British Authors

Each subsequent chapter sadder than the last.

At least, that's sort of the way I felt as I made my way through Catherine Bailey's history book Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years that Changed England.

All Anglophiles and general history readers should check this one out; it's the story of Great Britain's Fitzwilliam dynasty, based at the [unbelievably huge] Wentworth House estate in the Yorkshire region of England. Starting with the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, born in 1815, this book traces the family's intrigues, economics, and, above all, its geneaology, although the bulk of it focuses on the 7th and 8th Earls and their lives in the twentieth century.*

The family was immensely wealthy, and their wealth derived from the vast number of coal mines they owned and ran. So in addition to being a history of the very rich, this is also a history of the very, very poor. I read this one over the course of a few weeks, and whenever I did, I went to bed glad that I am not a coal miner. Holy shit. Dangerous job, unhealthy job, very poorly paid job; and often undertaken for rich families that might or might not be decent employers. I will say this for the Earls Fitzwilliam: particularly in the case of the 7th earl, "Billy," he did try to treat his people somewhat decently (enough so that he was remembered fondly in the neighborhood, and most of his workers never voted for strikes against him).

Although: the lives of the rich people don't sound like a whole lot of fun in this book either. Billy himself was the target of a campaign by his aunts to disinherit him; he was born in Canada and it was alleged that his father, who died before his own father and therefore was never an earl himself, took steps to replace the baby girl that was really born to him with a Canadian baby boy (so that he could inherit the title and wealth). Good lord. The whole "only males can inherit" thing has really messed up a lot of lives.

But I digress. It's an interesting book. Not a great one--it skips around some in time and that makes it a bit tough to follow, particularly when you consider that all the earls are named some variation of William something, and it all gets a bit confusing. But it was an engrossing read; if you're in an area of the country where there's still just a bit of winter left, this might be a good thick book to settle in with by the fire until spring really arrives. (Oh: and be glad you didn't have to dig out the coal to light for your fire.)

Other reviews: The Guardian; Kirkus

*And there's even a bit about one of the earls and his love affair with Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, sister to JFK.

Oh, Russell Brand, what are we going to do with you?

I have a little soft spot for British comedian Russell Brand, even though I fully realize it's probably easiest to love Russell Brand from afar, which, luckily, is what I will always be from Russell Brand.

Let's break down the case. There's this: when Russell Brand is funny, he's really, really funny. Also: he is not a believer in voting, and I can go along with that.*

Third: He can write a serviceable memoir. I really enjoyed his first memoir, My Booky Wook, although I have just become aware he wrote another one, titled (not very imaginatively, Russell) My Booky Wook 2, and I will not in fact be reading that book. Only so much time, and all that. But when I saw he had a new book out called rEVOLution, I thought, all right, we'll give it a try.

It's awful. Really. It's unreadable. I am not alone in this opinion; most book critics seem pretty united in their opinions that it is not a well-written or even funny book. So it hurts me to write that you should not read this book, which is a mish-mash of memoir, political and ideological beliefs, befuddled writing about yoga, and (a very few) interviews with anarchist, nonprofit organizer, Occupy protestor types, including some of their ideas for bettering the world.

But? Every 100 pages or so he still managed to charm me. For example, when remembering a fraught conversation he had as a child with his grandmother (the "nan" he was not very fond of, to be exact), he decides that what he has to do as an adult is try and see his grandmother's point of view:

"I now look at my nan in another way. As a human being just like me, trying to cope with her own flaws and challenges. Fearful of what would become of her sick daughter, confused by the grandchild born of a match that she was averse to. Alone and approaching the end of her life, with regret and lacking a functioning system of guidance and comfort. Trying her best. Taking on the responsibility of an unusual little boy with glib, atheistic tendencies, she still behaved dutifully. Perhaps this very conversation sparked in me the spirit of metaphysical inquiry that has led to the faith in God I now have." (p. 60.)

So yeah, I can't recommend the book. But you've got to love a guy taking the time to re-evaluate his grandmother. Don't you? I do.

*He is also no fan of the British royal family, which is where we diverge in our opinions.

The Kids Will Be Fine.

Now there's a title that's a balm to every mother's soul.

The other book on parenting that I read last week, largely while parenting (well, sort of: I was outside with the CRboys, supervising, but clearly I was also reading, slacker mom that I am), was The Kids Will Be Fine: Guilt-Free Motherhood for Thoroughly Modern Women. The good news is that, according to Brit author Daisy Waugh, evidently "the kids will be fine."

Waugh takes on all the offenders who have ever offered pregnant women or mothers unsolicited advice on how best to raise their children, and works at debunking the myth that you have to be a total martyr to your children's needs in order to do a good job raising them. Overall, hers is kind of a refreshing take on the subject, and the kicker is that most of her chapters are all of two to three pages long, so it was easy to read her book in short bursts. I find this is necessary these days, as roughly every 30 seconds I am called upon to blow some more bubbles, help someone in the bathroom, separate someone else from his favorite remote that he loves to chew on, etc.

Waugh starts off with a bang on the topic of pregnancy, admitting she had pain relief during her deliveries and couldn't imagine why everyone wouldn't.* She then moves on to caring for babies, working or not working, child care, school, and so on. Here she is on not attending every single last one of her children's sporting events or school functions:

"My children (less as they grow older, of course) would generally prefer it if I attended their school functions. Why wouldn't they? And yet I still don't. Because, as I explain to the children, time is of the essence. Although I love them tenderly (duh), there are other things--not related to them--that I either need or would prefer to be doing.

Added to which, by the way, even if I didn't have work to do; even if I had a fleet of nannies and housekeepers and--gosh--a tax-deductible chauffeur to attend to the parking, I would still want to limit what hours I spent, in this short life, making polite conversation on rain-soaked sideliens or sitting in school halls watching other people's children playing musical instruments badly.

Children who grow up understanding that their mother's world doesn't solely revolve around theirs are much the better for it. In my opinion." (p. 137-138.)

Personally? I think she makes a good point. Several, actually.

If I have a slight quibble with this book, it's that I feel some of the chapters actually end a little abruptly. She's going along on a subject, tickety-boo, and I'm really quite interested to see how she resolves the point, and then, bang, the chapter's over, without much actual resolution.

But still. An interesting little read, and of course I'd love to believe her title.

*I don't really agree with her on the need for medicated labor. It sounds stupid, but I didn't really mind unmedicated labor. Labor you know is going to end. It's the recovery period from the all sorts of bad things having a baby does to your body that does me in.

What we look like to the other side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rose George* does it again.

Last year I read journalist Rose George's fantastic book on poo, titled The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. I loved it. It was, bar none, one of the best books I read all year.

So I was very excited when my copy of her latest book, Ninety Percent of Everything, came in at the library. The book is about the shipping industry, which George investigated by living: she actually traveled on a container ship, the Maersk Kendal, from Felixstowe (the Kendal is actually a Dutch ship, but George joins its crew from a port in Great Britain) to its final port of call in Singapore. She explains, early on, why this is a subject in which she is fascinated:

"The Maritime Foundation, a charity that promotes seafarer matters, recently made a video called Unreported Ocean. It asked the residents of Southampton, a port city in England, how many goods are transported by sea. The answers were varied but uniformly wrong. They all had the interrogative upswing of the unsure.**

'Thirty-five percent?'

'Not a lot?'

The answer is, nearly everything. Sometimes on trains I play a numbers game. A woman listening to headphones: 8. A man reading a book: 15. The child in the stroller: at least 4 including the stroller. The game is to reckon how many of our clothes and possessions and food products have been transported by ship..." (p. 3.)

I love that George is out there in the world, thinking and writing about shipping for us, because who else would have the time or the necessary drive to travel on a huge container ship? One that may or may not be boarded by pirates at some point along its route? (The chapters on piracy, by the way, are fascinating and horrifying in equal measures.)

It's a good book; do check it out. I'll confess it wasn't quite what I expected--I was thinking George would take a somewhat broader view of the entire shipping industry, rather than framing many of her chapters around her travels on the one ship, but the more I read the more I enjoyed her approach. Of particular note is the very human face she puts on the ship's crew members and captain, as well as the individuals worldwide who seek to offer charitable services and help to such workers (which is necessary, because people working in the shipping industry, as you might guess, are not treated very well or paid very much).

You can also read a lengthy excerpt of the book at the NPR website. Try that and I'll bet you'll be hooked!

*By the way, I totally want a cool name like "Rose George." I love the succinctness of it.

**For whatever reason I love this sentence. Beautifully written stuff.

You know? I just enjoy Helen Fielding.

When I heard that Helen Fielding had a new Bridget Jones novel coming out, I'll admit it, I got a little excited. I have always really enjoyed Helen Fielding, and I loved Bridget Jones's Diary in both novel and film form.*

If you're not aware of the story (and where have you been, if not?) it all started in 1996 with Bridget Jones's Diary (follow the link for the plot summary), featuring the British thirty-something "singleton" character of Bridget Jones, presented through her own diary. Jones was a lovable female scamp, always battling her weight and cigarette and alcohol dependencies, and she couldn't help loving the hilarious, dashing asshole (played perfectly by Hugh Grant in the movies), although eventually she fell for the much more staid but surprisingly much more romantic Mark Darcy. A sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, followed, and now, more than a decade later, Fielding has written another installment in the story titled Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy.

Now, I could do a huge spoiler here, but I'm not going to. Suffice it to say that the book opens with a ballsy character development choice on the part of Fielding. Many readers were not happy about it, but I had to give her credit for trying the unexpected, and for the most part, I think she pulled it off. But the point of these novels is not the story. Much like fellow Brit Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole diaries (also hilarious), the appeal here is the character. I just love Bridget Jones. In this book, she has a couple of kids, and it gives her new perspective. One of my favorite passages in the book is when she sees a neighbor struggling with her own kids (and she can relate):

"Suddenly the upstairs window in the house opposite shot open and a pair of Xbox remotes hurtled out, landing with a smash next to the dustbins.

Seconds later, the front door was flung open and the bohemian neighbor appeared, dressed in fluffly pink mules, a Victorian nightdress and a small bowler hat, carrying an armful of laptops, iPads and iPods. She teetered down the front steps and shoved the electronics in the dustbin, with her son and two of his friends following her, wailing, 'Nooooo! I haven't finished my leveeeeel!'

'Good!' she yelled. 'When I signed up for having children, I did NOT sign up to be ruled by a collection of inanimate thin black objects and a gaggle of TECHNO-CRACKHEADS refusing to do anything but stare with jabbing thumbs, while demanding that I SERVICE them like a computer tech crossed with a five-star hotel concierge. When I didn't have you, everyone spent their whole time saying I'd change my mind. And guess what? I've had you. I've brought you up. And I've CHANGED MY MIND!'

I stared at her, thinking, 'I have to be friends with that woman.'" (p. 89.)

I don't care what anyone says. That is funny. And good writing. And I'm not ashamed to say I consumed the entire book as fast as I could, like a box of good chocolates, and I enjoyed every single moment. Even when I read it at 3 a.m., after feeding my own new baby, who will most likely grow up to be a spoiled techno-crackhead himself.

*Which reminds me, it's about time to watch this movie again; I often re-watch it around the holidays. I think because the movie begins and ends around Christmas time, it always strikes me as a Christmasy movie. And who doesn't love a movie that offers Hugh Grant in perhaps the most perfectly cast role he's ever played? (The casting of Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, in a brilliant twist on his role of Mr. Darcy on the BBC's Pride and Prejudice adpatation, was also a stroke of genius, and seems to indicate Colin Firth has a sense of humor.)

A book I can't recommend...

...for reading or gift-purchase purposes: Sebastian Faulks's Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.*

It announces on the cover that this is a "new Jeeves and Wooster novel," as well as an "homage to P.G. Wodehouse." Now, I know there is really no replacing Wodehouse, but I do love the Jeeves books so I thought I'd be open-minded and give this one a try.

It's not working.

Faulks gave it a good old college try, I'll admit. The novel actually is a serviceable example of a Jeeves book, but there is something just not right about it. I keep reading ten pages here or there and then putting it back down, and not really enjoying what I've read. I can't actually put my finger on what is wrong with this "homage"--the only nonsensical phrase that keeps going through my head is, he got the tone right, but the tone's not quite right. Which makes no sense. I think what I'm trying to say is that this is an okay substitute, but when it comes to Wodehouse, you really should accept no substitutes:

"I was woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a dozen metal dustbins being chucked down a flight of stone steps. After a moment of floundering in the darkness I put my hand on the source of the infernal noise: the twin copper bells on top of a large alarm clock. There followed a brief no-holds-barred wrestling bout before I was able to shove the wretched thing beneath the mattress."

That's the opening paragraph, and I wish I could report it got more compelling from there. But I think your best course of action here would be to skip this one and just go re-read some P.G. himself.

*And this really hurts to say, because I was totally looking forward to this one.

Men have always had some crazy ideas, evidently.

You know, every time I read about those organized types who keep their reading and TBR lists in GoodReads or spreadsheets or even on some sort of printed list, I think, oh brother. That sort of thing is just going to eat into my already precious reading time. But then books that I've requested come in at the library, I read them, I enjoy them, and I think, now where did I hear about this one? If I ever do start a reading notebook I think the main thing I'll track is how I found the books I request or buy (which I'd have to do the moment I request them, not when they come in, because my memory is terrible).

This was the case with Wendy Moore's historical biography How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate. I love biographies like this for two reasons: 1) I really, really enjoy reading about people who weren't necessarily famous (or who aren't famous anymore, at any rate), and 2) I really love reading histories that are at least part biography and biographies that are part history. This book was a very enjoyable example of its type, although I can't remember where I originally heard about it.*

Moore tells the story of one Thomas Day, an eighteenth-century Englishman known in his time for being a radical and the author of a popular children's book. But what Moore focuses on is his "wife-creating" activity; evidently he was somewhat of a picky bastard with high ideals for female perfection, so he decided to adopt a couple of young girls, raise them and teach them according to his social and educational principles (most of which were influenced by the controversial writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau), and then choose one of them to marry. And he didn't exactly keep his plan a secret; he knew a lot of influential Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers, and many of them knew about this plan, and didn't seem to give it a second thought.

The eighteenth century sounds like a wild time, man.

Well, the plan did not exactly proceed as planned. You'll just have to read the book to see if Day trained up his one true (and truly subservient) love: 

"Day wanted a lifelong partner who would be just as clever, well read and witty as his brilliant male friends. He craved a lover with whom he could discourse and wrangle on politics, philosophy and literature as freely as he could in male company. He desired a companion who would be physically as tough and hardy as himself. In short he wanted a woman who would be more like a man. But he was only human--and male. So for all his apparently egalitarian views on education, Day wanted his future spouse happily to suppress her natural intelligence and subvert her acquired learning in deference to his views and desires. He wanted a wife who would be completely subservient to his wishes at all times. How then would he ever obtain the woman of his dreams?" (p. 7.)

My favorite part of the book, actually, was reading about the other women (the non-trained ones) who were engaged at some point to Day but who were smart enough to break it off before the wedding. Kudos to you, ladies!

*Maybe I requested it because I recognized the author's name? I'd read her earlier book Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore and really enjoyed it.

Fiction Interlude: Charlotte Street

Charlotte Street
by Danny Wallace

I only read Danny Wallace's novel Charlotte Street a couple of weeks ago, and already I've pretty much forgotten everything about it. (Although I have this problem with fiction fairly often.)

Which might lead you to think I didn't like it, and that is not the case. I enjoyed it. I pretty much always like anything Danny Wallace writes, because I just enjoy Danny Wallace. And how can you not like a romance-ish novel, by a guy, with a subtitle like "a heartwarming everyday tale of boy stalks girl"? Very British, that.

So: let's get the plot details out of the way. 30-ish Brit Jason Priestley (who has to explain to people, often, that no, he is not the Jason Priestley of Beverly Hills 90210/Brandon Walsh fame), a former teacher, is trying to start over with a new career and a new life, while still sometimes writing unkind things about his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend on her social media page. Then one day he helps a stranger pick up the packages she dropped while getting into a cab, and finds, after she's gone, that he's in possession of a disposable camera that is hers. Should he develop the pictures? Or is that just weird?

And so on and so forth. If you can term a novel by a guy about a guy "chick lit," that's what I'd call this one. In parts it's a bit darker than most chick lit romances, but that's pretty par for the course for British writing (I think; but I might just have that idea because I watch a lot of British TV series and man, those people are not afraid to kill off their main characters). And if you're an Anglophile, you'll love the descriptions of London. My one quibble with the novel (and Mr. CR thought this too; he must have read parts of the book also) is that it's just too long. It's a good story, but it wasn't sufficiently complex to need 400 pages.* I'll let the main character introduce himself:

"I'm the thirty-two-year-old Jason Priestley who lives on the Caledonian Road, above a videogame shop between a Polish newsagents and that place that everyone thought was a brothel, but wasn't. The Jason Priestey who gave up his job as a deputy head of department in a bad North London school to chase a dream of being a journalist after his girlfriend left him but who's ended up single and going to cheap restaurants and awful films so's he can write about them in that free newspaper they give you on the tube that you take but don't read." (p. 5.)

*I always think this about Judd Apatow movies too. They're funny, but they all need to be about 15-25 minutes shorter.

A favorite eclectic recommender.

One of my favorite blogs to check for a wide variety of reading suggestions is Rick Roche's RickLibrarian. Rick's real subject specialty is biographies: he's the author of Real Lives Revealed: A Guide to Reading Interests in Biography (Real Stories) and Read On...Biography: Reading Lists for Every Taste (Read On Series) (both published by ABC-CLIO--I know they're not cheap, but if you're a librarian, please do consider buying and using them in your collection, particularly if you're looking to beef up your nonfiction readers' advisory services*).

A book I found ages ago through Rick's site was A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery. Yes, THAT A.A. Milne--the author of Winnie-the-Pooh. And perhaps I am going about this backwards, because I haven't yet read Winnie (although we have read an Easy Reader copy of Winnie the Pooh's Easter Egg Hunt so many times that CRjr has it memorized: "'Surprise,' mumbled Eeyore, 'I found an Easter egg!'"), but a while back I was looking for any kind of pleasant, easy reading that I could just wander through for twenty minutes or so at each bedtime.

This mystery novel hit the spot for that admirably. It's pleasingly British**, for an Anglophile like me, and the mystery's not real gory or complicated (for a synopsis see Rick's review), so it made perfect escapism reading. I rather feel it's more a book to be read in a cozy warm house while it's winter outside, but it's set in the summer and it might also make for good beach reading.

My thanks, and kudos, once again go to Rick.

*I'm not remunerated in any way when Rick's books sell, but they are so awesome and helpful that I can't help putting in a plug for them here or there.

**Here's how the sleuth, Antony Gillingham, is introduced: "When at the age of twenty-one he [Antony] came into his mother's money, 400 pounds a year, old Gillingham [his father] looked up from the 'Stockbreeders' Gazette' to ask him what he was going to do.

'See the world,' said Antony.

'Well, send me a line from America, or wherever you get to.'

'Right,' said Antony.

Old Gillingham returned to his paper. Antony was a younger son, and, on the whole, not so interesting to his father as the cadets of certain other families; Champion Birket's, for instance. But, then, Champion Birket was the best Hereford bull he had ever bred.

Antony, however, had no intention of going further away than London. His idea of seeing the world was to see, not countries, but people; and to see them from as many angles as possible. There are all sorts in London if you know how to look at them. So Antony looked at them--from various strange corners; from the view-point of the valet, the newspaper reporter, the waiter, the shop-assistant. With the independence of 400 pounds a year behind him, he enjoyed it immensely." (p. 25.)

Ah, England! Inattentive parents who are more interested in animals than you but are also your source of independent income! Amateur sleuths who are simply interested in the world! What a great country.

Back in the reading saddle.

I realized the other day that I have a different book going in every room of the house (and one in my backpack), and it feels really, really...good. It feels like I am getting back to myself again, reading-wise.

So what's going on where? Details to follow, but in the bathroom I have a novel by a British author I've always enjoyed, in the bedroom is a book on how Generation Y is getting royally screwed, economically speaking (nice light bedtime reading, dontcha know), in my bag is a memoir that I'm not quite sure about but am going to stick with anyway, in the living room is a somewhat depressing book (book info toward the bottom of that post) that I've had to take a small pause from, and in the kitchen waits a book I started a few weeks back and really must get back to, because it is fascinating. Oh, and how could I forget a book about books, which, interestingly enough, has a chapter about being in the middle of too many books (and which roves around as I carry it from room to room and outside)? Add to that some books on gardening (every year in spring I read about gardening, rather than actually gardening) and some on toilet training (although, sadly, neither CRjr nor I are too interested), and you have a full reading slate.

It's lovely.

I still enjoy a good down-to-earth memoir.

A while back I noted that I might finally be going off memoirs. But every now and then, if I find the right one on the right subject, and it's not too long, I still enjoy munching through them the way you might enjoy crunching through a bowl of popcorn (or, if you have a sweet tooth like me, Easter candy) while relaxing.

I found this was the case with Linda Fairley's jauntily titled The Midwife's Here!: The Enchanting True Story of Britain's Longest Serving Midwife, which is billed on its cover as "the enchanting true story of one of Britain's longest-serving midwives." Now, normally I run away from the word "enchanting" the way other people might run away from the words "dark" or "bitter," but I've always had a little soft spot for midwife stories (and health narratives in general).

Here Fairley relates the story of her three years' of nursing training, followed by her midwife training, all of which took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She drops in enough period details to make it fun--miniskirts, fashions by Mary Quant, and go-go boots all make an appearance--but overall she was a serious student and was energized when she discovered her true vocation in life was to be a midwife. Her revelations regarding birthing and parenting trends of that time were fascinating--nobody made you feel bad for not breastfeeding in the sixties, that's for sure--and she tells a brisk little narrative full up with enough real characters to really keep you reading. One of my favorite anecdotes was about her and her mentor, midwife May Tattersall, attending a birth in a more rural area near Manchester, England, and how Mrs. Tattersall had to yell at the husband to get the chickens out of the room where his wife was giving birth (although she let the two dogs stay):

"'Well,' she said in a voice laden with prudence, 'it's like this. When you're a community midwife, you have to fit in with the community...If she wants her dogs there, then it's best to try to accommodate her, as far as possible.'

'But...not hens?'

'Not hens, no, never hens,' Mrs. Tattersall said firmly.

I expected some pearls of wisdom about the dangers of toxoplasmosis or even salmonella poisoning, but Mrs. Tattersall simply said with a rasp, 'I flamin' well hate birds!'" (p. 219.)

Ha! I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the whole book. Ms. Fairley is clearly the optimistic, can-do, no-nonsense sort who might frighten me in real life, but she's written a book that's, well, okay, I guess I can go along with the publisher: enchanting.*

*Be warned: there are some sad stories too. Not all childbirth experiences end enchantingly, after all.

Book reviews that actually make me want to read.

Here's a little confession: I don't read book reviews.

Okay, I used to read them, in the good old days, when I thought I could afford a subscription to Publishers' Weekly. I was down with the PW book reviews--short, and pretty much universally chipper, although every now and then someone would rip a forthcoming book up one side and down the other. But I honestly don't think I've ever made it all the way through a New York Times book review. Why not? Well, for the most part, they never really make me want to read the books. This is why, I think, I enjoy book blogs as much as I do. The less "review-y," the better--I like to hear what someone really thought of a book, even if they didn't like it.

So it is always very refreshing to read Nick Hornby's collections of book-reading essays (collected from The Believer magazine, where they originally appear). The latest such book of his is titled More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself, and I devoured it over the course of a couple of nights. Hornby opens each essay with a list of the books he bought that month, and the books he actually read, which is a lovely way to admit that what we pick out to read and what we end up reading are not always directly related. And then he proceeds to discuss what he read in approachable, and often very funny, prose. And you often learn something along the way, like this, when he talks about the book Austerity Britain: 1945-51, by David Kynaston):

"While I was reading about the birth of our* National Health Service, President Obama was winning his battle to extend health care in America;** it's salutary, then, to listen to the recollections of the doctors who treated working-class Britons in those early days. 'I certainly found when the Health Service started on the 5th July '48 that for the first six months I had as many as twenty or thirty ladies come to me who had the most unbelievable gynaecological conditions--I mean, of that twenty or thirty there would be at least ten who had complete prolapse of the womb, and they had to hold it up with a towel as if they had a large nappy on.'" (p. 25.)

I don't know what it says about me that that TOTALLY makes me want to get and read the Kynaston book, but kudos to Hornby on his quote-selecting skills. I also know this about Hornby: he's the only reviewer who has ever, EVER made me want to read Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (although I know I should have read this one before now).

So: looking to get excited about a wide range of fiction and nonfiction? Try this and Hornby's other such collections, including The Polysyllabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, and Shakespeare Wrote for Money.

*Hornby is British, so he speaks of the British National Health Service.

**I don't know that Obama's health-care plan is actually going to make health care more accessible to anyone, but that's a small quibble with Hornby's writing.

A try at fiction.

A friend recently suggested to me that I shake up my reading habits a bit by changing genres, so I thought I'd try a novel over the weekend.

I found Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in my local library's "Serendipity Collection"--a collection of popular books that exists outside of the library's regular holdings, and books in which can be checked out for two weeks. This is a way to circumvent the waiting list for a number of popular books, to reward patrons on a "first come, first serve" basis. It's not a bad idea, but normally I never have to go near it, because I don't usually have any problems finding anything to read. However, in the last few weeks, I never seem to be in the mood for any of the books I have coming in on my hold list. So there I was, looking at my Serendipity options. And this novel is the one I came home with.

It's the story of one Harold Fry, husband of Maureen, former brewery accountant, and now retired and largely going-through-the-motions gentleman. Then a letter arrives from a long-ago friend, Queenie Hennessy: in which she informs him she is dying of cancer. He can't think of much else to do, so he pens a very proper British condolence note, and sets off to mail it.

Somewhere along the way to the mailbox he decides, instead, that if he walks nearly the length of England (he's in the south of England; Queenie is in the north), Queenie will just have to keep living until he gets there. So he just keeps walking.

Of course there's a lot of foreshadowing and revelations along the way: what has been going wrong in Harold's marriage; he and his wife's relationship with their son; the favor Queenie did for Harold and for which he was never able to thank her.

I enjoyed it (and of course I enjoyed the British setting), but I warn you: it's a weeper. Towards the end I went through a few tissues--but that might also just be the mood I'm in.* I don't know that I loved it, but I did want to keep reading it until I was done, and that's saying something these days.

*Or the mood we're all in, in the never-ending winter wonderland that is Wisconsin. I'm feeling simultaneously edgy and weepy these days; must be the lack of sunlight or above-freezing temperatures.

Being a woman is complicated.

I laid on the couch last week for quite some time and wondered if I should write about Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman here.

No fooling. Now, granted, we are in a run of somewhat craptacular February weather here in Wisconsin, and cabin fever and the blahs have set in in a big way, but normally I do have slightly more exciting things to do than lay around on the couch and think about blogging. But there you have it. You'll see why I was giving this one some thought in just a bit.

Moran's a popular columnist and critic in Great Britain, and I know I saw this book on a number of "buzz books"-type lists last year, so I picked it up. It is exactly what the title proclaims it to be--a very handy guide to womanhood punctuated by stories from Moran's own sometimes funny, mostly cringe-worthy journey to adult womanhood. Most of the early chapters ("I Start Bleeding!" "I Become Furry!" "I Don't Know What to Call My Breasts!") in particular focus on her childhood, being raised in a large, poor family. And I don't mean American 1980s poor, where you grew up without cable. I mean poor, where she had to wear her mother's hand-me-down underwear as a teenager.*

How to Be a Woman
by Caitlin Moran

I started the book not too interested, but somewhere in the middle I started getting a real charge out of it. Perhaps it's because she seems so sensible--she'd like to see some porn where the women are actually enjoying themselves, for a change; it's ridiculous to shave off all of your pubic hair because that's the going style and because men (evidently fed by quantities of hair-free porn? I confess my knowledge of porn is not extensive) demand it; spending tens of thousands of dollars on your wedding and expecting it to be the best day of your life are both ridiculous. These are all thoughts I can get behind, and for the most part, she's funny while making these points, such as this one, about pubic hair waxing:

"I can't believe we've got to a point where it's basically costing us money to have a vagina. They're making us pay for maintenance and upkeep of our lulus, like they're a communal garden. It's a stealth tax. Muff excised. This is money we should be spending on THE ELECTRICITY BILL and CHEESE and BERETS." (p. 46.)

The line directly before that one is "Can you imagine if we asked men to put up with this shit? They'd laugh you out the window before you got halfway through the first sentence." I think she's really on to something there.

She even changed my thoughts a bit on strip clubs. Now, for most of my adult life, I have not been all that bothered by strip clubs. I have largely been of the "maybe it's actually an okay-paying job for some women" persuasion. My only really strong feeling about them has been that men should only be allowed in with five-dollar bills (or better yet, tens or twenties) and no change should be given for anything. But with paragraphs like this Moran might start winning me over to her point of view on them:

"Strip clubs let everyone down. Men and women approach their very worst here. There's no self-expression or joy in these joints--no springboard to self-discovery, or adventure, like any decent night out involving men, women, alcohol, and taking your clothes off. Why do so many people have a gut reaction against strip clubs? Because, inside them, no one's having fun.

Instead, people are expressing needs (to earn money, to see a woman's skin) in pretty much the most depressing way possible...

And the men--oh, are you any gentler or happier? You cannot put your hand on your heart and say--as the music starts up, and she moves toward you--that you have kind feelings toward these women. No man who ever cared for or anted to impress a woman made her stand in front of him and take her knickers off to earn cab fare home...Between 60 and 80 percent of strippers come from a background of sexual abuse. This place is a mess, a horrible mess. Every dance, every private booth, is a small unhappiness, an ugly impoliteness: the bastard child of misogyny and commerce." (pp. 163-164.)

By this point in the book I'm thinking, huh, this woman is actually making a lot of sense. On a lot of topics.

So why did I end up laying on the couch wondering if I had the energy to talk about this book? Well, I skipped ahead to the chapter titled "Abortion." And here's the crux of the matter--and a SPOILER. Read on only if you want to find out what happens in that chapter.

Well, Moran has an abortion, to end an unplanned third pregnancy conceived in her marriage. She's pretty matter of fact about it all, explaining that she just could not take on a third child, and then describing the procedure. She concludes the chapter by saying that, for her, it was an action with only good consequences.

And that's where I hit the ground in this book with a big thud. I can't help it. I am and always will be anti-abortion.** I'm not going to get into the whys and wherefores of this, and I'm not going to say I don't empathize with Moran's feelings. Trust me, I only have the one CRjr and I can UNDERSTAND how one or more kids saps your energy. But still. It's just a deal-breaker for me and it always will be.

So where are we left?

With an overly long blog post, I realize. But I thought, what the hell, what good is a book blog if we can't talk about every aspect of how we react to books? I'm not sorry I read this one. Did the last chapter I read ruin some of my enjoyment of the early chapters, during which I was feeling almost frighteningly simpatico with the author? Well, sure. But I'm going to take this as an important reminder about nonfiction specifically (because the author is often telling you exactly how THEY feel, without filtering it through fiction) and books in general: they are a conversation. They don't always end how you think they will. And a lot of times you will feel the shock of recognition, of love, even, with their authors, but then eventually you'll realize, sadly, that this relationship is not for you. Doesn't make either of you bad people. Doesn't mean I won't meet other people who I think will really enjoy this book, and I will tell them about it in positive terms. But it also doesn't mean I'll feel compelled to read her next book, either.

Sorry to unload all of that on you. Next time I face this dilemma of whether or not to bore you with an overlong post on a book I'm conflicted about, I'll decide against, I promise.

*I realize there are still more heinous scales of poverty, but come on. To most of us, having to wear our mother's worn-out hand-me-down underwear would be more than poor enough for us, thank you.

**You can see why I've always been conflicted about voting. Once a co-worker asked me why I don't vote, and I said, "I'm anti-war and anti-abortion. For whom should I vote?" And she said, "Huh. That IS a tough one."

Authors: In Memoriam, 2012 (the personal version).

Of course, anytime an author dies it makes the baby Jesus cry. But when I was typing up yesterday's list of authors who passed on last year, I must admit there were more than a few that really hit me hard. Which ones?

Well, Ray Bradbury, of course. And Nora Ephron hit pretty hard too. But David Rakoff? Oh, losing David Rakoff broke my heart.

Several of the names surprised me; Jacques Barzun because I really didn't know he was still alive. David Oliver Relin (co-author of Three Cups of Tea, but we can't hold that against him, I think Greg Mortenson is the real problem there) was sad because he committed suicide, and Jeffrey Zaslow (although I think his book, The Last Lecture, co-authored by Randy Pausch, was a crime against the book-buying public) was kind of sad because he died on a snowy road driving around in Michigan promoting his latest book. It's a tough life, being an author.

And then, there were Earl Shorris ("who fought poverty with knowledge," what a beautiful epigraph) and Paul Fussell.* Two of my very favorites. This year please do consider reading a book by either of those authors in tribute; they wrote thoughtful, solid, intelligent nonfiction. They will be missed.

*In fact, I'm thinking I'm making this the Year of Fussell here at CR. Maybe we'll do a Menage with him, or perhaps I'll issue a reading challenge?

How am I supposed to kick my Daily Show habit this way?

The lovely author Jon Ronson of such (funky and completely enjoyably weird, or weirdly enjoyable, whatever) titles The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry was on The Daily Show last week.* He's adorable, and love that accent:

I have decided I have to stop watching The Daily Show online, I just don't have the time to spend. But it's going to hurt, especially when Stewart hosts authors like Ronson. And also this Lewis Black segment, which is emphatically not suitable for work, but is HILARIOUS.

*I should add Ronson has a new book out, titled Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries. Can't wait to read it!

Update: Here's another interview with the lovely and talented Jon Ronson, at The Millions.

God bless Rachel Cusk.

I am a big fan of Rachel Cusk.

She's better known as a novelist (although she's somewhat notorious for her earlier memoir on parenting, titled A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother), but I've never read any of her novels. I really, really enjoyed A Life's Work, largely, I'll admit, for its contrarian viewpoint, so when I heard her new book, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, was coming out, I was very excited to read it.* I was pumped when it finally came in for me at the library, and as it clocks in at a mere 146 pages, I thought I'd be able to fly through it. This was not the case.

The first time I started it, for some reason, I had a very hard time keeping track of what she was saying in the first chapter. The second time I started it, I was in Door County enjoying a very nice mini-vacation with my family and my brother's family, and it just wasn't the right atmosphere in which to read this book. The third time I started it, I found it really interesting, and re-read the first chapter so I made sure to get it all. And the fourth time I started it (starting with the second chapter), I couldn't put it down, and I made CRjr look at his own books for a while in the afternoon so I could keep reading it ("Mom's reading her book, why don't you just look at the pictures in your animal book? Please?" Child neglect, thy name is CR.)

There's no way for this not to be a sad memoir. It is about the breaking up of a marriage, with all that entails: fights and disagreements and the destruction of shared history with one's ex; worries about the children and how they are taking the new living situations; the messiness of trying to move forward with new and different relationships. It is, unfortunately, not a great book. (And here's two reviews explaining why it is not, better than I ever could.)

But to me Rachel Cusk is never strongest in the aggregate. I love her for the brief shining moments of insight, the lines she gets totally right. These are a few of them:

"To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of male values...I was aware, in those early days, that my behaviour was strange to the people who knew me well. It was as though I had been brainwashed, taken over by a cult religion. I had gone away--I couldn't be reached on the usual number. And yet this cult, motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live. It reflected nothing about me: its literature and practices, its values, its codes of conduct, its aesthetic were not mine. It was generic too: like any cult, it demanded a complete surrender of identity to belong to it. So for a while I didn't belong anywhere." (p. 19.) This is in the opening chapter on the early days of marriage and parenthood and the sorting out of roles, with a discussion of her childhood adoption of her father's ways and more "male" values of seeking individual success and financial security.

"Pain is strong and huge and relentless, and 'normality'--that was the word he used, wasn't it?--normality is the fine balance life achieves in the absence of disruption, is the blank register of events and their aftermath, slowly re-stitching and reparing itself after a pebble has been thrown in. Normality is capable of resisting nothing and can outlive almost anything." (p. 31.) This is perhaps the clearest description of pain and the absence of pain that I've ever read.

"Later, at the train station before she leaves, my sister says to me: you have to learn to hide what you feel from the children. They will feel what they think you feel. They are only reflections of you.

I don't believe that, I say." (p. 72.) I don't know how I feel about this. I'd like to discuss it in a book group or something, actually.

So there you have it. A disjointed review of a book I found to be somewhat disjointed. It may have been hard to understand in bits; it may not have divulged as much actual information about why a marriage ends as I might have wished; and at the end of the day Cusk is not the sort of author I wish I could call up and ask some questions. But I'm still not sorry I read it. Not at all.

*Although I was not happy to hear she was having marital troubles. No fun for spouses, and definitely no fun for the kids.

Fifty shades of filthy (but genuinely arousing).*

Oh, oh, oh, I almost forgot! How could I forget?

I read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy over the summer. For those of you who have not heard of this phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey is the first book in a trilogy that has singled-handedly made the "BDSM erotic" subgenre the latest hot, hot, hot publishing category. The author of the books, E.L. James, is a British woman who is now quite wealthy (and good on her, I say).

These books started life as Twilight fan fiction, but James reworked the story, making her set of lovers slightly older than the Twilight protagonists and by taking out the vampire stuff. So what you're left with is a woman in her early twenties, Anastasia Steele, and the slightly older, mysterious, and handsome millionaire Christian Grey, who, it turns out, has some serious issues stemming from his hard-knock childhood (being raised by his crack-whore mother--his phrase, not mine--and her pimp). When not making millions and looking hot, Christian busies himself looking for "submissives"--partners who will indulge him in his BDSM (BDSM stands for bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and masochism) lifestyle and needs.

A complete plot synopsis can be had elsewhere, but of course I couldn't read these books and not comment on them. I'll say this: there's naughty bits about every two pages, so you don't have to bother with a lot of plot, if that's what you like in your erotica. The other hilarious thing about these books is how they are COMPLETE fantasy, and I emphatically don't mean the naughty bits. Throughout the three books, Ana and Christian do very little besides make out, worry about if they've upset the other person (mainly Ana worrying about upsetting Christian, which does get a little old), drive, fly, and otherwise travel around; buy and wear expensive clothes to a variety of fabulous functions; and oh yeah, every now and then meet up with friends for wine (again, this is Ana). Periodically Ana goes to her job at a publishing house (and I do mean periodically--it takes time to be the girlfriend of a millionaire who wants you to be submissive, after all), where she starts out as some sort of assistant to an editor and (SPOILER ALERT) eventually ends up running the company.** 

Christian also takes care of making sure Ana eats (she tends not to when she's stressed), buys her closets full of clothes, and has a doctor that makes house calls for her to get her birth control shots (oh, and he also has a lovely housekeeper/cook who waits on her as well). Like I said: complete and utter fantasy. I know at least partly why women are loving these books, and it's not all the sexy bits. Who doesn't fantasize about having all the demands of real life (work, housework, family bullshit, doctor visits, etc.) effortlessly met? All WHILE having a lot of mind-blowing sex?

I really, really, REALLY enjoyed the books. But, I'll admit, more for the good laugh than for the titillation. And if you want to continue your good time, ask every woman you know if they've read these books. I spent all summer asking this question...and every woman I met had! It's unbelievable. And all a lot of fun. (For the best time of all, watch the 3 Grannies review on YouTube. It is emphatically not suitable for work, but it is hilarious, and one of the grannies refers to women in their 30s as "young women," which made me very happy.)

*And this is a line from The Simpsons, when an old lady who employs Bart for housework tells him not to interrupt her while she's "watching her stories." As she settles in to watch her soaps in her rocking chair, she says, "Filthy...but genuinely arousing!"

**Now that's the kind of job I need! Show up a few hours a week, and then be put in charge.

Parenting books, yet again.

Here's a shocker: I continue to read parenting books.*

I don't know why I can't look away from them. (Like one of my favorite lines from the short-lived Canadian sitcom An American in Canada: "It's like watching a car crash. Into puppies.") If I hear one being talked about on the radio, I must get it from the library--same deal if I see it being promoted on morning talk shows.

CuskNow, as if there aren't plenty of current parenting books out there to drown myself in, I've started to re-read parenting books I've already read. Oddly enough, I first read Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother long before CRjr came into being. I don't know why--I think I heard the press about it, much of which was negative because this is not, emphatically NOT, your usual touchy-feely positive mommy memoir, and because I love negative people, I looked it up.

Because I have a child and my memory and brain have been shot ever since giving birth, the nice part of re-reading this book was that I really couldn't remember it. The sad part was that I can't even remember what I thought of it when I first read it. I think I found it interesting, and enjoyably (and honestly?) un-sweet, but I didn't have a kid then and it was all slightly more theoretical. Passages like the one below, I think, must make a lot more sense to me now.

"I did not understand what a challenge to the concept of sexual equality the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is. Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman's understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed. Another person has existed in her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness. When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them. To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some mythic snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle." (p. 7.)

There's tons of other quotes I wanted to share but I'll let you discover them in her book, on your own,** if you're so inclined. It's definitely a different take on the subject than you'll find in most other parenting books.

*And I don't just read the fuzzy, memoirish types of books. I find myself going to my copy of Caring for Your Baby and Young Child about twenty times a day, looking up things like baby teeth (patterns of emergence), pinkeye, when to switch to a booster seat from the highchair, etc. For most of the medical-type questions I'm usually just overreacting to some imaginary symptom; mercifully, CRjr is very healthy. Some women turn to other suburban mommies; I turn to my book. It's just the way it's always going to be.

** Okay, just one more. "A health visitor came to see us in our embattled kitchen. She produced sheaves of leaflets and laid each one lovingly on the table for me to study while behind her the baby looted her handbag undetected. Have you taken her to toddler group, the health visitor enquired. I had not. Like vaccinations and mother and baby clinics, the notion instilled in me a deep administrative terror." (p. 166.) Ha!