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July 2015

Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker: True crime you simply must read.

I know, I know, nobody really wants to read True Crime.

And yet, people do. I do. And when I come across True Crime books that I think you should read, even if you have an aversion to the genre, I feel I have to tell you about them.

One such book is Robert Colker's Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery.

The book originally began life as an article in New York Magazine, about the Long Island serial killer and his victims. It's a complex story, making it a complex book: Kolker opens the narrative by describing five of the killer's victims (the four whose bodies were found on a New York barrier island off the shore of Long Island, in similar burlap sacks, and another victim, whom authorities can't confirm was or was not killed by the same perpetrator) and their lives, most of which were filled with details of complex and abusive family relationships, struggles to find "honest" work, eventual turns to escort services and prostitution to make money, addiction problems, and a host of unstable relationships. I found this part of the book the most challenging one to read; all of the women advertised their services as escorts under different names, so keeping their stories straight was a bit of a challenge.

Kolker structures his narrative a bit differently than most True Crime narratives, which tend to be very straightforward and story-driven. In this book he starts with the character portraits and narratives of the victims, and from there he works outward to consider their family circumstances and how their bodies were eventually found. In the latter half of the book, he examines the community life in the gated community of Oak Beach, on Jones Island, near which the remains (and the remains of several other unidentified individuals) were found, focusing particularly on the residents who have come to be viewed with suspicion by other residents, the police, and the media.

It's a challenging read, and it's a really sad read, but I still think you should look into it. Just to look through this window of how so many people (women, in particular) live their lives constantly at the edge of despair and bad luck and no good choices is educational, and important. Here's one thing that struck me about the book: Kolker (and many others) make the point that serial killers often target prostitutes and other individuals at the edge of society, because they have such tenuous connections and are often "not missed." To me this always made it sound like sex workers had no connections. But what is really clear in this narrative is that they DO have connections to other people--a ton of them. They've got parents and stepparents; siblings and step-siblings; often they have babies or children of their own; they've got friends; they often have pimps or boyfriends or guys who drive them to jobs. The greater problem is that those connections often exert pressures of their own: at least one of these victims was working to give her mother and family money; they are trying to support and raise children, and this job seems to offer the most pay for the fewest hours; they develop drug problems because of friends and pimps and dealers they know, and because johns often request drug use at the same time as escort services. So they're not really alone--they're just with all the (arguably) wrong people, all the time.

For some reason that gave me pause.

I also liked Kolker's writing style. It's direct. And I thought one of his conclusions was about as much as you could hope for:

"The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the Internet; they're stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What's clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don't exist. That, after all, is what the killer was counting on." (p. 381.)

Yes, it's hard to read. It's a heartbreaking story, and a heartbreaking book. You should read it.

Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer--funny stuff.

I struggle to find humorous writing that I really enjoy. Everyone does, I think. For some reason, quality humor writing seems hard to find, and individual readers' tastes in humor can vary widely.

So it was a pleasure to find and read Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer, which honestly, I think I chose based on its cover alone (although I can't remember where I would have seen it). The author, Una Lamarche, blogs at The Sassy Curmudgeon, and also apparently writes YA novels. She also writes very, very funny essays.

I particularly liked her essays about childbirth and parenting. In one essay, on the stages a woman goes through in her lifetime with her body, here is how she describes childbirth:

"By the time you've lived in your body for thirty years or so, there's not much it can do to surprise you anymore. All its sounds and smells and unsightly bulges have been cataloged and then either frantically hidden or hopelessly ignored. Which makes it all the more shocking when your body up and does something you never thought possible. Which, in my case, was to make a cuter, littler body inside of mind...Since I am lucky enough never to have suffered a major illness or been forced to run more than fifty feet in my adult life, I'm here to talk about the transformative experience of baby making."

And she concludes that story with:

"And I never criticized my body ever again.

Hahahahaha. Lies. Of course I do. But it has gotten a lot better, with the exception of my vagina, which I choose no longer to look at, since the last time I did, it resembled an appliance that you try to shove back in its original box, but it won't fit, and there are cords and polystyrene peanuts hanging out. It was depressing, so we just email now." (pp. 31-33.)

There's nothing earth-shattering here. But the whole book was a really enjoyable read, and I came away from it really just liking Una.* Give this one a try if you're looking for a good light nonfiction summer read.

*Yes, of course I know I don't really know Una. But I do know how she feels about her vagina.

New Nonfiction (with commentary): 27 July 2015

A new series, published each Monday, sharing a selected list of new nonfiction titles to be published during the week. List originally published at The Reader's Advisor Online. Text in bold is commentary.

Archer, Dale -The ADHD Advantage: What You Thought Was a Diagnosis May Be Your Greatest Strength [The tagline of this one promises that not only is Archer an MD who understands ADHD, he has it.]
Barbassa, Juliana - Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink [A "city biography" by a journalist and native of Brazil. 50,000 first printing. I LOVE "city biographies," if we can call them that, so might look into this. I don't know much at all about South America.]
Bukowski, Charles - On Writing [A collection of correspondence in which novelist Bukowski "shares his insights on the art of creation".]
Davis, Deborah - The Trip: Andy Warhol's Plastic Fantastic Cross-Country Adventure ["a book about a little-known road trip Andy Warhol took from New York to LA in 1963, and how that journey—and the numerous artists and celebrities he encountered—profoundly influenced his life and art". 60,000 first printing.]
MacAskill, William - Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference [From Wikipedia: "William MacAskill is a Scottish philosopher and cofounder of the effective altruism movement."]
McFadden, Johnjoe & Jim Al-Khalili - Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology [Yet more interesting-sounding science that I won't have the time to read, or, more likely, the brains to understand even if I do read it.]
Peralta, Dan-el Padilla - Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League

So. What do you think? Anything look good there?

Marie Kondo's The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: Not really meant for me.

I don't actually know what kind of magic it's going to take to change my life, but sadly, I don't think tidying up alone is going to do it.

Have you heard of Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing? It's a bestseller and it's been getting a lot of good press (including some good words from readers I either trust or like or both). So I thought, my house and life are a mess, and this book is only 213 pages long, let's give it a whirl.

It was a fun (and somewhat useful) little read. Kondo's a well-known organization and decluttering expert, and in short and delightfully straightforward chapters she advises you (basically) to touch all your stuff, figure out if it "sparks joy" in you, and if it doesn't, ditch it. There's more to it than that, really, but that's the gist. She also concludes that if you tidy up your surroundings, and more fully appreciate fewer possessions, you will change your life for the better.

Let's get one thing straight: I'm totally on board. For at least the last decade I have had no problem throwing stuff away. Likewise, it is pretty easy to avoid acquiring things when you can only shop for fifteen minutes at a time.* One friend who told me about this book was telling me she didn't know if she agreed with the part of the book where Kondo suggests emptying your purse every time you get home (so as not to accumulate odds and ends, etc.). At that point I emptied my pockets onto the table: card wallet (reinforced-with-tape paper credit card sleeve that I use to carry about 5 important cards), cell phone, keys. I said, "Done!' She laughed but I do suspect she rather thought I should have my Girl Membership revoked.

But the thing where she tells you to ditch anything that doesn't "spark joy"? Well, whatever. If I actually abided by that there would be very few possessions left in my house. I hate my stove, for instance, and disdain its glass-top surface as ridiculous every time something boils over. And that old red short-sleeve sweater? Well, it's the only thing remotely appropriate to wear with my black "funeral skirt" (and you can guess why I keep that around). So you see my difficulty in going along with that one.

But at the end of the day? I did read the whole book and was somewhat charmed by it. I'm not going to start folding my clothes the Marie Kondo way, but the other day I did thank my house for housing me so nicely (she also recommends frequently thanking your possessions for their service) and it was nice. Did it change my life? Not really. Was it a harmless way to express joy and gratitude? Sure.

I'll take it. Have a good weekend, all.

*I ABHOR shopping of all types (except book-) and Mr. CR jokes that we only have fifteen minutes in any given store before I start hyperventilating. This smacks of high maintenance, I know, but it does mean that people you're shopping with start to learn to make their choices quickish.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson: Compulsively readable, but somewhat unsatisfying.

I have always been a big Jon Ronson fan.

So when I heard he had a new book out, titled So You've Been Publicly Shamed*, I of course had to go get it. And I was not disappointed. Or, if I was, a little bit, I wasn't disappointed enough to not enjoy the read.

This time Ronson takes as his subject "shaming," particularly the type that happens online these days. As in, someone might post an ill-advised or just poorly worded joke or comment (or completely innocent, but easily misconstrued) on Twitter or their blog, and pretty soon every troll on the Internet rains down fire and brimstone (not to mention more overt threats of violence). The book is ostensibly his look at "shaming as a form of social control."

I'm not going to describe each chapter, because if I did, I think you'd be totally confused. (And also because I read this a few weeks ago and I've already almost completely forgotten the points and flow of the book--which should indicate to you that this is not the best Jon Ronson book ever.) If you'd like a more thorough review of this book, please consider this one, at the AV Club.

The stories here are wild and weird--Ronson always does a very good job of locating stories and people that make you say, "wait, what?"--but I felt that just as each chapter got interesting, Ronson would end it, never to make any conclusions about it or its subject again. (Hence: "unsatisfying.") And (the AV Club review) points out that Ronson as a journalist does some ever-so-slightly dodgy things to get people to speak with him, which makes me vaguely uncomfortable, even when he lets you know he's doing it.**

The part of the book that really struck me was Ronson's work with Lindsey Stone, who was ostracized when she a photo of her acting disrespectfully behind an Arlington National Cemetery sign that asked for quiet and respect, and who was basically destroyed online and threatened numerous times.*** Ronson enlisted an online reputation repair firm to help Stone "clean up" her search result pages. Learning about how goes about trying to fix your online reputation (which, horrifyingly, keeps showing up forever) was fascinating. At one point the firm suggested she not refer online to her experiences working at Walmart as "soul-suckingly awful." Here's the anecdote:

"'Are you sure you want to say that Walmart was soul-sucking?' Farukh said.

'Oh...what? Really?' Lindsey laughed as if to say, 'Come on! Everyone knows that about Walmart!' But then she hesitated.

The conference call was proving an unexpectedly melancholic experience. It was nothing to do with Farukh. He really felt for Lindsey and wanted to do a good job for her. The sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the Internet's wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken. And now here she was, working with Farukh to reduce herself to safe banalities--to cats and ice cream and Top 40 chart music. We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland." (p. 266.)

I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks of this one, frankly, or of Jon Ronson in general.

*And of course I think I first heard about it when Jon Stewart interviewed Ronson on The Daily Show. Where are we going to turn for nonfiction books coverage when Stewart retires? I hope Trevor Noah keeps up the books tradition.

**Ever since I read the superlative True Crime book A Rip in Heaven, and heard about how one of the victims in the story was questioned by the police as though he were a suspect--and how the police lied about certain things to him to try and confuse and trip him up--this sort of thing has made me really, really nervous. I actually have a lot of respect for the police and I'm sure that's how they sometimes have to do their job, but it still gave me the total heebs. In short: read A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, and always lawyer up.

***Her picture was not really that shocking. It's the equivalent of going behind a fence with a "No Visitors Beyond This Point" sign on it and having someone take a picture of you beyond that point--which I'm pretty sure anyone who has ever been a teenager has done.

New Nonfiction (with commentary): 20 July 2015

A new series, published each Monday, sharing a selected list of new nonfiction titles to be published during the week. List originally published at The Reader's Advisor Online. Text in bold is commentary.

Bondy, Filip – The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball’s Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy[Yeah, baseball books, I'm just not in the mood lately. I'll admit it, without Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte around, I just can't get myself to care.]
Bryan, Daniel with Craig Tello - Yes! My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania - [200,000 first printing. I'm going to let that speak for itself.]
Day, Michael - Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall from Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga [About three-time Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.]
Dickey, Christopher - Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South [From the ad copy: "Between the Confederacy and recognition by Great Britain stood one unlikely Englishman who hated the slave trade." This is one Civil War book I might actually want to read.]
Finnegan, William - Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life [This one is getting a whole lot of press. Finnegan's better known as a war reporter, but this one is a memoir of his youth and surfing.]
Goodwin, Robert - Spain: The Center of the World, 1519–1682
Kim, Eunsun with Sébastien Falletti, Translated by David Tian - A Thousand Miles to Freedom [About the author's escape from North Korea.]
Norwich, John Julius -Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History [Looks good, but 400 pages, wow. I may not have the time for this right now.]
Sings, Miranda -Selp-Helf [Humor/memoir from a YouTube star.]

So. What do you think? Anything look good there?

British Television: MI-5

You've got to love the British for making one of their best TV shows about domestic security (MI-5) rather than international intrigue (MI-6). You've got to further love the fact that the British title for the show is "Spooks," which is evidently what they call their spy types in the UK. Cheeky buggers.

MI-5 started in 2002, and ran for ten seasons, through 2011. When Mr. CR and I first started watching it, it was fairly early on in my British TV-watching career, and we were really surprised and pleased at the complexity (both in plot and moral tone) of it, as well as with the slickness of the production.* One of our favorite things about it was its periodic use of screen-in-screen action to show how storylines were developing at different times or in different places. It really felt like they were packing a lot of story in a one-hour program.

Once again the cast proved to be almost uniformly excellent, and even though the writers/producers were never afraid to kill off main characters, often very surprisingly**, you never even had the chance to miss your favorite characters because they were often replaced by equally interesting ones. Matthew Macfadyen as Tom Quinn (excellent) became Rupert Penry-Jones as Adam Carter (excellent) became Richard Armitage as Lucas North (excellent). And don't even get me started on the mainstay actor of all ten seasons: Peter Firth, who played Harry Pearce, a Section Head (the big honcho, basically) within MI-5. So, so good.

The series did start to lose a bit of steam in the later seasons, but it was still very watchable, and god love the BBC, their series usually only run about six to twelve episodes or so, so even a ten-season show doesn't take as long to watch in its entirety as you might think.

Now, if you watch this trailer for the show, I think you'll think it looks ridiculously violent. And you'd be right; there's violence in the show. But it never really felt like it glorified violence: a lot of times the only choices open to the characters were bad ones. Of course a show about a national spy service is going to be nationalistic ('for the greater good,' etc.) but it certainly didn't make the lifestyle look glamorous. I liked that.

*And we stayed such nerdy fans, as a matter of fact, that we tried to stop by the real "Thames House," where MI-5 is based, when we traveled to London.

**One of the rather graphically displayed deaths in the first season actually led viewers to contact the BBC in protest.

Yet another reason not to judge other people's self-help reading.

Mainly because that sort of thing will always come back to bite you in the ass.

When I worked at the public library, I often checked out books to parents about "1,2,3 discipline" and "spirited" or "indigo" children. What I used to think was, well, I don't know that you've got 'spirited' children--you might just have brats.

And here are the titles I checked out at the library the other day: Difficult to Delightful in Just 30 Days; Taming the Spirited Child; and Raising Your Spirited Child.*


*Please note that neither of the CRjrs are really too "spirited." I'm just busily trying to find some nice, harmonious way to reconcile my massive need to control with their massive needs to not be controlled. We're all learning here.

Spinster, by Kate Bolick: Interesting, but depressing in the end?

Now, I don't at all mean that Kate Bolick's new book Spinster* is depressing in the end because Bolick currently remains a "spinster." I'll explain in a minute.

Bolick's a writer and journalist (and contributing editor at The Atlantic) who mixes memoir and literary criticism in this book about the experience of forging a life as a single woman. In addition to exploring her own romantic past (which is anything but dull; Bolick is not a "spinster" who dislikes being with anyone), she also explores her relationships (for lack of a better word) with several women writers who she calls her "awakeners": Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Of course not all those women were unmarried. But Bolick does a sound job of looking at how their independence informed their writing, and how their relationships (with everyone; not just their spouses) informed their independence. In fact, although I am a somewhat lazy reader (often preferring the personal, or memoir, accounts, to literary criticism of any kind) I found that her narrative didn't really hit its swing until she focused less on her youth and love affairs and more on her "awakeners" and their writing.

I'm doing a terrible job writing this review. I know it, and as I told Mr. CR the other day, I find it so much harder to write reviews than I used to. Of course this is due partially to the fact that when I started this blog I was married but did not have children. Before we had kids I worked outside of the home, and I have always freelanced, so I am no stranger to having my attention pulled in many directions. But something about trying to keep up with the house, the marriage, the kids, the freelancing, and the reading and having semi-coherent thoughts is really wearing me down lately. And although I love and am so thankful for my life, I can't say there won't always be a part of me that wonders how life would have been if I'd concentrated on enjoying being single, found a nice tiny apartment with hardwood floors, and always stuck with a kitty as my live-in companion.

So I was a bit of a sucker for this book, I'll admit it. I didn't love it, but I found it thoughtful and well-written, and I appreciated reading anyone's take on the subject. I think it would make a good book group title, to be honest with you. Here's how it starts:

"Whom to marry, and when will it happen--these two questions define every woman's existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn't practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn't believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they're answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.

Men have their own problems; this isn't one of them." (pp. 1-2.)

So why did I finish the book depressed? Well, it was a good read. But near the end of the book Bolick posits:

"The question now is something else entirely: Are women people yet? By which I mean: Are we finally ready for a young woman to set out on the long road of her life as a human being who inhabits but isn't limited by her gender?...Until the answer is an undeniable yes, a girl actually can't grow up like a boy, free to consider the long scope of her life as her own distinct self." (p. 293.)

And that's the part that bothers me. Why must being independent always look or sound more like being...a man? I find that depressing.

Also: this is a small complaint, but I don't care for the cover. You? I think it is a photo of the author, and it's actually kind of an arresting cover, but I don't like her looking down and away.

*This has nothing to do with the review, but I really need to start a better book journal or make a note on my reading spreadsheet about how I find books. The problem is that books come out, they get a lot of press, I put them on hold at the library, they come in for me about two months later, and by then I've forgotten where I first heard about them or what I heard. Anyway. That is not really that important. But that definitely happened with this book. I know I read an article about it somewhere that made me want to read it, but I can't remember which article it was.

New Nonfiction (with commentary): 13 July 2015

A new series, published each Monday, sharing a selected list of new nonfiction titles to be published during the week. List originally published at The Reader's Advisor Online. Text in bold is commentary.

Amore, Anthony M. - The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World [Amore is the head of security and chief investigator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I'm all over this one; I LOVE art world true crime. 35,000 first printing.]
Braestrup, Kate - Anchor and Flares: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hope, and Service [Braestrup is a well-known memoirist; one of her better-known titles is Here If You Need Me, in which she discussed her husband's untimely death.]
Brown, Leanne - Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day [95,000 first printing.]
Fei, Deanna - Girl in Glass: How My “Distressed Baby” Defied the Odds, Shamed a CEO, and Taught Me the Essence of Love, Heartbreak, and Miracles [75,000 first printing.]
Knight, Molly - The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse [I like baseball, but who can keep up with the baseball books? There's like a thousand new ones every year. 50,000 first printing.]
LeDoux, Joseph - Anxious: Using the Brain To Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety [I read books about anxiety the way I used to read books about dating. Mainly for entertainment, but still quietly hoping I might still learn something useful.]
LeFevre, Jon – Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion-Dollar Deals
Link, Mardi Jo - The Drummond Girls: A Story of Fierce Friendship Beyond Time and Chance [Billed as "An inspiring and heartfelt memoir about the friendship between eight women forged over two decades." I typically HATE books about women's friendships. Will give it a pass.]
Marx, Patty - Let’s Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Faculties [Here's the ad copy: "Former SNL writer and The New Yorker staffer Patty Marx... uses her sharp-edged humor to tackle the most difficult facet of aging: the mind's decline." I must have this one!]
Marzo, Clay & Robert Yehling - Just Add Water: A Surfing Savant's Journey with Asperger's
Mosler, Layne - Driving Hungry: A Memoir [Here's the description: "A delicious memoir that takes us from Buenos Aires to New York to Berlin as the author, driven by wanderlust and an unrelenting appetite, finds purpose, passion, and unexpected flavor." Yeah, I'm just not feeling it.]
Rosenfelt, David - Lessons from Tara: Life Advice from the World's Most Brilliant Dogs ["Brilliant" and "dog" in the same title, that's funny. If you can't tell--I'm a cat person. 50,000 first printing.]
Safina, Carl - Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
Saviano, Roberto - Zero Zero Zero: Look at Cocaine and All You See Is Powder. Look Through Cocaine and You See the World [Saviano is a super-interesting journalist and writer. I read his book Gomorrah, about the mafia in Naples, and it was fascinating. 50,000 first printing.]
Swaim, Barton - The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics
Thomas, Mathilde - French Beauty Solution: Time-Tested Secrets To Look and Feel Beautiful Inside and Out [I ask again: Who has the energy?]
Wald, Elijah - Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties [I never want to read anything about Bob Dylan. I don't know why, really. I just don't.]
Wilczek, Frank - Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design [Billed as a "mind-shifting book that braids the age-old quest for beauty and the age-old quest for truth into a thrilling synthesis." Actually, it sounds kinda good. I wish I had more time to read and concentrate on science books.]

So. What do you think? Anything look good there?

Brian Grazer's A Curious Mind: Disappointing.

I so badly wanted to like Brian Grazer's book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.

I don't actually know anything about Brian Grazer (beyond the facts that he is a Hollywood movie producer with big hair who runs Imagine Entertainment with Ron Howard), but this book got a lot of good press and it's based on a rather engaging idea. Grazer has spent much of his adult life engaged in what he calls "curiosity conversations," whereby he just tries to get some time with interesting and/or famous people, and have a chat. About nothing really in particular.

And I loved the first chapter, when Grazer is explaining his idea, and how he got started in work and with this curiosity habit. Very engaging stuff:

"One Thursday afternoon, the summer after I graduated from the University of Southern California (USC), I was sitting in my apartment in Santa Monica with the windows open, thinking about how to get some work until I started law school at USC in the fall.

Suddenly, through the windows, I overheard two guys talking just outside. One said, 'Oh my God, I had the cushiest job at Warner Bros. I got paid for eight hours of work every day, and it was usually just an hour.'

This guy got my attention. I opened the window a little more so I wouldn't miss the rest of the conversation, and I quietly closed the curtain.

The guy went on to say he had been a legal clerk. 'I just quit today. My boss was a man named Peter Knecht.'

I was amazed. Sounded perfect to me.

I went right to the telephone, dialed 411, and asked for the main number at Warner Bros.--I still remember it, 954-6000.

I called the number and asked for Peter Knecht. An assistant in his office answered, and I said to her, 'I'm going to USC law school in the fall, and I'd like to meet with Mr. Knecht about the law clerk job that's open." (p. 2.)

Now that's hilarious. That story is proof that the meek will not inherit the earth, at least not while we're on the earth. I enjoyed the story even more as Grazer talks about how he parlayed it into meeting famous people; the largest part of the job was basically ferrying legal paperwork around, so when he had to deliver papers to people he wanted to meet, like Warren Beatty, he just told their assistants that he had to hand the legal papers to them personally. I just laughed and laughed at the sheer clever ballsiness of this guy. So I was more than ready to continue on the curiosity journey with him.

How disappointing, then, that the rest of the book, ostensibly focusing on the conversations Grazer has had with people over the years*, read more like a business book treatise (and not a particularly compellingly written treatise at that) on the merits of having curiosity. I skimmed through most of the book, but mainly I ended up feeling like the victim of a massive bait-and-switch: Grazer would tease with the name/s of people he spoke with, but he never really shared any concrete details of their conversations. Instead he veers off into a lot of this sort of thing:

"Unlike creativity and innovation, though, curiosity is by its nature more accessible, more democratic, easier to see, and also easier to do." (p. 61.)

Blah blah blah, whatever. Yeah, curiosity is great. I get it. It's not a complicated concept. Now would you just tell me what you and Rufus Wainwright TALKED ABOUT??**

*And he's talked to a LOT of interesting people; he lists his conversational partners at the end of the book, and they include (but are not limited to): Muhammad Ali, Isaac Asimov, Tyra Banks, Jeff Bezos, Vincent Bugliosi, Jim Cramer, Mario Cuomo, David Hockney, Chris Isaak, Wolfgang Puck...

**When I saw Rufus Wainwright on his list of people, I got super excited (because I read the list before reading the book), thinking I would get to hear about his conversation with Wainwright. (Oh, Rufus.) Alas, I found that the book contains only the briefest of anecdotes about his discussions with just a very select few of his interviewees.

One marriage, one family, two books.

Somewhere along the way I saw Michael Chabon's essay collection Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son discussed somewhere, so I thought I would give it a try.

There are a lot of modern novelists I can't stand, and Chabon is one of them. I have tried several times to get into The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and I just don't understand the appeal (or the story). So I did what I usually do: wait for said novelists to write an essay collection, and then I get them.

Chabon's greater theme is indeed "manhood," as far as it pertains to coming of age, fatherhood, past and present relationships, and work. There are some good essays here, with some humorous moments; in one, Chabon talks about taking his son grocery shopping, where another customer tells him he is a "good dad." He accepts that, but goes on to say:

"I don't know what a woman needs to do to impel a perfect stranger to inform her in the grocery store that she is a really good mom. Perhaps perform an emergency tracheotomy with a Bic pen on her eldest child while simultaneously nursing her infant and buying two weeks' worth of healthy but appealing breakfast snacks for the entire cast of Lion King, Jr. In a grocery store, no mother is good or bad; she is just a mother, shopping for her family. If she wipes her kid's nose of tear-stained cheeks, if she holds her kid tight, entertains her kid's nonsensical claims,buys her kid the organic non-GMO whole-grain version of Honey Nut Cheerios, it adds no useful data to our assessment of her...Good mothering is a long-term pattern, a lifelong trend of behaviors most of which go unobserved at the time by anyone, least of all the mother herself." (p. 12.)

I liked that. Very much, in fact. His chapters about being a father were my favorite, actually; other than that I could pretty much take him or leave him (which seemed about right, considering how I feel about his fiction).

As I was reading Chabon's book, I got the urge to read Ayelet Waldman's essay collection Bad Mother. I had read bits of it years ago, but never the whole thing, and I thought now might be a good time to revisit it, as Waldman is actually married to Chabon (and they have four kids). So then I re-read the Waldman.

What did I find in these two takes on the same married, with kids, writing lives? Well, I enjoyed them both, although bits of the Chabon felt a little like a slog sometimes (I was prepared to prefer the Waldman on length alone--her book is 208 pages to Chabon's 306, and I do like me a short book). But in the end? I would choose the Waldman as the more interesting and pertinent read (at least for my own reading preferences). I can sum up the difference in how they handle one story in particular.

At one point, Chabon alludes to the fact that he and his wife have been through both pregnancies and terminations, and leaves it at that, while Waldman devotes an entire chapter to their experience of having a pregnancy tested for genetic anomalies, finding evidence of one, and making the choice to terminate. I did not enjoy this chapter--I can certainly understand their choice but it makes me unhappy anyway--but at least Waldman spells it out for you. She engages with the unpalatable in a way that Chabon never really does. And that, if you must know, is how I see a lot of marriage, parenthood, relationships, what have you--staring the unpalatable in the face and then having the guts to tell the whole story afterwards. This is why I never mind when other women tell me their childbirth stories, horrific or otherwise. At least it seems honest. I never quite trust people who gloss over the big stuff, by saying things like "we've been through pregnancies and terminations."

New Nonfiction (with commentary): 6 July 2015

A new series, published each Monday, sharing a selected list of new nonfiction titles to be published during the week. List originally published at The Reader's Advisor Online. Text in bold is commentary.

Carter, Jimmy - A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety [I need to read more about his presidency, but I've always really liked Jimmy Carter. I'll be looking at this one. 250,000 first printing.]
Diliberto, Gioia -Diane Von Furstenberg[I currently own one pair of shorts and three pairs of pants, total, so I may not be the audience for this biography of the fashion designer. 50,000 first printing.]
DuVal, Kathleen - Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution [A "new global perspective on the Revolutionary War."]
Gameau, Damon -That Sugar Book
Hiltzik, Michael -Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-industrial Complex [Never heard of this author, but the title sounds intriguing.]
Hoffman, David E. -  The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal [For some reason I much prefer spy fiction to nonfiction, so I will probably not get this.]
Kingsbury, Karen - The Friends of Jesus[Bible study/history from the popular Christian inspirational fiction author.]
McDermid, Val - Forensics:  What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us about Crime [McDermid is a well-known mystery/suspense author. This could be interesting.]
McGinty, Sarah Myers - The College Application Essay
Neff, James - Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy Versus Jimmy Hoffa
Petranek, Stephen - How We’ll Live on Mars [Part of a new series of books based on TED talks.]
Samit, Jay- Disrupt You!: Master Personal Transformation, Seize Opportunity, and Thrive in the Era of Endless Innovation [I'm not good at doing, and will never be good at doing, any of the things in this subtitle.]
Sarbacker, Stuart Ray & Kevin Kimple - Eight Limbs of Yoga: A Handbook for Living Yoga Philosophy [I am not interested in yoga, although it would probably be good for me.]
Scottoline, Lisa and Francesca Serritella- Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat? [Scottoline is better known as a mystery/suspense author, but she periodically writes these collections of humorous essays, sometimes along with her daughter Serritella. I've actually enjoyed her earlier collections and may check this one out. 75,000 first printing.]
Stephens, Kate- College, Quicker
Szaky, Tom -Make Garbage Great: The Terracycle Family Guide to a Zero-Waste Lifestyle

Wampole, Christy - The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation [Essay collections are total catnip to me, so you know I'll be looking this one over.]

So. What do you think? Anything look good there? Not a long or exciting list. Is it just me or is summer the doldrums for nonfiction?

No, thank you.

Yes Please
by Amy Poehler

I'm going to go ahead and file Amy Poehler's memoir Yes, Please, under the "Largely Forgettable Nonfiction" heading.

On the one hand, it was a pretty serviceable comedian's memoir. I've never found Amy Poehler hilarious, but I've also never found her as annoying as Tina Fey. On the other hand, I've read most of it, and even looking at it now, there's very little about it I can remember.

I did have one laugh-out-loud moment: I found Poehler at her best in her chapter about her divorce from Will Arnett, when she lists all the books she wants to write about divorce. One will be titled:

"I Want a Divorce! See You Tomorrow! If you have small children you will understand this book. This book deals with the fact that most people who divorce with small children still need to see each other every day...Chapters include: Fake Smiling, How Important is the Last Word?, Phone Calls on the Way Home from Therapy, and Everyone Needs to Stop Buying Toys." (p. 88.)

Now that's good writing. So yeah, there's moments. I just don't know if they're worth 327 pages to get there (unless you're a huge, huge fan of Parks and Recreation--then it's probably worth it no matter what).