendell Berry's.

On politics: "Today he [a Republican neighbor] would be even rarer, because he was a Republican with the common wisdom to understanding something that no Republican has ever grasped since: he realized that any wealth he might acquire in life was due not only to his own efforts, but also to the efforts of all other men combined--men who built the roads that hauled his merchandise; men who laid rail track, grew crops, drilled wells, and undertook all the other earthly labors that make society possible." (p. 52.)

On what to do now: "Ok. I'll say it so you won't have to. There ain't no goin' backwards. We certainly can't all take up horse farming or go to sowing lespedeza hay and oats. Of course not.

But the underlying theme here is loss, and that loss poses some big questions. It is at all possible to regain a meaningful, positive, and satisfying expression of character while working in such a monolithic, non-human scale of 'production'? Anybody else feel like America is just one big workhouse, with time off to shit, shower, and shop? Or is it just me?" (p. 69.)

On community: "A community with no memory of its dead is no real community, because it has no human connectivity grounded in time--just interaction. It's merely a location populated by disassociated beings. A community's inherited memory from its dead provides its spiritual and moral animation, its posterity. This is because we are humans, not aggregations of marketing or employment demographics, and are more than just a bunch of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time." (p. 111.)

I could go on and on. But I really just think you should read it. I really do. Even with its many issues. (I think Bageant should have included more family stories and a bit less class warfare discussion; some of it's uncomfortable; he concludes without providing much in the way of suggestions for change; etc.) Read it and feel free to complain to me about any of those issues, but also tell me what you THOUGHT about it. I want to know.

NOTE: Re-reading these reviews I notice I've done a terrible job of explaining why I both loved this book (and Bageant) and am conflicted about it. If you just watch this brief video of him talking (please note it's not really suitable for work), I think you'll see his anger and understand my conflict. My question after that is, how, Joe? How do you try to educate and help people? People who may or may not want education and help?

*I don't know how to do any of these things, although if forced, I could maybe plant, maintain, and harvest a garden. But it would be a half-assed garden and would mostly be eaten by bugs and bunnies, and if I had to work in it when it was much warmer than 70 degrees out I would be swearing a lot.

**These were also not people who believed in government "handouts." "Pap may have been a Democrat, but he felt free to cuss either party and its candidates with equal fervor, if he was in the mood. He didn't like Coolidge, and, though he voted for FDR twice, he was leery of parts of Roosevelt's New Deal. Particularly Social Security. He could not grasp how a man could get money in the mail at the end of the month if he had not worked during the month...After he died, a shoebox of uncashed Social Security checks was found under his bed." (pp. 35-36.) That is SO something my grandpa might have done.

Oh, Joe Bageant, I miss you.

The other memoir that blew me away this past month, along with Patti Smith's spectacular Just Kids, was Joe Bageant's Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir. I have, count them, no fewer than seven bookmarks stuck in this one, waiting to remind me of some of the most interesting bits.

Rainbow I spoke about Bageant a while back, when he died at the untimely age of 64. He was the author of the nonfiction title Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War, in which he explored the issues of what he calls the "white underclass," and, more broadly, class issues in America in general.

This book is more a mix of personal memoir and an extended (and sometimes very angry) diatribe about class issues in this country, particularly as they apply to poor white people. Bageant should know--he grew up in a working class family that became steadily a poor working class family due to lack of jobs, health issues, and other setbacks. One cannot read Bageant without being constantly aware of the conflict in his life: this is a man who loved his grandparents' home farm, who believes people should know something about how to fix and make things in their lives, and yet also left his home region for work, travel, and, as he did from little on, to read and learn.*

The difficult fact of the matter is that I think everyone should read this book, and any book group worth their salt should discuss it. But I honestly don't know if I can tell you to do that. For one thing, there is a part early on about Bageant's Uncle Nelson, born with birth defects that affected his development and left him (as Bageant describes) childlike his entire life, that is difficult to read and accept. (I'm not going to tell you what it is because if you DO choose to read this book, I think you have to read it in context.) Secondly, Bageant does sometimes use the "n" word (in regards to race), although he only uses it when discussing its use in his surroundings while he was growing up. Personally I feel the word here is not abused, and that we're really never going to get anywhere talking about race issues until people can be honest about where and how such words are or were used--but that is a personal feeling and I know that many people can't abide the word in print AT ALL. If you're one of these people, this is not the book for you.

There: I got the tough bits out of the way first. More on what I found interesting in a future post.

*As I type this I realize how sad it is that those things are often felt in "conflict." Why isn't it possible to stay where you grew up, know how do do some work with your hands, read a bit, and still be able to make a living?

Just Kids, part 2.

Yesterday I was so busy talking about my crush on Patti Smith, developed after reading her memoir Just Kids, that I didn't even get to talk about the love story/friendship at the heart of the book; that is, her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.

The story(ies) of how they met indicate, from the start, the sort of fated friendship they were bound to share (as well as illustrating what a small town late-1960s New York City seemed to be). When Smith first moved to New York City, with no money,* she went in search of some friends of hers who attended the Pratt Institute for art, but when she arrived at their address, she found they had moved. Instead she met someone else who would become hugely influential to her: Mapplethorpe.

"I walked into the room. On a simple iron bed, a boy was sleeping. He was pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck. I stood there. He opened his eyes and smiled." (p. 25.)

A bit later, after Smith found a job in Brentano's (where they also must have sold crafts and jewelry), that same boy came in and used a credit slip (he had a job at a different Brentano's) to buy Smith's favorite necklace on display. And not long after that, when Smith was on a date with a bookstore customer whose motives she didn't trust, she happened to see Mapplethorpe nearby and used him to make good her escape:

"It was as if a small portal of future opened, and out stepped the boy from Brooklyn who had chosen the Persian necklace, like an answer to a teenage prayer. I immediately recognized his slightly bowlegged gait and his tousled curls. He was dressed in dungarees and a sheepskin vest. Around his neck hung strands of beaded necklaces, a hippie shepherd boy. I ran up to him and grabbed his arm.

'Hello, do you remember me?'

'Of course,' he smiled.

'I need help,' I blurted. 'Will you pretend you're my boyfriend?'

'Sure,' he said, as if he wasn't surprised by my sudden appearance..." (p. 38.)

I'm sorry, but that, my friends, is a relationship that was meant to be. Three chance encounters across Brooklyn and Manhattan? Of course, their entire love affair doesn't stay that idyllic. But you've got to read this book: what these two did for art, the people they met (particularly while living at the Chelsea Hotel), the way they loved each other--take your pick. It felt like about four great books in one.

*Have I said how much I love Patti Smith? Check out this sense of adventure: "At twenty years old, I boarded the bus. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old gray raincoat I had bought in Camden. My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on a Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me." (p. 25.)

Not your typical love story.

I'll say this for memoirs: when I find a good one, there's really no nonfiction genre I enjoy more.

Kids Last week I decided that it was time for me to read Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids, about her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and their lives together in late 1960s and early 1970s New York City. Just to be clear: I don't think I've ever heard a Patti Smith song*, and I really didn't know anything about Robert Mapplethorpe except that he was a famous and controversial photographer (actually, to be honest, all I really had was a sort of fuzzy recollection that he photographed a lot of nudes). I picked this one up simply because it won the National Book Award and showed up on nearly every "best of 2010" list, and I always like to keep an eye on what nonfiction titles are winning awards and showing up on lists.

I loved it. I really, really loved it. It didn't matter if I read it for five minutes or half an hour; it never failed to transport me to a completely different time and place. (And, as a girl who believes in safety first, and is not a drug user in any way, I can't say that 1970s New York City is a place I ever thought I'd want to be transported TO.) I felt like I was reading about eight books in one: a coming-of-age story; a vignette about New York City; a digression on the purposes of art; and a sweeping but bittersweet love story. Every day I would read in it, and every night at supper I would bore Mr. CR with stories from it.

A large part of the appeal of this memoir was, as it so often is with memoirs, character (and, by extension, voice). I found myself just really loving Patti Smith. Early on there is an interlude, before she goes to New York, when she becomes pregnant at age 19:

"When I was a young girl, I fell into trouble. In 1966, at summer's end, I slept with a boy even more callow than I and we conceived instantaneously. I consulted a doctor who doubted my concern, waving me off with a somewhat bemused lecture on the female cycle. But as the weeks passed, I knew that I was carrying a child..."

She continues, explaining how she "relieved the boy of his responsibility," and how she listened to her parents and family in the kitchen, knowing she would have to tell them she was pregnant. And then:

"It is impossible to exaggerate the sudden calm I felt. An overwhelming sense of mission eclipsed my fears. I attributed this to the baby, imagining it empathized with my situation. I felt in full possession of myself. I would do my duty and stay strong and healthy. I would never look back. I would never return to the factory or to teachers college. I would be an artist. I would prove my worth, and with my new resolve I rose and approached the kitchen." (p. 18.)

She had the baby and gave it up for adoption, and felt she had done the right thing, but even after she went to NYC and met Mapplethorpe, the experience stayed with her:

"Perhaps it was the relief of having a safe haven at last, for I seemed to crash, exhuasted and emotionally overwrought. Though I never questioned my decision to give my child up for adoption, I learned that to give life and walk away was not so easy. I became for a time moody and despondent. I cried so much that Robert affectionately called me Soakie." (p. 42.)

I don't know why those bits appealed to me so; they just made me really, really like Patti Smith. I even liked Mapplethorpe, by extension, for calling her Soakie (affectionately).

More tomorrow on this book, whether you want to hear more about it or not.

*I've heard songs written by Patti Smith, especially "Because the Night." Unfortunately, it's one of my least favorite songs ever, as Natalie Merchant did a cover of it that was, to put it lightly, OVERPLAYED on the radio. (The years I lived with my brother, a certified Natalie Merchant fanatic, and he would play her CDs every morning, also did not make me feel more kindly towards Ms. Merchant.)

Can you spot the psychopaths among us?

As previously noted, I've been having a couple of good nonfiction weeks. I've had particular good luck with getting new books by authors I've enjoyed before.

Jon Ronson is one of my very favorite investigative writers (and a Brit to boot). Although the movie version of The Men Who Stare at Goats was awful, just awful (even with Ewan McGregor in it, and you'd better believe it hurts me to say that), Ronson's book, on which the movie was based, was weird, spectacular, and surprisingly dark underneath all its absurdity.*

Psychopath So when I saw that he was coming out with a book titled The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, I knew I would have to read it. The premise is simple: How can you tell when someone is a psychopath?

Ronson became interested in the subject in a roundabout sort of way: he was contacted by a scientist who (along with other scientists) was the target of some sort of hoax. When Ronson set out to investigate the hoax (which is just the sort of weird thing Ronson seems to happily get involved in, as a matter of course), he concluded it was perpetrated by someone with pscyhopathic tendencies. His very next step is to fall in with some Scientologists,** who lead him to a man in a mental hospital in Great Britain who swears he only acted crazy to get out of prison time, but now the psychiatrists have him pegged as a psychopath and won't let him out.

Confused? Don't be. It all makes sense, in a stranged sort of way, and before you know it, you're along with Ronson on a journey exploring what it means to be a psychopath, how psychopaths are identified, how they've been "treated" through the years, and whether or not most successful CEOs are, in fact, psychopaths. I enjoyed the whole thing, very much. Primarily just because I enjoy Jon Ronson. Consider his early ramble through the DSM-IV-TR (the diagnostic textbook/manual in which mental disorders are described):

"'I could really be on to something,' I thought. 'It really could be that many of our political and business leaders suffer from Antisocial or Narcissistic Personality Disorder and they do the harmful, exploitative things they do because of some mad striving for unlimited success and excessive admiration. Their mental disorders might rule our lives. This could be a really big story for me if I can think of a way to somehow prove it.'

I closed the manual.

'I wonder if I've got any of the 374 mental disorders,' I thought. I opened the manual again.

And I instantly diagnosed myself with twelve different ones." (p. 34.)

Tee hee. It's another good book from Ronson, ridiculous but with an undercurrent of the deadly serious and darkly disturbing.

*I don't believe I've read his first book, Them: Adventures with Extremists, or else I've forgotten it. I'll have to get that one soon.

**Evidently Scientologists do not believe in psychiatry, which is (again, in a roundabout way) how Ronson ended up talking with them.

The diminishing bookmark pile.

On top of my DVD player in the living room is a pile of paper bookmarks; I keep them handy there because whenever I like something in a book I'm reading, I stick in a bookmark to mark the page. (Mr. CR says I only have to be in a spot for a few minutes before books and paper clutter start forming around me.) The great news this week is that my large pile of bookmarks is almost gone--which shows that I have been having a fantastic week of reading. Can't wait to tell you all about it next week. For now? Can't talk, gotta read.

Have a great weekend, all, and may you all be finding many bookmarkable books as well.

Twenty attempts at a review.

How to Read: A review of Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

1. How to Read: Consider format

Montaigne I started this critically acclaimed biography with very little knowledge of Montaigne, but I was intrigued by all the good reviews of the book's writing. I was not disappointed; Bakewell's done a neat thing here with (to my mind) the somewhat tired biography format of birth, life, death.* Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), best known for his almost single-handed creation of the essay form, wrote about anything and everything, and most of his writings deal with the big question: "how to live?" In twenty chapters, Bakewell tells his life story by answering that question in twenty different ways. In the chapter titled "How to Live? Don't Worry about Death" she describes his attitude toward life and a near-death accident/experience he had; in one titled "How to Live? Survive love and loss" she describes his love for his friend La Boetie, who died an early death. It's still largely chronological, but the focus in different chapters on different aspects of his life makes the format of this biography a little something special.

2. How to Read: with great interest

Essays are some of my favorite things to read, and although I didn't know much about Montaigne other than his obsession with writing down the personal details of his life, I started out reading this book with a high level of interest. Plain and simple, I kind of like this guy: "Montaigne had hitherto been keeping two lives going; one urban and political, the other rural and managerial. Although he had run the country estate since the death of his father in 1568, he had continued to work in Bordeaux. In early 1570, however, he put his magistracy up for sale. There other reasons besides the accident...perhaps his own encounter with death, in combination with the loss of his brother, made him think differently about how he wanted to live his life. Montaigne had put in thirteen years of work at the Bordeaux parlement when he took this step. He was thirty-seven--middle-aged perhaps, by the standards of the time, but not old." (pp. 23-24.)

That's right, the guy retired at 37. My kind of guy.

3. How to Read: with growing distraction

Perhaps it's finally happened; my brain has re-wired itself due to all the reading and work I do online, and I'm not able to read long books anymore. But after the 200-page mark my desire to read/finish this book just kind of flagged. It was still interesting, I just kind of...trailed off. I pushed further, and skimmed another 50 pages, but that's it. I'd learned all I wanted to of Montaigne for the time being, that's all. But I'd still recommend this one; I hope to get it back some day and finish it, as well as read Montaigne's actual essays. If only I could retire at 37 that would leave me a lot more time for that sort of thing.

4. How to Read: so many other books that you don't have time to write the full review you promised in the beginning of the post. I'm not going to try to get to 20 questions and answers.

*Although this is also the format of, well, real life, so it makes sense as a biography template.

Gotta re-read me some Laura Ingalls Wilder.

As previously mentioned, last week I found myself reading books by authors I'd read before (and enjoyed). Author Wendy McClure won me over a few years back with her weight-loss memoir titled I'm Not the New Me, so I thought I'd try her new book, a memoir/travelogue titled The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie. After explaining her childhood fascination with the Little House books and all things Laura Ingalls, McClure further describes her multiple trips to visit historic sites and tourist traps centering on the Ingalls mythos.

Wilder McClure is a children's book editor, and perhaps the most fun thing about this book is her obvious love for her source material.* Periodically she references parts of the Little House series that she particularly enjoyed (or is a bit dismayed by, in retrospect, particularly when it comes to the portrayals of American Indians), and how those parts really fired her imagination. Anyone who has ever remembered a beloved book (or series) from childhood will identify with her nostalgia, particularly those who read and loved the Little House books.

But also fun are her descriptions of many of the Ingalls historical sites, including the little house in the big woods at Pepin (Wisconsin), her Minnesota home "on the banks of Plum Creek," and the house in Missouri where she eventually settled with her husband Almanzo and their daughter Rose. Much of McClure's writing is also augmented with biographical tidbits from a wealth of biographies and scholarly works on Laura and her family--she clearly did her homework, which gives the story some nice heft.

But perhaps my favorite part of this memoir is how she shared her reading and travels with her partner, Chris. She did a nice job of working in his commentary, like when they discussed Farmer Boy, which, as it focused on Almanzo, was never one of McClure's favorite books in the series. But Chris liked it and told her why:

"'This book rules. This kid has the best life ever. There's a doughnut jar in the kitchen.' 'The doughnut jar really is cool,' I admitted. 'In his right hand he held a doughnut, and in his left hand two cookies,' Chris said. I knew he was reading from the book. 'He took a bite of doughnut AND THEN a bite of cookie.' He was quoting the birthday scene, where Almanzo gets to stay home from school and go sledding and wander through the kitchen double-fisting baked goods. 'That is some bad-ass action right there,' Chris said." (p. 304.)

This one was a fun read for summer. (Nonfiction beach reading, anyone?) Thoughtful but not too heavy. And it's definitely left me with the desire to read the Little House series. (I loved the part where Almanzo got to stay home for his birthday too.)

*"It's just how reading the Little House books was for me as a kid. They gave me the uncanny sense that I'd experienced everything she had, that I had nearly drowned in the same flooded creek, endured the grasshopper plague of 1875, and lived through the Hard Winter. It's a classic childhood delusion, I know, and in my typically dippy way I tended to believe that the fantasy was mine alone..." (p. 2.)

Some old favorite authors with new books.

Last week seemed to be the week for reading new books by nonfiction authors I've previously enjoyed. First up: Catherine Friend.

I first came across Friend when I read her memoir Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn, about she and her girlfriend's experiences starting a working farm. Friend's partner, Melissa, was really the one with the interest in farming, so Catherine often just seemed along for the ride. (To which I can relate: I grew up on a farm but would have to be coerced--strongly coerced, say, by a world financial meltdown or apocalypse of some kind--to return to the farm.) That was a fun memoir. I also enjoyed her follow-up, The Compassionate Carnivore, which was a great book about eating meat while still like animals, and which made a strong argument for simply making better choices about the meat you eat (and paying attention to how and where it is raised). In that respect it was about a million times better than Jonathan Safran Foer's pointless Eating Animals.

Sheepish So when I saw her new title, Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep, and Enough Wool to Save the Planet, I was excited to read it. This one, like her previous books, offers short chapters and a wealth of funny stories, but I struggled to find the cohesive story arc in this one. This is rare, as I am not normally a nonfiction reader who needs a lot of story.* It's divided into five different parts, with Friend chatting variously about the latest farm adventures (including a fascinating chapter about sheep getting pregnant at the wrong time of year); menopausal difficulties; some struggles in her relationship with Melissa; and an appreciation for the farm, the sheep, and particularly their wool. She shares some interesting tidbits about wool, its history, and its properties, but I must confess she lost me on her knitting chapters. Knitting for me is a lot like gardening: It seems like a good hobby and I feel like I should be interested in it, but at the end of the day, knitting comes in at about #434 on the list of things I want to learn how to do in my life, somewhere below curling my eyebrows but above sewing in general.

It was a fun**, quick read, but if you're looking for something more cohesive I'd start with any of Friend's earlier books.

*This is why it annoys me when nonfiction read for recreation is referred to as "narrative nonfiction"--just because something isn't a how-to, doesn't necessarily make it "narrative." But people need labels. I understand.

**It starts with a zap, literally, as Friend describes a young couple's tour of her farm and their reaction to the electric fence: "...the man looks down at the smooth wire running from post to post. 'Is this electric?' I nod. There's a yellow sign hanging from the top wire about thirty feet away. The sign says, 'Warning: Electric Fence...' He can't take his eyes off the fence. 'Would it hurt?' The guy's wife rolls her eyes. 'Honey, don't touch the fence.'" Of course he touches the fence. As a wife who probably (too frequently) rolls her eyes, I got a charge out of that one. Pun intended.