Pop Culture

Holiday Book Buying Guide 2015: For the Anglophile in your life

Know any Anglophiles? You know, your friend who watches more British TV than she does American, and (largely as a result of that) clicks on all the royal family linkbait she comes across?*

Well, if you need a gift for an Anglophile, you could go more wrong than buying Fraser McAlpine's fun pop culture/reference guide Stuff Brits Like. In short chapters McAlpine covers a wide variety of subjects of interest to those with an interest in all things British: Pedantry, Talking About the Weather, Apologizing Needlessly, Sarcasm**, the National Health Service, Dunking Biscuits, and many, many more. It's engagingly written (as seen in this chapter on "Reality TV"):

"It's bubble-popping time! A certain number of people may be interested in reading a book about British culture because they believe the world is going to aitch-ee-double-hockeysticks in a handcart and entertainment media are throwing vacuous nonentities out there as hard and as fast as they can and it's the end of civilization as we know it unless the British--with their tradition of theater and literature and thinking hard about stuff--have the key to making everything okay. Surely they won't have fallen prey to the base demands of reality TV? Surely they've seen through the giddy parade of desperate egos and stuck to watching BBC dramatizations of the lives of prominent scientists, starring Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston? Surely? Please?

Sorry. That hasn't happened. I mean yes, Benedict Cumberbatch has made those dramas, that's still a thing, but the Brits are as dazzled by reality TV as anyone." (p. 160.)

It's also got loads of pop culture references, to British music, films, and television shows that any Anglophile worth their salt will simply drool over.

So do you know anyone who reads all British books and watches all British TV and whose crushes are exclusively Brit stars like Tom Hardy and James McAvoy? Buy them this book, and Bob's your uncle***, they'll love you forever.

*I may or may not be describing myself.

**You can see why I love these people.

***You'll know what I'm saying if you're an Anglophile.

Holiday Book Buying Guide 2015: For the Bill Murray fan in your life.

I thought I'd put a twist on the holiday book buying guide experience by suggesting some ridiculously specific books for specific readers. What do you think?*

I really, really enjoyed Robert Schnakenberg's compendium The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray. Arranged in an A to Z format, every single topic you can possibly think of, from Murray's movies to family to personal likes and dislikes, is here. It's also got a lot of great quotes, pictures, and sidebars detailing "Tales from Murrayland," detailing such exploits as how Murray has taken to crashing people's parties and pictures.

And I do mean comprehensive. There's even entries for things Murray doesn't like, like this one for Ball, Lucille:

"Despite a self-professed predilection for 'funny females,' Murray is not a fan of the wailing red-headed comedian who starred in the eponymous 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. 'Lucy never really made me laugh,' he told film critic Elvis Mitchell in a 2008 interview. 'Lucy was never my girl.'" (p. 19.)

This book was a lot of fun to read, and gave me an appreciation for all the Murray movies I want to re-watch (Stripes) as well as watch for the first time (The Razor's Edge). It also gave me some insight into how you probably don't want to be married to Bill Murray, as well as great stories from his large family, including his sister's feeling sorry for his SNL co-stars:

"Murray's sister Laura once revealed to an interviewer that Todd DiLaMuca's penchant for giving people noogies was based on her brother's own adolescent proclivities. 'We just couldn't believe it,' she said of her family's initial reaction to the sketches. 'He was just in the kitchen giving us those, and now there he is suddenly doing it on national television and getting standing ovations. I actually felt sorry for those other cast members any time I saw him doing that, because they were painful.'" (p. 61.)

So there you go. My first official ridiculously specific book-buying suggestion.

*Although aren't there a lot of Bill Murray fans? He is pretty funny.

Jacob Slichter's So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: Reading that's way more fun than actually being a rock star.

For whatever reason, lately I've been rekindling my love affair with the late-90s band Semisonic.* Certain bands just hit you right at the right time in your life, and Semisonic was one of those bands for me.

So somewhere in the foggy mists of my brain I remembered that Semisonic's drummer, Jacob Slichter, actually wrote a memoir about his time with the band, titled So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star. And I thought, why not? Time to read it.

And I enjoyed it so, so much.** Slichter dishes on the entire music business, from signing with a music company, to negotiating contracts, to photo sessions, to video production, to touring--really every aspect of the business you could possibly think of. This book was published in 2004 and the band did most of its recording between 1996 and 2001, so I don't know if any of the information given here is still accurate. But it was a fascinating behind-the-scenes work memoir of what turns out to be a surprisingly horrific and un-lucrative job.

Of course, this book is also a heartbreaker, because Semisonic only recorded three CDs as a band and never quite achieved the megastardom they (and all rock stars, I would guess) really dreamed about. The biggest hit they ever had, Closing Time, was really only lucrative enough to help Slichter upgrade from his old used car to a slightly newer used car. And although Slichter doesn't really focus on personal details, he does discuss how the band (and particularly its lead vocalist, Dan Wilson) dealt with adversity when Wilson's daughter was born extremely prematurely.***

There were so many enjoyable bits here. In this excerpt, Slichter betrays the frustrations of being adored by few but ignored by many:

"When nightfall brought the headline acts onto the stage, I stood in the crowd and watched. Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst pointed across the throng. 'Link your arms together. Everyone. Link your arms. We're a big family. A big fucking family. No one can take us apart from each other, all right?' Seconds later, tens of thousands of fans unlinked their arms and pumped their fists in the air as they shouted along with Durst, 'I did it all for the nookie!'...

After the show [a different show where they played], a Japanese woman introduced herself and told us she had flown all the way from Tokyo to see us. I was starting to regard such extraordinary expressions of adoration with impatience. Why were our fans a select group of considerate and sweet people who went out of their way to see us and bring us gifts from afar? Why couldn't they be the dull-witted masses who pumped their fists and shouted, 'I did it all for the nookie'?" (pp. 271-272.)

Now, actually, that quote makes Slichter sound like something of a jerk. But he's not. I think anyone who's ever made good art that they're proud of, but would still like to make some money on it (and fails), will get what he's talking about.

I've loved a lot of bands, and I hope to love a lot more. But I don't think I will ever again love a band the way I loved Semisonic. I mean, watch this video.

Could they be any cuter? I'm so grateful to Slichter for showing me another side of their experience.

*CRjr's favorite CD is Dan Wilson's solo release, Free Life; Wilson is one of the founding members of Semisonic. In other hilarious news, if you follow that link, you'll see I talked about Wilson's music the same day I announced we were expecting CRjr. And now it's one of his favorite CDs. WEIRD.

**I also took it along on a trip to my in-laws', and it was lovely to have something good to read while there, because I couldn't sleep. That happened over last Christmas too, when I was lucky enough to have James Cain's fabulous novel Mildred Pierce to keep me company. It sucks to get two hours of sleep while dealing with small children and other family, but having a good book to get you through the lonely hours makes all the difference.

***She weighed 11 ounces at birth. Can you believe that?

Every single thing about video games bores the shit out of me.

I'm sitting here wondering how to start this post because even just thinking about video games, or playing them, makes my mind wander.

So I'll keep it short. I keep checking out books about video games and gaming, because it seems like the subject comes up a lot (especially when you are the mother of young boys). But I never actually finish reading these books. To me it's literally like reading the instruction booklet for doing your taxes. The latest book I've tried and can't read is Greg Toppo's The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.

Here's some of the jacket copy, because even though I dipped into this one in a number of places, and read about 50 pages of it, I can't remember a thing about it, except that it was VERY DRY:

"What if schools, from the wealthiest suburban nursery school to the grittiest urban high school, thrummed with the sounds of deep immersion? More and more people believe that can happen--with the aid of video games and simulations. Experts argue that games truly do 'believe in you.' Games give people a chance to learn at their own pace, take risks, cultivate deeper understanding, fail and still want to try again--right away--and ultimately succeed in ways that too often elude them in school."

Sigh. I won't be reading this one. I didn't make it through Tom Bissell's book on the subject either, and that hurt, because I LOVE Tom Bissell. Anyone out there ever read an interesting book on video games? Does such a thing exist?

Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer--funny stuff.

I struggle to find humorous writing that I really enjoy. Everyone does, I think. For some reason, quality humor writing seems hard to find, and individual readers' tastes in humor can vary widely.

So it was a pleasure to find and read Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer, which honestly, I think I chose based on its cover alone (although I can't remember where I would have seen it). The author, Una Lamarche, blogs at The Sassy Curmudgeon, and also apparently writes YA novels. She also writes very, very funny essays.

I particularly liked her essays about childbirth and parenting. In one essay, on the stages a woman goes through in her lifetime with her body, here is how she describes childbirth:

"By the time you've lived in your body for thirty years or so, there's not much it can do to surprise you anymore. All its sounds and smells and unsightly bulges have been cataloged and then either frantically hidden or hopelessly ignored. Which makes it all the more shocking when your body up and does something you never thought possible. Which, in my case, was to make a cuter, littler body inside of mind...Since I am lucky enough never to have suffered a major illness or been forced to run more than fifty feet in my adult life, I'm here to talk about the transformative experience of baby making."

And she concludes that story with:

"And I never criticized my body ever again.

Hahahahaha. Lies. Of course I do. But it has gotten a lot better, with the exception of my vagina, which I choose no longer to look at, since the last time I did, it resembled an appliance that you try to shove back in its original box, but it won't fit, and there are cords and polystyrene peanuts hanging out. It was depressing, so we just email now." (pp. 31-33.)

There's nothing earth-shattering here. But the whole book was a really enjoyable read, and I came away from it really just liking Una.* Give this one a try if you're looking for a good light nonfiction summer read.

*Yes, of course I know I don't really know Una. But I do know how she feels about her vagina.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson: Compulsively readable, but somewhat unsatisfying.

I have always been a big Jon Ronson fan.

So when I heard he had a new book out, titled So You've Been Publicly Shamed*, I of course had to go get it. And I was not disappointed. Or, if I was, a little bit, I wasn't disappointed enough to not enjoy the read.

This time Ronson takes as his subject "shaming," particularly the type that happens online these days. As in, someone might post an ill-advised or just poorly worded joke or comment (or completely innocent, but easily misconstrued) on Twitter or their blog, and pretty soon every troll on the Internet rains down fire and brimstone (not to mention more overt threats of violence). The book is ostensibly his look at "shaming as a form of social control."

I'm not going to describe each chapter, because if I did, I think you'd be totally confused. (And also because I read this a few weeks ago and I've already almost completely forgotten the points and flow of the book--which should indicate to you that this is not the best Jon Ronson book ever.) If you'd like a more thorough review of this book, please consider this one, at the AV Club.

The stories here are wild and weird--Ronson always does a very good job of locating stories and people that make you say, "wait, what?"--but I felt that just as each chapter got interesting, Ronson would end it, never to make any conclusions about it or its subject again. (Hence: "unsatisfying.") And (the AV Club review) points out that Ronson as a journalist does some ever-so-slightly dodgy things to get people to speak with him, which makes me vaguely uncomfortable, even when he lets you know he's doing it.**

The part of the book that really struck me was Ronson's work with Lindsey Stone, who was ostracized when she a photo of her acting disrespectfully behind an Arlington National Cemetery sign that asked for quiet and respect, and who was basically destroyed online and threatened numerous times.*** Ronson enlisted an online reputation repair firm to help Stone "clean up" her search result pages. Learning about how Reputation.com goes about trying to fix your online reputation (which, horrifyingly, keeps showing up forever) was fascinating. At one point the firm suggested she not refer online to her experiences working at Walmart as "soul-suckingly awful." Here's the anecdote:

"'Are you sure you want to say that Walmart was soul-sucking?' Farukh said.

'Oh...what? Really?' Lindsey laughed as if to say, 'Come on! Everyone knows that about Walmart!' But then she hesitated.

The conference call was proving an unexpectedly melancholic experience. It was nothing to do with Farukh. He really felt for Lindsey and wanted to do a good job for her. The sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the Internet's wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken. And now here she was, working with Farukh to reduce herself to safe banalities--to cats and ice cream and Top 40 chart music. We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland." (p. 266.)

I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks of this one, frankly, or of Jon Ronson in general.

*And of course I think I first heard about it when Jon Stewart interviewed Ronson on The Daily Show. Where are we going to turn for nonfiction books coverage when Stewart retires? I hope Trevor Noah keeps up the books tradition.

**Ever since I read the superlative True Crime book A Rip in Heaven, and heard about how one of the victims in the story was questioned by the police as though he were a suspect--and how the police lied about certain things to him to try and confuse and trip him up--this sort of thing has made me really, really nervous. I actually have a lot of respect for the police and I'm sure that's how they sometimes have to do their job, but it still gave me the total heebs. In short: read A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, and always lawyer up.

***Her picture was not really that shocking. It's the equivalent of going behind a fence with a "No Visitors Beyond This Point" sign on it and having someone take a picture of you beyond that point--which I'm pretty sure anyone who has ever been a teenager has done.

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.

No, thank you.

Yes Please
by Amy Poehler

I'm going to go ahead and file Amy Poehler's memoir Yes, Please, under the "Largely Forgettable Nonfiction" heading.

On the one hand, it was a pretty serviceable comedian's memoir. I've never found Amy Poehler hilarious, but I've also never found her as annoying as Tina Fey. On the other hand, I've read most of it, and even looking at it now, there's very little about it I can remember.

I did have one laugh-out-loud moment: I found Poehler at her best in her chapter about her divorce from Will Arnett, when she lists all the books she wants to write about divorce. One will be titled:

"I Want a Divorce! See You Tomorrow! If you have small children you will understand this book. This book deals with the fact that most people who divorce with small children still need to see each other every day...Chapters include: Fake Smiling, How Important is the Last Word?, Phone Calls on the Way Home from Therapy, and Everyone Needs to Stop Buying Toys." (p. 88.)

Now that's good writing. So yeah, there's moments. I just don't know if they're worth 327 pages to get there (unless you're a huge, huge fan of Parks and Recreation--then it's probably worth it no matter what).

Good when you've only got a moment.

I very much enjoyed David McCandless's illustrated book The Visual Miscellaneum: A Colorful Guide to the World's Most Consequential Trivia. This surprised me a bit, as I am almost completely an UN-visual person. Looking at credit card reading machines, I can almost never figure out the correct way to run my card just be looking at the little icon. I never know what most graphic signs mean, and I'm completely stymied by pictures-only, no-text instruction sheets.

But this book is fun. It's a book of a variety of charts, pictures, and graphic illustrations of all sorts of trivia: Colors and Culture; Who Actually Runs the World; a Rock Genre-ology; Rising Sea Levels; Hangover Cures from Around the World; and so on. Perhaps my favorite chart was a list of the wives of dictators, listing their occupations, years of marriage, children, political power rating, obsessions, rumors, and reasons for death.

Genre, you've WON.

One of my freelance gigs is helping to write the Reader's Advisor Online blog, which is published by ABC-CLIO as a great, free service. We post at least twice a week: once, on Sundays, with our "Run Down," which is a list of reading, author, movie adaptation, and book-related news stories and headlines (as well as professional development tips), and on Thursdays, with the "New, Noteworthy, and No-Brainer" list, designed to help library staff be aware of new books coming out.

Anyway, in my work for that blog, every day I routinely scan 500-800 online headlines, most of them having to do with books and cultural news. So, although I don't actually spend a lot of free time perusing the Internet, scanning those headlines tends to give me a picture of what's happening online from week to week. And one of the most common types of stories I come across is what I call the "Woe is Me, I'm a Genre Author/Reader/Promoter/Fan, and I Just Don't Get Any Respect!" story. Here's an example:

Trashy Books on NPR

This one's actually pretty benign; it's about Sarah Wendell, the blogger behind Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and her interview at NPR, where she says this: "Romance readers are so often subjected to shaming, we’re not actually ashamed of the books that we read but we’re told we ought to be … even by the people at the checkout counter at the bookstore."

Really? You're telling me everyone who works in bookstores isn't just glad that anyone is still buying SOMETHING at bookstores? Even romance?

But I digress. Usually when I see this type of story, romance/chick lit/women's fiction/mainstream fiction-author (or, if you prefer, just plain "author") Jennifer Weiner seems somehow to be involved. The latest story of this type was this one:

Jonathan Franzen Is Still Mad at Jennifer Weiner, Modernity

Weiner and Franzen have a long-running feud that isn't so much played out against one another as it is in a million hashed and re-hashed print and online stories.* The basic gist is this: Weiner thinks Franzen gets all the respect because he's a guy and a "literary fiction" author, and she further thinks that review sources should pay more attention to the types of books that people actually read**.


These articles make me NUTS. And not because I hate genre or anything. I don't. I happen to read a lot of genre (and watch it too--I'm currently addicted to Firefly and am starting to think Joss Whedon might be the best writer of genre ever--discuss), and Mr. CR has bookcases full of it.*** What makes me nuts about these articles is the picture they paint of the poor, outcast genre authors, who don't get the respect or reviews that "literary" authors get. Which is bullshit, first off. Genre books may not be over-represented in such hallowed literary halls as the New York Times review section or literary magazines, but they OWN the world of literary blogs. Let me ask you this: You know a whole lot of great blogs for literary fiction or nonfiction? No? How about blogs about genre fiction? Um, if you can't think of any of those, here's a handy list of a ton of them.

So, even if the blogosphere isn't enough proof for you, let me just point out that a ton of other review sources, like magazines and newspapers like USA Today, also review a lot of genre fiction. And have you ever gotten a look at ANY bestseller lists, even those published by the New York Times? They contain almost ALL GENRE TITLES. And have you seen this article, about the highest-paid authors from 2013? I don't even need to take a count--all fifteen authors on that list are genre authors (except perhaps for Bill O'Reilly, although I would argue what he writes is genre nonfiction--Simplistic History/Politics for Nutjobs genre nonfiction). And here's the Forbes list of highest-paid authors. Also all genre authors, unless you don't consider Gillian Flynn and John Green to be genre authors. Maybe not John Green, but I would definitely consider Flynn to be a "thriller" author.

So genre authors make the most money, and don't forget, their works tend to lend themselves more easily to film adaptation. All in all? I think it's rather unseemly of genre authors to demand that they also be allowed to take over the more "literary" review publications. It reminds me of yet another quote from the movie "Broadcast News," when William Hurt asks Albert Brooks what you do when your real life exceeds your dreams, and Brooks hisses back, "Keep it to yourself!"

You've won, genre authors. Now keep it to yourselves.

*This makes it one million and one!

**I find this kind of insulting, personally. Just because a book is read by MORE people doesn't mean it is the only readable book. As long as one (or, okay, two) person somewhere reads a book, that is a book that people "actually read."

***Which I tease him about, but still. Obviously I allow it in my house.

The search for lighter nonfiction.

I've been cranky as hell the last few weeks.

I was saying something to that effect to Mr. CR the other day (as if he hadn't noticed) and he said, "Well, get some happier reading, would you? Good Lord, the nonfiction you've got around here is depressing me when I just read the titles."

This was a fair point, as I do indeed have a record number of downer nonfiction titles on the go. So I thought I'd try a light memoir/collection of humorous essays that a friend recommended a while back: Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

And I enjoyed it. I enjoy Mindy Kaling, I enjoy "The Mindy Project" (although where they are going with the pregnancy storyline, I have no idea), and I'm always a fan of some good humorous nonfiction. There's nothing earth-shatteringly hilarious here, but I think Kaling has cemented my affection forever in her chapter titled "Guys Need to Do Almost Nothing to Be Great":

"Here's my incredibly presumptuous guide to being an awesome guy, inside and out...

#6. Avoid asking if someone needs help in a kitchen or at a party, just start helping. Same goes with dishes. (Actually, if you don't want to help, you should ask them if they need help. No self-respecting host or hostess will say yes to that question.)" (p. 164.)

Simple and right on. Kindly but firmly stated. Kaling's my kinda girl.*

So yes, a good light read. However, I was done with it in a couple of hours. Clearly I need a bigger stockpile of chipper nonfiction titles. Suggestions?

*And frankly? She's roughly one million times funnier than Tina Fey.

Oh, Russell Brand, what are we going to do with you?

I have a little soft spot for British comedian Russell Brand, even though I fully realize it's probably easiest to love Russell Brand from afar, which, luckily, is what I will always be from Russell Brand.

Let's break down the case. There's this: when Russell Brand is funny, he's really, really funny. Also: he is not a believer in voting, and I can go along with that.*

Third: He can write a serviceable memoir. I really enjoyed his first memoir, My Booky Wook, although I have just become aware he wrote another one, titled (not very imaginatively, Russell) My Booky Wook 2, and I will not in fact be reading that book. Only so much time, and all that. But when I saw he had a new book out called rEVOLution, I thought, all right, we'll give it a try.

It's awful. Really. It's unreadable. I am not alone in this opinion; most book critics seem pretty united in their opinions that it is not a well-written or even funny book. So it hurts me to write that you should not read this book, which is a mish-mash of memoir, political and ideological beliefs, befuddled writing about yoga, and (a very few) interviews with anarchist, nonprofit organizer, Occupy protestor types, including some of their ideas for bettering the world.

But? Every 100 pages or so he still managed to charm me. For example, when remembering a fraught conversation he had as a child with his grandmother (the "nan" he was not very fond of, to be exact), he decides that what he has to do as an adult is try and see his grandmother's point of view:

"I now look at my nan in another way. As a human being just like me, trying to cope with her own flaws and challenges. Fearful of what would become of her sick daughter, confused by the grandchild born of a match that she was averse to. Alone and approaching the end of her life, with regret and lacking a functioning system of guidance and comfort. Trying her best. Taking on the responsibility of an unusual little boy with glib, atheistic tendencies, she still behaved dutifully. Perhaps this very conversation sparked in me the spirit of metaphysical inquiry that has led to the faith in God I now have." (p. 60.)

So yeah, I can't recommend the book. But you've got to love a guy taking the time to re-evaluate his grandmother. Don't you? I do.

*He is also no fan of the British royal family, which is where we diverge in our opinions.

Must-have for all readers: "The Western Lit Survival Kit"

Mercifully there has been one book throughout the past weeks that I had no problems finishing: Sandra Newman's FANTASTIC The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner.

And yes, it merits that capitalized FANTASTIC.

Never had time to read the classics? Running out of time to read the classics, and want to know which ones you should read, and why? Well, my friends, this is the book for you. Not only will you get the literary education you thought you might get in high school or college (but didn't), you will get a lot of laughs. Allow me to illustrate:

Recently, publishers have turned to spoon-feeding (Ulysses for Dummies--Extra-Dumb Edition); fear (1001 Books to Read or You'll Die!); and quirk (How Proust can Change Alain de Botton's Income) with some success. Even people who don't want to read the Great Books will read about the Great Books" (p. xi.)

And this, on "Paradise Lost" author John Milton:

"Milton had no sense of humor, wasn't good with women, and had Puritan attitudes toward drinking, theater, sex, and fun in general. So few things in Milton's life are interesting that you could count them on the fingers of one hand and still have enough fingers free to do ten things that are more fun than Milton ever had. However, he did write some of literature's most intellectually ambitious poetry, including the game-changing Paradise Lost." (p. 93.)

And, on Voltaire (about whom I know nothing, although I recognize the name):

"Voltaire has become the flagship writer of the French Enlightenment, although he is not the best writer, or the most radical writer, or the most read writer. It might just be because he has the best pen name. (Take note, Detroit: Is Voltaire not the perfect name for a compact electric car?)...

His downfall was that he was a born gadfly. He could make 'the' sound sarcastic. He could make scratching sound sarcastic. If he wrote a scene in which a priest had sex with a woman, it somehow implied that priests were all sex creeps. Meanwhile, even Voltaire didn't believe this literally. He just couldn't help himself when a gadfly thought came into his head. He was once told, 'No matter what you write, you will never succeed in destroying the Christian religion.' He replied, 'We'll see about that.'" (p. 128.)

I'm not even finding the best quotes for you, but it doesn't matter, because the whole book is just one sparkling little literary biography and bibliography after another. Newman also helpfully lists each author's best known works and gives them number scores based on "Importance," "Accessibility," and "Fun," so you know which works to start with if you do want to start reading through the Western canon.

Or, if you're not up for that? This book will certainly give you enough information and context on the Great Books that you will be able to credibly fake that you have read them. But perhaps most importantly, this is just an effortless read. A "10," as far as I'm concerned, on both Accessibility and Fun.

What if you don't have the energy to be radical or a homemaker?

I was rather annoyed by the book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture.

Author Shannon Hayes, herself a radical homemaker and author of organic meat cookbooks, took upon herself the task of meeting and interviewing numerous individuals and families who were "pursuing homemaking as a vocation for saving family, community, and the planet." (p. 1.) She then wrote this book, in two parts: the first half, in which she gives a brief history of homemaking and a short critique of our American economic system and culture, and the second, in which she shares insights and lessons learned from her interviews with multiple individuals seeking to live their lives "off the grid" (to differing degrees).

Frankly, I agreed with a lot of her points in the critique of our system. You can't stay home with your kids these days without noticing that you do have choices, and these are it: go to work, and take your kids to daycare; stay at home and spend most of your day scheduling and attending your children's activities and playdates so they're "socialized" before they even get to school; or do neither and feel slightly off for about six years while you and your kids wander around your suburban neighborhood, which is a ghost town, because most people have opted for the first two choices. So yes. I think a lifestyle where money and over-scheduled children are the only goals is not real fulfilling. But still. Does that mean I'm ready to move back to the farm, grow my own food and build my own house?


And I can't say that Hayes really convinces me otherwise. I'll admit, whenever I read a book on this subject, I always flip to the index and look for "health care" or "health insurance," because how an author treats that subject usually lets me know how seriously I have to take them. And this is what I found in this book:

"For many of the homemakers, locally produced, organic and nutrient-dense foods were more reliable guarantees for health than medical insurance. 'The way that we eat...keeps us healthier, so we're not spending a lot of money on doctors bills...or medicines,' says Eve Honeywell who, aong with her husband, became so passionate about good food that she began farming..." (p. 148.)

And if that's not enough of a humdinger, here's the next page:

"A sound home-based health insurance policy requires living a joyous, fulfilling and consequential life. Indeed, in their research on well-being, Ed Diener and Shigehiro Oishi have found that positive states of well-being correlated with better physical health." (p. 149.)

This is the radical homemaking answer to health care and the need for health insurance? Healthy food and a positive attitude? Well, let me just say, as someone who ate totally healthy food the first 18 years of her life, and whose extended family all eats healthy food, um....fuck that. I'm pretty sure my nutrition and attitude didn't have a whole lot to do with my huge old ovarian cyst that required major (expensive) surgery, and I know it doesn't have a lot to do with some other health issues in my family, even though we are basically healthy people.

Although, as you can tell, I probably don't have the required positive attitude that makes it possible to live without health insurance.

Anyway. Once I saw that was the homemakers' answer to health insurance, I rather gave up on taking this book seriously. But I did read the whole thing, and I think the author did put in quite a bit of work doing a lot of personal interviews. So my question remains: has anyone read a good book about trying to live a slightly different lifestyle, but one which still recognizes the absolute necessity of having health insurance in America today?

I can't even think of a title for this post.

Really. This is how braindead I've become. I was going to leave it blank and see if I came up with a title after I wrote this review, but I've got to mosey on to bed, so it's going to stay the way it is.

Yes, I know, it's getting even more casual than usual here at Citizen Reader. What can I say? Put on your pyjamas and join the party.

A couple of weeks ago a friend sent me the URL to a website called 27bslash6.com, because she is my go-to friend for funny things on the Internet (and she has impeccable taste--she sent me a post from Drew Magary without even knowing how much I love Drew Magary). I can't say I found the website all that hilarious, but that's mainly because after doing freelance work online I get rather sick of reading on the computer and only looked at it for about thirty-nine seconds. I did see that the author of the website, David Thorne, had a new book out, so I just requested that from the library instead.

The book is titled I'll Go Home Then, It's Warm and Has Chairs. the Unpublished Emails, and has a lovely picture on the front of a kitty cat in a flight suit, holding a snowboard.* And that image nicely sums up what I thought of the book: a third of the stuff in the book made me laugh so hard I actually hurt my throat a little bit (although with our continued subzero temps and dry air, my throat's already a bit tender), a third of it I didn't really understand, and the final third made me really, really glad I don't know, work with, or live near David Thorne.

For the most part, the truly hilarious parts of this book are parts of larger vignettes that are too long to quote. But here's a little flavor of some truly laugh-worthy stuff: "The four seasons in Australia [where Thorne is from] consist of 'fuck it's hot,' 'Can you believe how fucking hot it is?' 'I won't be in today because it is too fucking hot' and 'Yes, the dinner plate size spiders come inside to escape from the heat.'" (p. 23.)

The book also includes photoshopped pictures, some of which include cats wearing 3D classes. This is CRjr's favorite part of the book; the other day he picked it up and said, "Where are the kitty pictures?", so I flipped to a page with some kitty pictures. Not the right ones, though--CRjr threw the book back at me and said, "The kitties with the funny glasses." At 3 and a half, already a discerning customer of humor, I couldn't be more proud.

All in all the funny outweighed the not-so-funny and somewhat-discomfiting (as in when he makes life a living hell for his co-workers, neighbors, salespeople, and generally anyone else who annoys him). Give it a try.

*Sometimes it really is as simple as kitty in a funny outfit=funny.

Younger reading: Gorgeous.

by Paul Rudnick


Either I'm just way more tired than usual, or I wanted to feel like I was flying through books again, but lately I have been reading (and re-reading) YA and kids' books. For the most part the huge boom in YA publishing has left me behind--I only have so much time for reading these days and it mostly still goes to nonfiction--but I have enjoyed big bestsellers like The Hunger Games trilogy and stand-alone titles like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. So when I saw that Paul Rudnick had a new novel out, I didn't let the fact that it was being marketed as a YA title stop me.

Rudnick is perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for the Kevin Kline movie In & Out (and as a playwright). However, he is also the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, titled I'll Take It. It's a crazy hilarious book, about a young-ish New York City guy who agrees to drive his mother and his two aunts (he's a good Jewish boy, after all, who can't say no to his mother) on their tour through New England to watch the leaves change. What they get up to along the way will, I think, surprise you. At least it did me, in the best possible way.*

This new title, Gorgeous, is a modern-day take on the Cinderella story. Becky Randle has grown up in a Missouri trailer park with her monstrously obese mother, but when her mother dies, Becky finds a cell phone and a phone number for "Tom Kelly." The same Tom Kelly, it turns out, who is a world-famous fashion (and lifestyle, and fragrance, and etc.) designer. When she calls the number, the person on the other end offers to fly her, first class, to New York City, where she meets Kelly and he makes her a once-in-a-lifetime deal: let him make her three dresses, and those dresses will make her the most beautiful woman in the world.

Becky, who is a really great character, actually stops and thinks about whether or not that's something she'd even want. That is, until her best friend (another great character, named Rocher, yes, after the candy) tells her not to be an idiot and TAKE THE DEAL. She does, and watching Becky's life proceed after she becomes Rebecca Randle, Gorgeous Woman, is fascinating. It's a thoroughly strange and enjoyable little story, and it eventually includes British royalty (another reason for me to love it), but the real pleasure in this book is the characterization and dialogue. That said, I don't know if it's dialogue I would have appreciated as a true YA. Consider this conversation between Becky and Rocher:

"'So you mean if I want to marry the prince I should do what, play hard to get?'

'No, I'm not saying you need to be an A-plus, number one, slap-her-silly cocktease like Shanice Morain [a girl they went to high school with]. Even though that is how she got Cal Malstrup to ask her to prom, she just kept giving him these hand jobs in the equipment shed next to the football field and she kept telling him that sh'ed love to do more but that she was a good Christian girl and that it says in the Bible that good Christians can only have joyful intercourse in the back of a white stretch limo.'" (p. 134.)

Now, I think that is hilarious. But in high school? Or even younger? I just don't know.

Actually, I rather agree with the reviewer who wondered if this was really an adult book being sold as YA**, because it has young characters and because YA is what sells lately. But all of that aside: it certainly wasn't a dull read.

*Just thinking about this book again makes me want to go find it on my shelves and re-read it again, right now.

**Although I actually think this review does a better job of describing the inexplicable appeal of this book.

Always gotta love a book on books.

I am a real sucker (as are most readers, I would guess) for books about books and reading. Every now and then I trip across a new one that I hadn't heard of before, and it's always a fun experience.

One for the Books
by Joe Queenan

This month's "book on books" discovery was Joe Queenan's recent One for the Books. Queenan is best known as a columnist and humorist (evidently he's written or writes for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the New York Times, and many more...thanks, author bio!) and also the writer of a very critically lauded memoir, titled Closing Time: A Memoir, about his hardscrabble youth in Philadelphia. If I sound uninformed, it's because I am--I'd always recognized Queenan's name, but I'd never read anything of his before (although I've always meant to read that memoir, since it showed up on a lot of "best of the year" lists).

In this book, Queenan not only describes his favorite books and seminal reading moments, he also muses on the print vs. digital book divide, booksellers, book culture, and the writing life. If you like a totally straightforward read, this book may not be for you: it tends to hop around a bit from topic to topic. That didn't bother me, though. I tend to read these types of books in small increments (both to savor them and to make them last longer), so a bit more disjointed organization didn't throw me. And, hilariously enough, I would imagine that if Joe and I met to talk books, we wouldn't have any books in common that we had both read or both liked. A person more unlike me in book taste it would be hard to find (unless we're looking at you, Lesbrarian): he favors modern fiction faves like Denis Johnson, Ha Jin, Italo Calvino, and a whole bunch of international writers of whom I've never heard (embarrassing, that, really). But yet? I really, really enjoyed this book. I think I enjoyed it because of the sheer number of titles Queenan lists and discusses--it's breathtaking, really. I didn't add many (any) of them to my TBR list, but it was a pleasure to read someone who is himself so well- and widely read.

And every now and then his narrative made me laugh, which I always enjoy. Take this anecdote, in which he explains how he spent a year of his life trying to read a book a day, meaning he could only read very short books. Off he took himself to the library, without his reading glasses, and just picked the littlest books off the shelf, without worrying himself too much about the content. He did enforce some standards when he got home, though:

"If I got home and discovered that I had checked out a bittersweet, life-affirming novel about a recently divorced woman who had moved to a small town in Maine or the Massif Central or the Mull of Kintyre and, after initially being shocked by the ham-fisted demeanor of the rough-hewn locals, was seduced by their canny charm, I took it right back." (p. 78.) Tee hee.

He also demonstrates, nicely, the "deal breakers" by which many readers abide (but which they don't often talk about):

"My refusal to read books about the Yankees or their slimy fans also extends to books written by supporters of the team. Thus, when I learned that Salman Rushdie had taken a shine to the Yankees, it eliminated any chance that I would ever read The Satanic Verses, no matter how good it is." (p. 123.) This makes me laugh because I am the same way, only about the subject of World War II (in fiction or non), and also because I am a slimy Yankees fan.

And of course, if you're a lover of physical books, you have to love paragraphs like this:

"Certain things are perfect the way they are and need no improvement. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation, and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublime, but books are also visceral. They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system. Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who like to read on the subway, or who do not want other people to see how they are amusing themselves, or who have storage and clutter issues, but they are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on." (p. 27.)

It's good stuff. And it will even be good whether you read it in print or digital form. Read it.

Nonfiction Authors You Should Know: Stacy Horn

One of my favorite nonfiction authors (and bloggers, as it so happens) is Stacy Horn. She's the author of an eclectic mix of books, from memoir (Waiting for My Cats to Die) to investigative history (Unbelievable: Investigations Into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory) to True Crime* (The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad). She blogs at http://www.echonyc.com/~horn/stacy/, and her posts are always a charming mix of news of her pet kitties; snippets about her reading, TV watching, and publishing exploits; and gorgeous, gorgeous photographs of New York City. I am very fond of her books because they cover a wide variety of topics, she takes fact-checking seriously, and her writing is always very, very sincere. Let's put it this way: she's no bestselling hack.**

In July she has a new book coming out called Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, and I am getting just so excited waiting for it. Partly because I like singing, but more because I just love reading Horn's writing.This new book also just made the American Booksellers Association July 2013 Indie Next List, so I hope that helps more readers to find her.***

*And not just any old True Crime; while opinions differed on her book when we featured it here as part of a Book Menage discussion, I consider this a True Crime classic.

**I'm looking at you, Thomas Friedman and Bill O'Reilly.

***She also just did an interview with NPR. I'm so glad she's getting some good press attention. She's earned it.

A dance with Jane Austen.

It is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that I am a sucker for all things Jane Austen.

In addition to having read her books, re-watched most film adaptations of her books way more often than is good for me (damn you, YouTube, time-waster extraordinaire), and reading any modern-day adaptations of her novels that I can find, I also pick up any nonfiction titles about her that I see pop up in my local library catalog. My latest such find was Susannah Fullerton's A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and Her Characters Went to the Ball.

It literally is just that: a book about dancing in Jane Austen's day, with extensive quoting from her novels to see how Austen incorporated balls and dancing into her fiction and plotlines. There is also a ton of good basic historical information, such as which dances were popular when, how people in that era learned dancing, what kind of music was played at balls, and how many different types of balls there were (as well as many more topics). At first I couldn't really get into this book; I just read bits of it here and there, but then over the course of two nights I got really interested and read most of it straight through. I particularly enjoyed the information on how suppers were held along with balls (I never really understood that when reading the books) and the different types of balls that were held and how people got invited to them.

But my very favorite part of the book was learning about Jane Austen's own personal experiences of ball-going and dancing:

"Jane Austen enjoyed these [Assembly] balls so much that she was disappointed if she had to miss one. If she was away from home, then she placed her 'spies' so as to get all the news. Catherine Bigg could be relied on to share gossip about who had danced with whom, who had too much to drink, which lady had opened the dance, and all the other juicy titbits of news the evening could provide." (p. 52.)

I enjoyed picturing ol' Jane dancing and placing her spies. I enjoyed that a lot.