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December 2016

Ruth Franklin's Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.

I'm just going to say it: I was disappointed in Ruth Franklin's biography of Shirley Jackson, titled Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.

Which hurts me to say, because I looked forward to it for so long. I also plowed through the thing in just a few days. It was good; it was readable; it was very obviously thoughtfully compiled and written and impeccably researched and footnoted.

Shirley jacksonBut for some reason it just didn't resonate with me. Perhaps I did it an injustice by reading it shortly after re-reading Jackson's own humorous memoirs of motherhood, titled Life among the Savages and Raising Demons. Those books were just so good, and left me hungry for more family details. And those were just not forthcoming here. Franklin is very good at describing Jackson's childhood, her often contentious relationship with her overbearing mother, the development of her writing and style (this is very much a "literary biography," examining Jackson's works, style, and influences), and even her marriage, although she seemed to focus more on Jackson's husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, than on the "marriage," per se. But there was really very little about the children, Jackson's relationship with them, or any sort of closure on the lives they went on to lead. And you know? That's all fine. This is a biography of Shirley, not her her children. And maybe they didn't want any of their personal details discussed. But I couldn't help feeling that her children and home life were much bigger parts of Jackson's life than you would know just from reading this biography.

Franklin seems to approach Jackson's interpersonal relationships more for how they affected her work. In the introduction, she says this:

"As a writer and mother myself, I am struck by how contemporary Jackson's dilemmas feel: her devotion to her children coexists uneasily with her fear of losing herself in domesticity. Several generations later, the intersection of life and work continues to be one of the points of most profound anxiety in our society--an anxiety that affects not only women but also their husbands and children." (p. 9.)

It was a good book. It just wasn't quite what I wanted. It actually made me want to re-read an earlier biography of Jackson, Judy Oppenheimer's Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, which I had found a bit overbearing when I first read it. I wonder how I'd find it now. And, if you're really looking for some good info on Jackson's relationship with at least one of her children, I would definitely check out this NPR interview with her son Laurence. I enjoyed that a lot (as well as the entire program on her).

Happy Christmas, all, and to all a good night. See you sometime next week.

Citizen Reading: 19 December 2016

A weekly selection of reading and book news, sometimes with completely inappropriate commentary.

Croatia, here I come. You gotta love a country that finds a way to offer free books to its residents and visitors.

There's just nothing like browsing in a bookstore for sheer serendipity. But we all knew that already, right?

This really has nothing to do with reading or books, but I want to read this article later, and my Internet bookmarks are a total mess, so this is where I'm saving this link to a story about Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, and whistleblowers.

NPR book recommendations, tailored for gift-giving purposes.

Have you seen LitHub's new book review aggregator. Yeah, me either, but I want to go check it out. Although, weirdly, I keep realizing anew how few of my reading choices are made using books reviews.

What did this woman learn after she read 52 books in one year? Well, nothing all that earth-shattering. But I did like this paragraph: "This may come as a surprise to you all, but I’m not a sporty girl. I can’t sit through a football game, but after reading The Blind Side I can walk you through the evolution of the left tackle position. I cheered with the rest of the country when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, but their win meant so much more because Moneyball taught me the game Theo Epstein was playing. On a separate note, I did actually read authors other than Michael Lewis this year."

Merry Christmas, Amazon style. (And you must read Melville Press's take on Amazon's delivery drones.)

Oprah's new book imprint has a wildly creative name.

Author Shirley Hazzard has died.

Dan Clowes's graphic novel Patience will be made into a movie.

Maria Semple's Today Will Be Different to be adapted as a film.

Fictional character Bridget Jones makes the Woman's Hour Power List. I don't even know what that is but I think it's awesome. Bridget Jones forever.

Libraries are just the best.

Top Google searches of 2016.

Tournament of Books (which doesn't start until March): has published its longlist of possibilities.

Screen Actors Guild Awards: Nominations.


The "Trump Bump"--in a weird sort of way. A nonfiction book about ExxonMobil and its CEO (Rex Tillerson, tapped by Trump to become Secretary of State), is selling well.

New York Times: Emmett Till wasn't the only unfortunate member of his family; new essay collections; another new essay collection by Siri Hustvedt, titled A Woman Looks at Men Looking at Women; a history of 19th-century Europe.


Don't forget: Largehearted Boy is once again collecting ALL the best of 2016 books lists

Flavorwire: Best books of 2016

Forbes: Top ten business books of the year

The biggest (literally) YA novels of the year

2016 books you should read "if you know what's good for you"

New York Magazine: 5 great science books of the year

Publishers' Weekly: Staff picks

Washington Post: best economics books of 2016

15 nonfiction books to "bolster the resistance"

the New Yorker: books we loved in 2016

25 days of Christmas romances


I had a good reading week, so now I have a pile of books sitting here waiting to be reviewed. However, one that didn't et me on fire was Colson Whitehead's sports/memoir The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death. Whitehead gets a lot of attention as a novelist (this year, for his book The Underground Railroad), but I've never been able to make my way through his fiction. A 234-page investigative/memoir about playing in the World Series of Poker? That, I thought might be interesting. It was just okay; Colson doesn't throw in quite enough personal information to make this a great memoir (for me) or enough behind-the-scenes insight into the WSOP. Mr. CR liked the book better than me, and it was only 234 pages, so no harm, no foul.


Here he is, being reviewed in the School Library Journal.

I really need to stop reading books about women getting pregnant (or not).

I never really used to be interested in children, babies, or pregnancy in any way. I'm not a very girly girl, I'm only Earth Mothery in the sense that I'm too cheap and lazy to buy and use makeup (which is really not very Earth Mothery at all), and, frankly, I've hung out with a lot of guys in my life, and guys are emphatically not interested in those things either.

But since having the CRjrs I find I am just addicted to all things pregnancy and parenting. Weird. I also am finding it weird lately how very little actual pregnancy, childbirth, and child care is found in fiction. There's fiction about families, sure. Fiction about "women's issues." Relationship fiction. But more nitty-gritty narratives actually describing childbirth and its aftermath? (With the exception of Joanna Kavenna's excellent The Birth of Love and Elisa Albert's angry but also excellent After Birth.) Rare.* So of course I have turned to nonfiction on the subject.

Art of waitingOne book getting a lot of press this fall was Belle Boggs's The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood. I read it in fits and starts, and as seems to be happening with a lot of my reading lately, I can't recall many specifics about it. Taken as a whole, I certainly wouldn't say it was one of my favorite books of the year, but on the other hand, I did finish it, and that says something. (It is my reading habit just to scatter-shot consider a lot of books. For every book I finish, I'd estimate that I start and discard about five others.) One aspect of the book that actually slowed me down was the fact that the author writes in a style I think of as "literary":

"It's spring when I realize that I may never have children, and around that time the thirteen-year cicadas return, tunneling out of neat, round holes in the ground to shed their larval shells, sprout wings, and fly to the treetops, filling the air with the sound of their singular purpose: reproduction. In the woods where I live, an area mostly protected from habitat destruction, the males' mating song, a vibrating, whooshing, endless hum, a sound at once faraway and up close, makes me feel as though I am living inside a seashell." (p. 3.)

It's not overly fancy, but it's just got a tone, you know? And in the rest of her introduction she proceeds to talk about the journals at her reproductive endocrinologist's office (including a scholarly one focusing on the fertility of monkeys), the North Carolina Zoo where a female gorilla is experiencing a miracle pregnancy, and more about nature in the form of cicadas and marmosets. Somewhere along the way she neglects to mention many of the actual details of going to the reproductive endocrinologist, which is actually what I'm more interested in.

However, there are enough moments to keep you going. I thought this observation was interesting:

"I'm always surprised when my students, boys and girls alike, from kindergarteners to high school seniors, talk about the children they will have someday. 'My kids won't act like that,' they say, eyeing an unruly class on a field trip. Or, worriedly, 'I bet I'll have all boys. What will I do with all boys?' It seems far more common for them to imagine the children they might have than they jobs they might do or the places they might live." (p. 12.)

That's a nice detail, told well. But overall it reads like what it is: a collection of essays, several of which were previously published elsewhere, rather than a cohesive whole.

AvalancheAustralian novelist Julia Leigh's memoir Avalanche: A Love Story, on the other hand? This book is like a scream. A long and anguished and personal scream packed in an amazingly compact narrative. I liked it a lot. (And, p.s., look at that cover. Wow.) This is how it opens:

"For a great many nights I injected myself with an artificial hormone produced in a line of genetically modified Chinese hamster ovary cells. I did this knowing that no matter how hard I hoped, no matter what I tried, chances were I'd never have a child." (p. 7.)

In 133 succinct pages, Leigh explores her relationship with her husband Paul (with whom she fell in love as a young woman, but didn't marry until she was in her later 30s; in the intervening years, he had married, had a child with, and divorced someone else), their attempts to use IUI and IVF to conceive using his sperm and her eggs; the disintegration of their relationship; her attempts to get pregnant using a friend's donor sperm; and her growing acceptance that no matter how much she wants it, biological motherhood might not be in her future. She spares no details, which I found very sad, but also very satisfying. Thank you, Julia Leigh, for just spelling it out: the procedures, the odds, the horrible circular questions-and-answers with doctors ("So you're giving me strong advice? Nothing wishy-washy? A: I can only advise you. It's up to you to do what you want. JL: But I have no medical experience.")

But most of all I thank Julia Leigh because she's saying out loud all the things I hear the voice in my head saying:

"I became very interested in what age a woman had her first child. Just as I used to try to figure out when an author had published their first novel, now I sought to compare myself with new mothers. The point of comparison was not to do better but to get a feel for the lay of the land. To gauge what was not impossible. Again, the persuasive illogic: if she could do it at age 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, then so could I." (p. 27.)

I can't tell you how much time I have spent on the Internet just offhandedly looking up when celebrities had their babies. Savannah Guthrie, anyone?

So. I don't know if you're interested in these topics at all. Even if you're not, I'd say DO read the Julia Leigh. It won't take you long and a woman this honest deserves for someone to read her book. Hopefully lots of someones.

*Masturbation, on the other hand? I've largely had to stop reading literary fiction by guys because I've just read enough about masturbation now.

AudioFile Magazine's Best Audiobooks of 2016 (including a sweepstakes contest)!

I was recently contacted by AudioFile Magazine to participate in the blog tour about their picks for Best Audiobooks of 2016. I like AudioFile magazine because they're a great independent review resource for all things audiobook. God knows we have few enough independent reviewers of anything left; to learn more about the site and what they offer, click here.

Ezine-best-audiobooksIf you're looking for a way to stay up-to-date on new and the best audiobooks, do consider checking out the magazine. Also, as a promotion along with their Best of... feature, they're offering a sweepstakes chance for you to win free audiobooks from Please click over and check that out; they're accepting sweepstakes entries through THIS FRIDAY, DECEMBER 16. (You've got to love these people--they ask for your email address to enter you in the sweepstakes, but they also "promise not to share your email."

And now on to the Best of 2016! Here are the titles the editors have chosen for Best Nonfiction Audiobooks of 2016 (links go to the AudioFile reviews of the books):

HAMILTON by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter, read by Mariska Hargitay, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter [Intro]

HOW WOMEN DECIDE by Therese Huston, read by Susan Boyce

I CONTAIN MULTITUDES by Ed Yong, read by Charlie Anson

JOY ON DEMAND by Chade-Meng Tan, read by Telly Leung

LOST SOUND by Jeff Porter, read by Arthur Morey

OLD AGE by Michael Kinsley, read by Danny Campbell

THE ABUNDANCE by Annie Dillard, read by Susan Ericksen

THE GENE by Siddhartha Mukherjee, read by Dennis Boutsikaris

THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell, read by Arthur Morey, John Lee, Susan Denaker

THE HOUR OF LAND by Terry Tempest Williams, read by Terry Tempest Williams

THE KINGDOM OF SPEECH by Tom Wolfe, read by Robert Petkoff

THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS by Neil Gaiman, read by Neil Gaiman

THE YEAR OF VOTING DANGEROUSLY by Maureen Dowd, read by Elisabeth Rodgers

THEN COMES MARRIAGE by Roberta Kaplan, Lisa Dickey, read by Andrea Gallo

TRIBE by Sebastian Junger, read by Sebastian Junger

I don't get to listen to a whole lot of audiobooks (the CRjrs are in a very chatty stage), but I'm going to check out "How Women Decide." AudioFile's made that easy for me, too, by pointing me to this YouTube video by the narrator.

DO check some of these titles out, consider entering the sweepstakes, and DEFINITELY check out AudioFile Magazine. independent review sources forever!

Citizen Reading: 12 December 2016

A weekly selection of reading and book news, sometimes with completely inappropriate commentary.

So, in my opinion, here's the best combined book and political story of the year: David Petraeus's biographer, with whom he had an affair and to whom he gave classified information, is shocked that he's being considered for the Secretary of State job. I was just telling my Mom about this this week. Petraeus is STILL ON PROBATION, for fuck's sake, for being convicted of the misdemeanor of the "unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents," and he's being considered for one of the top jobs in the country. Good lord. Anyone else is on probation for something like marijuana use, and they never work again, even at a McDonald's. Meanwhile Paula Broadwell, the biographer, can't find work. Love that double standard.

On to nicer news: Children's Book Week 2017 will be expanded.

The Circle (based on Dave Eggers's novel, which I now kind of want to read): Trailer.

NPR's Book Concierge is back!

PEN America's Literary Awards 2017: Longlist.

"The dark desire for books that infected Europe in the 1800s." I haven't even had the chance to read this one yet; I'm waiting until I can savor it.

Rebecca Solnit's Hope In the Dark is getting a nice little surge in sales after the Trump election.

R.L. Stine is working on a new top-secret project.

A UK publisher is letting book clubs pick books to publish.

Here's a shocker: George R.R. Martin's next Game of Thrones novel will be delayed.

Bookstore map, courtesy of Ann Patchett. ("Around the world with books.")

Fifty Shades Darker: Trailer.

Sherlock Season 4: New trailer.

God how I love Melville House. I couldn't even make it through most of the story (new apps for reading bore the hell out of me, particularly as I have no way to use apps), but the headline is pure genius.


Ooh ooh ooh! Michael Lewis has a new book out, The Undoing Project.

New York Times: the best dessert cookbooks; what I'm sure will be a nice light read about Israel and Palestine; a new book about Haiti's Toussaint Louverture (I should really get this and start learning a little something about world history); a new book titled The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age, and as a bonus, it's reviewed by one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Robert Sullivan; a new look at the aftermath of World War I; I don't even know how to describe this one but it looks neat; a book about New York City by Rebecca Solnit (I must have it!);


Your first (snore) LibraryReads list of the new year!

Okay, you know I had to give you this list: the year's best books about London.

Audible: Best Audiobooks of the Year

Maureen Corrigan's Best books of 2016

Amazon: Best Books of December

Also Amazon: bestselling books of 2016

The best 2016 gift books for the literati in your life.

New York Post: books to please everyone on your gift list.

GoodReads: 2016 Choice Awards

"15 schools in sci-fi and fantasy we want to attend."

"Weird Christmas reads."


Lisa F. Smith, Girl Walks Out of a Bar.* Didn't read more than 50 pages of this one; didn't like it. It's a memoir about Smith's road to sobriety, and wow, does she relate every single tiny little detail. I found it when I looked up some other addiction/recovery memoir on Amazon, and thought, wow, there is a shit-ton of new addiction/recovery memoirs out there. Thought I should try to read one, but there's no keeping up with them, and this was not a read that left me wanting more. *Wow, they loved this book at GoodReads. I have no faith in GoodReads reviews.

Alison Gopnik's The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children. Got this one because I've been on a parenting book bent for a while now. I also have read books by Adam Gopnik, and wondered if there was a connection between him and Alison? (There is: they're siblings.) Anyway. I read about a hundred pages--this is a few weeks ago; I just took the book back to the library a week ago. It was okay, but I can't remember one single thing I read in it, which can't be good. Although I did read it while standing in the driveway and trying to keep the CRjrs from scootering into the road. That sort of thing could be distracting, I guess.


Humble Bundle brings back the Neil Gaiman bundle.

Really, doctors? Luke Dittrich's "Patient H.M."

Everything I read about Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets indicated it would be a good read. And you know what? It was.

Patient hmOf course, "good" is a relative term here. The story centers on one lobotomy, performed on one man, but the author does a good job of combining the many story points: the story of "H.M."'s brain injury, seizures, and eventual treatment by lobotomy (which made him into one of the most studied psychological subjects of all time, as his lobotomy affected his memory, and how we store and process memories is a ridiculously complex process to try and understand); the history of the lobotomy procedure in general; the biography of William Scofield, a pioneering neurosurgeon; and the author's family, including his grandmother, married to his grandfather (that same William Scofield), who suffered her own mental hospitalization and horrific mid-twentieth-century treatments. Dittrich also delves into the horrifying treatment of psychological subjects like Henry Molaison, and the possessiveness of one scientist he made famous, Suzanne Corkin, and her destruction of many of the files (the raw experimental data). This last part of the book has led to some controversy; MIT, where Corkin worked, has since questioned Dittrich's facts and reporting.

So it's an interesting book on a lot of different levels. I enjoyed the good journalistic writing, although I felt the organization lacked a little something, and the book sometimes bounced around a bit too much in time and subject for me. It wasn't poorly done--this is clearly a well-researched and documented (Dittrich, in his response to MIT's questions, even provides an audio clip of one of his interviews with Suzanne Corkin) labor of love. It just means you have to pay a bit of attention to it while you read it.

But I can find no faults with the prose. This is Dittrich's re-creation of his grandmother's state of mind before she became a patient of a mental hospital and her own husband:

"There were people in the cellar. My grandmother could hear them. She had thought she was alone in the house, except for her children, who were asleep in their bedrooms. Now it appeared she was wrong. The children were asleep and my grandmother was not and she could hear people in the cellar.

She was terrified.

It was late January 1944, in a comfortable single-family home on Frankland Street in Walla Walla, Washington. My grandfather, as usual, was at work, this time on an overnight shift at the U.S. Army's McCaw General Hospital, where he served as chief of neurosurgery. Just the day before, he had come back from a weeklong conference in Spokane. They had been married for ten years, and it had always been like that, his career constantly pulling him away." (p. 51.)

The medical descriptions of brain surgery and lobotomy are also compelling:

"Without him having to ask for it, the scrub nurse passed my grandfather a long, thin tool called a flat brain sptaula, reminiscent of a shoehorn, which he inserted carefully into the hole in the right side of Copasso's forehead. He levered up that hemisphere of her frontal lobes and peered inside. He was looking for the nueral fibers connecting the lower, orbital portions of the grontal lobes to some of the deeper structures in the brain. Once he spotted his targets, he inserted another tool, a suction catheter--a very small, slender, electric-powered vacuum--and sucked the fibers out. The he retracted the sptual and the catheter and moved to the other hole." (pp. 147-148.)

I'd like to say I read a lot of this book in a state of disbelief, but I know enough about the history of lobotomies and the ridiculous shit that doctors will try, that I didn't. It was completely believable, sadly. And even once you got past all the lobotomy stuff, the experiments H.M. (an individual named Henry Molaison) had to endure, the author's personal history, well, then there was still all the stuff about the ethical treatment (or lack thereof) of patients like Molaison, and the power squibbles and squabbles that go on between medical personnel, academics, and researchers.

I don't think this book will be the huge hit that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was, simply because it is more complex, and not quite as immediately personal (if that makes any sense). Skloot's book was a bit more of a page-turner, told with more righteous indignation. But I think Dittrich's book is even more chilling in its excision of all the layers of the story. One thing I do think this book should be used for is to discuss how "nonfiction" rests so much on personal accounts and personal storytelling, that it is almost impossible to announce what is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Citizen Reading: 5 December 2016

Sorry...Last week was just one of those weeks around here. No round-up of links, but a look at a new section I'm thinking of including, and a Neil Gaiman post at the end. Happy December!

Also...because it's that most wonderful time of year...a small reminder that if you're doing any book-shopping at Powell's, would you consider clicking through to there using the link in my sidebar? If you click on "Shop at Powell's Books" here, and then shop there, I get a small percentage of the purchase price. Thanks so much, as always, for your support!

MY READING NOTES (Hoping to add this as a section to the weekly Citizen Reading round-up, consisting of short notes about books I'm reading or looking at but don't want to write entire posts about. What do you think?)

Yeah, I had Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton home this month, and it's just not going to happen. I know it's the hot hot thing that everybody wants to read right now, but just looking at it bored me, frankly. "Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton's America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world." (p. 6.)

Also looked at Molly Ringwald's debut When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories. Read the first and last chapters, didn't really want to read more than that. Although it wasn't bad, and I've always really liked Molly Ringwald for some reason. Although she should have demanded that her character end up with Ducky in Pretty in Pink.

I read Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Somewhat creepy, somewhat good, but overall it's like Ray Bradbury Lite. Same mood, same tone, same skill with language, but no insight into human nature and I hate it in fantasy/horror when all the adults (except the "magical" or "supernatural" ones) are unhelpful idiots. Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes was plenty creepy, only also made you think about why it's tough to be human, and also had that great dad character, in addition to the great kid characters.


31 authors have signed a letter of support for Edward Snowden. This is a Gaiman link because his name is on the letter. I try to keep my feelings about Snowden quiet because God only knows who's tracking what, so let's just say I am now a big fan of all the authors who signed this, and impressed that they put their names to anything in writing.