Favorites

Read "The Diary of a Bookseller" today!

BooksellerTo everyone who told me to read Shaun Bythell's memoir The Diary of a Bookseller: You were so right!

I loved this book. It's just that simple. I read it in a couple of days, and then I turned back to the front page and read it all over again. Then for another month I read different pages of it while I ate my old-lady breakfast of Fiber One cereal* and coffee.

What surprised me most about this book was how dense it was. A lot of times when you get bookish or reading memoirs, or even retail memoirs, they're rather light on text. This book is a solid 300+ pages and the type is surprisingly small. Bythell is the owner and proprietor of The Book Shop in Wigtown (designated the National Book Town of Scotland), and this is the diary of a year in his life running the used bookstore, getting along (kind of) with his employees, his life in the community and among his friends, and taking part in the town's annual Wigtown Book Festival. He begins each entry by noting how many of the store's books were ordered that day through various online channels, and ends each one by noting how many customers were in that day and what the "till total" was.

All the highlights of the used book trade are here--people thinking they own very valuable first editions when they want to sell them, and thinking all used books should be cheap when they want to buy them; dealing with eccentric help when you're a bit eccentric yourself; driving hither and yon to assess and buy book collections in all manner of conditions. Bythell also clearly enjoys his environment, both the shop and the natural one; he includes entries about the difficulties of heating the shop and trying to keep the rain out, as well as about the sunny and not-so-sunny days when he ducks out to do a little trout fishing.

This should give you an idea about Bythell's tone, which I thoroughly enjoyed:

"Opened the shop five minutes late because the key jammed. The first customer of the day brought two Rider Haggard first editions to the counter, 8.50 each. At the same moment the thought 'Those are seriously underpriced' entered my head, he asked, 'Will you do them for 13?' When I refused to knock anything off them, he replied, 'Well, you've got to ask, haven't you?' so I told him that no, you do not have to ask." (p. 115.)

What a great read. It took me right back to my job in a used bookstore, which I loved and loved and loved, and would be doing still if I hadn't needed health insurance and if the owners hadn't eventually closed the store and taken other jobs because they needed health insurance too. If you have sold books or love books, read this one. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

*Don't get me wrong. I love my Fiber One honey flakes cereal. It makes my life better. But it doesn't really make for the most exciting breakfast eating ever, which is why it's so nice to put them together with a very strong cup of coffee and a lovely book.


On "Fist Stick Knife Gun" and "Charm City."

I've been in a reading mood where I'm re-reading a lot of nonfiction that really knocked me over the first time I read it, so last week I re-read Geoffrey Canada's memoir/call to action Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence. I first read this book back in 2011, and here's what I have to say about that: I can't believe I've been blogging this long, and I can't believe how clearly how much of that book stayed with me.

Geoffrey Canada is the president and former CEO of an organization called the Harlem Children's Zone. He grew up in a violent neighborhood and he has spent his life trying to help children (and adults) better their surroundings. He has also spent his life advocating for better gun policies in America, mainly because he saw firsthand the shift from fist and knife violence on the streets to gun violence. He also makes no secret that he owned a knife and he owned a gun, and the writing in his book on how weapons both make you powerful and vulnerable makes the entire thing worth reading. For my money, I wish a lot more communities would pick this book for their "community reads."

So while I was thinking this book over I noticed that a documentary called Charm City (about Baltimore) was showing on my PBS channel. It's stupendous. And by that I mean it's heartbreaking and scary and overwhelming and yet oddly life-affirming. It's well worth a watch.

I don't actually know what to do with all the thoughts I've had about re-reading this book, and watching this movie, and doing them both within the week. I want to say something here. But I don't know what it is. Go read the book and watch the movie and then come back and tell me what you're thinking, will you? I can't think about these alone.


Mysteries for the Anglophile.

I continue to be in a bit of a strange reading mood, re-reading some old nonfiction favorites and reading more fiction than I do usually. I think I'm just tired, and I need to read things that aren't going to wear me out further (although Mr. CR points out that re-reading Alice Sebold's memoir Lucky, about the experience of her rape and the trial of her rapist, is not exactly "light" reading).

I don't typically read a lot of mysteries, but one series of historical (Victorian, to be exact) mysteries I have always enjoyed are Charles Finch's "Charles Lenox Mysteries." So in my relaxed reading state, I wondered, has Charles Finch written any new Lenox mysteries? And yes he has, since I last read one: titled The Inheritance.*

I enjoyed this one because it included more exposition of Lenox's relationships with his co-workers (fellow detectives Polly Buchanan and John Dallington, who have their own little romance intrigue going on); his family, including his wife Jane Lenox (one of my favorite characters); and, in this book, a childhood friend of his. It's a nice serviceable little mystery, and it will definitely appeal to Anglophiles of all kinds. Get yourself a cuppa and enjoy.

*I totally disagree with this review, by the way, but it does provide a basic plot synopsis.


The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone.

My favorite part of being a total Book Nerd is that a lot of time I will chance across great books and not even remember how or why I found them. Books and titles just stick to me. Every time I'm wasting time online, I invariably find a few books that I want to request from the library. If I'm out and about and chatting with anyone, I almost always get some kind of book recommendation because books are one of the few subjects I'm really comfortable talking about. Sometimes I'll see authors on TV or hear them on the radio and want to get their books as well. It's great. I find when I tune my radar almost exclusively to news about books and British TV*, that's nearly all I hear about. A self-fulfilling prophecy, and one that makes me much happier than figuring out ways to be a well-compensated and useful member of society, or, god forbid, following any national news stories.

Which is all a very long-winded way of saying I have no idea how I tripped over the book The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone. I can remember seeing the author's name somewhere online, and thinking, huh, Fagone, I wonder if that's the dude who wrote the book The Horsemen of the Esophagus, a great and fun little book about the competitive eating circuit (yes, there is such a thing). Turns out, yes, it is that Jason Fagone, so I know I got this book because I like him as an author, but I can't remember where I actually read about this latest book by him, which is an awesome biography/history of a totally unique woman named Elizebeth Smith.

I'm going to let Fagone introduce his book to you, in his opening Author's Note:

"This is a love story.

In 1916, during the First World War, two young Americans met by chance on a mysterious and now-forgotten estate near Chicago. At first they seemed to have little in common. She was Elizebeth Smith, a Quaker schoolteacher who found joy in poetry. He was William Friedman, a Jewish plant biologist from a poor family. But they fell for each other. Within a year they were married. They went on to change history together, in ways that still mark our lives today. They taught themselves to be spies--of a new and vital kind." (p. xi.)

What Elizebeth and William became were very specialized codebreakers, with Elizebeth in particular making great use of her tenacity and well-ordered mind to crack Nazi codes and spy rings in South America during World War II.

It's a fascinating, FASCINATING book. I loved it, and Mr. CR read it too, and trust me, nonfiction has to be special for Mr. CR to plow through it. I'm sorry that I missed posting about it in March, because this would be an awesome read for Women's History Month. Do give it a try!

p.s. And then pair it with Leo Marks's unbelievably personal and funny and smart book about the fascinating work that is codebreaking, titled Between Silk and Cyanide.

*Plus if you have your Internet set to a homepage, I would highly recommend setting it to Yahoo!UK. Brexit is a whole ocean away from me, so I'm much happier to learn about that than anything that's going on in our shitstorm of a political system.

 


From reading nonfiction to writing nonfiction.

Binge for blogsIt's here! My new book Bingeworthy British Television: The Best Brit TV You Can't Stop Watching is now available as a paperback from Amazon!

The book is my love letter to all things British television, and perhaps my favorite thing about it is that it provided me with an excuse to make a new British friend: my co-author, Jackie Bailey, who provided the Brit perspective and answered all my questions about Brit TV (and life), like "How many BBCs are there?" and "Why don't the cops in your cop programs have guns?"

AND...we're running a promotion! It's called "Buy a Copy, Review a Copy, Get a Copy." Buy a copy of the book at Amazon, review it for us there, leave a comment here or send me the review link, and I'll contact you to send you a FREE second copy that you can pass along to someone else! BOGO, if you will, with a review in the middle.

I'm very excited, and yes, I want to hear your ideas for promoting this book. Marketing has never been one of my skills*, but I want to learn!

*Indexing is, though, and please note the book is fully indexed!


Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh.

Have I ever talked in this space about how much I hate doctors and everything about the medical establishment?

Oh, wait. Yes I have. Quite a lot, actually.

So anyway. I don't like doctors. But then there's surgeons. Mostly I don't hate surgeons as much as I hate other doctors. Perhaps it's because I've had good luck with surgeons, if by "good luck" I mean they have pretty much solved the problems I went to see them for (although at least one did not shine in the department of helping me recover after surgery), and I can appreciate that.

So when I saw a review of a book by a neurosurgeon, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery,* by Henry Marsh, I thought, yeah, I'm going to read that.

And it was FASCINATING. No kidding. Imagine just being a new doctor, not particularly enjoying it, when someone asks you to come along and help prepare a patient for neurosurgery, and after watching that surgery, you decide, boom, that's it, you're going to be a brain surgeon. This is basically what happened to Marsh.

I found this book endlessly fascinating. I can't say I liked the author, because he seems like the sort of doctor/surgeon/person I wouldn't much like if I met him (although if I needed him to fix a brain tumor, aneurysm, or other brain or spine problem I would be glad to see him). But I did enjoy his voice. I enjoyed his brisk descriptions, like this one, about how he hardly ever took a science class during his "private and privileged English education in a famous school," and eventually left Oxford to work as a hospital porter in the north of England, where he discovered he wanted to be a surgeon:

"Having spent six moths watching surgeons operating I decided that this was what I should do. I found its controlled and altruistic violence deeply appealing." (p. 76.)

I loved that. If there's any better description of surgery than "altruistic violence" I don't know what it is. It also makes it crystal clear to me why there are still more male surgeons than female ones.

There's some thrilling stories here, when everything went right during Marsh's surgeries on patients for an appalling number of different types of tumors, aneurysms, and other horrifying brain problems, and there's also a lot of heartbreak, when things just don't go right or (and it happens) something goes wrong due to surgeon error. Imagine having to tell someone you paralyzed them while you were trying to save them. Imagine telling a family that a patient bled to death on the operating table because you couldn't get the aneurysm clipped in the right way. I can't. I can't believe anyone can. So this book was a good reminder to me that, I may not like them, but thank goodness some people out there have the required personality to be able to cut into someone's head (and other parts), and they have terrible days. You really just have to hope you're never in a situation where their terrible day becomes YOUR terrible day.

I also liked that Marsh is a British surgeon and he had a lot to say about what goes on in the National Health Service and behind the scenes in hospitals generally.

Read it. But don't read it if you're scheduled to go into any kind of surgery any time soon.

*I love this review so much. God love The Guardian.


Something a little lighter for endless winter.

Mr. CR is firmly of the belief that all I read is "depressing nonfiction." He makes a fair point, as Mr. CR often does. I read a lot of depressing nonfiction. But not EVERYTHING I read is terribly sad. Take, for instance, the thoroughly delightful book Weird Thigns Customers Say in Bookstores, by Jen Campbell.

I blew through this one the other night as the delightful March breeze in my corner of the Badger State was taking us down to a record-breaking temperature below zero. In MARCH. That is not right. So, I was glad to have this very funny book to read.

It's organized in sections like "What Was That Title Again?", "Parents and Kids," and "Customers Behaving Badly," among many others.*

The anecdotes range from the brief and delightful:

"Customer: Do you have a book of mother-in-law jokes? I want to give it to my mother-in-law as a joke. But, you know, not really as a joke at all." (p. 20.)

To the slightly longer and delightful:

"[Child finds the light switch and begins to flick it on and off...and on and off.] Child's Mother: He's playing a game he calls night and day.Bookseller: Could you please ask him to stop? I need to be able to see the register to help these customers. Child's Mother: It's ok. He'll stop in a few minutes. See, he's pretending to snore at the moment. He'll stop soon and pretend to wake up, and switch the light on like it's the sun. He's so imaginative, isn't he? David, what time is it in the game? Child: It's five in the morning! Child's Mother: [to bookseller] See. Not long to go now. Just be patient." (pp. 48-59.)

Gosh, it made me miss working in a bookstore. It also just made me miss bookstores, full stop. This online world sucks.

Now, book people, go get this book and enjoy.

*All of which I'm sure librarians can appreciate too, although we would have to add a chapter for "Weird Things and People we Have Had to Pull Out of Bathrooms."


Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.

Just when I was complaining that nothing I was reading would stick in my head, along came Sarah Smarsh and her book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.*

Smarsh grew up in Kansas, the daughter of a teenage mother who was also the daughter of a teenage mother. In her memoir she details her rather chaotic upbringing, which involved parents who, if they hadn't had bad luck where jobs and finances were concerned, wouldn't have had any luck at all. Eventually they divorced, and in addition to moving around a lot Smarsh also had to deal with new family configurations and changing schools. Her extended family and grandparents, although they struggled to maintain healthy relationships of their own, luckily provided some stability for her and another place to live when she needed options.

It's a beautiful book. One of my favorite things about it is that Smarsh often addresses her prose to the baby she never had as a teenager. Sound complicated? It's not. She explains in the very first chapter:

"I heard a voice unlike the ones in my house or on the news that told me my place in the world...You were far more than what a baby is. My connection to you was the deepest kind of knowing--hard to explain because it swooshed around in my mind and took different shapes and meanings over the years. But there was a moment, before I was even old enough to have kids, when I was fretting about the sort of decision that in another household might have gotten help from parents. Those moments usually sent me praying to some God outside myself. Instead, I thought, What would I tell my daughter to do?" (p. 1.)

It's such a beautiful device, and it works well throughout the entire book.

You'll find stories here of joblessness, and losing homes, and the ag crisis, and domestic abuse (not to mention great pride, great warmth, great ingenuity, great--in its own way--love), all the things that go along with discussions of "class" in America. This book is how Smarsh relates the tale of her childhood, spent being poor, in a rich country. Or, as she says:

"How can you talk about the poor child without addressing the country that let her be so? It's a relatively new way of thinking for me. I was raised to put all responsibility on the individual, on the bootstraps which which she ought to pull herself up. But it's the way of things that environment changes outcomes. Or, to put it in my first language: The crop depends on the weather, dudnit? A good seed'll do 'er job 'n' sprout, but come hail 'n' yer plumb outta luck regardless." (pp. 2-3.)

It's a great book. It's about a million times better than Hillbilly Elegy and deserves to sell at least twice as many copies as that one sold, but it won't, because frankly, there's no justice in this world.

*God, do I hate GoodReads. I almost linked to the Heartland page there, because I know a lot of people are GoodReads fans, but I never, ever agree with the majority of reviews there. Ugh. Thank God for the New York Times review, which is the one I linked to above. That one gets it right.


Diana Athill, 1917-2019.

Out of nowhere one day, no more than a month ago, I wondered when we would lose* editor and author Diana Athill, and I actually felt some sorrow just thinking about the day she would die, which I figured must be coming because a. we all die, and b. I knew she was now either in her high 90s or 100s.

So yesterday came the announcement: Diana Athill has died, aged 101.

Go read that obituary. Really. Even if you have no idea who she is her life story is a wonder. Not only do I feel tremendous warmth toward Athill for being part of the publishing house of Andre Deutsch (the publisher who published Helene Hanff's books in England), but I really enjoyed her as an author, too. Also, because she found much of her success in writing after her 40th birthday, I find her tremendously inspiring. Here's a list of posts I've written about her in the past (I had forgotten there were so many).

I don't know where to tell you to start: among other things, she wrote the memoir Stet, about her life as an editor; Somewhere Near the End, about life as she aged into her 80s and 90s, and Alive, Alive Oh! an essay collection which includes her essay about having a surprise pregnancy and miscarriage at age 43 that remains among the best things I've ever read about a woman's body by a woman.

I salute you, Diana Athill. Fly, be free.

*Mr. CR says I have got to stop using the word "lose" as a euphemism for someone's dying. When my brother died, years ago, I called my library boss to tell her I'd lost my brother and wouldn't be in to work the next day, and all she snapped was, "Well, you're on the schedule the day after that, too," to which I patiently had to explain I wouldn't be in that day, either. When I got off the phone, appalled, Mr. CR said, "Well, maybe she really just thought you lost your brother out in the cornfield or something." (That's actually one of my favorite Mr. CR moments of all time.) But I can't help it! "Died" is too harsh and I hate the word "passed." So "lost" it is.


Best of 2018: The Max Power Way.*

I've got to be honest with you: I'm not all that sorry to see 2018 go. Not that I really expect great things out of 2019 (my secret to happiness being, of course, low expectations), but it is nice to pretend through at least January or so that "YEAH! This'll be my year!"

One of the reasons I was not fond of 2018 was because my reading took a real hit. Between eye fatigue and newly developed (I think, anyway, who the hell knows? Not any of the doctors I've seen) sinus headache issues, as well as any number of other job and family chores, I wasn't able to churn through at least a hundred pages of something every day like I've been pretty used to doing for the last twenty years. But there's people in this world with real problems, and I'm related to some of them, so it's time to stop whining that "I can't read as much as I used to and it is making me depressed!" and move on. So let's stick a fork in 2018 and make it official with this "Best Books I Read in 2018" list. The links below go to my reviews of each book.

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist. Actually, I liked Bad Feminist: Essays a lot more than I thought I was going to. It made me think. It made me look at a few things differently. That's why I read essays. And, God love her, Roxane Gay dares to say, when men ask her if she's on the pill, "No. Are you?"

Stacy Horn, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York. Stacy Horn is the hardest working, most thoughtful, most rigorously dedicated to good fact-checking nonfiction author we currently have. Go read the conversation I was lucky enough to have with her this year, and then go read all her books.

Peter Maas, Serpico. About whistle-blowing NYPD cop Frank Serpico. What a great read. Technically I read it in 2017, but hey, this is my list so I make the rules.

In addition to losing productivity as a reader, I also lost productivity as a writer this year, which was not a direction in which I wanted to go. I read a lot of nonfiction that I never got around to blogging about. I would finish a book, give it some thought, put it on my table to write about it, where...it eventually went overdue and I just had to return it to the library. One of those books was David Sedaris's latest essay collection Calypso. I've never really been a huge Sedaris fan, and I tend to like him most when he is writing essays about his large and completely (and I mean this in the nicest way, coming from a similar family myself) BATSHIT INSANE family members. Guess what? A lot of the essays in Calypso are about his family! There's also an essay in it about how strangers speak with one another and how (what I'll call) "marketing speak" fills up most of our conversations, and I just laughed the whole time I read it. Then I cried a little bit because the laughter wore me out and the essay was just so good, so gentle, so everything I wish my essay writing could be. Well played, Sedaris.

InfidelityLast but not least I read a memoir titled Infidelity, by Ann Pearlman. It is a memoir of an entire life, and a big issue: that of the history of the men in her family to be unfaithful to their wives (which happened to her grandmother, her mother, and herself). I didn't expect to like it. It was, in its way, depressing as hell. But it was also really, really good. I mean, look at that cover. I hardly ever include pictures on this blog anymore but I had to share this one--it's a perfect cover and it's perfect for the book. Anyone else read it? I'd love to hear others' thoughts. I don't even remember where I found it, except that I think maybe I read something else online by or about Ann Pearlman? Ah, it's hell, getting old.

That said, here's to another year of all of us getting older together. As long as we continue to read good books together and chat them up here, I'll be happy with 2019. Thanks, as always, for reading, not only this blog, but in general. Reading is good for you. Now get out there and spread the word.

*Wrong, but faster.


Hitting up the comfort reading hard.

I really, really enjoy Christmastime.

Of course it is not really the done thing anymore to say it that way, and that's okay. I'm down with saying "Happy Holidays" or whatever other greeting is appropriate for people I know. I don't particularly believe there's a war on Christmas. But there's also no use denying that it's Christmas that I really love. "The holidays," particularly when taken to include Thanksgiving and the hell that is the New Year's Eve/New Year's Day duo, and "the holidays" with all its connotations of enforced shopping and relative-seeing, well, "the holidays" actually aren't my favorite things ever.

But I like twinkly lights, and to some extent I like cold weather, and I love singing Christmas carols (if you haven't heard Frank Sinatra sing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," you haven't lived...unless you've heard Judy Garland hit it out of the park), and I ADORE making my ravenous way through absolutely horrifying amounts of chocolates and cookies and Christmas goodies, and as a routine-driven introvert I like doing the same things around the same time, year after year after year. I love putting up the same old nativity set that I've put up my whole life (my mom is still with us, but gave me her nativity set--the one we always used when I was a kid--a few years back). I love hanging the same ornaments. I love watching the CRjrs hang their favorite ornaments, and finding some of the crafts they made last year.

And most of all I love reading and watching all of my favorite things. Often in December I'll give the hardcore reading a rest and instead spend a lot of time with my favorite British TV Christmas episodes, watching my favorite holiday movies (I have added Just Friends to this rotation), and re-reading all my favorite and non-challenging books. Because I always re-watch Bridget Jones's Diary at this time of year, I also decided to re-read the novel it was based on, and that's fun. (The movie and the book are really different. I'd totally forgotten that.) And this year, although I've read it several times before, I am re-reading Helene Hanff's lovely Letter from New York, where I found this:

"I have eight people and two dogs coming for Christmas dinner and since studio apartments have small refrigerators, you have to work out the logistics in advance. You make your pies, cranberry sauce and sweet-potato casserole ahead of time and then distribute them around the building in other people's refrigerators, since the turkey, hors d'oeuvres, vegetables and eggnog bowl are all you'll have room for in yours. On Christmas morning once your turkey's in the oven, you go and get everything back. And the logistics consist in remembering whether the casserole is in 4-F or 16-B, and did you get the keys to 8-E up the hall, because Shelley and Susan have gone skiing in Vermont for Christmas, with your pies in their freezer." (p. 16.)

If that doesn't get you in the holiday spirit, I don't know what will. Happy Christmas to all, to all a good night, and may your 2019 be filled with only good things.


A bit more about Roxane Gay's "Bad Feminist."

Well, I have finished as much as I am going to of Roxane Gay's essay collection Bad Feminist.

We've already had a bit of discussion on this book, and I think we're all agreed that the entire collection could have been edited a bit better (the book is 320 pages long and honestly, I think it could have been trimmed a bit, both in terms of tightening up each essay and also leaving a few out). I think we're also agreed that the book got a lot (perhaps too much?) press; and although I'm often the first to be completely bugged by a book that is overhyped, mostly that bothers me when I don't think such a book merited the hype at all. Does that make sense?

That was not the case (for me) with this collection. I've not read every single last page of the book, but what I did read in it often made me think, or helped me see things from a different angle. It even gave me moments when I could give what I call  "snorts of angry sisterhood laughter."*

As for seeing some things differently? There is her essay "What We Hunger For." Here is some of it:

"When I was in middle school, when I was young--old enough to like a boy but young enough to have no clue what that meant--there was a boy who I thought was my boyfriend and who said he was my boyfriend but who also completely ignored me at school. It's a sad, silly story lots of girls know...

When we were together, he'd tell me what he wanted to do to me. He wasn't asking permission. I was not an unwilling participant. I was not a willing participant. I felt nothing one way or the other. I wanted him to love me. I wanted to make him happy. If doing things to my body made him happy, I would let him do anything to my body. My body was nothing to me. It was just meat and bones around that void he filled by touching me. Technically, we didn't have sex, but we did everything else. The more I gave, the more he took. At school, he continued looking right through me. I was dying but I was happy. I was happy because he was happy, because if I gave enough, he might love me. As an adult, I don't understand how I allowed him to treat me like that. I don't understand how he could be so terrible. I don't understand how desperately I sacrificed myself. I was young." (p. 142.)

There is not really a happy ending to that story. But you should go and read that essay. I'm going to re-read it periodically because it is an unbelievably good essay. I'm going to re-read it periodically to remind myself how important it is that I try to raise the CRjrs to grow up to be people who won't take what women (or anyone) might be desperately sacrificing themselves to give.

Yeah. Hype and all. I liked the book, and I like Roxane Gay.

*One such moment: in her essay "The Alienable Rights of Women," there is this paragraph: "If I told you my birth control method of choice, which I kind of swear by, you'd look at me like I was slightly insane. Suffice it to say, I will take a pill every day when men have that same option. We should all be in this together, right? One of my favorite moments is when a guy, at that certain point in a relationship, says something desperately hopeful like, 'Are you on the pill?' I simply say, 'No, are you?"

To that paragraph I say: AMEN SISTER. I have been waiting for what feels like an eternity to find one other woman to speak this idea aloud. And now I've found her. No matter what else she does I'll love her forever for that paragraph.


Getting my Wendell Berry in, just under the wire.

Hey everyone. Where did October go?

I know our discussion this month was supposed to be about Wendell Berry's Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community, and I'm truly sorry to report that I did not get the entire book read, or any posts done. Because I can tell it is a truly great book. I can tell that mostly because I know how Wendell Berry writes, and I know a lot about how he thinks, and he is RIGHT ON. But I can also tell that it is great because it contains paragraphs like this:

"Most of us get almost all the things we need by buying them; most of us know only vaguely, if at all, where those things come from; and most of us know not at all what damage is involved in their production. We are almost entirely dependent on an economy of which we are almost entirely ignorant. The provenance, for example, not only of the food we buy at the store but of the chemicals, fuels, metals, and other materials necessary to grow, harvest, transport, process, and package that food is almost necessarily a mystery to us. To know the full economic history of a head of supermarket cauliflower would require an immense job of research. To be so completely and so ignorantly dependent on the present abusive food economy certainly defines us as earth abusers. It also defines us as potential victims." (pp. 36-37.)

He's got something like that on almost every page. It's so true it's exhausting. But at one point he talks about "good work," and what he means by that phrase. Trust me, reading this book would be "good work." I'm still not fully back on my reading game, but I'm going to continue with this one, however long it takes me.


Labor Day Reading List 2018.

Good morning! If you'll remember, Labor Day is one of my absolute favorite holidays. I am determined to enjoy it today, although for some reason I cannot sleep at all lately and so stumble around all day like a zombie. Also, it is dark out there (I live in a new monsoon zone where it is constantly dark and rainy) and we will probably not be able to play much outside; major bummer.

So every year at this time I compile a list of books that I've read that have to do with jobs and work. (Here's the prior links: 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.) This is a category of nonfiction I really enjoy, so normally this is a long list, but not this year. I've read a lot less this year, so apologies for this short list. Better luck next year, right? I hear you just feel better and get lots more time to indulge in your favorite activities as you age*, so here's looking forward to 2018-2019.

Helene Hanff, Underfoot in Show Business. A re-read, but God, this book is so awesome. About trying to make it in theatah and i New York City in general.

Michael Perry, Population 485. Another re-read, about being a writer, volunteer EMT and firefighter, and all-around decent guy.

Brian Alexander, Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of an All-American Town. An investigative book about Ohio's Anchor Hocking Glass company, and how finance types and business people raped it for all the profit they could get, helping destroy its hometown in the process. In bold because it's one of the best books I read this year. READ IT, even if some of the financial fine print gets a bit dense and you have to skip parts of it.

Peter Maas, Serpico. About being a cop, and a whistleblower. Unbelievably great read.

Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. About Wilder's life as a farmer and author. Fantastic. Very important in these days when Wilder's reputation is taking a hit. Yes, the settlers were not nice to Native Americans. Maybe we should read about that and discuss why it was wrong rather than pretend it never happened. At least that's the way I feel about it.

Annie Spence, Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks. About books, reading, and being a librarian.

Rachel Arneson, No Apparent Distress: A Doctor's Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine. About becoming and being a doctor. It didn't set me on fire but was an interesting read.

NOW: Go forth, and have a Happy Labor Day. I wish you a good day celebrating work by not doing any.

*HA.


The Essay Project 2018: Joan Didion, the right writer for this time in my life.

It's still August, which means our Essay Project assigned reading is still Joan Didion's The White Album.

Have you ever had that feeling that you've read an author for a long time, or here and there, and you generally like them, think they are good at their trade, and then one day you're reading them and you're like, WOW, I am getting this like I have never gotten this before.

This is the experience I am having with Joan Didion's The White Album.

Not so much the first essay (after which the collection is named). That is still not my favorite essay, although it is one of her best known, and I'm still wondering at the craft of it. I like the bold opening statement ("We tell ourselves stories in order to live"). I mean, that's the kind of statement you could think about and parse for a long time. And I really like her formulation of this sentence:"By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968." Why "does not now seem to me an inappropriate response"? Why not simply "seems to me now an entirely appropriate response."? There must be a reason.

But anyway. Where I'm finding I'm completely in concert with Didion at this time in my life is a lot of small moments in a lot of her smaller essays. I LOVE the essay "Holy Water," when she learns about how water moves and is moved around her home state of California; I love the science of it mixed with the pragmatism and the language and imagery. I love how SHE loves learning about the water. I love that she wants to stay in the "water control center" and move the water around herself: "I had no further business in this room and yet I wanted to stay the day. I wanted to be the one, that day, who was shining the olives, filling the gardens, and flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile. I want it still."

I can hear the desire there, for power, for control, to give life. I can feel it. So then I saw at the bottom of this essay, it was written (or published) in 1977. Didion was born in 1934. She wrote that essay when she was 43. In other words? Exactly the same age I am now. Is this why it's resonating so? Especially the essays that seem to do plenty on their surface and do even more underneath? Because that is how I feel some days on this Earth: I want to stay the day and exert some life-giving control too.

I'm knocked over by this book.


Has anyone started their Joan Didion yet?

I have!

And I think I've read the whole thing before (The White Album, I'm talking about), but periodically I seem to forget that I've read it. Then I pick it up and I read the first essay, and then I start skipping around, and while reading it, I feel all unsettled and psychically itchy and uncomfortable and it seems to me that the earlier times I've read it, I've read it the exact same way, and maybe that's why I never remember that I have actually read the whole book, several times.

Wow. And those right there are a couple of sentences that would probably make Joan Didion cry. The very opposite of good writing.

Anyway. Please let me know if you've started The White Album and how you're finding it. I started it again and came across this, which of course I remembered, because it is very memorable (when commenting on her own physical and mental state at the time):

"By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968." (p. 15.)

And it strikes me that we are reading this essay fifty years on from 1968, and that is in-fucking-credible to me, how long this woman has been living and thinking and writing. (Also I couldn't agree more. An attack of vertigo and nausea seems to me an entirely appropriate response to 2018. The more things change, eh?)


Stacy Horn's Damnation Island and more essay chat.

I've not yet reviewed it here, but I have read (and loved) Stacy Horn's new book Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York. I also had the good fortune to interview Stacy about the book for The Millions. But the big news this morning is that her book got a great review in the New York Times! YAY, Stacy!

The book is not a light read but I loved it for all the usual reasons I love Stacy Horn's nonfiction writing: It's thoughtful, it's well-organized, I know it's been exhaustively fact-checked. But she always brings a little something extra to her stories, even when they're about crime and horrible mistakes that all sorts of people make, not just criminals but also those seeking to reform criminals: sympathy. You finish this book and you're sad, mostly because if you read enough books like this you realize there have never really been any "good old days," but also because you can't believe how much how many people have suffered down through the ages. But at the same time, she never really seems to give up. I like her tenacity. In her last pages she points out how the struggle to figure out how best to incarcerate people still goes on, and that we first have to learn about these problems to start to consider how to approach them.

In other Essay Project news I'm now in David Sedaris's We Talk Pretty One Day. Anyone else read the Sedaris? What are your thoughts? In reading (re-reading? I think I've read it before but can't remember--never a good sign) I find that I'm feeling the same way about Sedaris that I have always felt about him: I largely don't understand the appeal. I think he's a good writer, and he sometimes makes me laugh (mainly when telling stories about his very...ahem...interesting family), but I've never quite understood why he became a huge best-selling essayist. Can someone explain the appeal?


I got to interview Stacy Horn for The Millions!

DamnationSo everyone knows I love Stacy Horn, right?

The big news today is that yesterday an interview I did with Stacy got published at The Millions!

I really enjoyed it and Stacy couldn't have been more gracious or forthcoming. Learning more about her writing process was so great.

Stacy's new book, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York, comes out next week. Do get it. It's a great read and Stacy's the hardest-working author in showbiz.

Have a great weekend, all--more questions about The Polysyllabic Spree next week!


Nobody Puts Nonfiction in a Corner: Michael Perry's Population: 485.

So when you're starting to put together a list of nonfiction books that have been seminal to your adulthood and your continuing evolution as a person, all the nonfiction books, in short, that you'd want to take with you to a desert island, where do you start?

Well, I'm starting with Michael Perry's memoir Population: 485, Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time.

I first read this book right around the time it came out (2003), at a time when I was really just starting to read a lot of nonfiction. That also coincided with a time in publishing when memoirs were all the rage, so there were a lot of them about and I used them as a sort of gateway drug into nonfiction. I wonder how many people find themselves reading nonfiction that way, incidentally. Novels, novels, novels, one memoir, POOF: nonfiction reader.

And what a great memoir this was to read:

"There is a road below, a slim strip of county two-lane, where the faded blacktop runs east-west, then bends--at Jabowski's Corner--like an elbow. In the crook of the elbow, right in the space where you would cradle a baby, is a clot of people. My mother is there, and my sister, and several volunteer firefighters, and I have just joined them, and we are all on our knees, kneeling in a ring around a young girl who has been horribly injured in a car wreck. She is crying out, and we are doing what we can, but she feels death pressing at her chest. She tells us this, and we deny it, tell her no, no, help is on the way." (p. 2.)

It's Michael Perry's story of returning to his rural Wisconsin hometown to write and rejoin his first community, not least as one of its volunteer first responders. Not only was it an example of a near-perfect memoir, but it was also a perfect time for me to be reading it. I live about fifteen minutes away from the house where I grew up, which was on a farm, and although now I live in the city (or I should say, a suburban outpost of a nearby city), I recognize the rural surroundings Perry describes. What is harder for me to understand is his desire to re-integrate with his former community in a very visceral way: as a person who shows up to help when any kind of distress call goes out. It's not that I don't want to be of help. I try very hard to be of help to family members and people I know well. But I have never been very good at being part of a community. I never fit in my farm community, really, and I don't fit in my city community, either, although I love my neighborhood with its 1950s houses and its unfussy vibe. 

So here's Perry, offering to show up in the area of New Auburn, Wisconsin, and to try in his role as a member of the volunteer Fire Department to help anyone who calls, in any location:

"'Get out of bed!' my high school science teacher used to say. 'People die in bed!' Truth be told, ambulance calls have taught me otherwise. People tend to die in the bathroom. They tip over while groping the medicine cabinet for Maalox, or straining on the pot just enough to blow a leaking abdominal aneurysm. Rare is the EMT who hasn't performed CPR between the tub and the toilet." (p. 133.)

If that doesn't get straight to the point, I don't know what does. I have to respect someone who is willing to answer those calls. So: Writing style? Top-notch. Detailed personal details? Check. A truly kind and generous heart behind the stories? All here. It is, full stop, a great memoir.

But here's another reason I love Michael Perry and his books, and it's more personal.

I was a lot younger when I read this memoir, and I was charmed to think of Perry out there in small-town Wisconsin, living in an old house in New Auburn, and writing and drinking coffee at all hours of the night and day. It seemed like an appealing lifestyle, and I was glad he was living it. And then he wrote another memoir about falling in love (and fixing up an old truck), titled, appropriately, Truck, and then he got married and wrote yet another memoir about being married and having and raising kids (titled Coop, as in chicken). And I read all these books as he wrote them, as well as others that he wrote along the way, including a novel (The Jesus Cow), a YA novel (The Scavengers), and another nonfiction book about the pleasures of reading Montaigne.* And although I was already married when I first found Perry, I kind of grew up with him, and enjoyed reading about his parallel experiences of love, marriage, and adulthood. 

But here's the real kicker. Now when I go back and read Population: 485, I'm almost saddened at the picture that it presents because I know it is no longer accurate. He's not living in New Auburn anymore. His life, although he still lives in rural America and writes for a living, is much different than it was when he was writing this book. I feel nostalgia for Michael Perry's life, as written in this memoir, the same way I feel nostalgia when I go through picture books of when the CRjrs were the tiniest of babies.

That sounds so stupid. I'm well aware. It's a sad feeling, but it's a really good feeling. It's like I know Michael, and his family, and the people he writes about. I feel connected to him, as a reader feels connected to a writer, to another human with whom they can feel some sort of communion. And, because I have given this book to other people, and talked about this book with other people, through it, I have also felt communion with other readers.** This is a book that made me realize that I'm never going to fit in with the majority of the communities in which I have to function on a daily basis, but it's okay. Because there is a community out there that love and feel a part of, and that is the amorphous community of READERS.

Oh, I love this book. It's so sad and beautiful and joyful and funny and although I have enjoyed all the rest of Perry's books, I really feel that he put everything into this book and made it a perfect little jewel of literature, akin to Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. It's just good prose:

"Life is a preservation project. Our instinct for preservation plays out in everything from the depth of our breaths to an affection for bricks. Even as we flail and cling, trying to bottle time, to save it, we live only through its expenditure. Memory is a means of possession, but eventually, the greatest grace is found in letting go." (p. 178.)

I'm never going to let go of my love for Michael Perry and his perfect memoir Population: 485.

*Another essayist we should tackle together someday, incidentally.

**Most notably, with my dad.

 


Looking for a name for our "Best of" Nonfiction list.

I thought long and hard about what to title these new types of posts:

1. The Citizen Reader Worldview in 52 Books (Or, Become a Bitter Middle-Aged Midwestern Woman in Only 52 Weeks!)

2. 100 Game-Changing Nonfiction Books

3. Nonfiction for a Twenty-first Century Citizen Reader

4. 100 Nonfiction Books Deemed "Too Depressing" by Mr. CR

5. Great Nonfiction to Read While Watching Two Preschoolers Who Can't Stop Pushing Each Other Down On the Cement Driveway

But all of those seemed a little personal (well, not the second one, the second one just seems boring), and I would like this list of Nonfiction Greatest Hits to be more broadly useful to a wide variety of readers.

So what to call it?

...

First maybe I'll tell you a little story about how I really started thinking that it is time to change Citizen Reader, or perhaps just to start to go out with a bang. In the month of March I slowly read an investigative nonfiction/business history book titled Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town,* by journalist Brian Alexander. It was a great book. It was not the best book I've ever read, and in some ways it was a very run-of-the-mill example of the type of nonfiction I favor (namely, "depressing" investigative nonfiction on current economic and cultural trends in America), but it was a great book. It was a book I found on another list, elsewhere, and I was intrigued by the title, so I brought it home, and it sat around my house for a while. And then I took a little break from reading, but shortly before this book was due, I thought, "No, even if my eyes are tired, I want to read this book."

So I did.

I read it more slowly than I usually read these books, and I never really felt like I couldn't put it down, but all the same I kept being drawn back to it. It is the story, basically, of the city of Lancaster, Ohio, and how its main manufacturer and employer, Anchor Hocking Glass, began and (pretty much) ended. It is a story of community history, the business environment of America in the twentieth century through 2016, it is the story of individuals struggling to find meaning in their work and a living wage, it is the story of an insular town mentality, it is an individual business history, and it is also a story of opiate abuse and other crime (mainly petty, but also huge glaring financial crimes perpetrated by the 1% of the title).

It's got a lot going on.

I would like for you to read this book, but I know that a lot of readers would be turned off by the level of business details in it. Trying to understand the financial shenanigans of leveraged buyouts and corporate takeovers (many of which have been going on since at least the 1980s) is ridiculous; I have to give Alexander credit that he could describe most of it as clearly as he could. Where the rubber really meets the road is in one of the final chapters, when he discusses the trend of pundits telling Midwesterners to leave their smallish cities and towns and rural areas if they want to avoid drugs and find better-paying work:

"For decades, politicians--Republicans and Democrats both--and pundits had all been spewing empty platitudes of praise for 'the heartland,' 'real America,' and 'small-town values.' Then, with shameless hypocrisy, they supported the very policies that helped destroy thriving small towns.

Corporate elites said they needed free-trade agreements, so they got them. Manufacturers said they needed tax breaks and public-money incentives in order to keep their plants operating in the United States, so they got them. Banks and financiers needed looser regulations, so they got them. Employers said they needed weaker unions--or no unions at all--so they got them. Private equity firms said they needed carried interest and secrecy, so they got them. Everyone, including Lancastrians themselves, said they needed lower taxes, so they got them. What did Lancaster and a hundred other towns like it get? Job losses, slashed wages, poor civic leadership, social dysfunction, drugs...

Telling Lancaster to surrender and call U-Haul made it easy for America to ignore its Lancasters. Sure, there was a lot of talk about such places and the people in them, but few wanted to spend much time learning about how they'd been left behind by the financialization and digitalization of American life. Silicon Valley kept promising nirvana but delivering new ways to gossip, even while disconnecting people from each other and their real communities. Politicians soothed the blows of globalization with promises to retrain and educate, but none of that happened for Lancaster's working class.

To so blithely dismiss the value of community was to pretend there was no loss. But there was, and the effects of that loss continued to ripple throughout the town." (pp. 291-294.)

So here's where my little story ends. I read this book, and I read that, and somewhat sharply it struck me that yes, that is a culmination of most of the nonfiction I've been reading since 2000. In my brain I could feel all sorts of threads coming together, and I felt for a moment like I had a clear picture of the time and place I live in. I have read A LOT of books to get to this place. And for the first time in a long time I thought, I don't need to read any more.**

I want to do something else.

So, in light of our discussions a few weeks back, here's what we're going to do. Citizen Reader is going to place of action. Mine, and yours. We're also going to take things seriously enough to have a schedule; I'll post it soon. We're going to read some essays, and one month we're going to have an online book club, and in the middle of all that I'm going to write posts that list books I've read and helped me get to this moment of clarity, and this is what I'm going to call that list, because I am a Gen Xer and although I want to take things seriously, I also can't resist a pop culture reference:

Nobody Puts Nonfiction In a Corner (or, 100 Nonfiction Books I Couldn't Live Without)***

And #100 on that list is Brian Alexander's excellent Glass House. This list will not really be in order, but I'm calling this book #100 because I don't think you can start there. I want to tell you about the best, clearest, most helpful nonfiction books that I've read about living in this place and time. Won't you join me?

Oh, and don't worry. I'm still going to read. I'll still need something else to look at besides my little CRs pushing each other down in the driveway.

*This link goes to an excellent review of this book at Slate; concise, well-written, even very good about explaining briefly the financial mishaps wreaked on the Anchor Hocking company.

**I actually had this thought in quote form: in Anne Tyler's novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, elderly Pearl Tully is being read to by her son Ezra, out of her own childhood diary. At one point he reads to her an entry about a happy moment she had: "...'I saw that I was kneeling on such a beautiful green little planet. I don't care what else might come about, I have had this moment, it belongs to me.'

That was the end of the entry. He fell silent.

'Thank you, Ezra,' his mother said. 'There's no need to read any more.'" (p. 277.)

That's exactly the way I felt. Thank you, Ezra. There's no need to read any more.

***With full props to the film Dirty Dancing, for giving us one of the most truly ridiculous lines of dialogue ever.