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October 2013

She got me through again.

Many apologies for not posting recently, but we've been busy: a couple of weeks ago we added a new reader to our family in the form of CRjrst (short for CRjuniorest). Between him and CRjr we're a bit up to our ears in newborn squalls and three-year-old tantrums, but in a good way.

But the point of this post is to once again thank Helene Hanff. I took two of her books along with me to the hospital, just as I did when CRjr came along. I had less time to read them this time, but at one point Mr. CR had left to pick up CRjr, and CRjrst and I were alone, and he was sleeping. So I ordered up some lunch, parked CRjrst next to me, and read The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street while I ate lunch and looked out the window at the beautiful fall weather. It was something as near to a perfect moment as I ever hope to experience. Here's how Helene describes one of her favorite moments visiting London:

"...Hatfield House was the crowning touch. It's not the oldest palace or the most beautiful, it's just Elizabeth's [Elizabeth I's]. She grew up there. One wing of her palace is still standing, we saw her dining rooms--and more of her kitchens than she ever saw of them.

We sat on a stone bench in the garden. It was quiet and deserted and four hundred years dropped away, you could imagine yourself there in the garden with her when the gentlemen of the Council rode up and dismounted and knelt to tell her she was Queen of England." (p. 133.)

If you don't know her, Hanff is the author of the spectacular title 84, Charing Cross Road, which is a collection of the twenty-year correspondence between her and a bookseller located on Charing Cross Road in London. The book described above, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, is her travelogue memoir of a trip she was able to take to London after the Charing Cross Road book was published.

Anyway. I hope not to be in the hospital again anytime soon. But if I am, I will certainly take her along again. She's one of the most soothing companions I know.

Max Barry's Lexicon.

by Max Barry

After my disappointments this summer with Max Brooks's World War Z and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, I was very, very glad to chance across Max Barry's spectacular novel Lexicon.*

The novel tells two concurrent stories: that of Wil Parke, who in the very first chapter is abducted by two men out of an airplane bathroom because he's something called the "outlier," and Emily Ruff, a runaway who is scouted by an exclusive school that trains "poets," or people who can peg your specific personality type and use that knowledge and language to control you through words and sounds.

It sounds like a lot to take in, but Barry's writing is crisp and the narrative is easy enough to follow (I'm not a fiction reader who enjoys or understands real convoluted plots, so if I can follow the story, I know it's pretty "follow-able"). The one thing that does get tricky is that the book's timeline jumps around a bit, and sometimes I found that hard to figure out, but as noted, when I read fast (which is how I read fiction, mostly) I don't pay as much attention to detail as I should.

The book was a good read, but it was even better as food for thought about language and privacy rights (with "newsy" interludes sprinkled throughout, like Internet quizzes and items about cover-ups). Trust me, after reading this book, you'll feel slightly differently about taking quizzes in Facebook and that pop up in every browser window (most often pegged to your Google subject searches). 

I also enjoyed this book because it gave Mr. CR and I a lot to chat over. Libraries may not own enough copies of this one to make it feasible, but I think it would make a fantastic book club read.

No text snippets from this one, I just want you to read it. But I did enjoy this bit, from the acknowledgments: "And, hey. You. Thanks for being the kind of person who likes to pick up a book. That's a genuinely great thing. I met a librarian recently who said she doesn't read because books are her job and when she goes home, she just wants to switch off. I think we can agree that's as creepy as hell."

*And I owe Mr. CR for the favor: he's the one who requested the book from the library.

Everybody poops.

I loved, loved, LOVED Rose George's investigative book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.

Let me rephrase, as a matter of fact: I would go so far as to say that I would be a totally happy camper if I could find a nonfiction book this good to read every single week. Or perhaps two every week. Two superlative nonfiction titles a week (and the time in which to read them, as long as we're dreaming). I don't ask much, do I?

But I digress. As you can tell from the title, George's book is about all things poo, defecation, sanitation, sewage, toilets, and all sorts of other lovely and earthy topics not normally discussed in polite company (the author frequently points out, for example, that everyone, including celebrities, want to be involved in "clean water" campaigns, but nobody wants to deal with the less glamorous "sanitation" part of "water and sanitation").

George had me from the second chapter*, in which she has much to say about TOTO, a Japanese toilet manufacturing company. They take their toilets very, very seriously in Japan, so TOTO takes its product very seriously as well. And I chuckled each time I read the name--we own a TOTO toilet of our own here at Chez CR, and we've always been very happy with it.**

The book is not all lighthearted--George points out fairly early on that 2.6 billion people in the world don't have sanitation (as of 2008, when this book was first published). And then she puts that into context for first-world readers: "I don't mean that they have no toilet in their house and must use a public one with queues and fees. Or that they have an outhouse, or a rickety shack that empties into a filthy drain or pigsty. All that counts as sanitation, though not a safe variety. The people who have those are the fortunate ones. Four in ten people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket, or box. Nothing. Instead, they defecate by train tracks and in forests. They do it in plastic bags and fling them through the air in narrow slum alleyways. If they are women, they get up at 4 a.m. to be able to do their business under cover of darkness for reasons of modesty, risking rape and snakebites. Four in ten people live in situations where they are surrounded by human excrement because it is in the bushes outside the village or in their city yards, left by children outside the backdoor. It is tramped back in on their feet, carried on fingers onto clothes, food, and drinking water." (p. 2.)

Ooof. A paragraph like that'll make you think, especially when it appears on the second page of the book, for the love of all that's holy.

And yet she has a lovely light touch with her subject, and although she doesn't really insert herself in the narrative, her voice is delightful. I found her style somewhat similar to Mary Roach's, but I liked George's tone and prose so much better--Roach sometimes gets a bit "twee" for me and I get tired of her endless footnotes, some of which are funny but which mostly end up being just distracting.

So why did I check this book out? George has a new book coming out, called Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, about worldwide shipping, and that sounds very good too. While I was waiting for it, I thought I'd read this earlier title, and now that I know how good this author is, I'm really excited to get the new book.

*The first chapter, on sewers, is excellent also.

**I may be the first person in the world who demanded that my plumber charge me more when he replaced our broken-down toilet a few years back. He offered a standard Mansfield, and I had to explain, "Look, this is our ONE toilet, and how can I put this delicately, we need a workhorse here." So he gave us the TOTO, which cost more, and has been worth every penny. It was put in on my birthday (a great present), and lives in family and house lore as "Toto the Birthday Toilet."