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April 2013

A dance with Jane Austen.

It is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that I am a sucker for all things Jane Austen.

In addition to having read her books, re-watched most film adaptations of her books way more often than is good for me (damn you, YouTube, time-waster extraordinaire), and reading any modern-day adaptations of her novels that I can find, I also pick up any nonfiction titles about her that I see pop up in my local library catalog. My latest such find was Susannah Fullerton's A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and Her Characters Went to the Ball.

It literally is just that: a book about dancing in Jane Austen's day, with extensive quoting from her novels to see how Austen incorporated balls and dancing into her fiction and plotlines. There is also a ton of good basic historical information, such as which dances were popular when, how people in that era learned dancing, what kind of music was played at balls, and how many different types of balls there were (as well as many more topics). At first I couldn't really get into this book; I just read bits of it here and there, but then over the course of two nights I got really interested and read most of it straight through. I particularly enjoyed the information on how suppers were held along with balls (I never really understood that when reading the books) and the different types of balls that were held and how people got invited to them.

But my very favorite part of the book was learning about Jane Austen's own personal experiences of ball-going and dancing:

"Jane Austen enjoyed these [Assembly] balls so much that she was disappointed if she had to miss one. If she was away from home, then she placed her 'spies' so as to get all the news. Catherine Bigg could be relied on to share gossip about who had danced with whom, who had too much to drink, which lady had opened the dance, and all the other juicy titbits of news the evening could provide." (p. 52.)

I enjoyed picturing ol' Jane dancing and placing her spies. I enjoyed that a lot.

I heart George Saunders.

If you'll remember, I am a huge fan of George Saunders's essays. He's better known for his fiction, but his fiction is often satirical, and I've never really had the intelligence or patience to enjoy satire. (Unless, of course, it's Anthony Trollope.)

Anyway. Saunders was just named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People, and he's got a new piece in the Guardian about how he's consciously had to stop blowing so much time on computers, email, and the Internet. I am aware of the irony of posting against wasting time on the Internet, on a blog, but there you have it. Enjoy!

One way out of a reading slump.

As the Great Reading Slump of 2013 continues, I find the only thing that pulls me out of it, even temporarily, is to read books on subjects which are fascinating to me. And I don't mean merely "fascinating"--I find a lot of things fascinating, which is why I usually plow through a lot of nonfiction (and fiction) on a lot of different subjects. I mean fascinating in the sense that I literally cannot look away from a book's subject, much like some people cannot look away from car accidents.

This was the case with the last such really fascinating book I read, David Quammen's Spillover. Learning about viruses and pandemics and monkeys and bats was really, really fascinating. And it happened again last week when I read Charlie LeDuff's new book Detroit: An American Autopsy.

Geographically, I am not all that far from Detroit. But sociologically, I just cannot wrap my mind around Detroit. I read every book I can find on the subject, and for the most part I have found them all unputdownable. So you're telling me there's this huge American city where grass and wildlife are just taking back whole blocks? There's this huge formerly industrial powerhouse where factories have just been left to stand rot, some for fifty years or more? And 700,000 people still live in the middle of all of that? How is it possible?

There must also be something about having Detroit as a hometown that really affects you, because LeDuff is a Detroit native who, after a very successful stint working for the New York Times, returned to the city with his wife and daughter to work for the failing Detroit News. This book, in addition to being a somewhat personal investigation of the city (where much of his family still lives), is primarily a collection of stories that he first told as newspaper articles--the dead man frozen in several feet of ice in the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned building; numerous run-ins with the city's corrupt politicians, including mayor Kwame Kilpatrick; city police detectives and firefighters who keep going to work in hopeless situations; and relentless crime and poverty of all types. It's a lot to take in...and yet, once you start reading, you can't stop. Mr. CR blew through it in a couple of nights, and I did the same over the following week.

LeDuff is not a particularly subtle author, but there is something forthright about him and his writing that I enjoy. I also really enjoyed his personal take on the subject, as in an early chapter when he talks about his generation's parents working in factories, and how his generation thought they could make a quicker buck somewhere else (while still thinking, in the backs of their minds, the factories would always be there for them): 

"Still, we had all gotten a taste of it, summer jobs sweeping the floor or working the press. It was horrible. The yellow lights, the stink of grease and oil and acid. The unblinking time clock. You walked in the door and the first thing you're trying to figure out is how to get out. If you don't know that about factory work, you don't know anything.

What our generation failed to learn was the nobility of work. An honest day's labor...Instead of working, we figured we could be hustlers and salesmen and gamblers and partiers. Work was for suckers. If anybody had told us such a thing existed, we probably would have tried to become New York bankers and stockbrokers. And I have no doubt we would have been good at it too." (p. 33.)

And what I love about this book is that you can see the honesty of what he's saying, particularly because he himself does seem like a hustler. At several points in the book he references particular news stories he was tracking as ones that would be good to move copies of the sluggishly selling newspaper for which he worked (which strikes me as a bit of a hustling viewpoint). He seems to move through the city like that, hustling a bit here for access and interviews, getting hustled a little bit there by his interview subjects. It's genius. You'll just have to read it to see what I mean.

I thought it was a great book. I was excited earlier this spring when I saw it was coming out, and, rarity of rarities, I was not disappointed. I'd particularly love to see people use it for reading and book groups--there wasn't a single chapter that Mr. CR and I didn't bring up when we discussed it: "Could you believe that part? What about this part?" I love it when a book does that to you.

To be continued...

I know, I just can't seem to get back on a regular blogging schedule. I feel like I owe you a book review, and I even just read a fantastic book that I want to tell you about, but for the love of all that's holy, I just can't get myself to do it tonight. Soon, I promise.

In the meantime, please do check out a new travel nonfiction blog that is being written by my friend and colleague, Robert Burgin. The blog is called Travel with a Book, and it's a great source for travel book suggestions. Burgin is also the former editor of the Real Stories series (for which I've written a couple of volumes) and also just wrote a travel literature guide himself (titled Going Places). I will make sure to get a link to that blog in my sidebar.

In other news, the American Library Association has announced the shortlist for their Andrew Carnegie Medal awards, and I've got very decided opinions on what should win. Not to be too melodramatic, but if the Quammen book* doesn't win I'm giving up on the ALA forever. So there!

*I'm also pulling for Richard Ford's Canada.

I still enjoy a good down-to-earth memoir.

A while back I noted that I might finally be going off memoirs. But every now and then, if I find the right one on the right subject, and it's not too long, I still enjoy munching through them the way you might enjoy crunching through a bowl of popcorn (or, if you have a sweet tooth like me, Easter candy) while relaxing.

I found this was the case with Linda Fairley's jauntily titled The Midwife's Here!: The Enchanting True Story of Britain's Longest Serving Midwife, which is billed on its cover as "the enchanting true story of one of Britain's longest-serving midwives." Now, normally I run away from the word "enchanting" the way other people might run away from the words "dark" or "bitter," but I've always had a little soft spot for midwife stories (and health narratives in general).

Here Fairley relates the story of her three years' of nursing training, followed by her midwife training, all of which took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She drops in enough period details to make it fun--miniskirts, fashions by Mary Quant, and go-go boots all make an appearance--but overall she was a serious student and was energized when she discovered her true vocation in life was to be a midwife. Her revelations regarding birthing and parenting trends of that time were fascinating--nobody made you feel bad for not breastfeeding in the sixties, that's for sure--and she tells a brisk little narrative full up with enough real characters to really keep you reading. One of my favorite anecdotes was about her and her mentor, midwife May Tattersall, attending a birth in a more rural area near Manchester, England, and how Mrs. Tattersall had to yell at the husband to get the chickens out of the room where his wife was giving birth (although she let the two dogs stay):

"'Well,' she said in a voice laden with prudence, 'it's like this. When you're a community midwife, you have to fit in with the community...If she wants her dogs there, then it's best to try to accommodate her, as far as possible.'

'But...not hens?'

'Not hens, no, never hens,' Mrs. Tattersall said firmly.

I expected some pearls of wisdom about the dangers of toxoplasmosis or even salmonella poisoning, but Mrs. Tattersall simply said with a rasp, 'I flamin' well hate birds!'" (p. 219.)

Ha! I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the whole book. Ms. Fairley is clearly the optimistic, can-do, no-nonsense sort who might frighten me in real life, but she's written a book that's, well, okay, I guess I can go along with the publisher: enchanting.*

*Be warned: there are some sad stories too. Not all childbirth experiences end enchantingly, after all.

The Great Gatsby: Not suitable for high school?

I am really, really hoping to get the chance to see Baz Luhrmann's new movie adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, when it comes out in May:

I am a sucker for all things Baz Luhrmann. I loved Strictly Ballroom, I saw Romeo + Juliet about seven times in the theater (ah, college, when you still have time and think someday you'll make enough money to make up for such frivolous spending), and Moulin Rouge is the only movie I ever went to by myself because I loved it and frankly, I just wanted to adore Ewan McGregor in solitude. But while casting about for something to read the other night, I saw the novel on Mr. CR's bookshelf and thought, "hey, I haven't read this book since high school. It was okay--maybe I should read it again before I see the movie."

I did, over the course of two nights, and adored it, although perhaps "adored" is the wrong word for a novel that I found just overwhelmingly sad this time around. I can summarize the story pretty briefly: Boy loves girl; girl is married to someone else; boy thinks love can conquer all; love turns out to be more complex than boy realizes. Add the backdrop of 1920s New York and a dollop of class warfare, and there you go (for more detail: Wikipedia --in case you haven't read it, spoilers abound there).

I was thoroughly engaged by this book this time around, in a way that I know I wasn't in high school. In fact, upon finishing it, I said to Mr. CR, "Why are they giving this book to high schoolers?" I know it's a classic. It's beautifully written. But it is also deceptively simple, I think. I know the money/class aspect alone would just have been way beyond me in high school, and I already knew then what a joke it was to try and keep up with the popular crowd by buying the right clothes and owning the right things (there was no way, at least not for me, to keep up, was the joke). But in high school and even college, youth is a great equalizer. You're all young and gutsy and beautiful, even when you don't think you are. To me it only seems like after school that you start to realize, insidiously, that getting ahead (or even just staying afloat, lately) seems to largely be about knowing the right people and simply being in the right place while knowing those people. Only after school, I feel, do you start to realize the genius of the heartbreak when Gatsby starts to realize Daisy is slipping away from him...

"'Her voice is full of money,' he said suddenly.

That was it. I'd never understood before. It was full of money--that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the cymbals' song of it...High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl..." (p. 127).

Or this, from the narrator, later still:

"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together..." (p. 188).

I just don't think you can appreciate the bleakness, and the truth, of that, in high school. Do you?

Looking for a few good business book reviewers.

I still periodically review books for Library Journal, and in with my last book they included this message:

"I need more reviewers with a strong grounding in business, able to take on a variety of books covering topics across the range of economics, whether it's exploring American capitalism, or the domestic and global impacts/causes of the Great Recession, investigating small business profiles and leadership models, or considering a biography of Warren Buffett!

If you have colleagues who may be interested in becoming a reviewer in such subject areas, please ask them to email me: Annalisa Pesek, at [email protected]."

Just thought I'd pass that along. You don't get paid for your reviews, but the business books aren't all that demanding, and it can be a nice credit for your skills list if you're looking for that sort of thing. Plus, sometimes you get real stinker books, but a lot of the business books I've read for LJ have been quite interesting.

Back to the Library: April 2013

Well, here's two more books I had to take back to the library yesterday, unread:

Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning, by Benjamin Bergen

Here's a bit from its PR blurb: "In Louder than Words, cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen draws together a decade’s worth of research in psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience to offer a new theory of how our minds make meaning...Meaning is more than just knowing definitions of words, as others have previously argued. In understanding language, our brains engage in a creative process of constructing rich mental worlds in which we see, hear, feel, and act."*

And here's a review: Kirkus Reviews


Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, by Steven Johnson

Johnson is the author of several of those types of nonfiction books I call "Making Sense" or "Big Think" books--like The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I don't know why I keep checking Johnson's books out; he completely annoys me in that "the future is gonna be GREAT!" way that all Wired magazine authors do. (I mean, I hope the future will be great too, but I don't know that it's going to be great, and let's face it, "great" means different things to different people. Walking around attached to a smartphone at all moments of your life, for instance, doesn't really sound "great" to me. But that's just me.)

But, here's a bit from its promotional copy: "At a time when the conventional wisdom holds that the political system is hopelessly gridlocked with old ideas, Future Perfect makes the timely and inspiring case that progress is still possible, and that innovative strategies are on the rise. This is a hopeful, affirmative outlook for the future, from one of the most brilliant and inspiring visionaries of contemporary culture."

And here's a review: Wall Street Journal**

Now, on to other stuff I can maybe actually get read before it comes due at the library.

*It was way optimistic of me to think I was going to make it through a denser book like this just now. I just don't have the concentration, sadly.

**Frankly? I read the first ten pages of the Johnson and was bored to tears. Even when the book was the only thing in my bathroom I still didn't feel like reading it. And the same thing happened to me reading this review, which probably means I should find a different review to post. But linking to a review I couldn't finish of a book I couldn't finish seemed too right not to do.

Now reading everything I can get my hands on EXCEPT nonfiction.

You'll forgive me, won't you, as I continue to struggle with my nonfiction slump?

by Ronald Dahl

Lately, I got the idea that it might be good to read a few kids' classics that I never read as a child. This is a long list--my parents were great but didn't have a lot of extra time to read to me, and until I got to school, I didn't really have access to a library.* And my school librarian in my later grades, third and up, was better than anyone I knew before then at suggesting books to read, so that's really when I started my reading life (as far as I can remember, anyway). As a consequence, I missed a whole lot of children's "classics."

This is all a long-winded way of saying that last week I read Roald Dahl's book Matilda. And, as you'd expect from the author of James and the Giant Peach, it was fantastic.

If you've not read it, oh, please DO. It's about a little girl named Matilda, who's very, very smart, and who has not very nice parents. There are two fantastic people in her life--her local librarian, and her first teacher in school, the not-so-subtly named Miss Honey. And what happens when her school's very unpleasant headmistress Miss Trunchbull does something not so nice to Matilda's beloved Miss Honey? Well, you'll just have to read it and find out. I absolutely LOVE Roald Dahl. His books deal in what I would call "nasty but satisfying justice," if you can picture such a thing. I can see why kids, lovely literal kids, have loved so many of his books for so long.

So what say you: any other kids' classics I should read?**

*Although there were many books in the house--I do remember perusing our encyclopedias a lot, and picture books of saint stories (many of which were quite gruesome, magical, and AWESOME), and I definitely remember reading Jeremiah Denton's When Hell Was In Session, about his experiences in a POW camp in North Vietnam, when I was too young for it. I sure did learn a lot of words from it, though. A case in point: I had to look up "defecate" when I read the sentence "the guard jumped on Knight's stomach so violently he defecated." That's the sort of sentence that stays with a pre-teen reader, as you can tell.

**I have a practical reason for doing this now too. Soon I hope to be reading these types of books to CRjr, and I'd kind of like to know what the stories are before I read them aloud.

A nonfiction list to peruse.

If you're looking for a list of new spring nonfiction titles to consider, you might do worse than the "15 Promising Nonfiction Books for Spring" one they have posted over at the Christian Science Monitor.* I hate the way you have to click through the list page by page, incidentally (come on, CSM, you can't add a "view on one page" button?), but at least there's only fifteen titles to click through.

It's a bit heavy on the serious history titles for my taste, but there's more than a few noteworthy items there. In particular I'd like to draw your attention to George Packer's The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Packer's the author of another fabulous book, The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, that I still remember as being one of the best things I've ever read on Iraq, so I'll definitely be looking into this one.

What do you think? Anything on the list pique your interest?

*Incidentally, I subscribe to the CSM in my Google Reader (for now--fuck you, Google, for taking your Reader service down soon--I hope Google+ fails in a big way even as you try to force everyone onto it), and I always get a lot of interesting headlines and news there, including, weirdly enough, a great assortment of recipes.

Book reviews that actually make me want to read.

Here's a little confession: I don't read book reviews.

Okay, I used to read them, in the good old days, when I thought I could afford a subscription to Publishers' Weekly. I was down with the PW book reviews--short, and pretty much universally chipper, although every now and then someone would rip a forthcoming book up one side and down the other. But I honestly don't think I've ever made it all the way through a New York Times book review. Why not? Well, for the most part, they never really make me want to read the books. This is why, I think, I enjoy book blogs as much as I do. The less "review-y," the better--I like to hear what someone really thought of a book, even if they didn't like it.

So it is always very refreshing to read Nick Hornby's collections of book-reading essays (collected from The Believer magazine, where they originally appear). The latest such book of his is titled More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself, and I devoured it over the course of a couple of nights. Hornby opens each essay with a list of the books he bought that month, and the books he actually read, which is a lovely way to admit that what we pick out to read and what we end up reading are not always directly related. And then he proceeds to discuss what he read in approachable, and often very funny, prose. And you often learn something along the way, like this, when he talks about the book Austerity Britain: 1945-51, by David Kynaston):

"While I was reading about the birth of our* National Health Service, President Obama was winning his battle to extend health care in America;** it's salutary, then, to listen to the recollections of the doctors who treated working-class Britons in those early days. 'I certainly found when the Health Service started on the 5th July '48 that for the first six months I had as many as twenty or thirty ladies come to me who had the most unbelievable gynaecological conditions--I mean, of that twenty or thirty there would be at least ten who had complete prolapse of the womb, and they had to hold it up with a towel as if they had a large nappy on.'" (p. 25.)

I don't know what it says about me that that TOTALLY makes me want to get and read the Kynaston book, but kudos to Hornby on his quote-selecting skills. I also know this about Hornby: he's the only reviewer who has ever, EVER made me want to read Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (although I know I should have read this one before now).

So: looking to get excited about a wide range of fiction and nonfiction? Try this and Hornby's other such collections, including The Polysyllabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, and Shakespeare Wrote for Money.

*Hornby is British, so he speaks of the British National Health Service.

**I don't know that Obama's health-care plan is actually going to make health care more accessible to anyone, but that's a small quibble with Hornby's writing.

Not his best collection, but who cares?

And of course Both Flesh and Not: Essays couldn't be David Foster Wallace's best collection---he died in 2008 and here is this collection of essays, collected from who knows where (well, the source notes tell you where, but I was too lazy to look) and published in 2012.

Last week I blogged about one particular essay in this collection, but I wanted to come back and consider the book as a whole. All in all: it may not be his best, but it's still David Foster Wallace, and there's still a lot here that's very, very readable. One interesting addition is the inclusion, between essays, of lists of words and their definitions that Wallace found interesting (from the Publisher's Note: "Readers familiar with David Foster Wallace's work know that he possessed an insatiable love for words and their meanings. On his computer he constantly updated a list of words that he wanted to learn, culling from numerous sources and writing brief definitions and usage notes...It was one of the great thrills of Wallace's life to be invited to serve on the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary. The definitions in his vocabulary list reprinted here are quoted or paraphrased from that excellent reference work").

In addition to the tennis essays (there's two here), there's a fantastic consideration of how James Cameron's Terminator 2 completely sold out everything that was great about his earlier movie, Terminator; a chapter on twenty-four words and their usage which is way more fascinating than it sounds (from the entry on "loan": "If you use loan as a verb in anything other than ultra-informal speech, you're marking yourself as ignorant or careless. As of 2004, the verb to lend never comes off as fussy or pretentious, merely as correct"), and the intro that Wallace wrote for the Best American Essays volume that he edited. I'll admit I didn't make it through some of the essays that were book reviews of more esoteric titles, or the one titled "Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama." But still: even a half-book of Wallace's nonfiction is better than a lot of authors' full works.

I always particularly enjoy learning Wallace's thoughts on the processes of reading and writing (it's part of why I really enjoyed D.T. Max's literary biography of him, titled Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace). Here's a bit from the essay he wrote to introduce the Best American Essays volume:

"I'm not really even all that confident or concerned about the differences between nonfiction and fiction, with 'differences' here meaning formal or definitive, and 'I' referring to me as a reader. There are, as it happens, intergenre differences that I know and care about as a writer, though these differences are hard to talk about in a way that people who don't try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand. I'm worried that they'll sound cheesy and melodramatic...Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder--because nonfiction's based in reality, and today's felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they're executed on tightropes, over abysses--it's the abysses that are different. Fiction's abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction's abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one's total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and way, &c." (p. 302.)

That's about as good a definition as I've read, of both fiction and nonfiction.

A somewhat misleading title.

I have always been interested in epigraphs--those quotes and blurbs that writers include in the beginnings (mostly) of their books. So when I saw the title The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin, well, you can excuse me for getting a huge nerdy thrill, can't you?

But it wasn't quite what I wanted. I was looking forward to a consideration of how authors find and choose such epigraphs--I know you come across a lot of things as you read, and most writers do a lot of reading, but how do they remember the perfect quotes they eventually want to use for their books? Do they collect such quotes? Do they go looking for them AFTER they've written their books, or have them in mind before they start? Or what?

This book is still interesting, but disappointingly, mainly consists of 23 categories (such as "Life," "Love," "Rebels and Outsiders," etc.) that include the epigraphs from various books. On the first page of the "Life" chapter, for instance, is a quote from Ecclesiastes that Hemingway opened The Sun Also Rises with. And that's it. A few of the examples include a bit more explanatory material, but never quite enough to satisfy me. For example:

"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. --G.K. Chesterton, in Coraline (2002) by Neil Gaiman.

Although widely viewed as a Catholic reactionary, Chesterton is credited with inspiring Mohandas Gandhi to take up the fight for Indian independence from British rule. A column Chesterton wrote in 1909 so impressed Gandhi that he translated it into Gujarati and then proceeded to write his own book addressing the problems of colonialism and how to achieve reform through civil disobedience." (p. 16.)

Now, that is all very interesting, but it is not really what I want to know. What I want to know is, is Neil Gaiman sitting around reading G.K. Chesterton? Or did he just leaf through a quote book until he found this one? And how did he remember it to use for his book?