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August 2014

Labor Day: a reading list.

I love Labor Day. Love it, love it, love it. Summer's on the way out,* it's a day off work,** there's no family gatherings, and we're not celebrating war.

I also love it because I love reading about the subject of work. I love reading about work about a million times more than I enjoy working, but that's another story for another day. I was looking back through old blog posts and found a list I made of work-related readings; I've pasted that at the bottom of this post. But I thought today I'd add a few newer titles to the list (links in this top list go to my reviews of the titles):

1. Michael Lewis's Flash Boys, about high frequency trading, which contains great insights into modern trading and the role of computer programmers in that world.

2. Victoria Sweet's God's Hotel, about being a doctor in San Francisco's Laguna Honda hospital.

3. Rose George's Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes On Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. That title is self-explanatory, but I will say this: Rose George is fantastic, and you should be reading her.

4.Ray Huling's Harvesting the Bay: Fathers, Sons and the Last of the Wild Shellfishermen. Another self-explanatory title, and much more interesting than it sounds.

5. Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work, by Jeanne Marie Laskas. A great, page-turning nonfiction read.

6. Gig: Americans Talk about Their Jobs, edited by John Bowe. An oral history about work. And oh, I LOVE John Bowe. See my note about "Nobodies," below.

7. Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do, by Gabriel Thompson. Thompson worked (among other jobs) as a migrant agricultural worker and in a butchering plant. I promise you you'll never look at chicken the same way.

And here's the 2009 list:

1. Gil Reavill's Aftermath, Inc., in which the author joined a group of workers who clean up death scenes and accidents (particularly those which involve any kind of biohazard). Not for the faint of heart, but a good rollicking read nonetheless.

2. Scott Rosenberg's Dreaming in Code. Hands down one of the most interesting and illuminating books I've ever read about computer programming. I still don't understand it but I have a better understanding of what I don't understand.

3. Ted Conover's Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Good lord, I hope I'm never convicted of anything. I couldn't handle being a prison guard, much less being IN prison.

4. William Langewiesche, The Outlaw Sea. It is William Langewiesche, writing about modern-day pirates. Ask no questions, just read.

5. Stacy Horn's The Restless Sleep; discussed at length earlier this week but an unbelievable look at those who work around murder victims, particularly cold case investigators.

6. John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers, in which he makes trucking and the profession of trucking fascinating.

7. John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. Well, it's about work, unfortunately the work isn't really voluntary. I quoted this one to my poor mother again just the other day: I continue to be floored by Bowe's brilliant, and brilliantly simple assertion that (I'm paraphrasing, but this is fairly close) "the system isn't broken--the system is working exactly the way the system was set up to work." Holy Christ. Think on that one for a few minutes.


8. The Working Stiff's Manifesto, by Iain Levison. I don't agree with this author's rather casual attitude toward stealing from one's employer (although I'm no innocent--I still have and use the apron I was provided with as a Country Kitchen waitress--and I'm not giving it back!), but it's still a great book.

Happy Labor Day, all. Now go take a load off.

*Whenever the temperature gets above 60 degrees I get testy. Summer is not my season.

**Well, not for me currently, as a freelance schlub, but I have fond memories of gainful M-F employment and legal holidays.

Fall book preview.

There's a preview list over at Flavorwire (one of my favorite websites of all time, although it can be a massive time suck) of "25 Must-read Books for the Fall." And, heavens to betsy, there's a lot of nonfiction on it!*

So, I just went to peruse it, and was thinking, yeah, okay, some of those books might be good...and then I saw an essay collection by Meghan Daum. I am BEYOND excited. Literally, her book of essays titled My Misspent Youth is on my bedside table right now; I got it back from the library because I'm trying to learn how to write essays and I think she is really, really good at it. YAY!

And actually, that is a pretty interesting list of coming nonfiction titles. Do check it out. And join me in looking forward to autumn! This has actually been a very nice summer, but I start to feel more human when the temperature gets back down to 60 degrees or so.

*Take note, LibraryReads, you not-very-interesting largely nonfictionless monthly book list, you.

Must-have for all readers: "The Western Lit Survival Kit"

Mercifully there has been one book throughout the past weeks that I had no problems finishing: Sandra Newman's FANTASTIC The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner.

And yes, it merits that capitalized FANTASTIC.

Never had time to read the classics? Running out of time to read the classics, and want to know which ones you should read, and why? Well, my friends, this is the book for you. Not only will you get the literary education you thought you might get in high school or college (but didn't), you will get a lot of laughs. Allow me to illustrate:

Recently, publishers have turned to spoon-feeding (Ulysses for Dummies--Extra-Dumb Edition); fear (1001 Books to Read or You'll Die!); and quirk (How Proust can Change Alain de Botton's Income) with some success. Even people who don't want to read the Great Books will read about the Great Books" (p. xi.)

And this, on "Paradise Lost" author John Milton:

"Milton had no sense of humor, wasn't good with women, and had Puritan attitudes toward drinking, theater, sex, and fun in general. So few things in Milton's life are interesting that you could count them on the fingers of one hand and still have enough fingers free to do ten things that are more fun than Milton ever had. However, he did write some of literature's most intellectually ambitious poetry, including the game-changing Paradise Lost." (p. 93.)

And, on Voltaire (about whom I know nothing, although I recognize the name):

"Voltaire has become the flagship writer of the French Enlightenment, although he is not the best writer, or the most radical writer, or the most read writer. It might just be because he has the best pen name. (Take note, Detroit: Is Voltaire not the perfect name for a compact electric car?)...

His downfall was that he was a born gadfly. He could make 'the' sound sarcastic. He could make scratching sound sarcastic. If he wrote a scene in which a priest had sex with a woman, it somehow implied that priests were all sex creeps. Meanwhile, even Voltaire didn't believe this literally. He just couldn't help himself when a gadfly thought came into his head. He was once told, 'No matter what you write, you will never succeed in destroying the Christian religion.' He replied, 'We'll see about that.'" (p. 128.)

I'm not even finding the best quotes for you, but it doesn't matter, because the whole book is just one sparkling little literary biography and bibliography after another. Newman also helpfully lists each author's best known works and gives them number scores based on "Importance," "Accessibility," and "Fun," so you know which works to start with if you do want to start reading through the Western canon.

Or, if you're not up for that? This book will certainly give you enough information and context on the Great Books that you will be able to credibly fake that you have read them. But perhaps most importantly, this is just an effortless read. A "10," as far as I'm concerned, on both Accessibility and Fun.

Lotsa starting, not much finishing.

Today I sat down to write a post, and nothing came to me. I thought, what is wrong here? I've been reading. If I haven't been finding anything drop-dead scintillating, I also haven't been bored by what I've been reading. So what is the problem?

Well, I thought, I guess I've been reading books, but it doesn't seem like I've been finishing any books. So then, later, as I was trying to clean this dump up, I started counting books that I was in the middle of. Guess how many?


Okay. Well, that is just ridiculous. No wonder I don't have anything to write tonight. That just totally sums me up lately--all over the shop. Doing lots of stuff, not actually getting anything done. Gone through any times like that, where you just can't settle down into what you're reading?

Education books: Jonathan Kozol's "Death at an Early Age."

Lately I have been reading a lot of books on the subject of education, simply because CRjr is growing up and will eventually have to go to school. So I've been on the hunt for good books about school and education. My search was jumpstarted when I read, and found a lot to think about, in Amanda Ripley's terrific book The Smartest Kids in the World.

I didn't really know where to start looking or reading, so I decided to stick with some names I know. One of the big dogs in education writing is Jonathan Kozol, and I remembered reading and liking his book Savage Inequalities in college.* Because I'd already read that one, and I kind of wanted to see where Kozol got his start, I requested his first book, Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, from the library. When it arrived it gave me a start. Do you know how old books that were first published in 1967 look? (Really old.)

Kozol tells you what the book is about in his first paragraph: "During the academic year 1964-1965, I found myself teaching in a segregated classroom of the Boston Public Schools. With no training in education and no experience as a teacher, I was sent into an overcrowded ghetto school on a substitute basis, given a year-long assignment, though on a day-to-day salary, to teach a Fourth Grade class within a compensatory program that had been designed for Negro children and that was intended to preserve the racial status quo in Boston by upgrading the segregated schools." (p. xi.)

I only got to about page 50 or so and I became too depressed to read further. (I find you can only read about children's spirits being crushed, and things like their hands getting whacked with rods, for so long, before wanting to give up and stop living.) It's an interesting book, and it's interesting to see where Kozol got his start. But if you're looking for a slightly less visceral but still compelling book on education, his books Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools or The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America might be a better place to start.

*I don't remember any of my college schoolwork, so the fact that I both remember reading and liking this title, considering education was not my major, is extraordinary.

Holy depressing books, Batman: The Silent Wife

The Silent Wife
by A.S.A. Harrison

Third and last in our series of fiction books I read, three in a row, that kicked me in the gut.

Today's book is A.S.A. Harrison's novel The Silent Wife, and I'm telling you, if you haven't yet read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (or even if you have), kick that one to the curb and read this one instead. In all fairness, I think Gone Girl was meant to be just a thriller, whereas this one is a thriller with a bit more literary style behind it. This is how it begins:

"At forty-five, Jodi still sees herself as a young woman. She does not have her eye on the future but lives very much in the moment, keeping her focus on the everyday. She assumes, without having thought about it, that things will go on indefinitely in their imperfect yet entirely acceptable way. In other words, she is deeply unaware that her life is now peaking, that her youthful resilience--which her twenty-year marriage to Todd Gilbert has been slowly eroding--is approaching a final stage of disintegration, that her notions about who she is and how she ought to conduct herself are far less stable than she supposes, given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her." (pp. 3-4.)

Now, that makes you think this is going to be a straight-up thriller. But it's not. And in their own "imperfect yet entirely acceptable way" (I love that phrase), the main characters here are both somewhat sympathetic and likable.* For a long time the story just moves along, making you think it is one thing (quite skillfully), but the middle, there's a couple of sucker punches that I was completely not expecting. Maybe you will--there are hints throughout the book. But I did not, and the punches were very sad ones.

I think my one-sentence review to Mr. CR was, "this book is horrifying--in a good way." And that sort of sums up how I felt about all three of these depressing books. They made me think; I thought they were good books; but can I, in all conscience, actually RECOMMEND them to others to read? I just don't know. What do you do when you want to suggest scary or depressing books to others?

*Unlike in Gone Girl, where I found the husband and wife both to be completely uninteresting, unlikable people. Which hampered my caring about them, or the story, in any way whatsoever.

Holy depressing books, Batman: The Chocolate War

Have you read this thing?

Okay, Robert Cormier's classic YA novel The Chocolate War was published before I was born. (God, it's getting rare to be able to say that about a book.) It's often listed on lists of classic books for teens, especially for teen boys, and it's still one of the most challenged books in libraries (it's number 3 on the list of top 100 banned books for 2000-2009). Because I'd heard of it so often, I think I read it somewhere in my mid- or late twenties, and I remembered that I found it interesting...

...but what I didn't remember is this book's ending.

This is all I'm going to say.

The plot is not complicated. Jerry Renault, who attends a private Catholic high school, is singled out by the school's secret society, The Vigils (along with some other students) for an "assignment" (the "assignments" are basically hazing). His assignment? To refuse to sell chocolates as part of the school's fundraising chocolate sale. But when the assignment ends...Jerry does something that no one expects. And at first it has some unexpected effects, but then...well, that's all part of the ending, which I'm not going to tell you.

But I can say this: not often does Mr. CR say "holy shit" (or the equivalent) when finishing a book. Both of us were stunned. It's a great book. It's a crushing book. But is it a book that should really be read by YAs? I just don't know.

What do you think?

Holy depressing books, Batman: We Need to Talk about Kevin

And now, for your reading pleasure, a journey through my recent fiction choices, which have been depressing the living shit out of me. Please do pardon my French, but if you read the three books I'm going to talk about in quick succession, I think you'll find a little bit of profanity is the least of all our worries.

And apologies: I'll get back to nonfiction. I've been reading nonfiction too. Interestingly enough I've been doing some research for a variety of projects, and the research has required fiction reading.

A case in point: Lionel Shriver's novel We Need To Talk About Kevin. I first saw this one in a bookstore, and because I have a friend named Kevin, I almost got it for him. But then I read the jacket copy and thought, well, perhaps not: "If the question of who's to blame for teenage atrocity intrigues news-watching voyeurs, it tortures our narrator, Eva Khatchadourian. Two years before the opening of the novel, her son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and the much-beloved teacher who had tried to befriend him."

And that really sums it up. The book follows the format of Eva's letters/diary to her husband, Franklin, about their son and what happened in the years leading up to the "incident."* For the first couple of hundred pages, I thought it was a bit too pat, and that Shriver made Kevin out to be to easily "evil," from the day he was born. But somewhere in the middle I started wondering if this was a quietly genius book (and indeed, if that all-knowing feeling of evilness from the beginning wasn't some of the point, as the book is told entirely from Eva's viewpoint; is she a reliable narrator, or is she not?). Somewhere in the middle, she is describing how she goes to visit Kevin in jail (a juvenile facility, as he committed the crimes a few days before his 16th birthday), and this is what she discusses with another mother who is there visiting her also-incarcerated child:

"'It's always the mother's fault, ain't it?' she said softly, collecting her coat. 'That boy turn out bad cause his mama a drunk, or she a junkie. She let him run wild, she don't teach him right from wrong. She never home when he back from school. Nobody ever say his daddy a drunk, or his daddy not home after school. And nobody ever say they some kids just damned mean. Don't you believe that old guff. Don't you let them saddle you with all that killing.'

'Loretta Greenleaf!' [This is said by the guard.]

'It's hard to be a momma. Nobody ever pass a law say 'fore you get pregnant you gotta be perfect. I'm sure you try the best you could. You here, in this dump, on a nice Saturday afternoon? You still trying. Now you take care of yourself, honey. And you don't be talking any more a that nonsense.'

Loretta Greenleaf held my hand and squeezed it. My eyes sprang hot. I squeezed her hand back, so hard and so long that she must have feared I might never let go." (p. 166.)

Something about that got me. I've read reviews of this book where they said Lionel Shriver, as a woman without children, is not qualified to write this type of book. Which is ridiculous--should all fiction writers only be allowed to write about experiences they've lived? But if there are any faults with this book it is not with Shriver's imagination.

It was hard to read, and parts of it (especially if you thought about them too much) were almost enough to make a person sick. But I think the author did the subject (a very hard one, by the way) justice. Has anyone else out there read this thing? What do you think?

*I actually read it because I was interested to see how you could structure an entire novel this way, and tell the story backwards, as it were.