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October 2012

Still missing you, Ray Bradbury.

Halloween snuck up on me this year (and everyone on the poor East Coast has probably even forgotten it's today), so I did not get in my usual autumn re-reading of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. I particularly wanted to, as Ray Bradbury died this past year.

But perhaps I will find something suitable of his to read this winter. I know his novel Dandelion Wine is considered a good "summer read"--which is most likely why I've never been able to get through that one, as I am NOT a summer person--but are any of his books good "winter reads"?

In the meantime, I may go back and re-read a few of my past experiences with Something Wicked... Still one of my favorite books ever. Happy Halloween, all.* And RIP, Mr. Bradbury.

*I'm just glad it's here and I can finally hand out and get rid of the candy I've been loading up on when it was on sale. It has not been good for my recent "try to eat a diet that is less than 100% sugar" plan.

Book Menage: Shirley Jackson edition.

I just finished Shirley Jackson's fiction/nonfiction parenting memoir Raising Demons, and I continue to be fascinated by Shirley Jackson. Because it's also a somewhat spooky time of year, and Jackson was mainly known for her spooky writing, I thought now might be a good time to host a book menage, featuring Shirley Jackson as our featured author.

So here's the plan:

1. Read one work of nonfiction by or about Shirley Jackson. This would include either of her parenting memoirs, Life Among the Savages or Raising Demons (the sequel to Life...). If you're not interested in either of those titles, please try and track down Judith Oppenheimer's biography of Jackson, titled Private Demons.*

2. Read one work of spooky fiction by Jackson, such as her infamous short story The Lottery,** or her novels The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics) or We Have Always Lived in the Castle.***

3. Meet back here the week of December 3, and we'll discuss whatever we've read.

*Apologies: Some of these titles may be hard to find. If you can't track them down, consider reading the Wikipedia page about Jackson instead, or just read one of her novels.

**Please be aware there's some advertising at this page, which provides the full text of the story, or you could check out any short story collection of Jackson's and find it there.

***She wrote a lot of other novels, but is most well-known for these.

Jacques Barzun: has died, at age 104.

Historian and "cultural gadfly"* Jacques Barzun has died, at age 104.**

I just suggested his book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present (which was published when he was 92) to someone, but felt like a bit of a poser because, although I own it, I've never read it. I've read it in bits but what I'd love to do is sit right down and read it through. Sigh. Someday, when I have world enough and time.

My sister also swears by his title Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers,*** which is considerably shorter than Dawn to Decadence's 877 pages, and is a guide (of sorts) to better writing style. I should look into reading the entirety of that one too (clearly, as my writing could use some help).

*What a great epitaph. Who wouldn't want to be described as a "cultural gadfly"?

**I find his obituary somewhat unilluminating on the personal side. If he is survived by a wife and several children and grandchildren, why are none of them his executor? These are always the types of questions that bug me in obituaries, and they're never answered. Note: After I read the New York Times obit, it was later corrected to say Arthur Krystal was his friend and editor, not his executor. This makes more sense, although I still think this obit gave his personal life short shrift.

***This is becoming one messy post. Here's my own correction: my sister (and my own personal fact-checker, clearly) tells me the book she swears by is actually Barzun's title Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. Let's just split the difference and say I'd like to read all of Mr. Barzun's books, and hopefully someday will have the time to do so.

Year of Learning Dangerously

Earlier this past summer I was having a hard time finding any nonfiction I wanted to finish. So when I stumbled across Quinn Cummings's homeschooling memoir The Year of Learning Dangerously, I was pleased not only to start it and enjoy it, but to finish it as well.

I found it to be a really fun little book, which didn't set out to be any big manifesto, but rather Cummings's thoughtful consideration of her year spent homeschooling her daughter Alice. Cummings decided to homeschool Alice after her daughter proved too successful at gaming her teachers, convincing them she didn't know how to do long division so they wouldn't then go on to teach her anything harder.

Cummings does offer a brief history of the American homeschooling movement and includes a chapter on the most frequent challenge to homeschoolers (but what about the socialization?). She also spends some time investigating a wide variety of homeschooling methods, including "unschooling."

This is not really a how-to book or even a serious philosophical consideration of homeschooling, but it is a very enjoyable memoir. I really, really enjoyed the author's voice--smart, questioning, funny, but still kind of no-nonsense. This is how she describes a moment at the unschooling convention she attends:

"That morning, one of the speakers had told us that human beings come from one of two places: fear or love. If those were the only sources of human motivation, I knew where I got my mail. But in my case, I swear fear and love are joined at the hip: I love you so deeply that I fear all the possible things that might happen to you." (p.83.)

And her thoughts on the ever-present "socialization" question are the best. In the following paragraph she describes a moment at her daughter's co-ed water-polo game, as she watched all the boys in the pool keep the ball away from the girls:

"All of a sudden someone bellowed, 'That is some seriously sexist shit!' From the number of parents suddenly staring in my direction, I was led to understand the bellower was me. 'Sorry,' I whispered to no one in particular and attempted to shrink under a towel. Alice continued with water polo for another month, but that night marked the beginning of the end. The next time she asked to quit, I let her. Which circles back to the question, 'What about socialization?' I guess the most accurate answer would have to be: Alice is doing quite well. I could use some work." (pp 135-136.)

Good stuff. There's an ever-increasing number of homeschooling memoirs out there, but this one's a keeper.

For your viewing pleasure.*

Author Chrystia Freeland** (of the new book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else) and my one true love Matt Taibbi (described beautifully by Moyers as "perceptive and merciless," although I rather think Taibbi might have more mercy in his little finger than do the wealthy and political jerks he covers, in their entire bodies) were on Bill Moyers and Company this past weekend. Enjoy!

*And I do mean pleasure--my heroes and crushes Bill Moyers and Matt Taibbi in one place. Yummy. Fifty Shades of Grey, eat your heart out!

**I am not, however, sure I how feel about Ms. Freeland in this interview. She seems a bit too forgiving of the plutocrats for my tastes.

A little light reading about viruses.

In retrospect, reading Carl Zimmer's slim science book A Planet of Viruses right as flu season kicks off probably wasn't the smartest plan.*

VirusesBut I am not known for my smart planning, or my smart anything, really. So read it I did. And it was awesome. In short chapters describing such popular viruses as the rhinovirus (that causes the common cold), the influenza virus, the human papillomavirus, SARS, HIV, and many others, Zimmer manages to provide a nice overview and history of his subject, as well as a number of really interesting science tidbits. I found this one fascinating:

"Endogenous retroviruses may be dangerous parasites, but scientists have discovered a few that we have commandeered for our own benefit. When a fertilized egg develops into a fetus, for example, some of its cells develop into the placenta, an organ that draws in nutrients from the mother's tissues. The cells in the outer layer of the placenta fuse together, sharing their DNA and other molecules. Heidmann and other researchers have found that a human endogenous retrovirus gene plays a crucial role in that fusion. The cells in the outer placenta use the gene to produce a protein on their surface, which latches them to neighboring cells. In our most intimate moment, as new human life emerges from old, viruses are essential to our survival." (p. 52.)

Now, I only understand maybe half of that paragraph, and it's not the most elegant sample of Zimmer's writing that I could find. But that is still some fascinating science-fiction-type shit right there, I say.

ZimmerIf I had more time I'd read this book all over again, because sometimes I didn't fully understand what I was reading (particularly in the chapter on bacteriophages, which, as far as I can tell, are viruses that infect bacteria). But I certainly got enough out of the one reading to be able to heartily recommend this one. Although I do think it needs a better cover. Frankly, if it were up to me, I'd splash the author's photo all over it--he's a thinking gal's smoking hottie. And man, he's a good science writer. I still think back on reading his book Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures with real pleasure: never has such a gross read (parasites: yuck) been such an engrossing one.

*I learned that "according to one hypothesis, [most flu cases occur during the winter] because the air is dry enough in those months to allow virus-laden droplets to float in the air for hours, increasing their chances of encountering a new host. In other times of the year, the humidity causes the droplets to swell and fall to the ground." (p. 18.) So when I was out this past weekend and someone sneezed in my vicinity, I freaked out trying to determine how dry the air is currently and therefore how infectious that sneeze would be. Next thing you know I'll be walking around with a little water spritz bottle, just squirting it randomly around myself. Knowledge is fun but it certainly doesn't help make one a more normal person, does it?

Re-reading a classic: The Three-Martini Playdate.

I did a lot of re-reading this summer, both fiction and nonfiction. Sometimes I was just lazy and wanted to enjoy something I knew I'd already enjoyed, and sometimes I wanted to see if something I remembered liking held up in the re-reading. One nonfiction title that held up (it got better, actually), was Christie Mellor's fun little guide The Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting.

I originally read this slim little book before I had a kid,* and it struck me as funny and quite pragmatic then. Now that CRjr is around, this book strikes me as pure genius. Here's some of the chapter headings: "Saying No to Your Child: It's a Kick!", "Bedtime: Is Five-thirty Too Early?", and "Self-Esteem and Other Over-Rated Concepts." Those are good, but the text is even better:

"There is no shame in explaining to your children that they should go and find Something to Do, that the grown-ups are having grown-up talk, that they, the little children, need to go somewhere and be little children. Whether you would like to share a portion of your time with one grown-up or a party of them, or simply enjoy a moment alone, it is time to exert a little autonomy and encourage some in your child. This book explains how. It's time to warm up the ice cubes, curl up on the sofa, and send darling Spencer into the other room to play by himself. Mummy and Daddy need a little break." (p. 13.)

At last! A parenting book I can get behind. And lest anyone think Mellor is simply calling for ignoring one's children, this paragraph appears a scant few pages later:

"I am not espousing a return to the era when children were seen and not heard--a lofty goal, but one which is now simply impractical. In fact, one should have conversations with the children from time to time, so that they will learn how to speak with confidence and enthusiasm, should a grown-up wish to have a thoughtful exchange." (p. 32.)

Mellor can also be quite practical. In a later chapter she discusses what you absolutely need when you go to make visits with your baby, and the list is simple: 3 to 5 diapers, a small blanket or two or an extra sweater or hat, a small tote of cars, a coloring book, or reading materials (depending on the age of the child), and "a nice bottle of wine for your hosts, which should be opened upon arrival." (p. 48.)

Loved this book then. Love this book now. Find copies of it anywhere you can to buy and take to the next baby shower to which you're invited.

*Don't ask me why. I like to read stuff that is age- and situation-inappropriate, for whatever reason. I read a lot of dating manuals after I got married, and I read a ton of parenting books before I had a kid.

Summer 2012 fiction bender.

Although memories of summer are becoming increasingly fuzzy (does anyone else feel like summer 2012 was already a million years ago? I blame the election*), I do seem to remember having gone on something of a fiction bender.

Mostly I just re-read a lot of stuff I had around the house, which was kind of relaxing. I plowed through Susan Cooper's first-ish book in her Dark Is Rising series, Over Sea, Under Stone, and it was a lovely read. Just right for summer, although I wished I could have been reading it while actually IN Cornwall. Cooper really does a lovely job with setting; very vivid accounts of a seaside fishing village in Great Britain. And of course now I'm ready for my winter re-reading of Dark is Rising. I like to have my reading ducks in a row like that.

I also plowed through a ton of largely forgettable chick lit novels, because, along with romantic comedies and BBC classics, I really love chick lit on some elemental level. One title that stood out was Jancee Dunn's Don't You Forget about Me, but that was mainly because I love Jancee Dunn (DO read her memoirs But Enough about Me and Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?: And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask).

Larry's Party
by Carol Shields

And, oh, I finally read another Carol Shields novel, titled Larry's Party. I enjoyed the hell out of that. Let's run down Carol's case, shall we? 1. She's considered a Canadian novelist, because she lived most of her life in Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Vancouver, although she was born in the States. Go Canada! 2. She is perhaps my favorite woman novelist, nearly on a par with Anne Tyler. 3. She writes a really good guy character. And, because I am a married woman with a child, I basically never ever get to talk to men anymore.** It sucks. So spending a novel in the company of an interesting (if sometimes exasperating) male character was a real treat.

I'm pretty sure there are novels I'm forgetting. But you start to get the idea. I did a lot of cheating on nonfiction with fiction this summer. No worries though. I'm back with my true love. I just raced through D.T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace, and it was GOOD. Ah, nonfiction, you're always there for me.

*I am blaming the election for everything. What will I do with myself on November 7?

**Thank God I had a son. Someday when he grows up, if he forgives me for whatever I'm doing wrong currently, I hope he'll talk to me and I'll have a guy friend again.

Using nonfiction in book groups.

A very nice group of library professionals in South Carolina invited me to chat with them briefly yesterday about using nonfiction titles in book groups, and I sincerely hope a good time was had by all.* (I know I enjoyed myself thoroughly.)

My brief notes on the program and a list of suggested NF book titles can be found in the sidebar, under the Readers' Advisory Programs heading, or by clicking here.

The way I see it, there are some difficulties using NF, but most of those challenges actually lead to new opportunities. For instance: whenever a librarian is running a book group, almost always the first thing they have to consider is whether or not their library or library system owns enough of the books to pass out to book group readers (usually at least 5-15 copies, and preferably some in different formats, like audio books, large print, and now, of course, ebooks). I find this an obnoxious limit, because almost all of the NF titles I really want to discuss are owned in much smaller numbers than that. Nonfiction is also sometimes challenging to discuss because some people can be put off by the "realness" of it (particularly with sex, violence, and of course, profanity, which often seems to bother people more than the first two, which I'll never ever understand); nonfiction can also take longer to read, and can be perceived as lacking in "style" to discuss.

To all of those drawbacks, I say: pshaw!

I've been thinking about nonfiction in the shower** for the last few days, wondering how it could be used in book groups. And now, of course, I'm somewhat annoyed that I don't work in a library right now, because I'd love to try some things out. For instance, I'd love to work around the title availability question by offering book groups with unified themes or formats rather than everyone having to read the same title. So, what about: a book group discussing a variety of nonfiction graphic novels. What about focusing on a particular author, and offering 2-3 different choices of that author's fiction and nonfiction? (Calvin Trillin comes to mind here, as does someone like James Howard Kunstler.)

As far as discussing the "style" of nonfiction, well, you know I could do that all day. How did the author decide to write on this subject? How much truth is in this memoir, do you think? How did this author look at this historical or biographical subject in a fresh way? How comprehensively is this book researched and referenced? The possible questions abound.

Above all, I did sound a note of caution about always falling into the "we must find nonfiction that reads like fiction" trap. Nonfiction has become increasingly "narrative," offering much more in storylines and character development than it used to (perhaps because that is what sells). But sometimes the less narrative stuff is fun to discuss too. Personally, I read nonfiction because it is NOT fiction. I remember when I read Suze Orman's first book, mainly out of curiosity, I really wanted to discuss that puppy with someone--she devotes a lot of pages in that one to her own relationship with money, in addition to laying out some good financial precepts. There's no real story there, but it was interesting, particularly in light of the fact that Suze went on to become her own huge personal financial brand.

Anyway: that was long-winded. Sorry. What I meant to ask was, is anyone out there using NF in your book groups? How is it going? What titles have you used, successfully or not?

*Thanks for having me, Richland County Public Library system!

**This sounds kinky, but mainly my 5-10 minutes in the shower are the only minutes during which I can focus lately.

God bless Rachel Cusk.

I am a big fan of Rachel Cusk.

She's better known as a novelist (although she's somewhat notorious for her earlier memoir on parenting, titled A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother), but I've never read any of her novels. I really, really enjoyed A Life's Work, largely, I'll admit, for its contrarian viewpoint, so when I heard her new book, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, was coming out, I was very excited to read it.* I was pumped when it finally came in for me at the library, and as it clocks in at a mere 146 pages, I thought I'd be able to fly through it. This was not the case.

The first time I started it, for some reason, I had a very hard time keeping track of what she was saying in the first chapter. The second time I started it, I was in Door County enjoying a very nice mini-vacation with my family and my brother's family, and it just wasn't the right atmosphere in which to read this book. The third time I started it, I found it really interesting, and re-read the first chapter so I made sure to get it all. And the fourth time I started it (starting with the second chapter), I couldn't put it down, and I made CRjr look at his own books for a while in the afternoon so I could keep reading it ("Mom's reading her book, why don't you just look at the pictures in your animal book? Please?" Child neglect, thy name is CR.)

There's no way for this not to be a sad memoir. It is about the breaking up of a marriage, with all that entails: fights and disagreements and the destruction of shared history with one's ex; worries about the children and how they are taking the new living situations; the messiness of trying to move forward with new and different relationships. It is, unfortunately, not a great book. (And here's two reviews explaining why it is not, better than I ever could.)

But to me Rachel Cusk is never strongest in the aggregate. I love her for the brief shining moments of insight, the lines she gets totally right. These are a few of them:

"To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of male values...I was aware, in those early days, that my behaviour was strange to the people who knew me well. It was as though I had been brainwashed, taken over by a cult religion. I had gone away--I couldn't be reached on the usual number. And yet this cult, motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live. It reflected nothing about me: its literature and practices, its values, its codes of conduct, its aesthetic were not mine. It was generic too: like any cult, it demanded a complete surrender of identity to belong to it. So for a while I didn't belong anywhere." (p. 19.) This is in the opening chapter on the early days of marriage and parenthood and the sorting out of roles, with a discussion of her childhood adoption of her father's ways and more "male" values of seeking individual success and financial security.

"Pain is strong and huge and relentless, and 'normality'--that was the word he used, wasn't it?--normality is the fine balance life achieves in the absence of disruption, is the blank register of events and their aftermath, slowly re-stitching and reparing itself after a pebble has been thrown in. Normality is capable of resisting nothing and can outlive almost anything." (p. 31.) This is perhaps the clearest description of pain and the absence of pain that I've ever read.

"Later, at the train station before she leaves, my sister says to me: you have to learn to hide what you feel from the children. They will feel what they think you feel. They are only reflections of you.

I don't believe that, I say." (p. 72.) I don't know how I feel about this. I'd like to discuss it in a book group or something, actually.

So there you have it. A disjointed review of a book I found to be somewhat disjointed. It may have been hard to understand in bits; it may not have divulged as much actual information about why a marriage ends as I might have wished; and at the end of the day Cusk is not the sort of author I wish I could call up and ask some questions. But I'm still not sorry I read it. Not at all.

*Although I was not happy to hear she was having marital troubles. No fun for spouses, and definitely no fun for the kids.

Gotta love a guy who sucks at girls.

I haven't found a whole lot of good humor or "light" books this past summer or fall. As previously noted, I blame the election. (For everything, not just a boring nonfiction publishing cycle.) But one book I did read and enjoy last month was Justin Halpern's short and funny memoir I Suck At Girls.

I Suck at Girls
by Justin Halpern

You may know Halpern better as the author of the Twitter feed (and book, and short-lived TV show, starring William Shatner) Sh*t My Dad Says. I still don't understand Twitter (and never will, it's starting to look like), and I didn't think that book was all that funny. So I wasn't expecting much from this one.*

It's a short memoir in vignettes, of Halpern's completely addled attempts at connecting with girls. He opens the book with describing his first crush, in the second grade, on a little girl named Kerry. How did he express his devotion? He drew a picture of her, and then drew a yellow dog in the air above her, taking a poop on her head, and for his big finish, drew in a thought bubble that showed her with the thought bubble "I like it."**

And things only went downhill from there for Halpern in the girl department. You'll just have to read the book to find out how (although there's some upbeat stories as well).

If you have read and enjoyed Halpern's first book, rest assured there's lots more sh*t his dad says in this one, too. In fact, my favorite parts of the book pretty much all involved his father. Consider this little exchange, when Halpern is describing how, when he was little, he woke up early in the morning after a scary dream, went to the kitchen for a drink, and was frightened by his father, who was also up:

"I shrieked like a frightened monkey and jumped back, crashing into the bookcase behind me. As my eyes adjusted I realized that the shadow was my dad, sitting in total darkness in the La-Z-Boy chair that faced the windows to our backyard.

'Jesus H. Christ. Calm down, son. What the hell is wrong with you?'

'I had a freaky dream,' I said, trying to catch my breath. 'What are you doing?'

'I'm sitting in the dark drinking a hot toddy. What the hell does it look like?'

'Why are you doing that right now? It's the middle of the night.'

'Well, contrary to popular fucking belief, I enjoy a little time to myself, so I wake up early so I can have it. Clearly I'm going to have to start waking up earlier." (p. 33.)

I enjoyed that a lot. And oh yeah, be warned: there's swearing in the book (quite a lot of it, whenever Halpern's dad is around), in case you don't care for that kind of thing.

*Low expectations: always the secret to happiness!

**This vignette was one of the more amusing, with Halpern's parents getting called into school to discuss this incident and his father, a very practical doctor, being more worried about the "basic physics" tenets Halpern was ignoring by drawing the dog floating in midair over Kerry.

Looking for some good True Crime in time for Halloween?

Over the summer I also spent a lot of time reading Historical True Crime books for an article I wrote for Library Journal. It took me a ridiculous amount of time to research and write, but it was fun. For a while. And then I started to get creeped out by all the True Crime. You can only read so much of that stuff at a time, even if it's set far back in history.

Here's the article:

Prior Misconduct: Historical True Crime

And here's my behind-the-scenes findings and recommendations:

Everything you read on Jack the Ripper is just creepy, creepy, creepy. It doesn't matter what part of the story is being told or when the book was written. I picked up one of the older books on that killer and it flipped open to a photograph of one of the victims--not good. Not books you want to leave laying around where children could peruse them.

I read Kate Colquhoun's Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing before I started work on the article, and really enjoyed it on its own merit;

Paul Collins's The Murder of the Century was perhaps my favorite book of this entire group. Easy to read, fascinating stuff, just the right amount of gory. Collins is one of my favorite nonfiction authors (who writes on a wide variety of subjects); do give him a try.

Thumbs up also on J. North Conway's awesome The Big Policeman: The Rise and Fall of America's First, Most Ruthless, and Greatest Detective and Carrie Hagen's We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping That Changed America.

Fifty shades of filthy (but genuinely arousing).*

Oh, oh, oh, I almost forgot! How could I forget?

I read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy over the summer. For those of you who have not heard of this phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey is the first book in a trilogy that has singled-handedly made the "BDSM erotic" subgenre the latest hot, hot, hot publishing category. The author of the books, E.L. James, is a British woman who is now quite wealthy (and good on her, I say).

These books started life as Twilight fan fiction, but James reworked the story, making her set of lovers slightly older than the Twilight protagonists and by taking out the vampire stuff. So what you're left with is a woman in her early twenties, Anastasia Steele, and the slightly older, mysterious, and handsome millionaire Christian Grey, who, it turns out, has some serious issues stemming from his hard-knock childhood (being raised by his crack-whore mother--his phrase, not mine--and her pimp). When not making millions and looking hot, Christian busies himself looking for "submissives"--partners who will indulge him in his BDSM (BDSM stands for bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and masochism) lifestyle and needs.

A complete plot synopsis can be had elsewhere, but of course I couldn't read these books and not comment on them. I'll say this: there's naughty bits about every two pages, so you don't have to bother with a lot of plot, if that's what you like in your erotica. The other hilarious thing about these books is how they are COMPLETE fantasy, and I emphatically don't mean the naughty bits. Throughout the three books, Ana and Christian do very little besides make out, worry about if they've upset the other person (mainly Ana worrying about upsetting Christian, which does get a little old), drive, fly, and otherwise travel around; buy and wear expensive clothes to a variety of fabulous functions; and oh yeah, every now and then meet up with friends for wine (again, this is Ana). Periodically Ana goes to her job at a publishing house (and I do mean periodically--it takes time to be the girlfriend of a millionaire who wants you to be submissive, after all), where she starts out as some sort of assistant to an editor and (SPOILER ALERT) eventually ends up running the company.** 

Christian also takes care of making sure Ana eats (she tends not to when she's stressed), buys her closets full of clothes, and has a doctor that makes house calls for her to get her birth control shots (oh, and he also has a lovely housekeeper/cook who waits on her as well). Like I said: complete and utter fantasy. I know at least partly why women are loving these books, and it's not all the sexy bits. Who doesn't fantasize about having all the demands of real life (work, housework, family bullshit, doctor visits, etc.) effortlessly met? All WHILE having a lot of mind-blowing sex?

I really, really, REALLY enjoyed the books. But, I'll admit, more for the good laugh than for the titillation. And if you want to continue your good time, ask every woman you know if they've read these books. I spent all summer asking this question...and every woman I met had! It's unbelievable. And all a lot of fun. (For the best time of all, watch the 3 Grannies review on YouTube. It is emphatically not suitable for work, but it is hilarious, and one of the grannies refers to women in their 30s as "young women," which made me very happy.)

*And this is a line from The Simpsons, when an old lady who employs Bart for housework tells him not to interrupt her while she's "watching her stories." As she settles in to watch her soaps in her rocking chair, she says, "Filthy...but genuinely arousing!"

**Now that's the kind of job I need! Show up a few hours a week, and then be put in charge.

A word about selling out.

Well, up is down, black is white, cats and dogs are living together in sin*...I always said I wouldn't become an Amazon Associate, but guess what I just went and did?

Hi everyone, my name is Citizen Reader, and I am an Amazon Associate.

Here's how it breaks down. I am now an associate for both Powell's Books and Amazon . When I add links to books in my posts, I will, whenever possible, link to Powell's. If you'd like to buy the book, all you have to do is click on my link and it will take you directly to Powell's, where your purchase will count towards my account and I'll get a little kickback.

However, in my right sidebar, I also now have a generalized Amazon link. If you ever buy anything through Amazon (and I'm not saying you should, although God knows I'm guilty of it sometimes myself), I would humbly request that you get into Amazon by first coming here and then clicking on that link. I will then get a small kickback on ANYTHING you buy, not just books. I can't see who's ordering what, and wouldn't look at that sort of information if I could. I have done this on the off chance that, if you are buying something from Amazon (particularly as the holiday shopping season approaches), and you remember to get there through my link, that might help me out financially, without costing you anything extra.

I am doing this because any extra money I can make through this blog not only helps pay for it (for the blog service hosting, for example), but also makes it more possible for me to continue reading and writing here, rather than trying to create other freelance streams of income. Nothing else will change, really--I still don't accept review copies, and you can be sure anything I write about books or nonfiction news here is my opinion and only my opinion.

At the end of the day: I'm really not here to sell books, but if you do buy any (or other merchandise in general), please consider buying them through my Powell's or Amazon links.

Thanks for bearing with me through this disclaimer. And thanks to everyone who has bought books through my link at Powell's so far--I really, really appreciate it.

*Thanks to Ghostbusters (and to the incomparable Bill Murray) for this line, as always.

Summer Reading 2012: Canada

Towards the end of summer the CR family went and joined my brother for a couple of days in fabulous Door County, WI, at a cabin he and his family had rented on Lake Michigan.

It was nothing short of fantastic. CRjr was good in the car and enjoyed the lake, and I enjoyed just not being in my house for a couple of days (please note I was with my family and my brother's family, so it was like I had the best part of being at home--being with loved ones--with none of the crap, like feeling I should be cleaning the bathroom or cooking or doing something educational with CRjr).

by Richard Ford

One drawback to the trip was that when night fell, and everyone else went to bed, I could not get to sleep to save my life. But no biggie--I had brought along Richard Ford's latest novel, Canada, and it was a perfect read for 2 a.m. in a rustic cabin, with the door open to catch a cool breeze off the lake. The novel follows a simple, but odd, story: it is told in flashback by the narrator (Dell Parsons), who relates the story of how his parents decided to rob a bank when he was a teenager, and were easily caught and thrown in jail, at which point he and his twin sister followed different paths. His sister ran away, and he was taken to Canada to live as a fugitive with a relative of one of his mother's friends. To say the book is slow-moving is an understatement, but there was something eerie and atmospheric about it that I really enjoyed. As I told my brother the next morning, it was almost a gift not being able to sleep--I could read all I wanted. And I don't get that much anymore.*

I've not read a lot by Richard Ford, but I did read his novel The Sportswriter, and liked it. I couldn't tell you anymore what the story was about, or why I liked it, but I think I probably just enjoyed his writing. My favorite part in this novel is when the narrator is discussing how his parents probably felt before they were caught, and why they confessed their bank-robbing crime:

"What a person becomes in such a situation is paralyzed--caught in one long, sustained, intolerable present. Who wouldn't want to stop that--if he could? Make the present give way to almost any future at all. Who wouldn't admit everything just to gain release from the terrible present? I would. Only a saint wouldn't." (page 179.)

Something about that really struck me. And not just in a discussion of guilt. Who hasn't, at some point, wanted release from a terrible present? I've read that paragraph now probably a hundred times and it still strikes me, not only the idea, but the flow of it.

Also: I am aware this is a terrible review and plot synopsis. For a much more complete description of the book, check out Becky's review at RA for All.

*I'm not complaining. Sometimes CRjr gets in the way of uninterrupted reading, but he compensates in other ways, like having conversations with me about what animals make which sounds (his high-pitched kitty-cat "meow" being my favorite).

Summer entertainment: music and movie edition.

A couple of weekends ago Mr. CR, CRjr, and I went to visit Mr. CR's parents in a small city about 90 minutes away from where we live. Mr. CR's parents are lovely people, and the weekend went just fine, except for one thing: I actually experienced withdrawal symptoms from Mumford and Sons.

Whenever I worked online this summer, I spent most of my time* mainlining any Mumford and Sons videos I could find on YouTube. Have you heard this band? They're most famous for their songs The Cave and Little Lion Man but this is the song that gives me shivers:

There's a song called "I Will Wait" on the band's new CD, Babel, that I literally didn't know if I could live 48 hours without (there's no high-speed internet at the in-laws'). How sad is that? In other entertainment news, I read that the lead singer in the group, Marcus Mumford, recently married British actress Carey Mulligan (who I like because she often sports a short haircut--always a daring move for a woman, particularly so for an actress). So then I felt compelled to watch the movie An Education, which I'd always wanted to see anyway. So you can see how the summer started to get away from me!

*I also listened to this song by The Lumineers quite a bit.

Catching up: Shirley Jackson, part 2.

The beginning of the summer found me blown away by Shirley Jackson.

As noted here yesterday, Jackson is perhaps best known for her short story "The Lottery." I've read that, and although I remember liking it okay back in high school, I couldn't remember much about it. But when I found Jackson's humorous collection of vignettes about raising her kids, Life Among the Savages, I became completely fascinated by her. So much so that I checked out the only biography I could find about her, Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, by Judy Oppenheimer (published in 1989).

ShirleyReading that biography was quite a trip, I'll tell you. Jackson was an interesting personality from the start, but I thought the story really took off when it examined both her writing life and her marriage. She married a man she met in college, who was a literary critic, and taught at Bennington College in Vermont (near which they lived). In addition to having and looking after their four kids, and still writing prolifically herself, she also had to look after her very needy husband Stanley.* I forget the details now, but the book is full of ridiculous stories like Shirley having to stop whatever she was doing in the house and run to sharpen Stanley's pencils whenever he needed.

It's also a trip reading a biography from 1989. Is it really so long ago? It got the job done, and I can't rightly remember what took me by surprise about the book, but the author seemed to offer a great deal of conjecture and amateur psychoanalysis of her subject. Biographies I've read in recent years seem to be a lot better, leading me to believe perhaps we are in a golden age for biography? Anyone else have an opinion on this?

In addition to simply being fascinated by Jackson, I'll never forget the experience of reading this biography. I read it when I was having a slight health blip, and one day when I was feeling particularly lousy, Mr. CR took CRjr to the park for me and for an hour or so I just lazed about in bed, reading about Shirley Jackson and eating a Hershey bar (my condition was not one that precluded me from having chocolate, mercifully). For whatever reason, the whole experience made me feel very warmly about Shirley Jackson. Interesting how people think reading is entirely passive, and yet many of my very strong and visceral physical memories include books and reading. Do you find this to be true as well?

*She lived intensely, but she didn't live long, the poor thing: she died in 1965 at age 48.

Let's catch up, y'all.

So what did I read this past summer?

Well, I think we should start from the beginning (as Maria von Trapp would sing: "a very good place to start"). In early June I had a little health issue* that preoccupied me for a while, and that sort of thing always makes it hard to read. (At least it does for me.) Shortly before that I was reading a fantastically hilarious little book titled Life among the Savages by Shirley Jackson. You may know Ms. Jackson better as the author of the infamous short story "The Lottery," which was required reading for most high schoolers for many, many years. She is primarily known as a horror author, as she also wrote the book The Haunting of Hill House, which was a popular book that got made into a movie (several times).

Life Among the Savages is not a horror book, unless you consider the idea of raising four young children horrifying (and many people do, and no one can blame them). It is in fact a nonfiction memoir, published back in the days before they called them memoirs, about Jackson's life raising her kids, which she did in between writing, taking ridiculously good care of her husband (more on this later), and trying to function as a regular member of their community. It's somewhat similar in tone and writing style (and era) to Jean Kerr's also very popular parenting memoir, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, as well as Erma Bombeck's books. (I'm guessing that all of these books, when they were published, were maybe considered Humor? I don't think publishing categories were as prevalent or important back then.)

The important thing is: it's hilarious. At least it was to me. Jackson's voice is wonderfully pragmatic, and she seems to have a knack for really describing her children's experiences and lives without making them sound too twee. At the point when I read this book, I wasn't keeping notes or marking pages, so I don't have any exact quotes for you. But I can tell you one of the huge reasons I loved this book: it was such a product of its time (the 1950s). When describing how it came time to have her third child (I think; it could have been her fourth), Jackson was living in a house in a small town in Vermont with no car. (Can you imagine that today?) So on the morning she gave birth, she heated up some coffee from the night before, then called a cab to take her to the hospital, and in the back of the cab she had a cigarette. Oh my God. I just sat in pure wonderment at the difference between childbearing then and childbearing now. (Oh, and after all that, and having the baby, she got to stay in the hospital for more than a week, resting, while others looked after the other kids. Not because she had a c-section or anything, just because that's how they did it.) When I finished that chapter I thought, hey, even I might have been able to have four babies in THAT kind of childbearing environment.**

So I'd really, really suggest you look into this book. It's fascinating on its own and as a little window into the fifties (it was first published in 1952, and considered a fictional grouping of stories based on her real life). More on all of this tomorrow.

*I'm fine now, no worries.

**Of course: no I couldn't have. Even with a mug of coffee and a cigarette to bolster me I could never handle four kids. Four kids and a really needy husband.