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March 2014

Dinner: A Love Story (skinny review)

Well, CR3 is nicely settling in to the family's routine (or are we settling into his?), leaving me just a bit more time for reading. However, I am still struggling to find the time to blog, and the books are getting ahead of me just a bit. So I thought this week I would run some "skinny" reviews--like sub sandwiches at our local Milio's shops, where you can buy just the meat and bread in a "skinny" sandwich--these reviews will have just the basics, folks.

Dinner: A Love Story: It All Begins at the Family Table, by Jenny Rosenstrach

What's it all about, briefly?: This book started as a blog, in which Rosenstrach, a publishing professional, posted about her family's nightly dinners (all of which she tracked in a notebook for years). The book covers the years when she was first married, had small children, lost her job, and other life changes.

Representative Quote: In her section on how non-cooking spouses and partners can support the cook: "#5. Take control of the heart sinkers. By this I mean, take care of all the things in the kitchen that routinely make the Cook's heart sink: discovering the dishes in the dishwasher are clean but unloaded, realizing just as you sit down to dinner that no one has anything to drink or that the soy sauce/ketchup/napkins are not on the table." (p. 108.)

The Skinny: An okay read, but the recipes aren't super practical unless you can stop by the big-city grocery or organic co-op on the way home. Beautiful photographs, though.

March Memoir Madness: More Than Conquerors

I really, REALLY enjoyed Megan Hustad's slim memoir More Than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments. My enjoyment was made all the more sweet because I did not expect to like it much at all.

I do not read a lot of books on religion, and I do not typically enjoy religious or evangelical memoirs (although, yes, I continue to be charmed by Anne Lamott). But in this book about Hustad's childhood spent traveling with her parents, who worked as religious missionaries (and the book itself is filled with Bible quotes and religious references), the religion itself seems almost beside the point. I didn't expect that, and because of that I found my enjoyment of this title sort of snuck up on me.

As noted, Hustad went with her parents at a very young age to live on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, where her father worked for the Christian evangelical Trans World Radio organization. Later on, the family transferred to Amsterdam, where again, her father tried to find his place in the world as a religious missionary. Eventually her parents left missionary work and they returned to Minnesota, and when she left home, Hustad ended up in New York City, working in the publishing field. It's quite the journey(s), to say the least, and because the memoir is only about 225 pages long, it moves along pretty quickly.

I think I enjoyed this one because Hustad's descriptions of her parents make them sound almost entirely unlike Christian evangelical missionaries. On Bonaire, her parents threw "fellowship" parties, where the kids shared how they named the geckos that got into the house: "Not everyone felt that naming geckos after godly women and men was appropriate or a good example to set for your children. Ankles crossed. My father chuckled. Anyone who laughed sincerely was invited back once a week." (p. 47.) In Amsterdam their mother took them on a drive through the red-light district. Back in Minneapolis, her father "resolved not to put a Jesus fish on the back of the Subaru. If anyone asked why not, he said, he would simply say that sadly, our car had not accepted Jesus Christ as its savior." (p. 132.)

Come on. That last one's funny. In all, I wouldn't have minded learning even more about Hustad's family dynamics, and her parents' religious convictions (I might have found that more interesting than her continuing coming-of-age in New York City, but I get how that was important to her personal narrative). But in all? An unexpected read, with some good food for thought. Not something I often find in "religious" memoirs.

March Memoir Madness: Once Upon a Flock

For a long while, I read a ton of memoirs each month.

And then, well, I overdosed on memoirs. Too many were leaving me unsatisfied or just plain uninterested, so I stopped reading them for a while. Just lately, however, I've been finding my way back to a few of them. One that I was able to read very quickly was Lauren Scheuer's lightweight but still very enjoyable title Once Upon a Flock: Life with My Soulful Chickens.

This is another book that I think I found while reading about the New Domesticity, and the current hot hobby of keeping chickens in one's yard.* Mercifully, this wasn't any sort of "back to the land," "gonna grow all my own food" type memoir. I really hate most of those.** This was just a nice story of how one woman faced her coming empty nest (her daughter Sarah was a teenager and wasn't around their home or yard as much) by getting a few new tenants, namely actual chickens, in the nest and coop that she wanted to build for them.

What follows is a very nice, actually borderline touching story of how much the author got to know and love her chickens. It includes numerous illustrations and pictures, and along the way you'll actually learn a little something about chickens as animals (like how eggs are actually produced). And this:

"All birds molt. It's a natural occurrence. Feathers are astoundingly durable, but they do require replacement from time to time. All chickens have their own molting style. Some drop a feather here and there, and it's hardly noticeable. Other hens opt for the speed molt. One day they look voluptuous, and the next day the coop looks like a chicken exploded, feathers absolutely everywhere, and a nearly naked hen cowering in the corner." (p. 176.)

I wish I could show you the picture that goes with that quote; it's pretty cute. And that really sums up the whole book. Not an earth-shatteringly great read, but actually pretty cute. It was a nice fresh read while the winter of 2013-14 just drags on and on and on.

*A few years back when I went to the eye doctor, out of nowhere, she said, "Did you grow up on a farm?" I said, yes, how did you know that? She asked if I'd ever been around chickens, or played near their coop, and I said yes, I did play in an empty building that had been a chicken coop. That's when she explained she saw some scarring on one of my eyes that was the result of being infected by some sort of chicken parasite at some point in my youth. Had I had the scarring in a different place, I would have been blind in that eye. So: no one around here is ever keeping chickens in her yard, thank you very much.

**Having grown up on a farm, and never wanting to go back to a farm, these gung-ho earthy memoirs tend to leave me cold. Do you know how many hours farmers (and other "back to the landers") work? ALL THE TIME. 24/7. Me? I'm not all that fond of working 8/5, to tell you the truth. So, for the most part, you won't catch me reading "I just want to farm and grow my own food and get my hands in dirt" memoirs by choice.

Just in time for April as National Poetry Month.

Just in time for National Poetry Month, I am trying something new. Check it out over at:

Yes, I know, just what I need, another blog, when I am not posting enough at this one. But I want to learn about other social media platforms (and God help me, I just don't have the strength to tackle Twitter yet), and I find it's been oddly soothing to fit my daily housewifely crankiness into 17 syllables. Let me know what you think.

In other news, the other night I had a lovely dream about the author John Green*. We went on a fantastic date. And during the dream, I thought, wait a second, John Green is married...or is he? I have to check and see if he's gotten a divorce!! (Very excitedly.) It didn't occur to me until I woke up (dammit) that, oh yeah, I'm married as well. Oh, well. I told Mr. CR about it and he took it like a good sport, although, now that I think about it, he was also happy to move on from the subject. It occurs to me now that I probably should have asked him how many celebrities he's dreamed about.**

*I think it was precipitated by the fact that the day after I posted about Tony Hawks's fantastic book Round Ireland with a Fridge, John Green vlogged about the VERY SAME BOOK and called it underrated. John Green, how I love thee, let me count the ways.

**Mr. CR's policy is that he will tell me stuff, but only if I ask the right questions.

Do librarians read nonfiction?

This is a question I have wondered about for some time. I have been thinking about it again this week after reading RickLibrarian's excellent post about the lack of nonfiction galleys and programs at the Public Library Association conference last week.

Although many librarians I have met have been enthusiastic readers of both fiction and nonfiction, I have always had the feeling that they are always slightly more interested in fiction (particularly genre fiction, in my opinion) than in nonfiction, and that they also weren't as comfortable helping patrons find recreational nonfiction reading choices. This strikes me as a shame, because helping people find good nonfiction books is a load of fun.

I have also noticed this trend in the new LibraryReads booklists, which are being heavily touted as the librarians' response to other trend-making booklists. So far I have found this list disturbingly short on nonfiction. That is very disappointing, although I salute what they're trying to do.

What say you? Do librarians need to wake up and smell the delicious nonfiction coffee?

The smartest kids in the world...

...are not being produced by the U.S. education system.

When journalist Amanda Ripley points this out (based on PISA--Program for International Student Assessment--tests, on which students in such countries as Finland, Korea, Japan, Canada, and France all score better than U.S. students) points this out in her new book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, she makes it clear that she is not blaming the students. She is, in fact, blaming the American education system.

Ripley opens her book with a discussion of the PISA test, and its development, not by an educational theorist, but by a physicist named Andreas Schleicher, who wanted a more accurate and unbiased measurement for how students compare to one another on an international scale. The test is noted for its ability to measure students' ability to think critically (rather than just offering multiple choice questions), and that is the aspect in which many American students really struggle. Based on what she learned about that test, the author decided to follow American exchange students as they studied in Finland, Poland, and Korea, in order to get a more immediate feel for the differences in educational systems.

It was an interesting read. One thing I particularly liked about it was Ripley's debunking of the myth that American students struggle because the American child poverty rate is so high (20%--yet another measurement that Americans should not be proud of). She refers to this as the narrative that external factors (like poverty, negligent parents, etc.) are the problem with schools, and this is what she says about that:

"The only problem with this narrative was that it was habit forming. Once you start locating the source of your problems outside your own jurisdiction, it is hard to stop, even when the narrative is wrong." (p. 36.)

A few of the other differences between education systems that Ripley explores are other countries' more rigorous methods of selecting for and training teachers; the fact that in much of Europe athletics are completely divorced from school (the kids play sports, but sports are not really connected with school, and for the most part teachers elsewhere were horrified that teachers here often combine teaching duties with coaching ones); there is much less technology in international classrooms than in American ones; and students take school and studying much more seriously elsewhere (although, in the "pressure cooker" system in South Korea, this might not actually be a good thing).

And then there was this nugget, which warmed my heart, as I used to tell this to people at the library until I was blue in the face (and very few people seemed to listen):

"And at least one high-impact form of parental involvement did not actually involve kids or schools at all: If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, their children were more likely to enjoy reading, could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what parents said." (p. 111--emphasis mine.)

The book is not perfect; at times Ripley seems to make somewhat contradictory statements (for instance: should control of education be more localized, or less? I thought her conclusions unclear on this point) and she doesn't seem to pay as much attention to the student she followed in Poland as to the other two. But those are small quibbles with an otherwise fascinating read. If you have school-age children, I'd look at it: there's some good ideas for how you can most effectively spend your time helping your children improve upon the embarrassingly low-ranked education available here.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

I am not Irish, so I have never felt completely comfortable going all out for St. Patrick's Day. I don't mind if you do, regardless of your ethnic heritage, but I've never, say, felt compelled to wear green on March 17.*

However, I would be remiss today if I did not suggest to you a fantastic backlist title: Tony Hawks's Round Ireland with a Fridge. The title says it all: author and comedian Tony Hawks decided to hitchhike around Ireland with a mini-fridge in tow, and his account of the types of people willing to pick up such a hitchhiker (and his baggage) is nothing short of fabulous. It's been years since I read it, but just thinking about it has put me in the mood to get it back from the library.

In other Irish author news, please note that Roddy Doyle has a new book out (The Guts), which is a sequel to his novel The Commitments (which was made into a fantastic movie of the same name). I haven't read it, but I'd like to. I like Roddy Doyle.**

*Which is a good thing, because I'm currently down to very few items of clothing that are acceptable for going out and about, and none of them are green.

**And once, when indexing a book, I suggested to the author that she might not want to refer to Roddy Doyle as a "British" author. I still think that was the right call, although the author was not best pleased with my opinion.

Always wanted to attend a library conference?

And who hasn't?

If you feel like you're missing out on the Public Library Association conference going on right now in Indianapolis, you might want to check out live conference reports over at the Reader's Advisor Online, and also at RickLibrarian. It's just like being there!*

Also, even if you're not at the conference, don't forget that now's your chance to get a discount on select library reference and readers' advisory books from ABC-CLIO.

*Well, except you don't have to worry about the chances of bad weather, or the NCAA basketball tournament being held there.

Misled by a subtitle.

Weirdly enough, shortly after I got Across the Pond from the library, I also got Henry Hitchings's cultural history Sorry!: The English and Their Manners

I was very, very disappointed in it.

The problems began with the introduction. Which, at eight pages long, is about six pages longer than it needs to be*, since this is pretty much his whole thesis: "In the pages that follow, I examine English manners. I also examine Englishness." (p. 3.) Thereafter the narrative swings into (well, limps slowly along into, actually) a history of British manners, starting in medieval times and moving up through the twentieth century (and a bit beyond). It's not terribly written, and it actually has a nice notes section and an index, but it's on the crusty side of dry. It's also not so much a commentary on British manners as it is a HISTORY of British manners, which I don't think the subtitle was clear about.

I didn't finish this book, and I didn't find much to bookmark. I did mark this sentence as representative of the author's style: "If greeting people has become more relaxed (and thus in fact more awkward), the language of parting remains comparatively clear-cut, despite the rise of alternatives to a straightforward 'goodbye.' "(p. 48.) That's not even a very complicated sentence, but even re-reading it now my eye (and train of thought) tends to wander before I make it to the end.

*And, in all fairness, it is marked as chapter 1, although it functions as an introduction, laying out Hitchings's plan for the book. Hilariously, before I started writing this post, my memory of this first chapter was that it was at least 30 pages long. That's how long it felt.

The undeniable charms of Anne Lamott.

I think Anne Lamott is an interesting writer.

I say this in part because even when I don't think I'm going to read a book of hers, I often end up reading it anyway. I forget why I brought her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair home, but I know it wasn't for this jacket copy: "We begin, Lamott says, by collectig the ripped shreds of our emotional and spiritual fabric and sewing them back together, one stitch at a time." (I hate sewing, and I hate sewing metaphors.)

I only looked at the book when it was time to take it back to the library, and then I got started reading it. In it, Lamott attempts to answer these questions: "Where is meaning in the pits? In the suffering?"

And I must say, although I think there are no answers (no satisfactory answers, anyway) to those questions, I can't help but be charmed by Lamott's writing. This is how she describes the process by which people start wondering, a little more deeply, about the meaning of their lives:

"You're thinking about this for the first time when maybe it's a little late. Your life is two-thirds over, or you're still relatively young, but your girl went from being two years old to being eleven in what felt like eighteen months, and then in what felt like eight weeks to fifteen, where she has been now, sharply dressed as a bitter young stripper, for as long as you can fricking remember.

Oh, honey, buckle up. It gets worse." (p. 5.)

I was also charmed by her chapter on "the overly sensitive child," and how she was considered one, and how people were always telling her to get a thicker skin:

""As far as I can recall, none of the adults in my life ever once remembered to say, 'Some people have a thick skin and you don't. Your heart is really open and that is going to cause pain, but that is an appropriate response to this world. The cost is high, but the blessing of being compassionate is beyond your wildest dreams. However, you're not going to feel that a lot in seventh grade. Just hang on." (p. 28.)

I'll say this for Lamott: she does not give me the heebie jeebies, the way most spirituality/religious writers do. I think it's because she has a sense of humor. At any rate, this book's only about 100 pages long. I'm doing a horrible job of describing it but it wouldn't take you a lot of time to investigate this title for yourself.

Even I have a thriller weak spot.

by Robin Cook

Oh, Robin Cook. How I enjoy you and your terrible, terrible writing.

If you've not heard of him, Robin Cook is the author of multiple bestselling medical thrillers. He is perhaps best known for the thriller Coma, which became a well-received movie by the same title.* I personally know him best for an even earlier book, the (non-medical) thriller Sphinx, which featured a feisty Egyptologist who stumbled onto an antiquities scam while in Egypt. As I first read this book when I was about eleven, when I actually wanted to BE an Egyptologist, you can imagine that was a reading experience that stuck with me.

Cook's medical thrillers are almost always based on some recent medical breakthrough or topic; in this one, Cell, the focus is on a medicine app called iDoc. While being tested (and seeming very successful at becoming patients' virtual primary care provider), iDoc eventually starts taking all that it learns about patients and uses that information in some unorthodox ways. I'll give him this: his books are all that thrillers should be: quick reads (I plowed through this one in couple of days) and somewhat unnerving (especially for someone who already distrusts the medical establishment). Hilariously, they also always offer one tryst scene, and here is the one from this book:

"With a certain desperation the two old friends hesitantly clung to each other, then abandoned restraint. They tore off their robes. Sinking into the canopied bed, they devoured each other, making mad, passionate love. For a few paradisiacal moments they allowed their minds and bodies to be completely absorbed in the giving and receiving of pleasure. Some time later, locked in an embrace as if afraid their coupling had been a dream and that the other was going to disappear, they fell into an exhausted, sublime sleep." (p. 337.)

Ah, canopied beds. So great for sinking into. But what can I say? Even a hardcore nonfiction reader sometimes needs a good fiction reading vice.

*Note to my sister: it featured Tom Selleck!

What we look like to the other side.

I had such high hopes for Terry Eagleton's Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America.

In the past I have of course enjoyed books discussing British characteristics, like Sarah Lyall's The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British and A. A. Gill's The Angry Island: Hunting the English. So when I heard about this title, I thought, hey, this'll be fun. And since I don't really think of my identity being much tied to being "American," I also didn't think Eagleton's cultural critique would affect me very deeply.

Well, I was right in that it didn't really affect me very deeply. But I also didn't find it much fun. Eagleton, a "public intellectual" (and author of literary criticism books: this should have been a clue), was born in England, but lives in Ireland with his wife and family. In this title, he takes a "quirky journey through the language, geography, and national character of the United States" (thank you, jacket copy). His chapter headings include the following: "America the Beautiful," "The Affirmative Spirit," "The One and the Many," and "The Fine and the Good." Sound vague? Well, they are, rather. One of the problems I'm having writing about this book is that I can barely remember, a week after I read it, its organizing principle or really what each chapter was about. I think that was one of the failings of this title: in its sameness and its dry-ish, rather academic style, it never offered any sort of narrative build-up to a larger or more cohesive point. When a book that is less than 200 pages long feels like a slog, you know you have a problem.

I did not really enjoy the book as a whole, but that does not mean I didn't enjoy some of its constituent parts. I stuck a great many bookmarks in it, for passages like the following:

"Because of the all-powerful will, Americans are great believes in the fraudulent doctrine that you can do anything you want if you try hard enough. In no other country on earth does one hear this consoling lie chanted so often...One wonders why the nation does not put its mind to abolishing poverty, if all of its mental strivings are guaranteed to succeed. The United States has a larger proportion of its population in prison, higher levels of mental illness, greater rates of teen pregnancy, a lower level of child well-beig, and higher levels of poverty and social exclusion than most other developed nations. Perhaps this is because its people have not been exercising their wills in concert." (p. 96.)

Kinda bitchy? Sure. Pretty funny? Yes. Fairy accurate? I'd say so. And, often, even when Eagleton offers a small compliment, he makes sure it still arrives with a small barb:

"Generally speaking, American students are a delight to teach. Yet they are not always able to voice a coherent English sentence, even at graduate level." (p. 33.)

About the most damning thing I can say about a book is that blogging about it is just totally boring. It hurts me to say that about this book, because it wasn't really that bad, but I have been struggling with boredom writing this post. And I have a sneaking suspicion you've probably been a little bored reading it. As they would say in Great Britain: sorry* about that.

*Eagleton explains: "One knows one is back in the United Kingdom when everyone is constantly saying "sorry" for no reason whatsoever." (p. 17.)

Everybody loves a coupon, right?

In case any of you are attending the Public Library Association conference in Indianapolis this year, I wanted to ask you to stop by ABC-CLIO's* booth at the exhibits to check out all their great readers' advisory reference books.

And, to sweeten the deal, ABC-CLIO is offering 20% off a lot of those titles. Click here for a PDF of their coupon to print and take along for the conference (or just ask anyone working in the booth about the deal).

Full disclosure: I am the series editor for the Real Stories series of readers' guides to nonfiction books--all of which are listed here. So of course I'd love for you to check those titles out and possibly buy some for use in your library! They're great for RA training, learning nonfiction authors and titles, pulling together fast displays, booklists, and bookmarks, and of course: just for fun for your own personal use.

Any questions? Ask in the comments or send me an email at [email protected]. And: enjoy the conference!**

*More disclosure: ABC-CLIO is the publisher who sponsors the Readers' Advisor Online blog, for which I write.

**I was emphatically not a believer in going to library conferences when I was a librarian. (Ask Mr. CR. He's had to listen to a lot of my complaining over the years about having to traipse all over to conferences where I just wasn't going to learn much.) But even I enjoyed the PLA conference. You gotta enjoy a conference full of public librarians: they're almost all hardcore readers, God love 'em, and most of them don't believe in wearing uncomfortable clothes just to look good.