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November 2012
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December 2012

A little bit of perspective goes a long way.

Where I live got more than 18 inches of snow today.

That's right. Just today. Because one of my phobias is driving in snow (and worrying about those I love driving in snow), you can imagine this was a bit upsetting. But a book I'm reading gave me a little perspective.

The book in question is Evelyn Birkby's Always Put in a Recipe and Other Tips for Living from Iowa's Best-Known Homemaker, published by the University of Iowa Press. It's a compilation of newspaper columns written over the past sixty years by Birkby, who is lauded on the cover as "Iowa's best-known homemaker." The columns range in topic from Birkby's marriage to her husband Robert, their years in farming, the raising of their children, their vacations, involvement in boy scouts, and many other subjects. The part that gave me perspective was the chapter in which she discussed living through winters in less-than-cozy homes:

"The small white house was uninsulated, and when the temperature got down to freezing in the winter, frost formed on the inside of the windows...when chill winds blew tenaciously through the walls of the house and up from under the floor boards.

I remember using the playpen to provide a warm place for the children. I put a blanket on the bottom of the pen, which was about four inches above the floor. Then I hung another blanket on three sides. I placed the pen with the fourth side open toward the oil burning stove in the living room -- the only heat source in our house. The children would get inside the playpen to read, color, play with their toys, and stay warm." (p. 66.)

Holy crap. Our sixty-year-old house isn't the warmest thing in the world, but we don't have breezes coming up between the floor boards, for the love of pete.

It's really a pretty interesting book. Birkby is nothing if not upbeat* and the stories range from tragic to mundane to heartwarming. If you know any readers who like "cozier" nonfiction, particularly with a rural bent, they might really enjoy this.**

*For some reason this book tickled me this week--I must have been in the right mood. In real life optimistic and wholesome people who "never say die" tend to make me a bit uneasy.

**Although it's not a perfect book. It would be better if the columns included the date they were first published; sometimes the date can be figured out from the context, but it would be easier if it was just there. I also think it might benefit from an index.

Ascent of the A-Word.

Who isn't intrigued by that title?*

I only read about half of Geoffrey Nunberg's Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, but that was mainly because it wasn't quite what I was expecting. It's interesting; it's basically a look at the linguistic and cultural history of the word "asshole" and its related concept, assholism.** I was amused for a while, but then couldn't stick with it. At least it's better than Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit, but still, only good if you're looking for an (at times dry) cultural history. Some particular assholes are mentioned, but not enough to keep me interested. I can give you a flavor of the text:

"Obtuseness is the true measure of the asshole. We calibrate how much of a prick or bastard or fucker someone is by the amount of harm he's willing to inflict. But we reckon the degree of someone's assholeness not by the actual hurtfulness of his behavior but by the breadth of his self-delusion, the discrepancy between his perceptions and the reality before his eyes, the energy of his denials and rationalizations. The greater the gulf, the more of an asshole he is." (p. 152.)

Does that intrigue you? Then you might like this book. (Or you could try Aaron James's Assholes: A Theory--looks like we have a new mini-genre starting!***)

*At least I was. But I am a big believer in swearing. I think it's one of the few perks of adulthood. Unfortunately, since CRjr repeated his first swear word the other day (the big one, after me, of course), I'm going to have to start to watch it. Or, CRjr could just learn what he should and shouldn't repeat!

**Mr. CR pointed out that our go-to pejorative terms around here tend to be "tool" or "dick," so perhaps that's another reason I wasn't drawn into this one.

***Or even Robert Sutton's older The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, which I read and enjoyed when it first came out.

Gotta love Bittman.

In case you're on the lookout for an exceedingly practical gift, you could do a lot worse than to pick up a copy of Mark Bittman's superlative cookbook How To Cook Everything.

Yeah, it's a big book. But it's awesome. I've looked at a lot of cookbooks, and I usually find at least one or two things I can use, but this is the first book that has been so consistently useful for so many types of recipes. Lately I've been trying to use new ingredients and do more cooking from scratch, and Bittman never fails me when I turn to his book for some inspiration (his chapter on cooking and using beans is particularly good). The best thing about many of these recipes is how simple they are--most include only a few ingredients and can be made with a minimum of fuss.

I've started to use this book so often that his name is steadily sneaking into our kitchen lexicon. His appetizer-ish meatballs are known as Bittman Balls around our house. Likewise with his yogurt biscuits: Bittman Biscuits. And, wonder of wonders, I even found an easy recipe for kale and pasta in his book a few weeks back and have moved it into steady rotation. Don't know what to call that one yet; maybe Bittman Noodles. Or Bittman Finally Found a Way to Use Kale, but that's probably too long.

In any case, if you or anyone you know needs a great basic but still very comprehensive cookbook, this is the one to try.

Back to the Library: November 2012

It is becoming absolutely ridiculous how many books I check out from the library and then return unread. I have tried to turn this into a positive, by viewing the carrying home and returning of books as my exercise regime, while at the same time boosting circulation numbers for my local library. But in reality it is just annoying, as so many of the books I have to return (most often because they are overdue and other patrons are waiting for them) are ones that I really want to read. Not always, but often. So here's last month's list of unread books. I'm sorry if these are annoying posts, but they will function for me as a sort of back-up TBR list--I can't read these books right now, but I'd like to get them back in the future. I thought you might enjoy seeing them too--a lot of the times they're books that fly slightly under the radar but might be interesting to you all the same. For the most part I'll quote off their dust jackets, which are sometimes painful to read, but which should give you an idea about their contents.

ManlyHeimbuch, Craig J. And Now We Shall Do Manly Things: Discovering My Manhood Through the Great (and Not-So-Great) American Hunt. Requested this one after I couldn't get through Steven Rinella's American Hunter, and I wanted to see what this new subgenre of "hunting memoirs" is all about. Here's a bit from the back cover; this book is: "the witty, moving, and insightful story [see what I mean about painful?] of one man's quest to free himself from the shackles of his domesticated suburban lifestyle by immersing himself for one year in the hunting culture his family has always cherished." The book seems like it might be an okay read, but not a great one; here's how he describes a mounted bear head in his dad's basement: "The bear, on the other hand, gives me the creeps. It's all soft fur, claws, and teeth. And the eyes--I swear it's looking at me, pleading with me to be taken down from the wall of the dim basement. 'Put me in a ski lodge,' it's saying to me. 'I want bikini models lying on me. I want to be the set of a late-night Cinemax movie. Please!'" (p. 4.)

Walkable citySpeck, Jeff. Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. From the front cover blurb: "But in the typical American city, the car is still king, and downtown is a place that's easy to drive to but often not worth arriving at...Speck reveals the invisible workings of the city, how simple decisions have cascading effects, and how we can all make the right choices for our communities." I still really want to read this one. I love and believe in walking, but no one else in my Midwestern city does. I live approximately two blocks away from an awesome grocery co-op and I put my life (and CRjr's life) in danger whenever we walk there, because we have to pass through an insanely busy and poorly marked intersection that I call "the intersection of death."

Sullivan, Robert. My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78. Not too interested in the subject of this one (the Revolutionary War and its place in the history of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) but I love Robert Sullivan, and have ever since I read his fantastic book Rats.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. Damn. Damn damn. Having to take this one back unread really hurts me. Love reading letters; love Kurt Vonnegut; 'nuf said.

Blogs, Wikis, Facebook, and More.

I don't remember why I actually checked out the book Blogs, Wikis, Facebook, and More from the library, but I'm sure it had something to do with me trying to learn something, anything, about technology. Other than that I hate it, of course.

I think the subtitle is terrible: "Everything You Want to Know About Using Today's Internet but Are Afraid to Ask," but this is actually a very handy little guide for anyone seeking an intro primer to lots of online and tech services with which they're not familiar. Each subject is covered in about four to ten pages--just enough for an overview, a discussion of top tools, and a very briefly how-to on getting started in them. In alphabetical order, the subjects covered are:

Blogging, Bookmarks and Tagging, Cloud Storage, Communications, Design, E-Commerce, Education and Knowledge, Games and Virtual Worlds, Kids' Sites, Mapping, Music, News, Peer-to-peer Sharing, Personal Management Tools, Photographs and Videos, Podcasts, Portals, Security Issues, Search Engines, Social Networking, Web-based Office Software, and Wikis and Collaboration.

If you're a librarian training new reference staff, you could do worse things than assign this book to new hires as required reading. Sure, most new hires and youngsters today already know all this stuff, but everyone has their favorite service or platform (mine is blogging), as well as services they despise (for me, Twitter and Facebook). But love them or hate them, it's good to know a little bit about them, and this book is a nice quick little read (and is infinitely more helpful than the "For Dummies" guides on the same subjects).

A really horrendous idea I wish I'd had.

So has everyone else heard of The Elf on the Shelf?

Evidently it's been a big thing in Suburbia for some time now. The gist of it is this: you have a creepy elf doll and a book about said elf/doll that explains to your children how the elf will show up in different places around your home, and will report back on your child's behavior to Santa. Evidently some families really get into this tradition, moving the elf around frequently to keep the kids on their toes. Frankly, the idea has always freaked me out a bit, but then again, I do not like dolls.* What also freaks me out is that the doll and book set retails for thirty bucks (which I think is high, personally).

Just the other day a friend sent me a blog link with a lovely rant about this tradition. It's pretty funny stuff--enjoy!

*My mother-in-law collects them, and when we stay overnight there I have to turn the row of dolls in her bedroom around to face the wall, so they don't watch me while I sleep.

Fiction Interlude: The Silver Linings Playbook

Last month I spent quite a bit of time on an indexing work project, which I really enjoyed (I'll tell you more about the book when it's published--it was a good one!). When I do that, I find I just don't have the energy left over at night to read nonfiction. So one of the novels I read was Matthew Quick's The Silver Linings Playbook.

How did I find this novel? Well, in one of my regular jaunts through the Internet Movie Database,* I saw a trailer for the movie of the same title, based on this novel, and starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

It's at this point that we have to talk about another of my more annoying bad habits. I love movie trailers. I love movie trailers almost more than the movies themselves. I think they're such wonderful little 2-4 minute distillations of stories, and they almost always contain the best music from the entire film itself. You know how some people chew their fingernails, or drink, or deal with mental and physical stresses in a variety of unhealthy ways? Well, I watch movie trailers. If I'm having a stressful day and I get a few free minutes with my computer and the Internet, I invariably search out movie trailers. If I told you how often I've watched the trailer for the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, you would be shocked and appalled.** I have always been this way. Even when I only saw trailers on TV, something about them always stuck in my memory. For a period there in the 1990s and early 2000s I could have told you who starred in almost any movie released, even when I hadn't seen the movie. That's just how my memory works. Movie trailers and nonfiction titles? Check. Appointments I have this week and any of my numerical passwords? Not so much.

So. This is all a way too longwinded way of saying, I really loved The Silver Linings Playbook trailer. It made me want to read the book. So I got it from the library, and I must say, I thought it was a good read (and a fast read, which was fun too). It's the story of Pat Peoples, a man who has been in a mental health facility for much longer than he realizes, for a reason that is eventually revealed toward the end of the book. For the duration of this book he lives with his parents, attends therapy sessions with a doctor he seems to get along with, and spends most of his time getting fit (so that his wife will eventually take him back) and being a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan.

The book seems darker than the movie (with a real undercurrent of violence), with Pat's father being (to me) a somewhat frighteningly non-communicative husband and father (DeNiro seems to say more in the movie trailer than the same character does in the entire book). But who knows? I most likely won't see it until it comes out on DVD. I'm also annoyed that they cast a 22-year-old woman in the role of a woman who's in her mid- to late-30s in the book, but that's just me. Typical Hollywood, I suppose, but I preferred the author's portrayal of her as a more mature woman.

*For whatever reason I seem to use almost more than Google. Along with my habit of visiting, this is not a habit of which I'm very proud.

**I know this because I am shocked and appalled. At least it's not an expensive bad habit, but it is a real time-waster.

Lists, lists, and more lists.

It's that time of year again: Best of the Best Books Lists, 2012.

Got a jones for every Best of list you can find? Consider stopping over at the Reader's Advisor Online; we're collecting "Best of 2012" lists over there in the right sidebar. Or, you could visit Largehearted Boy's massive annual aggregation of "Best of" lists.

I haven't yet found a list that really lights my fire, but I'll let you know if I do. What about you? Any of these lists seem particularly strong to you?

Need a book for the postmodern lit lover in your life?

I've got a great gift idea for the pomo lit lover in your life: D. T. Max's splendid literary biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.

Although I've never been able to read Wallace's fiction (for which he is really critically known), I've always been charmed by his nonfiction and I loved his 2005 graduation speech at Kenyon College. Because of the tragedy of his too-early death by suicide, I have always felt somewhat that he must have had a hard life, and I find him interesting.

Max's biography of him is definitely a literary biography--he quotes extensively from his works and really examines what it seems DFW was trying to do in his fiction. He also provides a good look at his influences, the politics of academia, and his relationships and correspondence with other writers, like Jonathan Franzen.

When I read this book, I read it more from the nosy viewpoint of someone who is more curious about his personal life. Although this biography is definitely not "dishy," there is still solid information to learn here about Wallace's family, his beginning struggles with depression and medication in college, and his often troubled relationships with friends and lovers (particularly with Mary Karr).

One particular tidbit that I found really fascinating was his sister's assertion (learning more about his relationship with his sister and parents was one of the more satisfying parts of this read in general), which she said she and her family had often talked about, that Wallace's (and I'm paraphrasing here) nonfiction was whimsical and sometimes a bit exaggerated, while his fiction contained the truths you really had to look out for. Something about that, really, frankly, tickled me. I find that one of the more fascinating aspects of Wallace, not only his writing, but also his personal approach to truth and truth-seeking.

It was a great read, even though, of course, it does not have a happy ending. I'd highly recommend it--and I'm not the only one.

Shirley Jackson Menage: The Conclusion.

I so, so enjoyed reading Shirley Jackson and discussing her works with you. Thank you!

I don't have any questions for you today, but if you'd like to pose any, or jump in with any other thoughts, please do so. In the meantime, here's a small collection of links I thought you might find interesting:

Her obituary in the New York Times (although I didn't get the feeling from her bio that she was a "neat and cozy woman")

Reviews posted by a kind reader in this week's comments (thank you; you know who you are!):

Tales from the Reading Room (The Haunting of Hill House)

Stuck in a Book (Life Among the Savages)

And have you seen this? The Shirley Jackson Awards

Thanks again to all of you for participating in the Shirley Jackson Menage!

Shirley Jackson Menage: Fiction.

Well, today I thought we'd consider some of Shirley Jackson's fiction (although it should be noted she did write other novels besides her most well-known titles, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived In the Castle, and many short stories besides "The Lottery").

I should probably just open by saying I loved The Haunting of Hill House. I remember finding We Have Always Lived In the Castle interesting, too, but there was something about Hill House that blew me away. Perhaps it was knowing more about Jackson and being in awe of her breadth of writing talent:

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute relaity; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more." (p. 5.)

I love the way, BOOM, that drops you right into the story AND the mood. In two sentences. Awesome.

So, two questions today:

1. Why do you think these novels endure as "classics"?

2. If they are not typically "scary," as commenters have pointed out, why are THOHH and WHALITC (and "The Lottery," to an extent) classified as "horror"?

Shirley Jackson Menage: Nonfiction.

Thanks for the great start to our Menage discussion yesterday, everyone!

Today I thought we'd discuss Jackson's nonfiction in particular, while tomorrow we can pay more attention to the fiction. So: did anyone read Life Among the Savages
or Raising Demons? I have two questions.

1. How did you like the book (we started this a bit yesterday, but I'd love to hear more)? Can you think of any recent books of this "genre," the Mommy Memoir, that are similar in subject and humor?


2. These books are often described as "fictional stories" based on Jackson's family. If they were published today would they be called memoirs? And how fictional do you think they were, really?*

There's my questions--what think you?

*A quick search reveals that these books are still discussed quite a bit in the blogosphere. I particularly enjoyed this review.

Book Menage: Shirley Jackson, Day 1.

Welcome to our book menage, where two books + 1 reader = a rollicking good time.

This time out we're considering the works of Shirley Jackson. Your assignment, if you chose to accept it, was to read one work of Jackson's fiction, and one work of her nonfiction (or the biography of her by Judith Oppenheimer).

So we'll open with an easy question today. Which books of Jackson's did you choose to read, and why? What were your initial impressions of the books you chose to read?

Please answer in the comments, and join is as much as you'd like! More questions tomorrow, and the rest of the week, and if you have a question you'd like to pose to the group, list it in the comments and I'll put it in the body of the next day's post, or send it to me in an email (to [email protected]).

Let the Menage begin!