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October 2011

The Something Wicked hiatus.

As you may know, every year around this time I generally re-read, and fall in love with all over again, Ray Bradbury's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes.

But I'm not going to this year. October is almost gone and although I have thought of bits of the book periodically (when I take walks with CRjr, and hear the skittering leaves and the whisper of broomsticks around corners, most particularly), I have not had the urge to re-read it that I usually do. So I'm not going to force the issue; it'll be there for me next year.

Instead I'm going to spend some time with an older book that I've had for years, purchased at some sort of library sale: The Dodd, Mead Gallery of Horror. I like a good horror story and hope I can find one in the collection to enjoy. Has anyone else read any good scary stories this year they'd like to recommend?

In the meantime: Happy Halloween to all of you, beasties. CRjr's a little young to go out and beg for free candy, but I'm looking forward to those days when I can steal some fun size candy bars out of his bag. Don't look at me like that. I gave that boy life, he can give me a teeny tiny Snickers bar every now and then.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Food and Health, Part 2.

No fooling around; Health titles today (we covered Food earlier in the week). If you'll remember, here's what Time magazine had to say:

And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, by Dr. Benjamin Spock
The Joy of Sex, by Dr. Alex Comfort
The Kinsey Reports, by Alfred Kinsey
 Our Bodies, Ourselves, by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective

Of those, I've only read the Shilts book, which I remember as being very interesting and well worth a read. I still think most of this list is weak, and would serve more as a "well-known reference book" list more so than a list of the "best nonfiction." Why not just throw the Merck Manual or the Physicians' Desk Reference or the DSM-IV on the list and be done with it? Here are the books I'd suggest instead:

Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude, by Amy Bloom. A slim little book, packed with empathetic and fascinating stories about gender. Really. It's way more fascinating than it sounds and will blow your mind regarding the number of children born with some kind of genital, well, abnormalities isn't quite the word of I'm looking for, but issues.

Your Medical Mind: How to Decide What Is Right for You, by Jerome Groopman. If you're going to read a how-to book, read a good general one about understanding your own attitudes about and approaches to medicine and health care.

The Hot Zone, Richard Preston. It reads more like a thriller, but Preston's fast-paced story about the Ebola virus is both informative and scary as hell.

How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter, by Sherwin Nuland. He of one of my other favorite medical books, The Doctor's Plague, explains exactly how we die and the human body breaks down. Nuland himself is a doctor and makes the details, if not more palatable, at least understandable.

Nobody's Home: Candid Reflections of a Nursing Home Aide, by Thomas Edward Gass. I've been meaning to re-read this one because it stands out in my memory more than any book about nursing homes should. I think I appreciated it because it was a thoughtful read by someone actually doing the work of caring for old people. (Narratives by honest-to-goodness workers are kind of tough to find.) None of us want to die young, so let's face it, old-age care is something we have to think about.

I know I'm missing a ton of titles; I've read a surprising amount of really good health-care narratives (Pushed, about childbirth, and Normal at Any Cost, about giving growth hormones to short kids, also come to mind, but there isn't enough room on our list here for them.) What Health titles would you suggest?

Even the word "mooncup" makes me shudder.

MoneylessI honestly don't know why I read the entire book The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living, by Mark Boyle.

This entire "living frugal/living without money" genre is one that I never particularly enjoy, but yet I can't stop reading them anyway. I think subconsciously I'm looking for money-saving tips that don't have anything to do with extreme couponing. I already try to spend as little money as possible (I spent the entire summer babying my one pair of shorts along, sometimes hand-washing them, so they didn't develop big holes and I could make them last through the summer), but I do not like couponing.

Unfortunately this book was an extreme version of its kind. Boyle spent a year living in the UK with absolutely no money--living in a trailer, creating his own power/electricity, using a woodstove, biking or hitching anywhere he needed to go, and doing everything he could to get the word out about moneyless living. I guess it wasn't a boring read--I did make it through the whole thing--but I can't say I really enjoyed it. There's a lot of this sort of thing:

"...if I wanted bread, I was going to have to come up with a new solution. And I did. I decided that although I loved bread, it would have to be a treat. Instead, I would sprout the grains. This means sprinkling a layer of rye grains along a couple of stacked, perforated trays and rinsing them with water twice a day until they sprout. This only takes five minutes and so is much less effort, for more nutritional gain, than making bread. Although not quite so pleasing to taste and smell!" (p. 28.)

Oh brother. It's all I can do to get through the day even when I just buy my bread like a sucker.* Experiments like this are just too extreme for me, I'll admit it. But I have to give the guy credit for trying something a little different with his life, and for writing the book about it.

*I also wouldn't be much good as a moneyless woman. Here's what Boyle has to say on certain, ahem, feminine needs: "For coping with periods without money, there is an obvious solution that even I know about: a mooncup. This is a rubber cup, which the user inserts in her vagina to collect the menstrual flow. It's held in place over the cervix by suction." (p. 180.) At the risk of sounding twelve, I've got only two words in response to that idea: icky poo.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Food and Health

Welcome back to our continuing series on the 100 "best-ish" nonfiction titles around, undertaken in response to Time magazine's 100 Best Nonfiction Titles (no qualifying "ish" for them, damnit, they really did list the best!). Taking their categories in turn, rightfully today we should look at Food and Health books.

But first a word about those categories. The Time list is broken down into various nonfiction subject and type categories, and I can't say I agree with most of them. I say, either list the 100 top books and skip the categorization, or pick things a little less randomly. Food and Health aren't the worst categories, but later on we'll be tackling "Nonfiction Novels" and "Social History" (as opposed to History). In the meantime there, are no Travel, True Crime, or Nature Writing categories. What's up with that? Weird, Time editors, weird.

But I digress. Food and Health, okay, here we go. Here's Time's titles:


How to Cook a Wolf, by M.F.K. Fisher
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child
The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan


And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, by Dr. Benjamin Spock
The Joy of Sex, by Dr. Alex Comfort
The Kinsey Reports, by Alfred Kinsey
Our Bodies, Ourselves, by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective

Now, I'm going to quibble with a lot of these on the basis that they are not so much books you read as books you refer to: particularly the Art of French Cooking (which I own and which is incredible, but which is not really a book you read or even particularly use. It's largely a book you have around because you love Julia Child, and because someday you intend to use it, really), the Dr. Spock book, and Our Bodies etc. And really? The Kinsey Reports? Time magazine thinks we're actually going to pick up The Kinsey Reports? I can't even get myself to watch the movie Kinsey, although I do sort of want to see it. Ironically, I'm just never in the mood.

Anyway. Here's what I would suggest for three food titles (keeping in mind I already listed the Bourdain in memoirs):

The Tummy Trilogy, by Calvin Trillin. If you've never read Trillin, you're in for a treat. He writes about food and travel (and his wife, Alice) with such a lovely and light descriptive touch. Yummy.

Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do, by Gabriel Thompson. By rights, this title should go in an Investigative/Journalism/Current Affairs section, but the Time list didn't include that category either. (Weak, Time editors, weak.) I'm including it in Food because there should be at least one title about our currently fucked-up system of food production and consumption, and this is the one that sticks in my head. (Of course anything by Wendell Berry would be good too.) This is the title that turned me off supermarket chicken breasts for good, simply because Thompson's description of the horrific working conditions inside chicken plants made me so sad (not only for the chickens, but mostly for the workers handling the chickens).

I think the M.F.K. Fisher is a good choice, but why that title? Why not the better known The Art of Eating?

So: what food titles would you suggest? Don't hold back; it's not a category I know really well, so I'm sure I'm missing tons of titles.

And now this post is too long--tune in for Health sometime later this week. Geez, this list stuff takes work. I'll bet those Time editors were worn out by the time they cooked up their list.

That first story really makes a difference.

I find that whenever I'm bored with nonfiction, what I need to do is pick up some modern fiction. Inevitably I don't like what I find* and I run, screaming, back for the nonfiction stacks.

CollarAnd so it was with Richard Ford's story anthology Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work. (It's an anthology of stories chosen by him, not a collection of his stories.) Again, get a load of that title. I totally wanted to love it.

But then I picked it up and read the first story, titled "Business Talk," by Max Apple. This is how it started:

"James I and have been worrying about things. I'm bored, restless, and in late afternoon always depressed. He tries to be helpful. The children are not too bad. My education is more than adequate. I understand what's happening as it happens. Still, I'm powerless. At four I get morose, by five I am tearful. When James comes home I looks as I've been pinched by devils all day long."

And this is how it ends:

"'Business is business,' he says. We sigh like cats.

I get the lubricant, he the prophylactics. Sometimes we're old-fashioned people doing the best we can."

Really. Now just put those two paragraphs together and see how much sense they make. None, right? Well, I've got news for you: I read the ten pages of story in between those paragraphs and they don't make any sense to me either. So what is the point of reading the story?

I know I should be the bigger person and try at least one other story in this collection. But I am not in the mood. Frankly, if I want to feel confused and somewhat depressed (at least partially because I AM confused), I'll just leave the house. That is not what I need reading for.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Essays

Welcome to another day of our alternative "best-ish" nonfiction book lists, in response to Time magazine's 100 Best Nonfiction Titles list.

The other day it took me a while to post because I couldn't think of any titles that corresponded with one of the headings chosen by the Time listmakers, "Culture." With this post I had the opposite problem: I love essay collections. I'm supposed to narrow it down to just four titles? Impossible!

So here's what Time had to say:

Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, by Susan Sontag
A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace

Actually, I can't really argue with any of those four. I've tried and failed to read the Sontag, but I think the failing there was on my part, not Sontag's (I was giving it neither the time nor attention it deserved, and I probably never will; I wish I'd studied it in college when I had time. I do think Sontag is a skilled writer.). I also can't quibble with the choice of Woolf, although I've never made it through that book either. And I'm pretty firmly on the record as loving both Didion and Wallace (not his fiction, can't do it; just his essays) and thinking they are both important contributors to American writing of the last fifty years. So whatever I suggest today is simply in the spirit of additional suggestions.

The Braindead Megaphone, by George Saunders. Remember, we read this one for a Book Menage? It remains one of my favorite collections ever. I love Saunders's voice: smart, but somewhat frustrated; interested, but sometimes stymied by the world around him. I can't get into his fiction but this is a neat group of essays that deserved a wider reading audience.

Anything, (not a title, just any essay collection you can get your hands on) by E. B. White. Of course the man who co-wrote The Elements of Style was a master of essay style.

The Long-Legged House, by Wendell Berry. Really, any of Berry's essay collections are books you wouldn't mind having if you were stuck on a desert island. They're easy to read but you find new things in them every time. This collection is particularly noteworthy for Berry's essay opposing the Vietnam War (a timely issue, then; the book was first published in 1969).

Up in the Old Hotel, Joseph Mitchell. If you love New York City you've got to read this classic.

I know I'm blanking on titles right now; it feels like I should have at least one woman author on there (although if Time hadn't done it I would have listed something of Didion's). Anyone have any suggestions for must-read essay titles?

It's been fun to think about this category. I love, love, LOVE essays. I wanted to have a chapter of nothing but essay collections in my second reference book, The Inside Scoop, but I lost that battle, and I'm still a little cheesed about it, if you must know. Sure, there's essay collections scattered throughout the book (and indexed under "essays") but I maintain that good essay titles can be a challenge to find, particularly in libraries, where they tend to get all jumbled up together in the Dewey graveyard of the 800s, somewhere in among the poems and the plays where only the hardiest readers wander. Hmm. Maybe someday I'll make a list of 100 essay titles, just for giggles.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Culture

And it's back to our discussion of Time's Best 100 Nonfiction List; or, to be more accurate, our alternate and much more exciting list of our own 100 Best-ish Nonfiction titles!

My apologies for not posting yesterday; the next category up was "Culture," and I didn't quite know what to do with that category. Just reading that heading bores me, frankly. And their choices didn't exactly set me on fire either:

The American Cinema, by Andrew Sarris
A Child of the Century, by Ben Hecht
Within the Context of No Context, by George W.S. Trow
Mystery Train, by Greil Marcus
The Story of Art, by E.H. Gombrich

I'm completely out of my element here, because not only have I not read any of these books, I've never heard of them. Although I think I've read something by Greil Marcus, and I seem to have okay associations with that name. (Do you remember authors that way too? I couldn't tell you what I've read by Greil Marcus, but I think my overall impression of him was favorable.) So what do we do here?

Well, largely I'm going to wimp out on the list, primarily because I don't understand the heading. Does "Culture" mean "Criticism"? Anything "Vaguely Artsy"? "Liberal Arts Stuff We Don't Know Where Else to Put"? But just because I can't think of many specific titles (I tend to avoid real intellectual criticism, as well as real in-depth works ABOUT art) doesn't mean I can't make some broader suggestions:

FILM: Skip the criticism, for the most part. If you're dying to know about film, just get your hands on an actual (good and readable, I remember it from school) textbook like David Bordwell's classic Film History: An Introduction. But the best thing to do for film is find a good biography of any film person you like: actor, director, etc. I've read a ton of "film biographies" in my time (James Dean, Cary Grant, Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, etc. ad infinitum) and they were always great reads, in terms of life stories and for providing insight about film.

ART: Just grab some big coffee table books of sculptors, photographers, artists, or periods you find interesting. You'll learn a lot more just soaking up the pictures than you would struggling through a book of essays or criticism in which you're just not that interested. If you're up for watching something, Simon Schama's The Power of Art was a lot of fun.

LIT CRIT: I'll admit it; I've got nothing here. Maybe something in this category will occur to me when we consider essays...Does anyone else have any Lit Crit or Culture titles they want to suggest?

I'll take a distraction, please.

We'll take a short break today from our list of 100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles, while I digress on a book I read last week, and which I emphatically will not be adding to our best list.

PleasuresIn fact, if I was given the choice of either reading Alan Jacobs's book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction or indulging in a distraction like, say, poking at my eye with a sharp stick,* I think I'd have to choose the stick.

The title of this one was so alluring. And so was the length: 150 pages. I went into it primed to like it.

But I just didn't.

For one thing, there's this:

"Several times a year I get requests from people--usually students, but also friends and acquaintances, and even total strangers who have managed to find my email address--who want reading lists. 'Dear Professor Jacobs, could you please give me your recommendations for what I should read this summer?' Or, 'Dear Professor, in your opinion what are the ten most important books that every educated person should read?" I dislike that second question for reasons that are probably already clear, but the first I can't bring myself to dislike at all, since it's really a compliment in the form of a question.

Nonetheless, I never comply with these requests." (p. 13.)

And this in a part of the chapter labeled as "Whim." Good lord, Professor, how about engaging in a little Whim and just throwing these people a bone in the form of a reading list? Are you or are you not a professor of English? Now, in all fairness, a little bit further down the page he says he doesn't mind suggesting books if people first tell him what they like and then ask for recommendations--but I would point out he can turn reading list questions into that type of request simply by asking those who ask him for lists to describe their reading habits. It's not hard, Professor--librarians do it every day, for a lot less money and fewer sabbaticals.

And then let's talk about how he later digresses about how reading for Whim (with a capital W) differs from reading for whim. And how he was naughty when he was twenty and failed to finish a novel for the first time: William Gaddis's The Recognitions, which he put down after only reading to page...666. Good lord. This man and I are clearly not in the same reading room. I'm ditching this one at page 51, and I'm not going to feel that it's naughty, either. Or if I do, it's deliciously naughty.

I'm sorry I'm not really describing the book all that well, but this is another one of those "pleasures/importance of reading" books that never really seem to get to the point. I think his general idea was that you should read because it's pleasurable, not because it's good for you, although it can be. There. I just saved you 150 pages' worth of reading (pleasurable or otherwise) time.

*Blame my dad for this image. One of his favorite sayings, when something doesn't meet my expectations, is to say "Well, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye."

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Business

Moving right along in our consideration of the Time list of the top 100 nonfiction titles published in America since 1923, we find the Business titles:

Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman
Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser
The General Theory, by John Maynard Keynes
How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
No Logo, by Naomi Klein
Unsafe at Any Speed, by Ralph Nader
What Color Is Your Parachute?, by Richard Nelson Bolles.

Here's where this list stuff starts to get a little dicey, because I really wouldn't call all of these books Business. Fast Food Nation I'd call Investigative, and hell, I'm going to include that as a category eventually, although Time didn't. And the Carnegie and Bolles titles I'd term Self-Help (and the Parachute book not very helpful self-help at that), although I suppose they really are known as business or career books. Still.

And frankly, can anyone who isn't an economics major force themselves to read books by Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes? Just reading the titles makes me sleepy.

Hmm, business books. That's a tough one, as a lot of my favorite business books are investigative titles, like Liar's Poker or Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. So what to do? Compromise: List a couple business books, but save most of my picks for a non-Time category of Investigative titles.

Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, John Bowe. Bowe's exploration of modern-day slavery, one of my favorite Business/Investigative titles of all time, contains one of the most perfect insights I've ever read in a book. When discussing our current system of economics, globalization, etc., Bowe pointed out that (I'm paraphrasing) "the system isn't broken, the system is working exactly the way it was set up to work." Think about that one for a while. I literally end up quoting that one to someone or other at least once a week.

In Sam We Trust: The Untold Story of Sam Walton & How Wal-Mart Is Devouring America, Bob Ortega. Fascinating study of Wal-Mart and Sam Walton. It's a crying shame that this one is out of print. It pretty much put me off Wal-Mart for good.

As for actual, business-y business books, I might suggest Andrew Tobias's The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need, just for its sheer readability, and my brother's always been fond of The One-Minute Manager for its succinctness.

Have a great weekend, all. Next week we'll have a few regular book posts, and then finish up our lists. Good times, good times!

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Biography

Continuing on with our critique of the Time list of 100 Best Nonfiction titles, today we'll consider Biography. Here's the titles Time selected:

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, by William Manchester
The Power Broker, by Robert Caro*

Now, first things first. Three bios? That's all? Why so many memoirs and so few bios? And, does the autobiography of Malcolm X count as bio or autobio? These questions are going to stump me all day.

So here's my three picks, although it hurts somewhat to limit it to three titles. And I'm not even a big biography reader!

Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich Pistol, Mark Kriegel. I have no interest in basketball, college or pro. But Kriegel's tale of the life of "Pistol" Pete Maravich is so much more than a sports bio; it's the biography of an immigrant family, the story of a father and a son and their complicated relationship, and the story of an unlikely sports hero.

Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child, Noel Riley Fitch. Intrigue! Action! Love affairs! Food! It's all here, centered on one of the most fascinating and likable women of the twentieth century, Julia Child.

This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, Kay Mills. This may be a controversial choice; I suppose there are much better-known biographies out there. But I've never been able to forget it, even though I read it years ago. Fannie Lou Hamer, born in 1917 to a sharecropping family with 20 children, lived through enormous hardship and poverty and still overcame to become a leading figure in the fight for civil rights. THIS is a book they should be teaching in history and women's studies courses.

So why do you think Time magazine chose only three biographies? Do you agree with their choices? Mine? Want to make some suggestions of your own?

*Of these three, I've only read the first, and won't read the second because, for whatever reason, I find Winston Churchill boring. I think I read one of Caro's biography volumes of LBJ, and found it very interesting, but never had time to read all of them.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Autobiography/Memoir

A word about the heading: I was going to go with "100 Nonfiction Titles You Might Actually Have a Shot At Reading" or "100 Nonfiction Titles You Might Want to Take a Whack At," but those are both too long. So "100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles" it is.

Here's the titles Time selected for their Autobiography/Memoir "best titles of all time":

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
Black Boy by Richard Wright
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown
Maus by Art Spiegelman
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
On Writing by Stephen King
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Now, to be fair, I haven't read quite a few of these titles, so I can't really disagree with them. (The titles I have read are in bold.) And of course Time magazine has to list all the very serious, critically acclaimed titles. I won't repeat any of the titles, although I would like to list the Dave Eggers book; and of course titles like Maus and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings are important for format and subject matter. But what is with the Bill Bryson book? That should be in a Travel category, I think. And I totally disagree with the Barack Obama title--and NOT because he's been a huge presidential disappointment (although he has)--but because it was too long and fairly standard coming-of-age fare.

Anyway, I digress. Here's my list:

Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High, Melba Pattillo Beals. Unbelievable account of Little Rock, Ark., school integration in 1957. I am not interested in American history, particularly of the 20th century, but this book made me want to learn more about civil rights.

Lucky, Alice Sebold. During her freshman year at Syracuse University, Sebold was brutally raped, an experience she recounts in heartreading detail in her memoir--in the first chapter, mind you. This book is not for the faint of heart but I promise you you've never read anything like it. 

Waiting Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress, Debra Ginsberg. People are going to argue with me on this one, and say it's slight. Nothing doing. Ginsberg perfectly marries multiple memoir formats: working life, coming of age, love and parenting, self-discovery. And she does it in an economical 320 pages.

Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain. Oh, Anthony, I do love you. The smoking! The swearing! The cooking! The rock 'n roll world of restaurants! This is one of the rare memoirs that sold well and really deserved all the hype it got. And if you've never read anything by Bourdain, this is a good place to start.

A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean. I know. You're going to tell me this one's fiction. I don't care. If it was published today, it would be marketed as memoir--Maclean recounts a story that hews pretty closely to the real details of his life. And he worked on it for years and years--getting each sentence just perfect. It shows.

Just Kids, Patti Smith. I've reviewed this one, here. A memoir that drops you in another time and place and makes you FEEL the unmistakable pulls of art, love, and youth--even against the grittiest of backdrops.

Somewhere Towards the End, Diana Athill. Athill's one of the most underappreciated memoir writers we have. This memoir on aging is bittersweet without really being bitter or sweet--how did she do that?

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion. Didion's a prose master and her subject--the unexpected death of her husband and the serious illnesses suffered by her daughter immediately afteward--leaves the reader wondering just how one woman had the ability to be overwhelmed by sorrow while still describing it in incisive detail.

84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff. Okay, it's a collection of letters, not memoir. Close enough! Everyone who loves books and reading (or who loves feisty women, or who loves England, etc.) should read this slim volume of correspondence between a feisty book-loving New Yorker and a very proper bookseller in London.

Madeindetroit Made in Detroit, Paul Clemens. A perfect coming-of-age memoir, combined with an elegy for a dying city and way of life.

Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, Michael Perry. Perry's beautiful book of stories about his return home to live in northern Wisconsin and become an EMT in his home community is funny, sad, beautiful, and completely honest.

Okay, that's only eleven titles, to the Time list's twelve. I'm reserving a spot because I know there's at least one title I've forgotten.

So, what do you think? Tell me yes or no on my choices, and feel free to list some of your own!

What is it with lists?

I've noticed that people really seem to like lists. They seem to be everywhere I look now: the great Internet site Flavorwire always has them; Cindy Orr always lists some at the Readers' Advisor Online blog; they often seem to be an article category on such literary web sites as The Millions and Book Riot. And, very kindly, several people have emailed to let me know about Time magazine's recent "All-Time 100 Best Nonfiction" list.*

I guess I like lists as much as the next person; I always look them over, and give them some thought. I'm pretty sure that at some point in my life I had a list of books or movies that I wanted to read or see (and I know I had a list of characteristics the perfect guy would have--evidently I had a lot of time on my hands in college). But lately I can't seem to find any lists that light me on fire. This Time list is no exception.

But of course now I feel that there's a challenge in the air. Best all-time nonfiction books? Tough. Especially since Time went back to 1923, the first year of their publication. And by rights, yes, a "best all-time" list should include all the nonfiction ever written. But I'm going to take a whack at this list, and I'm going to call it the "Best 100 Nonfiction Titles that People Might Actually Enjoy Reading."

We'll take it in sections. I'll post the Time picks, my picks, and ask for your picks in the comments. At the end I'll post the master list of everyone's titles! So: tune in tomorrow for the first section, Autobiography/Memoir.

*Unruly Reader has also blogged about this list recently. And thanks to everyone who emailed!

The end of pledge week, I promise.

Last overtly mercenary post today. And a short one--just a reminder, particularly as the holiday shopping season comes up, that if you shop for and buy books at Powell's Bookstore, I would ask that you consider doing so through this site. As I am a Powell's partner, if you follow any of the book links in the posts or the "shop at Powell's link" (at the bottom of the right sidebar), I get a small commission on any book you buy.

Also, it's just an idea, but if you're looking to support other literary web sites, all of the following are Amazon associates: The Millions, Bookshelves of Doom, and Bookslut. I try not to buy anything from Amazon, I think it's evil, but sometimes I have to, and I try to feel less hypocritical by following links from those sites and buying what I need to at least provide them with a little kickback.

And that's it! Next week we'll be back to nonfiction chat, starting with a rundown of the Time Magazine 100 best nonfiction titles list.

Like nonfiction? Like telling others about nonfiction?

Then you should TOTALLY enter the glamorous and low-paying world of reference book writing.

I've mentioned it before, but since it's "pledge week" here at CR, I thought I'd mention it again. I am lucky enough to be the series editor for the Libraries Unlimited Real Stories series of nonfiction reading guides, and we are always looking for new authors for those. So if you (or anyone you know) likes reading nonfiction, or would like to get to know nonfiction a little better, please contact me with questions or your ideas at [email protected].

Want to see what one of these guides looks like? If your library owns them, you might consider looking at my first book in the series, The Real Story, or Rick Roche's very fine guide to biographies, Real Lives Revealed. Of course, the books don't have to exactly follow that style, but looking at those titles might give you a general idea of what we're looking for.

Wondering about subject matter? I'm particularly interested in developing readers' guides for the following nonfiction topics:

  • History;
  • Environmental Writing;
  • True Crime;
  • Humor;
  • Christian/Inspirational; or
  • Regional Nonfiction.

Those are just some ideas, but I'm open to hearing guide proposals for any type of nonfiction!

Who exactly is Citizen Reader anyway?

For the last couple of days I've had a post up detailing my new nonfiction and readers' advisory training service, YOUR Citizen Reader; so now it seems only fair to polish up the old CV and post that too. My apologies in advance for all mercenary postings this week; try to think of it like "pledge week" here at CR. (Unlike public broadcasting, I don't get tons of money from the federal government --tee hee--and have to find my own methods of producing those wily little things called "income streams.") Thanks for your patience--and regularly scheduled nonfiction reviewing will resume next week.

When not blogging as Citizen Reader, I'm a mild-mannered freelance librarian and back-of-the-book indexer named Sarah Statz Cords.

Freelance Librarianship and Publishing

Most recently, I've authored several readers' guides, published by Libraries Unlimited:
The Inside Scoop: A Guide to Nonfiction Investigative Writing and Exposes (2009)
Now Read This III: A Guide to Mainstream Fiction (with Nancy Pearl, 2010)
The Real Story: A Guide to Nonfiction Reading Interests (2006)

My first book, Public Speaking Handbook for Librarians and Information Professionals, was published in 2003 by McFarland.

I am also the editor of the Libraries Unlimited Real Stories series of readers' guides, which are reference books that help readers find nonfiction reading they might enjoy. I formerly worked as an associate editor for the Reader's Advisor Online database and blog, published by the same company (Libraries Unlimited/ABC-CLIO).

I have taught a course on the Reading Interests of Adults at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Library and Information Science (twice). I also review business books for Library Journal and have reviewed nonfiction titles for Bookslut.

Public Library Experience

Most recently, and for more than seven years, I worked as a public library assistant for the Madison Public Library (WI). I worked as both a circulation clerk and a reference librarian: shelving books and helping maintain the collection; helping patrons with their readers' advisory and reference questions; writing book reviews for the library blog; and helping with an email-based reader's advisory service. I was also in charge of tax forms, but I prefer not to relive those memories.

Bookstore Interlude

Before that I worked as a clerk at McDermott Books, a used bookstore in Madison (WI), which was heavenly. (McDermott's is no more, sadly.) I assisted readers and helped fulfill internet orders, and it was there that I learned the importance of deciphering what readers really want: when young men asked, quietly and with furtive glances, "for gardening books," what they really wanted were books on how to grow cannabis.

Academic Library Experience

My first jobs out of library school were in academic libraries. In College Library, the undergraduate library of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I worked in the circulation department and spent time at the reference desk, while also hiring and supervising student workers who were sweet but felt differently than I did about the importance of either showing up for their shift or calling to let me know they wouldn't be showing up at all.

In Wendt Library, I served tomorrow's engineers and scientists as a reference librarian, becoming more familiar than I ever thought I would or could get with ANSI standards and chemical engineering databases. I have an abiding love for engineers (engineering students were uniformly polite, and total sweethearts) that dates from this period.


I have a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in Library Science, both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


I often avoided childhood chores in order to hide in various spots in the house and outside to read books. I read primarily fantasy, but also whatever I could get my hands on, from a friend's Sweet Valley High series to my parents' bookshelves of politically conservative nonfiction titles. I became an eclectic reader out of necessity.

Introducing: YOUR Citizen Reader.

Coming to a computer screen near you: online training for all your readers' advisory needs!

Let's be honest: it's getting tougher to find money in the budget for offsite workshop and conference attendance. And sure, there are great free training and RA resources on the Internet--podcasts and websites and archived programs, oh my--but who has the time to find the most suitable ones? That's where my new service, YOUR Citizen Reader, comes in: now you can attend workshops on a variety of RA topics, all from the comfort of your own computer.

What I Offer, As YOUR Citizen Reader:

A budget-friendly option: Because you won't have to pay any of my travel costs (and I won't incur any of my own), I can offer online talks and training sessions at reasonable prices.

Customization: You can tell me exactly what type of information you need, and I'll create a workshop specifically for YOUR needs. How often do you get to tell the presenter what you want?

Flexibility: You don't have to make plans to attend a specific conference or session; we can agree on a date and time that is best for you and your staff.

Low-tech options: I prefer to offer live sessions through Skype (meaning you'll have to download the Skype program onto your computer and sign up for a Skype account) but I am just as happy to offer different types of training: podcasts produced specifically for you (and which can be listened to at your convenience, simply by clicking on a URL); discussions by conference call; specifically designed print handouts and self-training materials; webinars using your meeting software; and even email discussions and support.

Workshop Topics include:

Nonfiction (nonfiction RA; specific types and genres; title awareness)
Literary and Mainstream fiction (fiction RA; specific types; title awareness)
Readers' Advisory (RA 2.0; Introduction to RA; indirect or passive RA)
Public Speaking (specifically for librarians and information professionals)
Professional Writing for Librarians (book reviewing; writing for publication; library and personal blogs)

How Do We Start?

I'm so glad you asked. Please email me at [email protected] with questions or to start planning your training session today! And if you're wondering just who I am and what other training experience I have, please feel free to read about my qualifications.