Meghan Daum's Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed: Read it.

If you can believe it, I've actually got a little backlog here of books read and reviews unwritten. So this week I'll try to post some teeny-tiny reviews. Many people tell me smaller doses of me are better for everyone involved anyway, so this should be a great week!

I really enjoyed the essay collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum. This comes as no surprise, as I am a huge Meghan Daum fan.

I have kids, and they're keepers, but I can certainly understand why a person would choose not to reproduce. So I enjoyed reading these different viewpoints and reasons for not having kids, but what I liked best about this book was the diversity of writing styles present. They were all essays, sure, but each writer here seemed (to me) to showcase a very different writing style and voice. And periodically the book just really made me chuckle, in the best possible way. Consider this paragraph, from Sigrid Nunez's essay "The Most Important Thing":

"I remember a woman, a mentor, who once asked me if I thought I'd make a good mother. When I told her honestly that I didn't know, she was mightily displeased. It was as if I'd confessed to being a bad person. But I am astonished by those who are unfazed by the prospect of child raising. A male friend of mine, childless but confident, once assured me, "You just give them lots and lots of love." Perhaps only a man could believe it is as simple as that." p. 104.

That made me snort again just reading it.

Other authors included in this collection are Lionel Shriver, Geoff Dyer, Courtney Hodell, Laura Kipnis, Kate Christensen, Paul Lisicky, Anna Holmes, Michelle Huneven, Pam Houston, Jeanne Safer, M.G. Lord, Rosemary Mahoney (particularly good), Elliott Holt, Tim Kreider.

It's a great collection. Read it.

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

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

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

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

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

And she concludes that story with:

"And I never criticized my body ever again.

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

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

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

One marriage, one family, two books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tale of two titles.

So here's two books sitting on my nightstand right now: What Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios that Keep Scientists Up at Night (edited by John Brockman), and Retrain Your Anxious Brain: Practical and Effective Tools to Conquer Anxiety (by John Tsilimparis).

Yes, perhaps not the best concurrent reading choices. But it turns out I'm really, really enjoying the What Should We Be Worried About? book, while I haven't really gotten that far retraining my anxious brain. The thing about my anxious brain is that it tends to run in fairly predictable circles: we're all going to die on the highway; health care costs are going to bury us all; the CRjr's are going to fall off playground equipment and directly onto their heads. Thinking about that sort of shit (plus whatever doctor or dentist appointments anyone has coming up) makes me crazy.

John Brockman's book, on the other hand? Well, that's just a bunch of super-smart people worrying about the really BIG stuff. Here's some chapter titles to illustrate what the contributors think we should be worried about:

"We are in denial about catastrophic risks"

"The fragility of complex systems"

"Are we homogenizing the global view of a normal mind?"

'The mating wars"

"The rise in genomic instability"

Contributors include Charles Seife, Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle, Brian Eno, Daniel Goleman, Robert Sapolsky, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and a ton, ton more.

I have yet to read a dull chapter in this thing and although I know it's presenting a lot of big, ugly, doomsday scenarios...but I'm actually using it to fall asleep. For some weird reason it's more calming to me to worry about the big picture. Some of these speculations really make the little stuff (like: why is my back so sore? Do my brakes feel like they're going? What kind of medical help and support are my parents going to start needing? And so on and so forth) seem, well, little.

I know. It makes no sense. If you don't enjoy thinking about worst-case scenarios, the Brockman book might not be for you. It's one of the most interesting things I've read this year, though.

And I'll keep you posted if I have any luck retraining my anxious mind. Training of any kind, either of myself or others, has never been my strong point, so we'll see.

Ann Patchett as essayist.

I have never been a fan of Ann Patchett's fiction.

But when I saw that she had a new collection of essays out, I thought I'd give them a try. For one thing, I am a sucker for a good essay. For another, I was intrigued by the title: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

This is a collection of essays that were previously published in a variety of sources, including Granta and for And, ironically, the title essay turned out to be my least favorite essay in the whole thing. I'm always searching for good essays about relationships, marriage, parenting, etc., and I can't say this one spoke to me in any way. It's about how Patchett, after growing up a child of divorce and living through the break-up of her first marriage, decided she wanted nothing further to do with marriage. This was awkward when she met and dated a man she did love, and who did want to get married. However, they stayed together for many years, until a health scare her partner suffered made her change her mind and get married. So what's the takeaway? Well, here's a story from her time when she was thinking she probably had to get out of her first marriage:

"Standing waist deep in the swimming pool at Yaddo, I received a gift--it was the first decent piece of instruction about marriage I had ever been given in my twenty-five years of life. 'Does your husband make you a better person?' Edra asked.

There I was in that sky-blue pool beneath a bright blue sky, my fingers breaking apart the light on the water, and I had no idea what she was talking about.

'Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?' she said, running down her list. 'Does he make you better?'

'That's not the question,' I said. 'It's so much more complicated than that.'

'It's not more complicated than that, she said. 'That's all there is: Does he make you better and do you make him better?'" (p. 249.)

So of course she concludes that her second husband does in fact, make her better. And that it is just that simple.

So why does that bug me? It just does. I don't believe marriage is actually that simple. I think that's a lovely thing you might want to embroider on a pillow or put on a coffee mug, but I think it's entirely wrong.

But there's some other essays here that merit a look. Patchett is best when talking about love, actually, when she talks about the love she has for her grandma (who she spent a lot of time actually physically caring for) and the love she has for a former teacher of hers, a nun from her Catholic school. In the essay "The Mercies," she talks about Sister Nena, and how she got to know and help her later in life. And that essay, I'll admit it, made me cry:*

"So ferocious is my love for Sister Nena that I can scarcely understand it myself, but I try. Hers is the brand of Catholicism I remember from my childhood, a religion of good works and very little discussion.

'I like the Catholic Church,' she says to me sometimes.

'Good thing,' I say, which always makes her laugh. I think that she is everything I have ever loved about our religion distilled down to fit into one person, everything about the faith that is both selfless and responsible: bringing soup to the sick; visiting the widowed husbands of her friends who have died; sticking with the children who are slow to learn and teaching them how to read..." p. 304.

So, uneven, but worth a look. I won't read any more of her fiction, but if she ever comes out with another nonfiction collection, I'll try it.

*Although I've been a crying mess lately in general. Getting older and tireder must also be making my tear ducts more overactive?

The search for lighter nonfiction.

I've been cranky as hell the last few weeks.

I was saying something to that effect to Mr. CR the other day (as if he hadn't noticed) and he said, "Well, get some happier reading, would you? Good Lord, the nonfiction you've got around here is depressing me when I just read the titles."

This was a fair point, as I do indeed have a record number of downer nonfiction titles on the go. So I thought I'd try a light memoir/collection of humorous essays that a friend recommended a while back: Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

And I enjoyed it. I enjoy Mindy Kaling, I enjoy "The Mindy Project" (although where they are going with the pregnancy storyline, I have no idea), and I'm always a fan of some good humorous nonfiction. There's nothing earth-shatteringly hilarious here, but I think Kaling has cemented my affection forever in her chapter titled "Guys Need to Do Almost Nothing to Be Great":

"Here's my incredibly presumptuous guide to being an awesome guy, inside and out...

#6. Avoid asking if someone needs help in a kitchen or at a party, just start helping. Same goes with dishes. (Actually, if you don't want to help, you should ask them if they need help. No self-respecting host or hostess will say yes to that question.)" (p. 164.)

Simple and right on. Kindly but firmly stated. Kaling's my kinda girl.*

So yes, a good light read. However, I was done with it in a couple of hours. Clearly I need a bigger stockpile of chipper nonfiction titles. Suggestions?

*And frankly? She's roughly one million times funnier than Tina Fey.

Men Explain Things to Me: Take Two.

Okay, I was just working on a horrifically long post about Rebecca Solnit's essay collection Men Explain Things to Me.

I'm not going to post it.

Instead, here's a little anecdote I'm going to tell you. I so badly want to try for a third little CRjr, just because I have been so lucky and the first two little CRjrs are so great. But I have what Mr. CR and I call my "hierarchy of fears" on that subject. My fears about a new baby are, in this order:

  1. Down Syndrome (because I am OLD);
  2. Autism;
  3. Twins (because I am OLD, and I don't know how even young people handle that);
  4. Girl

Let's just say I don't think it's easy to be a girl. I am the mother of sons and I think it was meant to be that way.* And I say that even as someone who has been phenomenally blessed in her interactions with male family members, friends, and partners, as well as unbelievably lucky in her avoidance of violence at anyone's hands.**

So yeah, you know what? Just read Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me. (In fact, you can even read the title essay online, if you want to give it a try first.) If you like it, recommend it to other women and men. However else I felt about it, this passage, in a later essay, really got to me:

"When I was young, women were raped on the campus of a great university and the authorities responded by telling all the women students not to go out alone after dark or not to be out at all. Get in the house. (For women, confinement is always waiting to envelope you.) Some pranksters put up a poster announcing another remedy, that all men be excluded from campus after dark. It was an equally logical solution, but men were shocked at being asked to disappear, to lose their freedom to move and participate, all because of the violence of one man." (p. 77.)

Just think about that paragraph for a while. I did. I'm not saying it's a perfect book, but there's a few paragraphs like that, that should start to make it clearer why I'd fear having a baby girl. And that's just not right, I don't care how you look at it.

*Which is not to say I don't worry about my boys. I am a Champion Worrier, and if I told you the long list of worries I had for and about my boys this week alone, you would think I'm absolutely nuts. If you don't think that already.

**Really. If my mother knew some of the places I went by myself after ten p.m., she would keel over dead. I almost keel over dead sometimes remembering some of my risky choices. Luck. Pure dumb, good luck.

Now we're talking: Meghan Daum's The Unspeakable

You know that reading experience when you see a book is coming out by a writer you love, and you can't wait to get that book, and then you get it, and it's everything you could have hoped for? Oh, it's so great when that happens. And it just happened for me, in the form of Meghan Daum's new essay collection The Unspeakable.

UnspeakableDaum's first collection of essays, My Misspent Youth, is one of my favorite essay collections of all time, so when I first saw that she had a new collection coming out, I immediately went to place a hold on it in my library system, and was totally dismayed when I didn't find it there. I waited for weeks until finally, FINALLY, a library purchased it and I could get it.

And, oh man, she's so good: "At its core, this book is about the ways that some of life's most burning issues are considered inappropriate for public or even private discussion. It's about the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor--that we might not love our parents enough, that 'life's pleasures' sometimes feel more like chores--but can only talk about in coded terms, if at all. It's about the unspeakable acts that teach no easy lessons and therefore are often elbowed out of sight. In some places, the book is about literally not being able to speak. It's about what happens when words fail in the truest sense." (pp. 5-6.)

Let's just say it's one of my cherished dreams that when we met other people, we could tell them our names and then a short sampling of our medical problems and how we deal with them (also "unspeakable")*, so this is a woman after my own heart.

Her topics range widely, from watching her mother die, to her love for dogs, from the generational divide between Gen Xers and Millennials to a diary of the time she spent in a medically induced coma. It's good stuff, and it's a good quick read too, so have at it.

*Really. Think about discussions you've had with people about ailments you share. Don't you usually learn more in conversation than you do at any number of doctor office visits?

Moms who drink and swear.

I am firmly on record as not minding swearing in my nonfiction (or fiction, really) books. However, I do think the swearing needs to be warranted. (For instance: I don't mind it when Matt Taibbi swears in his writing. I think most of the topics he covers require some amount of swearing, such as when he perfectly describes Alan Greenspan as a "one in a billion asshole.")

However, one book I leafed through recently contained just too much (unwarranted) swearing to be amusing. The title? Appropriately enough, Moms Who Drink and Swear: True Tales of Loving My Kids While Losing My Mind. It's a collection of short essays, based on the author's blog of the same name,* and it just didn't do much for me. For instance, she includes what she calls "Conversations with Crotchfruit" (the "crotchfruit" being her children? I've never heard that word, personally):

"Zach: Why do you wear underwear that goes straight up your butt?

Me: Thongs? I wear these so underpants lines don't show through my pants, okay?

Zach: And it probably doesn't get stuck in all those dents all over your butt either. I get it.

Me: OH MY GOD! GET OUT!" (p. 49.)

I have several questions about this exchange. Mainly, because this is a woman who also references sometimes suffering from hemorrhoids, what on earth is she doing wearing thong underwear? Let's just say this was a woman to whom I couldn't relate. I read about fifty pages, wondered why I was wasting my time, and took it back to the library.

Here's a sample entry from the blog: "In July, I posted the first of what I hope will be many Fuck You Dinner recipes, a recipe for good goddamn homemade chicken tenders. I promised to share more, but I’ve spent the summer telling dinner to go fuck itself and letting my crothfruit’s shitty dinner requests roll and not cooking much." That's pretty much what the book is like.

"So-so" books: Lizz Free or Die.

Lizz Free or Die: Essays
by Lizz Winstead

How's this for an inspiring series? This week I'll discuss some books I read recently that were, at best, "so-so." (She says, while shrugging apathetically.) Our first title in the series is Lizz Winstead's Lizz Free or Die: Essays.

Wouldn't you think I would have laughed more, reading the essays/memoir of the women who co-created The Daily Show? I don't even remember why I placed this book on hold at the library, but I'm pretty sure I heard about Winstead's role creating and writing that show (although she left it before Jon Stewart came along and made it unmissable). It's kind of a free-ranging collection, from stories of her youth, college, early days in stand-up, to her creation of The Daily Show and later successes. It's not poorly written, and in many ways Lizz herself seems quite likable. An early essay, about the preponderance of babies she came across in her childhood and the many baby-centric social outings her mother dragged her to, did make me laugh:

"There were always babies around--sometimes there were so many, it seemed they came in bulk, like our family was the Costco of procreation...

...The parties were made up of about fifteen women and were a combination of my sisters, aunts, grandma, and cousins. They sat in a big circle on flimsy folding chairs, most of them tryig to balance a baby or toddler of their own on their laps while simultaneously gobbling up plates full of 'the egg dish,' a bready/eggy casserole lathered in cream of mushroom soup. This was the food of choice at every family gathering that started before noon. Cream of mushroom soup, however, was the ingredient of choice for every recipe ever created in the 1960s and 1970s, no matter what time the gathering or what the main dish was. I like to think of it as America's binder. And it's a fitting metaphor for baby shower conversations: thick and bland." (p.8.)

But it never really got any better than that. Periodically I would pick it up and read it and pretty soon I noticed I had read most of it, but here I am only a few weeks later and I can hardly remember any of it. I do remember this: she includes an essay ("All Knocked Up") about an early experience when she became pregnant by her high school boyfriend. It's not so much about the abortion she would end up having, as it was about the way the woman at the clinic where she found out about her pregnancy treated her, but I still found it super depressing. While I was reading this one I had also just started Leslie Jamison's much-lauded essay collection The Empathy Exams, which also includes a personal story about abortion, and it was just too much. I don't want to get into a big long thing here, but it depressed me that all these ostensibly feminist memoirs include abortion stories, when abortion seems to me, frankly, such a passive (or at best, reactive) way to assert the self.

But even before the abortion essay this one just wasn't as funny or as sparkling as I wanted it to be. So-so.

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.

Two books on mothering you can actually read while mothering.

So of course over the past few years I have read more than a few books on parenting, simply because I am in the thick of parenting (and it's still relatively new to me). Although I tend to plow through a lot of informational books on kids, health, and parenting methods*, I also read quite a few memoirs and humorous books on the subject. The last time I went to the library there happened to be, purely by chance, two (somewhat) similar such books waiting for me.

The first of the two I read was the catchily titled I Heart My Little A-Holes: A Bunch of Holy-Crap Moments No One Ever Told You about Parenting. I think I learned about this one on the New York Times bestseller list (it was originally self-published, and then re-issued by HarperCollins), and it's written by a mother who blogs at Baby Sideburns.

As you can probably tell from the title, this collection of short essays on motherhood is a bit saucier than most. It opens up, for example, with a number of chapters under the broad (no pun intended) heading of "5 Funny Stories about Vajayjays."  And the second grouping is called "Bundle of Joy My Ass, More Like Bundle of Hell." Now, that's not subtle, but it IS kind of funny. And, to me anyway, refreshing. You have to kind of like a woman, I think, who offers you a chapter on "a lot of shit you don't need when you're having a baby": she lists "a fancy bedding set, clothes that go over a newborn's head, a wipes warmer, newborn shoes, expensive baby clothes, a fancy stroller, a baby bathtub, the Bumbo seat, and pee pee teepees." Although, for the record, I do love my baby bathtub, but that's because it's a great model that folds up, and also because my bathroom is about 2.3 square feet, so washing the CRboys in the sink would have been a tight fit.

So I can give you the flavor of this one pretty easily. Here's the beginning of the "Chugga Chugga Typhoid" chapter:

"Before I had kids I had no F'ing idea how many times I would have to take them to the doctor's office. I mean, you go to the doctor once a year, right? Well, twice. Once to your regular one, and once to the one with the stirrups. Giddy up.

But apparently babies need to go like 9,000 times a year. And that's just for wellness checkups. Which they're always F'ing well for. And then the second you get them home they're like pulling at their ear or barfing up their spleen or some shit like that and you're dragging them back to Flutopia because they caught something when they were there for their wellness checkup." (p. 39.)

Later on in the same chapter Alpert says she hates the train table in her pediatrician's waiting room, and calls it the "Ebola train table." This, my friends, is a mother with whom I can work. She swears, she's annoyed that she got hemorrhoids even though she had two c-sections, and she includes a handy list of items that her kids' grandparents should not buy them for the holidays.

It's not the most smoothly written or well-edited book. But it did make me F'ing laugh.

*I'm still laughing about the response of a friend of Mr. CR's, who is a doctor. When I asked him a fairly basic medical question and told him I'd read about it (and further asked if he didn't get this question from others when they learned about it), he laughed and said, "Oh, CR, people don't read."

I can't even think of a title for this post.

Really. This is how braindead I've become. I was going to leave it blank and see if I came up with a title after I wrote this review, but I've got to mosey on to bed, so it's going to stay the way it is.

Yes, I know, it's getting even more casual than usual here at Citizen Reader. What can I say? Put on your pyjamas and join the party.

A couple of weeks ago a friend sent me the URL to a website called, because she is my go-to friend for funny things on the Internet (and she has impeccable taste--she sent me a post from Drew Magary without even knowing how much I love Drew Magary). I can't say I found the website all that hilarious, but that's mainly because after doing freelance work online I get rather sick of reading on the computer and only looked at it for about thirty-nine seconds. I did see that the author of the website, David Thorne, had a new book out, so I just requested that from the library instead.

The book is titled I'll Go Home Then, It's Warm and Has Chairs. the Unpublished Emails, and has a lovely picture on the front of a kitty cat in a flight suit, holding a snowboard.* And that image nicely sums up what I thought of the book: a third of the stuff in the book made me laugh so hard I actually hurt my throat a little bit (although with our continued subzero temps and dry air, my throat's already a bit tender), a third of it I didn't really understand, and the final third made me really, really glad I don't know, work with, or live near David Thorne.

For the most part, the truly hilarious parts of this book are parts of larger vignettes that are too long to quote. But here's a little flavor of some truly laugh-worthy stuff: "The four seasons in Australia [where Thorne is from] consist of 'fuck it's hot,' 'Can you believe how fucking hot it is?' 'I won't be in today because it is too fucking hot' and 'Yes, the dinner plate size spiders come inside to escape from the heat.'" (p. 23.)

The book also includes photoshopped pictures, some of which include cats wearing 3D classes. This is CRjr's favorite part of the book; the other day he picked it up and said, "Where are the kitty pictures?", so I flipped to a page with some kitty pictures. Not the right ones, though--CRjr threw the book back at me and said, "The kitties with the funny glasses." At 3 and a half, already a discerning customer of humor, I couldn't be more proud.

All in all the funny outweighed the not-so-funny and somewhat-discomfiting (as in when he makes life a living hell for his co-workers, neighbors, salespeople, and generally anyone else who annoys him). Give it a try.

*Sometimes it really is as simple as kitty in a funny outfit=funny.

We interrupt list mania... bring you a Friday funny.

Sent to me by a friend (you know who you are: thank you!), here's a piece by Drew Magary, who I totally love, on hating the Williams-Sonoma catalog. I didn't have to get much further than the intro to fall over laughing:

"I have a house and, like most houses, it's an unfinished work. There are cracks in the paint. There are piles of old clothes and shoes exploding out of the laundry room, which doubles as a storage room because we don't have a storage room. The walls in our bedroom are bare because we haven't had time to hang pictures on them since we moved in 10 years ago. We need a pantry, but don't have one. We just cram cans of food and boxes of pasta into the front hall closet with the coats and shoes because there's nowhere else to put them...But for now, this loving house will do, in all its imperfections. I suspect most houses are like this. There's always some goddamn project that needs to get done and never does."

But then of course I fell down the Internet rabbit hole and read another one of his essays, My Kid's Insane Christmas Wish List, Annotated. And that was even better. Drew Magary: the gift that keeps on giving.

Have a great weekend, all.

One thing David Sedaris does extremely well.

At first I was worried when I got David Sedaris's new book Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls in at the library--it looked thick! But then I laughed when I remembered I had requested one of the library's large print copies, because the hold list seemed shorter for that than for the regular copies. (Older folks with vision impairment not being Sedaris's target audience, perhaps?) Every now and then I enjoy a large print book--you flip pages at the speed of light, seemingly.

As to the content of the book? Well, Sedaris's essays are always somewhat delightfully surreal, but in this latest volume, I'm starting to feel like he's phoning them in a little bit. They just don't have the tightly constructed feel they used to (or that I feel David Rakoff's essays had, right up to his untimely death). I particularly didn't like his essays written in other personas--from the point of view of a religious fundamentalist, for example--although there weren't many of them. Just when I was thinking I wouldn't finish the collection, though, I came upon the essay titled "Now Hiring Friendly People," about Sedaris's experiences just trying to buy a cup of coffee in a hotel coffee bar, and getting stuck behind a couple taking up lots of the coffee bar worker's time and energy:

"...just as I decided to get a cup of coffee, someone came from around the corner and moved in ahead of me.

I'd later learn that her name was Mrs. Dunston, a towering, dough-colored pyramid of a woman wearing oversize glasses and a short-sleeved linen blazer. Behind her came a man I guessed to be her husband, and after looking up at the menu board, she turned to him. 'A latte,' she said. 'Now is that the thing Barbara likes to get, the one with whipped cream, or is that called something else?'

Oh fuck, I thought." (p. 344, large print edition.) And a bit later in the same encounter:

"The Dunstons' bill came to eight dollars, which, everyone agreed, was a lot to pay for two cups of coffee. But they were large ones, and this was a vacation, sort of. Not like a trip to Florida, but you certainly couldn't do that at the drop of a hat, especially with gas prices the way they are and looking to go even higher.

While talking, Mrs. Dunston rummaged through her tremendous purse. Her wallet was eventually located, but then it seemed that the register was locked, so the best solution was to put the coffees on her bill." (p. 350.)

I laughed so many times during this essay; Sedaris has the mundane conversation and all the details just right, right down to the short-sleeved linen blazer and the tremendous purse. He is very, very good at describing others' conversation, particularly in service situations (which is why his early piece about working as a Christmas elf in a department store was such a tour de force). For me, this one essay really made the whole book.*

So is it his best collection? Not really. Is there still quite a bit of fun, readable stuff here? Absolutely.

*Although I also loved his essay on how he keeps notebooks/journals/diaries and has for a long, long time, and how he uses them in his writing (including indexing key parts of them, which of course totally melts my geeky indexing heart).

Always gotta love a book on books.

I am a real sucker (as are most readers, I would guess) for books about books and reading. Every now and then I trip across a new one that I hadn't heard of before, and it's always a fun experience.

One for the Books
by Joe Queenan

This month's "book on books" discovery was Joe Queenan's recent One for the Books. Queenan is best known as a columnist and humorist (evidently he's written or writes for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the New York Times, and many more...thanks, author bio!) and also the writer of a very critically lauded memoir, titled Closing Time: A Memoir, about his hardscrabble youth in Philadelphia. If I sound uninformed, it's because I am--I'd always recognized Queenan's name, but I'd never read anything of his before (although I've always meant to read that memoir, since it showed up on a lot of "best of the year" lists).

In this book, Queenan not only describes his favorite books and seminal reading moments, he also muses on the print vs. digital book divide, booksellers, book culture, and the writing life. If you like a totally straightforward read, this book may not be for you: it tends to hop around a bit from topic to topic. That didn't bother me, though. I tend to read these types of books in small increments (both to savor them and to make them last longer), so a bit more disjointed organization didn't throw me. And, hilariously enough, I would imagine that if Joe and I met to talk books, we wouldn't have any books in common that we had both read or both liked. A person more unlike me in book taste it would be hard to find (unless we're looking at you, Lesbrarian): he favors modern fiction faves like Denis Johnson, Ha Jin, Italo Calvino, and a whole bunch of international writers of whom I've never heard (embarrassing, that, really). But yet? I really, really enjoyed this book. I think I enjoyed it because of the sheer number of titles Queenan lists and discusses--it's breathtaking, really. I didn't add many (any) of them to my TBR list, but it was a pleasure to read someone who is himself so well- and widely read.

And every now and then his narrative made me laugh, which I always enjoy. Take this anecdote, in which he explains how he spent a year of his life trying to read a book a day, meaning he could only read very short books. Off he took himself to the library, without his reading glasses, and just picked the littlest books off the shelf, without worrying himself too much about the content. He did enforce some standards when he got home, though:

"If I got home and discovered that I had checked out a bittersweet, life-affirming novel about a recently divorced woman who had moved to a small town in Maine or the Massif Central or the Mull of Kintyre and, after initially being shocked by the ham-fisted demeanor of the rough-hewn locals, was seduced by their canny charm, I took it right back." (p. 78.) Tee hee.

He also demonstrates, nicely, the "deal breakers" by which many readers abide (but which they don't often talk about):

"My refusal to read books about the Yankees or their slimy fans also extends to books written by supporters of the team. Thus, when I learned that Salman Rushdie had taken a shine to the Yankees, it eliminated any chance that I would ever read The Satanic Verses, no matter how good it is." (p. 123.) This makes me laugh because I am the same way, only about the subject of World War II (in fiction or non), and also because I am a slimy Yankees fan.

And of course, if you're a lover of physical books, you have to love paragraphs like this:

"Certain things are perfect the way they are and need no improvement. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation, and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublime, but books are also visceral. They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system. Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who like to read on the subway, or who do not want other people to see how they are amusing themselves, or who have storage and clutter issues, but they are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on." (p. 27.)

It's good stuff. And it will even be good whether you read it in print or digital form. Read it.

Still not sure how I feel about Christopher Hitchens.

by Christopher Hitchens

I forget exactly what prompted me, recently, to request Christopher Hitchens's last book, Mortality, from the library, and it rather surprised me when it showed up for me on hold. I must have read about it again somewhere but can't remember where; and since I am clearly in the mood for downer books this summer, it seemed just as good a time to read it as any.

Hitchens is perhaps best known as a journalist and author who became quite vocal on the subject of his own atheism (one of his more recent bestsellers was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). He was also an essayist, memoirist (his memoir Hitch-22; was also a big bestseller) and frequent public speaker and debater. I forget exactly why I used to like him; I'm sure it had something to do with the fact that he's British and he was quite outspoken (I actually own his book The Missionary Position, in which he famously lambasted Mother Teresa for not being the saint everyone thought she was, because I know I think Mother Teresa was a saint, and I was just interested to see what he had to say on the subject). At some point, though, he became a big backer of George W. Bush's Iraq War, which I never quite understood (and couldn't really forgive) in light of his history of declared left/liberal viewpoints.

But all of that is beside the point here. In 2010, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and a little under eighteen months later, he succumbed to the disease. This slim book is the collection of magazine essays he wrote as he, in his own words, spent his remaining time "living dyingly."

The essays are quite beautifully written--Hitchens was never a slouch when it came to arranging words--but I didn't find that this book packed quite the profound punch I expected it to. I certainly wasn't looking for end-of-life or afterlife revelations, due to Hitchens's atheist beliefs (which don't bother me at all, compared to his pro-war sentiments). But I was just looking for something...more. I'm explaining it badly but I've been working on this paragraph for a while, and am starting to think I just won't be able to describe the feeling.*

One chapter/essay I did think packed the old Hitchens punch was the one on the adage "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I have always believed that's bullshit, personally (when life knocks me down, as I once told my Dad, wouldn't it just be smarter for me to stay down and not get knocked around anymore?) and I think Hitchens was inclined to agree with me (in his descriptions of how hard it eventually became just to have routine injections or have blood taken):

"When the technician would offer to stop, I would urge her to go on and assure her that I sympathized. I would relate the number of attempts made on previous occasions, in order to spur greater efforts. My self-image was that of the plucky English immigrant, rising above the agony of a little needle-stick. Whatever didn't kill me, I averred, would make me stronger...I think this began to pall on the day that I had asked to 'keep going' through eleven sessions, and was secretly hoping for the chance to give up and go to sleep. Then suddenly the worried face of the expert cleared all at once as he exclaimed, 'Well, twelve times is the charm,' and the life-giving thread began to unspool in the syringe. From this time on, it seemed absurd to affect the idea that this bluffing on my part was making me stronger, or making other people perform more strongly or cheerfully either." (p. 75.)

That's the old Hitch.** I am sorry he had to feel that way; perhaps some people actually do make it all the way to the ends of their lives believing whatever adversity they've faced has made them stronger. Afterlife or no afterlife, I hope he's resting in peace (or peaceful nothingness, whatever he would have preferred).

*I can say this: I do think Miles Kington's "end of life memoir," How Shall I Tell the Dog?: And Other Final Musings, was a better read.

**And oh, I almost forgot: he takes a pretty big swing at Randy Pausch's horrible bestselling book, The Last Lecture ("It should bear its own health warning: so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it."). Good on you, Hitchens.

I heart George Saunders.

If you'll remember, I am a huge fan of George Saunders's essays. He's better known for his fiction, but his fiction is often satirical, and I've never really had the intelligence or patience to enjoy satire. (Unless, of course, it's Anthony Trollope.)

Anyway. Saunders was just named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People, and he's got a new piece in the Guardian about how he's consciously had to stop blowing so much time on computers, email, and the Internet. I am aware of the irony of posting against wasting time on the Internet, on a blog, but there you have it. Enjoy!

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.

Not his best collection, but who cares?

And of course Both Flesh and Not: Essays couldn't be David Foster Wallace's best collection---he died in 2008 and here is this collection of essays, collected from who knows where (well, the source notes tell you where, but I was too lazy to look) and published in 2012.

Last week I blogged about one particular essay in this collection, but I wanted to come back and consider the book as a whole. All in all: it may not be his best, but it's still David Foster Wallace, and there's still a lot here that's very, very readable. One interesting addition is the inclusion, between essays, of lists of words and their definitions that Wallace found interesting (from the Publisher's Note: "Readers familiar with David Foster Wallace's work know that he possessed an insatiable love for words and their meanings. On his computer he constantly updated a list of words that he wanted to learn, culling from numerous sources and writing brief definitions and usage notes...It was one of the great thrills of Wallace's life to be invited to serve on the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary. The definitions in his vocabulary list reprinted here are quoted or paraphrased from that excellent reference work").

In addition to the tennis essays (there's two here), there's a fantastic consideration of how James Cameron's Terminator 2 completely sold out everything that was great about his earlier movie, Terminator; a chapter on twenty-four words and their usage which is way more fascinating than it sounds (from the entry on "loan": "If you use loan as a verb in anything other than ultra-informal speech, you're marking yourself as ignorant or careless. As of 2004, the verb to lend never comes off as fussy or pretentious, merely as correct"), and the intro that Wallace wrote for the Best American Essays volume that he edited. I'll admit I didn't make it through some of the essays that were book reviews of more esoteric titles, or the one titled "Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama." But still: even a half-book of Wallace's nonfiction is better than a lot of authors' full works.

I always particularly enjoy learning Wallace's thoughts on the processes of reading and writing (it's part of why I really enjoyed D.T. Max's literary biography of him, titled Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace). Here's a bit from the essay he wrote to introduce the Best American Essays volume:

"I'm not really even all that confident or concerned about the differences between nonfiction and fiction, with 'differences' here meaning formal or definitive, and 'I' referring to me as a reader. There are, as it happens, intergenre differences that I know and care about as a writer, though these differences are hard to talk about in a way that people who don't try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand. I'm worried that they'll sound cheesy and melodramatic...Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder--because nonfiction's based in reality, and today's felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they're executed on tightropes, over abysses--it's the abysses that are different. Fiction's abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction's abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one's total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and way, &c." (p. 302.)

That's about as good a definition as I've read, of both fiction and nonfiction.