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Always gotta love a book on books.

I am a real sucker (as are most readers, I would guess) for books about books and reading. Every now and then I trip across a new one that I hadn't heard of before, and it's always a fun experience.

One for the Books
by Joe Queenan

This month's "book on books" discovery was Joe Queenan's recent One for the Books. Queenan is best known as a columnist and humorist (evidently he's written or writes for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the New York Times, and many more...thanks, author bio!) and also the writer of a very critically lauded memoir, titled Closing Time: A Memoir, about his hardscrabble youth in Philadelphia. If I sound uninformed, it's because I am--I'd always recognized Queenan's name, but I'd never read anything of his before (although I've always meant to read that memoir, since it showed up on a lot of "best of the year" lists).

In this book, Queenan not only describes his favorite books and seminal reading moments, he also muses on the print vs. digital book divide, booksellers, book culture, and the writing life. If you like a totally straightforward read, this book may not be for you: it tends to hop around a bit from topic to topic. That didn't bother me, though. I tend to read these types of books in small increments (both to savor them and to make them last longer), so a bit more disjointed organization didn't throw me. And, hilariously enough, I would imagine that if Joe and I met to talk books, we wouldn't have any books in common that we had both read or both liked. A person more unlike me in book taste it would be hard to find (unless we're looking at you, Lesbrarian): he favors modern fiction faves like Denis Johnson, Ha Jin, Italo Calvino, and a whole bunch of international writers of whom I've never heard (embarrassing, that, really). But yet? I really, really enjoyed this book. I think I enjoyed it because of the sheer number of titles Queenan lists and discusses--it's breathtaking, really. I didn't add many (any) of them to my TBR list, but it was a pleasure to read someone who is himself so well- and widely read.

And every now and then his narrative made me laugh, which I always enjoy. Take this anecdote, in which he explains how he spent a year of his life trying to read a book a day, meaning he could only read very short books. Off he took himself to the library, without his reading glasses, and just picked the littlest books off the shelf, without worrying himself too much about the content. He did enforce some standards when he got home, though:

"If I got home and discovered that I had checked out a bittersweet, life-affirming novel about a recently divorced woman who had moved to a small town in Maine or the Massif Central or the Mull of Kintyre and, after initially being shocked by the ham-fisted demeanor of the rough-hewn locals, was seduced by their canny charm, I took it right back." (p. 78.) Tee hee.

He also demonstrates, nicely, the "deal breakers" by which many readers abide (but which they don't often talk about):

"My refusal to read books about the Yankees or their slimy fans also extends to books written by supporters of the team. Thus, when I learned that Salman Rushdie had taken a shine to the Yankees, it eliminated any chance that I would ever read The Satanic Verses, no matter how good it is." (p. 123.) This makes me laugh because I am the same way, only about the subject of World War II (in fiction or non), and also because I am a slimy Yankees fan.

And of course, if you're a lover of physical books, you have to love paragraphs like this:

"Certain things are perfect the way they are and need no improvement. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation, and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublime, but books are also visceral. They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system. Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who like to read on the subway, or who do not want other people to see how they are amusing themselves, or who have storage and clutter issues, but they are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on." (p. 27.)

It's good stuff. And it will even be good whether you read it in print or digital form. Read it.

Jim Ottaviani strikes again.

I don't read as much science nonfiction as I should, I'll admit.

This is a puzzler, because I have liked almost all of the few science books I have plowed through over the years. I think I have to be in the right mood and the right place mentally--science nonfiction, even popular science nonfiction, seems to demand a bit more attention and reading in longer chunks of time than I often have these days. But when I find a short science title by an author I have always enjoyed...I bring it right home.

A case in point last week was Jim Ottaviani's (and Maris Wicks's) young adult graphic novel Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. When I saw this on the shelf on the library, I got all excited; I love Jim Ottaviani. I'm not a huge reader of graphic nonfiction but Ottaviani's artwork is easy to follow and his treatment of often complicated scientific precepts (and biography of scientists, often complicated individuals in their own rights) is clear enough that even I can grasp most of what he's explaining.

In this short volume, Ottaviani and his co-author Wicks provide brief overviews of the lives, educations, and work of primate naturalists and scientists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas (of whom I'd never even heard before picking up this book). The book is under 140 pages long, so you can imagine that most of the discussion of their work among the animals, and their very differing personalities, is superficial at best. So although the book left me vaguely unsatisfied, I do think it functioned well as a great introduction to primate science and three fascinating women. It left me wanting more, which all really great books do (I think), and provides a very nice bibliography if you're inclined to go find more to read on these subjects.

Not destined to love George Saunders's stories.

Tenth of December: Stories
by George Saunders

Let's get one thing straight: I love George Saunders.

I love his essays. I love the most recent piece of nonfiction of his that I read, and posted about here. I was glad that his latest book of stories, Tenth of December: Stories, has gotten great reviews and word-of-mouth. I want nothing but the best for George Saunders.

But reading his fiction? It is never going to be for me.

I have now tried to describe, to two of my nearest and dearest, how reading Tenth of December made me feel, and I have failed horribly both times. Let's see if I can do any better here: Reading these stories made me all itchy.

Well, "itchy" is not quite right. But I often tried these stories before going to bed, and that didn't work at all. Perhaps "uneasy" is a better descriptor. For some reason, even though Saunders is a skilled writer and there are even flashes of humor in this book, reading it gave me a strong urge to cry. I think it's because 1. even when his stories don't necessarily end unhappily, they sometimes contain unnerving or scary elements, and 2. because I know George Saunders is very intelligent and has a good grasp of human nature and society, I worry that any stories he dreams up could come true.

In the last decade or so it has become increasingly true of my reading habits that I do not like fiction that is violent or creeps me out in any way (a big reason why I am not much of a thriller or crime or mystery reader, although I still read some horror). This seems a bit strange, especially in light of the fact that I can read true crime and any other types of super-depressing nonfiction titles all day long. As near as I can figure out, it's because the events in nonfiction tend to be finite: they've already happened, and now a writer has just come along and is trying to relate what happened or make some sense of it. I am often reminded of what family members said about David Foster Wallace's writing: he tended to take some liberties in his nonfiction, but it was his fiction you really had to watch for truth. Somehow fiction makes truth too real for me.

Make any sense? Yeah, no, I know. I tried. In the meantime, do read another review* of the Saunders book so you can get a better idea of what the stories are actually about. And have a great weekend!

*Aha! The NPR reviewer sums up perfectly why this book made me itchy: "It would be tempting to believe that Saunders' fiction portrays society the way a fun-house mirror does, reflecting images that look familiar but are, finally, exaggerated and unreal. Tenth of December suggests that's not the case — that what we assumed was a nightmare is, in fact, our new reality."

A bit more about George Packer's The Unwinding.

I felt very unfulfilled by what I wrote yesterday about George Packer's book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. I feel I am not giving you the flavor of the book, or explaining why I couldn't seem to put it down, even though it was a downer.

One thing I would like to say that I particularly appreciated in Packer's choice of interviewees and subjects was his choosing Americans from all over the spectrum: from the factory worker to the political operative to Peter Thiel and other Silicon Valley luminaries. In fact, the Peter Thiel/Silicon Valley parts of the book were the ones I found the most informative. This sounds terrible to say, but I've now read so many books about the loss of our manufacturing base, failing heartland cities (Detroit among them), and working-class woes that none of the narratives from those perspectives particularly surprised me or provided new knowledge. But many of the points-of-view and ideas given by Thiel, the PayPal billionaire, were quite interesting (although Thiel in general gave me the super-heebies, also making him a fascinating character):

"At Cafe Venetia in downtown Palo Alto...Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and said, 'I don't consider this to be a technological breakthrough.'

Compared to the Apollo space program or the supersonic jet, a smartphone looked small. In the forty years leading up to 1973, there had been huge technological advances, and wages had increased sixfold. Since then, Americans beguiled by mere gadgetry had forgotten how expansive progress could be...

The information age arrived on schedule, but without the utopia. Cars, trains, and planes were not much better than they had been in 1973.* The rising price of oil and food showed a complete failure to develop energy and agriculture technology. Computers didn't create enough jobs to sustain the middle class, didn't produce revolutionary improvements in manufacturing and productivity, didn't raise living standards across classes. Thiel had come to think that the Internet was a 'net plus, but not a big one.' Apple was mostly a 'design innovator.' Twitter would give job security to five hundred people for the next decade, 'but how much value does it create for the entire economy?' Facebook, which had made Thiel a billionaire, was 'on balance positive,' because it was radical enough to have been banned in China. But that was all he would say for the celebrated era of social media. All the companies he invested in probably employed fewer than fifteen thousand people." (p. 383.)

There is a LOT to unpack in just those few paragraphs, and a lot to think about. I suspect that's why this book took me so long to read, even though it's quite readable--there's a lot of paragraphs like that, that you almost have to take the time to digest.

There. I feel I've done the book more credit now.

*I might also point out there are similar problems in health care, since I've read several times in the past months about how the maternal death rate from childbirth is now higher than it was in 1978.

Are we unwinding?

When I got George Packer's The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America from the library, I'm pretty sure I started reading it that night--I was very excited to see it, as I am a fan of George Packer's. When I started it, I did have difficulty putting it down, but since I finished it, it's been sitting on my night table while I try to think what to say about it.

I don't really know what to say about it.

Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and I get the feeling he's got a pretty good grasp on most issues of American economics and culture. In this book, he chooses not to write a straightforward journalistic investigation of such topics as the loss of America's manufacturing base, the problems of our political systems, and many more, but rather gives the reader a picture of them by interweaving several character portraits. The individuals whose stories he tells through the narrative are Dean Price (an idealistic and optimistic entrepreneur of the type typically presented as the type that will "save our country" with their entrepreneurial drive); Jeff Connaughton (a longtime political operative); Tammy Thomas (an Ohio woman whose town and economic situation keeps worsening due to lost jobs and dropping wages); and Peter Thiel (the Silicon Valley billionaire who founded PayPal). In between he also provides short chapters briefly sketching the biographical details of such American luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, and many others.

It's an interesting way to provide a snapshot of America. Typically I prefer a more straightforward piece of nonfiction, like Matt Taibbi's Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, but there's no denying that this type of investigative storytelling makes for fascinating (if sad) reading as well. What surprised me a little bit was how long it took me to read the book--you don't feel like it's taking a long time while you read, and the stories are all character-based and move right along, but you can feel the depth of detail, research, and work behind Packer's writing. It really is, to put it as simply as possible, a somewhat amazing book. Depressing, of course, because it left me with the feeling of, well, what can we possibly do now?, and because (as some critics have charged, conservative David Brooks among them) Packer doesn't really provide any overarching statements or analysis. Normally I like some overall theme or structure myself, but this book works better without it. For lack of a better description, it drops you right in there with Americans facing a future that does not appear to be getting brighter. In some ways it reminded me of Joe Bageant's excellent Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War. In other ways it reminded me of Chris Hedges's Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, although I think this was a stronger book because Packer doesn't rely on overblown rhetoric as much as Hedges does (and he also doesn't present the Occupy movement as any kind of great hope for future change). 

This has been a dry review; sorry about that. I was actually a little stunned by this book, and I'd suggest giving it a try, but don't read it at bedtime. It's not relaxing. (And if you're going to read any of the review links below, go for the Christian Science Monitor one--it includes a great interview with Packer.)

Other reviews: The Guardian | Christian Science Monitor | Huffington Post

A really useful public speaking book.

About a million years ago I wrote a book on public speaking for librarians.

I originally wrote it because at one time I was lucky enough to teach library classes to university students, and because I really enjoy public speaking (and I also really enjoyed the university students, especially the ones in engineering, who seemed to be universally young and cheerful and funny) the classes always went fairly well. So my supervisor started asking me for "the script" I used for these classes, which used to make me crazy. Not only because I didn't use a script (I used notes, and I practiced, but never had a real script), but because I have always believed that if you have to read your talk or teach your class by reading a script, well, the battle is lost before you even start. She meant well, but no matter how many times I explained that, she would always end by saying, "So...I can have your script, then?"

And now I've broken one of my own cardinal rules of speaking and made a short story long. The crux of the matter is this: I still make it a habit to look at or read any new public speaking manuals I come across. The latest one I found in my local library catalog was Susan Weinschenk's 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know about People. It's wonderful. It's straightforward and easy to read and contains a ton of useful tips, not only for speaking, but (I think), for getting along with people in general, in such categories as "How People Think and Learn," "How to Grab and Hold People's Attention," "How to Motivate People to Take Action," and "How People React to You," and many more. Each numbered point is described over the course of two to three pages, with sidebars providing a number of helpful "takeaways." Each point ranges from the basic, like #1: "People process information better in bite-size chunks," to the more advanced, like #62: "People respond more to anecdotes than to data."

I really, really enjoyed the bits of this book that I have read, and I want to get it back from the library someday to read more of its tidbits. Highly recommended, if you're looking for a no-nonsense guide to presenting.

Daddy memoirs, part two.

Before I read Drew Magary's Daddy Memoir Someone Could Get Hurt, I chanced across an interview with him* that made me want to read the book. When asked about the biggest challenges of parenting, the first one he listed just made me laugh: "Off the top of my head, money. Like, you need five billion dollars just to prop up one lousy kid. Every day, I'm thinking, "Christ, I need to accrue more money or else these people will end up living among hobos."

The week after I got his book from the library and devoured it, I also saw an interview with comedian Jim Gaffigan. Again, consider me completely charmed. So now I'm waiting for Gaffigan's Dad Is Fat memoir from the library as well.

All of this got me thinking about different parenting memoirs I've read. And this got me wondering if daddies get to be funnier than mommies. I've really enjoyed some Mommy Memoirs, but when I think back on it, most of them have had a darker edge** (and at least two have steered onto the topic of abortion at one point, which is really a laugh-killer). So what do you think? Do fathers get to write about parenting with more detachment and more humor than mothers do?

*The interview's at the bottom of that page; scroll all the way down.

**Oh no, I forgot about The Three Martini Playdate, written by a woman. That book was hilarious, although not really a "memoir" as such.

Are daddies funnier than mommies?

Be aware, I don't really think that headline is true. I just thought it would be a nice incendiary way to start the week.

I did have this thought, though, as I was reading and enjoying Drew Magary's Daddy Memoir Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood. Magary has three kids, and this book consists mainly of quick vignettes of his parenting experience. (He's also a magazine and fiction writer, which means his writing is pretty snappy and very easy to read quickly.) It's not perfect, but I actually laughed out loud at it in several places. I love to laugh, but I am not really a laugh-out-louder while I read, so this book took me by surprise.

Evidently I must be experiencing motherhood from a more male point of view, because so many little things Magary threw in appealed to me:

When his wife wanted to call the doctor to ask if loud music (they were at a concert) would harm the fetus: "'She might get pissed at me for calling.'

'Screw that,' I said. Doctors go to great lengths to guilt-trip every patient into not calling them outside of office hours. They have the whole trap set. They have that voicemail message that tells you to call 911 first. Then it says, 'Well, if you really have to talk to the doctor, leave a message on our answering service.' They give you every opportunity to feel like shit for bothering the poor doctor during dinner. It's a process designed to weed out the faint of heart. I refused to be cowed. 'Don't feel bad about calling her,' I said. 'You pay those people hundreds of dollars every visit. Call the shit out of them.'" (p. 15.)

Tee hee. Of course, you'll notice another part of the appeal of Magary (to me, anyway): He swears a lot. I find this appropriate, as parenting does seem to induce some level of swearing (which you try to keep quiet, sometimes successfully, sometimes not) on a daily basis.

And then there was this bit, which was more serious, but actually made me feel vindicated for some dark thoughts I had when CRjr was tiny and crying in the middle of the night and I was so, so tired:

"She kept on crying and jerking her head around. Eventually, she gave me a full-on head butt and I recoiled in anger. I remember being furious with her, which is insane because how mad can you get at a baby? Oh, but you can. Late at night, when no one is watching, you can get obscenely angry at a baby. You stupid fucking baby. Sometimes you read about babies dying from shaken baby syndrome and you wonder, Why would anyone want to shake a baby? How is this such a widespread problem? And then your child head-butts you in the dead of night and suddenly there's a little voice in your head whispering to you, Go ahead, shake that baby. Maybe shaking it gets all the tears out! You just want the child to snap out of it and calm down, and you're willing to consider anything, even the stupidest idea. You feel like a monster merely for having the thought." (p. 26.)

I give him points for honesty there, and for understanding that terrible feeling in a way my husband never did, because I nursed and was mainly in charge of nighttime care. He was amenable to me waking him up to relieve me, but I don't think he ever experienced that exhauasted, 3 a.m., "you've been fed and changed and rocked and you're still crying, why?" frustration in quite the way I (and evidently Magary) did.

And last but not least, a lighter bit:

"I'm not sure any group of parents has ever been subjected to as much widespread derision as the current generation of American parents. We are told, constantly, how badly we are fucking our kids up. There are scores of books being sold every day that demonstrate how much better parents are in China, and in France, and in the Amazon River Basin. I keep waiting for a New York Times article about how leaders of the Cali drug cartel excel at teaching their children self-reliance." (p. 137.)

I've already gone on too long in this post; a bit more tomorrow on all this. In the meantime, if you're looking for a funny, quick parenting read, you could do a lot worse than this one.