Not for Me

A book I can't recommend...

...for reading or gift-purchase purposes: Sebastian Faulks's Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.*

It announces on the cover that this is a "new Jeeves and Wooster novel," as well as an "homage to P.G. Wodehouse." Now, I know there is really no replacing Wodehouse, but I do love the Jeeves books so I thought I'd be open-minded and give this one a try.

It's not working.

Faulks gave it a good old college try, I'll admit. The novel actually is a serviceable example of a Jeeves book, but there is something just not right about it. I keep reading ten pages here or there and then putting it back down, and not really enjoying what I've read. I can't actually put my finger on what is wrong with this "homage"--the only nonsensical phrase that keeps going through my head is, he got the tone right, but the tone's not quite right. Which makes no sense. I think what I'm trying to say is that this is an okay substitute, but when it comes to Wodehouse, you really should accept no substitutes:

"I was woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a dozen metal dustbins being chucked down a flight of stone steps. After a moment of floundering in the darkness I put my hand on the source of the infernal noise: the twin copper bells on top of a large alarm clock. There followed a brief no-holds-barred wrestling bout before I was able to shove the wretched thing beneath the mattress."

That's the opening paragraph, and I wish I could report it got more compelling from there. But I think your best course of action here would be to skip this one and just go re-read some P.G. himself.

*And this really hurts to say, because I was totally looking forward to this one.


Another disappointing bestseller (to me, anyway).

For whatever reasons, this summer I have been taking a look at a few bestselling novels, just to see if I've been missing anything.

Turns out, I haven't been.

So after I was underwhelmed by World War Z, I turned to the Thriller genre and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 65 weeks now.

And yes, I should really have known better. Thrillers and I are just not a good mix.

So the premise of the book is deceptively simple: Amy Dunne disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary. Has there been foul play? Is her husband Nick the source of that foul play? The story is told in the alternating voices of Amy and Nick, both before and after the disappearance. I won't tell you any more; I don't want to give away any spoilers, and if you're interested, you can read an actual review here.

But I will be up front with you about how I screwed this book up for myself: I read about 150 pages, and then I read the last few pages just to see how it ended, because I didn't have time to read the whole book in one sitting, and I didn't really want to read it anymore. (Although I did go back over the next few days and read the intervening pages, just for actual closure.)

I know. Mr. CR was appalled.* I told him that I already had heard enough about the book that I kind of knew what happened anyway, so it wasn't that big a deal.

But knowing the ending didn't really change what I thought were some of the weak points of the book: namely, Amy was portrayed as an almost alarmingly smart person, and yet she did several quite stupid things over the course of the narrative. Also: I didn't find Amy or Nick particularly likable or interesting characters. Was that on purpose, I wonder? And last but not least: plot holes.

So there you have it. This girl is gone too, back to nonfiction.

*Mr. CR liked the book better than I did, but wasn't all that crazy about it either.


World War ZZZZzzzzz...

Holy crap, was I bored by the horror (?) novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

I've been hearing about this book for years now, and what a great read it was, so when the movie came out, I thought, well, okay, I should really read this book.

Written in the form of an oral history, with an unnamed narrator conducting interviews with survivors of the worldwide "zombie war," you'd think this would have been a fast, if not creepy, read. But almost from the first pages I was bored:*

[In an interview with the former White House chief of staff, about when they were first warned of the global threat]: "Drop everything, focus all our efforts, typical alarmist crap. We got dozens of these reports a week, every administration did, all of them claiming that their particular boogeyman was the 'greatest threat to human existence.' C'mon! Can you imagine what America would have been like if the federal government slammed on the brakes every time some paranoid crackpot cried 'wolf' or 'global warming' or 'living dead'? Please. What we did, what every president since Washington has done, was provide a measured, appropriate response, in direct relation to a realistic threat assessment." (p. 59.)

Snooze. I did get the whole thing read, but I won't way that I didn't skip a lot, particularly in the narratives that really bored me. Mr. CR read it too, and although he liked it better than I did, he didn't seem particularly taken with it either. He thought perhaps the "oral history" nature of it, and the fact that very few of the characters telling their stories appear more than once, made it tough to care about any of them or the story. I don't know that that was it...I've read similar books (Robopocalypse, by Daniel Wilson, for one) that held my interest far longer.

On the other hand, maybe that means I will like the movie; I've heard this movie and book are quite different from one another. (And I never complain about seeing a movie with Brad Pitt in it.)

*Well, I take it back. The first few chapters, particularly the one where the Chinese doctor explained his first encounters with someone infected with the zombie "virus," were pretty creepy. But by the time the book got around to explaining zombie battles and global techniques for dealing with the pandemic, I was bored, bored, bored.


Not destined to love George Saunders's stories.

Tenth of December: Stories
by George Saunders
Powells.com

Let's get one thing straight: I love George Saunders.

I love his essays. I love the most recent piece of nonfiction of his that I read, and posted about here. I was glad that his latest book of stories, Tenth of December: Stories, has gotten great reviews and word-of-mouth. I want nothing but the best for George Saunders.

But reading his fiction? It is never going to be for me.

I have now tried to describe, to two of my nearest and dearest, how reading Tenth of December made me feel, and I have failed horribly both times. Let's see if I can do any better here: Reading these stories made me all itchy.

Well, "itchy" is not quite right. But I often tried these stories before going to bed, and that didn't work at all. Perhaps "uneasy" is a better descriptor. For some reason, even though Saunders is a skilled writer and there are even flashes of humor in this book, reading it gave me a strong urge to cry. I think it's because 1. even when his stories don't necessarily end unhappily, they sometimes contain unnerving or scary elements, and 2. because I know George Saunders is very intelligent and has a good grasp of human nature and society, I worry that any stories he dreams up could come true.

In the last decade or so it has become increasingly true of my reading habits that I do not like fiction that is violent or creeps me out in any way (a big reason why I am not much of a thriller or crime or mystery reader, although I still read some horror). This seems a bit strange, especially in light of the fact that I can read true crime and any other types of super-depressing nonfiction titles all day long. As near as I can figure out, it's because the events in nonfiction tend to be finite: they've already happened, and now a writer has just come along and is trying to relate what happened or make some sense of it. I am often reminded of what family members said about David Foster Wallace's writing: he tended to take some liberties in his nonfiction, but it was his fiction you really had to watch for truth. Somehow fiction makes truth too real for me.

Make any sense? Yeah, no, I know. I tried. In the meantime, do read another review* of the Saunders book so you can get a better idea of what the stories are actually about. And have a great weekend!

*Aha! The NPR reviewer sums up perfectly why this book made me itchy: "It would be tempting to believe that Saunders' fiction portrays society the way a fun-house mirror does, reflecting images that look familiar but are, finally, exaggerated and unreal. Tenth of December suggests that's not the case — that what we assumed was a nightmare is, in fact, our new reality."


History that left me cold.

There are many shortcomings in my nonfiction reading (and in me personally, frankly!), and one of them is that I don't read enough straightforward history books. For the most part, I like to get my history more contextually--I love it when historical bits come up in investigative writing, for instance, and I really enjoy reading historical biographies. But for some reason I don't often read or love more stereotypical history books.

The latest such history to leave me cold (pun intended) was William K. Klingaman's and Nicholas P. Klingaman's The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History. I first saw it reviewed over at RickLibrarian, and thought it sounded interesting.

Unfortunately, it was more interesting to read about than it was to read.

This is not to say it was a bad book. The authors actually do quite a good job of putting together a bunch of disparate story lines: in the aftermath of a huge volcanic explosion in Indonesia in 1815, people across the globe had to react to an almost immediate (and quite severe) change in the climate. The authors relate stories of how agriculture in particular was disrupted in Indonesia, the United States, in Switzerland, in Great Britain, and across Europe, and how those climate and agricultural changes affected and shaped culture and historical events. Of course, I found the British and Irish history most interesting--how rising food prices led to riots among workers in Great Britain, in particular--but really, the writing's solid enough.

I'd have to say I skimmed this one more than read it, and I wasn't the only one: Mr. CR reported having the same reaction. For a better review of the book from someone who gave it a closer read than I did, try this one from Maclean's.

*Rick does a much better job than me of reading and describing history books.


Have I maxed out on memoirs?

Over the course of the past month I've slowly been munching my way through Rosie Schaap's well-received memoir Drinking with Men: A Memoir.

I never really got to the point where I had to keep reading it, but for a while it seems I haven't been finding much at the library and I couldn't find much other nonfiction around the house I was interested in, so when I needed to read, I'd just go back to it and read another chapter. I don't know why, really. It's not a bad book, and it's certainly not bad as far as memoirs (which can, I find, vary widely in quality) go. Feeling pretty ambivalent about it both during and after reading it has left me with just the one question:

Am I done reading memoirs?

Could be. For a long time I read a lot of them. For a long time a lot of them have been published. But for whatever reasons, it's also been a long time since I found one that really lit me up.

This is all not really fair to Schaap's book. There's nothing earth-shattering here, but the author seems to know her way around a sentence and is also likable enough, although I almost didn't make it past her early chapters, wherein she described dropping out of high school and following the Grateful Dead around.* In later chapters she settles into a nice pattern of describing bars she has loved and the drinking companions (almost exclusively male) whom she has loved within them. Perhaps one reason it left me cold-ish was because her descriptions of the bars themselves are much more vivid and loving than her descriptions, really, of her drinking companions (which even include a man whose friendship affected her life very deeply). I really do think "Bars I've Loved" would have been a more accurate, if not a catchier, title.

There's some insight into her friendships with men, and with bar culture, but it wasn't quite what I was looking for. I have my own history of getting along well with guys**, which is a painful history, because once you become an old married lady with a kid, guy friends are impossible to come by. I miss them and rather thought this memoir would have more to say on the actual dynamics of such friendships, but it didn't. Perhaps when I find a memoir that does that I'll have found one that once again makes me want to read more memoirs.

*Here she is describing her experiences following the Dead around: "We were mostly decent if slightly wayward kids who, for a variety of reasons, needed to leave the people who had raised us and who, many of us felt, had failed to understand us, and make a family of our own...We drank and danced, bartered bootlegs, got high and hung out, lived in vans and slept in cars under piles of stripy Mexican blankets in need of a good washing; we gave one another scabies and sometimes worse, and sometimes money, and often pot, and really whatever we had, sold trinkets and tofu stew, and for the most part, though not always, looked after one another." (p. 29.) It's vivid writing, but just the thought of getting scabies and sleeping in cars with strangers, oh my lord, it is NOT for me.

**A guy friend in high school once told me that gossiping and eating candy with me made him feel like he was back in fifth grade again, in the best possible way (we had a total joke class called "Media Film" together, we just shared candy and talked through the entire semester while ostensibly watching and critiquing movies). I still think it's one of the nicest things anyone's ever said to me.


Duel of the douchebags.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, I'm done.

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

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

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


Why does the world exist?

It's depressing, but today all I have to offer is yet another post about a nonfiction book I couldn't finish (and barely got started). Sometimes it seems like I'm not finishing a lot more nonfiction books than I'm finishing, but that does happen quite a bit. The book I couldn't get into last week was Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?

It's supposed to be a really good book, and it's gotten a lot of great reviews*, but frankly, like most big philosophical questions, Why Does the World Exist? is not something I care all that much about. And to me, that makes this book somewhat of a tough slog. This is the prologue, in its entirety:

"Prologue: A quick proof that there must be something rather than nothing, for modern people who lead busy lives.

Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding.

Therefore, there must be something. QED." p. 1.

Christ, who actually has the time for stuff like that? If there's nothing, would there be words to be all cutesy with, like in that paragraph? I think not. So, although I'm sure it will show up on many "Best of..." book lists for 2012, I'm probably not ever going to read it. QED that.

*Even this review in the Christian Science Monitor is mostly over my head, but I still enjoyed it, particularly where its author discusses how one of the ideas that seems to bother Holt (the universe existing simply as a "brute fact") doesn't really bother the reviewer all that much.


The Shack, oh my God, The Shack.

There are certain books that I avoid reading simply because everyone is reading them, and sometimes I want to be a book snob. One of those books was William P. Young's Christian fiction mega-bestseller The Shack.*

When I worked at the public library, this title was huge. And then my dad read it, and loved it, and for years now I have had to listen to him ask, "Hey, have you read The Shack yet?" This year I found out my sister had started it, so because I could care less if I'm left out of something that the rest of the world is talking about, I don't like being left out of something that's being read and discussed in my family. So I requested and got it from the public library.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, oh my God. What a piece of crap. I'm sorry, really sorry, if you read it and liked it and are offended by me saying that. Most of the American book-buying public obviously really liked it, and so did my dad (who is usually a pretty discerning customer when it comes to books--he's the one who first turned me on to Richard Adams's novel Watership Down, after all), so clearly I'm the outlier here.

The book starts with a page-turning feel. The protagonist, Mack, is caught in an ice storm at his house, and when he goes to check his mail, he finds a note in the mailbox that reads "It's been a while. I've missed you. I'll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. -Papa." Mack's wife and family are out of town, and Mack doesn't know what to think of the note. It's painful on several levels--he thinks "the shack" being referenced must be the one where, years earlier, a family tragedy had played out: the abduction and murder of his youngest daughter, Missy. He also knows that his wife refers to God as "papa." Could God be so cruel as to be inviting him back to the shack where he found evidence of all that is evil in the world?

So he goes to the shack, where of course he finds God is waiting for him, in the form of three persons, ready to talk to him about what happened to Missy and Mack's own relationship with God. And heaven help us, once it hits the chapters and chapters of God (in various forms) talking at Mack, does it get boring. Whoever has referred to this book as a story-driven narrative is way off. It is basically a Christian fable attempting to answer the age-old question "why do bad things happen to good people?"**

All of that said, I DID get a lot of laughs out of this book, which I don't think was the point, but what the hell, I'll take laughs wherever I can get them. Most of these laughs started when Mack first meets Papa-as-Three-Entities. The first is described as a "large beaming African American woman," and when Mack meets all three of them at once he asks if there are more of them, and this is what happens:

"The three looked at one another and laughed. Mack couldn't help but smile. 'No, Mackenzie,' chuckled the black woman. 'We is all that you get, and believe me, we're more than enough." (p. 85.)

Really? "We is all that you get"? Dialect from God? Can authors really get away with that sort of thing and still become mega-huge bestsellers? Evidently yes.

But I got an even bigger chuckle out of Mack meeting Jesus:

'"I guess I expected you to be more,' be careful here, Mack, 'uh...well, humanly striking.'

Jesus chuckled. 'Humanly striking? You mean handsome.' Now he was laughing.

'Well, I was trying to avoid that, but yes. Somehow I thought you'd be the ideal man, you know, athletic and overwhelmingly good looking.'***

'It's my nose, isn't it?'

Mack didn't know what to say.

Jesus laughed. 'I am Jewish, you know. My grandfather on my mother's side had a big nose; in fact, most of the men on my mom's side had big noses.'" (p. 111.)

Really? A big Jewish nose joke? Can authors really get away with that sort of thing and still become mega-huge bestsellers? Evidently yes.

WOW. And the laughs kept coming, all the way to the end. And here's where I have to give you the big *****SPOILER ALERT*****--just in case you're still planning to read this one. In the beginning of the story, we learn that Missy is abducted on a family camping trip with Mack and two of his other kids. He and Missy are at the campsite while the other two are canoeing on the lake, and when Mack looks at them, his daughter Kate raises her oar to wave hello, which makes their canoe capsize, so Mack has to rush down to the lake and save them, leaving Missy alone at the campsite. When they return she is gone. Fast forward to the present, where Mack's wife Nan and he are struggling to understand why Kate is showing signs of emotional distress and acting out. At the very end of the book we learn, as God tells Mack, that Kate--get this--feels guilty for tipping the canoe, which makes her responsible, she feels, for Missy's abduction and death. Mack is shocked to learn this. THAT is the big reveal? You're telling me this idiot needs God to help him get to that conclusion? Heaven help us all.****

*No affiliate links to this book; I really, really don't want you to buy it. Check it out from the library if you have to.

**Is there really any satisfactory answer to this question in our mortal sphere? Even if you accept that God didn't cause the bad thing, does that make it any more understandable? Even if you forgive the bad things, does that make them understandable? I guess I personally feel that's one of those questions no one's ever going to answer for me satisfactorily, particularly Mr. William P. Young.

***Why on earth would anyone think this? Was Jesus described in the Bible somewhere as a smoking hottie, and I missed it? The fact that this Mack person obviously associates holiness with hotness really makes me dislike him.

****I kept telling all these stories to Mr. CR, whose only reaction has been to say "Is that book still in our house? Can you get it out of here please?"


I'm done trying Marilynne Robinson.

WhenI just don't care for Marilynne Robinson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews: New York Times, Shelf Love

*She's also a Pulitzer Prize winner.


A tough act to follow.

I waited for months and months (thanks to a kindly reader who alerted me to its upcoming publication) to read Craig Taylor's oral history Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now--As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It. When it finally arrived in for me at the library, I was ridiculously excited, and took it along to read in the car on the way to visit my in-laws the next day.

LondonersIt seemed like a bad sign when the book couldn't even hold my interest in those surroundings, as, when you are stuck as the passenger in a car driving through south-central Wisconsin in March, there's really not that much else to do or look at.

I was massively disappointed in this book as an oral history, and as a treatise on the city of London. Slave to convention that I am (indexing and proofreading books has made me, somewhat prematurely, and for lack of a better phrase, a "pedantic old fart"), I had to read the entire introduction to this book first--and that set off the first warning bell. At seventeen pages (that read like a long seventeen pages), the introduction is just too long. It shouldn't be that complicated to say, in effect, "London is an interesting city, populated by a wide variety of interesting types. Let's hear what they have to say."

The actual transcripts of the authors' interviews with Londoners (which are numerous--I'm not saying the author didn't talk to a whole lot of people) are also, for the most part, unsatisfying. Each speaker's name is given, as is their "role." (For example: "Kevin Pover, Commercial airline pilot.") Although some are meaty, many tend to end just as they get interesting; for example, one man arrived from another British city, Leeds, and explained how he went homeless for the first few nights while looking for a reasonable place of his own. Although he seems to be speaking in the past tense, describing an ordeal he has already survived, there is no closure to the interview--did he find a place to live? How did he deal with having all his possessions in the world--stored in his backpack--stolen while he was sleeping?

It did not help that I read this book shortly after re-reading John Bowe's and Marisa Bowe's superlative oral history abou working, titled Gig: Americans Talk about Their Jobs. The books are structured similarly--interviews woven together in larger thematic chapters--but whereas Gig was completely satisfying, which each interview telling its own complete little story (even if the endings were still unknown)--this one just left us wanting more.* There were some bright spots--the interview with the woman who provided the taped voice messages for the London Underground particularly stood out--but not enough to carry me past p. 91 of this book. That's where I'm stopping, and it's going back to the library.**

Other reviews: New York Times; The Guardian

*Mr. CR read a large chunk of the book and mentioned to me out of nowhere that he was also annoyed with the interviews' lack of narrative arcs.

**Although after writing this I did read a few more interviews in the book, and found several of them quite interesting. I might just have to get this one back in the future.


Not the most bookmarkable book on bookmarks.

BookmarksI enjoyed the collection Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller's Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages by Michael Popek, but I didn't enjoy it quite as much as I had hoped to. The book is a collection of ad hoc "bookmarks" that Popek, a longtime bookseller (it was his family biz) found in used books his family was reselling. The book is organized into five different sections: Photographs; Letters, Cards, and Correspondence; Notes, Poems, Lists, and Other Written Ephemera; Receipts, Invoices, Advertising, and Other Official Documents; The Old Curiosity Shop: and From Four-Leaf Clovers to Razor Blades. Each page shows a bookmark, the book it came out of, and the bib info for the book.

Some of the bookmarks were interesting--old postcards and torn pages out of personal journals were my favorites--but many of the bookmarks (and the books) just weren't all that fascinating. They literally were just old forgotten items, including some very dull indeed receipts and other "ephemera."

Now, perhaps I am a bit jaded. I was looking for something a bit more exciting. But then, I worked at a public library. My most interesting finds in returned books were (in no particular order): kleenexes (used and unused), bandaids (ditto), cat urine, vomit (and the note explaining what it was so I could be quite sure it was vomit), and yes, once, a $50 bill.* But none of those things would photograph well for a collection like this, I suppose.

*Which I still think we should have got to keep and divide, like booty. I say anyone who has that casual a relationship with $50 bills deserves to lose one once in a while.


A less than titillating travel read.

I was underwhelmed by Denis Lipman's A Yank Back to England: The Prodigal Tourist Returns.

Mr. CR, continuing his surprising trend of reading some of the same nonfiction that I am, concurred in this evaluation.

YankLipman, originally from England, weaves a tale of several years' worth of visits back to his home country to visit his parents (with his wife and daughter in tow). He's the son of two Cockney East-Enders who are getting on in years, which makes for some generational (and cultural) tensions between them and Lipman's new family.

In addition to visiting his parents, Lipman also details their week-long stays in a variety of lodgings and cottages, and the day trips they take to various small towns, churches, and other off-the-beaten-trail attractions in (primarily) the southern part of England.

The trips frequently start in Lipman's hometown of Dagenham, a suburb of east London, where he starts be describing his parents' place: "In the States, where cold and hot water come gently together, mixing is not required. In my parents' house, the hot water faucet spat liquid that could produce third degree burns on contact. By contrast, the cold faucet pumped out ice water that could congeal a slashed artery in a matter of seconds. The only way to survive the plumbing was to mix...Probably another reason why the English are innately patient at supermarket checkouts, long suffering when waiting for hospital appointments, and very good at waiting for buses. Our Job-like forbearance is tested from the moment we wake up. The English who do not possess this kind of fortitude, like me, tend to emigrate." (p. 6.)

I know. I should have chosen a quote where he's describing some of the places they visit to give you a feel for his writing. But honestly? I didn't bookmark anything and I couldn't find anything that stood out when I flipped back through the book. They do travel through a lot of places you might not read about in more urban travelogues or guides: Chartwell, Aldeburgh, Barking, Rattlesden, Lavenham, Saffron Walden, Woolpit, Romney Marsh, Rye, etc. But none of it seemed all that interesting or well-written, and I mainly stuck with it because, of course, I am constitutionally unable to put down books about Great Britain. But for your less dedicated Anglophile reader? Meh.


My dislike for doctors extends into literature, evidently.

I hated Ann Patchett's novel State of Wonder so much it was actually enjoyable.

It's been a long time since I felt strongly enough about a book to hate it. So why, you ask, did I finish it? Well, I don't think I realized how much I disliked it until I was pretty far along in it, and then I needed closure.

The novel is about a pharmacological researcher, Marina Singh, who is sent into the Brazilian rainforest to try and find a renegade doctor-researcher (Annick Swenson) who is funded by the company Singh works for. She also just happens to be the woman under whom Dr. Singh first trained when she planned on working in gynecology and obstetrics, until she got a surgical procedure wrong and changed her career. She doesn't really want to go and see about the status of the fertility drug that Dr. Swenson is supposedly working on, but she can't really say no in light of the fact that her co-worker, another doctor employed by the company, has been reported dead by Dr. Swenson. (He had been the first one to be sent to check on her progress with the drug research.)

So Dr. Singh trots off to the jungle and for seemingly a hundred pages or so not much happens, as it is hard to find the Dr. in her secluded locale, and she's got a couple of gatekeepers working for her and working deliberately to make her even harder to find.

God. I'm bored even typing the description. And I don't want to give too much away in case you still want to read it (since most critics have hailed it as a masterpiece). Suffice it to say Malina finds the doctor, discovers how the fertility drug research is really going, and then, in the space of about 5 pages at the end, most of the major actual action of the novel occurs. Why Patchett thought a pace of 300 slow boring pages to 5 hurried ones that felt tacked on to finish the book would be the right pace, I don't know. (Although, again, most of the critics didn't seem to mind.)

So what was there to hate in this book? Well, not one of the characters was even remotely likable. Marina was completely dullsville, the doctor who'd been reported dead just doesn't make that many appearances, the gatekeepers are a completely narcissistic and pointless young couple, and Dr. Annick Swenson was a composite of every obnoxious, supposedly knowledge-driven and yet completely incurious doctor I've ever visited in my life.* At one point a big reveal is made of the realization that women beyond middle age may not want to become pregnant (even if fertility drugs could make it a possibility) because hey, get this, being pregnant is hard work. Well, cripes, doctors, you don't need to go to Brazil to find that out. ASK ANY PREGNANT WOMAN if she thinks somebody in their sixties or seventies could handle it. I think you'll get your answer pretty quickly, without having to run any experiments.

So: unlikable characters: And: glacial pace, followed by unsatisfactory resolution. Third: the realization that this is probably some sort of play on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but I've never read that classic and probably wouldn't get the parallels even if I had.

Huh. It felt good to say all that. It's a book I loved to hate, I'll give it that.

*I am aware I bring some "doctor issues" to my reading of this book. I recognize I need them but I have not personally liked very many of the doctors I've ever seen.


A book on brains my brain just isn't up to right now.

BrainI keep trying to read Sandra Aamodt's and Sam Wang's Welcome to Your Child's Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College, but I'm just not going to be able to finish it.

I'm a fretful parent (lucky CRjr--every time he hits a developmental milestone I mentally check it off the list, enjoy it for all of five seconds, and then start fretting about the next step*), so I thought it would be interesting or helpful to know more about how children's brains develop. I still think it would be, but this is not the book for me. Although the authors seem to know their stuff and they toss in encouraging asides like their assertion that your child will be fine as long as you do a "reasonably competent" job caring for them, I'm still finding it a rather tough book to follow.

Perhaps this is because I am so used to reading parenting books that are chronologically oriented, whereas this one is organized along subject lines, with chapter headings like "Once in a Lifetime: Sensitive Periods (birth to 15 years)", "Born Linguists (birth to eight years)," and "Connect with Your Baby through Hearing and Touch" (third trimester to two years)." That last is actually chapter 11, AFTER chapter 9, on adolescence. It was just too hard for me to follow. One nice thing about it is that it contains multiple sidebars offering "Practical Tips" and "Myth Busting" throughout; when I had to take it back to the library I just read through most of those (skipping the text) and called it a day.

*The same people who tell me the baby's just fine and I should stop worrying about every little thing like a nut job are usually the same people who tell me about the importance of early detection of problems so they can be addressed sooner rather than later. It's a Mommy Catch-22.


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

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

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

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

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

'I see.'

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

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

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

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

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

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


That first story really makes a difference.

I find that whenever I'm bored with nonfiction, what I need to do is pick up some modern fiction. Inevitably I don't like what I find* and I run, screaming, back for the nonfiction stacks.

CollarAnd so it was with Richard Ford's story anthology Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work. (It's an anthology of stories chosen by him, not a collection of his stories.) Again, get a load of that title. I totally wanted to love it.

But then I picked it up and read the first story, titled "Business Talk," by Max Apple. This is how it started:

"James I and have been worrying about things. I'm bored, restless, and in late afternoon always depressed. He tries to be helpful. The children are not too bad. My education is more than adequate. I understand what's happening as it happens. Still, I'm powerless. At four I get morose, by five I am tearful. When James comes home I looks as I've been pinched by devils all day long."

And this is how it ends:

"'Business is business,' he says. We sigh like cats.

I get the lubricant, he the prophylactics. Sometimes we're old-fashioned people doing the best we can."

Really. Now just put those two paragraphs together and see how much sense they make. None, right? Well, I've got news for you: I read the ten pages of story in between those paragraphs and they don't make any sense to me either. So what is the point of reading the story?

I know I should be the bigger person and try at least one other story in this collection. But I am not in the mood. Frankly, if I want to feel confused and somewhat depressed (at least partially because I AM confused), I'll just leave the house. That is not what I need reading for.


I'll take a distraction, please.

We'll take a short break today from our list of 100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles, while I digress on a book I read last week, and which I emphatically will not be adding to our best list.

PleasuresIn fact, if I was given the choice of either reading Alan Jacobs's book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction or indulging in a distraction like, say, poking at my eye with a sharp stick,* I think I'd have to choose the stick.

The title of this one was so alluring. And so was the length: 150 pages. I went into it primed to like it.

But I just didn't.

For one thing, there's this:

"Several times a year I get requests from people--usually students, but also friends and acquaintances, and even total strangers who have managed to find my email address--who want reading lists. 'Dear Professor Jacobs, could you please give me your recommendations for what I should read this summer?' Or, 'Dear Professor, in your opinion what are the ten most important books that every educated person should read?" I dislike that second question for reasons that are probably already clear, but the first I can't bring myself to dislike at all, since it's really a compliment in the form of a question.

Nonetheless, I never comply with these requests." (p. 13.)

And this in a part of the chapter labeled as "Whim." Good lord, Professor, how about engaging in a little Whim and just throwing these people a bone in the form of a reading list? Are you or are you not a professor of English? Now, in all fairness, a little bit further down the page he says he doesn't mind suggesting books if people first tell him what they like and then ask for recommendations--but I would point out he can turn reading list questions into that type of request simply by asking those who ask him for lists to describe their reading habits. It's not hard, Professor--librarians do it every day, for a lot less money and fewer sabbaticals.

And then let's talk about how he later digresses about how reading for Whim (with a capital W) differs from reading for whim. And how he was naughty when he was twenty and failed to finish a novel for the first time: William Gaddis's The Recognitions, which he put down after only reading to page...666. Good lord. This man and I are clearly not in the same reading room. I'm ditching this one at page 51, and I'm not going to feel that it's naughty, either. Or if I do, it's deliciously naughty.

I'm sorry I'm not really describing the book all that well, but this is another one of those "pleasures/importance of reading" books that never really seem to get to the point. I think his general idea was that you should read because it's pleasurable, not because it's good for you, although it can be. There. I just saved you 150 pages' worth of reading (pleasurable or otherwise) time.

*Blame my dad for this image. One of his favorite sayings, when something doesn't meet my expectations, is to say "Well, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye."


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.


Waste of a perfectly good title.

I get a lot of my nonfiction reading from a pretty basic source: each month my local library system posts a list of new fiction and nonfiction books in their catalog, and each month I scan the list and order up any titles that tickle my fancy.

So imagine my displeasure when Hugh MacLeod's book, with the awesome title Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination, turned out just to be another business self-help book.

And not a very good one at that. MacLeod is the creator of the gapingvoid.com website, and is best known for drawing cartoons on the back of business cards. In this book he adopts a Seth Godin-esque approach to living your dream: be special, dream big, follow your entrepreneurial plan, etc. Here's the basic idea, from page one: "Everybody needs an Evil Plan that gets them the hell out of the rat race, away from lousy bosses, away from boring, dead-end jobs that they hate. Life is short."

Yeah, yeah. We've heard it all before. Does anyone still believe this stuff? Like this? "Thanks to the Internet, it has never been easier to have an Evil Plan, to make a great living, doing what you love, doing something that matters." p. 1.

In short chapters punctuated by his not-all-that-clever doodles, he holds forth on how you've got to sell not only your product but also your belief system*; how customers have to love your product AND your process; and how you should be overextended doing work you love. It all sounds la-di-da and wonderful, but I challenge you to find someone who can actually make this advice work. (The part about making a great living off the Internet in particular gives me a big chuckle.)

I kept the book in the bathroom for a while, where I read it for giggles, until Mr. CR told me it was depressing him and I had to get rid of it.

*This also puts me in mind of a GREAT quote from the movie Broadcast News, which I recall roughly a million times every day as it is. When Albert Brooks spits out, with such distate, about an anchorman colleague who's more style than substance: "And he'll talk about us all really being salesmen." Such bitterness. Awesome. You should watch the entire movie, but you could also see it here. The pertinent quote is right after the two-minute mark.