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November 2011

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Self-Help

An end is in sight for our consideration of the Time 100 Best Nonfiction Titles, I promise. The Time category list proceeded alphabetically, so the way I see it, all we've got left is Self-Help/Instructional, Sports, and War (they also include Social History, but we covered that in our History section). I'm not crazy about any of these categories, thinking Self-Help is largely too personal to apply "best of" honors to, and I feel like I listed some of the best Sports books under Biography. War, likewise, seemed more a part of History to me. But I already punked out on the Nonfiction Novel and Political lists, so I'm going to woman up and finish out with these categories.

Here's the Self-Help/Instruction titles Time listed:

The Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous
The Elements of Style, E. B. White and William Strunk, Jr.

Well, at least this is a list that has brevity going for it. But I just get a chuckle out of any list that pairs these two books in the same category. I've been lucky enough not to need The Big Book*, but I have read parts of The Elements of Style and should read it again. It is a great little book for writers.

Now, best self-help. I fully believe in the category; I once taught a class on the reading interests of adults and I told the students not to laugh at self-help, as everyone will need a self-help book of some kind someday. Really. It's a universal. But, as noted previously, Self-Help tends to be very personal. There's definitely benchmark titles in the field: Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People; Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus; anything by Geneen Roth or Wayne Dyer, etc. Those tend to leave me cold. So I'm just going to list a couple of books I've found very informational in my own life, and leave it at that.

The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias. Personal finance affects everyone, and even if you don't plan on becoming a big-time investor (or you don't have much to invest), Tobias's very understandable and often quite funny (which is necessary; books like this are a real snooze if the author doesn't have a sense of humor) guide can really help you get your mind around money basics. College graduates (if not high school) should be given the latest edition of this guide as a graduation present.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. Everyone needs a dictionary, and don't give me any shit about using Your computer isn't always on, or at least it shouldn't be, and neither should your smart phone. I use my dictionary ALL the time, for spelling help, pronunciation (Mr. CR and I had a heated discussion about the pronunciation of the word "secreted" the other day--I won't keep you in suspense, I won), hyphenation, etc. The other day my dad called and wanted to know the definition of "hubris." I love my dictionary. It's one of the few things in the world that I know how to use and never lets me down.

*Sometimes the spirt is willing but the flesh is weak: My standard physical reaction to anything more than two beers is to pass out, only to wake myself up with copious vomiting 6 to 12 hours later. At least it made me a cheap date, if not the life of the party.

The cool customer strikes again.

You know I am a Joan Didion fan.

BlueSo of course I have been waiting for her latest memoir, Blue Nights, for some time. And, as much as you can't be disappointed by the terribly sad story of a mother losing her only daughter when said daughter is only 39 years old (and little more than a year after the same author lost her husband), I was not disappointed.

Didion won the National Book Award for her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, which was about the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and her grief in its aftermath. It's one of my favorite books of all time, and in it, she tells the concurrent story of the health struggles of their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, who entered the hospital with pneumonia shortly before Dunne's death, and would eventually spend nearly two years in and out of hospital intensive care units with increasingly severe health problems. Quintana died in 2005, and in this memoir Didion revives her most powerful memories about her, while circling around the topic of her own aging and increasing frailty.

The title of this post comes from a line in The Year of Magical Thinking, when one of the medical personnel at the hospital where Dunne was taken and eventually pronounced dead describes her as a "cool customer." This is, in fact, what I love about Didion: even at her saddest, when dealing with the most personal and devastating of losses, she is never, ever sentimental. By this I don't mean that she doesn't care. Anything but. Consider this anecdote, a memory of Quintana walking to school when they lived in California, told from both John's and Joan's point of view (actually, this is a bit of a cheat, since it's the text John wrote down from his wedding toast to Quintana, but it's Didion who saved the text and has decided where to put it in her story):

"So I'd [John] take Q to school, and she'd walk down this steep hill. All the kids wore uniforms--Quintana wore a plaid jumper and a white sweater, and her hair--she was a towhead in that Malibu sun--her hair was in a a ponytail. I would watch her disappear down that hill, the Pacific a great big blue background, and it was as beautiful as anything I'd ever seen. So I said to Joan, 'You got to see this, babe.' The next morning Joan came with us, and when she saw Q disappear down that hill she began to cry." (p. 29.)

I love everything about that story. I love how it shows the depth of love for Quintana that both her parents had, but how their reactions to her beauty and the beauty of the situation differed. At the risk of sounding sexist, I think that right there is the essence of the difference between the experience of being a father and of being a mother.*

The next part I'll quote IS Didion's writing, about the title of the book:

"In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue...During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. AS the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called 'Blue Nights' because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning." (p. 4.)

It's a beautiful book. I've done a horrible job of describing it, but you can read some much better reviews of it here and here. You should also know that it's a short read, but a draining one: don't read it when you're already emotionally fragile (I did, and it led to some crying, which I try to avoid now, because it makes my eyes so tired the next day).

 *I could explore this subject endlessly but this post is already too long.

I'm thankful for so many great readers!

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving weekend, and here's hoping your holiday season is not nuts. When it starts to be, sit down and have some eggnog. Yummmm eggnog.

I just wanted to take a moment and thank everyone (heartily) who has already participated in the Great Citizen Reader Survey of 2011. It's been very enlightening and I can't wait to share the results when I get them tabulated (although I can't promise when that will be--I still have to figure out Excel). For now, I just wanted to let you know that I'll be leaving the questions up until December 30; you can answer them by clicking on the link in the top of the sidebar at right, or by clicking here:

The Great Citizen Reader Survey of 2011

Please do remember to send the link on to at least one other person; the more replies we get, the more interesting the results will be. Also, sometime in the new year, I'll be asking YOU what questions we should ask on next year's survey, so get your thinking caps on.*

And, because you are the best blog readers and survey answerers anywhere: thank you!!

*I've always wanted a reason to use this phrase. Awesome.

The Great Citizen Reader Survey of 2011: The Questions

Welcome to the Great Citizen Reader Survey of 2011! If you missed the explanation for what we're doing with this survey, please read it here.

And now, the questions:

1. What is your age (ranges okay) and gender?

2. Please estimate the percentage of both fiction and nonfiction you read, totalling 100% (e.g., "10% fiction and 90% nonfiction," or "100% fiction, 0% nonfiction"). If the only nonfiction books you read are purely reference works like cookbooks and how-tos, please indicate 100% fiction, but add "and reference NF."

3. How many books do you read per month?

4. Name three formats in which you read, from greatest to least (e.g. "print books, audio books, e-books," where the format you read most often is print books).

5. Name the three primary ways, in any order, in which you find reading materials. You may speak broadly ("blogs" or "personal recommendations") or specifically ("Bookslut blog" or "my sister's suggestions").

6. Please list three words that most describe why you read (e.g. "comfort, education, escapism").

7. Do you buy or borrow most of your reading material?

8. Would you say you have less time, more time, or about the same amount of time to read as you have had in the past? If less or more, why (briefly)?

9. Please list your five favorite "genres," (nonfiction included) using whatever names you call them by. Please also list your favorite title in each genre.

10. What was the best book you read in 2011? The worst? (READ in 2011; not necessarily published in 2011.)

And I think we'll stop there. There's so much more I want to ask but I'll wait until next year. Until then, and until the results from this survey are tabulated: THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR PARTICIPATION! (And: Happy Thanksgiving, all.)

The Great Citizen Reader Survey of 2011

Way back when my first blog, Nonfiction Readers Anonymous, crashed and died, I started Citizen Reader with the idea to still focus on nonfiction, but also to discuss reading. Although we have had some great discussions here, particularly during our Book Menages (another one of which I want to host soon), I feel that I have to some extent failed in my mission to find out more about how readers read.

So what to do?

Well, the only obvious thing to do is to start the Great Citizen Reader Survey of 2011. How's it going to work? I'm going to ask a few questions here, and I'd love it if you'd take the time to answer them. It would also REALLY make my day if you'd ask just one other reader you know (you can ask more if you want!) to fill out the survey as well.* Then, I promise I will collect and share the results here, sometime in 2012. Here's how we'll work it, and why:

1. I know this sample will self-select for people who are already dedicated readers. That's part of the plan; I want to know how real READERS go about their reading business.

2. I would like to use the results of this survey in readers' advisory and library trainings and writing, but I'm really undertaking this primarily out of personal curiosity and for dissemination here. I'm also doing it because I'm hoping it will force me to learn to use Excel or something like that, to tabulate the results. And I would very much like to make some sort of survey an annual event here at Citizen Reader. Currently it's hard to find stats and info about readers--publishers' groups study readers and their buying habits, but they make you pay big bucks for their information. BOO.

3. I am not using Survey Monkey or other online survey software because mainly you have to pay for that stuff, particularly to keep your results. BOO.

4. You can answer these questions completely anonymously. (This is another reason I'm not using any survey software; I don't want a third party service to have your email address or other info either.) I will ask for demographic information because some of that is what really interests me (as it relates to what you read), but you will not have to provide your name, and even if I see your IP address, I am not technologically savvy enough to figure out your name from that, and at this time I have no plans to create an email subscription list or anything like that.

5. I'm going to ask the questions at the blog here, and make that post a permanent page that will be linked to in the right sidebar. You can answer the questions within the comments (just type Anonymous in the name spot, or use whatever alias you want to use), which I will eventually just collect and then delete from online viewing. You could also simply copy and paste the questions into an email, and then submit your answers to me at [email protected].

Are we ready? Questions tomorrow, and then I'm off for Thanksgiving week. I'll leave the survey page up through the end of December! Thanks so much for doing this with me.

*I originally got the idea for this kind of quantitative survey after reading an article in the book Nonfiction Readers' Advisory (edited by Robert Burgin), titled "Reading Nonfiction for Pleasure: What Motivates Readers?" by Catherine Ross.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Science

Okay, we're going to finish up our alternative take on the Time 100 Best Nonfiction list if it kills me. Today's a big category, but at least it's one I understand: Science.

Now when I say I understand, I mean I understand it as a category. I emphatically don't understand science (or math) as a concept; if I did I'd be a lot more successful.* What I find annoying about science is that someone can explain it to me all they want, even fairly graspable concepts like electricity, and a minute later I'll have forgotten EVERY SINGLE THING about the explanation. It's like the Men in Black came through with their mind-wipey thing. Mr. CR says this is what I do when I'm not interested in something--in goes in one ear and out the other without making any sort of impression. So whether it is a question of being intellectually deficient or just uninterested, you'd think this would be a category I wouldn't enjoy.

But I do. When I find a good, readable, understandable, and yes, the most overused word of all, compelling science book, I really really love it. So I'm excited to discuss this one. Now, here are the books Time listed:

A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking
Coming of Age in Samoa, by Margaret Mead
The Double Helix, by James Watson
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer**, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Lives of a Cell, by Alice Park
The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris
On Human Nature, by Edward O. Wilson
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn

This is a poor list, in my opinion, and one that is skewed too heavily to the biological and "soft" sciences (particularly the Margaret Mead--I might argue about anthropology being a true "science"--and I say that as someone with a degree in library "science," so I know how broad labels can be). Of course the Hawking title is there, although it reminds me of something I read once that posited that that book was the most bought and least read book in the world, which seems to me about right. There's nothing really wrong with the titles themselves, particularly if you want to read books that have proved controversial--like the Morris and Dawkins books (I'm a bit suprised that Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb isn't listed here, as it was also hugely controversial), and some of them are quite good. But let's see what we can come up with:

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James Watson. This is an EXCELLENT choice. If you read only one science book in your life, make it this one. Not only is it a fantastic discussion of the discovery of the structure of DNA and the birth of the study of genetics as we know it, but Watson as an author is not only good at explaining the science, he's also like your favorite chatty cousin who always knows the best gossip on everyone and isn't afraid to share. Regardless of how you feel about his treatment of women scientists (did he and Crick rip off their colleague Rosalind Franklin's research?), it's a fascinating read.

Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering, by Henry Petroski. It would behoove everyone to know a little something about engineering as an applied science, and Petroski makes the topic exciting (yes, exciting!) in this consideration of engineers pushing the envelope.

The Last Sorcerers: The Path from Alchemy to the Periodic Table, by Richard Morris. Very readable history of science/chemistry.

An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, by Diane Ackerman. I'm not a Diane Ackerman fan myself but I've known lots of very smart mathy and sciencey people who enjoy her, so I thought she deserved a place on the list. This is one of her more well-known titles, about the brain (which is always a fascinating subject to read about, I think).

Fallout, by Jim Ottaviani, with Suspended in Language (about physicist Niels Bohr) being a close second. This is a graphic novel about the development of the atomic bomb, and it is quite possibly the best science book I've read. Ottaviani is a super talent.

Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures, by Carl Zimmer. Quite possibly the most memorable science (or any genre, for that matter) title I have ever read. Parasites are fascinating, although their ick factor is high. But they're most definitely here to stay and their lives are entwined with ours, so it's important to know about them, and Zimmer is a fantastic science author.

Prime Obsession Bernhard Riemann & the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics, by John Derbyshire. I think there should be at least one math book on this list, and frankly, this is the only one I've ever finished. I tried Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace, but it was beyond me. Like, it didn't even feel like it was in English, beyond me.

I was a little surprised there wasn't anything by Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Dava Sobel, Jonathan Weiner, or Michio Kaku on the Time list, frankly, they're big names in the field. And both of our lists are remiss in the fields of astrophysics/space exploration--do you have any titles in that area or others that you could suggest?

*I often worked the Friday night shift at the public library, and when proud parents would tell me how advanced their children were in reading, I always wanted to say, "You know where that gets you? That's right--working behind a public service desk at 8 p.m. on a Friday night. I'd encourage your child in math, if I were you."

Still not quite the service memoir I'm looking for.

I always had this dream of writing a memoir about working service jobs for the bulk of my career, and how my twenty-five years in the profession (I started young, selling veggies at my parents' farm market stand) had one overwhelming result: I now hate people.*

CheckoutBut it turns out it's work to write a memoir, so it remains a dream. In the meantime, I keep searching for the type of service memoir I always wanted to write. During my search, I've read a lot of books that didn't particularly turn me on: Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, Caitlin Kelly's Malled, etc. About the best one I've found so far has been Debra Ginsberg's superlative Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress. I would highly recommend that one.

The latest entry in this field is Anna Sam's Checkout Girl: A Life Behind the Register, which has been translated from the French. Evidently, if the cover can be believed, it's an international bestseller. And although it was a fun, quick read, it wasn't quite what I wanted either. Sam makes the point, well, that one can indeed be well-educated and still end up working as a checkout girl; she's got advanced degrees and she works in a supermarket. Anyone who's worked behind a service counter will find a lot to chuckle at here: making sure your register "cashes out" correctly; people talking on their cell phones while you wait on them; devious customers finding new ways to cut in line; spotting shoplifters; etc.

But one of my favorite anecdotes was this one, about being used as a cautionary tale:

"When you hear a mother tell her child as she points her finger at you, 'You see, darling, if you don't work hard at school, you'll become a cashier like the lady,' there's nothing to stop you from explaining that it's not a profession for stupid people, that you'd rather do this than be unemployed, and that you actually have a good degree...

Well, I have news for all those ignorant, self-righteous parents out there: it's been a long time since a degree guaranteed a dream job. Today's graduates sometimes have no choice but to do less skilled work. Dear parents, thank you for reducing our profession to a warning! Wake up: this is a new century." (p. 104.)

I found that funny and scary. So yes, this one was kind of fun. But I think it suffers a little bit in translation, and it wasn't quite what I had in mind. But still a book that might make you chuckle if you've ever stood behind a cash register.

*This is actually the chicken-or-egg question of my life: Have I always hated people, or did waiting on them so early make me hate them? It's a thinker.

Trash to treasure.

StuffMaureen Stanton's Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America is just the sort of nonfiction I enjoy. It's on a subject I find interesting (antiques), although I would never go searching for or browse the shelves on that subject. It's investigative--Stanton spent years getting to know an antiques dealer named Curt Avery, even helping him set up his booth and sell (as well as watching him buy) at numerous antique shows. It's an interesting little book.

Avery's been a dealer for thirty years (he started before he was a teenager), and Stanton describes his struggle to make it out of the middle leagues of dealers and join the big players at the most prestigious sales. What's truly humbling about this narrative is how good Avery is at his work--how much he knows about both history and the objects he buys and sells--and how hard it still is for him to make a living. (His wife works a job that covers their health insurance--of course; the only way anyone can make it America, make sure at least one spouse has a job with insurance benefits). The book is both an interesting treatise on buying and selling, and a good character profile of a dealer who seems both honest and principled (two characteristics which also often seem to conspire to keep him from getting rich).

Jessa Crispin at Bookslut didn't seem to like the book much, and I'm not sure why. We found it quite a good read around here (Mr. CR read the whole thing too, and wanted to talk about it--a very rare confluence of events for Mr. CR and nonfiction). I do think at least part of the appeal of the story was watching someone do what they love, even if wasn't lucrative:

"Once, I asked Curt Avery if, after nearly twenty years, he was still having fun selling antiques. 'It seems like you are,' I said. After a long pause, he replied, 'Jeepers. It's a hard question because it's yes and no. Part of the reason I do this is because I love the stuff.' He paused. "There are days when everything is for sale, and the next day you want to jump off a bridge, but I can't imagine getting out of it. I'm too obsessed with it, to be honest with you.'" (p. 269.)

Know anyone who compulsively watches Antiques Roadshow? They might enjoy this book.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Nonfiction Novels and Politics

I know, you're starting to be just as sick of Time magazine's list of the 100 Best Nonfiction titles as I am, aren't you? I'm also getting sick of my lists. Lists get old, I find, which is part of why I can never quite believe how much people seem to like lists for everything. Evidently you need to be a more organized person than I am. Or, perhaps, all things in moderation, and this has been just too many lists.

But, we have started. And because I never finish anything, I feel that we need to finish this. But that doesn't mean I can't cheat. Take today's categories: Nonfiction Novels and Politics. Christ. Can you think of more boring categories? I can't. And what does "nonfiction novel" mean, anyway? Yet another category I disagree with. So today I'll tell you Time's picks, but I'm not listing my own. If I can think of any Politics titles that didn't make me puke, I will add them to an Investigative Writing list I still plan to do.

In the meantime, please do discuss the below, or suggest any title picks of your own in these categories!


The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer (This one should be True Crime, guys, it just SHOULD)
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (Again: TRUE CRIME. Just call it a genre already, for the love of God.)
Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen


All the President's Men, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel P. Huntington
The Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater
God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley, Jr.
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
The Making of the President 1960, Theodore H. White
The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt
The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter
What it Takes, Richard Ben Cramer

I'm starting to think it might just be me.

This week I had two books home that were both by women, and were supposed to be somewhat humorous.

FrankelThe first, Valerie Frankel's It's Hard Not to Hate You, is a collection of essays about Frankel's belief that the hatred she's been suppressing for years might have expressed itself in cancerous cells that were found in her colon (and the discovery of a health problem that meant she was at risk for many gynecological cancers as well). She bases this on a line she enjoyed in Woody Allen's movie Manhattan: "I can't express anger. That's my problem. I internalize everything. I just grow a tumor instead."

Because Frankel decided early on not to show people when she was angry or bothered (stemming from young adult memories of putting on weight and taking grief for it at school), she starts to think it'd be healthier to let her anger out, which is what her essays here are about. Here she is, talking to her doctor:

"'As I was saying, when I'm expecting a check from a magazine and it's alte, I want to punch in the mailbox. When I email my editor about it and she doesn't reply, I want to throw my computer out the window.'

'I see.'

'I even hate my cats. They clawed my lilac to death. I raised it from a tiny shoot. I really loved that bush,' I said wistfully.

He nodded, made a note in his chart, and said, 'I'd also strongly urge you to find a way to reduce stress.'

Doctor's orders: The hate in me just had to come out." (p. 18.)

The first few chapters were all right; but it wasn't quite what I wanted.*

The other book was Laurie Notaro's It Looked Different on the Model: Epic Tales of Impending Shame and Infamy, which is another collection of essays. Notaro's known as a humorous author, but I've never been able to see it, and this book was no different. They're both bestselling authors, but along with Tina Fey, Laurie Notaro and Jen Lancaster make up my trinity of Totally Unfunny Women. But it must just be me; other people keep buying their books.

*Mr. CR wasn't as opposed to this book as I was. He looked it over and thought it was better than some other essay books by women that I've had home. But Mr. CR does not, to my mind, properly appreciate Hollis Gillespie, so I don't know how seriously I can take his opinion on this one.

A nice atmospheric read.

MonsterAlthough I didn't re-read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes for Halloween this year, I did read a YA novel that had kind of a nice autumn atmosphere. (Although it's atmosphere is decidedly not "nice"; it's both a bit scary and very sad, I just mean that the author did a nice job giving it an "autumnal" feel.)

I don't know where I heard about Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls, but I'm really glad I brought it home. It's a fascinating little book (which is actually based on an idea by YA author Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could write it into a story) and it's beautifully illustrated by Jim Kay. It's set in Great Britain, and it's about a boy named Conor who has more than a few problems. His mother is sick, he's getting picked on in school, his father's left him and his mother to start a new family in America, and the grandmother he dislikes is about to come stay with him and his mother to help out. If that weren't enough, a monster comes for him. This is how the book starts:

"The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do."

"A monster, Conor thought. A real, honest-to-goodness monster. In real, waking life. Not in a dream, but here, at his window. Come to get him.

But Conor didn't run.

In fact, he found he wasn't even frightened.

All he could feel, all he had felt since the monster revealed itself, was a growing disappointment.

Because this wasn't the monster he was expecting.

'So come and get me then,' he said." (p. 9.)

It's an interesting book, the illustrations are beautiful, and it can be read in about an hour or so. I'd recommend it.

Calvin Trillin.

TrillinI was so, so excited to get Calvin Trillin's new book, Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff, at the library.

But somehow when I got it home it just wasn't what I was expecting. It's a collection of Trillin's humorous pieces from the many places where he's been published: The New Yorker, The Nation, in books, etc. It's organized thematically; about five to seven pieces in chapters with such headings as "Biographically Speaking," "High Society and Just Plain Rich People," "Life Among the Literati," "Twenty Years of Pols--One Poem Each," etc. Because they're written by Calvin Trillin, all the pieces are funny. That wasn't the problem. I liked this bit, in which he suggests one of his wife Alice's economic suggestions:

"The true Alice Tax would probably inspire what the medical profession sometimes calls 'harumph palpitations' in those senators who used the word 'confiscatory' to describe a surcharge that would have brought the highest possible tax on incomes over a million dollars a year to 41 percent. To state the provisions of the Alice Tax simply, which is the only way Alice allows them to be stated, it calls for this: After a certain level of income, the government would simply take everything. When Alice says confiscatory, she means confiscatory...

Alice believes that at a certain point an annual income is simply more than anybody could possibly need for even a lavish style of living. She is willing to discuss what that point is. In her more flexible moments, she is even willing to listen to arguments about which side of the line a style of living that included, say, a large oceangoing boat should fall on. But she insists that there is such a thing as enough--a point of view that separates her from the United States Senate." (From 1990; pp. 109-110.)

The individual pieces were good, but for some reason I found the thematic ordering somewhat hard to follow. It threw me to learn that many of the pieces were published in the eighties or early nineties, and were sometimes about topics I just wasn't very familiar with. I think I would have preferred it in chronological order, so I could get a feeling for the context; or if the pieces' dates had been listed at their start so I knew "when" I was.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Ideas

The next category to consider on the old Time 100 Best Nonfiction list is something they call "Ideas." The books are as follows:

The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom
The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama
Godel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson
The Nature and Destiny of Man, by Reinhold Niebuhr
Orientalism, by Edward Said
Syntactic Structures, by Noam Chomsky
A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls
Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

Now here's a list that really put me to shame: I've read a total of two of them, and I didn't really understand those. And again I'm a bit stymied by the category: it seems almost like philosophy, but the Bloom title seems more like cultural criticism or current affairs, while Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seems like kind of a lightweight compared to the rest. Maybe I'm wrong on that, but I don't really know what the Time editors were shooting for here. And I out-and-out laughed at the idea of making it through the Chomsky and the Niebuhr: not likely in this lifetime (for me, anyway). Although I should read the Joseph Campbell and McLuhan titles; I've always wanted to.

So again I'm forced to cobble a few choices into a category I don't understand. I'm not a huge philosophy reader, and if I'm looking for Ideas books I tend to go to a category that I think of as "Making Sense..." (As in, Making Sense...of ourselves; Making Sense...of each other; Making Sense...of our culture, etc.) Others have sometimes labeled these books Big Think, or Bright Ideas, or many other names. I suppose we could all be honest and call them "NF Books That Don't Really Fit Anywhere Else," but that wouldn't be as catchy. Another thing I find interesting about this category is that many of these types of books are emphatically NOT narrative...but people read them recreationally (or not really based on subject) anyway. But that's a different fight for a different day: "Why I hate the term narrative nonfiction" (and the tangential argument "Why I hate the term sure bet"). For now? My Ideas list:

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell. Of course it's become totally cliche now, to read a Malcolm Gladwell title, but you really should read this one anyway. It's an interesting read, about how sometimes an attention to detail can have a larger effect on the big picture than you might think, and it's an important title to know, because like Roger Putnam's Bowling Alone, it's been cited ad nauseum in other books and reviews.

The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop. An interesting look at how Americans are sorting themselves into communities where everyone looks like each other. Kind of the anti-melting pot scenario, if you will. An interesting topic and a well-written book. Perhaps this one should be Investigative instead, but it felt more like an academic book you could actually understand than it did a work of journalism.

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier. I'd never heard of him before, but evidently Jaron Lanier is a big name in the study of artificial intelligence. That made it much more interesting to read this book (although I'd like to read it again and see if I could understand more of it), cautioning about where we're headed with the technology we choose and use.

The Wars We Inherit: Military Life, Gender Violence, and Memory, by Lori E. Amy. I reviewed this one a while ago; it knocked me over. Full of interesting questions about violence, gender roles, family dynamics, and how we treat one another not only in our families but in the larger world.

Anything by John Kenneth Galbraith; I find him fascinating. (And no, as long as we're on the subject of economics, I will not be suggesting Freakonomics, I think Steven Levitt plays fast and loose with his research.)

Two other authors who come to mind are Jacques Barzun and Christopher Lasch, but I've honestly never made it all the way through any of their works.

And that's all I've got? Ideas? Ideas on Ideas books? Anyone?

You'll notice my list is decidedly less intellectual than Time's. That'll happen. I suppose some Michel Foucault should be on it somewhere, for one thing. But I never did manage to cultivate an appreciation for Michel Foucault, even in college. (Fun true story to prove how dumb I am: the one class for which I was supposed to read Foucault was an introductory library school class, and my professor kept referring to monographs. And I always thought, what the fuck are you talking about? Even after I'd looked it up and knew it meant book I still got sidetracked EVERY SINGLE TIME the prof said "mongraph," with this on a loop in my brain: "Why are you saying monograph? Couldn't you just say book? Or scholarly book, just to change it up sometimes?" It struck me as so stupid, you go for 18-22 years with everyone calling them books, and all of a sudden you're supposed to call them monographs. And by the time I was done thinking about it, he'd be done explaining Foucault and I would have missed it. Sigh.)

A bit early for Christmas.

Every year I can't get into the Christmas mood until after Thanksgiving; anything earlier just seems too early for me. As a result, I tend to miss a lot of the best holiday events, which for some reason these days always seem to be scheduled in November.

TinselSo this year I made up my mind to get in the Christmas mood earlier. With that objective in mind, I checked out the two-CD set Tinsel Tales: Favorite Christmas Stories from NPR. It was kind of a nice listen, but it turns out that the end of October is really still just too early for me to get into the Christmas mindset. There's pieces here about shopping, about how people in Chicago spend their Christmas Eves and nights out and about (Ira Glass tells that one, and includes anecdotes about people of the Jewish faith taking the opportunity of the holiday to go out for Chinese food and bowling), Christmas trees, etc. My favorite piece was by humorist Annabelle Gurwitch, who complains a bit about people who send out cards with a little piece of paper informing you that the sender has donated money to a charity in your name as your gift. She thought for Christmas that year she'd send out cards that said, "In lieu of buying you a gift I paid my recently raised health insurance premium." Tee hee.

So it was a nice little set if you're looking for something Christmasy. If you're looking for something funnier, I might suggest getting a recording of some of the Prairie Home Companion Christmas stories, which I listened to a few years back and thoroughly enjoyed. Either way I wouldn't listen to either of them until a little later in the season.

The road to hell as paved with good intentions.

MeantI really struggled with what to title today's post. "What a fucking waste"? "War is just so completely stupid"? "Finally a war book that points out the military shit is largely beside the point"? Read Peter Van Buren's spectacularly depressing memoir We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and you'll see why it would have made me think all of those things.

Van Buren was a State Department worker who was sent to Iraq to head up an ePRT--an "embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team." He lived there for a year, and details, in short chapters that can be read whenever you have a spare few minutes, a multitude of the stupid things he saw while there. He hits all the high points of our illustrious American liberation in Iraq: how we knocked out sewage and water treatment and electricity plants without ever building them up again; how we dropped our little Green Zone headquarters right on top of Saddam's old headquarters, nicely illustrating the whole ordeal was just a regime change, and not for the better ("Conveniently for Iraqis, the overlords might have changed but the address had not. The place you went to visit political prisoners who opposed Saddam was still the place you went to look for relatives who opposed the Americans"--p. 155); how we spent millions and billions of dollars on less than nothing, with State Dept. and military types alone handing it out willy-nilly, with no research or follow-up, simply to meet their own made-up objectives. Christ. Consider:

"Kids were always hanging around everywhere; few attended school in rural areas, and those who did went only half days because boys and girls were not allowed to go to class together as they had been under the mostly secular Saddam regime. The new Islamic Iraq we midwifed in 2003 couldn't afford to double the number of schools, so it was girls in the mornings and boys in the afternoons." (p. 83.)

That bit annoyed me but it was actually pretty innocuous; there are much more damning chapters about agriculture specialists who didn't know anything about agriculture, military types who were looking for any kind of activity that included women so they could just throw money at it and hit their "making the lives of women better" objectives, and constant, constant waste. It's an eye-opening read, if you can stand it.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: History

Big category today, everyone, not least because the Time list of 100 Best Nonfiction titles included a lot of History books, as well as a "Social History" category. What? I think "Social History" is one of those lame categories where no one really knows what it means. So we're dispensing with the two categories and listing Best-ish History titles, full stop. Are you ready?

Here's Time's titles (Social History is in the second list):

The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown
Carry Me Home, by Diane McWhorter
The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes
The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee
A People's History of the United States,* by Howard Zinn
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer

The American Way of Death, by Jessica Mitford
Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer
The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs
The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan
Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond
Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Other America, by Michael Harrington
Why We Can't Wait, by Martin Luther King Jr.
Working, by Studs Terkel

These lists are so lame I don't even know where to start. First of all, why are books like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A People's History of the United States called History and not Social History? Why is a book like Nickel and Dimed called Social History and not Investigative or Journalism or Current Affairs? I refuse to play along with these categories--I'm going to offer a separate list of Investigative titles where books like The Beauty Myth and The American Way of Death (which is old, now, but that doesn't really make it "History") can go.

I don't disagree with a few titles on this list; the Studs Terkel in particular is an important and interesting oral history, and I've heard good things about The Fatal Shore, but I'll admit I've not read the majority of them, and the ones I have read didn't do much for me (in particular I've never understood the appeal of Jared Diamond, I think his writing is SO BORING).

Anyway, fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy ride; for me, History is a tough category, because I don't read a ton of it, and I tend to like the under-the-radar titles rather than the big popular Stephen Ambrose types (even before the many plagiarization charges against Ambrose I was not a fan). So this may be a somewhat underdoggy type list.

The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang. This one should be on Time's Best History list. Period. Rather than paying lip service to women's history with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (which also doesn't really belong in the History category), a book of history written by a woman, telling the true horror of what happened to all of Nanking's residents during the second World War, but particularly to its women residents.

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, Jean Hatzfeld. An oral history of the Rwandan genocide, told by the people who did the killing. It's unsettling in the extreme but you should read it nonetheless. Philip Gourevitch's We Regret To Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families is a close second in this category.

How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill. This title was quite popular when it came out, and with reason (I thought). Cahill's a good writer and even if you don't agree with his emphasis on the importance of Irish monks saving civilizations' manuscripts, it'll give you something to think about. Just very nice, not overdone, readable history.

Hiroshima, by John Hersey. Well, this one was written at the time, so it probably counts as Investigative as well, but now it's a fantastic read about the history of what atomic weapons do to people. Once you read this one I promise you you'll never forget learning about radiation burning people's kimono patterns directly onto their skin. Hersey was an interesting writer, although some of his works are dated now; another interesting war reporter to consider for historical purposes is Martha Gellhorn.

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan. Boo on Mark Kurlansky (for me his books are too long and somewhat dry); I say this one is the best "micro-history" out there. Sullivan explores world and New York City history through the story of its lowliest and arguably most disgusting residents. (I'm still recovering from learning, in this book, that adult rats can squeeze themselves through a hole the size of a quarter.)

In Our Hearts We Were Giants: The Remarkable Story of the Lilliput Troupe--A Dwarf Family's Survival of the Holocaust, by Yehuda Koren. I no longer read books about World War II--historians and publishers seem to think it's the only era in history worth writing about, and I've just read TOO MUCH of it--but when I did this one stood out. The story of a dwarf family being experimented on by Nazi doctors is horrific, but its emphasis on the family's love and support for one another highlights the other side of human nature. Another history which is told on human scale on the topic is Death on the Black Sea: The Untold Story of the Struma and World War II's Holocaust at Sea.

Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England, Alison Weir. I'm using this one as a stand-in for all the great Historical Biography titles I should be listing, but which I can't think of right now. It's a good idea to read any Alison Weir--she's a well-known and skilled (and comprehensive--her books are the big thick impressive type) historical biographer. I really like getting my history through biography, as a matter of fact; another great choice here would be Robert Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra, from which I learned most of what little I know about Russian and revolution history.

I know I'm missing a TON. What history titles would you suggest?

*I've read maybe half of this one. I keep trying, I liked Howard Zinn, but I just can't get into it.