Book Menage

It's Book Menage time!

Okay. Enough talk of vacations. Time to get back into the swing of things, and what better way to do that than with a November Book Menage?

If you've not joined us for any previous Menages, the concept is pretty simple. Our Menages are the swinging threesomes of the book club world; we read two books (two books + one reader = one wild and crazy threesome) and then we discuss them here over the course of a week. I thought now might be a good time to schedule one; perhaps we can squeeze it in before everyones' schedules go haywire with the holidays.

Last time we had discussed this, consensus was that we might want to tackle both some true crime and a graphic novel; the titles in consideration were Stacy Horn's The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad, and any historical true crime graphic novel by Rick Geary. Does this still seem like a good plan? If so, please consider suggesting a Rick Geary you'd like to read, or I'll pick one of several options. I also have to go through the comments from the last Menage and pick a winner, who will receive the two books we'll be reading free of charge.

So? Please discuss in the comments. How about we settle on titles sometime next week, and plan to start the Menage the week of Monday, November 30? That way we can get through the Thanksgiving holiday and enjoy a good discussion before the true nuttiness of the Christmas holiday season starts. Good plan?

Books about Books Week: Slightly sidetracked.

I had a completely different topic in mind for today, but last night I spent some time on Stacy Horn's blog, and today I'm feeling more like writing about her.

Restless If you'll remember, I am a huge fan of Stacy Horn, whose latest book is titled Unbelievable. I actually loved her two previous books a bit more, though: The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad and Waiting for My Cats to Die: A Morbid Memoir.

The reasons to love Stacy Horn are legion: she is a fantastic writer. She is beautiful. (I'm shallow, I'll admit it.) She loves kitties, and animals in general. She loves TV. She feeds the birds on the porch of her apartment. She lives in New York City, and regularly posts pictures of things she loves, whether it's other people's apartments or beautiful serving dishes. And she says things like this:

"Richard Dawkins: Yeah, Not a Good Idea.

I just read on Cosmic Variance that Richard Dawkins is wondering aloud if ridicule as a way to deal with people who believe in God is enough.  'I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt.'

Ridicule and humiliation generate one thing (mostly):  anger. And that anger will either be directed inward or outward.  Neither is a good thing. After spending a few years studying unsolved murder in New York, I can also add that for some the only way to restore their self-esteem is to kill someone. (Murder is often about shame, it turns out.) For the bulk of humanity however, shame will result in some smaller, quieter form of destruction, and rarely constructive change.  'Nobody likes to be laughed at,' Dawkins points out. And you think the result might be a quick switch to the position of the tormenter?  I suppose for a sad few it might, but that isn’t a true change of thinking or understanding is it?"

Oh, Stacy. (Can I call you Stacy? I hope I can. I love her too much to call her Ms. Horn.) She also points out that it is very hard to sell books. So I think what I'm tempted to do (besides beg all of you to read her books, her blog, and to either buy or suggest your library buy copies of her books) is propose her True Crime book, The Restless Sleep, as our next Book Menage book,* paired with a Rick Geary historical crime graphic novel. What does everyone say?

*I don't know that that will help her a lot, as that book looks out of print, but maybe if you grow to love her as I have you'll have to rush right out and buy all her books new.

Tom Bissell: Class Act.

So yesterday we heard from Michael Perry, and today I have a note from Tom Bissell, author of The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam (as well as Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg), to share with you. I asked him this question:

"One of the questions we discussed was what to classify your book. Could you enlighten on us on what you would call your book (if you had to, say, find one shelf location for it in the bookstore)?"

And this is what he answered:

"This is a question I try not to think about too much, because if I did I´d probably throw myself off a bridge. The nonfiction writers I like tend to write books that escape categorization. I´m thinking of Ryszard Kapuscinski and Geoff Dyer just off the top of my head. I wrote TFOAT very much under the spell of those two fine gentlemen. So I would say, if it had to be shelved anywhere, why not in Travel Narrative. I´ve seen it in history, which I don´t think it has the heft to belong so much, and in biography, which just seems odd. I wish bookstores had a Weird section for nonfiction, because that´s where I think it belongs, ultimately.

Finally, thank you very much for the links. I´m reading them in Spain, having just walked across the country, and it gave me a nice return-to-normal-life feeling. My new book is coming out in the spring, which I think may probably escape your blog´s attention: Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter--and Why They Don´t Matter More."

So there you have it, a new nonfiction heading: Weird Nonfiction. The thing is, I think I know exactly what he means. And the first author I would place next to Bissell in Weird Nonfiction is William Langewiesche.

Well, how fun was that? Two great books, two class acts, and one totally spanking book discussion. Thanks again, all, and have a great weekend.

Michael Perry: Class Act.

Population Well, we rather knew that all along, didn't we? But boy, have I got a treat for you today. I emailed Michael Perry, author of Population 485, and asked him two of the questions from last week's Book Menage. And boy, how he answered them! Here were the questions:

Did you ask your whole family to read the "Sarah" chapter before you published? Or, how did you choose such divergent activities as writing and being an EMT? (I said "or" because I didn't want him to feel he had to answer both, if he didn't have time.)

And here is what he emailed back:

"My mother read the 'Sarah' chapter.  She corrected some things in it.  My brother gave me permission to write about it, but said he didn’t think he could read it.  Sometime later (a year or two) he did read it and sent me a kind note.  I actually already had a final chapter already written (I don’t work in a straight line) when Sarah’s death occurred.  I wrote the new final chapter with my brother’s permission because those events so synthesized what I was trying to convey about the good side of small town/rural life even/especially in the face of tragedy.

Mom is my number one fact-checker.  I have removed at least one delightful anecdote after she told me I got it wrong.  I really do my best to get the facts right (Truth with a capital “T” is a much more elusive matter).  Double-check, confirm in print when possible.  Consult with family, other folks.  Check old newspapers.  But sometimes I flat-out make mistakes.  When I discover them, I try to be very open about it.  I even have a tag on my blog called 'OOPS!'.  If you click on it you’ll find mistakes I’ve acknowledged about the most recent book.

Then there are times when three of us in the immediate family simply remember an anecdote differently.  Obviously nobody is 'lying' in the standard sense.  So in those cases I usually do my best to synthesize and/or check the stories against each other in an attempt to identify the items that do match up.

Memoir is a much-mangled form.  I try to write honestly and from the heart and check the facts.  But of course the books are a distillation…what may be missing is any given Tuesday in dirty socks, the standard boring stuff, filling out insurance forms, renewing the license plates, being grumpy and boring for days on end, straightening up the garage, and so on.

As far as the divergent activities of writing and EMT-ing, there was no plan.  I became an EMT somewhat on a whim because I wanted to be able to do something if someone fell over.  Plus I admit to wondering about what went on inside the fast-moving vehicle with the flashing lights.  I became a writer after a lifetime of incidental coincidences beginning when I fell in love with books as a toddler, continuing when a 7th grade teacher let me write a free-verse poem and my first short essay, on through a college creative writing course and gigantic nursing course papers, right up until a friend mentioned she had written a piece for a magazine and sold it and it occurred to me that maybe I could try the same thing, so I went to the library and got a book on freelance writing and now here we are.

As a young freelancer looking for work, it made sense to start writing about what I was already doing.  That included being an EMT.  So I wrote about that for rescue magazines and non-rescue magazines, and just kept doing both.  Nowadays I continue my involvement with EMS because it is a daily reminder that I am not a writer but rather a human and one day I’ll be the one needing help.  I find it keeps me utterly grounded to reality and grateful for life itself, whereas writing – for all the delights it has brought and continues to bring – often allows me to remain (quite happily) in the floaty little world I carry between my ears.

So rather than a divergence, I see these two things as an essential knot holding me together."

I don't know about you, but I'm going to steal his "floaty little world I carry between my ears" line. What a guy. What an author. Thanks again for all of your participation in the Menage (and thanks to Michael Perry as well). Now go forth and read all his books! And do please tune in tomorrow for another Book Menage treat!

Summer Book Menage: The Conclusion.

Well, first off, I just wanted to thank everyone for joining in our Menage this time around. I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed the books and the questions and the discussion. I have emails in to both Michael Perry and Tom Bissell (Bissell is out of the country until August 3) with a couple of our questions, so if I hear back, I will post their answers here in the future. One bright side of the new world of book publishing and book marketing is that (this is my opinion, anyway) authors are very aware that book clubs can help sell books, so if you put "book club question" in your email subject line, I would imagine they're more into answering it.

That is not a dig at authors. I salute them for doing all the marketing and traveling and selling they have to do.

So now my thoughts to our next Menage. Does anyone have any ideas? Are we up for a fiction/nonfiction pairing again? If we were, I might suggest Penelope Fitzgerald's novel The Bookshop, perhaps paired with a travel book? (Fitzgerald's novel is all about a town where everybody knows each other, while travel books are often about outsiders getitng to know a place, and might provide a neat contrast.) Or is there some nonfiction genre we still haven't tried? Nonfiction graphic novels? True Crime? Do let me know if you've got any ideas, and we'll take a vote before our next Menage. And have a great weekend, everybody.

Book Menage Day 4: The wrap-up.

I know, I know, I thought the original title for today's post would be "On Memory." I thought we'd talk a little bit about memoirs and how they're written, but I think we had a great talk about that yesterday. So I thought I'd skip ahead to the big questions, and tomorrow we can consider which books we'd like to read for the next Menage.

So here we go:

1. How did you feel about these books? If you haven't yet read them, do you think you will, based on the other days of our discussion?


2. Would you read anything else by these authors? Why or why not?

I've said it before, but I think this has been a great discussion. If I can track down email addresses and the necessary energy to stalk authors, I might email both of these men and see if they want to answer or speak about any of the questions we had earlier this week. If I get any answers I'll post them.

Tomorrow: Suggestions for the next Menage?

Book Menage Day 3: Exclusively Bissell.

I'd like to start off Day 3 by saying that I realized as I re-read The Father of All Things that it was really quite a meaty book, and kind of a tough one to read quickly. It is most emphatically not what one would think of as either a "beach read" or "summer read." But I'd like to thank you for giving it a try all the same.

So here are my questions for you about this book. Feel free to answer any or all; likewise, if you'd like to answer yesterday's questions for this book, that's fine by me too. As you know, "Loosey Goosey" is one of the few operating principles we follow here at CR.

1. What do you think of the structure of this book? If you had to give it one label (e.g., History, Memoir, Travel, War, etc.) which one would you choose, and why?

2. Was this book what you expected it to be? Why or why not?

3. At one point Bissell quotes his father, who suggests that "war is an illness caused by youth" (which is also used by Bissell as a heading for one of his book's sections). What do you think that means? Do you agree with that statement, or not?

Okay, please do have at. I know I say this every time, but I think this is the Menage I'm enjoying the most, so far. Thank you!

Tomorrow: The Power of Memory

Book Menage Day 2: Exclusively Michael Perry.

Today I thought we'd consider Population 485 on its own. Tomorrow, if it's okay with you, we'll do the same with the Bissell, and then on Thursday we'll throw them back together.

So today's questions are pretty simple, again. Please answer any or all in the comments!

1. Do you feel like you know Perry after reading his memoir? If you could ask him a question, would it more likely be about his personal life or about his book (or is it hard to separate the two)? What question would you ask?

2.Which part of the book did you like, dislike, or remember the most? Why? (Spoilers are okay; but do feel free to write SPOILER ALERT at the top of your comment if you are so inclined.)

Okay, have at. Tomorrow: Exclusively Bissell.

Book Menage Day 1: Starting slowly.

Hello, all, and welcome to the summer edition of our Book Menage discussion! I'm so excited to start this round of discussions, that I'm not even going to let the fact that this is Thomas Friedman's birthday get me down. Friedman, anyone who has the balls to ask for a $70,000 appearance fee does not deserve happy birthday wishes.

So our two books for this round are Michael Perry's Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, and Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam. As we did last time, we'll spread this out over the week; I'll pose some different questions each day and we'll answer in the comments. Just to shake things up a little bit, I will not be asking, on this the first day, which book you liked better and why (as I did last time); we'll save that for the end. I also will not be answering first in the comments today, because I'm worried that sometimes I overly direct the tone of our discussions (I will comment later, though). Also--if you have questions about these books, simply post them in the comments as well and I'll add them to the main posts! And remember! Anyone and everyone who comments on any day will be entered into a drawing to win the two books for the next Menage, absolutely free! So invite your friends.

All right, them's the rules and regulations. As far as the questions go, we're going to start slowly today.

1. Just looking at these books, are either one of them books you would have selected to read on your own? Why or why not?

2. Let's look at the beginnings of these books. How did you read them? Did you read Bissell's "Author's Note," or did you skip ahead to the main text? What kind of experience did you think you were in for when you read their corresponding first lines?

Perry: "We are in trouble down here. There is blood in the dirt. We have made our call for help. Now we look to the sky."

Bissell: (Depending on what you consider the beginning) "More than thirty thousand books on Vietnam are currently in print." or "It would have been spring. The neighborhood yards still yellow and concrete hard, the side panels of the cars you pass on the way home from work spattered with arcing crusts of road salt, the big oaks and elms that loom along Lake Shore Drive throwing down long pale rows of shadow."

Tomorrow's topic: Exclusively Perry.

Menage reminder.

Didn't get much reading done last night; gave in, instead, to my mad Paul Rudd crush and watched the movie Role Models with Mr. CR. And we really, really enjoyed it. It's not for young kids, but if you're looking for awesome sarcastic humor, Paul Rudd's your man. Seann William Scott surprised us too; I wonder how those two actors get along in real life, because they play off each other nicely.

So instead I thought I would take this opportunity to remind everyone that our next Book Menage starts on Monday, July 20. Our two books? Both memoirs, this time around, but of slightly different types; Michael Perry's Population 485: Getting to Know Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time is gentler, while Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things combines memoir with travelogue and war history for a triple punch. Can't wait to see you at the Menage!

Book Menage: Summer Edition.

Who's ready for another Book Menage? I am!

Bissell My librarian and reader's advisor friends tell me escapist fare is hot this summer, so I say we go the other way with our Menage. I'm pulling executive privilege* and announcing that our two books for this round will be Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam (you knew I was going to make you read it eventually) and Michael Perry's Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. You know the drill: we read two books (as compared to all those other wussy book groups where they only read one), we come back here, we talk.

Pop485 Now, arguably, the Perry could be considered escapist fare. But it's so much more than that. And what are the connections between these two books? Well, largely, these are two men that I think you should get to know, as they are stupendous. Also, they are both memoirs that explain what it means to be connected, both to a place and to a history, and what that means (for good and bad) to our relationships.

So the only thing that remains to be decided is who gets a free set of these books (I'll have my lovely assistant Mr. CR pick a name from the last Menage for me later) and when we should start. Why don't we start on Monday, July 20? That's a good five weeks out. Sound like a plan?

AND PLEASE NOTE: Anyone who participates in the Menage is entered in the drawing to get the two books for the next Menage, absolutely free! So join us and invite a friend; the more the merrier.

*Everybody's suggestions last time for future book pairings were great, and we'll use them for our next Menage, like maybe a couple of travel books or a bio/memoir mix.

MENAGE Day 5: Thanks for playing!

Hey everyone. Thanks so much for yet another great Book Menage. I thoroughly enjoyed this outing, even if I didn't wholeheartedly love both the books. And I found that interesting too: I've definitely had to re-evaluate Dangerous Laughter based on your comments!

My question today is twofold, and mostly on process: How did you like this five days, five different questions format? Or did you prefer the good old days when there was one post and one massive comments section?

And, the all-important matter of: What should we read next? I'm still wanting to pair Tom Bissell's memoir The Father of All Things (I'm cheating; I've already read and reviewed this book) with Doris Lessing's memoir/novel Alfred and Emily, but I'm flexible. Would you like to make some suggestions? Please list any book pairings you'd be interested in, and sometime next week we'll take a vote and I'll announce the winner of the next Menage's books.

Thanks again. This was awesome! And have a great weekend.

MENAGE Day 4: Rounding it up.

Good morning!

Okay, you may, in fact, be getting a bit tired of these two books*, but there's one big question I have yet to ask:

What do you like (or not like) about both stories and essays? Which would you rather read at the end of the day?

Were the stories in Dangerous Laughter the types of stories you'd normally read? Do you feel the essays in The Braindead Megaphone were well-executed?

*Tomorrow we'll truly conclude with one last question, and a call for votes for the two books in the next Menage. Remember, if you've commented any time this week, you're in the drawing for free copies of the two books. So start thinking about books you'd like to read and vote for tomorrow!

MENAGE Day 3: Pretty pictures.

Braindead An easy (and completely superficial) one today*:

What is the deal with the covers of these books? How do you feel about them? Do you like them, or do you feel they could be bettered? If you feel they could be bettered, how?

Dangerous On a related note, how important are covers to you generally?

*I neglected to mention earlier that you should feel free to comment on any of the Menage posts at any time; it's not like the comments section for Monday's post is closed or anything. So feel free to go back and comment on any previous posts!

MENAGE Day 2: The Texts.

Might I just take a quick moment to thank everyone who participated in yesterday's Menage, and welcome you back for round 2? Yesterday was already such a pleasure that I feel a bit greedy asking for more, but I will.

Today's question is more in-depth about the text and writing of these two books: George Saunders's The Braindead Megaphone (TBM) and Steven Millhauser's story collection Dangerous Laughter (DL). It is, in a way, an extension of yesterday's questions about which book you liked better, and why, so feel free to expand on anything we discussed yesterday. Today's question is a stand-alone:

Did any particular piece of text* (or story, or essay) in either (or both) of these books really stand out to you? (Another way to ask this: did you bookmark or otherwise mark anything in these books as you read?) If so, why?

*Please feel free to generalize if you can't locate the exact text; paraphrase! We proudly support loosey-goosey and "close enough" here at CR.

MENAGE! Day one: Essays v. Short Stories.

Hi everyone, and welcome to the March Book Menage, featuring George Saunders's book of essays, The Braindead Megaphone, and Steven Millhauser's New York Times Notable book of short stories, Dangerous Laughter!*

And yes, I know when we have these, we normally start off with a few questions and then have a beautiful free-for-all in the comments. Although I am a huge fan of the free-for-all, I thought we'd do things a bit differently this time around:

Instead of having one big discussion in the comments, I thought I'd post a few different questions each day, and each day can then have its own discussion. Also, if there's any questions you'd like to ask about these books, you should ask them in the comments (and I'll pull them out into the next day's post to highlight them) or email me with them at So it'll still be a free-for-all...times five! And whoever comments in any day's discussion will be entered in the drawing to win the next Menage books (meaning, you don't have to comment every day if you don't want to).

So let's start out pretty basic. Here's what I'm wondering:

1. Did you read all of each book? Or did you skip some parts?

2. HOW did you read these books? Straight through? Picking and choosing your essays or stories to read? How did you choose your reading order?

And here's a big one (and one we'll revisit throughout the week, I'm sure):

3. Did you like or not like either or both of these books? Why or why not?

I'll start us off in the comments, because I believe it's only fair to answer the questions one asks of others. Welcome to the Menage!

*Technically, I'm posting this on Sunday night. I couldn't help myself. I always get overexcited about the Menage.

Reviewing, Menaging, etc.

Just a little housekeeping at the blog today, as I mainly want to get out a reminder about our Menage next week. We'll start our Book Menage on Monday, March 30, when we discuss George Saunders's essay collection The Braindead Megaphone and Steven Millhauser's story collection Dangerous Laughter (and here's props to Kim, who got the ball rolling a bit early with a lovely review of the Millhauser). Come prepared to be honest with your opinions--remember, we don't hold with any crap library-style "first say something positive about the boo"-type rules here at Citizen Reader.

In other reviewing news, I'm really proud to say that the Best Business Books of 2008 feature that Library Journal allowed me to write is up. (It was a much better year for business books than it was for, well, business.) I've also got an article in the latest Reader's Advisor News published by Libraries Unlimited, about wishing book reviewers would stop summarizing books and start reviewing them--including mentioning when they don't like books for whatever reason. (The rest of the newsletter is more interesting than my article; Rick Roche's article on biographies was a lot of fun for me to read, as I don't read as many biographies as I should.)

Speaking of reviewing, good old Dale Peck (who was once known for his frank reviews, including his review of Rick Moody's Black Veil, which he began with the infamous line "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.") is still out there fighting that battle. I really enjoyed this interview with him (thanks to Bookninja for the link), in which he answers the question:

"Q: What should readers know about the art of book reviewing that they don’t know already?

A: Aside from the fact that 95 per cent of it is either dishonest (or at any rate compromised) and irrelevant? Not much."

I still like Dale Peck, I'll admit it.

Menage scheduling.

Braindead Has everybody had a chance to get a look at or read copies of our Menage books, Steven Millhauser's story collection Dangerous Laughter and George Saunders's essay collection The Braindead Megaphone? I meant to finish up Dangerous Laughter over the weekend but didn't get it done--would anyone mind if we moved the Menage discussion to Monday, March 30?

That gives us two weeks from today for reading. By that time I'll very much hope March is going out like a lamb. Remember, anyone who participates in the Menage comments is entered in a drawing to win the set of books for the next Menage, so please stop by and comment and invite your friends to do so likewise. If only we were independently wealthy, we could televise the book drawing and put Mr. CR in a tux to do the honors or something, but for now we'll have to keep it low-key with him picking the names out of one of my hats.

Shameless self promotion.

I know, I know, nobody likes advertising. That's why largely there's none to be found here. But when it takes as long to write a reference book as it took me to write this one, I can't help but take a day to announce its publication.

Scoop It's here! My second nonfiction readers' guide, The Inside Scoop: A Guide to Nonfiction Investigative Writing and Exposes, is all ready to go. And I for one am glad. I had a lot of fun writing it, but after you've gone through the manuscript a couple of times and indexed it, you don't really feel like looking at it ever again.

My favorite part of this new book is that it contains, not only annotations and suggestions for William Langewiesche's books, but many, many references to Langewiesche in general, including his quote about the difficulty of classifying investigative works:

"In truth it doesn't really have a label--which is why you can never find the stuff in a bookstore. They don't know where to put it, so they try to force it into existing categories."

Ah, Langewiesche. Even when writing about writing he's got it spot on.

In other administrative news, don't forget that Book Menage II is scheduled to start Monday, March 23. Our two books are the essay collection The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders and the story collection Dangerous Laughter by Steven Milhauser. Remember, you're welcome to comment even if you don't get both books read. (I've got to get going to make sure I get both books read myself!)

Book Menage II: The continuing saga.

Forgot to say yesterday: Please remember that anyone who joins the menage and comments on the books is automatically entered to win the next menage's pair of books. Just this morning I shipped The Braindead Megaphone and Dangerous Laughter out to last time's winner!

So please do invite your friends; the more the merrier. If they want to know what it's all about, please feel free to send them this link: