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June 2013

All-natural living.

I read Nathanael Johnson's investigative memoir All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier back when I was mired in a sea of downer books. It's not really a downer book itself, but I definitely learned some things in it that I found somewhat depressing.

Johnson's concept is simple. Himself the product of counterculture whose parents birthed him at home, tried to feed him natural foods (before doing such a thing was all the rage), and encouraged him to play outside rather than in front of the TV, he grew up to be somewhat skeptical of that lifestyle. When he married and faced the concept of fatherhood, he decided to review the arc of his own life and try to determine whether the "all natural" technique really was better.

The book is organized somewhat chronologically, opening with chapters on birth and eating, and moving outwards towards larger topics like the environment and agriculture. I enjoyed it--there was some interesting information and Johnson's writing was personable--but I didn't love it. In fact, there were a few chapters where I might have skimmed more than read (the environmental one comes to mind, although there was interesting stuff there too about how forests grow and change "naturally"). In the end, I felt, Johnson didn't really answer his own subtitle, although I never really expected him to. His conclusions about nature v. technology worked out to be somewhat "well, it depends," but at least he explains his findings well in his conclusion, arguing that too much dependence on either can lead us astray. All of that aside, here were a few of the tidbits in the book that really stuck with me:

"The total number of women dying was still minuscule compared to the turn of the century: Maternal mortality had gone from 6 deaths per 100,000 births to 14 per 100,000 births in 2006.* But more troubling than the total number of deaths was the implication that the best efforts of obstetrical medicine to improve health had perhaps done just the opposite. When the California researchers, speaking at a conference, got to the slide showing a graph of this increase, there were gasps from the audience of obstetricians.

The numbers hit home when I did the math and found that it had been safer to give birth in 1978 (when I was born), than it would be for Beth [his wife] to deliver in 2011, if the upward trend continued." (p. 12.)

I've just been looking through a chapter for the other quote I remembered, but can't find it, so I'll just say that two other parts of the book that stuck with me were the parts on agriculture (which have now put me off supermarket pork) and health care (about which the author says, if you need amazing technological care or surgery for a huge, weird problem, the U.S. is where you want to be, but if you want any sort of broader outlook or help simply for minimizing smaller health problems in general, our health care system is not for you).

An interesting read. And not really a downer, which was a nice change of pace.

*Somewhere in the book, although I can't find it now, he also clarifies that this increase is seen even after controlling for factors such as older mothers having babies and maternal obesity.

A few bits of reading news.

Just a few news headline bits and bobs to look at this week:

Off to continue being grouchy about summertime. Don't mind me.

I hate summer.

I know I shouldn't, and I was as eager as anyone for a bit of warmer weather after our seemingly endless winter. But I can't help it: summer makes me all antsy and itchy and grouchy and unhappy. It always has, and it is starting to look like it always will. I hate that everyone else is off their routine and somewhat expecting me to be off mine too. I hate heat. And, heaven preserve us, I am sick of looking at Summer Reading Lists. Beach* reads, bleah.

As a result I am too grouchy and tired to do anything tonight except keep reading George Packer's The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, which is strange and somewhat depressing and oddly detached yet engrossing. Turns out it's the perfect read for someone in a grouch-tastic mood. So, even though I have a pile of recently read books to blog about, it will just have to wait. Sorry about that.** I do rather expect my mood to get better every day that gets us nearer to autumn...

*I also can't swim, hate water (and chlorine in my eyes), and view pools and beaches and waterparks as the seventh circle of hell. This will be tricky as CRjr ages and starts clamoring to go to such places.

**I do hope you're enjoying your summer. I know it is most people's favorite season.

SALE on Real Stories reference books!

Anybody out there going to ALA Annual next week in Chicago?

If you are, please stop by ABC-CLIO's booth* at #1631 to see what they're offering in new reference books and products this year. And while you're there...pick up a sale flyer for ALL the titles in the Real Stories series of readers' guides. (And no worries if you're not going--next week I'll post a PDF for the flyer that you can print out and use when ordering.)

Normally the conference 20% off deal on products refers to books they actually have for sale AT the conference, but this flyer entitles you to 20% off ALL the titles in the series. So if you've been looking to beef up your nonfiction knowledge and RA services, or you simply want a great resource to answer your "what should I read now?" questions for nonfiction, now is the time to shop. With that in mind, let me take you through the titles in the series (in order of publication):

The Real Story: A Guide to Nonfiction Reading Interests** : I wrote this back in 2006, and it's technically part of the Genreflecting series of books, but it's a book that covers eleven different genres and reading interests, such as True Adventure, True Crime, and "Making Sense" (or "Big Think") books. The book is aging, of course, but I did make an effort when writing it to include a lot of "classic" nonfiction titles as well, to increase its long-term usefulness.

The Inside Scoop: A Guide to Nonfiction Investigative Writing and Exposés : The first book published in the series, also written by me. Covers my true love: Investigative nonfiction. Includes titles that would be considered journalism, character profiles, current affairs, exposes, business reporting, and "immersion journalism." I also included lists of documentary movies and magazines which typically publish investigative features.

Real Lives Revealed: A Guide to Reading Interests in Biography : There's only one word for this title, by Rick Roche, and that is mindblowing. Roche provides lists of perhaps the most popular nonfiction books out there, biographies, and puts them in helpful categories (think ready-made booklists and lists for book group consideration!). The book is huge and fascinating reading in its own right, and Rick provided tons of read-alikes for tons of very popular titles. He also wrote beautiful lists of prominent biographers and biography series that readers might not know about otherwise (and which could certainly help you train RA staff members on biographers and biographies with very little effort). When it comes to biographies, he's done all the work for you.

Women's Nonfiction: A Guide to Reading Interests : A superb volume, written by Jessica Zellers, listing nonfiction books that most particularly "speak to women's experiences." This is a valuable grouping, because library catalogs do not do a good job of classifying books as "women's interest." Zellers lists titles that focus on women across biographies, memoirs, personal growth, history, adventure, feminism, and society. This book would be particularly useful for librarians looking for titles for women-themed book groups, or for any academic library focusing on women's history. It's also fun to read--Zellers has a writing style I like to call "sparkly."

Life Stories: A Guide to Reading Interests in Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Diaries : Maureen O'Connor took on the daunting task of listing and classifying memoirs and autobiographies in this volume, and wow, did she know a nice job. I personally know how hard she worked on this title and how comprehensive she made it, taking a rigorous approach to including books that were most likely to show up in the majority of library catalogs. Whatever interests in memoir you have--adventure, celebrities, the creative life, the working life (my favorite), the inner life, history, war stories, and survival (among many more), O'Connor teased out the best titles in every category, and provided tons of "read-alikes" for all of them.*** She also provides very helpful lists of memoir writing awards, titles that have been controversial for their amount of truth and facts (or lack thereof), and classics.

 And now we get to the two newest titles in the series:

Food Lit: A Reader's Guide to Epicurean Nonfiction : By Melissa Stoeger, this is another invaluable reference source because it pulls together all sorts of nonfiction titles it would be VERY HARD to find otherwise. Stoeger identifies all types of books that will appeal to "foodies," across genres such as memoir, biography, travel, adventure, history, science, and investigative writing, as well as including new categories like "narrative cookbooks" and "food essays." Her annotations and read-alike lists will not only make you want to read all these books, they'll make you hungry, too (which shows the skill of her writing). And she provides AWESOME resource lists of popular cooks and their books, other foodie formats like magazines and food documentaries and cooking shows (fantastically helpful for library patrons looking to find new cooking shows to watch), and novels which particularly focus on food.

Going Places: A Reader's Guide to Travel Narrative : Another reference book that should blow your mind, Robert Burgin's guide to travel books (one of the most popular nonfiction genres around) not only lists tons of classic and current travel books (and huge lists of read-alikes), he also assigned each book copious subject headings and all the locations where the authors traveled, meaning you can use the extensive index to look up all the travel narratives that focus on specific locations. Sure, you can look up places in library catalogs, but can you separate out the travel guides, history, and other books with that subject heading from the travel NARRATIVES? Burgin has done all that work for you. This is a book that is a must-have for creating reading lists, and your patrons might also personally love to take and create their own travel reading lists. (Plus, Burgin was the Real Stories series editor before me, so he really knows his stuff about ALL nonfiction, meaning a lot of his read-alike suggestions include other types of nonfiction books and a lot of novels.)

Whew. I kind of forgot myself how many great tools are available in this series. So why buy? Well, sure, you can Google all sorts of book lists for free. But I ask you: is it very easy to search for such lists of NONFICTION titles? Do you always even know where to start? AND: if you're looking for staff training tools to help readers' advisors and library staff learn about nonfiction categories, these might be very useful for that. Not to mention, your patrons might appreciate being able to check these out to create reading lists of their own.

Okay, enough cheerleading. Have a great weekend and a great conference, if you're going to be there.

*Full disclosure: I am the series editor of the Real Stories series (and the author of two books within the series), which is published by ABC-CLIO. So yes, I'm biased, but I still say they're great books!

**I'm taking you to these books' Amazon pages, which also list reviews each book has gotten, so you don't just have to take my word for it about the quality of these books.

***All of these books include comprehensive lists of similar books, or "read-alikes," based on subjects and appeals like characterization and writing style, by design.

Still not sure how I feel about Christopher Hitchens.

by Christopher Hitchens

I forget exactly what prompted me, recently, to request Christopher Hitchens's last book, Mortality, from the library, and it rather surprised me when it showed up for me on hold. I must have read about it again somewhere but can't remember where; and since I am clearly in the mood for downer books this summer, it seemed just as good a time to read it as any.

Hitchens is perhaps best known as a journalist and author who became quite vocal on the subject of his own atheism (one of his more recent bestsellers was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). He was also an essayist, memoirist (his memoir Hitch-22; was also a big bestseller) and frequent public speaker and debater. I forget exactly why I used to like him; I'm sure it had something to do with the fact that he's British and he was quite outspoken (I actually own his book The Missionary Position, in which he famously lambasted Mother Teresa for not being the saint everyone thought she was, because I know I think Mother Teresa was a saint, and I was just interested to see what he had to say on the subject). At some point, though, he became a big backer of George W. Bush's Iraq War, which I never quite understood (and couldn't really forgive) in light of his history of declared left/liberal viewpoints.

But all of that is beside the point here. In 2010, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and a little under eighteen months later, he succumbed to the disease. This slim book is the collection of magazine essays he wrote as he, in his own words, spent his remaining time "living dyingly."

The essays are quite beautifully written--Hitchens was never a slouch when it came to arranging words--but I didn't find that this book packed quite the profound punch I expected it to. I certainly wasn't looking for end-of-life or afterlife revelations, due to Hitchens's atheist beliefs (which don't bother me at all, compared to his pro-war sentiments). But I was just looking for something...more. I'm explaining it badly but I've been working on this paragraph for a while, and am starting to think I just won't be able to describe the feeling.*

One chapter/essay I did think packed the old Hitchens punch was the one on the adage "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I have always believed that's bullshit, personally (when life knocks me down, as I once told my Dad, wouldn't it just be smarter for me to stay down and not get knocked around anymore?) and I think Hitchens was inclined to agree with me (in his descriptions of how hard it eventually became just to have routine injections or have blood taken):

"When the technician would offer to stop, I would urge her to go on and assure her that I sympathized. I would relate the number of attempts made on previous occasions, in order to spur greater efforts. My self-image was that of the plucky English immigrant, rising above the agony of a little needle-stick. Whatever didn't kill me, I averred, would make me stronger...I think this began to pall on the day that I had asked to 'keep going' through eleven sessions, and was secretly hoping for the chance to give up and go to sleep. Then suddenly the worried face of the expert cleared all at once as he exclaimed, 'Well, twelve times is the charm,' and the life-giving thread began to unspool in the syringe. From this time on, it seemed absurd to affect the idea that this bluffing on my part was making me stronger, or making other people perform more strongly or cheerfully either." (p. 75.)

That's the old Hitch.** I am sorry he had to feel that way; perhaps some people actually do make it all the way to the ends of their lives believing whatever adversity they've faced has made them stronger. Afterlife or no afterlife, I hope he's resting in peace (or peaceful nothingness, whatever he would have preferred).

*I can say this: I do think Miles Kington's "end of life memoir," How Shall I Tell the Dog?: And Other Final Musings, was a better read.

**And oh, I almost forgot: he takes a pretty big swing at Randy Pausch's horrible bestselling book, The Last Lecture ("It should bear its own health warning: so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it."). Good on you, Hitchens.

A photography book to consider.

It had been a long time since I brought home any big photography books or collections from the library. Partially this was because we've been taking the little umbrella stroller for CRjr, or just walking to the library with our library bag, and photography books are heavy to lug around. But mostly it was because I'm not very good at tracking down neat photography books through serendipity (which is really how I find most of my reading).

So a while back RickLibrarian came to my rescue again but suggesting a book by a street photographer named Vivian Maier. I got the book (one of two collections that has been published; I'm still hoping to check out the other one), titled simply Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, and found it really beautiful.

LadiesIt's a collection of street photographs that Maier took in Chicago and New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. The photographs are gorgeous--I particularly liked the ones where people are looking directly at her camera--but what's really intriguing is the woman behind the camera. Evidently she worked as a nanny for forty years, and spent most of her time off taking photographs, but she never showed them to anyone. It was not until after she died, in 2009, that her boxes of negatives and her talent were "discovered."

It was just the right sort of book to page through and simply enjoy at night, when I was too tired to read and didn't want to watch TV. I wish the pictures had come with more explanation, but I suppose that Maier didn't leave much in the way of descriptions, and perhaps it would have been too hard to pinpoint the locations pictured in the photographs fifty years later. Perhaps that was just as well. Perhaps it was best just to let the pictures speak for themselves.

Fiction Interlude: Charlotte Street

Charlotte Street
by Danny Wallace

I only read Danny Wallace's novel Charlotte Street a couple of weeks ago, and already I've pretty much forgotten everything about it. (Although I have this problem with fiction fairly often.)

Which might lead you to think I didn't like it, and that is not the case. I enjoyed it. I pretty much always like anything Danny Wallace writes, because I just enjoy Danny Wallace. And how can you not like a romance-ish novel, by a guy, with a subtitle like "a heartwarming everyday tale of boy stalks girl"? Very British, that.

So: let's get the plot details out of the way. 30-ish Brit Jason Priestley (who has to explain to people, often, that no, he is not the Jason Priestley of Beverly Hills 90210/Brandon Walsh fame), a former teacher, is trying to start over with a new career and a new life, while still sometimes writing unkind things about his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend on her social media page. Then one day he helps a stranger pick up the packages she dropped while getting into a cab, and finds, after she's gone, that he's in possession of a disposable camera that is hers. Should he develop the pictures? Or is that just weird?

And so on and so forth. If you can term a novel by a guy about a guy "chick lit," that's what I'd call this one. In parts it's a bit darker than most chick lit romances, but that's pretty par for the course for British writing (I think; but I might just have that idea because I watch a lot of British TV series and man, those people are not afraid to kill off their main characters). And if you're an Anglophile, you'll love the descriptions of London. My one quibble with the novel (and Mr. CR thought this too; he must have read parts of the book also) is that it's just too long. It's a good story, but it wasn't sufficiently complex to need 400 pages.* I'll let the main character introduce himself:

"I'm the thirty-two-year-old Jason Priestley who lives on the Caledonian Road, above a videogame shop between a Polish newsagents and that place that everyone thought was a brothel, but wasn't. The Jason Priestey who gave up his job as a deputy head of department in a bad North London school to chase a dream of being a journalist after his girlfriend left him but who's ended up single and going to cheap restaurants and awful films so's he can write about them in that free newspaper they give you on the tube that you take but don't read." (p. 5.)

*I always think this about Judd Apatow movies too. They're funny, but they all need to be about 15-25 minutes shorter.

Nonfiction Authors You Should Know: Stacy Horn

One of my favorite nonfiction authors (and bloggers, as it so happens) is Stacy Horn. She's the author of an eclectic mix of books, from memoir (Waiting for My Cats to Die) to investigative history (Unbelievable: Investigations Into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory) to True Crime* (The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad). She blogs at, and her posts are always a charming mix of news of her pet kitties; snippets about her reading, TV watching, and publishing exploits; and gorgeous, gorgeous photographs of New York City. I am very fond of her books because they cover a wide variety of topics, she takes fact-checking seriously, and her writing is always very, very sincere. Let's put it this way: she's no bestselling hack.**

In July she has a new book coming out called Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, and I am getting just so excited waiting for it. Partly because I like singing, but more because I just love reading Horn's writing.This new book also just made the American Booksellers Association July 2013 Indie Next List, so I hope that helps more readers to find her.***

*And not just any old True Crime; while opinions differed on her book when we featured it here as part of a Book Menage discussion, I consider this a True Crime classic.

**I'm looking at you, Thomas Friedman and Bill O'Reilly.

***She also just did an interview with NPR. I'm so glad she's getting some good press attention. She's earned it.

A favorite eclectic recommender.

One of my favorite blogs to check for a wide variety of reading suggestions is Rick Roche's RickLibrarian. Rick's real subject specialty is biographies: he's the author of Real Lives Revealed: A Guide to Reading Interests in Biography (Real Stories) and Read On...Biography: Reading Lists for Every Taste (Read On Series) (both published by ABC-CLIO--I know they're not cheap, but if you're a librarian, please do consider buying and using them in your collection, particularly if you're looking to beef up your nonfiction readers' advisory services*).

A book I found ages ago through Rick's site was A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery. Yes, THAT A.A. Milne--the author of Winnie-the-Pooh. And perhaps I am going about this backwards, because I haven't yet read Winnie (although we have read an Easy Reader copy of Winnie the Pooh's Easter Egg Hunt so many times that CRjr has it memorized: "'Surprise,' mumbled Eeyore, 'I found an Easter egg!'"), but a while back I was looking for any kind of pleasant, easy reading that I could just wander through for twenty minutes or so at each bedtime.

This mystery novel hit the spot for that admirably. It's pleasingly British**, for an Anglophile like me, and the mystery's not real gory or complicated (for a synopsis see Rick's review), so it made perfect escapism reading. I rather feel it's more a book to be read in a cozy warm house while it's winter outside, but it's set in the summer and it might also make for good beach reading.

My thanks, and kudos, once again go to Rick.

*I'm not remunerated in any way when Rick's books sell, but they are so awesome and helpful that I can't help putting in a plug for them here or there.

**Here's how the sleuth, Antony Gillingham, is introduced: "When at the age of twenty-one he [Antony] came into his mother's money, 400 pounds a year, old Gillingham [his father] looked up from the 'Stockbreeders' Gazette' to ask him what he was going to do.

'See the world,' said Antony.

'Well, send me a line from America, or wherever you get to.'

'Right,' said Antony.

Old Gillingham returned to his paper. Antony was a younger son, and, on the whole, not so interesting to his father as the cadets of certain other families; Champion Birket's, for instance. But, then, Champion Birket was the best Hereford bull he had ever bred.

Antony, however, had no intention of going further away than London. His idea of seeing the world was to see, not countries, but people; and to see them from as many angles as possible. There are all sorts in London if you know how to look at them. So Antony looked at them--from various strange corners; from the view-point of the valet, the newspaper reporter, the waiter, the shop-assistant. With the independence of 400 pounds a year behind him, he enjoyed it immensely." (p. 25.)

Ah, England! Inattentive parents who are more interested in animals than you but are also your source of independent income! Amateur sleuths who are simply interested in the world! What a great country.

Tuesday Article: Taibbi does it again.

Yes, I know. It's becoming the all-Taibbi, all the time blog around here. I can't help it. Every time I read one of his articles (except for some of the financial ones I don't understand, and don't particularly want to understand), I think, well, right on, Matt Taibbi. Thanks for saying it out loud, even though you must feel like you're banging your head against a wall by now, because NO ONE IS LISTENING.

The article in question last week deals with Bradley Manning and the leak of national secrets to Wikileaks. Taibbi, bless him, points out that the only story anyone can write about this story has to do with the "Is Manning a hero or a villain" storyline, or makes a lot of veiled comments regarding Manning's gender and sexuality, neither of which are really the point.

What is the point? Let Taibbi tell you: "Manning, by whatever means, stumbled into a massive archive of evidence of state-sponsored murder and torture, and for whatever reason, he released it. The debate we should be having is over whether as a people we approve of the acts he uncovered that were being done in our names."

Wonder what's being done in our names? Go read the article to start to find out.*

*And here's a fun fact for you, from an article linked to by Taibbi: the Pentagon spends BILLIONS on PR? Gross.

I've got no problem with indie and self-published books...

...but come on, authors, you've got to try harder than this.

For me, "book discoverability" (discussion about "book discoverability," and how to help people discover books, is all the rage right now in publishing and library circles) has never really been all that much of a problem. I discover books wherever I go; for me the problem is getting through even one-tenth or so of all the books I want to read or have lying around at any one time. A large part of how I find nonfiction books, for instance, is that I merely browse the list of all new nonfiction that my local public library system publishes every month. Whatever title piques my interest, I request.

I tell you that long-winded story because that is how I stumbled across the title Mad City Eats: Food Adventures in Madison, Wisconsin, by Adam Vincent Powell. That is a title that is certain to grab my interest on many levels: I like food, and foodie books. I'm always interested in local subjects and authors. And I'm always vaguely curious who these local authors are (if they are truly "local") and what they're out there doing.

But when I brought this book home, I was disappointed. I have no idea who this Adam Vincent Powell* is, and the book includes no introduction, preface, or really any kind of clue to enlighten me. The book literally just launches into its subject matter, which is a compendium of short chapters on restaurant reviews, thoughts on local food production, and topics like "where to hunker down in Madison if the zombie apocalypse comes." As far as I can tell, there is no organizing principle here--the restaurant reviews are not listed alphabetically or geographically, and they are just all mixed in with related chapters like the zombie apocalypse one. At the end of the book and on the back cover, there isn't even any sort of "About the Author" blurb! I'm a believer in modesty, but come on, Mr. Powell, that's ridiculous.

I read through the book over the course of several mornings while CRjr lovingly took his time over his breakfast, and I actually did enjoy it. The reviews are engagingly written and even the more esoteric chapters are not without their charm (where to hide during aforementioned zombie attack: "Jenifer St. Market: This neighborhood grocery standby would be a pretty good place to hole up in the event of a zombie outbreak, as it's small enough to defend but also has loads of beer, wine, and food, all key to dealing with Armageddon."). But in the end I never could get past the disconcerting nature of just being launched into a series of disparate chapters without any understanding of who was writing or publishing this book, and why.

*Evidently he's written a lot of food articles in local newspapers and The Onion.

Downer Book Week: Astonished

I thought I'd end this very special Downer Book Week with a book that, in a surprise twist, really wasn't all that much of a downer. It certainly seemed like it was going to be, though, in the beginning:

"Even though I do know the important question is not why this happened to me but what I'm going to do now; and even though I was fifty-five and the attacker was a serial rapist in a small town, raping gringo women between fifty and sixty; and even though I, along with the entire town, felt like evil had come for a visit and it was not personal; and even though this little round-faced pervert with a big-billed baseball cap woke me in the middle of the night in the middle of a deep sleep in my own bed with a knife inches from my face, I was absolutely shocked that he chose me. This was not supposed to happen; I was supposed to have escaped: I had hot flashes and liver spots and was finally in the final stretch. I'd survived all these decades without experiencing this thing I dreaded as much as death--and had just been looking for a monastery to join, for Christ's sake."

I have always been weirdly fond of Beverly Donofrio. It has been so long since I read Riding in Cars with Boys that it's probably just time for me to read it again, but I do remember enjoying Looking for Mary: Or, the Blessed Mother and Me. The thing about Ms. Donofrio is, I would bet that she and I are just opposite personalities. This woman doesn't seem afraid of anything, and I'm afraid of a ton. Likewise, she has made some other personal choices (as described in her memoirs, of course, I don't really know her) that I most likely wouldn't have made. And yet I really enjoy her, and her writing voice.

In this book, Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace, she makes pilgrimages of sorts to various monasteries and religious/spiritual communities, looking for a plan for spending the rest of her life, and of course, trying to come to terms with, or simply move on from, the rape, thoughts and mention of which are never far from the story. So it can certainly be a downer book in that sense. And it's a bit meandering--there is not so much a narrative here as a stream-of-consciousness report; reading it is like hearing someone talking to themselves and trying to work something out (and in between that Donofrio intersperses quotes from other spiritual writers and books).

I'm describing it poorly*, but I would like to say that by the end of it I was really quite touched. That sounds twee, which I did not feel at all. Rather I felt even more affection for Donofrio (who seems spiritual, and thoughtful, but not really sentimental), and wonder at the human race in general. It was not a downer feeling at all.

*Read this review for a better synopsis.

Downer Book Week: Nothing to Envy

The year it was published, Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea was the rage of all the book reviewers and "Best Nonfiction of the Year" lists.

And now I know why.

Unfortunately, for contrary people like myself*, putting a book on any sort of "Best of..." list is a sure gambit in getting me NOT to read it. In a way, this is why I am always at a loss to understand the concepts of "book discoverability" and "social reading" as much as I should.

But with North Korea in the news a lot this past year, I've been thinking I should read the book on the subject, and because I am too lazy to read a real history of North Korea or the Korean War, I thought I would check this title out.

It's unbelievable. And I don't use that word lightly. I actually found it beyond belief in some parts. Demick begins her narrative with a fairly powerful image:

"If you look at satellite photographs of the far east by night, you'll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea...It is baffling how a nation of 23 million people can appear as vacant as the oceans." (pp. 3-4.)

North Korea has been lacking in light since the early 1990s, Demick points out, which is when the economy there really crashed, taking its power stations with it (and leaving its infrastructure's copper wires to be stolen and sold by its starving citizens). And that is just the beginning of this story.

Because Western journalists are not typically allowed into North Korea, Demick largely had to wait for her story to come to her, in the form of six people who were born and raised there, but who then defected to South Korea or China. Reporting the book this way was a necessity, but it also makes it a very accessible read for those nonfiction readers most drawn to character portraits--two of her subjects conducted a secret, long-term love affair (which took years to get to the holding hands stage, and which was conducted in North Korea almost entirely under the cover of darkness, as the two would simply walk for miles together at night), while others were true believers in the North Korean system, or had families and children they had to leave when they defected. In short, these are very human stories.

You simply have to read this book to believe it. I am not a person who really believes that democracy is the only answer, or that America is the best country in the world (does one really have to be best, I always wonder?) but it is mind-boggling to me to imagine a society where your future is dictated largely by your caste (people belong to government-dictated social classes, and everyone knows your class), you can't make any sarcastic or negative remarks about the government at all, neighborhoods are watched over by community snitches ready to report any transgression, and your job and food are simply assigned to you (if and when there are jobs and food to be had).

It is simply surreal to believe that a country causing such a fuss with nuclear testing is the same country where "a survey of 250 North Korean households conducted in the summer of 2008 found that two thirds were supplementing their diets by picking grass and weeds in the countryside." (p. 289.) Makes me wonder how it is inside the country now, in 2013, nearly four years after this book was first published.

*Conversely, a review where someone rips into a book is usually a review that makes me want to read said book (just out of morbid curiosity).

Downer Book Week: Down the Up Escalator

I know, I know, you're starting to feel a little down just reading these reviews, aren't you? Well, hang in, we're getting through the week.

Barbara Garson's Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession was a book I saw on many "forthcoming books" nonfiction lists earlier this spring, and the title intrigued me enough so that I put a hold on it at the library. Then I heard the author speak on public radio, and while I didn't hear the entire program, I liked her point that we are thinking of our current financial situation in America all wrong--most peole date our financial "crisis" to 2008, while Garson posits that things have really not been that great (particularly for working stiffs) for a lot longer than that, back even to the late 1970s. The book is divided into three segments representing our financial lives: Our Jobs, Our Homes, and Our Savings.

And of course nothing here is that big a surprise either (at least, not if you're a downer book addict like me):

--"By the fall of 2010 there were fourteen million officially unemployed Americans--40 percent of them classified as the long-term unemployed. An additional ten million were working part-time but said they wanted full-time jobs. Fifteen million more had dropped out of the labor force since this recession began." (p. 46.)

--"California was the Wild West of mortgage innovation. Nine out of the top ten subprime lenders were based in California before the crash, and so were most of the top ten mortgage banks that failed. California has 12 percent of the U.S. population, but between 2005 and 2007 more than 56 percent of America's subprime mortgages originated in California..." (p. 149.)

But this is a book that's more about personal stories and analysis than a recitation of numbers. Consider this exchange between Garson and one of her interview subjects:

--"'What am I looking at here in Evansville?' I asked the lean fifty-year-old [Charles Whobrey, president of the local Teamster union] as he led us into his cubbyhole of an office. 'How could a town have gotten this depressed since Lehman Brothers collapsed?'

''You're not looking at the effects of just this recession,' he asserted. 'So many people here survive paycheck to paycheck, obviously living beyond their means, that when something like this hits...well, let me go back.

'I started working for the union in 1981...I started in March, and not a month later President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. Permanently fired the strikers. That doesn't happen much in American history. Killing PATCO [the air traffic controllers' union] sent the signal to business--as it was supposed to--that it was okay to get rid of the unions. 'Uh-oh,' I said, 'I have the knack for gettin' involved right when the wheel's going into the mud.'"

And with unions went wages..." (p. 82.)

It's kind of a strange read. Garson does not, for the most part, provide really shocking details of homelessness or utter destitution. What she DOES provide is a rather unnerving portrait of an increasingly large group of people finding it a bit tougher, every single day, to keep and find jobs, to keep making their house payments, to stay out of debt after experiencing a health setback, to have anything for retirement; in other words, pretty much everyone's growing daily monetary struggles.

I have read other similar books that I liked somewhat better: Richard Longworth's Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, for instance, or even Louis Uchitelle's The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, which was published before 2008 and was therefore all the more prescient. But I did enjoy Garson's viewpoint, and I'd never heard of her before, so now I may look into some of her earlier books (including Electronic Sweatshop and All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work).

Downer Book Week: End of the Good Life

I know. You read a book with a title like End of the Good Life: How the Financial Crisis Threatens a Lost Generation--And What We Can Do about It, what do you expect it to be, except a downer?

Froymovich, herself a member of the Millennial generation, describes many of the economic factors that are currently working against those born between the years of the late 1970s and early 2000s. Among them are governmental austerity measures, uncertain global economics, higher unemployment rates and a poor job market, and rising education and student loan costs.

She does not paint a very optimistic picture.

Again, nothing in this book particularly surprised me: I've seen for myself and know many others who have found the job market to be tough going for the last few years. (Generation X hasn't exactly been raking in the dough either.) And it was definitely not a very "narrative" read; Froymovich interviewed lots of people and there are, therefore, many personal stories and insights throughout her book, but overall it has a definite "wonky" feel--heavy on the numbers and economic policy facts--but that was definitely part of why I found it such an informative read.

So what has been contributing to the loss of the American (and, to an extent, European) dream? Things like:

--"From 1990 to 2010, tuition and fees at public four-year universities more than doubled and the prices of two-year colleges climbed by 71 percent, while median household income rose just 2 percent." (p. 37.)

--"Since the crisis [of 2008], a quarter of young adults reported delaying marriage and about one-third have delayed starting a family." (p. 39.)

There's many more facts here than those, and the author offers a surprisingly global look at these challenges (and the political short-term thinking and austerity plans that continue to make a bad situation worse), but unfortunately I was an idiot and didn't bookmark many of the passages I found interesting.

One aspect of the book in which I was disappointed was its lack of better suggestions for the future or concrete ideas for improving one's own personal lot. And when such suggestions were made, they seemed to focus largely on the need for Generation Yers to "become entrepreneurs."* Consider this, as one of her positive case examples:

"Dollar Shave Club is another one of those great ideas. Cofounded in 2012 by Michael Dubin, just 33 years old, the company offers a subscription plan and delivery service for basic razor blades for men's grooming. Shaving supplies are often expensive, and men have to remember to restock regularly...Depending on the plan a customer chooses, the program costs just $3 to $9 a month, compared to fancy razors bought in a store that can cost more than $12 for the handle alone and $20 for a four-pack of refill cartridges. Dollar Shave Club can undercut the competition by cutting out the middleman--stores. It operates solely online. The company hired manufacturers in China and South Korea to make their blades cheaply." (p. 193.)

If you want to take a global view on that, how does it help the young people in China and South Korea?

So the ending annoyed me. But the rest of the book? I didn't think I was going to stick with it, and yet I did. And it provided a different look at current economic and political policy, which I appreciated.

*This line of thinking always pisses me off. First and foremost: not everyone wants to become an entrepreneur, for chrissake, and not everyone should have to become one. Also, there is increasingly NO POSSIBLE FRICKING WAY to cover your health insurance or health costs as an entrepreneur (unless you are one of the entrepreneurs who turns out to be, you know, Mark Zuckerberg, or someone like that). Take it from a freelancer: one of the only ways to make it as a freelancer is to marry some other poor sap who has a health insurance plan you can join.

Downer Book Week: The Business of Baby

As I told my mom, the great thing about expecting very little from the American medical establishment is that you're not particularly shocked when you read books like The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don't Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line.

So yeah: Margulis has a lot to say on a broad array of topics surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, infant care, and cultural norms in this wide-ranging investigative book. But was I particularly surprised by any of it? Not really. If you read this book, you'll find a lot of tidbits like this:

--"When I ask [Dr. Michael] Klaper why obstetricians don't emphasize the importance of nutrition during pregnancy, he chuckles. 'No one tells us it's important!' he exclaims, shaking his head. 'We go to medical school to learn how to work in the body repair shop--which is what hospitals are. If you break your body, go to the hospital. They'll fix it. But then get out of there. No one is going to mention nutrition to you before, during, or after, because no one mentions it to us.'" (p. 9.)

--"Data collected by the United Nations shows that while the vast majority of countries reduced their maternal mortality rates (for a global decreace of 34 percent), the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. doubled between 1990 and 2008, from 12 to 24 in 100,000 births." (p. 50.)

--"Another report found that women at for-profit hospitals were 17% more likely to have a Cesarean, despite having fewer risk factors, than women at nonprofit hospitals." (p. 87.)

I'll admit that the chapters on health care (and especially how the American system differs from systems in Europe) held my interest more than chapters on how the formula and diaper industries are conspiring to get mothers to buy their formula and diapers. My interest perked back up for the chapters on vaccinations and well-baby visits, though, and I read much of it with that feeling you get when you've experienced what an author is talking about:

"Every well-baby visit begins with charting a baby's height and weight against a standardized curve. But because pediatricians are usually so rushed, this quantitative evaluation is often done without taking the particular context of the baby's family into account, and without consideration to the problematic nature of the growth charts themselves." (p. 232.)

All I can say is: been there, heard that.

To say I enjoyed this book would be all wrong. But it was informative (particularly a lot of the information about vaccinations (there's a chart on p. 264 that lists how many vaccines Norwegian children get, as opposed to their American counterparts, that's pretty shocking). I did feel it was a little short on helpful future suggestions or policy ideas (although she does list resources in an appendix and inspirational stories throughout), but it was not really that kind of book. All in all, I think I still preferred Jennifer Block's book Pushed: The Painful Truth about Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care (which I read a while back) overall, but this book did provide a larger viewpoint on more issues surrounding having and raising children.