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August 2013

Aging with Leonardo DiCaprio.

I've really turned a corner on Leonardo DiCaprio.

Wait a minute: I can relate this to nonfiction, I promise.

I always really enjoyed DiCaprio as an actor, and although his look was not particularly for me, I did always think he was quite the cutie (especially in favorite films of mine, like "Romeo + Juliet"). And then one day, it was like he grew up. All of a sudden. And into this rather broad man with a goatee who I didn't think was cute at all. So for years I was rather meh on him, and I was definitely too lazy to see (and try to figure out) Inception, although Mr. CR liked that movie.

And then I saw The Great Gatsby. Which was no real great shakes as a movie. But I thought DiCaprio really hit his role out of the park. He gave me the same feeling that I get watching Brad Pitt--you're always aware its Brad Pitt, and yet he really manages to disappear into the role he's playing. I was never not aware it wasn't DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby, but he WAS Jay Gatsby.

LeoAnd this week he arrived in my home, on the cover of my New York magazine. And although I still hate his goatee, I must say: he looks good. And I thought, huh, I've come to appreciate Leonardo, all grown up. And then I read that he's just a few months younger than me, and I thought, huh again, Leo and I have grown up together. Funny. And the article was interesting. And here's how I can relate it to nonfiction: this fall he'll be starring in a movie he helped finance, based on a nonfiction memoir titled The Wolf of Wall Street. Don't know that I'll be able to go see it (and it looks almost too depressing, if funny, to stand), but here's the trailer, if you're interested. Seems particularly and ironically appropriate a story to talk about, on Labor Day weekend. Hope you have a good one.

Ranking of the Daddy Memoirs.

Dad Is Fat
by Jim Gaffigan

Well, I finally got Jim Gaffigan's Dad Is Fat from the library.

And I really, really enjoyed it. I've always thought Gaffigan was funny (thanks to a friend who turned me on to the Hot Pockets bit, which, as Gaffigan admits, is what people mostly know him for), but now I just plain like him. The book is a collection of very short chapters; anecdotes about Gaffigan's experiences parenting five children. Or, more accurately, being in awe of his wife's skill in parenting five children.

That's right: five children.

As you can imagine, Gaffigan has a lot to say about having five kids: how they put five kids to sleep in a small fifth floor walk-up two-bedroom Manhattan apartment (one of my favorite chapters); how people look at their family when they go out to restaurants; how they rent an actual bus sometimes when Gaffigan heads out on tours to do comedy shows so they can all be together.

I bookmarked a lot of bits in this book that got me to laugh out loud:

"Toddlers are a virus's best friend. Viruses are usually spread by close contact and saliva. If you look up the definition of toddler, the first thing it should say is 'close contact and saliva.' Toddlers are always the contagion. Our home becomes the CDC every winter." (p. 92.)

And, being Catholic myself, I REALLY loved the Catholic bits (both Gaffigan and his wife are Catholic). In the chapter on how he still takes his family to church: "I empathize with my children. If you've never been to a Catholic Mass, don't worry, it's still going on, you still have time to catch it." (p. 169.)

I also enjoyed his attitude toward selling chocolate as a fundraiser for his daughter's school: "A three-year-old is not going to go around selling chocolate bars. I certainly am not going to go around selling chocolate bars. The solution? Write a check, and Dad eats a case of chocolate bars." (p. 217.)

It's a very different parenting memoir than Drew Magary's Someone Could Get Hurt, which I really enjoyed, but I think this book just edged it out. So what I'm going to do is start a ranking of parenting memoirs and see how it all shakes out. Here's what we have so far:

1. Dad Is Fat, Jim Gaffigan

2. Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood, Drew Magary

A tale of two chick lits.

For whatever reason, I've always really enjoyed "chick lit."

For those of you not familiar with these publishing and librarian-ish subgenres, chick lit is a type of romance that typically focuses on female protagonists in their twenties and thirties, typically features a romance story plot of some kind, but also showcases a character's work, friendships, and surroundings (which, in a disproportionate amount of these books, is New York City*). This is my definition, and it's not a perfect one, but I'm using it because I think the Wikipedia page on chick lit is pretty weak. Two books widely cited as premiere examples of this genre are Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary and Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and those two also happen to be two of my all-time favorite novels.

So every now and then I get a real jones to read some good chick lit, which is surprisingly hard to find.** I know most of the tools librarians use to help readers find books by genre and type, but for the most part I am too lazy to use them. As a general rule I just seek out authors who I know from past experience are "known" as chick lit authors, or, if I'm in a really scientific mood, I go scan my library shelves for books that "look" chick-litty. So when I brought home two chick-lit novels last month, I found one using the former method, and one using the latter.

The first one I read was Jane Green's Jemima J, which I picked out because I'd always heard a lot about Jane Green (in a good way) and I thought I should give one of hers a try. The story is: Jemima Jones is (way) overweight and helplessly in love with a man with whom she works. Eventually, thanks to the wonders of the Internet (which is new in her workplace--the novel was published in 2001), she meets a man online who lives in L.A., and who invites her to come stay. But this is after she has sent him a retouched photo of herself as a thin woman, so she resolves to lose the weight--and does. She goes to L.A., and, well...things do not turn out quite as she planned.

This novel was okay, but for the most part I really, really dislike novels and romances where the main character loses weight and all of a sudden they are completely gorgeous. Now, losing weight if you need to is always very nice, but how many people actually go from obese to stunners? Not as many as the chick lit and romance genres would sometimes have you believe. Also: it was nearly 400 pages long. Too long.

The other novel, Aurelie Sheehan's The Anxiety of Everyday Objects***, was much slimmer and stranger. It focuses on Winona Bartlett, a legal secretary with dreams of someday becoming an independent filmmaker. In this one the romance really took a backseat to the work drama at the law office where Winona works; she gets a new boss in the form of attorney Sandy Spires, who is a real go-getter (and who also happens to be blind) but who ultimately turns out not to be a good role model for Winona. I liked this one, but it was a rather strange read: it took a long time to get going, and then all of a sudden it was over with everything resolved rather too neatly, including the almost completely absent love story. There was nothing wrong with the writing, though:

"All good secretaries will eventually find truth in the hearts of men.

Winona Bartlett, Win to her friends, might not have been the world's best secretary, but her nature was such that serving, subservience, and coffee service came easily, and, in fact, she felt there was an inherent good in doing things well, and this determination more than equaled her actual interest in the long-term prospects at Grecko Mauster Crill. She practiced her secretarial role as a Zen meditation; what role she was more suited to remained a mystery, though she was now nearly thirty." (p. 3.)

It's good writing, but sometimes I couldn't tell if the book was literary fiction, or chick lit, or what. It was just a little puzzling. For the record, Mr. CR read this one too (don't ask me why; all summer he's been reading things I never would have thought he'd read) and had much the same reaction.

So there you have it. I've satisfied my chick lit need for a while; back to nonfiction now.

*This is not a problem, and is actually a large part of the draw, if you love New York City, which I do.

**Can anyone suggest a good blog or other resource that lists books of these type?

***Speaking of covers, I'll admit I was intrigued that this one had a blurb from Richard Russo on it.

Men have always had some crazy ideas, evidently.

You know, every time I read about those organized types who keep their reading and TBR lists in GoodReads or spreadsheets or even on some sort of printed list, I think, oh brother. That sort of thing is just going to eat into my already precious reading time. But then books that I've requested come in at the library, I read them, I enjoy them, and I think, now where did I hear about this one? If I ever do start a reading notebook I think the main thing I'll track is how I found the books I request or buy (which I'd have to do the moment I request them, not when they come in, because my memory is terrible).

This was the case with Wendy Moore's historical biography How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate. I love biographies like this for two reasons: 1) I really, really enjoy reading about people who weren't necessarily famous (or who aren't famous anymore, at any rate), and 2) I really love reading histories that are at least part biography and biographies that are part history. This book was a very enjoyable example of its type, although I can't remember where I originally heard about it.*

Moore tells the story of one Thomas Day, an eighteenth-century Englishman known in his time for being a radical and the author of a popular children's book. But what Moore focuses on is his "wife-creating" activity; evidently he was somewhat of a picky bastard with high ideals for female perfection, so he decided to adopt a couple of young girls, raise them and teach them according to his social and educational principles (most of which were influenced by the controversial writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau), and then choose one of them to marry. And he didn't exactly keep his plan a secret; he knew a lot of influential Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers, and many of them knew about this plan, and didn't seem to give it a second thought.

The eighteenth century sounds like a wild time, man.

Well, the plan did not exactly proceed as planned. You'll just have to read the book to see if Day trained up his one true (and truly subservient) love: 

"Day wanted a lifelong partner who would be just as clever, well read and witty as his brilliant male friends. He craved a lover with whom he could discourse and wrangle on politics, philosophy and literature as freely as he could in male company. He desired a companion who would be physically as tough and hardy as himself. In short he wanted a woman who would be more like a man. But he was only human--and male. So for all his apparently egalitarian views on education, Day wanted his future spouse happily to suppress her natural intelligence and subvert her acquired learning in deference to his views and desires. He wanted a wife who would be completely subservient to his wishes at all times. How then would he ever obtain the woman of his dreams?" (p. 7.)

My favorite part of the book, actually, was reading about the other women (the non-trained ones) who were engaged at some point to Day but who were smart enough to break it off before the wedding. Kudos to you, ladies!

*Maybe I requested it because I recognized the author's name? I'd read her earlier book Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore and really enjoyed it.

World War ZZZZzzzzz...

Holy crap, was I bored by the horror (?) novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

I've been hearing about this book for years now, and what a great read it was, so when the movie came out, I thought, well, okay, I should really read this book.

Written in the form of an oral history, with an unnamed narrator conducting interviews with survivors of the worldwide "zombie war," you'd think this would have been a fast, if not creepy, read. But almost from the first pages I was bored:*

[In an interview with the former White House chief of staff, about when they were first warned of the global threat]: "Drop everything, focus all our efforts, typical alarmist crap. We got dozens of these reports a week, every administration did, all of them claiming that their particular boogeyman was the 'greatest threat to human existence.' C'mon! Can you imagine what America would have been like if the federal government slammed on the brakes every time some paranoid crackpot cried 'wolf' or 'global warming' or 'living dead'? Please. What we did, what every president since Washington has done, was provide a measured, appropriate response, in direct relation to a realistic threat assessment." (p. 59.)

Snooze. I did get the whole thing read, but I won't way that I didn't skip a lot, particularly in the narratives that really bored me. Mr. CR read it too, and although he liked it better than I did, he didn't seem particularly taken with it either. He thought perhaps the "oral history" nature of it, and the fact that very few of the characters telling their stories appear more than once, made it tough to care about any of them or the story. I don't know that that was it...I've read similar books (Robopocalypse, by Daniel Wilson, for one) that held my interest far longer.

On the other hand, maybe that means I will like the movie; I've heard this movie and book are quite different from one another. (And I never complain about seeing a movie with Brad Pitt in it.)

*Well, I take it back. The first few chapters, particularly the one where the Chinese doctor explained his first encounters with someone infected with the zombie "virus," were pretty creepy. But by the time the book got around to explaining zombie battles and global techniques for dealing with the pandemic, I was bored, bored, bored.

Paris is for bureaucrats.

I'll let you in on a little secret: I've never really wanted to go to Paris.

I feel like I should travel there someday. People have told me to travel there someday. But the stubborn fact remains that even though I've been to London twice, I'd still rather go back to London (or almost any other city I've been to, in fact, and I'd love to pick up Glasgow and Manchester and Ottawa and a plethora of other British, Scottish, and Canadian places) than go see Paris for the first time. Part of this is the language barrier: I don't know any French, and although my accent for Spanish words is acceptable, my accent on French words is not. In Montreal I screwed up the courage to say "bonjour" to a museum guard, who then smiled kindly and a bit sadly at me and said, "Hello."

So I can't say that Rosecrans Baldwin's travel memoir Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down, really made me want to visit the city. But it was a highly enjoyable read, and it's made me vaguely curious to see Paris, which is more than I felt before. Baldwin is better known as one of the founders of The Morning News and a popular literary fiction novelist, but before all of that he took a job in advertising in Paris--despite, as the book jacket reveals, "the fact that he had no experience in advertising. And despite the fact that he barely spoke French."

So what you get here is a mixture of travelogue, as well as a more typical memoir-like focus on work, friendships, and his marriage. He does the travelogue stuff well, like when he describes the neighborhood where they rent an apartment:

"And where roads didn't cross was an old covered market, the Marche du Temple, blue with a dirty glass roof. Some weekends, men trucked in what appeared to be stolen leather goods, but otherwise the market stood empty--Thursdays, maybe it was Tuesdays, a tennis league strung up nets inside--and the surrounding quadrant would be filled with people dawdling over cafe tables that they'd occupy for hours, chatting with friends....Rue Bretagne had a park with a playground, two bookstores, a boutique that sold vintage radios, a booth that sold found photographs--it was the Left Bank I'd seen in picture books, preserved in time. At the center stood the oldest Paris farmer's market still operating, Le Marche des Enfants Rouges, built in the 1600s, now ringed by food stalls that sold Moroccan tagines, huge piles of Turkish desserts, West African stews, even sushi.

It was fantastic." (p. 23.)

So yes, I'll admit that paragraphs like that made Paris more interesting to me than I've ever found it before. But what I enjoyed even more about this book was Baldwin's report of working alongside his French colleagues, trying to navigate the country's many bureaucracies, and the many personality quirks of Parisians. Mr. CR read the book too, and we both enjoyed learning that Parisians love eating at McDonald's, but they spend a lot more money there per meal than Americans will. And there's a lot more lovely bits, including the ones where he discusses how he tried to pick up the knack for when to kiss people on both cheeks in greeting, arguing with the French telemarketer who calls constantly to talk about his telephone service, his coworkers getting annoyed when he has the gall to eat his lunch at his desk (which is simply not done there, I gather), and French labor strikes.

Did Paris really end up bringing Rosecrans down? Not so much. You get the feeling that it was a more exhausting experience than he thought it would be, but in the end he still seems to find the city a little magical. To think something is magic even after you get to know it better? Let's face it: that's the best kind of love story.

Time for reading...I remember that.

Sorry once again for the lack of posting, but this was an indexing week, meaning I just didn't get the time I wanted to read non-indexing related nonfiction. In other news CRjr has decided that his real bedtime is 11 p.m. (not 8 p.m., when we put him to bed), which is distracting for several reasons: I find myself listening to him running around his room and fuming at his defiance (Mr. CR tells me he is three and therefore not really trying to stick it to me personally, but I've looked into the depths of his smiling eyes while he jumps on the bed and ignores orders to lay down, and I swear I see a little bit of "sticking it" there...), and also the next day I worry about the huge bags under his eyes and put up with his crankiness and find it hard to concentrate on other things.

But enough of that. I'll google "won't go to sleep" and see what Yahoo Answers has to say, a method which has been, in the past, actually much more helpful than other wastes of my time, like calling CR's pediatrician. My pediatrician's answer to any problem is that CRjr needs to go to daycare pronto and get "socialized." Fever? Get that boy socialized! Rash on his face? Get that boy socialized!

So: just a few reading links today. I'm pleased to say that Wendell Berry has won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Yay, Wendell!

The new trailer for the film C.O.G., written by David Sedaris, actually makes me want to see it, although I am not a huge David Sedaris fan.

Over the past two weeks I have tried to read Max Brooks's hugely popular zombie novel World War Z, and I was so bored by it you wouldn't believe it. More on that next week.

Until then: have a great weekend, and lay down and go to sleep already! (Sorry, that's just habit now.)

A testament for the power of short chapters.

After reading the first few chapters of novelist Kate Christensen's new memoir Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, I didn't think I was going to keep on reading it. Fairly early on, there's some descriptions of her father's abuse of her mother, and I really, REALLY dislike reading about domestic abuse. But for some reason nothing else I had around to read was appealing to me, so I just kind of kept going back to this one, and because it's written in short chapters (which I love), I found that all of a sudden I had finished it.

I know, this does not sound like a ringing endorsement of this book.

But it was, in its own way, very readable. It's not fancy: Christensen basically tells her life story through the lens of food, moving from her childhood in Berkley and through her mother's first divorce and subsequent marriages, during which the family moved around quite a bit. (Her mother's a fascinating character in her own right; a strong-willed woman who, in essence, keeps finding and marrying the "wrong" men, but manages, for the most part, to raise her three daughters in a close-knit family unit.)

Christensen also very matter-of-factly describes her own work experiences, education, and eventual writing career, as well as her complex first marriage. And at the end of several chapters she provides recipes from her personal history, with her own spin on them. Although books with recipes tend to be (in my experience), decidedly "cozy" in tone, that is not the case here. Starting with the domestic abuse, moving through a childhood marked by uprootedness and unhappiness at school (including some horrific offhand remarks about a math teacher of hers who sexually harrasses her and many other students), and moving through an adult life fraught with complex relationships, dieting issues, and a stint of nannying in France, there is a lot of dark stuff here.

It comes late, but Christensen's writing is at her best, I feel, when she is writing about reading and writing. And even when she discusses her fascination with detective novels, she brings it back to food:

"And almost all fictional detectives knew how to eat. Marlowe armed himself for stakeouts with ham-and-cheese sandwiches and a bottle of whiskey; V. I. Warshawski escaped danger and made a beeline for a Hungarian goulash at the Golden Glow...Robert B. Parker's Spencer ate as grandly as he spouted half-pretentious literary allusions, and I loved him for it; I hated his psychotherapist girlfriend, however, because she nibbled at a lettuce leaf and called it a meal."* (p. 222.)

A long time ago I read Christensen's novel The Great Man and really enjoyed it; although this was not my favorite memoir ever, it did remind me that I'd like to read more of her fiction.

*I never cared much for Spencer's girlfriend either. I just thought she was dull.

A proud moment for the CR family.

Yesterday at the library CRjr picked out...his very first nonfiction choice: Bobcats, by Jennifer L. Marks.

CRjr usually gets one book at the library, and he's pretty good about picking them out himself. Now, by "picking it out," what I mean, of course, is that he grabs something at random off the shelf and goes with it. But he seems to have good luck--he usually plucks a couple off the shelves, and we take whichever one he ends up seeming most interested in.*

Bobcats was a good choice; we've enjoyed it at home a few times since. In case you're wondering, bobcats can weigh from 16 to 30 pounds and live about 12 years in the wild.

CRjr has another library tradition: he always holds his own book on the way home (sometimes we walk there, but most often I walk and he rides in his umbrella stroller, with the handy pouch in the back for my books--CRjr gets one book at a time from the library, for now, but Mama gets as many as she can carry). I'm not real gushy, but I'd be lying if I said it isn't the cutest thing ever.

*And we put the unwanted ones back, in the right places, because once you're a librarian, you're always a librarian.

One thing David Sedaris does extremely well.

At first I was worried when I got David Sedaris's new book Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls in at the library--it looked thick! But then I laughed when I remembered I had requested one of the library's large print copies, because the hold list seemed shorter for that than for the regular copies. (Older folks with vision impairment not being Sedaris's target audience, perhaps?) Every now and then I enjoy a large print book--you flip pages at the speed of light, seemingly.

As to the content of the book? Well, Sedaris's essays are always somewhat delightfully surreal, but in this latest volume, I'm starting to feel like he's phoning them in a little bit. They just don't have the tightly constructed feel they used to (or that I feel David Rakoff's essays had, right up to his untimely death). I particularly didn't like his essays written in other personas--from the point of view of a religious fundamentalist, for example--although there weren't many of them. Just when I was thinking I wouldn't finish the collection, though, I came upon the essay titled "Now Hiring Friendly People," about Sedaris's experiences just trying to buy a cup of coffee in a hotel coffee bar, and getting stuck behind a couple taking up lots of the coffee bar worker's time and energy:

"...just as I decided to get a cup of coffee, someone came from around the corner and moved in ahead of me.

I'd later learn that her name was Mrs. Dunston, a towering, dough-colored pyramid of a woman wearing oversize glasses and a short-sleeved linen blazer. Behind her came a man I guessed to be her husband, and after looking up at the menu board, she turned to him. 'A latte,' she said. 'Now is that the thing Barbara likes to get, the one with whipped cream, or is that called something else?'

Oh fuck, I thought." (p. 344, large print edition.) And a bit later in the same encounter:

"The Dunstons' bill came to eight dollars, which, everyone agreed, was a lot to pay for two cups of coffee. But they were large ones, and this was a vacation, sort of. Not like a trip to Florida, but you certainly couldn't do that at the drop of a hat, especially with gas prices the way they are and looking to go even higher.

While talking, Mrs. Dunston rummaged through her tremendous purse. Her wallet was eventually located, but then it seemed that the register was locked, so the best solution was to put the coffees on her bill." (p. 350.)

I laughed so many times during this essay; Sedaris has the mundane conversation and all the details just right, right down to the short-sleeved linen blazer and the tremendous purse. He is very, very good at describing others' conversation, particularly in service situations (which is why his early piece about working as a Christmas elf in a department store was such a tour de force). For me, this one essay really made the whole book.*

So is it his best collection? Not really. Is there still quite a bit of fun, readable stuff here? Absolutely.

*Although I also loved his essay on how he keeps notebooks/journals/diaries and has for a long, long time, and how he uses them in his writing (including indexing key parts of them, which of course totally melts my geeky indexing heart).