Previous month:
November 2011
Next month:
January 2012

December 2011

The gift that keeps on giving.

This year I have asked for--and am currently receiving--the gift of a day off.

Believe me when I say this is almost certainly the best Christmas present I have ever gotten, with the possible exception of a diecast model of the orange Dodge Charger General Lee (from the hit series The Dukes of Hazzard) when I was ten years old. My benefactor Mr. CR is in charge today--watching CRjr while I run errands, do only the work I choose to do, and generally goof off for a blessed 24-hour-period.

I spent some of my goof-off time this morning in Barnes and Noble*, where I perused the dollar book bin with nary a concern in the world. I found a book called "Love Lives of the Famous: A Physician's Reflections," which I found intriguing. So then I read the front jacket and found this: "Is there a link between human sexuality and material ambition? Do the same drives that encourage men to seek power and position also motivate their sexual behavior?" So I was pretty much already sold on the book when I flipped it open and saw this chapter heading: "Hemorrhoids, Sex and History."

Ha!! I defy you NOT to buy that book for a buck. I did, and am quite looking forward to it. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Now: off to goof off some more. I hope all of you got what you wanted from Santa as well.

*I can't believe hating Amazon and all they stand for has put me in the position of feeling that my local Barnes and Noble is a tiny mom-and-pop operation that should be patronized. Although at a buck a pop my patronage is not going to help them very much.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Which is, incidentally, also my favorite Christmas* song. I listen to my Frank Sinatra version of it until Mr. CR wants to drown himself in eggnog.

I'll be taking a brief break from posting over the holidays, mainly because reading will take a bit of a backseat to a) holiday logistics and visits and b) holiday viewing. Typically around this time of year there are certain Christmas TV shows I must re-watch: The Vicar of Dibley Christmas Lunch Incident, the Northern Exposure raven pageant, and of course, Charlie Brown. All of that takes time. If I can squeeze in my annual reading of The Dark Is Rising, I will try, but either way, there just won't be much to post about.

*I've never understood the big fight about Christmas vs. Happy Holidays, etc. I don't mind when people say "Happy Holidays" either. The point is: enjoy the time of year and whatever it is you celebrate, even if it's just a return to calmer days and less consumerism in January.

Best books overload.

I've been blogging this month over at the Reader's Advisor Online, and one of the features we're running is a list of the Best Books Lists that get published all over the place this time of year. (Holla, by the way, to Largehearted Boy, who compiles the Mother of All Best Books Lists list.)

As a result, I am burnt out on Best Books list. I always preferred a Worst List, myself, but there's not as many of those (although I enjoyed this one and this one). I know we've covered this a bit in our Citizen Reader Survey of 2011, but let it all out? What, in your opinion, were the worst books of 2011?

I've got a couple of suggestions: Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, of course. Also, Alan Jacobs's The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction. I wasn't overfond of Caitlin Kelly's Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.

Now it's your turn!

My dislike for doctors extends into literature, evidently.

I hated Ann Patchett's novel State of Wonder so much it was actually enjoyable.

It's been a long time since I felt strongly enough about a book to hate it. So why, you ask, did I finish it? Well, I don't think I realized how much I disliked it until I was pretty far along in it, and then I needed closure.

The novel is about a pharmacological researcher, Marina Singh, who is sent into the Brazilian rainforest to try and find a renegade doctor-researcher (Annick Swenson) who is funded by the company Singh works for. She also just happens to be the woman under whom Dr. Singh first trained when she planned on working in gynecology and obstetrics, until she got a surgical procedure wrong and changed her career. She doesn't really want to go and see about the status of the fertility drug that Dr. Swenson is supposedly working on, but she can't really say no in light of the fact that her co-worker, another doctor employed by the company, has been reported dead by Dr. Swenson. (He had been the first one to be sent to check on her progress with the drug research.)

So Dr. Singh trots off to the jungle and for seemingly a hundred pages or so not much happens, as it is hard to find the Dr. in her secluded locale, and she's got a couple of gatekeepers working for her and working deliberately to make her even harder to find.

God. I'm bored even typing the description. And I don't want to give too much away in case you still want to read it (since most critics have hailed it as a masterpiece). Suffice it to say Malina finds the doctor, discovers how the fertility drug research is really going, and then, in the space of about 5 pages at the end, most of the major actual action of the novel occurs. Why Patchett thought a pace of 300 slow boring pages to 5 hurried ones that felt tacked on to finish the book would be the right pace, I don't know. (Although, again, most of the critics didn't seem to mind.)

So what was there to hate in this book? Well, not one of the characters was even remotely likable. Marina was completely dullsville, the doctor who'd been reported dead just doesn't make that many appearances, the gatekeepers are a completely narcissistic and pointless young couple, and Dr. Annick Swenson was a composite of every obnoxious, supposedly knowledge-driven and yet completely incurious doctor I've ever visited in my life.* At one point a big reveal is made of the realization that women beyond middle age may not want to become pregnant (even if fertility drugs could make it a possibility) because hey, get this, being pregnant is hard work. Well, cripes, doctors, you don't need to go to Brazil to find that out. ASK ANY PREGNANT WOMAN if she thinks somebody in their sixties or seventies could handle it. I think you'll get your answer pretty quickly, without having to run any experiments.

So: unlikable characters: And: glacial pace, followed by unsatisfactory resolution. Third: the realization that this is probably some sort of play on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but I've never read that classic and probably wouldn't get the parallels even if I had.

Huh. It felt good to say all that. It's a book I loved to hate, I'll give it that.

*I am aware I bring some "doctor issues" to my reading of this book. I recognize I need them but I have not personally liked very many of the doctors I've ever seen.

I'm too lazy to even be a lazy couponer.

LazyPretty much the best way I've found to save money is to never go shopping. But, sometimes, in the course of life, there's things you need, particularly in the way of food. So every now and then I think I should learn how to be a good bargain shopper. When I'm in that mood, I invariably find myself reading books like Jamie Chase's The Lazy Couponer: How to Save $25,000 Per Year in Just 45 Minutes Per Week with No Stockpiling, No Item Tracking, and No Sales Chasing!.

It's an interesting book, and it's got a lot going for it. Chase does not advocate chasing sales or stockpiling supplies, or other super-couponer strategies like that, which is a relief. But it turns out that what she does advocate--doubling up store and manufacturers' coupons (they're called Qs, by the way; Chase's entire first chapter lays out all the couponing jargo for you), printing off coupons right before you go shopping, and stacking coupons with purchases designed to earn you store rewards like CVS's "Extra Care Bucks"--well, it's still too much work for me.

I'm going to stick with just never shopping, but if you'd like a good low-key guide to using coupons at grocery stores, drugstores, and online, do consider this one.

Motherhood discovered.

I learned this while reading Catherine Harper's memoir A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood: if I even want to entertain the thought of ever trying to have another baby, I have to stop reading books about pregnancy and childbirth RIGHT NOW.

There aren't any gory details in Harper's account, which is a very thoughtful and readable memoir about the experience of having a baby and becoming a mother. (It's also the winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, which I've never heard of, but hey, it's good to know; and is published by one of my favorite publishers, the University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books.) The bulk of the narrative involves Harper's coping with the changes pregnancy makes to a woman's body, then there's a lengthy chapter on her labor experience, and she concludes with some insights about learning to care for and raise her new daughter. However, the two parts that really made this book stand out (in my opinion) were the very beginning and the very end. In her first few chapters, Harper describes how even the decision to try to become pregnant changes your relationship dynamic (in other books this is either the entire focus of the book, as there are many books in which couples struggle with infertility, or is ignored if the narrative starts with the author's experience of being pregnant). But her concluding chapter really makes the book special:

"After playgroup that morning, after I had sat in that basement--which up to that point had been a fulfilling, companionable place to spend a few social hours--after I had listened to the endless litany of where Cheerios were on sale, what brand of diapers worked better on which gender, how many activities a particular nine-month old baby could accomplish in one day, how expertly another's 'swimming' lessons were going, why one mother took such pride in not finding the time to shower, or how another hadn't put her baby down for a nap ever...after the storm of all that nothing, I found myself undone...

My friends from pregnancy had all returned to work or moved out of the city. I was alone, and I understood for the first time, with absolute clarity, why women went mad...

...I understood more specifically that what was hard about mothering my baby wasn't really the sleeplessness, the poop, the spit-up, the mess at mealtimes, the carrying, or the soothing. Nor was it her generally noisy, demanding nature. These things were challenging but in the end they were the simplest things about having a child. What finally unwound me was the repetitive, isolated nature of these chores. I did the same things, over and over and over. I did them alone, without company or conversation. Once they were done, they had to be done again. And when I went out to be with other mothers, we talked about nothing else..." (pp. 213-214.)

Please excuse the lengthy quoting, but I wanted to give a flavor of how great Harper is at discussing (to my mind, anyway) one of the greatest challenges of motherhood: how to be interested in and raise children without talking and thinking ONLY about children. It's a nuanced point, and it's not made very often. Kudos to Harper for making it here.

Finally getting books read from last Christmas.

MonstrumologistLast Christmas a very dear friend of mine sent us a gift package that consisted of books for my entire household--it was wonderful. Mr. CR read his book right away and CRjr had his book read to him, but for months I didn't get around to my gift, which was Rick Yancey's YA horror novel The Monstrumologist.

Then, at the end of this past summer, when I wasn't in much of a nonfiction mood, I decided it was time to read it. No particular reason, although I was embarrassed that I had waited so long (just like I'm also embarrassed that it took me so long to blog about it after reading it!).

The story is framed by two modern-day individuals discussing the diaries they have found, written by one Will Henry, who has died at the age of (according to what he told his fellow nursing home residents and doctors) 131. And what is in the diaries? Well, the tagline for the book is "there are monsters among us...and they must be found," and that pretty much sums it up. Evidently, as an orphaned lad, Will Henry stayed to live and work with his father's former employer, a monstrumologist (or, one who finds and deals with monsters). The monsters the two are following in this narrative are "Anthropophagi"--suitably ucky monsters with devouring teeth, superhuman strength and wiles, and eyes in their stomach.

It's a pretty creepy read (even for me, as a supposed adult), and it would be a very good atmospheric read around Halloween time. I enjoyed the book very much, although one part of it frightened me so much it actually gave me nightmares. (And it wasn't one of the parts with monsters--it was one of the parts where the main character visits a home for the mentally deranged--ick.)

I had only one minor complaint with the book, and that is that the monstrumologist calls Will Henry by his full name just a little too often. There's a lot of this type of exchange:

"'And find my boots, Will Henry.'

'Of course, sir.'

I hesitated, waiting for a fourth command. The old man called Erasmus was staring at me.

'Well, what are you waiting for?' the doctor said. 'Snap to, Will Henry!'" (p. 6.)

But overall, it's still just a good, spine-tingling read:

"With each step my heart beat faster, for in my mind's eye I saw it beneath the stairs, crouching on all fours upon the sweating stone floor, a headless beast with blank black eyes set deep in its shoulders and a mouth overflowing with row upon row of glistening teeth, the lion in the savanna brush, the shark in the reef shadows, and I the grazing gazelle, the juvenile seal frolicking in the surf. It would rise as I descended. It would reach through the open slats and seize my ankle with its three-inch barbs..." (p. 91.)

If you know any YA readers who enjoy being scared, this one might make a good Christmas gift. I know that it was a gift I very much appreciated and enjoyed.

The Great Citizen Reader Survey of 2011: Reminder

Do you know anyone who's a reader and is looking for a way to kill some time at work* as we all wind down toward the holidays? Ask them to fill out the Great Citizen Reader Survey of 2011!**

And a great big THANK YOU to everyone who has filled out a survey so far. As noted earlier, I'll leave the link up through December 30, and share the results sometime in the new year!

*Yes, yes, I know we're not supposed to be looking at the Internets for personal reasons at work. I'm sure it's on all our New Year's Resolutions lists to stop doing that.

**Or watch Paul Rudd dance. Or John Denver and the Muppets and 12 Days of Christmas. Now we're wasting time!

A different kind of business book.

LocavestingI found Amy Cortese's Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit from It to be kind of a nice, straightforward, useful business book.

This places it squarely in the .01% of business books that aren't tired rehashes of management theories, comparisons of business to war and military figures, and crackpot books on personal finance that may or may not be advertisements for the author's own financial business. (See: Safe Money Millionaire --but don't buy it!)

It's not a book to read if you're looking for very basic investment ideas, or if you're looking to get rich quick. What it is is an interesting consideration of various ways that people are starting to invest, financially, in their own communities. The suggestions range from the basic, like putting some of your money in locally or regionally owned community banks, to the more advanced, like forming a community investment organization. Each chapter provides examples and definitions, and ends with a very succinct rundown of the pros and cons of the investment type (community development loan funds, for example, may return slightly more interest than regular CDs, but are also NOT insured by the FDIC) and information on how to get started making such an investment.

Even if you don't have much to invest, it might give you some ideas about community investment options for a day in the future when you might want to give it a go.

A book on brains my brain just isn't up to right now.

BrainI keep trying to read Sandra Aamodt's and Sam Wang's Welcome to Your Child's Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College, but I'm just not going to be able to finish it.

I'm a fretful parent (lucky CRjr--every time he hits a developmental milestone I mentally check it off the list, enjoy it for all of five seconds, and then start fretting about the next step*), so I thought it would be interesting or helpful to know more about how children's brains develop. I still think it would be, but this is not the book for me. Although the authors seem to know their stuff and they toss in encouraging asides like their assertion that your child will be fine as long as you do a "reasonably competent" job caring for them, I'm still finding it a rather tough book to follow.

Perhaps this is because I am so used to reading parenting books that are chronologically oriented, whereas this one is organized along subject lines, with chapter headings like "Once in a Lifetime: Sensitive Periods (birth to 15 years)", "Born Linguists (birth to eight years)," and "Connect with Your Baby through Hearing and Touch" (third trimester to two years)." That last is actually chapter 11, AFTER chapter 9, on adolescence. It was just too hard for me to follow. One nice thing about it is that it contains multiple sidebars offering "Practical Tips" and "Myth Busting" throughout; when I had to take it back to the library I just read through most of those (skipping the text) and called it a day.

*The same people who tell me the baby's just fine and I should stop worrying about every little thing like a nut job are usually the same people who tell me about the importance of early detection of problems so they can be addressed sooner rather than later. It's a Mommy Catch-22.

Tuesday Article: Best of the best of the best of the best...

I will probably not get around to doing any best or worst lists this year, as just trying to match the Time Magazine Best 100 Nonfiction Titles list is doing me in. However, I did do one "Best of" list for Library Journal this year:

Library Journal Best Business Titles 2011

There's lots of other lists there too, although Library Journal's articles are much shorter this year (I only listed ten Best Biz books, last year it was around 35 or so). And if you're really jonesing for "Best of Books" lists for the year, check out the sidebar at the Reader's Advisor Online, or the exhaustive, exhausting list that Largehearted Boy has going. Have fun!

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Sports

Two categories left in our exploration of Time magazine's 100 Best Nonfiction Titles list: today Sports, next time, War. YAY!*

So here's what Time had to say about the Sports category:

Ball Four, by Jim Bouton
The Sweet Science, by A.J. Liebling

Well, this is another category where Time didn't wear itself out suggesting titles. I've not read either of them, although I do like Liebling and the Ball Four book, first published in 1970 as an "inside story" about baseball, sounds pretty interesting. As long as they were going to have a sports category, I'm surprised they only listed two books, but hey, to each their own. It's a bit tricky to list what I think are the best Sports books--I already mentioned at least one in the Biography section (Pistol, by Mark Kriegel).

Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand. Yes, I know pretty much everyone has read this book already. But it's that rarest of rare nonfiction books: one that lives up to the hype. Anyone who likes a good underdog story will enjoy Hillenbrand's historical narrative about Seabiscuit, the little knobby-kneed horse that could.

The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw, by Michael Sokolove. A heartbreaking book about baseball players who make it, against all odds, to the big leagues, and then still suffer from things like drug addiction and not knowing how to handle success and money.

Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity, by Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry. A particularly timely read, in light of the Penn State scandal; this is an eye-opening read about exactly how much violence and criminality people are willing to allow in their college sports program culture (warning: it's a lot, including rape, savage beatings, and shootings). The authors, journalists both, focus primarily on the University of Washington football team.

I thought about listing The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis, but I think Michael Sokolove's book covers much the same ground (impoverished youth making it through sports--spoiler alert: Darryl Strawberry's life story and struggles with drug addiction will make you cry) without as much sentimentality, and is a superior read, although I do feel The Blind Side is a very good book.

*Not yay, war; yay, we're almost done. Although I may still do a couple of lists of Investigative, Travel, and True Crime: three huge categories Time ignored, for whatever reason. I guess I can see leaving out Investigative and True Crime, but Travel? Come on.

Still not over London.

I ate up Peter Ackroyd's London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets with a spoon.

LondonWell, not literally. But it was a slim little book that I enjoyed very much, about one of my very favorite cities in the world. Ackroyd relates short histories and anecdotes about the messy and historical business under London's streets: its sewers, buried rivers, water pipes, tunnels, and the Underground (to name just a few of his topics). At around 200 pages with generously spaced text, it was the perfect little morsel to get me through a couple of days when I couldn't find much else I wanted to read.

It's not perfect; it ends rather abruptly and it moves from subject to subject without much rhyme or reason, but if you're at all interested in urban planning, history, or London itself I think you'd find this book very interesting:

"The sewers of early medieval London were the streams and rivers that ran down to the Thames. Cess-pits, lined with brick or stone, were also in common use and were cleansed weekly or fortnightly by urban workers known as 'gong-fermers.' In 1326 one of them, 'Richard the Raker,' fell into his own cess-pit and suffocated 'monstrously in his own excrement.' The first pipes to carry waste, in an underground drainage system, were introduced to London in the thirteenth century during the reign of Henry III." (p. 80.)

Okay, that's not a pleasant image. But Ackroyd most definitely has painted an image. And that's what blows my mind about London, and other really old cities. 1326! Just imagine. I want to keep imagining--and that's why I'm going to look into another of Ackroyd's history books: London: A Biography.

Thursday Article: Matt Taibbi on Steve Jobs

Yes, yes, I know we haven't had a "Tuesday Article" for a long time, and yes, yes, I know it's Thursday. Be that all as it may:

You have got to read Matt Taibbi's take on Steve Jobs. That sums up how I feel about Steve Jobs, but perfectly. Good old Matt Taibbi. As Georgia would say in the Louise Rennison Confessions of Georgia Nicolson YA novels, I LUURVVE him.