Ahhhh...that's what I've been missing.

David Foster Wallace, I miss you so.

Of course, I realize it is silly to say that about someone I didn't know at all. And even sillier considering I've never been able to make it through a work of his fiction (not even one of his short stories), which is what he's really known for. But I do think when the world lost Wallace it lost a fantastic essayist. And there just aren't enough of those around; when they go, you miss them.

Both Flesh and Not: Essays
by David Foster Wallace

As you know, I've been going through a bit of a reading hiccup. At the same time I picked up The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry from my library's "Serendipity Collection," I also got the title Both Flesh and Not: Essays, by Wallace, from the same collection. It took me a while to get started in it, but the first night I picked it up, the first essay in it that I read was (of course, because I am quite the boring linear-type person) the first essay, "Federer Both Flesh and Not." It's an article on the tennis player Roger Federer, and although I like Federer, I couldn't say I'm a huge fan.* But, there it was, and I was aware that Wallace was a skilled tennis player himself, so I was interested to hear his take on the subject.

I was not disappointed. In the essay I found this:

"Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

The human beauty we're talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body."*

*There's a great deal that's bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits--every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It's your body that dies, after all.

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously--it's just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare peak-type sensuous epiphanies (I'm so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!, etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important--they make up for a lot." (p. 8.)

Sorry to quote at such length. But what I love here is how perfectly, how awesomely, really, Wallace captures a thought I have had so often; namely, the kinetic beauty of the body. I don't even have to watch sporting events or athletes to have this feeling--once, closing the library, I was working with a library page who was a six-foot tall, young guy. Part of closing was to make sure all the chairs were around the right tables, which was something of a pain because my library had these clunky, wooden, HEAVY chairs that I literally had to drag from place to place (slowly). So walking around I observed Scott, my co-worker, find one of these chairs way out of place, easily pick it up and carry it, literally, above his head (for fun?) until he found an empty spot at a table to gently set it down in. I'll never forget that. I stood there with my mouth open and wished, for just a moment, I could be a twenty-year-old, buff guy just so I could see what that FELT like.

But I digress.

When I read that quote, really, I heaved a sigh and something in my reading soul unclenched. It was temporary, but it felt so good. THAT is what I have been missing; I've been reading some good things, but nothing that has made me say, "yes, I know exactly what you mean!" And I think that communion, more than anything, is what I seek in reading.

This is too long already. More on the rest of this essay collection later.

*I'll admit it, my head is always turned by Rafael Nadal, who is just so, so pretty.

Imperfect in so many ways.

The slim book The Imperfect Mom: Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World has been sitting on my table for at least a month now, which indicates, I think, a lot about the imperfections going on in the house of this mom. Procrastination? Check. Poor cleaning routines? Check. (I promise you this book hasn't been moved or touched, even to dust around, in at least four weeks.) Poor time management and lack of regular blogging? Check.

I don't see that big picture turning around any time soon, but it is time to get this book out of here. I got it from the library, of course, because of the title, and it turned out to be a collection of mostly engaging essays on the practice of imperfect mothering (which I am perfecting over here). I see it's got a bunch of bookmarks in it--let's see what I thought was interesting enough, at least a month ago, to bookmark, shall we?

The entire chapter by Jenny Rosenstrach, titled "Take Back Your Stereo," about the inanity of "children's music," and how to get around it: "We'd listen to our music with two sets of ears asking ourselves, 'Would this make a good Phoebe song?' It was amazing to discover and in some cases rediscover the songs that did. Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits had probably been in the CD case for ten years without airtime when Andy decided to play track 14 in the car. It was love at first listen. For three months straight we'd barely be out of the driveway before the rapid-fire questioning would begin:

'Cecelia, Daddy?'" (p. 75.)

I enjoyed that because we just listened to that song the other day and CRjr rocked out. It's a good question: is there anyone who doesn't like the song "Cecelia"?

And this, from the opening essay:

"I should have eliminated caffeine completely from my diet during the first trimester of my pregnancy with Katherine. Maybe that was the cause of her irregular heartbeat. And why did I fly with her when she was a wee two months old? Did I really think her immune system could fight off the nasty bacterial infection she caught on the plane, which almost had her hospitalized?" (p. 4.)

Whenever I hear women saying their pregnancies made them feel stronger, I just marvel at them. Have you seen the list of what pregnant women either flat-out can't eat or "should avoid"? It's ridiculous. Being pregnant made me feel like one huge crisis waiting to happen.

And this, from an essay on a woman's pre-term labor, particularly her reactions to her husband's and doctor's reactions:

[After feeling her water break and trying to rouse her husband] "'Don't pregnant women have bladder issues? Maybe that's what it is,' he said.

'I think I would know if I had only wet my pants,' I growled, my irritation increasing exponentially.

'Yeah, but I remember reading something about...'

He noticed my hands moving to wrap around his neck.

'I'll get ready to go."

Just then the phone rang. It was my doctor. As I was explaining what happened, he interrupted me and asked to remind him how far along I was.

'Thirty-two weeks.'

'Are you sure?'

Oh, gee, now that you ask, ha, ha, silly me, I thought it was December, not February--of course I'm sure, are you kidding me?

'Yes, I'm sure,' I said with great restraint." (p. 24.)

I really got a kick out of that, because CRjr was a high-risk pregnancy, and trust me, you are not only counting weeks, you are counting days. Days to being closer to being full-term, days to being closer to bringing that baby in "safe." And how many mothers HAVEN'T had these conversations with doctors? Honestly, doctors. I know they care and try and we need them and all that jazz, but it feels like I have had to stop myself from saying, "Look, asshole," in more of my conversations than not with doctors.

So: I found a lot to relate to in this one, and I enjoyed it. I liked the variety of viewpoints, and it was refreshing to hear other mothers tell stories about how they had muffed things (and yet everything turned out fine, or at least workable). I always think this is the sort of gift, along with perhaps The Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting, that someone should get for mothers-to-be at baby showers, just for a change of pace.

Almost makes you smell the pool.

Yes, I'm still (slowly) making my way through some books that were considered 2012's best. I continue to be a bit underwhelmed.

Swimming Studies
by Leanne Shapton

The latest such title I brought home was Leanne Shapton's Swimming Studies. Other than it appearing on a lot of the year's best lists, I can honestly say I probably wouldn't have looked at it otherwise--I hate swimming and always have. I learned, a bit, when I was little, but I never did learn to tread water and I never really did get used to the sensation of being in a pool. I forget where I was or if it was during lessons or what, but I clearly remember once trying to do the crawl the length of the pool, and no matter how far to the side I turned my head, I kept getting water in my mouth when I was trying to breathe. And I thought, this is stupid. Why I am making it harder to breathe? I don't think I've been in a pool willingly since.*

Anyway. This is a memoir of sorts, of the time Shapton spent swimming, training, and competing in swim tournaments in her youth and throughout her adulthood, even participating in the Canadian Olympic trials (and finishing respectably, although she did not make the Olympics cut). Interspersed throughout the chapters are samples of Shapton's art--including a series of "swimming studies" paintings; a couple of pages of what looks like paint splotches, which correspond to certain smells; and photos of swimming suits she's owned and for what purposes she's used them. If you like your nonfiction a bit eclectic, and you enjoy highly descriptive writing (and the idea of pools doesn't make you throw up) you might actually enjoy this. To her credit, the fact that she could make me remember how pools smelled and felt, really viscerally, says good things about the power of her writing:

"Here is what it sounds like to lane three at the wall: A low thump as her hands hit the touchpad. Brief cheering at an intake of breath, collapsing into bubbles as her head, aligned and steady, dips back and under again at the turn. This is followed immediately by quiet. There is a rippling during the long stroke of her underwater pullout, a tight, thin sigh of effort, a gruff exhalation of air, a grunt at the dolphin kick." (p. 33.)

Shapton is also the author of the humor book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, which I read seemingly a million years ago and wasn't all that fond of. Although she seems like a very nice person (and she's Canadian--my favorite!), Shapton always leaves me feeling that I am not quite smart enough or artistic enough for her. Actually, I'm sure that's true. And it's okay.

In other review news: Mr. CR hated the cover. Mr. CR's been starting to talk up a bit lately with his nonfiction opinions, and I must say it's been lovely to hear them. Even if it's just on the cover art.

*My goddamn high school installed a pool LITERALLY the last year I had to take a gym class. I refused to get in and told my gym teacher I had my period for the four week duration of the unit. By the third week she said, "You do not." And I said, "Are you going to check?" And that was the end of that. I got an F for the unit but it was so, SO worth it. Stupid phys ed.

Duel of the douchebags.

I am aware that is not a really classy way to title this post. I thought long and hard about not using it, but it's really the way this book made me feel, so there you have it.*

The Lifespan of a Fact
by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal

The book in question is one of 2012's nonfiction titles that I was most looking forward to checking out. (The fact that the book was published in February 2012 and I'm just getting around to it now, in January 2013, should indicate that I'm a bit behind in my nonfiction reading productivity.) It's titled The Lifespan of a Fact, and it's co-written by author John D'Agata and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal.

Let's see if I can nutshell it for you. The book purports to be the seven-year conversation between D'Agata and Fingal about an essay D'Agata wrote and that Fingal was assigned to fact-check. The article in question was about a Las Vegas teen's suicide, and had originally been commissioned by Harper's magazine, but that publication rejected it based on its factual "inaccuracies." It was then picked up by The Believer, which is where it was assigned to Fingal. In practice, the book looks like this: there is a small paragraph in the middle of each page, that is the actual essay, and then there is smaller type around it, which is the conversation back and forth between D'Agata and Fingal about each "fact" Fingal checked and D'Agata's response to his checking.

When I first heard about it, I thought it could be an interesting case study about the use of facts in nonfiction, and I've always been really curious about the way fact-checkers work.** But I was annoyed by this book and its authors from very nearly the first page. There we have the first sentence of the article: "On the same day in Las Vegas when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city in thirty-four licensed strip clubs in Vegas..." and the discussion between the authors about how D'Agata arrived at the number of "thirty-four." Fingal queried it because another article that D'Agata provided as a source for that number stated there were thirty-one strip clubs, to which D'Agata replied that he got thirty-four by counting the number of strip clubs in the Vegas phone book during the time when he was researching the article. So of course Fingal asked why he didn't just use thirty-one, if thirty-four could no longer be verified, and D'Agata answered: "Well, I guess that's because the rhythm of 'thirty-four' works better in that sentence than the rhythm of 'thirty-one,' so I changed it." (p. 16.)

Okay, I don't know about you, but when I hear bullshit reasoning like that about the use of facts in nonfiction, I stop reading. Make no mistake: I'm really not that concerned about whether there were 34 or 31 strip clubs in Vegas on that particular day. If you can state a source and stick with it, like the phone book counting, actually, I'm no absolute stickler. That's close enough for me. But to say you went with 34 because it "worked better in the sentence"? Lame.

This happens later in the essay too, when there is some discussion about whether it took Levi Presley eight seconds or nine seconds to fall to his death. In the Coroner's Report, as Fingal points out, it took eight seconds, to which D'Agata replies, about his use of "nine seconds"--"Yeah, I fudged that. It doesn't seem like it should be that big a deal, though. It's only a second. And I needed him to fall for nine seconds rather than eight in order to help make some of the later themes in the essay work." (p. 19.)

Really, D'Agata? You needed the kid's fall to be nine seconds, rather than eight? That seems like such an interesting thing to need, in light of the subject of the story.

So yeah. Four pages in and I was pretty much done reading. And it should be noted that the douchebaggery is not all on D'Agata's side; at one point Fingal starts questioning his description of the "base of the tower," and it's pretty nitpicky.

I'm not going to finish it. I did read a very good article about it, over at The Millions, that I would highly recommend you read if you're still curious about this one at all. At one point in that article, the author Mark O'Connell points out that the conversation in the book are themselves "heavily fictionalized version of the emails that were actually sent during the fact-checking process." What?

I guess I'm left wondering, does it have to be this hard? Do conversations about facts and truth and what makes nonfiction "art" have to be this boring and pedantic? Let's be clear on one thing: (as I tell my mother whenever she wants to talk politics with me) I don't have any answers. But I do have some suggestions: Nonfiction authors, do what you can to have some allegiance to the facts. Be ready to cite your sources, but trust that your readers are smart enough to know that not even the official sources are always completely truthful or accurate. Write better sentences, so they don't depend on you randomly picking facts to make them "flow better." And, for the love of all that's holy, if you don't want to be held to a journalistic standard, don't write pieces that read like reportage. Write a novel inspired by tragic true events instead--just ask Jodi Picoult, that's more lucrative anyway.

Okay, I'm done.

Well, not quite. It should be noted that royalties from the book "will be donated to a scholarship established in Levi's name at Pino and Bantam ATA Black Belt Academy in Las Vegas." (At least that's what it says in the back of the book. Has anyone fact-checked that?)

*Also whenever I think of the word "douchebag" I think of the classic SNL skit about it, and laugh.

**I know. Could I be any nerdier? Probably not.

A little bit of perspective goes a long way.

Where I live got more than 18 inches of snow today.

That's right. Just today. Because one of my phobias is driving in snow (and worrying about those I love driving in snow), you can imagine this was a bit upsetting. But a book I'm reading gave me a little perspective.

The book in question is Evelyn Birkby's Always Put in a Recipe and Other Tips for Living from Iowa's Best-Known Homemaker, published by the University of Iowa Press. It's a compilation of newspaper columns written over the past sixty years by Birkby, who is lauded on the cover as "Iowa's best-known homemaker." The columns range in topic from Birkby's marriage to her husband Robert, their years in farming, the raising of their children, their vacations, involvement in boy scouts, and many other subjects. The part that gave me perspective was the chapter in which she discussed living through winters in less-than-cozy homes:

"The small white house was uninsulated, and when the temperature got down to freezing in the winter, frost formed on the inside of the windows...when chill winds blew tenaciously through the walls of the house and up from under the floor boards.

I remember using the playpen to provide a warm place for the children. I put a blanket on the bottom of the pen, which was about four inches above the floor. Then I hung another blanket on three sides. I placed the pen with the fourth side open toward the oil burning stove in the living room -- the only heat source in our house. The children would get inside the playpen to read, color, play with their toys, and stay warm." (p. 66.)

Holy crap. Our sixty-year-old house isn't the warmest thing in the world, but we don't have breezes coming up between the floor boards, for the love of pete.

It's really a pretty interesting book. Birkby is nothing if not upbeat* and the stories range from tragic to mundane to heartwarming. If you know any readers who like "cozier" nonfiction, particularly with a rural bent, they might really enjoy this.**

*For some reason this book tickled me this week--I must have been in the right mood. In real life optimistic and wholesome people who "never say die" tend to make me a bit uneasy.

**Although it's not a perfect book. It would be better if the columns included the date they were first published; sometimes the date can be figured out from the context, but it would be easier if it was just there. I also think it might benefit from an index.

Behind the magic that is Citizen Reader.*

Normally when I talk about books here, I do try to put my thoughts in some sort of coherent order. When I had more time on my hands, this was a lot easier--not only because I had more time to write in general, but also because I could do so in a more timely manner. Lately, I keep coming up against the Overdue Wall--even when I have books laying around for three four-week loan periods (almost three months, which is REALLY long enough for anyone to keep a book from the library), I still don't get them read and then written about before they have to go back to the library. This just happened to me with Pat Conroy's quite interesting book-about-books, titled My Reading Life. I read this one over the course of two months or so, and then left it around for a month thinking I would write about it here, and then, boom, it's overdue and I had to take it back.

My Reading Life
by Pat Conroy

So what I do lately is type a few brief notes about the books into my blog software (so I can take them back to the library), and then later I come back and try to make sense out of them. But today I'm even running out of time** to form the notes into coherence, so I thought I'd just let you see my initial jottings about it, which are below. If I ever get more organized I promise this sort of slapdash blogging will stop.

Here's the jottings:

Too sappy and sentimental for me, but he's sappy about books and reading, which I can forgive.

At least talks about all aspects of books and reading--being introduced to books by his mother and some favorite teachers; teaching books; writing books; selling books.

Was kind of a nice comforting read to dip into at night--not real challenging.

Am not interested in his fiction (Prince of Tides, etc.)--will probably be too sentimental, too Southern, neither of which appeal to me?

p. 84: "I grew up a word-haunted boy. I felt words inside me and stored them wondrous as pearls. I mouthed them and fingered them and rolled them around my tongue. My mother filled my bedtime hour with poetry that rang like Sanctus bells as she praised the ineffable loveliness of the English language with her Georgia-scented voice. I found that hive of words beautiful beyond all conveyance." Now that's a little much for me, taken all at once, but read chapter by chapter it was actually a little something different.

Now, if you'd like to read an actual review of this book, this might be more helpful to you.

*This title, obviously, is meant ironically.

**And I'm really not a very busy person. How do people with multiple jobs and multiple kids and houses they actually clean and health problems and god knows what else do it?

Nonfiction I Didn't Finish: October 2012 edition.

It has come to my attention recently that I just simply no longer have the time to finish every nonfiction book I start. This realization has been a long time in coming, and it still bugs me. But what can you do?

Well, you can offer posts explaining what you're putting down and why. For the month of October, these were the books I picked up for some reason or other, tried a few pages or chapters of, and then just put down (or, more accurately, took back to the library):

Steven Rinella: Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter

This one hurts me, because I LOVE Steven Rinella. I totally enjoyed his book The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine, and I even read and liked American Buffalo, which I expected to be totally bored by--I just like Rinella's writing, and it doesn't hurt that he's a nice little piece of eye candy.* This new book is an examination of his childhood and development as a hunter, and his continuing lifestyle of killing the meat his family eats, even though he lives in Brooklyn. There's a great section of pictures in the middle, all of which I perused, and the writing is good (I still managed to read about 50 pages, even though I knew I probably wouldn't stick with the whole thing). But I'm just not interested in hunting (as such) and never will be. I am a meat eater and am all for knowing more about where your food comes from, but I grew up on a farm and have actually taken part in the butchering** of animals, so I already KNOW, trust me. Oh, that is something else to mention: don't give this one to readers you suspect might be squeamish about the details of butchering animals--Rinella doesn't skimp on any of the details.

Janet Groth, The Receptionist

Groth's memoir relates her many years of service as a receptionist at The New Yorker magazine. I just couldn't get into her story, and found her voice kind of boring, although I did read the chapter about her and Joseph Mitchell (the author of Up In the Old Hotel, and an author I love).

One funny anecdote Groth related was from her initial interview with Miss Daise Terry (who was in charge of secretarial personnel): "She said, 'Now, as a midwesterner, you have better sense than the Westchester County and Connecticut girls who come through this office. I always have to take them in hand and give them a stern talking-to about their behavior and conduct." p. 3. Ha. But the amusing bits were just too few and far between to keep me reading this one.

RothbartDavy Rothbart, My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays

Just couldn't get past the first essay, where he and his brother take advantage of phone calls to their deaf mother, which they have to interpret for her, although she has her laugh at them in the end. I've read mixed reviews of this one, and just couldn't get into it, although I enjoy Rothbart's FOUND! collections. Also: I think the publicity photo of him at the right is just ridiculous.

So: My question for you is, has anyone out there read any of these, and care to share your opinions?

*Damn--later pictures in the book reveal both his wedding ring and his wife. What Mr. CR would make of my habit of scanning left hands for wedding rings, I don't know.

**"Butchering" is such a scary word. Please be assured my family did all they could to make the process as quick and humane for the animals (if not for us--it's hard work, and scary, when all of the members of your family are in one place, tired, punchy, and holding sharp knives) as possible.

I'm done trying Marilynne Robinson.

WhenI just don't care for Marilynne Robinson.

And it hurts me to say that, because many readers whose judgment I trust have told me that her novels (among them, Housekeeping and Gilead) are some of their favorite books of all time.* I've tried both those novels, and they were so boring to me that I simply could not finish them. Were they religious too? I seem to remember that they struck me as smarmily religious. But perhaps I just did not give them a fair trial.

So when a collection of her essays, titled When I Was a Child I Read Books, came out this spring, I thought, hey, I'll give her a try in nonfiction form. And that's a title you just have to love, right?

I took this book along on a car ride to visit my in-laws, and it couldn't even hold my interest halfway there. And trust me, the drive from my house to the in-laws is nothing but southern Wisconsin boringness in large highway form. Particularly in March.

The first thing readers should note is that this is a book of essays, and although many of them are about learning and imagination and reading, none of them are what I would call really ABOUT reading. (Making this a misleadingly titled book, in my opinion, designed to sell to people who love reading, and therefore still buy books.) The other essays include paragraphs like this, on why we need fiction:

"There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without. But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell. The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself--forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true." (p. 7.)

I'm not calling that bad writing. I suspect it is actually very good writing. But I'd have to read it a few more times to try and work out what she's really saying (I just typed it and I still got lost somewhere in the middle, like when I read tax form instruction booklets), and at the end of the day, I just don't care enough to put that kind of work into her essays. I need my essays a little more dumbed down, evidently.

Other reviews: New York Times, Shelf Love

*She's also a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Tuesday Article: What Broke My Father's Heart

I was not over-impressed with most of the essays I found in the 2011 edition of The Best American Essays, edited by Edwidge Danticat. But one did stand out:

Katy Butler's What Broke My Father's Heart

I highly suggest all of you read it. It will make you very unhappy, probably, about the business of American medicine (and that's exactly what it is--a business--only not a customer service business), but it should be read.

I'm starting to think it might just be me.

This week I had two books home that were both by women, and were supposed to be somewhat humorous.

FrankelThe first, Valerie Frankel's It's Hard Not to Hate You, is a collection of essays about Frankel's belief that the hatred she's been suppressing for years might have expressed itself in cancerous cells that were found in her colon (and the discovery of a health problem that meant she was at risk for many gynecological cancers as well). She bases this on a line she enjoyed in Woody Allen's movie Manhattan: "I can't express anger. That's my problem. I internalize everything. I just grow a tumor instead."

Because Frankel decided early on not to show people when she was angry or bothered (stemming from young adult memories of putting on weight and taking grief for it at school), she starts to think it'd be healthier to let her anger out, which is what her essays here are about. Here she is, talking to her doctor:

"'As I was saying, when I'm expecting a check from a magazine and it's alte, I want to punch in the mailbox. When I email my editor about it and she doesn't reply, I want to throw my computer out the window.'

'I see.'

'I even hate my cats. They clawed my lilac to death. I raised it from a tiny shoot. I really loved that bush,' I said wistfully.

He nodded, made a note in his chart, and said, 'I'd also strongly urge you to find a way to reduce stress.'

Doctor's orders: The hate in me just had to come out." (p. 18.)

The first few chapters were all right; but it wasn't quite what I wanted.*

The other book was Laurie Notaro's It Looked Different on the Model: Epic Tales of Impending Shame and Infamy, which is another collection of essays. Notaro's known as a humorous author, but I've never been able to see it, and this book was no different. They're both bestselling authors, but along with Tina Fey, Laurie Notaro and Jen Lancaster make up my trinity of Totally Unfunny Women. But it must just be me; other people keep buying their books.

*Mr. CR wasn't as opposed to this book as I was. He looked it over and thought it was better than some other essay books by women that I've had home. But Mr. CR does not, to my mind, properly appreciate Hollis Gillespie, so I don't know how seriously I can take his opinion on this one.

Calvin Trillin.

TrillinI was so, so excited to get Calvin Trillin's new book, Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff, at the library.

But somehow when I got it home it just wasn't what I was expecting. It's a collection of Trillin's humorous pieces from the many places where he's been published: The New Yorker, The Nation, in books, etc. It's organized thematically; about five to seven pieces in chapters with such headings as "Biographically Speaking," "High Society and Just Plain Rich People," "Life Among the Literati," "Twenty Years of Pols--One Poem Each," etc. Because they're written by Calvin Trillin, all the pieces are funny. That wasn't the problem. I liked this bit, in which he suggests one of his wife Alice's economic suggestions:

"The true Alice Tax would probably inspire what the medical profession sometimes calls 'harumph palpitations' in those senators who used the word 'confiscatory' to describe a surcharge that would have brought the highest possible tax on incomes over a million dollars a year to 41 percent. To state the provisions of the Alice Tax simply, which is the only way Alice allows them to be stated, it calls for this: After a certain level of income, the government would simply take everything. When Alice says confiscatory, she means confiscatory...

Alice believes that at a certain point an annual income is simply more than anybody could possibly need for even a lavish style of living. She is willing to discuss what that point is. In her more flexible moments, she is even willing to listen to arguments about which side of the line a style of living that included, say, a large oceangoing boat should fall on. But she insists that there is such a thing as enough--a point of view that separates her from the United States Senate." (From 1990; pp. 109-110.)

The individual pieces were good, but for some reason I found the thematic ordering somewhat hard to follow. It threw me to learn that many of the pieces were published in the eighties or early nineties, and were sometimes about topics I just wasn't very familiar with. I think I would have preferred it in chronological order, so I could get a feeling for the context; or if the pieces' dates had been listed at their start so I knew "when" I was.

A bit early for Christmas.

Every year I can't get into the Christmas mood until after Thanksgiving; anything earlier just seems too early for me. As a result, I tend to miss a lot of the best holiday events, which for some reason these days always seem to be scheduled in November.

TinselSo this year I made up my mind to get in the Christmas mood earlier. With that objective in mind, I checked out the two-CD set Tinsel Tales: Favorite Christmas Stories from NPR. It was kind of a nice listen, but it turns out that the end of October is really still just too early for me to get into the Christmas mindset. There's pieces here about shopping, about how people in Chicago spend their Christmas Eves and nights out and about (Ira Glass tells that one, and includes anecdotes about people of the Jewish faith taking the opportunity of the holiday to go out for Chinese food and bowling), Christmas trees, etc. My favorite piece was by humorist Annabelle Gurwitch, who complains a bit about people who send out cards with a little piece of paper informing you that the sender has donated money to a charity in your name as your gift. She thought for Christmas that year she'd send out cards that said, "In lieu of buying you a gift I paid my recently raised health insurance premium." Tee hee.

So it was a nice little set if you're looking for something Christmasy. If you're looking for something funnier, I might suggest getting a recording of some of the Prairie Home Companion Christmas stories, which I listened to a few years back and thoroughly enjoyed. Either way I wouldn't listen to either of them until a little later in the season.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Essays

Welcome to another day of our alternative "best-ish" nonfiction book lists, in response to Time magazine's 100 Best Nonfiction Titles list.

The other day it took me a while to post because I couldn't think of any titles that corresponded with one of the headings chosen by the Time listmakers, "Culture." With this post I had the opposite problem: I love essay collections. I'm supposed to narrow it down to just four titles? Impossible!

So here's what Time had to say:

Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, by Susan Sontag
A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace

Actually, I can't really argue with any of those four. I've tried and failed to read the Sontag, but I think the failing there was on my part, not Sontag's (I was giving it neither the time nor attention it deserved, and I probably never will; I wish I'd studied it in college when I had time. I do think Sontag is a skilled writer.). I also can't quibble with the choice of Woolf, although I've never made it through that book either. And I'm pretty firmly on the record as loving both Didion and Wallace (not his fiction, can't do it; just his essays) and thinking they are both important contributors to American writing of the last fifty years. So whatever I suggest today is simply in the spirit of additional suggestions.

The Braindead Megaphone, by George Saunders. Remember, we read this one for a Book Menage? It remains one of my favorite collections ever. I love Saunders's voice: smart, but somewhat frustrated; interested, but sometimes stymied by the world around him. I can't get into his fiction but this is a neat group of essays that deserved a wider reading audience.

Anything, (not a title, just any essay collection you can get your hands on) by E. B. White. Of course the man who co-wrote The Elements of Style was a master of essay style.

The Long-Legged House, by Wendell Berry. Really, any of Berry's essay collections are books you wouldn't mind having if you were stuck on a desert island. They're easy to read but you find new things in them every time. This collection is particularly noteworthy for Berry's essay opposing the Vietnam War (a timely issue, then; the book was first published in 1969).

Up in the Old Hotel, Joseph Mitchell. If you love New York City you've got to read this classic.

I know I'm blanking on titles right now; it feels like I should have at least one woman author on there (although if Time hadn't done it I would have listed something of Didion's). Anyone have any suggestions for must-read essay titles?

It's been fun to think about this category. I love, love, LOVE essays. I wanted to have a chapter of nothing but essay collections in my second reference book, The Inside Scoop, but I lost that battle, and I'm still a little cheesed about it, if you must know. Sure, there's essay collections scattered throughout the book (and indexed under "essays") but I maintain that good essay titles can be a challenge to find, particularly in libraries, where they tend to get all jumbled up together in the Dewey graveyard of the 800s, somewhere in among the poems and the plays where only the hardiest readers wander. Hmm. Maybe someday I'll make a list of 100 essay titles, just for giggles.

I'm not convinced on the evolution stuff, but I still enjoyed the read.

Dunbar I'm not entirely sure why I checked out the title How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar's Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks, by Robin Dunbar, but I'm guessing I saw it on my library's list of new nonfiction books and thought it sounded intriguing.

I wasn't wrong--Dunbar is a professor of psychology and offers here a variety of very readable science essays on evolution and other "evolutionary quirks" like why tall people seem to be more successful, why we laugh, what morning sickness could be for, and how many friends with whom we can really keep in actual successful contact (the number seems to be about 150, known as Dunbar's Number). For basic science writing, it's kind of light and easily understandable:

"Our brains are massively expensive, consuming about twenty per cent of our total energy intake even though they only account for about two per cent of our total body weight. That's a massive cost to bear, so brains really need to be spectacularly useful if they are going to be worth the cost. The consensus, at least for the primate family, is that we have our big brains to enable us to cope with the complexities of our social world...It seems that it is pairbonding that is the real drain on the brain. So let me ask: have you been struggling yet again with your partner's foibles?...Among the birds and mammals in general, the species with the biggest brains relative to body size are precisely those that mate monogamously." (p. 12.)

I enjoyed that a lot. Particularly in light of my and Mr. CR's recent and unsatisfying skirmishes regarding what constitutes a fair division of household duties.

So yeah, in bits, this is an interesting book. I did skip some of the chapters that were more blatantly about evolution, mostly because I just don't care about evolution as a subject at all.* If you're looking for a book that will provide some neat ah-ha! moments, you might like this one; but it will be liked best by those with a strong bent toward the topics of evolution and evolutionary biology and psychology.

*There is nothing I find more boring than the creationism/evolution debate. I don't even get why it IS a debate, frankly. If you believe that God can do anything, why is it hard to believe that God could create evolution? But much of that is probably my ignorance talking. I don't really know anything about the science of evolution, except that it seems to involve a lot of something I once saw on my brother's t-shirt. Two scientists, working at a chalkboard. On one side are equations, and on the other side are equations, and in the middle: "A miracle occurs." Evolutionary scientists always seem (to me, anyway) to be the types who say, "a million years ago was this, then a miracle occurred, and now we all have wider pelvises. At least we think it's because a miracle occurred, but we don't really know."

Why are books on reading always so boring?

One book I did NOT put a lot of bookmarks in recently was David Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time.

Come on. Check that title. Can you blame me for thinking this was going to be a really interesting book?

Reading Well, it's not. Or at least it wasn't to me. It turns out that Ulin's one of those book critics and writers who's always writing way above my head.* Maybe if I'd been an actual English major I'd be able to keep up with his references, but I wasn't. And I'm never going to have the time to correct that shortcoming (that is, to go back and read all the stuff I should read: more Romantic poets, Shakespeare, mid-twentieth-century classics, more world literature, etc.), and having that pointed out to me just makes me cranky.

Ulin's starting point is a discussion with his son Noah, who is having to read and "annotate" F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby for school. Noah tells his father, the book critic:

"'This is why reading is over. None of my friends like it. Nobody wants to do it anymore.'" (p. 8.)

Much as that statement disturbs Ulin, he has a feeling his son isn't wrong. From there he goes on to explore his own experience of reading, citing such sources as Frank Conroy's memoir Stop-Time, and explaining the creation of his own private library with such authors as Vonnegut, Mario Puzo, Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, and Joseph Heller. He describes his travels to Paris as a twenty-two-year-old and his discovery of the author Alexander Trocchi.**

As he describes his own lifetime relationship with reading, he does write some nice sentences of his own ("This is what literature, at its best and most unrelenting, offers: a slicing through of all the noise and the ephemera, a cutting to the chase.") but I never really felt this short book*** gelled as a complete or passionate treatise. Ulin himself never cuts to the chase--how and why are we reading differently now, David, and what does this mean for what we will read in the future? He just kind of babbles around, citing an author here and a cultural commentator there, mixing political stories with personal recollections. In the end I can't say there is one bit of this book that stands out to me, or that I could talk about with others.Which, to me, is where the real problem is with reading today. We don't read enough things that are worth talking about with each other, and if we did, we wouldn't have the time to. We're too busy programming our cell phones and Tivos. Or whatever the electronics are these days that people seem to love buying and programming.****

And, frankly? His son sounds like kind of a jerk to me, although I guess I should cut him some slack as a high-school boy.

*Here's a representative paragraph: "All of this suggests a complicated conundrum, between what we once were and what we are in the process of becoming. Such a conundrum is both personal and collective, having to do, on the one hand, with the way that in the floating world of cyberspace nothing is ever truly past or lost and, on the other, with the unintended consequences of this instant access, how it alters identity and memory. These issues, of course, have informed the human experience ever since there was a human experience." (p. 82.) I mean, I understand what he's saying but Christ, what a boring way to get there.

**I've never even heard of this author.

***It actually started life as an article, and I think it should have stayed that way.

****Not me. If I'm in a Best Buy for more then ten minutes I start to hyperventilate and have a panic attack. No fooling. It drives Mr. CR nuts--he once wanted to buy a new TV and get my input but I could never stay in the store long enough to give him an opinion. We still have his college TV.

Some old favorite authors with new books.

Last week seemed to be the week for reading new books by nonfiction authors I've previously enjoyed. First up: Catherine Friend.

I first came across Friend when I read her memoir Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn, about she and her girlfriend's experiences starting a working farm. Friend's partner, Melissa, was really the one with the interest in farming, so Catherine often just seemed along for the ride. (To which I can relate: I grew up on a farm but would have to be coerced--strongly coerced, say, by a world financial meltdown or apocalypse of some kind--to return to the farm.) That was a fun memoir. I also enjoyed her follow-up, The Compassionate Carnivore, which was a great book about eating meat while still like animals, and which made a strong argument for simply making better choices about the meat you eat (and paying attention to how and where it is raised). In that respect it was about a million times better than Jonathan Safran Foer's pointless Eating Animals.

Sheepish So when I saw her new title, Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep, and Enough Wool to Save the Planet, I was excited to read it. This one, like her previous books, offers short chapters and a wealth of funny stories, but I struggled to find the cohesive story arc in this one. This is rare, as I am not normally a nonfiction reader who needs a lot of story.* It's divided into five different parts, with Friend chatting variously about the latest farm adventures (including a fascinating chapter about sheep getting pregnant at the wrong time of year); menopausal difficulties; some struggles in her relationship with Melissa; and an appreciation for the farm, the sheep, and particularly their wool. She shares some interesting tidbits about wool, its history, and its properties, but I must confess she lost me on her knitting chapters. Knitting for me is a lot like gardening: It seems like a good hobby and I feel like I should be interested in it, but at the end of the day, knitting comes in at about #434 on the list of things I want to learn how to do in my life, somewhere below curling my eyebrows but above sewing in general.

It was a fun**, quick read, but if you're looking for something more cohesive I'd start with any of Friend's earlier books.

*This is why it annoys me when nonfiction read for recreation is referred to as "narrative nonfiction"--just because something isn't a how-to, doesn't necessarily make it "narrative." But people need labels. I understand.

**It starts with a zap, literally, as Friend describes a young couple's tour of her farm and their reaction to the electric fence: "...the man looks down at the smooth wire running from post to post. 'Is this electric?' I nod. There's a yellow sign hanging from the top wire about thirty feet away. The sign says, 'Warning: Electric Fence...' He can't take his eyes off the fence. 'Would it hurt?' The guy's wife rolls her eyes. 'Honey, don't touch the fence.'" Of course he touches the fence. As a wife who probably (too frequently) rolls her eyes, I got a charge out of that one. Pun intended.

Matt Taibbi Week: Day 5

Well, I certainly hope you've enjoyed Matt Taibbi Week. Today, just a quick rundown of his books and his author bio for you. Do give him a try sometime. I know he gave me a lot to smile about this week.*

Taibbi's first book is titled The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia (co-authored with Mark Ames), and is about his years spent in Russia, much of it editing an independent periodical called eXile. This is the only book of his I haven't read.

Then there's Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season, a campaign diary of sorts from the 2004 election.

Next, Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire, another collection of political and cultural essays.

In 2008 he published The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, about his experiments going undercover in various religious and political subcultures. Promoting this book is when he did the great Daily Show segment about casting out the demon of anal fissures. (I liked this book a lot too.)

And then there was 2010's Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, one of my favorite books of the year and a truly depressing read. You should still read it, though.

Now check out one of the guy's author bios. I'm sorry, you've just got to like a guy with a bio like this (although this is an early one, and some info is outdated): "Matt Taibbi is a columnist for New York Press and a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He worked for ten years as a journalist in Russia, where he edited the satirical magazine The eXile. He has also played baseball for the Red Army and professional basketball in Mongolia."

Come on. Professional basketball in Mongolia? I love this guy.

*A friend of mine once opined that she saw him speak at some sort of program and she was disturbed by how chipper he was. As in, how can a guy who knows all this and writes such seemingly cynical things about politics, culture, and finance possibly be chipper? Well, that just made me like him better. (I think he recently got married too, and if that's making him chipper, well, that's just too cute for words.) That reminds me of when Stephen Colbert was interviewing the great William Langewiesche about his book The Atomic Bazaar, and Colbert asked him how he could sleep (knowing what he knows about the inevitability of everyone, even nations that aren't the U.S.--gasp--getting nuclear weapons). Langewiesche didn't bat an eyelash as he answered, "I sleep very well." I don't know why I find that comforting but I do.

Matt Taibbi Week: Day 4

For the last few weeks, I've had the good fortune to actually get back to doing some reading. Mr. CR is aces about looking after CRjr, so lately I've grabbed a few minutes when they're having quality pop-and-son time to read a bit. Imagine my disappointment when I kept reading things that were okay, but weren't exactly had to put down, either. Until I got Matt Taibbi's Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire.

Elephants This book is another collection of political essays, with a few others on such topics as Hurricane Katrina (the essay on that subject is UNBELIEVABLE) and the teaching of intelligent design in schools thrown in for good measure. Published in 2007, it's amazing how long ago some of these stories seem. Jack Abramoff? Does anyone even remember Jack Abramoff? (We should--man, that guy pulled a lot of shit.) And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same:

"Both sides were right, obviously, which made for the usual perfect comedy of American politics: two entrenched camps determined not to communicate, but still engaged in an extravagantly violent public waste of time and money, with no resolution visible, or even imaginable." (p. 92.)

Sounds like a paragraph about the current debt ceiling fight, doesn't it? It's actually about the 2005 legal case Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District et al. and the teaching of intelligent design.

And, anybody miss George W. Bush? This is how Taibbi sums up Bush's 2005 tour to announce victory in Iraq:

"God bless George Bush. The Middle East is in flames and how does he answer the call? He rolls up to the side entrance of a four-star Washington hotel, slips unobserved into a select gathering of the richest fatheads in his dad's Rolodex, spends a few tortured minutes exposing his half-assed policies like a campus flasher, and then ducks back into his rabbit hole while he waits for his next speech to be written by paid liars. If that isn't leadership, what is?" (p. 108.)

I enjoyed his previous book about the 2004 election cycle, Spanking the Donkey, but I think I liked this one even better. And I haven't even told you yet about his masterful essays explaining how Congress (doesn't) work and every idea you have about how bills and amendments get passed is laughably wrong--those are titled "Four Amendments and a Funeral" and "The Worst Congress Ever" and you just plain simply have to read them for yourselves.

Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: The re-read.

Sometimes I really like to re-read books. I do that more with fiction, but I always enjoy a second (or third, or fourth...) toodle through favorite nonfiction titles as well.

A case in point? Hollis Gillespie's memoir/essay collection Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood. I have no qualms reporting that I first read this one because I loved the title, and then I kept reading it because I really enjoy Hollis Gillespie. Although it can be taken too far, basically, I like people who swear. And Hollis swears. A lot.

Bleachy I re-read this title because I was going to be giving a talk on memoirs and biographies to a lovely group of library professionals, and I wanted to have some examples of titles ready that have different "tones." The tone of Gillespie's book is much of what I love about it: feisty, profane, yet strangely gentle. That's hard to pull off. But she does it well:

"When I was seven I had a crush on Satan. Not that I knew who he was, I just based everything on his picture. In the illustrated children's Bible I remember one picture in particular, in which Jesus had just pushed Satan off a cliff, and Satan is sailing down through the air, a trail of red robes billowing behind him. He looked only slightly irritated at the inconvenience. He had hair as black as octopus ink, styled like Lyle Waggoner's, an impeccably groomed beard, and a deep sunburn. 'Course that cloven hoof was kind of a downer, but hey, other than that I thought he was hot.

When my mother came home from work that day I told her I wanted to marry Satan when I grew up. She looked at me gravely, then said, 'Kid, whatever you do, don't get married.'" (p. 274.)

Ha! What was also interesting to me about this book was how much I'd mis-remembered it; I remembered it as much more about her search for and making of a home in Atlanta, when really her home-buying adventures just take up a few chapters toward the end. It's also a bit more repetitive than I thought, and not quite as polished. (On the other hand, I think her collection Trailer Trashed: My Dubious Efforts Toward Upward Mobility is one of the best essay collections ever, that one's feisty AND polished.) But that's okay. It was still a fun re-read. And I even got Mr. CR to partake--I left it in the bathroom, and although at first his opinion of the book's author was not high ("she annoys me"), he eventually admitted that he enjoyed some parts of it.

Would a Kindle work in the bathroom?

I know very little about how Kindles or any e-book readers work. But I do tend to think that even if I got one, I wouldn't want it in the bathroom with me. For one thing, it seems like the sort of thing I would drop in the toilet, although I have never, ever done that with a book (or even dropped one while reading in the tub). But I'm pretty sure if something electronic and expensive was involved, I'd find a way to drop it in whatever water was nearby.

Bleachy I also don't know if you have to fire them up when you're using them, or if they go right to your saved page. This is one of my favorite features of a print book: whenever I go to the bathroom, I can almost always get a few pages read of whatever book I've got going in there. Take this morning. I'm re-reading Hollis Gillespie's memoir Bleachy Haired Honky Bitch, which made me laugh the first time, and which I'm enjoying again (particularly as I believe Gillespie is one of our country's most talented and most underrated essayists). Here's the paragraph I got to read this morning:

"Like he should worry. Lary is almost immune to police. I couldn't even get the police to handcuff him when he was shooting at people running through the parking lot that abuts his backyard. Granted, they were burglars Lary had caught in the act of robbing his house, but I don't see how the police could have known that at first. I figured I'd at least get to see a SWAT showdown before matters got sorted. But no, Lary says they told him not to miss next time, and to just drag the bodies from the parking lot onto his property, thereby reinforcing a self-defense scenario." (p. 58.)

I try not to be a violent person, but that's kind of funny. I do love cops. But back to the point: I was able to get a laugh in about 30 seconds with my good-old hardcover book. Would it be that easy with an e-book reader?