Phoning It In

A serviceable read: Heads in Beds.

Okay, I really need to start writing down what book suggestions I get from where. I know I chose the book Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality from someone's blog, but now I can't remember where I found it. Anyone out there remember posting about this?

Heads in bedsIt is exactly what its title promises: a tell-all memoir from a long-time hotel employee, who worked in a variety of positions from valet attendant in a luxury hotel in New Orleans, to housekeeping management in that same establishment, to being front desk staff in a Manhattan hotel that he calls "The Bellevue." It's fairly rough and ready, in story and in tone. Here's how he was welcomed to his daytime shift on the desk by the bellmen, after being promoted from the overnight staff:

"The bellmen were the first to intimidate.

'Listen very closely to me, FNG [Fucking New Guy]. I see you handing guests their own keys, I'll stab you. You don't ask them shit. You call 'front' and hand the keys to a bellman. Let them tell me to my face they can take their own luggage and my baby girl has to starve. I catch you handing them keys, I figure you're the one who wants my baby girl to starve. In which case I will find out what train you take home and collapse your throat as soon as you step into your borough.'

New York pep talk number two! The first, from my roommate in Brooklyn, promising to throw me out if I didn't make rent, seemed like a pillow fight in comparison.'" (p. 103.)

So yeah. It's a lot of stories like that (although you should know that the author eventually became pretty tight with the bellmen, as he became pretty good at handing lodgers over to them with the personal touch, increasing the tipping all around), along with a few tips on how to improve your own hotel stays. I can't say that most of the tips will be that helpful to me, as I don't really want to eat things out of the minibar, even for free (it is important to note, though, that if there are wrong minibar charges on your bill, you should pipe up, as desk staff know nobody can actually tell what you've eaten out of the minibar and will remove the charges fairly easily) and I rarely stay at the types of hotels where upgrades are going to do a whole lot for me.

It was a quick read, somewhat informative, interesting enough to keep me reading the whole thing, but in the end I found it unsatisfying. Perhaps because there was absolutely nothing in the way of deeper thought or reflection here about how weird it is that we all go to hotels, and trust people we don't know to create our key cards, to clean the pillows on which we put our faces and the glasses out of which we drink. Among many other things. And I say this as someone who LOVES staying in hotels. Seriously. I traveled a few times for work and there was nothing I loved better than flopping on a hotel bed and turning the TV on to "Law and Order" (an episode of which is always on, somewhere, sometime), so I'd have been happy to hear any thoughts on the intimacy of helping hundreds of strangers bed down every night. I don't know what I wanted here, really. I just wanted something a little more.

I was also a bit annoyed with this opening statement:

"To protect the guilty and the innocent alike, I have deconstructed all hotels and rebuilt them into personal properties, changed all names, and shredded all personalities and reattached them to shreds from other personalities, creating a book of amalgams that, working together, establish, essentially, a world of truth. I mean, damn, I even change my own name."

And he did. Jacob Tomsky is his name, and he became, throughout this narrative, "little Tommy Jacobs." Why? Anyone else get that?

I was massively disappointed by Tracy Kidder's "A Truck Full of Money."

And that hurts me to say, because I am a huge Tracy Kidder fan.

In this nonfiction outing, Kidder provides a long-form character profile of Paul English, perhaps best known for selling his travel/search business to Priceline for 1.8 billion dollars. This of course made him, and his partners and investors, a "truck full of money." So what happens, English and Kidder seem to be asking, when someone makes a huge amount of money, when that may or may not have been their goal all along?

Well, apparently the answer to the question "what do you do with a lot of money?" is, nothing terribly interesting. At least, that is, if you are Paul English. I slogged through this whole book, and my only real question throughout was, why did Kidder think Paul English was interesting enough to sustain an entire book-long investigation?

So what did Paul English do? Well, he helped his partners and other longtime collaborators make enough money to make themselves secure. There's something to be said for that. And he gave a lot of money to charitable causes, but none of them terribly interesting or terribly personally strongly felt (to learn how to go about his philanthropy, he tried to learn from an older wealthy Bostonian who he viewed as a mentor and a friend, eventually giving money to many of the same causes as his mentor). There's definitely something to be said for that. And he started a new company, and spent money to try and help others achieve their company-starting dreams.

But in the end, a character profile needs, frankly, to be about a CHARACTER. Paul English is many things. Very, very smart. No one is arguing that. Very resilient. He grew up in a large family and worked a lot of jobs (including some that were less than legal), and he has struggled for many years with a diagnosis of both bipolar and hypomania, meaning he has tried to figure out how to live well while on medications. Not easy. But a character? I thought the most telling segment of the book, if one of the most boring, was the lengthy section on English's venture after selling Kayak: a company called Blade, basically meant to be an incubator for other tech businesses. Kidder details English's obsession with making his company and headquarters a nightclub (of all things) as well, called Blade at Night:

"You might have wondered if his plans for Blade's office were merely reproductions of his adolescence, the creation of a venue for his idea of fun, but he had a commercial rationale for Blade-by-night, which he put in a document addressed to is, to Billo and Schwenk [two of his longtime work partners]:

Blade will run monthly meetup parties, invite-only, for selected members of Boston's innovation scene. Our goal is to make these parties one of the best places for engineers and designers and artists to meet...

[He also taught at MIT during this time, and knew a group of four MIT computer science graduates who had already sold a software company.] Paul had lunch with them one afternoon to catch up on their latest enterprise. First, though, he had to tell them his own news, his plans for the Blade office.

He was just getting started--'And it turns into a nightclub at night,' he was saying--when, in unison, all four young engineers burst out laughing.

'And you just unplug the desk from the wall. Probably in thirty minutes thirty desks will disappear.'

'That sounds awesome!" cried the young woman of the group.

'And when I put my hand on the puck, the Grey Goose and Kahlua will light up...'

Softly, pensively, as if to himself, one of the young men said, 'I want to hang out at this nightclub.'" (pp. 185-186.)

And this is when he was nearly fifty. Ye Gods. When all the "finest minds" of our generation (so-called) can come up with after making tons of money is to incubate new software companies and give them a place to drink after hours, well, that is just not terribly interesting. Perhaps even more telling is the spec sheet for the "Blade truck," which takes up nearly two pages of the book and includes items like "under-car purple lights for effect when parked in our alley at night, maybe color changing to the music. :)" (p. 188.)

Give this one a miss. There's a million better computer/technology books to read (including Kidder's own The Soul of a New Machine, which, though outdated, is still way more fascinating than this book) and there's certainly better character portraits out there (including Kidder's own Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World).

Friday List: All the things that are wrong with Curtis Sittenfeld's "Eligible."

Well, it's Friday, so I'm doing a list, but it's not a list of book lists. (The ol' Interwebs seemed very devoid of book lists this week.)

Instead I've decided to take a break from nonfiction and list All the Things That Are Wrong with Curtis Sittenfeld's New Novel Eligible.

EligibleThe context: Eligible is a modern take on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and of course, because I am addicted to all things Jane Austen, I had to read it. I had it from the library and was bored just looking at it for some reason, so I took it back. And then a friend of mine read it and demanded that I read it also so we could talk about it. (This list's for you, hon, as an opening salvo.)

It was not really fair of me to read this book, because I have never been a fan of Curtis Sittenfeld, who had big hits in her novels Prep and American Wife, both of which bored me to tears.* So, there's your backstory.

1. Sittenfeld has made our heroines, Jane and Lizzy Bennet, forty and thirty-eight, respectively. Okay, sure. She's updating it, she can do what she wants. But making the sisters older makes this a different story (in the original, Lizzy, by her own admission, "is not yet one-and-twenty," and Jane is slightly older). It makes it, in fact, Persuasion, where Anne Elliot is considered old at twenty-eight. In Pride & Prejudice, no one was really thinking (yet) that the girls were poor marriage material because they were too old.

2. Sittenfeld has set the book in Cincinnati, which is fine, actually. I like the American setting and I love me a good Midwestern city. But is she trying to make it the drabbest city ever? The city where the only landmark of note is a chili restaurant? For all the interest she shows in actually showing Cincinnati she could have set this book anywhere. Or nowhere.

3. In the original, it seemed like Lizzy's and Jane's (and the three other Bennet girls') father was, you know, various things. Suffering a bit, maybe, for picking a pretty wife who could have used a bit more going on upstairs. He seems a bit standoffish. Lazy, most likely. And definitely funny. In this one he just seems mean.**

4. Okay, Sittenfeld, other characters constantly commenting on the ST (sexual tension) between Lizzy and Darcy doesn't actually make for ST between Lizzy and Darcy. There is none. And can we stop using the abbreviation ST? It sounds like a terrible tagline to convince people that getting herpes is fun or something: "Herpes: Putting the ST back in STDs!"

5. Yes, yes, we get it, this is modern times, Jane has sex with Bingley on the first date and Lizzy and Darcy realize they are made for each other while engaging in frequent "hate sex." Related to Number 4: for the amount of hate sex and ST that supposedly goes on in this book, it is the least sexy and least ST-y book I have ever read in my life.

6. One of the most fun characters of all time, bossy old lady and grouch Catherine de Bourgh, appears here as a feminist icon who Lizzy interviews for work, and has no connection to either her or Darcy.

7. The chapters veer oddly from being one page long to fifteen or more. The book also feels about 100 pages too long. Editor? Was there an editor involved?

8. The title, "Eligible," comes from the fact that Chip Bingley (Jane's intended) appeared on a "The Bachelor"-like show called "Eligible." I cannot comment on this ridiculous subplot, as by the time I came to the last hundred or so pages of the book and it seemed to focus almost entirely on the minutiae of filming such a show, with both Jane and Chip (and the rest of the Bennet family) appearing on it, I couldn't stand the boredom anymore and just started skimming.

9. The twist concerning Lydia's marriage actually makes Lydia seem like an open-minded and likable person. That does not seem like the Lydia Bennet in the original. I'm just saying.

Bleah. Bleah bleah bleah. Of course, Sittenfeld is a critical darling, so you can read more positive reviews of this book here*** and here, if you are so inclined.

*In all fairness, I didn't get far enough into Prep to even say that I've read it. I think I got about twenty pages in and realized I didn't care one iota about one word of it I'd read, and took it back to the library.

**Although he was the source of the one line that made me laugh in this novel, when he and Lizzy are at a doctor's appointment: "'Fred!' the nurse said, though they had never met. 'How are we today?'

Reading the nurse's name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm. 'Bernard! We're mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?'" (p. 82.) You're welcome. That's the only exchange in the entire book that seems vaguely reminiscent of Austen's flair for the funny.

***In this article I learned that Cincinnati is actually the author's hometown. I honestly would never have guessed.

Wednesday Martin's Primates of Park Avenue: Skip it.

I wasn't all that bothered by all of the media pieces accusing Wednesday Martin of playing fast and loose with her facts in her bestselling memoir Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir. I was more bothered by the fact that it just wasn't that interesting.

Perhaps it's just a subject-matter problem. How interesting can you make stories of parenting and living among extreme wealth on Manhattan's Upper East Side? Doesn't anyone with a TV or any basic cultural knowledge about New York City (or even just extremely wealthy people) know that Alpha Moms and Dads with a lot of money compete viciously among themselves for places for their children in the right preschools and schools, not to mention living in the "right" door-manned buildings and carrying the right Birkin bags? Martin tries to give an anthropological spin to this memoir--throwing in Anthropology Lite tidbits here and there to explain dominance behavior like other women aggressively "charging" her on the sidewalk, or the dangers of "going native"--but nothing is noted, footnoted, or really explored in any real in-depth way to make that tactic any more than a gimmick to sell this book.

The book did periodically give me a chuckle (but not really for the right reasons); I enjoyed this quote, when Martin is talking about trying to sell their townhouse downtown: "I was forever making it look pristine and then rushing out the door so a broker and client could "view" it." (p. 25.)

Now I don't know if we should blame Martin or her editor for that one, but all I could think was, come on, Wednesday. We sell houses in the Midwest too; you don't really have to put "view" in quotes for us.

In one of the final chapters, Martin actually does do some poignant writing about losing a baby while in her second (nearing her third) trimester, and nobody who has ever had a baby or lost a baby will be unaffected by it. But even then she reminds you that the problems of the rich are entirely different from those of the not rich:

"She [the expected third child that they lost] was a burden, in a way, this baby, taxing our space and stealing the older one's crib and requiring private school and college tuition and a renovation and four or five more years of a full-time nanny." (p. 207.)

I'm sorry for her loss, but those aren't really worries [oh, those full-time nannies, they really do cost!] to which I can relate. Skip this one.

Brian Grazer's A Curious Mind: Disappointing.

I so badly wanted to like Brian Grazer's book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.

I don't actually know anything about Brian Grazer (beyond the facts that he is a Hollywood movie producer with big hair who runs Imagine Entertainment with Ron Howard), but this book got a lot of good press and it's based on a rather engaging idea. Grazer has spent much of his adult life engaged in what he calls "curiosity conversations," whereby he just tries to get some time with interesting and/or famous people, and have a chat. About nothing really in particular.

And I loved the first chapter, when Grazer is explaining his idea, and how he got started in work and with this curiosity habit. Very engaging stuff:

"One Thursday afternoon, the summer after I graduated from the University of Southern California (USC), I was sitting in my apartment in Santa Monica with the windows open, thinking about how to get some work until I started law school at USC in the fall.

Suddenly, through the windows, I overheard two guys talking just outside. One said, 'Oh my God, I had the cushiest job at Warner Bros. I got paid for eight hours of work every day, and it was usually just an hour.'

This guy got my attention. I opened the window a little more so I wouldn't miss the rest of the conversation, and I quietly closed the curtain.

The guy went on to say he had been a legal clerk. 'I just quit today. My boss was a man named Peter Knecht.'

I was amazed. Sounded perfect to me.

I went right to the telephone, dialed 411, and asked for the main number at Warner Bros.--I still remember it, 954-6000.

I called the number and asked for Peter Knecht. An assistant in his office answered, and I said to her, 'I'm going to USC law school in the fall, and I'd like to meet with Mr. Knecht about the law clerk job that's open." (p. 2.)

Now that's hilarious. That story is proof that the meek will not inherit the earth, at least not while we're on the earth. I enjoyed the story even more as Grazer talks about how he parlayed it into meeting famous people; the largest part of the job was basically ferrying legal paperwork around, so when he had to deliver papers to people he wanted to meet, like Warren Beatty, he just told their assistants that he had to hand the legal papers to them personally. I just laughed and laughed at the sheer clever ballsiness of this guy. So I was more than ready to continue on the curiosity journey with him.

How disappointing, then, that the rest of the book, ostensibly focusing on the conversations Grazer has had with people over the years*, read more like a business book treatise (and not a particularly compellingly written treatise at that) on the merits of having curiosity. I skimmed through most of the book, but mainly I ended up feeling like the victim of a massive bait-and-switch: Grazer would tease with the name/s of people he spoke with, but he never really shared any concrete details of their conversations. Instead he veers off into a lot of this sort of thing:

"Unlike creativity and innovation, though, curiosity is by its nature more accessible, more democratic, easier to see, and also easier to do." (p. 61.)

Blah blah blah, whatever. Yeah, curiosity is great. I get it. It's not a complicated concept. Now would you just tell me what you and Rufus Wainwright TALKED ABOUT??**

*And he's talked to a LOT of interesting people; he lists his conversational partners at the end of the book, and they include (but are not limited to): Muhammad Ali, Isaac Asimov, Tyra Banks, Jeff Bezos, Vincent Bugliosi, Jim Cramer, Mario Cuomo, David Hockney, Chris Isaak, Wolfgang Puck...

**When I saw Rufus Wainwright on his list of people, I got super excited (because I read the list before reading the book), thinking I would get to hear about his conversation with Wainwright. (Oh, Rufus.) Alas, I found that the book contains only the briefest of anecdotes about his discussions with just a very select few of his interviewees.

Very British Problems...

as a Twitter account* posting such items as the below was more than enough. I really don't know that it needed to be made into a book.

"'Right, well, anyway, good, I suppose I should really probably soon start to think about maybe making a move" - Translation: Bye" [Note: Evidently, this sort of thing is considered a "very British problem."]

And there you have it. My brevity may not be the soul of much wit, but it is all I have the energy for tonight. Have a great weekend, all.

*p.s. I still don't understand Twitter, and honestly, I think I'm happier that way.

I do not understand the appeal of David Shields at all.

Over the last few years a nonfiction author's name I have seen a lot is "David Shields." When I come across his name or his titles, which often appear on many end-of-year "Best" lists, they always sound vaguely interesting. Like his book The Thing about Life Is that One Day You'll Be Dead. Intriguing, right? Also: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Even more intriguing, sometimes, is the jacket copy on these books. Here's how Reality Hunger is described:

"With this landmark book, David Shields fast-forwards the discussion of the central artistic issues of our time. Who owns ideas? How clear is the distinction between fiction and nonfiction? Has the velocity of digital culture rendered traditional modes obsolete? Exploring these and related questions, Shields orchestrates a chorus of voices, past and present, to reframe debates about the veracity of memoir and the relevance of the novel. He argues that our culture is obsessed with “reality,” precisely because we experience hardly any, and urgently calls for new forms that embody and convey the fractured nature of contemporary experience."

If you overlook that "landmark book" stuff, what you have there is a book that it seems like I would be interested in reading. So I checked it out, and then I tried for weeks to get past the first few pages. I couldn't do it. Same problem with another of his titles, How Literature Saved My Life. (Yet another title you'd think I would eat up with a spoon.) But I persist in trying to understand this author's appeal, or even, just being able to finish one of his books.

Well, the good news is that I did make it all the way through his new book, I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. The bad news is, I still don't understand why this guy is a bestselling nonfiction author. Perhaps the quickest way to show you how I felt about this book would be to suggest some alternate titles for it that occurred to me while I was reading it:

"Two D-Bags Have the World's Most Boring Conversation"*

"Two Guys Find Yet Another Way to Avoid Housework and Family Obligations While They Take a Four-Day Vacation Together"

"We'll Bill This As an Art Vs. Life Conversation, But Really What We Have Here Is Four Days' Worth of Not Very Interesting Male Digressions"

"People Will Obviously Buy Anything with David Shields's Name On It, So Here You Go"

So what is it about? Literally, author David Shields and his former writing student Caleb Powell, one a bestselling author in his fifties, and the other a house-husband and father of three in his forties, take four days to hang out in a friend's cabin together and discuss "everything they can think of in the name of exploring and debating their central question (life and/or art?)." I really did read the whole thing, because at some point I expected them to actually get at something remotely resembling a debate about "life and/or art," but honestly, they never did. They discussed:

Their teacher/student dynamic; their wives and whether or not said wives read and like their work; the "x-factor" each of them need to enjoy stories or TV programs; sports; Powell's interest in violence and true crime and the nature of suffering; at one point they actually include a several-page transcript of the movie "My Dinner with Andre"; Caleb's experience with a transvestite in Samoa and his desire to explore that experience in fiction; a wide variety of authors (although they manage to take all the fun out of that, even, with David saying things like "It's crucial to me that these books rotate outward toward a metaphor"); how many kids they each have; capitalism; their mothers; Caleb's drinking; and then back to their teacher/student dynamic. So, okay, the conversation is wide-ranging. But nowhere does it actually take on the flesh-and-blood feel to me of a real conversation. It certainly didn't answer (or really even raise, in my opinion) the question of "art vs. life."**

A long time ago I went to a church service with my mother-in-law when their regular pastor was on vacation, and they had this little eighteen-year-old boy who was a counselor at the religious summer camp down the road in to give the homily. I don't remember what he talked about, but I do remember it was borderline annoying and I mainly wanted to pat the clueless little dear on the head, and tell him to get down from the podium so my mother-in-law, a woman then in her late fifties, could get up there and tell us a few things about how life actually is. This book gave me that exact same feeling. I think all of us should get four-day vacations wherein we just chew the fat with someone and then publish the results. I'm pretty sure 90% of those efforts would be accidentally more interesting than this one.***

And please note: this book has been adapted into a film by James Franco. God help us.

*I am aware that this is not very nice. I apologize. I can be nice, or I can be honest about how this book made me feel, but I can't be both.

**Other reviewers would disagree with me.

***Except not this book. Evidently two guys talking and annoying the crap out of me is a new mini-genre of nonfiction.

Reading experiences of 2014: Best and Worst

Well, it's April now, so it feels like it might be time for some posts wrapping up my reading experiences in 2014. As you can tell, productivity and I have simply not been in the same room since the arrival of the CRjrs.*

So I'm looking back over my clumsy reading spreadsheets for last year, and strangely enough, I think my strongest reading experiences, pro and con, were both centered on fiction books. Let's start with con, shall we?

Horrible fiction, thy title is Shotgun Lovesongs. Back in July of 2014 I had a few choice words for that novel. I still can't believe the good press it got**--the more I think of the author's portrayals of women, which were one-dimensional in the extreme (although his portraits of his male characters also needed at least one more dimension to be considered "multi-dimensional"), the more sickened I am that they're making it into a movie. Bah.

On the other hand, the positive reading experience...was so POSITIVE. Tune in tomorrow to see what book (or books) made my whole reading year worthwhile.

*But who cares? Lately CRjr has been hitting the local libraries--hard--for all their shark books (although books on the planets are running a strong second), and it's so awesome. Our living room looks like we are starting our own juvie nonfiction library.

**Incidentally, the positive New York Times Review accidentally reveals what I thought sucked about the whole novel: "The real star of “Shotgun Lovesongs” is Hank’s wife (and high school sweetheart), Beth, who provides the novel’s most substantial female voice. Both insider and outsider to Little Wing’s buddy culture, Beth offers our clearest glimpses into the hearts of the men around her." Yeah, she's the "real star" of the book, and what does she do for us? Ooh, she gives us glimpses into the hearts of the men around her. Thank God we have women characters around to use to get to know the male characters better. Bah!

Moms who drink and swear.

I am firmly on record as not minding swearing in my nonfiction (or fiction, really) books. However, I do think the swearing needs to be warranted. (For instance: I don't mind it when Matt Taibbi swears in his writing. I think most of the topics he covers require some amount of swearing, such as when he perfectly describes Alan Greenspan as a "one in a billion asshole.")

However, one book I leafed through recently contained just too much (unwarranted) swearing to be amusing. The title? Appropriately enough, Moms Who Drink and Swear: True Tales of Loving My Kids While Losing My Mind. It's a collection of short essays, based on the author's blog of the same name,* and it just didn't do much for me. For instance, she includes what she calls "Conversations with Crotchfruit" (the "crotchfruit" being her children? I've never heard that word, personally):

"Zach: Why do you wear underwear that goes straight up your butt?

Me: Thongs? I wear these so underpants lines don't show through my pants, okay?

Zach: And it probably doesn't get stuck in all those dents all over your butt either. I get it.

Me: OH MY GOD! GET OUT!" (p. 49.)

I have several questions about this exchange. Mainly, because this is a woman who also references sometimes suffering from hemorrhoids, what on earth is she doing wearing thong underwear? Let's just say this was a woman to whom I couldn't relate. I read about fifty pages, wondered why I was wasting my time, and took it back to the library.

Here's a sample entry from the blog: "In July, I posted the first of what I hope will be many Fuck You Dinner recipes, a recipe for good goddamn homemade chicken tenders. I promised to share more, but I’ve spent the summer telling dinner to go fuck itself and letting my crothfruit’s shitty dinner requests roll and not cooking much." That's pretty much what the book is like.

And one book I outright hated: Shotgun Lovesongs.

Shotgun Lovesongs
by Nickolas Butler

Well, I'll say this for Nickolas Butler's novel Shotgun Lovesongs: it jolted me out of my "meh" week of reading. Mainly because I hated it so, so much.

If you are not familiar with this novel, be aware that critics are treating it like the second coming.* (And: really? Two reviews in the New York Times? They can't find any other new novels around to review?) Because of all its good press, and because it is by a Wisconsin author, I thought I would give it a try. I must admit that the description of it at Powell's is not one that would have made me pick it up otherwise: "In this love ballad to the Midwest, author Nickolas Butler gives us a glimpse inside small-town Wisconsin. The novel follows a circle of friends — a farmer, a rock star, a businessman, a mother, and a rodeo cowboy — as they each come to grips with the choices and events that have set the course in their lives."

If I'd read the phrase "love ballad to the Midwest" before I requested the book from the library, I probably wouldn't have bothered. But one day I was casting about for something to read, and as my sister had been asking me about this one too, I thought, well, I'd better read this. I only got about three chapters in and I was having a pretty strong reaction to it (much the way one "reacts" to milk when one is lactose intolerant, just to keep my metaphors suitably "love ballad to the Midwest"ish). So yes, I probably should have put it down. But then I read another review that said Butler had a real touch with writing his main female character, so I thought I'd stay with it through one of her chapters, and by the time I was done with that, I thought, well, hell, I just need closure now. And I got closure, in the form of a completely stupid "insight" about marriage, that I will not reveal to you, but which I will say was the lamest, most surface, most conventional "insight" about marriage ever, and one which, in the course of my twelve married years and my many more years of observing many other marriages, is almost completely untrue.

So what was there to dislike?

Well, perhaps I can best sum it up like this: this book is "Man Lore" to the extreme. Which should be no surprise, it's about a group of small-town Wisconsin friends in the two decades (give or take a few years) after their high school graduation. The story is told from several of the friends' points of view, as well as the point of view of one of their wives, and yes, each chapter is headed up with the initial of the person doing the talking ("B" for Beth, e.g.). Now this is your first problem. If I can't tell who's talking from your writing, without someone's name or initial at the head of the chapter, then you, Mr. or Ms. Lazy Writer, are not properly doing your job.

Forget the Midwest; most of the men telling the stories in this book talk like they're in an old Western:

"Ronny dried out in the hospital over the course of several months, often restrained in his bed, and we came to the hospital to hold his hand. His grip was ferocious, his veins seemed everywhere ready to jump right out through his sweaty flesh. His eyes were scared in a way I had only seen in horses. We wiped his forehead and did our best to hold him down to the earth." (p. 7.)

Brother. There's a whole lot of passages like that. Here's salt-of-the-earth farmer Henry describing how he and his wife Beth get ready to go to their other friend Kip's wedding:

"Beth changed her ensemble five times that morning, switching out her shoes, her necklaces, her earrings. I understood. Had I owned more than one suit, I would have done the same thing. As it was I just sat in a battered old chair in our bedroom and watched her. She was beautiful to me. I could see that she had shaved her legs, supple and taut above the easy grip of her heels. She mussed her hair and pursed her lips at the mirror.

'What do you think?' she said finally, turning to me.

I stood and went to her, understanding right then that we were already growing older, that we would grow old together." (p. 30.)

As if that isn't painful enough, they actually share a little slow dance together after that.

Now, if I may? I actually am a Midwestern farmer's daughter. And let me paint you a little picture of how real dairy farmers get ready for a wedding:

"Mom rushed around with her dress unzipped, yelling at her daughter to call out to the barn and see where the hell Dad was. She did, and her brother told her their Dad was still out raking hay; rain was forecast the next day and acres of hay were going to get wet and ruined if they didn't get it put in the barn before that. The girl reported this news to her mother, who muttered, 'every damn time we have a wedding to go to...' before dashing off to finish making a cold cuts plate and salad for her brothers' supper. The girl sighed. She'd been counting on having Mom and Dad out for the afternoon, but now she knew they probably wouldn't leave in time for the ceremony and that they'd also probably have to leave the reception right after bolting some supper because Dad hadn't missed a milking, morning or night, in twenty-five years, and he certainly wasn't going to tonight for some stupid wedding dance."

Stick that in your "love ballad to the Midwest" pipe, Butler, and smoke it.

Anyway. I digress. Here's the takeaway: if you want to read a novel about a bunch of small-town Boy Men who are in love with a bunch of their Boy Men buddies, and one of their wives, who actually seems like a pretty unpleasant woman in her own right--she advises a friend who wants a baby (but whose husband is dragging his feet on the subject) to "make a mistake" with her birth control--then boy, do I have a novel for you.

If, on the other hand, you do want to read an authentic and beautifully written book about the Wisconsin experience, and one which features actual adult men who think about someone other than themselves at least every now and then, do yourself a favor and go get Michael Perry's memoir Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. You'll thank me, I promise you.

*This last review really hurt me, because it was by Jonathan Evison, whose novel All About Lulu I loved.

I've got no problem with indie and self-published books...

...but come on, authors, you've got to try harder than this.

For me, "book discoverability" (discussion about "book discoverability," and how to help people discover books, is all the rage right now in publishing and library circles) has never really been all that much of a problem. I discover books wherever I go; for me the problem is getting through even one-tenth or so of all the books I want to read or have lying around at any one time. A large part of how I find nonfiction books, for instance, is that I merely browse the list of all new nonfiction that my local public library system publishes every month. Whatever title piques my interest, I request.

I tell you that long-winded story because that is how I stumbled across the title Mad City Eats: Food Adventures in Madison, Wisconsin, by Adam Vincent Powell. That is a title that is certain to grab my interest on many levels: I like food, and foodie books. I'm always interested in local subjects and authors. And I'm always vaguely curious who these local authors are (if they are truly "local") and what they're out there doing.

But when I brought this book home, I was disappointed. I have no idea who this Adam Vincent Powell* is, and the book includes no introduction, preface, or really any kind of clue to enlighten me. The book literally just launches into its subject matter, which is a compendium of short chapters on restaurant reviews, thoughts on local food production, and topics like "where to hunker down in Madison if the zombie apocalypse comes." As far as I can tell, there is no organizing principle here--the restaurant reviews are not listed alphabetically or geographically, and they are just all mixed in with related chapters like the zombie apocalypse one. At the end of the book and on the back cover, there isn't even any sort of "About the Author" blurb! I'm a believer in modesty, but come on, Mr. Powell, that's ridiculous.

I read through the book over the course of several mornings while CRjr lovingly took his time over his breakfast, and I actually did enjoy it. The reviews are engagingly written and even the more esoteric chapters are not without their charm (where to hide during aforementioned zombie attack: "Jenifer St. Market: This neighborhood grocery standby would be a pretty good place to hole up in the event of a zombie outbreak, as it's small enough to defend but also has loads of beer, wine, and food, all key to dealing with Armageddon."). But in the end I never could get past the disconcerting nature of just being launched into a series of disparate chapters without any understanding of who was writing or publishing this book, and why.

*Evidently he's written a lot of food articles in local newspapers and The Onion.

Duel of the douchebags.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, I'm done.

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

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

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

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 at least like my manifestos to be helpful.

I was thoroughly annoyed by Charles J. Selden's The Consumerist Manifesto Handbook: The Guerilla's Guide to Making Corporations Pay for Faulty Goods, Substandard Services, and Broken Promises.

ManifestoAlthough I don't really have the energy to become a "consumer guerrilla," I do largely agree with the author that most corporations are out to make cheap, sell high, and by no means to provide anything approximating decent customer service. Largely I deal with this belief by striving not to buy anything I don't have to, but invariably, there are things a person needs.* And because I am the world's worst shopper, I somehow always manage (I feel) to get taken advantage of. So I thought this would be a handy little book for learning a few techniques for making complaints and actually getting them resolved.

Sadly: not so. Selden spends most of his book describing ways in which corporations take advantage of consumers (through various methods such as rushing goods to market; accepting a certain number of defects in their products because they'll make more money off them than they'll have to spend in resolving complaints; quality fade; customer disservice; etc.). Yeah, you're preaching to the choir here, Selden, I already KNOW that's what corporations are doing. I'm not saying a little background isn't helpful, but this is all old news for anyone who has bought any consumer goods in the past ten years.

Selden is also very good at relating stories about what a clever consumer guerrilla he is, most of which I just found obnoxious. Consider:"When I buy a prepackaged bag of food labeled fresh, I put any suspicious pieces--in their original containers--in the Returns Area of our pantry...Going to the minor trouble of retaining a couple of potatoes from a 5-pound bag, or even a couple of berries from a 1-pound box, nets me refunds for the entire container. Food retailers charge more for food because it is labeled 'fresh,' reason enough to raise consumerist expectations. Every potato and every berry had better be good--and fresh--or I'll expect a refund for the whole package--even if the majority was consumed." (p. 42.)

Now, that paragraph raises all sorts of questions. Were the majority of the foods they consumed actually "fresh" enough to meet their expectations, with one or two truly offending potatoes or berries really being "unfresh," or was the author just pulling a fast one, getting a refund for food already eaten?**

Later on the author discusses his wife's predilection for fancy-name clothes from Bergdorf Goodman***, and how he bought her a Barbara Bui suit on sale for $370 (marked down from $1,850), mailing it back to BG after ten months because its "feathery lapels" had started to lose feathers, and asking for an explanation or replacement. When they didn't hear back for a month, they called BG, who could confirm they had received the suit back but couldn't find it. Eventually BG offered to compensate them for losing the suit, asking them what they paid for it originally. The author's answer? The truthful (but again: dicey morally?) gambit, "I think it sold for around $1,800." BG offered a credit of $1,250, and the author took it, making $880 off a suit his wife wore for ten months.

I don't know what you think about that, but I'll tell you what I think: Gross. 

A greater problem with the book is that, although you may pick up some consumerist tips buried in the author's self-congratulating stories, the actual section on how to deal successfully with corporations that have you screwed you over only constitutes about twenty pages of the book (pages 155 through 172). It contains some not unhelfpul suggestions: have a couple of credit cards ready to use so you can always dispute charges on one or the other, document your purchases, write letters and find company officer names and phone numbers so you can call them at times amenable to you, not them, and so on. The appendix listing online resources is also not unhelpful.

But all in all: start your consumer guerrilla career by not spending the $14.95 on this book.

*The other day Mr. CR said to me, "hey, you have a big tear in your shorts, in a fairly obvious spot" (meaning, "I can see your underwear, and I don't want to, and neither do our neighbors"). And I said, "Oh NO...this is my one pair of shorts!" I can only hope that hot weather doesn't return any time soon.

**I get his larger point. Corporations shouldn't charge a premium for "freshness" if they can't back it up. But this is a level of semantics--and deliberations with front-line grocery store workers--to which I am simply too lazy to go. And I remember what I used to think of shoppers who came back to my farmers' market stand, demanding refunds for my produce that they'd eaten. It was not kind.

***How hilarious is that? Even when such "name" merchandise is on sale, talk about "made-up" value, that consumers impose upon themselves. I don't think you can blame companies for that one.

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.

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."

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 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.

Here's a surprise: another thriller I didn't enjoy.

Before I go to sleep tonight I have to tell you about the utterly disappointing reading experience that I had with S. J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep.

Sleep This novel's been getting a lot of buzz, and I understand that the author is being heralded as a prodigious talent (who was accepted into the new Faber Academy Writing a Novel course, where this novel was completed). I think it's being marketed as a thriller, although whether it should actually be called a thriller or a suspense novel is a fight I'll leave up to people who do more reading in those genres.

This novel worked in that I had to finish it for some closure, and in that it was a quick read, which seems to be what most people desire in a thriller. Christine is a middle-aged woman who wakes up every morning not remembering any of her life that came after her "accident," which her husband Ben, with whom she lives, tells her happened when she was twenty-nine. Each day, therefore, is a similar one of getting up, being told who she is and what happened, and then whiling away the day at home until Ben comes home and they spend time together. Until, that is, Christine starts secretly meeting with a doctor who has some ideas for how to help her regain her memory, including the suggestion that she start a journal (which he will call her about every day, to remind her of their treatment and to read the journal).

So far so good. And for about 50 pages I was actually interested. But then it slowed down and I started to get the inkling that the solution to the suspense part of the novel was going to be pretty simple. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: if I'm figuring out the mystery, the mystery is TOO EASY. I then shot myself in the foot and read the last ten pages, which I do a lot with mysteries*, but which pretty much confirmed what I already knew. In all the only feeling I can sum up about this one is "meh."** But that's largely the way I feel about thrillers anyway, so no news there.

*I know you're not supposed to do that with mysteries, but it's just habit now. And if it's a good mystery I'm reading, I don't mind...I read the end, then just go back to whatever page I was on and finish the whole thing with no less enjoyment. It's too late to change now--once I read all the Agatha Christies that way the habit was formed.

**Mr. CR read this one too, even though I tried to warn him off about it. He was liking it for a quite a while, but last night when I was reading something else he came into the room to discuss what he thought were a few of the gaping plot holes and the abrupt ending. I agreed with him completely, and also couldn't help reminding him that I tried to spare him the time of reading the whole thing, he just didn't listen. Because that's just the super-special wifely way I roll.

Retail (non)therapy.

So what's the subject I'm strangely fascinated by?

Malled It's retail. Or, as a close second, food service. I will read anything about the retail environment, even fiction, which is how I found myself with Caitlin Kelly's journalistic memoir titled Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.

Since the majority of my working life has been spent in jobs where I waited on people, I'm always fascinated to read other people's takes on that subject, and about the service environment in general. One of my favorite nonfiction reads is Paco Underhill's Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping--Updated and Revised for the Internet, the Global Consumer, and Beyond, which is a fascinating exploration of how people shop (I read the previous edition, so I may have to check this one out again). In Kelly's book, her take on shopping is a bit more personal: she spent more than two years working in a North Face store.

In a way, this is one of those "year in the life" books; Kelly took the retail job purely to supplement her journalism income and worked only two shifts a week (eventually downsizing to one shift). That's part of the problem here. Normally I enjoy these types of books, regardless of whether they're memoirs or investigative titles (this one is a mix of both), but this one feels phoned in. And I'm sorry, but if your entire service experience is comprised of two shifts (and then one) per week for a couple of years, you have not been a true service worker. Work a few service jobs at the same time, which is invariably what you have to do to make any money, and then come back and talk to me.

Kelly's day job is as a journalist, and she freely admits she got the job just to help supplement her paycheck and to get out of the apartment a couple of times a week. All I can say is: ho-hum. I was no huge fan of Barbara Ehrenreich's similar (but full-time, and more muckraking) title Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, but at least Babs gave it more of a college try than this author.*

The writing wasn't terrible, but a lot of times I felt I wasn't getting the whole story. This is the story she tells of how she was hired: "The money, of course, was sobering, stunningly low. It was less than I had earned as a teenage lifeguard in the 1970s--$9 an hour for part-timers, $11 for full-time, with no commission or bonus, but with a healthy discout on company products. And I would have to pay $8 just to park in the mall's lot for my shift--in effect losing the first hour of my labor. I asked for $11 an hour, working two days a week, Tuesdays from one to nine p.m. and Wednesdays during the day..." (pp. 16-17).

Huh? Never have I worked a service job where I didn't just take the pay they were offering. Are you telling me I could have asked for more? Does that work? Well, we'll never know, because Kelly never finished that story, so I never learned how her boss responded to that request. She also periodically alludes to challenging customers, but she never really describes any of her encounters with either scary or demeaning members of the public (and trust me, there's plenty of them around).

So yes, due to its subject matter, I read the whole thing. But did I enjoy it? Not really.

*By the way, a REALLY good title of this type ("I worked a shitty job to see what it was like") is Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do.

Women in Finance (Books) Week: Stereotypes Abound

One of my least favorite "tricks" listed in personal finance books for saving money is to "cut out buying your daily latte."

Pretty much everybody says it, and it makes me nuts every time. I don't know what kind of glamorous life these personal finance writers think I'm living, but I can assure you it doesn't include daily lattes.

Broke In today's entry in Women in Finance (Books) Week, we have the latte issue right up front in the title: Nancy Trejos's Hot (Broke) Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink It Too. Trejos is a personal finance columnist for The Washington Post, which is amazing, because this woman has no idea how to handle money:

"In January 2005, when I was twenty-eight, I bought an overpriced condo during the height of the real estate boom with my then-boyfriend, later my fiance, and then had to sell it at a loss two years later after we broke up. When I turned thirty, I bought a Volkswagen Beetle that I really couldn't afford because I got sick of my old car and wanted to drive around in something cute...After another bad breakup in April 2007, I blew all sorts of cash on a crazy trip through California..." (p. 6.)

Now, I don't really care what this woman does in her personal life or with her money. But she is a PERSONAL FINANCE COLUMNIST for The Washington Post? How does something like that happen?

This book is also hot pink.

This book is basic in the extreme: use your credit card responsibly, live within your means, be smarter with how you handle your money, especially in relationships, etc. It's really more of a memoir (she also details her experiences working with a financial planner) than a how-to, and unless you really need an introduction to how to control your finances, there will be nothing here for you. And, of course, there's this really annoying bit on page 197, when Trejos is well into (supposedly) taking back control of her finances:

"Over coffee at Starbucks one morning, Christine [her financial planner] and I reviewed my contributions..."

Well, as long as it was coffee, and not a latte.