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January 2014

Another snore-worthy list from the ALA.

I have never been a huge fan of the American Library Association.

Each year this opinion is solidified when I check out their lists of Notable Books. It's always one of the least interesting lists I come across, and this year is no exception. Here are the books they suggest:


  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah
  • Kate Atkinson - Life After Life
  • Edwidge Danticat – Claire of the Sea Light
  • Juliann Garey – Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See
  • Paul Harding – Enon
  • Kristopher Jansma – The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
  • Herman Koch – The Dinner
  • Anthony Marra – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
  • Claire Messud – The Woman Upstairs
  • Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being
  • Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

No kidding, I find this fiction list so boring my eyes literally started wandering anywhere else across the room by the time I got to Paul Harding.


  • Scott Anderson – Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
  • Nicholas A. Basbanes – On Paper
  • Cris Beam – To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care
  • Daniel James Brown – The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
  • Ian Buruma – Year Zero: A History of 1945
  • Sheri Fink – Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
  • Margalit Fox – The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
  • Simon Garfield – On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks
  • Robert Hilburn – Johnny Cash: the Life
  • Brendan I. Koerner – The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking
  • Virginia Morell – Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures
  • Eric Schlosser – Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
  • Rebecca Solnit – The Faraway Nearby

Wow, I'm even worse with this list than I was with the New York Times Notable list. The only one I've read here is Sheri Fink's Five Days at Memorial.

Has anyone read any of these books? Should I read any more of them, or can I just accept that I will never want to read much of anything that the ALA wants me to?

All that glitters?

I was SUPER EXCITED to hear about Matthew Hart's new book, Gold: The Race for the World's Most Seductive Metal.

Yes, all caps. I was just that excited. Why, you might ask? It's not like gold is all that scintillating a subject. I'm not even all that fond of gold--yellow gold, that is. (Yes, I'm an autumn, but I still prefer wearing silver and white gold. I'm a fashion daredevil.)

I was super excited because one of the books that started me on my love affair with nonfiction was Matthew Hart's title Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession. I loved that book and I'm not even sure why (I don't like diamonds either). One of these days I should re-read it; I just remember that it really grabbed my imagination and I enjoyed Hart's expertise on the subject, and his ability to make the discovery and refinement of diamonds so interesting.

In this book, Hart explores various aspects of this most precious of metals: its history (most often riddled with greed and violence), its role in the Spanish invasion of the Inca, its role in historical and current economies, and its discovery and mining in such locations as South Africa, the U.S., and China. It's an interesting book, and Hart still knows his way around prose:

"Spaniards came well equipped for the larceny of the sixteenth century. They reduced two empires, almost with a blow. They had the cavalier's weapon of mass destruction--Toledo steel. The swords were strong and flexible and the blades could take a razor edge. One good stroke took off a head. A horse and rider in full armor weighed three quarters of a ton. This massive equipage thundered along at twenty miles an hour, concentrating the whole weight on a sharpened steel point at the tip of a ten-foot lance. The Spanish could project such power through advanced technologies in sailing and navigation. And they had a pretext for the conquests they would make: winning souls for God." (p. 25.)

It was a good read. But it was not as good as I was hoping it would be. Part of this might be my distracted reading mind as of late--whenever Hart started discussing monetary policy (which he did a lot--it's a big part of gold as a subject), I just kind of shut down, as trying to understand most monetary policies is just beyond me. What I was looking for, I think, was more discussion on how gold is discovered and mined--if memory serves, Diamond offered a slightly more scientific viewpoint.

Not a bad read, really. But if I wasn't already a nonfiction lover, it wouldn't have been special enough to turn my head.

Men We Reaped: Read-Alikes

It struck me yesterday as I was posting about Jesmyn Ward's fantastic (and fantastically sad) memoir Men We Reaped: A Memoir, that it reminded me of several other books I've read. Librarians like the term "read-alikes" for books that they suggest which might be similar to other books you've read, but I confess I've never been that crazy about the term. Perhaps because I think it's sloppy terminology--I think book suggestions can also be made on the basis of similar or related subject matters (this is particularly important for nonfiction), and "read-alike" as a term doesn't always allow for that. But I digress. Following are some books you might want to consider in addition to or instead of Jesmyn Ward's memoir.

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc.

It's probably time for me to re-read this one but I honestly don't know if I have the heart. No kidding. I read it more than ten years ago and I still remember it. LeBlanc spent ten years getting to know families in the Bronx, and doesn't hold back on any details of the many struggles in their lives, including poverty, crime, abuse, and teen pregnancy (to name just a few). But it was a really eye-opening read, and a stunning work of reportage (and a just plain massive amount of work on the author's part).

Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence, by Geoffrey Canada.

Canada's memoir of growing up having to "prove himself" using ever-escalating violence is a gut-wrenching read, but trust me, you need to read it.

Warriors Don't Cry: The Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High, by Melba Pattillo Beals.

Beals was one of the original "Little Rock Nine," and her firsthand account of the bullshit she and her eight classmates had to go through to attend school at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, is really sad. As if high school isn't tough enough, imagine having to walk there followed by crowds of people yelling threats at you while you do.

These books focus mostly on race; if I can think of more memoirs that address the family relationships aspect of Men We Reaped, I'll add them later.

That's a sad book, mama.

Although I don't typically choose my reading material because it's been included on those yearly "best of" lists, I saw Jesmyn Ward's title Men We Reaped: A Memoir on so many of last year's lists that I felt compelled to check it out. Ward's novel Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award in 2010, and I always wanted to read that one, but never got around to it.

In this short and heartbreaking memoir, Ward explores her relationships with and the deaths of five young black men to whom she was close, including her younger brother. It's a memoir written in two parts, interspersed, with half of the chapters moving forward in time and the others moving back. In the chapters moving forward, Ward explores her own childhood and the lives of those in her tightly knit small-town Mississippi community (in chapters with headings like "We Are Born, 1977-1984" and "We Are Wounded, 1984-1987"), in those moving back she details the lives and deaths of the five men, starting with her friend Roger Eric Daniels III, who died in 2004, and ending with her brother Joshua, who died in 2000.

As you can probably guess, it's a heartbreaking book. Bless her, Ward is not really a melodramatic writer, but how on earth do you write about the deaths of five young men in four years and have it NOT be depressing? And it's not like the death stories are the only sad ones--there's also the stories of Ward's parents' rocky relationship, her single mother's unending work and jobs to keep she and her siblings fed, and tales of poverty and of drug and alcohol abuse galore.

Ward also provides the small details of what makes her community, to the extent that it is, cohesive--the funeral t-shirts they make up (for funerals families contribute pictures to be printed on t-shirts, that are then sold, just to cover costs, to other mourners); driving around her small town with friends; their practice of taking picnics to cemeteries when they visit graves to "feed the dead." For very personal reasons--including the death of my own brother at too young an age--as I was finishing this one up, it actually made me tear up a bit. And books hardly EVER do that to me--I am not a sentimental reader and I do not look for weepies in either my fiction or my nonfiction.

It just so happened that I was finishing this one up at the breakfast table. CRjr likes to take his time with his Cheerios and his fruit, so I sometimes sneak in a chapter or two of my current book while he eats. So when I closed the book and looked up, sad, thinking about the cultural divides in our country and the death of my own brother, CRjr looked over and saw my tears. And this is what he said:

"That's a sad book, Mama."

And I said yes, it was, but it was a good book. And then he said, "Mama needs a new book."

Well, true enough. But I'll be thinking about this one for a while yet.

Finishing off the week with a depressing YA read.

For some reason, while I spent some time this week reading kids' and YA books, I started thinking about S. E. Hinton (of The Outsiders fame) and her novel That Was Then, This is Now. I read it a long time ago, and I remember it depressing the hell out of me. Now that I'm older and more jaded, I wondered, would I still find it as depressing?

I did.

The story, in brief, is this: Bryon and Mark are best friends, and because Mark has lived with Bryon and his single mother for some years (after his abusive parents shot each other--one of the first clues of the true downer nature of this book), they are really more like brothers. They spend most of their time hustling pool, trying to find money to live while Bryon's mother is in the hospital having an operation, and eventually (in Bryon's case) dating the older sister of a gentle, hippie-ish young teenager in their neighborhood.

I won't spoil the ending; I'll just say that eventually the hippie-ish kid has a bad LSD trip (the book was first published in 1971, when LSD was the scary drug of the day), and this calamitous event forces Bryon, when he learns that Mark is dealing drugs, to do something it seems he really ends up regretting.

All I can say about this one is, wow, brutal. I feel like I need a nice adult murder mystery or something to cheer me up after this one. I've actually never read (and still don't read) a lot of YA books. Are a lot of them this melodramatic?

Still reading kids' books.

The Dollhouse Murders
by Betty Ren Wright

Thanks to the Reader's Advisor Online blog (which I co-edit), I noticed last week that the author Betty Ren Wright had died.

That name stood out because Wright was a Wisconsin author (Kenosha) and also because she wrote a book I really enjoyed when I was a kid: The Dollhouse Murders.

So just for old time's sake I checked the book out from the library last week and re-read it one night. It's the story of a twelve-year-old girl named Amy, who, after showing some frustration that she is always expected to babysit her younger and disabled sister Louann, is allowed to go stay with her Aunt Claire at the family's ancestral home (where, unbeknownst to her, her father's and Claire's grandparents, who raised them, met their untimely ends) for the summer. When she finds a beautiful dollhouse (and one that is modeled on the house in which she is staying, complete with dolls made to represent the family) in the attic, she's excited to play with it...until she starts to notice that the dolls in the house sometimes move themselves. And, more disturbingly, they move themselves into the positions in which they were found, murdered.

DollhouseI put that in italics because it creeped the hell out of me as a kid, and it still creeps the hell out of me.* Can Amy solve the mystery of the dollhouse, and the mystery of her great-grandparents' deaths as well? You bet she can. Let's hear it for Wisconsin girls; they can do anything.

*Dolls have always creeped me out and always will, full stop. I love my mother-in-law, but she collects dolls, and although I like visiting her, I do not like the way all her dolls watch me with their beady little eyes.

**Also: the image at the top of this post is a newer reissue of the book; the image at the bottom is the cover on the book when I first read it. And is, I think, the scarier cover. Do you agree?

TBR: Matt Taibbi's The Divide.

Many thanks to the Lesbrarian, Collection Development Librarian Extraordinaire, who has just alerted me to the fact that Matt Taibbi has a new book coming out in April titled The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.

As you know, I consider Taibbi's writing a mix of awesomeness and speaking truth to power, with just the right spicy piquant of profanity thrown in. I will expect you all to buy or borrow and read this title so we can talk about it here. That is all.

Younger reading: Gorgeous.

by Paul Rudnick

Either I'm just way more tired than usual, or I wanted to feel like I was flying through books again, but lately I have been reading (and re-reading) YA and kids' books. For the most part the huge boom in YA publishing has left me behind--I only have so much time for reading these days and it mostly still goes to nonfiction--but I have enjoyed big bestsellers like The Hunger Games trilogy and stand-alone titles like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. So when I saw that Paul Rudnick had a new novel out, I didn't let the fact that it was being marketed as a YA title stop me.

Rudnick is perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for the Kevin Kline movie In & Out (and as a playwright). However, he is also the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, titled I'll Take It. It's a crazy hilarious book, about a young-ish New York City guy who agrees to drive his mother and his two aunts (he's a good Jewish boy, after all, who can't say no to his mother) on their tour through New England to watch the leaves change. What they get up to along the way will, I think, surprise you. At least it did me, in the best possible way.*

This new title, Gorgeous, is a modern-day take on the Cinderella story. Becky Randle has grown up in a Missouri trailer park with her monstrously obese mother, but when her mother dies, Becky finds a cell phone and a phone number for "Tom Kelly." The same Tom Kelly, it turns out, who is a world-famous fashion (and lifestyle, and fragrance, and etc.) designer. When she calls the number, the person on the other end offers to fly her, first class, to New York City, where she meets Kelly and he makes her a once-in-a-lifetime deal: let him make her three dresses, and those dresses will make her the most beautiful woman in the world.

Becky, who is a really great character, actually stops and thinks about whether or not that's something she'd even want. That is, until her best friend (another great character, named Rocher, yes, after the candy) tells her not to be an idiot and TAKE THE DEAL. She does, and watching Becky's life proceed after she becomes Rebecca Randle, Gorgeous Woman, is fascinating. It's a thoroughly strange and enjoyable little story, and it eventually includes British royalty (another reason for me to love it), but the real pleasure in this book is the characterization and dialogue. That said, I don't know if it's dialogue I would have appreciated as a true YA. Consider this conversation between Becky and Rocher:

"'So you mean if I want to marry the prince I should do what, play hard to get?'

'No, I'm not saying you need to be an A-plus, number one, slap-her-silly cocktease like Shanice Morain [a girl they went to high school with]. Even though that is how she got Cal Malstrup to ask her to prom, she just kept giving him these hand jobs in the equipment shed next to the football field and she kept telling him that sh'ed love to do more but that she was a good Christian girl and that it says in the Bible that good Christians can only have joyful intercourse in the back of a white stretch limo.'" (p. 134.)

Now, I think that is hilarious. But in high school? Or even younger? I just don't know.

Actually, I rather agree with the reviewer who wondered if this was really an adult book being sold as YA**, because it has young characters and because YA is what sells lately. But all of that aside: it certainly wasn't a dull read.

*Just thinking about this book again makes me want to go find it on my shelves and re-read it again, right now.

**Although I actually think this review does a better job of describing the inexplicable appeal of this book.

Reading beneath my grade level.

Last week CRjr had a playdate with a lovely young friend of his who lives just down the road. This particular playdate had the bonus for me of bringing with it his friend's mother, who is a delightfully down-to-earth woman with whom a person can have an interesting conversation.

This person also has an older son, who is in school and is already a bit tired out with all the homework (in first grade, mind you). So she told me that a lot of the time at home he "reads below his grade level." At first I misunderstood, thinking she meant that he was testing or reading below his grade level*, and I said something inane like "Don't all boys? And then they just read when they're ready or interested anyway?" And she had to explain, no, her son likes reading, he just chose to read picture books and other "younger" things because that was more relaxing for him after a long day of school and homework.

So I thought of that conversation all week, as I consistently read things "beneath my grade level." And enjoyed myself thoroughly. More on the actual books tomorrow. But do you ever regress in your reading tastes? If so, why?

*Evidently schools obsessively test this sort of thing, and then use the results to needlessly worry or impress parents. This used to be my least favorite conversation at the reference desk: "My daughter is a fourth grader reading at an 11th grade level. Do you have anything challenging but without any adult themes, subjects, or language for her?" Usually it wasn't even a conversation, because you would try to find such a book for the parents who said things like this, and they didn't even check them out, because mainly they just wanted to tell someone about their genius child. What I WANTED to say was, "Yeah, I always read ahead of my grade level, too, lady, and guess where it got me? Working at a public service desk at 8 p.m. on a Friday. Good luck to your kid."

Rose George* does it again.

Last year I read journalist Rose George's fantastic book on poo, titled The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. I loved it. It was, bar none, one of the best books I read all year.

So I was very excited when my copy of her latest book, Ninety Percent of Everything, came in at the library. The book is about the shipping industry, which George investigated by living: she actually traveled on a container ship, the Maersk Kendal, from Felixstowe (the Kendal is actually a Dutch ship, but George joins its crew from a port in Great Britain) to its final port of call in Singapore. She explains, early on, why this is a subject in which she is fascinated:

"The Maritime Foundation, a charity that promotes seafarer matters, recently made a video called Unreported Ocean. It asked the residents of Southampton, a port city in England, how many goods are transported by sea. The answers were varied but uniformly wrong. They all had the interrogative upswing of the unsure.**

'Thirty-five percent?'

'Not a lot?'

The answer is, nearly everything. Sometimes on trains I play a numbers game. A woman listening to headphones: 8. A man reading a book: 15. The child in the stroller: at least 4 including the stroller. The game is to reckon how many of our clothes and possessions and food products have been transported by ship..." (p. 3.)

I love that George is out there in the world, thinking and writing about shipping for us, because who else would have the time or the necessary drive to travel on a huge container ship? One that may or may not be boarded by pirates at some point along its route? (The chapters on piracy, by the way, are fascinating and horrifying in equal measures.)

It's a good book; do check it out. I'll confess it wasn't quite what I expected--I was thinking George would take a somewhat broader view of the entire shipping industry, rather than framing many of her chapters around her travels on the one ship, but the more I read the more I enjoyed her approach. Of particular note is the very human face she puts on the ship's crew members and captain, as well as the individuals worldwide who seek to offer charitable services and help to such workers (which is necessary, because people working in the shipping industry, as you might guess, are not treated very well or paid very much).

You can also read a lengthy excerpt of the book at the NPR website. Try that and I'll bet you'll be hooked!

*By the way, I totally want a cool name like "Rose George." I love the succinctness of it.

**For whatever reason I love this sentence. Beautifully written stuff.

Trending search terms at Citizen Reader, and books in the new year.

My blogging software allows me to see what people are searching for when they come to this site, and I looked at it yesterday just out of curiosity. I had to laugh--evidently people were not huge fans of Tina Fey's hosting of the Golden Globe awards? The search phrase "Tina Fey is not funny" was the top search for this site after the awards show aired.

In other nonfiction and book news, it's new book season! If you want to see some of the new and big titles coming out in 2014, head on over to the Reader's Advisor Online and check out our compilation of "2014 Coming Attractions."

A new year, new reading resolutions.

Yup, I'm at least two weeks too late with this post. That's about how much of 2013 went (what? It's Christmas already?) and it looks like that's the way 2014 is going to go as well (what? It's mid-January already?). But, I figure, better late than never.

I'm not actually going to bother making many reading resolutions. (Or any resolutions: Had I actually pledged to "eat less" and "do some exercising," I'd already be failing. We were caught in a Polar Vortex! I need to eat to keep up my layer of insulating blubber!) What I am going to do is make a "tracking reading" resolution: this year I'm going to try and keep track of the books I read and skim in a spreadsheet. In some of the blogs I read regularly, I notice that a lot of people keep track of information about what they're reading, and it's kind of neat to get that perspective. Whether or not I'll be able to keep it up is debatable: I have always hated Excel and, my degree in Library Science notwithstanding, I'm not really very detail-oriented or good at organizing things. Don't tell any of my future potential employers, okay?

So I'll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, if you track your reading, either in a spreadsheet or some other way, what kind of information do you track?