Phoning It In

What is the appeal of Curtis Sittenfeld?

I really don't understand why Curtis Sittenfeld is such a popular author.*

Wife named her latest novel, American Wife, as one of its best of 2008, and it made the New York Times Notable list** (although I was pleased to note that reviewers at both Publishers' Weekly and Bookmarks magazine called it "uneven" and providing a "pat, unsatisfactory" answer to some of its key questions). You know this novel; Sittenfeld herself describes it thus:

"American Wife is a work of fiction loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady. Her husband, his parents, and certain prominent members of his adminstration are recognizable. All other characters in the novel are products of the author's imagination, as are the incidents concerning them."

The first lady in question is Laura Bush; Sittenfeld got a lot of her information from the biography The Perfect Wife by Ann Gerhart. (Her characters are named Alice Lindgren and Charlie Blackwell, and they're from Wisconsin, not Texas.) I don't have a problem, really, with Sittenfeld's writing; she's a competent, if not graceful, prose stylist, and you can actually get through the first 100 pages of this novel pretty easily and quickly. But here's the problem: Laura Bush is boring. So any book you base on her is going to be boring too. And even if you don't think she's boring, she's a woman who clearly and literally beds down with evil every night.*** Either way, is that a character you want to read about?

Give this one a pass. Sittenfeld does not need to be rewarded for her average prose and her "ripped from the headlines" plot device, which smacks ickily of a Jodi Picoult-like move to capitalize on news headlines and current affairs.

*Full disclosure: I've not been fond of Sittenfeld ever since her catty review of Melissa Bank's novel The Wonder Spot. Which, by the way, is about ten times the novel that American Wife is.

**Why am I still bothering to read New York Times Notable books? And I find it hilarious that Publishers' Weekly provided a much more astute review of this book than did the Times.

***Literally. Do you want to read and think about Laura and George having sex? I didn't.

Taibbi v. Friedman.

I know, by now by disdain for Thomas Friedman is well known. So why keep harping on it?

Well, for a few reasons. Number one, it's easy. I finally got my library copy of Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America. And I know the guy has to perpetuate his own brand, but does he really have to use his phrase "hot, flat, and crowded" five times in the first 37 pages? (Yes, I counted. I'm petty.) The only thing his "hot, flat, and crowded" catch phrase needs is the little "TM" after it.

Number two, I feel that I am in good company. Recently I found Matt Taibbi's review of this book, and it is so, so funny. (And accurate.) What I love about Taibbi is his ability to put into succinct and sparkling writing all the angry thoughts that are rolling around in MY head. He hates Friedman for all the right reasons:

"along comes Thomas Friedman, porn-stached resident of a positively obscene 114,000 11,400 square foot suburban Maryland mega-monstro-mansion and husband to the heir of one of the largest shopping-mall chains in the world, reinventing himself as an oracle of anti-consumerist conservationism.

Where does a man who needs his own offshore drilling platform just to keep the east wing of his house heated get the balls to write a book chiding America for driving energy inefficient automobiles? Where does a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie and even a motherfucking Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to the rest of us about the need for a “Green Revolution”? Well, he’ll explain it all to you in 438 crisply written pages for just $27.95, $30.95 if you have the misfortune to be Canadian."


"I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of stuff that only another writer would really care about—in particular his tortured use of the English language...

Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? 'It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,' he wrote, 'as long as you remember you’re driving without one.' Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman’s analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May:

'The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging.When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.'

First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the fuck is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never, ever happen."

Okay, I've already quoted too much, but I can't help it. I love Matt Taibbi* as much as I hate Thomas Friedman, and that's saying something. I am particularly grossed out by Hot, Flat, and Crowded because I learned that Friedman and I share a birthday--not the year but the same date. Gross! Now every birthday I have is going to be a little bit marred by the fact that I'll think of Friedman somewhere celebrating his birthday at the same time. Although maybe I can view it as another birthday closer to the end of his writing career (i.e., his death). Of course that will have to remind me of my own mortality but I can take it.

The fact that Friedman's book made the New York Times Notable list and Taibbi's (The Great Derangement) didn't shows that the editors at the New York Times, as Friedman might say, "know which side their porn-stache is buttered on."

*Incidentally, if you don't enjoy swearing, you may want to avoid this review.

Time to move on, Garrison.

Okay, Garrison, you're starting to phone it in a little bit. It's been a good run, but the Lake Wobegon well might actually be running dry.

Keillor I listened to Keillor's Never Better: Stories from Lake Wobegon last week, and I'll admit I may disagree with the title. And not because I dislike Keillor on principle (which I know some people do). The stories were fine, covering all the bases of community life, family life, and Catholics vs. Lutherans that we have come to expect. Keillor's in as fine a voice as ever; the stories are just lacking a little something.

But, I still enjoyed them, particularly the Christmas story where he points out that the people who want traditional Christmases with all the frills from their childhood are the rebellious adolescents, while the old ladies doing all the work are ready to chuck the traditions. I also had the joy of listening to it while Mr. CR was home--anything and everything Lake Wobegon makes him batty, in much the same way my love for the Red Green Show does. He's not really a big city guy, but homespun doesn't do much for him either.

So. There's a nice lukewarm review to head into the weekend on. If you're a dedicated Lake Wobegon fan, this volume will be fine. If you're looking for a great introduction to the series, start with some of the earlier versions (like More News from Lake Wobegon).

The Worst Books of 2008

Sure, we could have a best books list. But everybody else is doing that to death, so let's let our freak flag fly, shall we? So here are my nominees, in no particular order (links go to my original bitchy reviews):

1. What Happened, by Scott McClellan. Bush's former weenie press secretary tries to act like he didn't know Bush was evil when he originally took the job, and has now written a book to try and profit from the terrible mess he helped create. Mr. McClellan, you are a weenie, and your boring book filled with information we all already know deserves to be remaindered.

2. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, by Thomas Friedman. I'll admit it. I haven't even read this one, I just hate Friedman on principle. I hate that he's still trying to profit on his last book with the "flat" bit (playing on his previous title "The World is Flat") and I hate that he's such a book whore that he's now riding the "green revolution" to profit. What a jackhole. And, Mr. Friedman? Thanks again for so adamantly supporting the Iraq War. That's working out really well.

3. Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger, by Lee Israel. Israel tells her story of forging famous people's autographs and letters and selling them for profit. How she manages to make her story both boring and self-pitying, I'm not sure, but she sure did.

4. Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes. Yet another old man tells us about his atheism, how it developed, and how it relates to his fear of death. Um, why do I care again? Oh, right, because it's a New York Times Notable book, along with dozens of other boring choices.

5. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. Hamlet, retold from a dog's point of view (basically), over the course of about 200 more pages (562 pages total) than were necessary. Um, why do I care again? Oh yes, it's an Oprah book, and one of the most "buzzed about" titles of the year. I don't know who this Buzz is but I'm thinking he and I don't share the same taste in books.

6. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, by Thomas Kohnstamm. Like reading an account of a frat boy's life ("I drank a lot, women found me irresistible and screwed me, and now I'm relating all the details like the classy guy I am") with more international settings. And not terribly well-described international settings at that.

7. The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner, and Against Happiness, by Eric Wilson. The only thing that made me happy about these books was returning them to the library.

So how's about it? What titles annoyed the hell out of you this year?

The occupational hazards of proofreading.

I used to do some proofreading work for a publisher* of magazines and books for teachers and childrens' librarians. It was an okay job (and of course, could be done in my pyjamas, which it often was), but I remember one pet peeve I had with the job very clearly. Several of the authors whose work I proofread didn't understand the difference between "i.e." and "e.g.," which always made me crazy. Even crazier than authors who didn't understand the difference between "its" and "it's."

I don't actually know what "i.e." and "e.g." stand for, although I think it's something in Latin. But I do know that "i.e." means, approximately, "that is..." while "e.g." means "for example." So it's very easy to work out which one you should use: i.e., you should try them out in a sentence (e.g., like I just did).

Those are messy examples but you take my meaning. So yesterday I was reading along in Candace Bushnell's (she of Sex and the City fame) new novel One Fifth Avenue, and I came to this paragraph:

"'Isn't that some kind of record for you?' Schiffer asked. 'I thought you never went more than four years without getting hitched.'

'I've learned a lot since my two divorces,' Philip said, 'i.e.: Do not get married again. What about you? Where's your second husband?'"

Now there's really nothing wrong with that. "That is, do not get married again." But I don't know. I think I might have used an e.g. there: "For example: do not get married again." It's debatable, I know. But once I had that in mind I couldn't get it out of my mind, and fifteen pages later, I was still thinking about it. So I ditched the whole book. (I wasn't really enjoying it all that much anyway.)

*Speaking of proofreading, I'm pretty sure publishers have just quit doing it. On the very first page of American Prince: A Memoir, by Tony Curtis: "All my life I had one dream, and that was tobe in the movies." Sigh.

Career hazards.

Here's a sentence I never thought I'd type: Jenna Jameson's How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale remains the best sex industry memoir I've read.

Diary That's the thought I have after I read any sexual tell-all (and there's a surprising amount of them). The latest in a long line of "eh" reads was Secret Diary of a Call Girl. It's exactly what you would expect from the title: long on the salacious details, low on literary style, published primarily because of its subject matter. And sometimes that's okay. But there just wasn't much here that seemed all that shocking or fascinating.

What this says about me and my reading habits, I don't even want to think.

There was one diary entry that made me thankful not to be a call girl:

"It used to be simple to buy faintly embarrassing items and hide them in the rest of my there is one chemist I go to for normal things and another for everything else. Typical shopping at Chemist 1: shampoo, toothpaste, bath salts, cucumber gel mask, loofah scrubber. Today's shopping at Chemist 2: tampons, vaginal pessary (for irritation), condoms, sugarless breath mints, lubricant, individual postwaxing wipes, self-tanning liquid, razor blades, potassium citrate granules (for cystitis)." (p. 158.)

Just reading that list makes me uncomfortable. Evidently I do not have a future in call girlism.

Last reminder (I promise): Don't forget to scroll down and vote for the next Book Menage books!

Last Two Political Books of 2008: Part two.

I hereby pledge to you that I will be reading and posting about no more political books for the rest of the year. Yes, I will continue to watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report online, because you have to reward a show that reports from the Larry Craig bathroom at the Republican National Convention:

But before I ignore political books, turn off the TV news, and generally stick my head in the sand, I'd like to share a paragraph from Scott McClellan's completely pointless and largely very boring book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception:

Mcclellan "One of the most memorable images that stands out to me took place during one of the president's visits to Walter Reed. He would go from room to room, visiting with the wounded soldiers and their loved ones. I entered a room just ahead of him and stood by the doorway. The room was dimly lit. A young mom from Texas and her seven-year-old son were seated next to their husband and father. He sat upright in a wheelchair, motionless. His head was covered in white gauze and bandage from the top down to his eyes. He was clearly not aware of his surroundings; the brain injury was severe.

The president entered just after me. He walked over to the mom and hugged her. He put his hand on the son's shoulder and told him, 'Your dad is a very brave man.' After visiting briefly, Bush turned back to the soldier, placed his hand gently on the wheelchair, bent down, and softly kissed the top of his head before whispering in his ear, 'God bless you.'...

These visits had a way of reinforcing the president's resolve to successfully complete the mission--to press ahead. The momentary doubt became, in the end, another reason for his unshakable determination.

Still another motive for Bush to avoid acknowledging mistakes was his determination to win the political game at virtually any cost." (pp. 208-209.)

That just makes me sick on so many levels I don't know where to start. I can talk about one level, though: throughout the book McClellan points out how he was just repeating what he was told, and had NO IDEA everyone in the administration was a lying sack of shit. You know what I say? Methinks McClellan doth protest too much. I'm pretty sure he knew everyone was lying. And anyone who can watch the scene above without wanting to punch the hypocritical God-blessin' president in the gut* is a bad man.

We're done here. I promise.

*I know, violence isn't the answer. But he sure does bring it out in me.

No, I can't forgive you.

I did not enjoy Lee Israel's Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger. The story's simple. Israel, who was, for a time, a bestselling biographer of such titles as Estee Lauder: Beyond the Magic and Miss Tallulah Bankhead, recounts her freefall into authorial obscurity and poverty (particularly after sales of the Estee Lauder bio tanked). So what did she do to make her living? Why, she started forging letters from such luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and film star Louise Brooks, of course. Isn't that what anyone would do?

Forger Israel explains her methods, which included visiting letter and author archives, tracing signatures, and stealing old, blank pieces of paper from those collections to use as the authentic antique paper for her forgeries. Eventually she graduated to stealing letters and re-selling them, along with an accomplice, until she was caught by the FBI in 1992 and eventually sentenced to five years' probation. I'd like to explain the whole sordid affair better, but I'll admit I only skimmed the 127 pages of the narrative, as, in addition to sounding snarky, Israel managed to make her tale dull as well.

Wondering if she feels any remorse? Nah. Here she explains it:

"The forged letters were larky and fun and totally cool. Parodies of icons--Coward, Ferber, Mrs. Parker, Louise, Lillian Hellman, and poor Clara Blandick. They totaled approximately 100,000 words, give or take...I still consider the letters to be my best work. Reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman's summing up in Tootsie, I was a better writer as a forger than I had ever been as a writer. Any remorse I experience about this phase of my life in crime has nothing to do with the money various dealers might have lost; I think most of the dealers came out ahead. The remorse here is personal. I betrayed some people whom I had grown to like." (p. 127.)

Wow, how very heartfelt. Oh, and Ms. Israel, your forgeries of Dorothy Parker? I'm pretty sure anyone who read them was probably convinced by her forged signature, while they simultaneously thought, hmm, Mrs. Parker must have been having an off day. You, madam, ARE NO DOROTHY PARKER.

What a stupid book. Skip it.

Why don't I love her?

This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided NationI don't know why, but I've never been a huge Barbara Ehrenreich fan. This is awkward, since I agree with her on most (not all) issues of political policy. I always check her books out when they come out. A lot of times I even chuckle at a lot of her writing. But for some reason, I never get her book and say, "At last! My new Ehrenreich is in!" At most, I give a little shrug of "hm, I should probably read this, I guess," and then leave it until right before it's due to read it.

Her latest, This Land is Their Land, has not done much to endear her to me. Again, there's nothing I disagree with here. It's basically a book of essays about the growing gap between the rich and the poor and the increasing classism in our society. Parts of it are very amusing; she's always had a nice ability to turn a phrase. Consider:

"Twenty years ago it was risky to point out the growing inequality in America. I did it in a New York Times essay and was quickly denounced, in the Washington Times, as a 'Marxist.' If only. I've never been able to get through more than a couple of pages of Das Kapital, even in English." (p. 23.)

Now, that's amusing. I also enjoyed her chapter outlining a connection between modern calorie-counting and high carb diets and modern fat-deprived executives therefore never feeling sated by food or money. With that she contrasts her own diet when growing up:

"We ate eggs every morning, meat for lunch, and meat again for dinner, invariably accompanied by gravy or at least pan drippings. We buttered everything from broccoli to brownies and would have buttered butter itself if it were not for the problems of traction presented by the butter-butter interface." (p. 30.)

She's also very, very sharp. This is a powerful statement: "According to Wal-Mart defenders, those low prices hinge not only on improvements in productivity but on the low wages and benefits offered to Wal-Mart's workers. In other words, you've got to squeeze one part of the working class--the 1.3 million Wal-Mart employees--to fill the shopping carts of the others." (p. 137.)

So there's nothing wrong with the writing.* But part of the problem, at least with this book, is my uneasy feeling that she's just as big a slave to the market economy as the rest of us: this collection feels hastily stapled together, in my opinion. The essays are just kind of jammed in here, from minimum wages to illegal immigrants to Wal-Mart to health care. I think part of the problem may be that publishers and readers are expecting everyone, even nonfiction authors, to crank out one or two books a year, a la James Patterson (although he exceeds expectations by farming his writing out and offering three to four craptacular money-making wastes of paper and ink annually, the greedy fucker).

So yeah, it was all right. But I just don't need a book a year from Ehrenreich.**

*For the record, Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus is a very similar, and much better, book about polarized American society.

**My favorite Ehrenreich Anecdote is when my mother shocked the hell out of me by telling me, out of nowhere, that "that Nickel and Dimed book was pretty good." This from the woman who, when I once quoted something from Harper's Magazine, asked me if I was reading "THAT Communist rag!" now. Hmm.

If your bosses try and pull this shit, walk out on them.

I have found a book that you must hope your bosses never find. It's titled The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up, by Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher. It's a terrible, evil, painfully optimistic book, and in chapter 7, the authors list "142 Ways to Have Fun at Work." What follows are the highlights:

2. Offer to shave your head if your team reaches a goal. If you're already bald, offer to paint your dome.

13. Have a theme day and have employees decorate their cubicles and compete for prizes.

19. To get a meeting started with a bang, have employees come up with two truths about themselves one one lie. Everyone else must guess which one is the lie.

21. Cari Gray, HR director of Panera Bread, says, "My recruiter and I do a 'hiring dance' every time we get an accepted job offer for a management fill.  Whoever is around at the time gets to see it."

50. Instead of all day, have a casual day that starts at noon on Wednesday. Have people bring their casual clothes to change into over the lunch hour.

58. Without changing your voice, page yourself over the intercom.

89. Have a shoes optional day.

Holy Christ. If your bosses try any of those, kill them. I'm sorry, but that's the way it has to be. No jury of your working peers will convict you.

An open letter to Random House.

Dear Random House:

God, do you suck.

The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular FictionCan you tell me why you chose to have some author bother writing a book called The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction? I mean, it's a good idea and all. I was very excited to read it, because I am nerdy and like to read books about reading. Before I settled in to read the whole thing, I wanted to check what the author said about James Patterson, because I hate James Patterson (mainly because he's, as one of the characters in the movie "Office Space" referred to Michael Bolton, a "no-talent ass clown."). I know that also makes me nerdy. Still.

So imagine my consternation when I flipped to the index to research Patterson and found THAT THERE WAS NO INDEX.

I ask you, what the hell is the point of a book like this if you're not going to offer an index?  You think a whole ton of pleasure readers are out there dying to pick up a book titled The Triumph of the Thriller? Somehow I doubt it. Students, researchers, librarians, nerds like me, that should have been your bread and butter.

And do you know what nerds like me say to books that need indexes and publishers who don't provide them? Fuck you, you cheap bastards. After all, just because I'm a nerd doesn't mean I don't believe in profanity.


Citizen Reader

Library memoirs smackdown.

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public LibrarianWelcome to Round One of the championship match between two library worker memoirs: Scott Douglas's Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian, and Dan Borchert's Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library.

Okay, let's start.  Douglas's book features a lot of talk about what it means to work in a library and be a public servant.  Borchert's book features shorter chapters telling more amusing tales about the aforementioned oddballs, geeks, and gangstas who frequent the library.

That's one point to Borchert.

Douglas's book also features several boring chapters on his escapades in library school, which failed to capture my interest at all.  Borchert pretty much skips all that in favor of more action-oriented, if scarier, chapters about actually working in the library.

That's two for Borchert.

Douglas starts his chapters which a device this reader used to enjoy but now just finds annoying because it's been overused: "Being the part where our hero discovers library school is pretty much the most absurd thing librarians ever invented* and his faculty advisor is kind of a dick."  Borchert doesn't.

Are you starting to see my point?

I don't know why I didn't enjoy Quiet, Please much, much more than I did.  It wasn't that I thought Free For All was such a great book; I was actually very excited to get Quiet, Please because I thought it might be better.  But it wasn't.  Not for me, anyway.  And I know this because I was able to finish Free For All, and it didn't give me the feeling that I really disliked the author.  Every now and then Douglas gets it right ("the loudest elderly women always had the quietest elderly husbands") but all in all?  Very disappointing.  The book had its origins in McSweeney's Dispatches from a Public Librarian, which I actually like more than I liked his book.  Consider reading those first.

And, one last thing: does anyone else find it strange that in a profession dominated by women, the two memoirs available are by men?  I don't usually have paranoid feminist leanings but this makes me wonder.

*Well, I can't really disagree with this point.

Scott McClellan is a weenie.

I had a different post all ready for this morning, but then became subject to a bombardment of Scott McClellan in the media, and thought that badmouthing him would be a more timely issue.

Look at this man.  Do you really want to give him $27.95?  I didn't think so.

All day yesterday he and his little Bush administration tell-all, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, were featured on Yahoo.  This morning, he was on all the networks I get (to steal a great line from the movie Broadcast News, "I think he was live on two of them"), along with Bush's current minions professing shock at his betrayal.

According to today's reports*, here are some tidbits from the book: Bush is a liar.  Karl Rove will do anything to win.  Cheney views the world as full of evil he must conquer.

Are you KIDDING me?  Is any of that still news?  For THIS he gets all-day headlines on Yahoo and major broadcast media coverage?  Not only is the man a weenie, he is the worst kind of weenie: he did his evil boss's bidding (quite gleefully, I'm sure) for years, and now he's a turncoat for personal profit.  Puke.

So please don't buy this book.  I wish no one would, until McClellan announces that all his profits will be going to victims of the Iraq War (on both sides of the conflict).  I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen.

*This just in, thanks to Bookslut: an excerpt at the Washington Post