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Environmental writing is the scariest writing out there.

All through the month of September I read one True Crime book after another. Finally Mr. CR said, you have got to stop reading this stuff. (I think the subtext was: "you're freaking me out," but who knows? I've never been very good with subtext which is, let's face it, one of the reasons I prefer reading nonfiction.)

So then I took a little break and read the 2016 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, edited by Amy Stewart (a writer who I love, and whose book Flower Confidential I once raved about at Bookslut).

And it was a really great collection. (As promised.) But I kept finding little tidbits like this, about the retreat of Arctic ice and other climatic changes:

"We talked about future scenarios of what we began to call, simply, bad weather. Parts of the world will get much hotter, with no rain or snow at all. In western North America, trees will keep dying from insect and fungal invasions, uncovering more land that in turn will soak up more heat...the Arctic is shouldering the wounds of the world, wounds that aren't healing." (pp. 41-42.)

And this, about the possibility of a massive earthquake in the Pacific Northwest:

"The shaking from the Cascadia quake will set off landslides throughout the region--up to 30,000 of them in Seattle alone, the city's emergency-management office estimates. It will also induce a process called liquefaction, whereby seemingly solid ground starts behaving like a liquid, to the detriment  of anything on top of it...Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin.

Among natural disasters, tsunamis may be the closest to being completely unsurvivable. The only likely way to outlive one is not to be there when it happens: to steer clear of the vulnerable area in the first place, or get yourself to high ground as fast as possible. For the 71,000 people who live in Cascadia's inundation zone, that will mean evacuating in the narrow window after one disaster ends and before another begins..." (p. 254.)

Holy crap. Everyone's keeping that pretty quiet. I had never heard of the Cascadia subduction zone.

Now, all is not doom and gloom here. There is a wide variety of topics and styles, from straightforward reporting to memoir and even some humor. By all means you should read this collection--I count it among my best reads of the year.*

*Mr. CR read it and enjoyed it too, and that's saying something.


Labor Day Reading List 2017.

I certainly hope you enjoyed your Labor Day holiday. As you may or may not know, Labor Day is my favorite holiday. (Okay, I lie, Christmas is actually my favorite holiday, but the MINUTE Labor Day gets cookies, fudge, and as good a song as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" associated with it, then it will truly become my favorite holiday.)

So every year I like to look back at the blog and highlight any books I read that had to do with labor. Here's the list from the past year (links go to my reviews of the books).

Hill, Steven. Raw Deal: How the "Uber Economy" and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers.

Keizer, Garret. Getting Schooled.

Parker, Willie. Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice.

Simon, David: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

Martin, Brett. Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution--From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Moore, Anne Elizabeth. Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking.

Tomsky, Jacob. Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality.

Kaplan, James. Frank: The Voice. I'm including this bio of Frank Sinatra because it is so jam-packed with info about Sinatra's development of his instrument (his voice) and his financial prowess.

Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. I'm also including this one because it is such an exploration of Jackson's work and development as a writer, as well as a parent.

Kidder, Tracy. A Truck Full of Money.

Hirshey, Gerri. Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown.

Brown, Chester. Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible. Because if prostitution isn't work, then by God, I don't know what is.

And here are the lists from previous years: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2009.


Friday Fun: A link proving I've spent way too much time thinking about the Poldark series.

Welcome to a special Friday edition of Citizen Reader!

Remember a while back when I couldn't stop talking about Winston Graham's "Poldark" series? The historical fiction series set in 1700s Cornwall that actually blew my mind the first time I read them? (And continue to do so, every time I re-read them?) Well, here's a link to a guest article I wrote for Anglotopia, proving once and for all that I spend TOO MUCH time thinking about the Poldark saga:

A Tale of Three Poldarks

In it I discuss the original twelve-book series. And the 1975 TV adaptation. And the 2015 adaptation. So you'd think all of that would be enough Poldark, wouldn't you? However, let me assure you: there will never be enough Poldark.

Happy weekend, all.


Raw Deal: How the "Uber Economy" and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers.

Mr. CR despairs of me, but I am right back on my Depressing Nonfiction Reading Kick, and I couldn't be happier!

Raw dealLast month I spent quite a bit of time with Steven Hill's Raw Deal: How the "Uber Economy" and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers. It's a journalistic work of my very favorite type--the author pokes his nose into all sorts of assumptions, like how the "sharing economy" is helping us all save money and "monetize" the assets we do have, and how the tech companies really have all our best interests at heart...and then proves that the underlying story isn't quite as rosy as all the pundits would have you assume.

I won't lie to you, this is a dense book and it definitely takes some time to get going. But even if you only read half, or bits, of this book, you will learn more than enough to make you start to wonder about where all the money in our economy is flowing, and why. I'll give you an example of an early jam-packed paragraph that appears on page 3 (page 3!) and should suffice to give you much of the lay of the land of the book:

"Sitting here in San Francisco, I have a front-row seat at the epicenter of this latest earthquake. But as the future that the tech geniuses have planned for us comes slowly into view, it looks increasingly alarming. It's not just the many people evicted, including elderly and disabled tenants. to clear entire apartment buildings to make rooms available for tourists via Airbnb, even as Airbnb has disputed its obligation to pay local hotel taxes; or the desperate workers scrambling like low-rent braceros--'arms for hire'--on jobs found via TaskRabbit, Elance-Upwork, CrowdFlower and other job brokerage websites, sometimes for less than minimum wage (according to some workers); or the middle- and low-income households being forced to leave the Bay Area in a tech-driven 'Trail of Tears' because they can no longer afford the escalating costs; or that Uber, which is valued at $51 billion--larger than Delta or United Airlines, and approaching General Motors and Ford--has incorporated more than 30 different foreign subsidiaries, many of them no more than mailboxes in the Caribbean, as low-tax havens to greatly reduce its US tax obligations."

Yeah. The entire book is like that. It takes a little while to read.

But you should definitely give it a look. The idea of "monetizing" stuff I have by giving strangers rides in my car or a room in my house has always made my skin crawl, but this author also points out that these tech "sharing" companies are making massive profits at the same time they are refusing to play fair with their workers (not their workers, technically, their "freelancers," to whom they give no benefits and provide no sick time) and with tax and local zoning laws in general. The sharing economy might have a nice name, but what exactly is it costing all of us in the end?


Reading notes: July 2017.

On Monday I was so busy whining about the demise of EarlyWord that I forgot to include my usual weekly reading notes in the Citizen Reading report, so I thought I'd put them here.

I forget exactly why I got Peter Coughter's The Art of the Pitch: Persuasion and Presentation Skills that Win Business from the library, but I suspect it is because I am always interested in books about how to give presentations (enough so that I wrote one) and how to sell, because I am a terrible salesperson. I only skimmed this one, but I have to say I think it is one of the best and most succinct books on good public speaking that I've seen. You wouldn't even have to read the whole book; just read the first chapter: "Everything Is a Presentation." I particularly liked the list of characteristics of great presenters and their presentations, things like "It's a conversation, only you're doing most of the talking."* That does not mean you get to be boring or pontificate, it means, as Coughter explains, "We've all been there. Sitting in a meeting, praying for it to end while the speaker drones on about something that is apparently important to him, but of no interest to us. It might have been okay if he wasn't so stiff, so stilted, so 'professional.' Caught up in his own world. Lecturing us.

Don't be that guy. I can't say this strongly enough. Just talk with us. The best presenters know this, and that's how they present." (p. 16.)

That last line is the beginning, middle, and end of good public speaking. Coughter adds more bullet points, of course ("be yourself," "tell stories," "know your stuff," etc.) but I think his suggestion to just TALK with the people you present to is never given enough emphasis in other public speaking books.

Sharon Weinberger, The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World. I'm about thirty pages in to this one, and it's interesting, but I'm just not in the mood right now. Already I've learned that DARPA really began with the mission to move America ahead in the space race, and when they lost that mandate shortly after they were formed, they turned to investigating anti-insurgency during the Vietnam War. I'll definitely want to get this one back someday.

Nick Westergaard, Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. I am interested in digital marketing, even though I really have no idea how to do anything digital. I've also always been weirdly interested in marketing from a completely detached viewpoint. I don't really want to DO marketing but I find it a fascinating subject--how do people market and sell to us? How do we sell to others? So I snap up marketing books like I used to snap up dating books--I wasn't any good at dating either but found the whole process interesting from a sociological standpoint. But this book doesn't really seem to offer anything new, and it takes too long to get there. And ever since my eye went wonky this spring, I find myself asking, is this book worth wasting my waning vision on? No? Moving on.

Sophie Kinsella, I've Got Your Number. Total chick-lit fluff, but AWESOME chick-lit fluff, and set in London to boot.  A million times better than her Shopaholic series; many, many thanks to my friend who suggested I read this one.

*Full disclosure: In my experience, this is spot-on. I try to be a good listener, but let's face it, I like to hold forth. For an introverted control freak like myself giving talks and presentations is the most fun thing ever, because I get to interact with people for a useful purpose, and I get to mostly direct the conversation. Ah, that's the sweet spot.


Garret Keizer: Getting Schooled.

I'm having a little love affair this summer with the author Garret Keizer.

Originally I found him when I checked out a small book titled Privacy. I read a lot of that book while watching the CRjrs bike and shove each other around (and sometimes shove each other around on bikes), but then I put it away for a while because I want to read it all the way through, someday when I can fully concentrate on it.

Getting schooledSo then I went looking for something else of his I could read, and found Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher. I hadn't remembered the title, but as soon as I picked the book up at the library, I laughed: I recognized its cover. I'd actually had the book in my house last year when I wanted to write a list of good books to read on education, though I'd never gotten it read.

Well, this time I got it read. And it starts off with a bang:

"In the fall of 2010, after a fourteen-year hiatus from the classroom and at the unpropitious age of fifty-seven, I began a one-year job filling in for a teacher on leave from the same rural Vermont high school that I'd entered as a rookie thirty years before. I signed on mainly because my wife and I needed the health insurance."

Here's what I know about Garret Keizer: he lives in Vermont with his wife and has one daughter. By his own admission he is in his late fifties. Also, I've read enough of his writing now to know that he crafts a beautiful sentence. And his author blurb states that he is the author of several other books, he is a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. So my only thought upon reading that first paragraph is really? Even contributing editors at Harper's Magazine have to work for the health insurance? This country is MESSED UP.

But I digress. This book is primarily the memoir of a teacher who liked teaching but who quit it because he liked writing more, and what he found when he went back to teaching in a high school. None of it is particularly earth-shattering or even particularly depressing (I find most things written and said about education these days to be depressing), but it is such a nice, thoughtful memoir. He covers such topics as the technology teachers have to use to keep up with student record-keeping; the technology they're expected to use in the classroom; his lesson planning; his outreach to students and his interactions with them; and broader educational trends.

I'll admit my enjoyment of this book was a very personal thing. Primarily because Keizer has a habit of writing out loud things that I am thinking, like this: "Citing statistics from a famous study, the superintendent notes that students from the lower strata of society reach the age of three having heard 30 million fewer words than their middle-class counterparts...In vain I wait for someone to remark that if our students are subject to such appalling inequalities, even before they enter school, then educational reform is a pathetic substitute for social revolution." (p. 39.)

I know from experience that saying anything like that (only less eloquently) around suburban mothers gets some odd looks.

So, Keizer worked his year, and he wrote this memoir, with each chapter given over to one month of the school calendar. It's a wide-ranging, incisive, and yet still strangely gentle look at the education system, our broader culture, and of course the individual high schoolers and courses that he taught. Yeah, I know it's summer vacation. But your homework this summer is to read this book.


Dr. Willie Parker's Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice.

Life's workI forget where I first read about Dr. Willie Parker's memoir Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. I think I saw it on a booklist somewhere--but of course now I can't remember where.

Let's be honest here. I don't have much of a belief system anymore. I was much more black and white in my beliefs well into my thirties, than I am now. And you know what? That was comforting. I kind of miss that. Lately, though, I find I am just so tired of all sides of problems that I have much less energy to judge who is in the right or wrong. Like this: yes, criminals need to be punished and go to jail. But have you heard about jails lately? That's not going to solve anything. Yes, Trump sucks. Clinton sucked too.

See?

So pretty much one of the few things left that I really believe in is that you can't kill people. As such, I am still against abortion. (I'm against capital punishment and war, too.) So what was I doing reading this memoir by a doctor who has committed his life to performing abortions, particularly in areas where access to abortions is becoming ever harder to find?

I don't know, really. I kind of just thought I should read it. (And it's only about 200 pages long. I love authors who can make their point in 200 pages or less, and will almost always give them a try.)

And here's what I think: it was a good book. Parker knows his way around a narrative and he is clearly impassioned about his choices and his work. He describes his childhood, spent growing up in poverty in Alabama; his epiphany of being "born again" as a teenager and his life spent proselytizing about religion; his journey through medical school and his decision, eventually, to learn how to perform abortions and to dedicate himself to performing them regardless of the challenges and dangers to himself. He is clearly a thoughtful person and he lays out his entire trajectory of thought and action for the reader here.

"Sometimes women, having absorbed the lessons of Christian churches like the one in which I was raised, call the clinic to wonder aloud to anyone who answers the phone: 'Will God forgive me?' And if I happen to be on the other end, what I say, in substance, is this: I see no reason why a woman should feel herself deserving of a separation from God because of a decision she has to make. The Jesus I love has a nonconformist understanding of his faith. He realizes that the petty rules and laws laid down by the fathers and authorities are meaningless, and that to believe in a loving God is to refuse to stand in judgment of any fellow mortal...Performing abortions, and speaking out on behalf of the women who want abortions, is my calling. It is my life's work, and I dedicate this book to them." (p. 16.)

Probably the most interesting parts of this book for me were reading about Parker's impoverished upbringing and the hard work, good luck, and kindnesses of connections that accompanied his education and medical career. Frankly? This was kind of the book, on that subject, that I wanted Hillbilly Elegy to be. It may seem strange, but I also appreciated Parker's dispassionate descriptions of the abortion procedure itself. Or, I should say, it didn't make me happy to read those descriptions, but I have not had an abortion and have not ever had anyone describe one to me, so I felt that was knowledge I could use.

And here's what else I think: it was a good book for me to read. I thought about it a lot while reading it and I thought about it a lot in the days after I read it, and I really think it helped solidify a few things for me on how I feel about abortion, and that surprised me, since I thought I was already pretty solid in my opinions on the subject. Here's one thing it made me realize: I used to read about the actions of anti-abortion activists, taking steps simply to chip away at access to abortion, rather than trying to get Roe v. Wade overturned completely. And I had to admit that those were probably effective tactics if you simply wanted to try and lessen the numbers of abortions being performed. But those "victories" never really made me very happy. And now I know why: because it's kind of a prick move*. It disproportionately punishes poor and rural women who have fewer options. To me it's a prick move, just like gerrymandering is a prick move to chip away at voting rights. It may be stupid (and simplistic) of me, but I feel it is more honest to either allow abortion to be legal and allow access to it, or call it murder and outlaw it. Either way it should be the same for everyone.

There are a host of other reasons why I personally believe abortion is wrong, and we're not going to get into all that. And I totally understand Parker's narrative, and why he has made the choices he has. Really. I do. I am poor enough and (formerly) rural enough that I know how hard it is to scrape together $500 when you really need it, and how hard it is to get somewhere when your time (and perhaps a mode of transportation) is not your own. I have children and I know what pregnancies and birth do to your body. I GET IT. But on so many levels it keeps coming back to this for me: people are not disposable. Once I give up that thought I truly will have nothing left.

Oh, and then there's this: I cannot get behind abortion because I think it is purely a gift to men, specifically the worst kind of men, the ones who don't think about their actions and never ever have to deal with them. And that's just not right either. I don't have the answer for how to force men to take more responsibility for childbearing in general, I really don't, and that is frustrating. But allowing them abortion as yet another easy out where the woman has to go and do everything (and pay for it herself) makes me want to throw up. I can't help it. That's just the way I feel.

Go read this book. Really. However you think or feel on this subject. I would love to discuss it with someone. I would LOVE to know how this would go down in a library book group situation.

*"Prick move": A tactic or action which may be successful but is nevertheless underhanded; in other words, something a total prick would be really pleased with himself for thinking up. (A personal definition.)


Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies, by Hadley Freeman.

Well, thanks a lot, Hadley Freeman. Not only did I spend the time reading your book, but then I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole of "Say Anything" clips. My productivity this week is not high.

But you know what? Sometimes it's not about high productivity. Sometimes it's just about reading and enjoying a book, and if that book is about watching and enjoying eighties movies, well, then, so much the better. I very much enjoyed Freeman's book Life Moves Pretty Fast. Who should read this? Anyone who's ever enjoyed an eighties movie, for one thing, and that includes people who were too young to see eighties movies on their first pass around, and who instead found them on VHS, DVD, or on YouTube or any streaming service in any decade since. But you know who else should read this book? Anyone who would ever like to see a movie again that is NOT about superheroes or big explosions.

The most obvious and enjoyable part of Freeman's essays are her unabashed love for and knowledge of these movies; also very enjoyable are the "lessons" she draws from them. In her chapter on "Pretty in Pink" she suggests that she learned the lesson "awkward girls should never have makeovers." From "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" she learned about social class. From "Baby Boom" she picked up the fact that successful women are "sexy as hell." I loved reliving some of these movies through her eyes (and was completely pleased that she focused a lot of attention on "Baby Boom"--I saw that one with my mom when it first came out and we both enjoyed it, although I was a bit young for it, and now whenever I see it on TV I can't NOT watch it) and came away with a desire to watch them all again.

But the subtitle of the book is "(And Why We Don't Learn Them Anymore)," and that part of Freeman's thesis is not nearly as fun to read. To wit:

"So now studios will only back films that are easy to sell and will work around the world because this then guarantees they will make their money back. This also means that they want movies that appeal to as many demographics as possible, or 'quadrants,' as film marketing staff refer to people: men, women, old people, and young people. This is turn has led to the demise of traditional women's movies, because they wouldn't appeal to enough quadrants (according to a Hollywood theory that has been around only for the past thirty years, women will see movies starring men and women, but men will see only movies starring men). It also means that films become less interesting because whenever anyone says they want to make something appeal to everybody, they inevitably blandify it to such a degree that it is loved by nobody." (p. 13.)

God, we're in a sad state, aren't we?*

Anyway. It's a fun book. Read it. But be aware that after you're done you're going to have to drop everything and go watch a John Hughes movie or some early John Cusack. Don't say I didn't warn you.

*This wouldn't have been SO depressing, except I read almost exactly the same book this month in actor/director Jay Chandrasekhar's memoir Mustache Shenanigans: Making Super Troopers and Other Adventures in Comedy: "The idea factory that was the American film business from the seventies through the late nineties can't function if the expectations on each film are that it make $250 to $400 million or be judged a financial failure. Corporations bought film companies, in part, because they were 'fun investments.' But when corporations took control of the studios, they took all the fun out of them by forcing film presidents to hit incredibly high profit targets...So, my dear corpoations, make your grand-slam profits on some movies, and also on computers, phones, cars, and insurance. But get back to making the $30 to $50 million theatrical film that makes enough of a profit. Do that, and there will be a creative rebirth that will propel a whole new generation of maverick filmmakers." (pp. 282-283.)


A tale of two novels.

Swimming lessonsI got and read Claire Fuller's novel Swimming Lessons because somewhere I read that it was a good book about a marriage (or, as the jacket copy promises, it explores "the mysterious truths of a passionate and troubled marriage"). I have been burned by this interest before, but I almost always look at novels and nonfiction that are primarily about marriage.

And it was okay. I read the whole thing, and I wondered vaguely about the lives of the characters, but when I finished it I didn't have a real strong feeling about it one way or the other. At points I was unsure what had happened, or what the author meant by some things, and, as I told Mr. CR, "You know, in all of modern literary fiction lately I feel like I am just guessing at what happened or what the author meant." And I do not like that feeling. Sure, I'm a lazy reader, but sometimes I just like to feel like I get the whole story the author is telling.

I was almost off of novels for a while, but then I remembered that I had Jami Attenberg's new novel All Grown Up home from the library. I almost took it back sight unseen, but then I remembered my reading experience that had been her earlier novel, The Middlesteins. I read it during one of my non-blogging periods, but I should have written about it later: I loved it.

So I read the first fifty pages or so of All Grown Up, and I was confused a bit by who was talking and who the names at the heads of the chapters were referring to (see earlier: I am a lazy reader), and I thought, well, it's no The Middlesteins. But I felt I owed it to Jami Attenberg to stick with it.

All grown upAnd somewhere in the middle it did two things: First, it kicked me in the heart. Then, it made me do that thing I do where I don't really sob, but I pause from the text and I put my hand to my face and I look around a bit and I try not to cry.

Look, it's not a big profound novel about love.* It doesn't particularly reveal any truths, passionate or otherwise. But, goddamnit, do I love Jami Attenberg's characters. They're nothing like me, particularly her main female characters, and yet I LOVE them. I love their voices, which sometimes say such simple and heartbreaking things. Because you know what? Life is kind of heartbreaking in its simplicity. It is hard to get along with people. It is hard to care for people with sicknesses. It is hard to not know what you want and have weaknesses and it is very, very hard to get old. It is hard, in short, to be all grown up.

Just read it, okay? How can you not like a main character like Andrea Bern, who has a number of (arguably) unhealthy relationships with men, and yet can say things like this after a tryst with a lover:

"That was two years ago. I haven't seen Alex since, though sometimes we text, and once he asked me to send him a naked picture, and I laughed and laughed, so for that I thank him, because who doesn't need a good laugh? (p. 51.)

Because yes, that should be the response of all women when asked to send a man a naked picture. Laughter.

And here she is, conversing with her therapist:

"ME: My mother is leaving me and moving to New Hampshire.

THERAPIST: And how does that make you feel?

ME: It makes me feel like she doesn't love me.

THERAPIST: Hasn't she proved to you she loves you already?

ME: How?

THERAPIST: By caring for you, nurturing you, supporting you, raising you to be the person you are today.

ME: All of that comprises a rational argument but can I just ask you a question?

THERAPIST: Sure.

ME: Whose side are you on, anyway?" (p. 65.)

So: a tale of two novels. The first made me say "meh" and the second made me re-start it all over again when I had just finished it, and I NEVER do that. Go read something, anything, by Jami Attenberg. Okay? Okay.

*And it's not perfect, but mostly its flaws are tiny and forgivable. Its cover, though, which looks like Chick Lit Covers 101? I hate the cover.


Joan Didion's South and West.

Friends, I am in a bit of a MOOD.

Do you have times like that? My house is a mess and yet I'm not happy when I'm out of it; I feel overwhelmed by the very few adult responsibilities I have; I kind of wish I weren't feeling like a broken-down heap in my early 40s. I think Mr. CR sensed I'm very close to going off the rails last week when I went on a tirade about CRjr's swimming lessons. I don't swim, I hate pools, I'm annoyed at the pool where we go because they can't decide when they open or when you should be there to get in line to sign up for lessons. Or, as I said to Mr. CR: "Jesus God, if we spent half as much time in this country teaching everyone a second language, as we do teaching them to swim, we'd all be bilingual by now."*

Mr. CR is a smart person and did the nonverbal equivalent of "Yes, dear," and then got the hell out of the room.

South and westSo. Where was I? Oh yes, Joan Didion's new collection of notes (it's literally subtitled "From a Notebook"): South and West. Well, of course I read the whole thing, even though I can't finish anything lately. I finished it because it's short and I love Didion and even Didion not at her best (which she is not here; they're just notes, although Didion's notes are like a million times better than most people's finished product) is always a very intense reading experience for me. These two pieces, on the American South and West, were written in 1970 (for the South) and 1976 (for the West, or, more specifically, during the Patty Hearst trial in California).

You really just have to read the whole thing to get the flavor of it, particularly if you are at all interested in the American South. But here's one of my very favorite tidbits, it just seems so quintessentially Didion:

"NOTE: On being asked for identification when I ordered a drink in the rural South. Before I came south I had not been taken for seventeen in considerable years, but several times in that month I had to prove I was eighteen. It is assumed that grown women will have their hair done, is all I could think." (p. 61.)

I just love that. It made me remember a trip I took to Houston when I was blown away by the hair, make-up, and clothing (all very carefully done for maximum effect) of all the women there.

This isn't really specific to this collection, but my favorite thing about Didion is how she gives you what seems like a lot of personal information and a lot of glimpses into her psyche, and yet you still come away feeling like you don't really know Joan Didion at all. She can surprise you. This is one of my very favorite aspects of my closest interpersonal relationships: when people I know really well surprise me. (And it's not always with good surprises.) But still. I find it oddly thrilling to be surprised. I'm explaining it poorly, but gosh, Joan Didion is interesting. I don't ever have any idea what is going on in her head but I always, ALWAYS want to hear about it. Right down to her pictures: why is the author picture on the back of this book, for instance, of her and her daughter Quintana, when Quintana was only a small girl? Why put that picture here?

See? Interesting.

*Come on. Does the majority of the population ever go swimming again, once they're out of high school? No they don't--until they have to take their kids to water parks and lessons. So then they do that, and after that they never get in the pool again. It's a totally silly system. See? This is the MOOD I'm in.


God, how I do love Jessa Crispin.

I get the distinct feeling that, on many points, I am Jessa Crispin's polar opposite. She is a successful, intellectual author who ran an internationally renowned literary blog, she travels widely, she worked for Planned Parenthood and is vocally pro-choice. I am not successful, not intellectual, I largely stay put, I am living in what most people would term the most traditional and regressive of personal situations (married with children in the suburbs), and I am anti-abortion.

Why i am not a feministBut, I gotta tell you this, and I mean it: I love Jessa Crispin from the bottom of my soul. I just read her new book Why I Am Not a Feminist. It's a great read. Crispin is so smart and such a tidy nonfiction writer that she can showcase her well-read understanding of her subject matter without making you feel like an idiot. That's not easy to do. Rather than name-dropping to scare you with what she knows, or to spin ever more detailed theses, she presents just enough of others' thoughts and works to make YOU want to go read them. (And then she gives you a handy one-page bibliography at the end, no titles, no pub data, just names of authors you should read.) This is also not easy. Her crisp prose, on the other hand, is so easy to read that her chapters are over before you know it. And yet it is filled with such heat that it makes you not want to stop reading chapters until you're all done with the book.

Here's the opening salvo:

"Somewhere along the way toward female liberation, it was decided that the most effective method was for feminism to become universal. But instead of shaping a world and a philosophy that would become attractive to the masses, a world based on fairness and community and exchange, it was feminism itself that would have to be rebranded and remarketed for contemporary men and women.

They forgot that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible. Hence the pose. People don't like change, and so feminism must be as close to the status quo--with minor modifications--in order to recruit large numbers.

In other words, it has to become entirely pointless." (p. x-xi.)

Reviews of this book have been mixed. I'm going to tell you to read it. If nothing else, because I know that Crispin is out there living the life she advocates in her nonfiction. I love her the way I love Stacy Horn: both of these women take their work seriously. It is not making them rich.* It is not making their books Oprah books. They are both just extremely talented and hard-working writers. Horn puts a lot of effort into her fact-checking (and sometimes seems to be the last nonfiction author out there who does) and Crispin doesn't say anything that you want to hear just to make you like her.

So, no: we do not always share the same opinions. But I love her because she seems willing to say some things that no one wants to hear: she particularly makes the point that it does not make a woman a feminist just to become rich and successful in our current system. She makes the further point that a lot of times people who are successful at getting ahead in someone else's system are then very good at turning around and oppressing other people. Which is not really the point. Or shouldn't be. Or, as she says, much more eloquently:

"And trust me: people will hate you if you choose freedom over money, if you decide to live a life by your values of compassion, honesty, and integrity. Because you will remind them of their own deficiencies in these areas.

It's lonely outside the system. But we need you out here." (p. 64.)

I'm always a fan of someone saying something that will not make them rich. Read this book.** Or, if you don't have time, check out this interview. Also? Go buy and read some Stacy Horn books, please. Let's start by making some authors arguably not inside the James-Pattersonesque juggernaut system of publishing a little bit more well-off.

*I am particularly touched that Crispin once noted that one of the few ways to make blogging pay was to be an Amazon associate, and she didn't care much for that.

**Back when I wasn't blogging for a while I also read Crispin's travelogue The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries. I'm sorry I never wrote about it here. There was a lot to think about in that book too, and at least one line/thought that will stay with me for a long time.


Kate Hennessy's Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty.

A week or so before Ash Wednesday I brought home the book Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty. I thought I would go all out this year for Lent and read this book during the weeks before Easter.*

Turns out that I started it on Fat Tuesday and finished it on Ash Wednesday.

Dorothy dayIt's a fascinating book, written by the youngest grandchild of Catholic activist Dorothy Day. It is a mix of biography (about Day, and also about Day's only daughter, Tamar), history (of Depression-era America and the Catholic Worker), and memoir (the author seeking to understand her relationship with her own mother, but even more importantly, the relationship between Dorothy and her daughter Tamar).

And really, could she have had a richer subject to explore than Dorothy Day, activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper and movement? The stories of Dorothy's early life alone were worth the read:

"Dorothy was not a timid person. One night while working on the Call, she had forgotten her house key, and unwilling to wake the family, she visited police stations trying to find a women's lockup where she could spend the night. Failing that, she took a taxi to find friends and ended up being attacked by the taxi driver in a Jewish cemetery in Yonkers. She fought back, biting him until he bled, and then she demanded he drive her to the train station, which he did while cursing her until she got him to shut up by lecturing him all the way there. But the Night of Terror crushed Dorothy...

Eight of the women who were most brutally treated, including Dorothy, sued the superintendent of prisons for eight hundred thousand dollars in damages. They withdrew the suit in 1920 when wardens of both the DC jail and Occoquan were fired, and when women finally succeeded in getting the vote, a law that Dorothy, in her disinterest in politics and belief that change was more effectively brought about in other ways, would never take advantage of." (pp. 12-13.)

Those paragraphs were about Dorothy's experience picketing in support of the right to vote for women. She went because a friend asked her and because she was kind of a born protestor, even though Hennessy points out at the end that voting wasn't really a hot-button issue for her. I chose those paragraphs because there's so much there I can't believe: She fought off her attacker? And then MADE HIM DRIVE HER BACK TO THE TRAIN STATION? And she was involved in a protest and arrest that was noted for its barbarity? And still went on to live a life where she kept putting herself in dangerous neighborhoods? What a woman.

This book was a very personal story. I thought it was really beautiful, although much of it was very sad (Dorothy's relationship with Forster Batterham, Tamar's father, was a difficult one, and Tamar's relationship with her husband, David Hennessy, and the hardships of raising nine children "on the land" are also tough subjects to see described in clear-eyed prose). But still, very beautiful:

"And isn't this my history also? One of the elements of what makes a person extraordinary, I have come to believe, is when their inner and outer lives are in accord. When what they do in the world is what their innermost being leads them to do. This is why the history of the Catholic Worker is the history of my mother, the history of the relationship between my mother and grandmother, and the history of my family." (p. x.)

I am not doing this book justice. To read about this variety of people (some of the people who came to the Catholic Worker and just stayed and lived and worked there the rest of their lives--those are fascinating stories too) and the lives of work and service and intellectualism and challenging personal relationships they all lived--it was really something. Give it a read, even if you won't have time during Lent.

*As a kid I gave up chocolate. For the whole 40 days. I could never do it now. I'm pathetic.


David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

I read a lot of True Crime books, and I've tried to research True Crime classics, so how on earth did I miss David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets?

Simon is perhaps best known for being the creator, head writer, and show runner for the TV show "The Wire"* (or, before that, the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Street"), but before he took on TV, he was a journalist working at The Baltimore Sun. While there he got the idea to shadow several homicide detectives on the Baltimore police force, and after a year of doing that he published this book.

HomicideAnd it's a really, REALLY good book. I had difficulty putting it down (the younger CRjr was not best pleased that I was reading it at breakfast, until I went and got him his own book to look at while he ate his Cheerios--I know, I know, I'm a terrible mother, but I'm going to call that our "modeling the enjoyment of reading" for the day) even though it was not a lighthearted read. Mr. CR was also not best pleased because I simply had to tell him some of the stories in this book--and they were not cheery stories. There is something about what I think of as the "cop sense of humor" (read: DARK) that I really, really enjoy. Like how the detectives in this book called a riot and round of looting that took place in Baltimore during the winter of 1979 simply "the Winter Olympics."

I'm sorry. That's funny.**

But most of this book is NOT funny. And years before there was as much conversation about race and community policing as there is now (the book was published in 1991), the reader can quite clearly see where some issues between the police and the policed are going to come to a head.

Simon does a good job of introducing his characters, primarily homicide detectives and their many bosses, and he does a very good job of describing their investigative techniques and the heartbreaking details of the cases involved (including the rape/murder of an 11-year-old girl, as well as numerous shootings, knifings, a prison riot, and any number of other tragedies). But the structure of the book is what's really something to behold; Simon relates what he saw in a linear fashion throughout each chapter, but each chapter/month of the year also showcases a broader theme. How a case can get away from you and go cold, even if it's a high-priority case. Interrogation techniques. Investigating when cops are shot and when cops engage in "bad shoots." What happens at the morgue. How the legal system works. If you forget the details involved, this is really quite a stunning work of nonfiction reportage and writing. And that is rare. Many journalists tell fascinating stories well; many nonfiction authors put their larger narratives together beautifully. David Simon does both things at once.

It's not a happy read. But it is a fascinating one; I think it'll end up being one of the best books I read this year. (Although I'd like to do you this favor: if you do read this book, and you should, just skip pages 547-548, or the first few pages of the section headed Thursday, December 15. It is very, very hard to read, and you don't actually need to read the details there to understand the bigger narrative.)

*Actually, I've always kind of wanted to see "The Wire," but this trailer makes me feel like I don't want to. After reading this book, I don't think I'm in the mood to see these stories "dramatized," complete with soundtrack. The trailer makes me feel a little dirty, like the drug war and cop investigations are being played for my entertainment. Hmm.

**This is my other favorite story--on one case the main suspect actually called in and confessed, and one of the detectives thought another detective was playing a joke on him:

"'This is James Baskerville. I'm calling to surrender to you for killing Lucille.'

'Goddammit Constantine, you bald-headed motherfucker, I'm up here trying to do a crime scene and all you can find to do is fuck with me. Either come up here and help or--'

Click. Mark Tomlin listens to a dead phone line for a moment, then turns to a family member. 'What did you say was the name of Lucille's boyfriend?'

'Baskerville. James Baskerville.'

When the second call comes, Tomlin catches it on the first ring. 'Mr. Baskerville, listen, I'm real sorry about that. I thought you were someone else...Where are you now?'

Later that night, in the large interrogation room, James Baskerville--who would later agree to life plus twenty years at his arraignment--offers no excuses and readily initials each page of his statement of confession. 'I've committed a serious crime and I should be punished,' he says.

'Mr. Baskerville,' asks Tomlin, 'are there any more like you at home?'" (p. 164.)


Love a good quick nonfiction graphic novel read: Andy Warner's Brief Histories of Everyday Objects.

Every now and then I like to read a good graphic novel (fiction or non, I'm open on graphic novels, for the most part) and Andy Warner's stupendously entertaining Brief Histories of Everyday Objects did not disappoint.

Brief historiesI found this title on some booklist of nonfiction graphic novels that I linked to in a weekly Citizen Reading post a few weeks or months back, leading me to once again say, YAY book lists. You gotta love a good book list, particularly one that is outside your normal reading interests or comfort zone.

In this lighthearted history Warner examines (very briefly, in just a few cartoon panels per story) the histories of some objects that we basically could no longer imagine living without: toothbrushes, kitty litter, silk, tupperware, traffic lights, beer cans, kites, and coffee beans (among many others). The drawings are clean and easy to follow (sometimes I'm too lazy to follow graphic novel layouts when they're too dense or complicated; I remain a word girl, not a picture girl, at heart) and the facts are fun, interesting, and very succinctly written. Also, at the end of each short history, Warner throws in a few panels of "Briefer Histories," with all the tidbits of research he couldn't really fit in anywhere else, like "Ingredients in ancient toothpaste included ox hooves, eggshells, oyster shells, and charcoal. Minty fresh!" (p. 5.)

I also really enjoyed running gags throughout the stories, such as when multiple visionaries/inventors failed to cash in on their inventions. In the first such instance, a briefer history discusses how "Walter Hunt's grave in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery sits in the shadow of the monument of Elias Howe, who got rich manufacturing Hunt's unpatented sewing machine." (With a picture of Hunt saying, "Rub it in, why don't you?") (p. 47.) And by the end of the book Walter Hunt and a bunch of other poor visionaries are grouped together, saying "We've decided to move in together to save on rent." (p. 177.) I'm describing it badly, but it's funny stuff.

In other news, this book has a wonderful bibliography, including many popular micro-histories, and Mr. CR gave it the highest praise he can give a nonfiction book: "Hey, that book you've got in the bathroom right now is pretty good."


More reading about TV: The Platinum Age of Television and The Daily Show (The Book).

Yup, I've decided that watching too much TV is not enough of a time suck for me, I'm also going to read books about TV. Or, I should say, MORE books about TV.

Platinum age of televisionFirst up today is a book I really, really loved: David Bianculli's The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific. I read this sucker from cover to cover and now I want to just completely throw in the towel, stop going outside, and just watch TV all the time. Bianculli, a longtime TV critic for NPR's Fresh Air, clearly knows his stuff (he's been writing TV criticism since 1975) and organizes his book into genre-ready sections, from soap operas and crime to family sitcoms and workplace sitcoms to animation and spies. Each section includes 3-8 page (or so) descriptions of five or so seminal programs in each genre (ostensibly charting the "evolution" of each genre, but I didn't read the segments in order, so that was lost on me), and the sections are written to be both informative and enticing. I've tried to write both literary and TV criticism, and trust me, it's hard to write program and book summaries that give you a flavor of the piece AND make you want to see or read it, all while trying not to give too much away. Take, for instance, "The Wire," which I have thought about watching, but never quite got around to. But now I think I might have to make time:

"The first season of 'The Wire' seemed to be a straightforward police investigation into drugs, a longer version of the sort of case [David] Simon might have dramatized on NBC's 'Homicide: Life on the Street,' the series that pulled the former Baltimore police reporter into the orbit of television production. But as the season went on, we learned at least as much about the drug kingpins and street hustlers as we did about the cops. We got to know the detectives all right, especially Dominic West's Jimmy McNulty and Wendell Pierce's Bunk Moreland. But we also got to know, quite well, the drug kingpin Stringer Bell (played by Idris Elba), the street-level drug dealer Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), and the opportunistic street thief Omar Little (Michael K. Williams). Breaks in the case were made methodically and slowly, and given the bureaucracy and obstacles in place, the odds were against them making much of a dent at all." (p. 456.)

He also includes interviews with a lot of TV's big names (Matt Groening, Carol Burnett, Vince Gilligan, Louis C.K., Carl Reiner...they're all listed on the back) and a short history/description of each drama. Although Kirkus Reviews disagreed with me, I thought this was a highly readable book, and I was glad that a critic dispensed with the nonsense of rating programs by stars, numbers, or even by ranking them. I did, however, think this book had a terrible title: the "platinum age" bit and the long subtitle made it sound more dry and academic than it actually was. Give this one a read if you're interested in the writers and creators of some great TV, not to mention the TV programs themselves.

Daily showMy second TV read this month was The Daily Show (The Book), but I didn't enjoy that one nearly as much. It's a straight-up oral history, and there was very little context given for the conversations quoted. Plus, it was just more than I really needed to know about "The Daily Show." I only got to watch it online periodically when Jon Stewart was in charge (and I really miss that version, I'll admit) and I haven't seen it at all since Trevor Noah took over. This just wasn't the right book for me right now. Here's an example of how it just jumped right in, on the opening pages:

"JON STEWART, The Daily Show host, 1999-2015

At the time, I was obviously making my mark in such films as "Wishful Thinking" and "Dancing with Architecture" or "Dancing about"...Oh, no. They ended up calling it something else. "Playing by Heart," I think it was.

JAMES DIXON, manager for Jon Stewart, 1987-

After The Jon Stewart Show was canceled by Paramount, he was...not burnt on being on TV, but he wanted to kind of wet his feet with film. We had this nice deal with Harvey Weinstein, and Jon was down in Tribeca and he's getting to kiss Angelina Jolie in films."

Then there was another paragraph from Jon, about then working on "The Larry Sanders Show," and then the next speaker is Judd Apatow*:

"JUDD APATOW, standup comic, writer, director

Garry [Shandling] had the foresight to write about the talk show wars and this very subtle aspect of it, which is, you support a young comedian and slowly the network likes him more than it likes you, and then that younger guy, in ways that he understands and might not understand, slowly pushes you out of your job. Similar to what really happened with [Jay] Leno and Conan [O'Brien] and [Jimmy] Fallon. So there was a moment when Garry was considering continuing The Larry Sanders Show, and changing the name of it to The John Stewart Show, with an H so it wouldn't really be Jon. Everyone was excited about it for a while, but it went away." (pp. 1-2.)

The whole book was like that. It was ordered chronologically to cover the beginning of the show through Jon Stewart's retirement, but it was just too frenetic, with random people popping up throughout. I like oral histories, but I like them with a bit more organization and contextual information throughout. I basically skim-read this one, jumped about a bit, and then called it a day.

Two very different reads, and unless you're a hardcore (and I do mean hardcore) "The Daily Show" fan, I'd go with the Bianculli. Enjoy the rest of your week, all. I'm off to watch some TV.

*Yeah, it did not help this book's case that one of its first speakers was Judd Apatow. I am no Judd Apatow fan. I mean, yeah, Judd, sometimes your movies are funny and you know enough to keep casting Paul Rudd, but jeez, keep them to ninety minutes, would you? None of them are all that complicated plot-wise. Thanks much.


Victoria the Queen.

I really loved the historical biography Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire, by Julia Baird.

Victoria the queenIt was the perfect mix of detail and good writing, and Baird did a nice job of touching upon all aspects of Queen Victoria's life, including her relationships with the many Prime Ministers she worked with over her long life; her relationships with Albert, her husband, and their nine children; and her ruling style, opinions, and personal traits. Baird also does a nice job of placing Victoria's reign and Great Britain's influence in the nineteenth century in the broader context of world events. And she does it all in...let me look it up...752 pages?!?

Holy cow. This book read so fast that I really thought it was a lot shorter than that. Rest assured: a good chunk of that total is index and endnotes. And there's a lot of pictures spread through the book too. It was a great read; if you're at all interested in British history you should pick it up. (Particularly if you're watching the period drama Victoria on PBS that's running right now; if you read this, you can feel superior about all the historical details with which the BBC/PBS is playing a little fast and loose).

Just to give you a taste of the text, and for Victoria herself:

"What is most striking about Victoria is that apart from wanting to be taller and thinner, she cared little about her appearance. She knew she was  no beauty and did not dwell on it. She joked about her looks with her half sister, writing that she was 'very happy to hear that the portrait of my ugly face pleased you.' Yet she genuinely took pleasure from the aesthetic appearance of others--both male and female. Her second cousin Charles, the Duke of Brunswick, particularly fascinated her, with his dark mustache and the fur-trimmed coat he wore riding. She greatly admired the way he did his hair, which hung 'wildly about his face.'" p. 43.


Frank: The Voice, and Sinatra: The Chairman--My first big reading experience of 2017.

My reading year 2017 started off with an intense biography experience.

It should also be noted that my first worthwhile reading experience of 2017 actually started in 2016. For some time I had been aware of James Kaplan's definitive two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, but hadn't yet had the time to tackle either or both books. However, every year we go to my in-laws' house sometime during the Christmas holiday and stay an overnight, and I can never sleep at my in-laws'. They're lovely people, they always welcome us, we get our own room with the boys, and in general it's a pleasant experience. It never matters. Usually I drop off around 4 a.m. and wake up again at 7 a.m. when the boys start stirring. So in recent holidays I have wised up and started taking along books that I know will either require some time or which I anticipate to be lovely reading experiences that I want to savor.* When you're up reading at 2 a.m, wherever you are, you generally are in search of something engrossing, I find. So this year I thought: I'm going to take the first volume in the Sinatra series, Frank: The Voice!

Frank the voiceAnd it was a good choice. Clocking in at 718 pages, this was definitely one that was going to take some time. I started it a bit before Christmas, read a huge chunk of it on Christmas night from midnight to 4 a.m., and then finished it up during the week after New Year's Day. I could put it down, because sometimes when you're dealing with a big brick of a biography like that, you have to put it down, but I was also dedicated to picking it back up and finishing it.

Regardless of how you feel about Sinatra, I must say that there have probably been few entertainers who merit a biography to the tune of 1500 combined pages (which this volume, along with Kaplan's sequel, Sinatra: The Chairman, totals), and Frank Sinatra is totally one of them. In addition to the unbelievable and dominating musical career, you have several other aspects to consider: his personal life, which was complex and filled with first a domineering mother, and then a variety of wives and paramours; his acting career, which included an Oscar-winning performance in the critically acclaimed and popular film "From Here to Eternity," as well as other star turns in "The Man with the Golden Arm," "Pal Joey," and "The Manchurian Candidate"; his business and singing career in Las Vegas; his long-standing associations with mobsters and Mafia connections; and his political work and friendships.** It should come as no surprise that the guy hardly ever slept and, by all accounts, had to keep moving at all times.

Perhaps my favorite part of this first biography was all the discussion surrounding Frank's very challenging rise to stardom, and, later on, the details about the arranging and recording of many of his biggest hits.*** Kaplan also has a fairly lively writing style. I don't know that this will appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed it and thought it suited his subject matter. Consider this sample, in which Frank first performed an arrangement of the song "I've Got the World on a String" by Nelson Riddle, with whom he'd never worked:

"From the moment the nervous-faced guy on the podium signaled the downbeat, Frank knew something was up. Stoller clashed a pair of cymbals; the horns swirled a downward-spiraling cadenza; and then the second Frank sang, 'got the string around my fin-ger,' the brass kicked--BANG!--and the band was cooking. Frank was smiling as he sang, as the seventeen musicians swung along behind him--he even had a smile for the unsmiling guy on the stand, who was waving his arms for all he was worth.

It sure didn't sound like Billy [May] to Frank. It didn't sound like anybody. He loved it.

They did a take, and then another, got it just right. It was golden--but it wasn't Billy May. 'Who wrote that arrangement?' Frank asked Alan Dell.

'This guy,' Dell said, indicating Mr. Serious, who was distractedly leafing through pages of sheet music. 'Nelson Riddle.'

The name registered for the first time. Sinatra made a surprised face. 'Beautiful,' he said.

It was a serious compliment. Frank was generous with gifts and money but extremely stingy when it came to praise. If he said it, he meant it; if he didn't mean it, he didn't say anything.

He looked at Riddle and said it again. 'Beautiful.' And Mr. Serious managed a quick, almost undetectable smile: more like a wince, really." (pp. 615-616.)

I thoroughly enjoyed that. I could just picture the scene. And if you go listen to the song (DO IT) you can just hear the joy. Combine that with the fact that this scene took place at the beginning of his career comeback--perhaps the biggest and best comeback of all time--around 1953/54, after many very bad down years, well, then it takes on even more import. Imagine singing that song, like that, after living through several tough years. THAT is art.

Which is not to say that Sinatra was not a major asshole in many and various ways, all of which Kaplan details. I enjoyed Frank: The Voice so much that I went on to Sinatra: The Chairman, but I did not enjoy that as much, and actually skim-read most of the last 300 pages so I could get some closure. For one thing, I much preferred to read about Sinatra the hustler in his early career years, rather than reading about Sinatra the Rat Pack pig who turned misogyny into an art form in Vegas and beyond. But it was still a great reading experience, and sometime I might revisit it when I can give it more time. Next Christmas at the in-laws', perhaps.

A few technical notes: these biographies have pictures spread throughout the text, which I do not enjoy as much as dedicated picture sections, but which probably allowed them to fit more pictures in, so that was good. Also, these books are exhaustive: volume one covers the years from Sinatra's birth in 1915 through his Oscar win in 1953, while volume two largely covers 1954 to 1971 or so. The nearly twenty last years in Sinatra's life, and his fourth marriage, are dealt with in a less-than-40-page "Coda" at the end (and boy, is that a depressing 40 pages. Getting old, my friends, is not for pussies, even when you are Frank Sinatra).

*And yes, of course, I always take at least two books along so I have options. I'm already dragging an air mattress, pillows, all our clothes and a thermometer and kids' Tylenol (just in case, because I am nuts), so what's a couple more things to drag along?

**I didn't just learn about Frank Sinatra in these books. I can quite honestly say I never realized what a disgusting pig and prick John F. Kennedy was until reading about his dealings with Sinatra and Hollywood (namely: women in Hollywood). Gross.

***Also, please note: Ol' Blue Eyes couldn't read music. How crazy is that? He learned the songs by reading the lyrics and having the songs played to him once or twice.


I really need to stop reading books about women getting pregnant (or not).

I never really used to be interested in children, babies, or pregnancy in any way. I'm not a very girly girl, I'm only Earth Mothery in the sense that I'm too cheap and lazy to buy and use makeup (which is really not very Earth Mothery at all), and, frankly, I've hung out with a lot of guys in my life, and guys are emphatically not interested in those things either.

But since having the CRjrs I find I am just addicted to all things pregnancy and parenting. Weird. I also am finding it weird lately how very little actual pregnancy, childbirth, and child care is found in fiction. There's fiction about families, sure. Fiction about "women's issues." Relationship fiction. But more nitty-gritty narratives actually describing childbirth and its aftermath? (With the exception of Joanna Kavenna's excellent The Birth of Love and Elisa Albert's angry but also excellent After Birth.) Rare.* So of course I have turned to nonfiction on the subject.

Art of waitingOne book getting a lot of press this fall was Belle Boggs's The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood. I read it in fits and starts, and as seems to be happening with a lot of my reading lately, I can't recall many specifics about it. Taken as a whole, I certainly wouldn't say it was one of my favorite books of the year, but on the other hand, I did finish it, and that says something. (It is my reading habit just to scatter-shot consider a lot of books. For every book I finish, I'd estimate that I start and discard about five others.) One aspect of the book that actually slowed me down was the fact that the author writes in a style I think of as "literary":

"It's spring when I realize that I may never have children, and around that time the thirteen-year cicadas return, tunneling out of neat, round holes in the ground to shed their larval shells, sprout wings, and fly to the treetops, filling the air with the sound of their singular purpose: reproduction. In the woods where I live, an area mostly protected from habitat destruction, the males' mating song, a vibrating, whooshing, endless hum, a sound at once faraway and up close, makes me feel as though I am living inside a seashell." (p. 3.)

It's not overly fancy, but it's just got a tone, you know? And in the rest of her introduction she proceeds to talk about the journals at her reproductive endocrinologist's office (including a scholarly one focusing on the fertility of monkeys), the North Carolina Zoo where a female gorilla is experiencing a miracle pregnancy, and more about nature in the form of cicadas and marmosets. Somewhere along the way she neglects to mention many of the actual details of going to the reproductive endocrinologist, which is actually what I'm more interested in.

However, there are enough moments to keep you going. I thought this observation was interesting:

"I'm always surprised when my students, boys and girls alike, from kindergarteners to high school seniors, talk about the children they will have someday. 'My kids won't act like that,' they say, eyeing an unruly class on a field trip. Or, worriedly, 'I bet I'll have all boys. What will I do with all boys?' It seems far more common for them to imagine the children they might have than they jobs they might do or the places they might live." (p. 12.)

That's a nice detail, told well. But overall it reads like what it is: a collection of essays, several of which were previously published elsewhere, rather than a cohesive whole.

AvalancheAustralian novelist Julia Leigh's memoir Avalanche: A Love Story, on the other hand? This book is like a scream. A long and anguished and personal scream packed in an amazingly compact narrative. I liked it a lot. (And, p.s., look at that cover. Wow.) This is how it opens:

"For a great many nights I injected myself with an artificial hormone produced in a line of genetically modified Chinese hamster ovary cells. I did this knowing that no matter how hard I hoped, no matter what I tried, chances were I'd never have a child." (p. 7.)

In 133 succinct pages, Leigh explores her relationship with her husband Paul (with whom she fell in love as a young woman, but didn't marry until she was in her later 30s; in the intervening years, he had married, had a child with, and divorced someone else), their attempts to use IUI and IVF to conceive using his sperm and her eggs; the disintegration of their relationship; her attempts to get pregnant using a friend's donor sperm; and her growing acceptance that no matter how much she wants it, biological motherhood might not be in her future. She spares no details, which I found very sad, but also very satisfying. Thank you, Julia Leigh, for just spelling it out: the procedures, the odds, the horrible circular questions-and-answers with doctors ("So you're giving me strong advice? Nothing wishy-washy? A: I can only advise you. It's up to you to do what you want. JL: But I have no medical experience.")

But most of all I thank Julia Leigh because she's saying out loud all the things I hear the voice in my head saying:

"I became very interested in what age a woman had her first child. Just as I used to try to figure out when an author had published their first novel, now I sought to compare myself with new mothers. The point of comparison was not to do better but to get a feel for the lay of the land. To gauge what was not impossible. Again, the persuasive illogic: if she could do it at age 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, then so could I." (p. 27.)

I can't tell you how much time I have spent on the Internet just offhandedly looking up when celebrities had their babies. Savannah Guthrie, anyone?

So. I don't know if you're interested in these topics at all. Even if you're not, I'd say DO read the Julia Leigh. It won't take you long and a woman this honest deserves for someone to read her book. Hopefully lots of someones.

*Masturbation, on the other hand? I've largely had to stop reading literary fiction by guys because I've just read enough about masturbation now.


Really, doctors? Luke Dittrich's "Patient H.M."

Everything I read about Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets indicated it would be a good read. And you know what? It was.

Patient hmOf course, "good" is a relative term here. The story centers on one lobotomy, performed on one man, but the author does a good job of combining the many story points: the story of "H.M."'s brain injury, seizures, and eventual treatment by lobotomy (which made him into one of the most studied psychological subjects of all time, as his lobotomy affected his memory, and how we store and process memories is a ridiculously complex process to try and understand); the history of the lobotomy procedure in general; the biography of William Scofield, a pioneering neurosurgeon; and the author's family, including his grandmother, married to his grandfather (that same William Scofield), who suffered her own mental hospitalization and horrific mid-twentieth-century treatments. Dittrich also delves into the horrifying treatment of psychological subjects like Henry Molaison, and the possessiveness of one scientist he made famous, Suzanne Corkin, and her destruction of many of the files (the raw experimental data). This last part of the book has led to some controversy; MIT, where Corkin worked, has since questioned Dittrich's facts and reporting.

So it's an interesting book on a lot of different levels. I enjoyed the good journalistic writing, although I felt the organization lacked a little something, and the book sometimes bounced around a bit too much in time and subject for me. It wasn't poorly done--this is clearly a well-researched and documented (Dittrich, in his response to MIT's questions, even provides an audio clip of one of his interviews with Suzanne Corkin) labor of love. It just means you have to pay a bit of attention to it while you read it.

But I can find no faults with the prose. This is Dittrich's re-creation of his grandmother's state of mind before she became a patient of a mental hospital and her own husband:

"There were people in the cellar. My grandmother could hear them. She had thought she was alone in the house, except for her children, who were asleep in their bedrooms. Now it appeared she was wrong. The children were asleep and my grandmother was not and she could hear people in the cellar.

She was terrified.

It was late January 1944, in a comfortable single-family home on Frankland Street in Walla Walla, Washington. My grandfather, as usual, was at work, this time on an overnight shift at the U.S. Army's McCaw General Hospital, where he served as chief of neurosurgery. Just the day before, he had come back from a weeklong conference in Spokane. They had been married for ten years, and it had always been like that, his career constantly pulling him away." (p. 51.)

The medical descriptions of brain surgery and lobotomy are also compelling:

"Without him having to ask for it, the scrub nurse passed my grandfather a long, thin tool called a flat brain sptaula, reminiscent of a shoehorn, which he inserted carefully into the hole in the right side of Copasso's forehead. He levered up that hemisphere of her frontal lobes and peered inside. He was looking for the nueral fibers connecting the lower, orbital portions of the grontal lobes to some of the deeper structures in the brain. Once he spotted his targets, he inserted another tool, a suction catheter--a very small, slender, electric-powered vacuum--and sucked the fibers out. The he retracted the sptual and the catheter and moved to the other hole." (pp. 147-148.)

I'd like to say I read a lot of this book in a state of disbelief, but I know enough about the history of lobotomies and the ridiculous shit that doctors will try, that I didn't. It was completely believable, sadly. And even once you got past all the lobotomy stuff, the experiments H.M. (an individual named Henry Molaison) had to endure, the author's personal history, well, then there was still all the stuff about the ethical treatment (or lack thereof) of patients like Molaison, and the power squibbles and squabbles that go on between medical personnel, academics, and researchers.

I don't think this book will be the huge hit that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was, simply because it is more complex, and not quite as immediately personal (if that makes any sense). Skloot's book was a bit more of a page-turner, told with more righteous indignation. But I think Dittrich's book is even more chilling in its excision of all the layers of the story. One thing I do think this book should be used for is to discuss how "nonfiction" rests so much on personal accounts and personal storytelling, that it is almost impossible to announce what is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.


Diana Athill's Alive, Alive Oh!

You know, I really like Diana Athill.

AliveOr, I should say, I like Diana Athill on the page. I rather suspect we would not have a good rapport in person. Athill seems like a real "lust for life" personality (which is lucky, as she is currently in her 90s), whereas I am decidedly not a lust for life person. I am grateful for my life and I really enjoy my life, but anyone watching my daily routine, I don't think, would say I have a real "lust" for living.

But there is something inspiring about Athill's enthusiasm for life and all its experiences. In this slim collection, Alive, Alive Oh!, she has put together a few more essays, following up her earlier memoirs/essay collections Stet, Instead of a Letter, and Somewhere Towards the End (as well as several other NF books and novels). One of the most interest to me in this book was the one from which the book took its title, "Alive, Alive Oh!":

"In my early forties I thought of myself as a rational woman, but while I could sleep alone in an empty house for night after night without worrying, there were other nights when my nerves twitched like a rabbit's at the least sound, regardless of what I had been reading or talking about. On the many good nights and the few bad the chances of a burglar breaking in were exactly the same: the difference was within myself and signified nothing which I could identify. And I had always been like that over the possibility of pregnancy." (p. 63.)

She goes on to describe becoming pregnant at age 43, by a man who was her lover but who was married to someone else and was nine years her junior. She also describes being pregnant two times previously, and how she had "overruled" what might have been any subconscious desire of her body by having abortions:

"I had overruled it twice before and had felt no ill effects. 'All right, so you want a baby. Who doesn't? But as things are you can't have one--I'm sorry but there it is, too bad for you.' Neither time had it put up any fight. It had accepted its frustration placidly--and placidly it had resumed its scheming." (p. 65.)*

But, at 43, she decides to have the baby and is happy with her decision (and you have to read this essay just to see how her boss, Andre Deutsch, responds to news of her pregnancy, and what it might mean for her work in their publishing firm. It's enough to make you love all mankind, or just Deutsch specifically), and her description of her early pregnancy is one of the most interesting (and happiest) I've read:

"Those weeks of April and May were the only ones in my life when spring was wholly, fully beautiful. All other springs carried with them regret at their passing. If I thought, 'Today the white double cherries are at their most perfect,' it summoned up the simultaneous awareness: 'Tomorrow the edges of their petals will begin to turn brown.' This time a particularly ebullient, sun-drenched spring simply existed for me. It was as though, instead of being a stationary object past which a current was flowing, I was flowing with it, in it, at the same rate. It was a happiness new to me, but it felt very ancient, and complete." (p. 76-77.)

If you are familiar with Athill's life and works you probably know how this story turned out; if not, you will simply have to read the book. I may not always agree with or even particularly like her, but she has a beautiful way with words and I always find her interesting. Also of particular note in this collection is an essay about how she chose to move to a slightly nicer and more independent version of what must be a British nursing home; once again her continuing interest in life and her pragmatism to get what she can out of every experience (even at age 98!) is truly something to behold. Alive, alive, oh! Indeed.

*This is one issue on which Athill and I would disagree. I continue to be anti-abortion and find her to be rather too coldly practical on this issue for me.