Making Sense

Two non-starters.

This past week I looked at two books that had great titles, but after I started them, I almost immediately realized they were not what I am in the mood for this week.*

Weinstein The first was Arnold Weinstein's Morning, Noon, and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life's Stages Through Books, a scholarly book with different sections on different periods in a person's life, and the literature he has found that sums up the human condition at those various times in our lives. It's not a bad idea, but after I nearly fell asleep reading the following paragraph (in the introduction, mind you) I knew I'd be taking this book back to the library unread.

"And, of course, that is what I am arguing in this book: that literature shows us who we are; it never stops doing this. I've posited this view before, but never with quite the personal conviction that you'll see in the pages aghead. This (very likely valedictory) book also constitutes something of a conclusion to my career. The ground I cover--from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Art Spiegelman and Jonathan Safran Foer--represents pretty much a roll call of the works of literature I've dealt with over a lifetime, but I now undersand that they illuminate my own lifetime. And the personal voice I've allowed myself throughout this book is a voice that finds both its matter and its manner, its substance and its timbre, in the books I love." (p. xiv.)

Blah, blah. A lot of the authors he cites are not ones that do anything for me, either, including William Faulkner and Jonathan Safran Foer (one of my all-time least favorites, as a matter of fact).

Love The other book was titled All about Love: Anatomy of an Unruly Emotion, and it's by Lisa Appignanesi. I didn't get far enough in it to do it much justice in a summary, but I think the author considers different types of love--new crushes, lust, friendship, familial love, etc.--and describes how all of those types have been described in literature, pop culture, and other references, as well as how she's experienced it in her own life. It was all right, but it wasn't doing a whole lot for me either, and its due date was rapidly approaching, so I just took it back. Very disappointing--I kind of had high hopes for both these titles. Perhaps they were both just too philosophical for me for summer/autumn reading.

*I'm not sure what I am in the mood for this week. I've been doing the crosswords in my New York magazine, and bouncing back and forth between a William Langewiesche title and a science fiction novel.


Why are books on reading always so boring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dark reading in the dark hours.

One of the books I looked at this past week while up at 4 a.m. was Jessica Stern's Denial: A Memoir of Terror. I forgot where I first read about it, but it sounded interesting to me: in it, Stern recounts how, in 1973, a stranger entered her house with a gun and raped her and her sister (at ages fifteen and fourteen, respectively) and how that experience shaped her. Eventually she became an expert on terrorism and post-traumatic stress disorder, even while the crime from which she suffered went unsolved and she continued to try and deny its effects on her life.

Denial I know: Yuck. I was a bit worried about myself when I read that description and wanted to read this book--who voluntarily picks up a book on this subject? Well, me, I guess. I was particularly intrigued by a sentence of the jacket copy: "After her ordeal she could not feel fear in normally frightening situations."

And the book is really good. Stern's account of the rape is told as she looks back over the original police report that was filed, complete with the notes she made for herself to try and tell the police the complete story; it's not really graphic, but it is horrifying all the same. And it's even more horrifying that the police at the time didn't knock themselves out trying to solve the case, as they believed the sisters were lying about not knowing their assailant--and their rapist most likely went on to commit other crimes.

I knew I was going to like it from the first, thoughtful paragraph: "I know that I was raped. But here is the odd thing. If my sister had not been raped, too, if she didn't remember--if I didn't have this police report right in front of me on my desk--I might doubt that the rape occurred. The memory feels a bit like a dream. It has hazy edges. Are there aspects of what I think I recall that I might have made up?" (p. 7.)

This book reminded me a lot of other superlative books I have read about violence (particularly to women) and its after-effects on the human soul and psyche: Alice Sebold's Lucky, Terri Jentz's Strange Piece of Paradise, Jeanine Cummins's A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, Lori Amy's The Wars We Inherit: Military Life, Gender Violence, and Memory, and Ron Franscell's Fall: The Rape and Murder of Innocence in a Small Town.*

But I couldn't finish it. I made it through about fifty pages, and I realized I just couldn't take it right now--I've got another depressing book (that I have to read, for review purposes) and I just need to read something a little lighter. But when I get this book back I'll talk about it again. Meanwhile, you readers who can handle a thoughtful mix of true crime and a personal story of self-understanding might like to give this one a try.

*Wow, I hadn't realized how much I gravitated towards these types of books. I abhor violence but I think I keep trying to figure out how people recover from it, which I find very inspiring in its own way.


The Wars We Inherit.

I have never, ever read anything like Lori E. Amy's The Wars We Inherit: Military Life, Gender Violence, and Memory.

I placed it on hold during one of my monthly trolls through the New Nonfiction list my friendly local library publishes, simply because I often do read titles about the military. But whatever I was expecting, it wasn't this. I only read it this past weekend because it's coming up due, and I thought, I should at least see what it's about. I wasn't particularly in the mood to start it, or feeling like a book about the military or violence. Although I could put it down after I started it, I found myself reading it again the morning after I first picked it up--at five a.m., when I couldn't sleep.

I don't know what I was expecting, from the title, but I wasn't expecting a mix of memoir and scholarly dissertation on the nature of violence in our world and in all of our lives. Amy opens the narrative with several chapters about her own child- and young adulthood, describing in particular her relationship with her father Frank, and his relationship with her mother and his other children. Raised as an army brat, while Frank served in both Korea and Vietnam (and then on various bases throughout the country), Amy tells a (sometimes horrific) tale of sexual and psychological abuse. She doesn't go into great detail, choosing instead to focus on how she went about remembering her childhood, and talking with her other sisters and brothers to piece together the stories of their family life.

So, you say, it's an abuse memoir--there's (so sadly) tons of those. No. Where Amy takes this book into new territory is her use of her own history, including her marriage as a young woman to a Navy officer, to "illuminate the relationship between the violence that we experience in our homes and the ways that we organize our culture." (p. 1.) In the second half of the book, Amy continues to explore not only her own family dynamic--and the dynamics of her sisters' families--but she also, ambitiously, takes on broader issues of militarization, gender roles, and violence in all aspects of our society.

It's a work you have to take as a whole, and at 189 pages, it should be taken as a whole. But there is one part I can't resist quoting, as the author remembers an experience she had while she was teaching school in 1991:

"I heard about it during third period--that Todd's stepfather had come back from Kuwait, where his reserve unit had been deployed during the Persian Gulf War, with pictures. He has these pictures displayed in the auditorium, and studnets have been going in all day to look at them. Photographs of dead Iraqis--limbs missing, blood everywhere. I can't believe the high school principal let him bring these pictures to school, set up a public display. I can't believe this school is sending students in to look, with pride, at pictures of dead Iraqis. The boys come back from the auditorium, euphoric, happy, proud...What are we doing to these boys? They are children--fourteen, fifteen, sixteen--they don't even shave! And these words are coming out of their mouths, dehumanizations, obscenities. They are learning to forget that these are human beings they are looking at...

I told my students: This is wrong. This war, these deaths, these things are cause for grief, for mourning, not for celebration. I told the principal these pictures should not be displayed. I had my students watch the news, explained to them the history of the 1980s, when the United States was funding Saddam Hussein and building his army. I tried to give them some of the historical context of which they were completely ignorant--about the Shah of Iran, the revolution and the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the Iran-Iraq war. My students told their parents what I told them. Their parents compalined to the principal. The principal told me not to talk about the war anymore.

Amnesia. Denial. A blind patriotism that, in its blindness, loves killing." (pp. 122-123.)

I repeat: This is an extraordinary book. It is a university press book, but it belongs in every public library. Book groups should read it. Even if you don't agree with what the author is saying, I think you would have to agree that she is trying to be thoughtful and fair while she is saying it. In fact, speaking of high school, it should be required reading, along with Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam (Vintage Departures) and Theodore Nadelson's Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War.


That pesky little issue of subject matter.

I love, love, LOVE Tom Bissell. If there was a nonfiction author who was going to come close to challenging my allegiance to William Langewiesche, Bissell would be that author. Remember our Book Menage about his travel/history/memoir The Father of All Things? The guy is a super-talent.

So when I saw he had a new book coming out, of course I had to put myself on hold for it, even though I knew that its subject matter was video games. This was optimistic on my part, because if there's one subject that bores me, it's video games. Not only have I never understood the appeal (although I do remember playing some sort of "shoot aliens" game on my brother's first Apple computer when I was little), but I am one of those tiresome people who won't even give them a try. Sometimes Mr. CR goes to a friend's and plays Wii, but the very thought of playing Wii games or any other video game is so boring I can't stand it. Again: it's not that I need to be intellectually stimulated every minute. I am perfectly capable of re-watching movies more than twenty times (so sad, but I know it's been at least that many viewings for Broadcast News and the BBC version of North and South). I think I tried to play something once and was literally so bored while people tried to explain to me what buttons did what that I gave up before the game even started.

Extra BUT...I wanted to give Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter a try anyhow. And, although I made it fifty pages in, I wasn't able to stick with it. Once again, his writing is stellar.* The man can make even his first time playing the game Evil Dead compelling. And I do get the feeling he's got a lot of interesting things to say about why people play video games so obsessively, and what these games mean to our culture, and how their narrative structures and the experience of playing them leads to their players' other experiences of entertainment, art, and culture. Or, in his own words, "I wrote this book as a writer who plays lots of games, and in these pages you will find one man's opinions and thoughts on what playing games feels like, why he plays them, and the questions they make him think about." (p. xiv.)

But in the end...I couldn't do it.** And, for the record, I still can't get myself to believe that video games matter. But, if you have an interest in gaming, or in youth culture, I would still recommend this one. I'd actually love to see who is buying and reading it, because for the life of me I can't see it appealing to the vast majority of those who play these games. But I wish him luck with it anyway. In the meantime I'll probably just go re-read bits of The Father of All Things.

*I love this quote: "I have somehow spent more than two hundred hours playing Oblivion. I know this because the game keeps a running tally of the total time one has spent with it. I can think of only one personal activity I would be less eager to see audited in this way, and it, too, is a single-player experience." (p. 5.)

**Although I did cheat and read the last chapter, which is a dual tour-de-force about what makes the Grand Theft Auto games so compelling, and how the author played them while frequently doing cocaine. For some reason this surprised me, and I actually have to give Bissell kudos--he puts it all out there. I realize I don't know him at all, but he makes you feel like you do, and that's part of his charm. Even when I can't finish his books I find him, and his writing, fascinating.


In the neighborhood.

Lovenheim I honestly didn't know what to think about Peter Lovenheim's new nonfiction book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. On the one hand, I thought it was a pretty neat little work of investigative and personal journalism (and I love that it came in at 238 pages, making it easily readable over a couple of nights); but on the other hand, I am too conflicted in my own feelings about neighbors, and what constitutes a community,* to wholeheartedly enjoy anything on the subject.

The impetus for Lovenheim's story came from an incident in his neighborhood in 2000, when a couple who lived just a few houses away from him died in a murder-suicide (the husband killed his wife and then himself). He was shocked to find how little he himself had known about them and their lives, and it got him thinking:

"What would it take, I wondered, to penetrate the barriers between us? I thought about childhood sleepovers and the insight I used to get from waking up inside a friend's home. More recently, my family and I had done summer house exchanges with families in Europe--they stayed in our house while we stayed in theirs. After living in these strangers' homes--waking in their beds, fixing meals in their kitchens, and walking in their neighborhoods--we had a strong sense of what their lives were about, something that would have been impossible to achieve just through conversation...But would my neighbors let me sleep over and write about their lives from inside their houses?" (pp. xvii-xviii.)

In fact, a bunch of his neighbors DID let him sleep over, and his descriptions of those experiences are the most interesting chapters in the book. I really did kind of enjoy it. Lovenheim's a skillful enough narrator, and the stories move right along--he gets to know an elderly neighbor, as well as a number of families, and another woman who is struggling with cancer. Along the way they do all become somewhat more involved in each other's lives--Lovenheim facilitates his older neighbor's desire to help individuals (rather than volunteering) by matching him up with the woman with cancer who needs help driving to some appointments, and he does become friends with many more people on his block.

I wouldn't say this book is a favorite, but it definitely was interesting (I felt the same way about the author's earlier title, Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf, which I read a million years ago and enjoyed but didn't love--and which I didn't realize was done by the same author until I read his bio on this book). Check it out if you're interested in the continuing cultural debate about communities, neighborhoods, and social preferences.

*And when I say conflicted, I mean I want nothing to do, personally, with any of my actual neighbors. Ask Mr. CR: when taking walks, I have been known to cross the street to avoid talking to any of my neighbors who might actually be out in their front yards. I know the names of the people in the houses on either side of me, but other than that I only know other neighbors by nicknames like "the bossy old lady in the house behind us." I know this is not right, but I can't seem to help it. I try to be a good citizen otherwise; I volunteer time for other causes, I take care to keep my house and lawn neat, and I have called the cops before when noticing suspicious behavior at other houses on my street. But that doesn't change the fact that we once went to a movie specifically because we knew our nearest neighbor was throwing a party designed to help all the neighbors meet each other, just so we wouldn't have to go. Part of this is because I have made the choice, along with other members of my family, to stick near them and in my hometown, so I feel like THEY are my community. If you have moved away from or don't get along with your family, I can see how the need for neighbors might be a very real one indeed.


When subject trumps style.

I tend to be somewhat of a generalist nonfiction reader; I am not so much interested in specific subjects* as I am in well-written and interesting nonfiction titles. This is why I am such a huge fan of William Langewiesche; he writes about a ton of disparate subjects in his magazine articles and books, and no matter what he's writing about, it's always a pleasure to read.

Welch But sometimes even I get suckered in by subjects I find fascinating. This week's case in point is Gina Welch's immersion journalism title In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church. I really didn't enjoy it (although parts were very interesting, and I don't think Welch is an unskilled writer), but I'll be damned if I didn't end up reading the whole thing anyway, for one reason and one reason alone:

I am fascinated by Evangelicals, and Evangelical churches. I mean, really, I can't look away.

I don't really know why this is, although I have always tended to find all things religious, even books about atheism, vaguely interesting. And I don't even mean it in a bad way. I have known and loved many people who are members of more evangelical churches. And, as I am Catholic and very well aware of the disorder and problems in my church's house, I want to emphatically state that I don't really care much one way or the other what religion people choose to practice. But there is something I so deeply don't understand about the Evangelical experience that I just had to finish this book.

Welch, a young writer and atheist who grew up in Berkeley, also seems fascinated by Evangelicals, and she doesn't fool around in her choice of churches to infiltrate: she goes right for Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia. For two years she attended the church, joined some of its classes and ministries, befriended many of its members, and even joined a mission trip to Alaska to "save souls."

As previously noted, the writing here is just fine. It was just more that I couldn't figure out Welch's tone--she seemed committed to staying an atheist, yet she also enjoyed the feeling of warmth and community and the stirring nature of the church music. She was conflicted about lying to people she was befriending, but still became quite close to some of them. She seemed genuinely very sad when Falwell died, but throughout, it quite simply seemed like she was focusing more on the church practices and trappings than on the religion behind it. I'm explaining it badly. But when I read a work of immersion journalism, I just like to have a little better idea of where the author is coming from; in Barbara Ehrenreich's classic in the genre, Nickel and Dimed, the reader is never left in any doubt that she thinks paying people non-living wages to work as maids, waitresses, and at Wal-Mart is complete bullshit. But I could never get a read on this author.

She still provided some interesting information, which showed she really did start to understand the mindset. I liked this paragraph: "Considering the Evangelicals' inclination to trust and support their Christian brethren, it makes sense that there's a strong desire to work primarily with Christian businesses...One directory, Ohio's Blue Pages, polled its users and found that the top two reasons people used it were a 'higher trust level' in Christian businesses and a desire to 'be good stewards of their finances'; payments to Christian businesses, the users assumed, circulated back to the church through tithes and offerings, keeping the money within the fold." (p. 104.)

I just chuckled at that. I typically throw away any business ads with prominent Christian symbols on them, even though I am a Christian, because I always figure if you're low enough to try and exploit God for business, where else will you be cutting corners? But, obviously, the thought process can go a different way. I was also shocked at Welch's many stories of how welcoming and accepting many strangers were of her church groups' proselytizing. Again, something I'll never understand, as my first reaction when anyone knocks on my door or talks to me about being saved is, "I'm Catholic and I LOVE being Catholic," at which point they usually can't get far enough away from me.

So, yeah. I think I'm still waiting for a slightly better or less uneven book on this subject, but if learning more about the Evangelical Christian lifestyle holds any interest for you, I'd still consider picking this one up. And I did like one of Welch's stated reasons for undertaking this project: she considers it more important to understand this lifestyle than to dismiss it. I can't really argue with that--it's as good a reason as any to write, not to mention read, nonfiction in general.

*British history, and, well, all things Brit notwithstanding.


Readable psychology.

I do not have children, and I have never been that interested in children (my nieces and nephews notwithstanding). And yet I enjoyed the hell out of Po Bronson's and Ashley Merryman's bestseller NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children.*

Nurture I didn't expect to like it or find it all that interesting, but it was one of those books I picked up because it was getting a lot of word-of-mouth attention, and for some reason, every book Po Bronson touches seems to become a mega-bestseller. Well, I guess I know why he's so popular. What he and Merryman have produced here is a quick-reading, interesting psychology textbook, and that's a rare beast. (Take it from someone who took a lot of credits of psychology in college.)

The premise of the book is to debunk, basically, a lot of the things we "know" about childrearing. There are chapters on how telling your child constantly that he or she is smart actually lowers their motivation (consider instead praising their effort); how the one less hour of sleep modern kids get can lead to increased rates of obesity and ADHD; why kids lie (and they all do--I LOVED this chapter); why IQ tests administered to young children don't work; and language acquisition (among many other topics). All parents should give this book a quick glance, and I think it would be even more useful for people who work with kids on a regular basis, including children's librarians.

*This is why it's a good idea to sometimes read nonfiction out of your regular subject area interests. You never know what you'll find.


Maybe if I'd approached it with more positive energy...

I desperately wanted to love Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

Brightsided Scratch that. Halfway through, I was hoping I could just finish Bright-Sided. This hurts me very badly to admit, because, from reading the jacket copy on this one, I REALLY wanted to love it: "Americans are a 'positive' people--cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: this is our reputation as well as our self-image. But more than a temperament, being positive is the key to getting success and prosperity. Or so we are told. In this utterly original debunking, Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the false promises of positive thinking..."

This is, or should have been, the book I was born to read.*

So I was very, very disappointed to find that, for much of it, I was just kind of bored. I found Ehrenreich's first chapter, on how she was diagnosed with breast cancer and immediately told that the best thing she could do would be to "stay positive" (and wear pink ribbons and attend breast cancer fundraising events), quite interesting. I could definitely see her point that that was a rather annoying thing always to be told, and I could certainly understand how sometimes she did just want to feel like she got a raw deal, and cancer sucked--rather than believing she got it for a purpose or it would make her a stronger person. But in subsequent chapters, about the history of positive thinkers (such as Norman Vincent Peale and Mary Baker Eddy), the business of motivational speakers and publishing, the linking of positivity, megachurches, and the belief that "God wants you to be rich," I just got sort of lost. I can't tell if it's because Ehrenreich took too long to say what she had to say in most chapters, or if I just wasn't responding to the organization of the chapters.

I did perk back up for the "How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy" chapter, which made several good points about how, when things are going good in the finance business, no one wants to sound any alarms because a) no one wants to get fired, and b) no one wants to be the one putting a damper on the party, or encouraging more cautious strategies and gains. I think she had a lot of good things to say  in that chapter, and she said them. I also found the chapter on megachurches and Joel Osteen quite informative, if not creepy. Actually, my favorite story in the book is the one in which the megachurch minister Osteen and his wife Victoria gave thanks at one of their services for the dismissal of charges against Victoria for assaulting a flight attendant:

"The incident occurred in 2005, when they boarded the first-class cabin of a flight bound for Vail, the ski resort, only to leave--or be thrown off--the plane after Victoria raised a fuss over a small 'stain' or 'spill' on the armrest of her seat. She demanded that the flight attendant remove the stain immediately, and when the flight attendant refused because she was busy helping other passengers board, Victoria insisted, allegedly attempting to enter the cockpit and complain to the pilots. Victoria ended up paying a $3,000 fine mposed by the FAA, and the matter would have ended there if the recalcitrant flight attendant had not brought suit demanding 10 percent of Victoria Osteen's net worth in compensation for alleged injuries, including hemorrhoids and a 'loss of faith' due to her mistreatment by a leading evangelist." (p. 130.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to meet and shake the hand of the flight attendant who had the chutzpah to sue the Osteens and cite hemorrhoids as her injury.

So, does this review sound all over the place? It is, I know. But frankly, that's a little how I felt about the book. And any book that's only 206 pages long (another reason I wanted to love it) shouldn't be either boring or all over the place. I guess I'm still waiting for someone to write a better book on this subject that is near and dear to my heart.

*I have been reprimanded in so many work situations for "negative thinking"--usually when I was simply asking some pretty simple workflow questions--that I have lost count.


Yes, yes, our power comes from our vagina, okay.

So as I was reading through Jessica Zellers's stellar Women's Nonfiction: A Guide to Reading Interests, I found her annotation for Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, and thought, hey, I've never read The Vagina Monologues, and I probably should.

Ensler This will probably come as no surprise, but I was decidedly meh about The Vagina Monologues. It was interesting enough to read, and quite short (which I always enjoy), and the edition I read was published in support of Ensler's V-Day organization (which campaigns against violence against women), so I can support that. And I know the idea was to take a closer look at, and reclaim, the vagina, and I totally enjoyed this tidbit, in Ensler's introduction:

"In the first place, it's not so easy even to find your vagina. Women go weeks, months, sometimes years without looking at it. I interviewed a high-powered businesswoman who told me she was too busy; she didn't have the time. Looking at your vagina, she said, is a full day's work. You have to get down there on your back in front of a mirror that's standing on its own, full-length preferred. You've got to get in the perfect position, with the perfect light, which then is shadowed somehow by the mirror and the angle you're at. You get all twisted up. You're arching your head up, klling your back. You're exhausted by then. She said she didn't have the time for that. She was busy."

I enjoyed that, quite a bit. But I've always felt that reducing gender to genitalia was a bit misleading, myself, so although I don't think this was a bad read and it might be interesting for all women (it only takes an hour or so to read), it wasn't really for me. If I had to put my finger on gender, actually, I've always thought it rather boils down more to a quality of practicality, or helpfulness. One of my favorite things about women is how they often wade right in without asking; when Mr. CR comes in the kitchen, he will sometimes ask what needs doing (which I do appreciate), whereas when women come into my kitchen, they'll usually assess what needs doing and start opening cupboards and drawers until they find the tools to help.* I have felt this way for a very long time; when I got my first off-the-farm job, at 16, I worked as a busperson in a nice restaurant, and my female co-worker and I heard this from our boss (a no-nonsense woman herself) on a nightly basis: "Would you help David and John in section 3? Boy busers are so clueless. Thanks."

So: I will add Eve's "vagina power" thoughts to my conception of women as helpful, and practical. It's never a bad idea to expand one's horizons, after all.

*I am, of course, stereotyping like crazy. I have in fact known both helpful men and completely helpless women.


Well, I'm with you in theory, but that's about it.

I was amused by the jacket copy on Charles Pierce's Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free:

Idiot "The culture wars are over. The idiots have won. This pisses Pierce off immensely. Like all cynics, he's secretly a romantic at heart, and his disbelieving anger is fueled by the knowledge that America doesn't have to be this way. Like an Old Testament prophet (albeit an agnostic, funny one), Pierce lets loose on the foibles of society in the secret hope that, somehow, being smart will stop being a stigma and idiots will once again be pitied and not celebrated. But don't get your hopes up."

Pierce is a journalist and appears regularly on NPR; he can write and his prose is reasonably entertaining. But I'll admit I never got past the first chapter, in which his chief evidence that idiots are taking over is a line from a New York Times article about intelligent design, in which the reporter wrote that the ID movement "have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin's defenders firmly on the defensive."*

Really. That's the sentence he holds up as the shining example of the ridiculousness of the idiocy in our society.

Nothing against Pierce, but if that's the best he can do, I'm not impressed. I might suggest that a greater break with reality is evident in the phrase "keep government out of my Medicare," which I actually saw people say on the news last week. I think a bigger problem is that very few people could probably tell you what the theory of evolution actually is, or how it differs from intelligent design; and that another large chunk of the population simply hates the New York Times on principle because they think it is elitist or too smart. But that's just me.

In all, don't bother with this book. Pick up Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War instead--it's a million times more interesting and provides a nice mix of empathy and frustration, which Pierce's book totally misses.

*Authors always lose me when they start pointing out that only idiots would ever have any questions about evolution. I find the entire debate deeply uninteresting (I've never really understood why it's even a debate, frankly, since one of the major religious tenets seems to be that if you believe in God, you believe God can do anything, so why couldn't God set evolution in motion?), but I always think it's hilarious when anybody holds up a belief in evolution as the gold standard of intelligence. Richard Dawkins falls firmly into that camp too, and you know what? He's boring too. Maybe boringness and the tendency to sound like an asshole evolved along with the need to make everyone accept evolution as gospel** truth in writers of this sort.

**Pun intended.


The pleasures and sorrows of Alain de Botton.

I have always rather enjoyed books by Alain de Botton. I really enjoyed Status Anxiety, although I'm hard-pressed to remember anything about it, now that I think of it, and I also liked The Art of Travel. Truth be told, though, I think I enjoy his subjects and the formats of his books more than I actually enjoy his style; Status Anxiety was about how we all try to keep up with each other in what we own and the affluence we project; it also included a number of photographs which served to break up de Botton's sometimes dense text.

Work The same goes for his most recent book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. I read it over the last weekend and found it quite enjoyable, although once again the inclusion of photographs really helped it along. In the book he examines a number of different professions, but he doesn't so much investigate them as he ruminates on them, and sometimes from afar.* (In a chapter seemingly about transmission engineering, electricity, and the structure and construction of electric line pylons, he describes the work from the somewhat removed vantage point of walking along a trail of pylons across southeast England with a pylon installer and enthusiast, describing less the actual process of pylon installation than the willingness of human beings to ignore such fundamentally basic and important structures in their lives and surroundings.)

I don't know that this is an author I'd like to have a conversation with (he seems a bit prickly sometimes**) and sometimes I did get the feeling he's in love with the sound of his own voice, as when he describes his experiences at an aviation conference:

"At the stand of the world's second-largest engine manufacturer, I spent some minutes observing an unusually attractive young saleswoman with shoulder-length chestnut hair, dressed in a beige suit, who was biting the nail of her left index finger and crossing her slender legs whilst leaning against a large fan blade. She was not the first of her type I had seen that day, but something about her appearance left me thoughtful. I had until then believed that the vendors' frequent and deliberate reliance on feminine appeal was merely a vulgar stratagem intended to win over airline executives, through an implicit suggestion that a purchase might bring them closer to intimacy with a sales agent. Now I began to see the matter differently: it seemed obvious that no order, however lucrative, would actually render these women available to buyers, so their presence on the stands took on a more poignant and commercially effective dimension. Their real function was to serve as a reminder of the unavailability of beauty to an overwhelmingly male, middle-aged and harried-looking base of customers..."

I just don't know about all that. And it seemed to take a long time for de Botton to say. But overall? The subject matter and the photographs still won the day; the chapter on accountancy was a wonder to behold, and I simply love all books about work, the way only someone who really tries to avoid work at all costs can.

*Except for his chapter on tuna fishing, which is alarmingly in-depth. If you like tuna (and by this I mean, like having it in a sandwich) and you want to keep on liking tuna, I would suggest not reading the tuna chapter.

**Although I was a bit tickled that he told a reviewer who gave this book a less than sparkling review "I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make." There he was able to get something said with remarkable economy of words! Reviewers of course have the right to actually review books, and authors have the right to respond, so his prickliness doesn't really bother me here.


World enough and time.

Is it wrong that I waste prayers* on the subject of keeping my eyesight until I die, so someday when I'm really old and retired and my children don't visit me, I can at least spend all my time reading? Because I actually have a list of authors whose entire lists I'd love to read, but who I just don't have the proper time for right now?

Susan Sontag is one of those authors. I've always found her really interesting, even though I've only read snippets of her work. I tried to read On Photography once, but it was a bit over my head. Whenever I see her novels in used bookstores, I think about trying one of those, too, but I never do. I am also fascinated by her relationship with Annie Leibovitz, which was at least partially chronicled in Leibovitz's photography collection A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005 (Leibovitz's photographs of Sontag after her death from cancer in 2004--she was 71 years old--are some of the most simultaneously beautiful and saddest I've ever seen). The two also collaborated on a work published in 2000 and titled simply Women.

The book I had home this week, and which I won't get enough time to read (add it to the "retirement list") was Regarding the Pain of Others. I'm not sure where I got the idea to check it out; recently I indexed a book about World War I posters and war photography, which led me to look into broader issues of the pictorial depictions of wars, and I must have stumbed across it sometime during that (I'm guessing). This is how it begins:

"In June 1938 Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, her brave, unwelcomed reflections on the roots of war. Written during the preceding two years, while she and most of her intimates and fellow writers were rapt by the advancing fascist insurrection in Spain, the book was couched as the very tardy reply to a letter from an eminent lawyer in London who had asked, 'How in your opinion are we to prevent war?' Woolf begins by observing tartly that a truthful dialogue between them may not be possible. For though they belong to the same class, 'the educated class,' a vast gulf separates them: the lawyer is a man and she is a woman. Men make war. Men (most men) like war, since for men there is 'some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting' that women (most women) do not feel or enjoy." (p. 4.)

That, to me, is an opening that promises a very interesting book. And I love Sontag's prose; it's crisp. She's got a way with description (I love the image of Woolf observing "tartly"), and even when her sentences require a bit of deciphering on my part**, she's expressing complex thoughts as succinctly as really is possible.

*I know it's wrong. I try to throw a few prayers at the problem of world peace at the same time to make up for my selfish personal needs.

**Think on this one a while: "The destructiveness of war--short of total destruction, which is not war but suicide--is not in itself an argument against waging war unless one thinks (as few people actually do think) that violence is always unjustifiable, that force is always and in all circumstances wrong--wrong because, as Simone Weil affirms in her sublime essay on war, 'The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,' violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing." (p. 12.) That's a sentence I need a few days with.


Trying too hard.

I thought the book Elsewhere, USA: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety, by Dalton Conley, sounded rather interesting.

Elsewhere A mere twenty-five pages in, however, I decided that it wasn't as interesting as it sounded and that I'd be taking the book elsewhere, all right: right back to the library. It's one of those nonfiction titles that's very much in vogue these days: the "big idea" book, like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point or Outliers or Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, and What It Says about Us. Conley's big idea is that our daily lives are changing because "boundaries between leisure and work, public space and private space, and home and office have blurred and become permeable" (from the front jacket copy). Throughout the first chapter he points out that many of the people working all the time, from home and at the office, are actually high in socioeconomic status, and should have enough money, but have extreme anxiety because they think they're not doing as well as their very well-off neighbors.

As I said, it's not a bad question to consider. I actually rather enjoyed Robert Putnam's sociological classic in this area, Bowling Alone. But Conley, like Thomas Friedman, strikes me as trying too hard to make his writing catchy, throwing out phrases and words like "the elsewhere society," "intravidualism," "weisure" (work and leisure combined), and "convestment" (consumption and investment). I don't think it's a bad book. I think it's probably got a lot of very interesting things to say about modern society, technological changes, buying habits, our "service" work which doesn't give us the fulfillment of production work (wherein people actually make things), and family life.

But when he starts describing scenarios of rushed and harried family members, all of whom bring their own laptops to the dinner table? My patience starts to wear thin. That starts to seem less like a societal problem than an individual one: stop buying your kids laptops. Or make them turn them off over dinner. Doesn't seem like you'd need a whole book to figure that out, does it?


I went out walking...

Geoff Nicholson's The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism is a very strange little book.

I liked it a lot.

Walking I'd never heard of Nicholson but I did pick the book up based simply on its title. I love to walk. It's the only exercise I've truly ever enjoyed, probably because it's not very strident exercise. Nicholson loves walking too; the entire book is nothing but a collection of ruminations onwalks that he's taken, walks that other people have taken, how walking has been portrayed in writing and music, and a variety of other topics. He opens his narrative with an account of how he fell when walking in Los Angeles and managed to break his arm in three places, which made further walking surprisingly difficult. He describes the sick sensation of falling perfectly:

"The older you get, the bigger a deal it is to fall down. When you're age five you can hit the deck, skin your knees, bleed profusely, and be up playing again in five minutes. The older falling man is so much more vulnerable...

Even as I was falling I thought, Oh crap, I'm not really going to go all the way to the ground, am I? I'll stop myself somehow. I'll kepp my footing. I'll regain my balance. And then I knew I was wrong about that. I was going all the way. I'd passed the tipping point. Oh crap, indeed."

The narrative drags a bit in some points, but that seems only appropriate in a book about walking. (Sometimes, midpoint on a walk, it feels like you've been slogging for a while.) But overall it's a great read, and describes such great cities as New York, London, and L.A. from the sidewalk. (I'm particularly grateful to Nicholson for finally helping me understand the British phrase "council estates": "An English council estate is similar to, but culturally very different from, an American housing project, and I think the name says a great deal. Both are places where the poor, underprivileged, and undereducated live, but Britain likes it to sound as though its poor people are on some grand country manor, while America prefers to think they're part of a science fair experiment," p. 218.) And he includes a wonderful bibliography of walking books.

Hm, in looking over the book I see that Nicholson is also the author of some interesting-sounding titles: Sex Collectors, Female Ruins, Bleeding London, Everything and More. Further bulletins on those books as events warrant.


Chick flick update.

I have now progressed in my chick flick habit from watching them to reading about them. I actually found myself combining obsessions when I read some chapters in I'll Have What She's Having: Behind the Scenes of Great Romantic Comedies while I was watching the movie Definitely, Maybe, starring Ryan Reynolds.

Meg The book first. I really enjoyed the book. It is exactly what it says it is: a series of chapters about various romantic comedies, from early classics like It Happened One Night and Some Like It Hot to later movies like When Harry Met Sally... and Love Actually, and how they came to be, as well as numerous tidbits of trivia. It's well-written and even the chapters about movies I hadn't yet seen made me want to see the movies immediately (Clark Gable in It Happened One Night? I'm going to hook that up.). And the chapters about movies I had seen made me want to re-watch them: Did you know that Rob Reiner, Nora Ephron, and Andrew Scheinman wrote the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally... over the course of years, during which Ephron "essentially interviewed the two men about their relationships and their feelings about love, sex, and women in general. Some of it was hilarious, some of it was appalling, and all of it was grist for the mill"? And that the woman in the diner who said "I'll have what she's having" after Meg Ryan's mock-orgasm was Reiner's mother? Good stuff. I'm seeing the book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood popping up on a lot of "Best of 2008" lists, and I don't think that book was half as readable as this one. But serious trumps humorous on the "Best" lists every time.

And this week's chick flick nutshell review? Definitely, Maybe was okay. I don't mind Ryan Reynolds (I actually think he was kind of hilarious in the strange and underrated movie Just Friends) and, with the exception of Rachel Weisz, whom I CAN'T STAND, the women leads were also quite likable. But, at an hour and 52 minutes, it was 22 minutes longer than any romantic comedy really needs to be, unless it is superlative. So if you're jonesing for a chick flick, any chick flick, it'll do, but I wouldn't run right out and rent it or anything.


This is why I could never read philosophy.

I think that the book Violence, by Slavoj Zizek, is probably a very good book. I'm not going to be able to tell for sure, because I can't actually read it. It is beyond me.

Violence I like the idea of the book; "Violence, Zizek states, takes three forms--subjective (crime, terror), objective (racism, hate-speech, discrimination), and systemic (the catastrophic effects of economic and political systems)--and often one form of violence blunts our ability to see the others, raising complicated questions." I like that there's a series of books out there (of which this title is a part) called Big Ideas, Small Books, published by Profile Books and Picador. But the actual text itself? Try it out:

"The notion of objective violence needs to be thoroughly historicised: it took on a new shape with capitalism. Marx described the mad, self-enhancing circulation of capital, whose solipsistic path of parthenogenesis reaches its apogee in today's meta-reflexive speculations on futures." (p. 12.)

If I had unlimited time to figure that paragraph out, and if I'd paid more attention in college, I might have a shot at it. But I didn't, so I'll return this book to the library where it can await a more schooled reader.


Oh, Generation X.

If we're all as long-winded and as boring as Jeff Gordinier's book X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking, I can see why we don't have time left over to save the world.

X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from SuckingI'm 90 pages in already and I can't for the life of me think of one thing to say about this book, or what Gordinier's point is. It's not that it's poorly written, it's just kind of, well, underwhelming. I think the basic point is that X is a generation stuck between the narcissistic Boomers and the hyper-connected Millennials, and it's a generation that can "do the old stuff really well--maybe as well as anybody ever could--but nobody seems to give a shit about the old stuff anymore. And this new stuff? You could do it well, too--you're flexible--if you could only figure out what it is. Because sometimes it looks like selling air." (p. xxx.)

Well, okay. That makes sense. But then Gordinier is off on a first-person tangent (his phrase) and pop culture references*, and I didn't pay much attention again until I got to the chapter where he picks on the Millennials, which I'll admit, I really enjoyed:

"These new kids cared about belonging, they cared about the group. They did everything in groups, they even dated in groups. They moved in noisy little packs, they only read books if there was a book club with which to share them, they networked, they sought out mentors, they kept each other in line. The wanted to connect with everyone; they wanted the world to cuddle up with them on Friendster and Facebook. They were unfamiliar with the notion of privacy. Solitude made them...uncomfortable." (p. 70.)

Well, I think he's honed in on why Millennials make me vaguely uncomfortable.

So I did what any slacker Gen Xer would do: I skipped to the end. Gordinier suggests that all Xers try to keep things from sucking by getting out there and...daring.

See? Underwhelming.

*At one point he compares the music videos for Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit and Britney Spears's Hit Me Baby One More Time. Never having had MTV, I went and checked them out on YouTube--I'm flexible--and must admit I'm old enough to have been a bit shocked by the Spears video. Frankly, I even like the song,** but holy cow, that's quite the four-minute walking, talking definition of "jail bait."

**I mainly like the song because of this cover version by Scottish band Travis.


Human Smoke: Let's talk about it.

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of CivilizationHas anyone else heard about this book Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker? I'd been on hold for it forever at the library, and it finally came in. I hadn't heard much about it, just that it was going to be controversial. And so it has been:

Anne Applebaum called it a "profoundly bad book about World War II."

William Grimes, for The New York Times, called it a "self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book."

And, holy cow, in this roundtable discussion at Ed Rants, they say lots of things about the book, most of which I don't understand, but all of which prove they a) read this book much more carefully than I did, b) know Nicholson Baker better than I do, particularly as a novelist, and are just c) way, way smarter than I am.

So, WHAT is it? Well, that I can nutshell for you. It is a history book about World War II, told entirely in disparate anecdotes, culled from newspapers, diaries, and other sources of the time, and which ends on December 31, 1941. I don't think there is any big secret that Baker means to skew it in the direction of stating "maybe World War II wasn't the best idea" (in his brief afterword, after all, he dedicates the book to American and British pacifists: "they tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right."),

And HOW is it? Well, I'd be lying if I said I think Baker's on the wrong track with his pacifist bent. I also must say that I found the first forty pages of the book very, very interesting. But I will not be able to read the whole thing, and this was a surprise, because I've never thought of myself as a particularly story-driven reader. But to read 475 pages of something that has absolutely no narrative and few comprehensively drawn characters? That's tough.

That said, this would be a book I might actually buy, because Baker cites all his sources, and it does give you a lot of food for thought. When I read something like this:

"Franklin Roosevelt, now a lawyer in New York City, noticed that Jews made up one-third of the freshman class at Harvard. He talked the problem over with Henry Morgenthau, Sr., and he went to the Harvard Board of Overseers, of which he was a member. 'It was decided,' Roosevelt later explained, 'that over a period of years the number of Jews should be reduced one or two per cent a year until it was down to 15%.' It was about 1922." (p. 9.)

I don't immediately believe FDR was a huge anti-semite. But it makes me want to learn a little bit more about him. The whole book, in fact, made me want to learn a little bit more about World War II, which is more than I can say for any of those crap-pandering Greatest Generation books or Stephen Ambrose's cottage industry tomes. Can that really be so wrong?

No, Baker is not a historian, which Applebaum points out so aggressively that it makes you wonder if she thinks her own career is secure (it should be; she won the Pulitzer Prize for Gulag: A History). Nor is he an expert. I think the New York Sun review had it right: "No one who knows about World War II will take 'Human Smoke' at all seriously." And maybe that's why I think it's got merit, and it's unique, and it deserves at least a look. Perhaps people who don't know very much about World War II need to start getting educated--so we have a leg to stand on when we converse with people who know (or think they know) everything about World War II. I think that has value.

Forgot to add: There's an interesting post about this book over at Books Are My Only Friends. Also, the blurbs on the back of it are very interesting as well, from Daniel Ellsberg (author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers), historian Simon Winchester, Gar Alperovitz, and Chalmers Johnson. Johnson is the author of the superlative titles Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire; I will look at anything he puts his name on.


Title of the Year Award.

Men Are Not Cost-Effective: Male Crime in AmericaAnd I'm giving it to: Men Are Not Cost-Effective, by June Stephenson.

Now that's an eye-grabbing title, admit it.  Sometimes when I'm searching for other titles in my library catalog, I scan the other titles that come up in the alphabetical list, which is how I found this title.  So I just had to order it.

I know.  I have the nerdiest bad habits EVER.  I also spend a lot of time on the Internet, watching videos I shouldn't...of Jane Austen adaptations.  That's right.  It's porn for girls, and I'm addicted.

But, I digress.  Now, from Men Are Not Cost-Effective.  Check this out:

"Of the first-timers in state prisons, 73 percent of the males are charged with committing violent crimes, compared with 7 percent of the females.  Of those who had prior violent crime convictions, 98 percent of the males are returned to jail for committing another violent crime after being released, compared with 2 percent of the females." (p. 8.)

"The best case for making the point that men are not cost-effective is found in the group of almost entirely male criminals who are now costing US taxpayers an anticipated half trillion dollars.  These men are involved in the worst financial scandal* in the history of the United States.  Men fraudulently and premeditatively, or at the very least greedily, siphoned off savings and loan depositors' money to their own advantage, knowing that the government, or more precisely the American taxpayers, would make good on their crimes." (p. 126.)

"A consistent element in most rape is the lack of concern for the victim. As a consequence, the most difficult task in rape counseling treatment centers is to get rapists to develop a sense of empathy.  This is almost impossible for men who are devoid of emotions other than anger or frustration." (p. 209.)

June, God love her, goes on to suggest adding a "user's fee" of $100 on men's tax returns (since men are using the criminal justice system almost exclusively).  She also points out, succinctly, that "if guns made us safer, the US would be the safest country in the world."

The pub date on the book is 1995, so I would take all those statistics with a grain of salt.  But I like June's spirit.  How's 'bout it, boys?  Anyone up for putting $100 in the kitty voluntarily?  Mr. Citizen Reader probably wouldn't be in to it, but I could just start taking the money out of his wallet if it's all for the greater good.

*In our current era of government and financial scandal, doesn't the Savings and Loan scandal seem almost quaint?