Reading Process

What my book choices say about me I don't know.

I still continue to feel as though I am not finding much reading that is setting me on fire, but as I sat down to consider the nonfiction titles I've read in the past few weeks, I'm seeing a pattern emerge.

First I read Charlie LeDuff's Detroit: An American Autopsy, which was fantastic but not exactly cheerful. Just lately I've also read books titled The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don't Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line and Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession (reviews to come) both of which were interesting, but again, not exactly light. And then today I stopped by the library and there was only one title waiting for me, which I didn't even remember placing on hold: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.*

It was totally inappropriate but I actually laughed when I saw that title, particularly in light of the other downer books I've been reading. It just goes to show that I clearly must be drawn to the dark and the depressing (as I find the majority of my nonfiction, when you get right down to it, simply by trolling the "new nonfiction" lists in my library's catalog, and picking most things based on their titles).

But just now perhaps I could use something a tad less, shall we say, "depressing as hell"? Any suggestions for good, thoughtful** nonfiction that also doesn't make me want to crawl under a rock and cry? Many thanks in advance.

*It looks like a good book, actually, but so help me, I just don't know if I can handle it right now.

**Please nothing that includes the words "inspirational" or "sentimental" on the cover or in reviews. To quote the wonderful author Jim Knipfel: "when I hear the word 'spiritual,' I reach for my revolver."

Now reading everything I can get my hands on EXCEPT nonfiction.

You'll forgive me, won't you, as I continue to struggle with my nonfiction slump?

by Ronald Dahl

Lately, I got the idea that it might be good to read a few kids' classics that I never read as a child. This is a long list--my parents were great but didn't have a lot of extra time to read to me, and until I got to school, I didn't really have access to a library.* And my school librarian in my later grades, third and up, was better than anyone I knew before then at suggesting books to read, so that's really when I started my reading life (as far as I can remember, anyway). As a consequence, I missed a whole lot of children's "classics."

This is all a long-winded way of saying that last week I read Roald Dahl's book Matilda. And, as you'd expect from the author of James and the Giant Peach, it was fantastic.

If you've not read it, oh, please DO. It's about a little girl named Matilda, who's very, very smart, and who has not very nice parents. There are two fantastic people in her life--her local librarian, and her first teacher in school, the not-so-subtly named Miss Honey. And what happens when her school's very unpleasant headmistress Miss Trunchbull does something not so nice to Matilda's beloved Miss Honey? Well, you'll just have to read it and find out. I absolutely LOVE Roald Dahl. His books deal in what I would call "nasty but satisfying justice," if you can picture such a thing. I can see why kids, lovely literal kids, have loved so many of his books for so long.

So what say you: any other kids' classics I should read?**

*Although there were many books in the house--I do remember perusing our encyclopedias a lot, and picture books of saint stories (many of which were quite gruesome, magical, and AWESOME), and I definitely remember reading Jeremiah Denton's When Hell Was In Session, about his experiences in a POW camp in North Vietnam, when I was too young for it. I sure did learn a lot of words from it, though. A case in point: I had to look up "defecate" when I read the sentence "the guard jumped on Knight's stomach so violently he defecated." That's the sort of sentence that stays with a pre-teen reader, as you can tell.

**I have a practical reason for doing this now too. Soon I hope to be reading these types of books to CRjr, and I'd kind of like to know what the stories are before I read them aloud.

Why aren't librarians allowed to love books?

When I worked in the public library I was frustrated by many things. Mainly, I'll admit, by the rudeness* of the general public, which remains the number-one reason I am still relieved not to be working a public-service desk job right now (although I'm sure I'll have to go back to one sometime, and will just be damn glad if I'm able to get one). But a slightly more esoteric annoyance I had with the system was how librarians are often told (in library school, or in training) that to be good "readers' advisors"--people who help readers find things they might enjoy reading--they must focus solely on what the reader wants. "It's not about you," we librarians are told, "Readers' Advisory is not about pushing your opinions on readers."

Well, okay. I get it. When you're helping a reader find something to read it is of course vital that you focus on their interests. Likewise, if someone is, say, a Jodi Picoult or Nicholas Sparks reader, it is probably nicest if the librarian doesn't say (although they might be dying to): "So, you like hack authors, huh?"

But at the same time, I think that attitude does everyone a vast misservice. It hurts librarians, who are made to feel they can't speak about any books too enthustiastically--that they cannot "recommend," they must only ever "suggest," and strive never to allow their own opinions a part in the conversation. And I think eventually it hurts readers--who might be looking for, not only some assistance, but also a good book conversation with someone who also loves reading--not someone who is desperately trying not to have any opinions on any books whatsoever during the encounter.

Now, all of that is a very long-winded way to say I loved, absolutely loved, a little book I checked out at the end of last year titled Read This!: Handpicked Favorites from America's Indie Bookstores.** God love independent booksellers. They don't dick around with any "don't bring your own opinions or loves" edicts. This book consists of twenty-five indie bestsellers' lists of their favorite 50 books--each chapter provides some information on the bookstore where the contributor works, the list, some paragraphs about a few of the titles listed more specifically, and a short q-and-a about bookstores and readers with the contributor. And they don't list their 50 best-selling titles, or 50 "sure bets" (a term which always annoys the shit out of me, since I figure my sure bet is bound to be someone else's can't stand)--they list their 50 FAVORITES. It's awesome. Straightforward and very, very pleasing. I read it a chapter at a time last month, always at bedtime, and it was a very satisfying and settling read.

The short interviews with the booksellers were almost my favorite part; and the following is my favorite response to the question "Who is your most trusted source for book recommendations?" (by bookseller Emma Straub): "There are reviewers I trust, and friends I trust, and booksellers I trust. Really, my problem is that I have too many smart people recommending books to me all the time. My backlog is so enormous that often by the time I actually read a book, I've forgotten who told me they loved it or which newspaper gave it a rave. Then it's just up to me and the book to see if we can get along." (p. 16.)

Look at those words: Trust. Recommending. Smart. Love. Now THOSE are the words you should always bring to talking with other readers. So join me in the revolution, librarians: get rid of that wishy-washy word "suggest" once and for all.

*Not to mention general scariness and sometimes flat-out violence.

**If you buy it new the royalties go to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE).

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.

Behind the magic that is Citizen Reader.*

Normally when I talk about books here, I do try to put my thoughts in some sort of coherent order. When I had more time on my hands, this was a lot easier--not only because I had more time to write in general, but also because I could do so in a more timely manner. Lately, I keep coming up against the Overdue Wall--even when I have books laying around for three four-week loan periods (almost three months, which is REALLY long enough for anyone to keep a book from the library), I still don't get them read and then written about before they have to go back to the library. This just happened to me with Pat Conroy's quite interesting book-about-books, titled My Reading Life. I read this one over the course of two months or so, and then left it around for a month thinking I would write about it here, and then, boom, it's overdue and I had to take it back.

My Reading Life
by Pat Conroy

So what I do lately is type a few brief notes about the books into my blog software (so I can take them back to the library), and then later I come back and try to make sense out of them. But today I'm even running out of time** to form the notes into coherence, so I thought I'd just let you see my initial jottings about it, which are below. If I ever get more organized I promise this sort of slapdash blogging will stop.

Here's the jottings:

Too sappy and sentimental for me, but he's sappy about books and reading, which I can forgive.

At least talks about all aspects of books and reading--being introduced to books by his mother and some favorite teachers; teaching books; writing books; selling books.

Was kind of a nice comforting read to dip into at night--not real challenging.

Am not interested in his fiction (Prince of Tides, etc.)--will probably be too sentimental, too Southern, neither of which appeal to me?

p. 84: "I grew up a word-haunted boy. I felt words inside me and stored them wondrous as pearls. I mouthed them and fingered them and rolled them around my tongue. My mother filled my bedtime hour with poetry that rang like Sanctus bells as she praised the ineffable loveliness of the English language with her Georgia-scented voice. I found that hive of words beautiful beyond all conveyance." Now that's a little much for me, taken all at once, but read chapter by chapter it was actually a little something different.

Now, if you'd like to read an actual review of this book, this might be more helpful to you.

*This title, obviously, is meant ironically.

**And I'm really not a very busy person. How do people with multiple jobs and multiple kids and houses they actually clean and health problems and god knows what else do it?

A different type of "inspirational" book.

I have been thinking about my anti-The Shack rant on Wednesday, and, particularly after a kind reader suggested to me that yes, there were problems with the book, but there was still stuff there, particularly about the human need for independence (and how it sometimes gets us in trouble), that they could "take away" from the book and from which they could learn.

So I have been thinking that writing the rants is fun, but perhaps it would be more helpful to consider what type of book The Shack is, and if there are any comparable books that would be, you know, slightly better (and perhaps even free from dialect and obvious conclusions painted up as revelations).

So: Has anyone out there read any "Inspirational" books that were helpful to you, or books that you found inspirational, even if they were not marketed as such? What were they, and how did you find them helpful? Let's start a list so I am better prepared to offer alternatives to The Shack, rather than just ripping it up and down.

I'll start us off:

I found Norman Maclean's novel/memoir A River Runs Through It and Other Stories inspirational for its theme that you can love completely without complete understanding. I always remember that with people I like, but sometimes I forget it with people whom I don't like and with whom I don't agree on many issues. And yes, I know some people find this book boring because it is about fishing. But I really don't know how you could fault Maclean's writing skills.

I read it so long ago I forgot what I liked about it, but I remember thinking that C.S. Lewis's slim nonfiction volume A Grief Observed, about the dark period he went through after his wife, Joy Gresham, died from cancer, was very thoughtful.

So? What've you got for me?

Summer 2012 fiction bender.

Although memories of summer are becoming increasingly fuzzy (does anyone else feel like summer 2012 was already a million years ago? I blame the election*), I do seem to remember having gone on something of a fiction bender.

Mostly I just re-read a lot of stuff I had around the house, which was kind of relaxing. I plowed through Susan Cooper's first-ish book in her Dark Is Rising series, Over Sea, Under Stone, and it was a lovely read. Just right for summer, although I wished I could have been reading it while actually IN Cornwall. Cooper really does a lovely job with setting; very vivid accounts of a seaside fishing village in Great Britain. And of course now I'm ready for my winter re-reading of Dark is Rising. I like to have my reading ducks in a row like that.

I also plowed through a ton of largely forgettable chick lit novels, because, along with romantic comedies and BBC classics, I really love chick lit on some elemental level. One title that stood out was Jancee Dunn's Don't You Forget about Me, but that was mainly because I love Jancee Dunn (DO read her memoirs But Enough about Me and Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?: And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask).

Larry's Party
by Carol Shields

And, oh, I finally read another Carol Shields novel, titled Larry's Party. I enjoyed the hell out of that. Let's run down Carol's case, shall we? 1. She's considered a Canadian novelist, because she lived most of her life in Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Vancouver, although she was born in the States. Go Canada! 2. She is perhaps my favorite woman novelist, nearly on a par with Anne Tyler. 3. She writes a really good guy character. And, because I am a married woman with a child, I basically never ever get to talk to men anymore.** It sucks. So spending a novel in the company of an interesting (if sometimes exasperating) male character was a real treat.

I'm pretty sure there are novels I'm forgetting. But you start to get the idea. I did a lot of cheating on nonfiction with fiction this summer. No worries though. I'm back with my true love. I just raced through D.T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace, and it was GOOD. Ah, nonfiction, you're always there for me.

*I am blaming the election for everything. What will I do with myself on November 7?

**Thank God I had a son. Someday when he grows up, if he forgives me for whatever I'm doing wrong currently, I hope he'll talk to me and I'll have a guy friend again.

Using nonfiction in book groups.

A very nice group of library professionals in South Carolina invited me to chat with them briefly yesterday about using nonfiction titles in book groups, and I sincerely hope a good time was had by all.* (I know I enjoyed myself thoroughly.)

My brief notes on the program and a list of suggested NF book titles can be found in the sidebar, under the Readers' Advisory Programs heading, or by clicking here.

The way I see it, there are some difficulties using NF, but most of those challenges actually lead to new opportunities. For instance: whenever a librarian is running a book group, almost always the first thing they have to consider is whether or not their library or library system owns enough of the books to pass out to book group readers (usually at least 5-15 copies, and preferably some in different formats, like audio books, large print, and now, of course, ebooks). I find this an obnoxious limit, because almost all of the NF titles I really want to discuss are owned in much smaller numbers than that. Nonfiction is also sometimes challenging to discuss because some people can be put off by the "realness" of it (particularly with sex, violence, and of course, profanity, which often seems to bother people more than the first two, which I'll never ever understand); nonfiction can also take longer to read, and can be perceived as lacking in "style" to discuss.

To all of those drawbacks, I say: pshaw!

I've been thinking about nonfiction in the shower** for the last few days, wondering how it could be used in book groups. And now, of course, I'm somewhat annoyed that I don't work in a library right now, because I'd love to try some things out. For instance, I'd love to work around the title availability question by offering book groups with unified themes or formats rather than everyone having to read the same title. So, what about: a book group discussing a variety of nonfiction graphic novels. What about focusing on a particular author, and offering 2-3 different choices of that author's fiction and nonfiction? (Calvin Trillin comes to mind here, as does someone like James Howard Kunstler.)

As far as discussing the "style" of nonfiction, well, you know I could do that all day. How did the author decide to write on this subject? How much truth is in this memoir, do you think? How did this author look at this historical or biographical subject in a fresh way? How comprehensively is this book researched and referenced? The possible questions abound.

Above all, I did sound a note of caution about always falling into the "we must find nonfiction that reads like fiction" trap. Nonfiction has become increasingly "narrative," offering much more in storylines and character development than it used to (perhaps because that is what sells). But sometimes the less narrative stuff is fun to discuss too. Personally, I read nonfiction because it is NOT fiction. I remember when I read Suze Orman's first book, mainly out of curiosity, I really wanted to discuss that puppy with someone--she devotes a lot of pages in that one to her own relationship with money, in addition to laying out some good financial precepts. There's no real story there, but it was interesting, particularly in light of the fact that Suze went on to become her own huge personal financial brand.

Anyway: that was long-winded. Sorry. What I meant to ask was, is anyone out there using NF in your book groups? How is it going? What titles have you used, successfully or not?

*Thanks for having me, Richland County Public Library system!

**This sounds kinky, but mainly my 5-10 minutes in the shower are the only minutes during which I can focus lately.

Fifty shades of filthy (but genuinely arousing).*

Oh, oh, oh, I almost forgot! How could I forget?

I read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy over the summer. For those of you who have not heard of this phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey is the first book in a trilogy that has singled-handedly made the "BDSM erotic" subgenre the latest hot, hot, hot publishing category. The author of the books, E.L. James, is a British woman who is now quite wealthy (and good on her, I say).

These books started life as Twilight fan fiction, but James reworked the story, making her set of lovers slightly older than the Twilight protagonists and by taking out the vampire stuff. So what you're left with is a woman in her early twenties, Anastasia Steele, and the slightly older, mysterious, and handsome millionaire Christian Grey, who, it turns out, has some serious issues stemming from his hard-knock childhood (being raised by his crack-whore mother--his phrase, not mine--and her pimp). When not making millions and looking hot, Christian busies himself looking for "submissives"--partners who will indulge him in his BDSM (BDSM stands for bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and masochism) lifestyle and needs.

A complete plot synopsis can be had elsewhere, but of course I couldn't read these books and not comment on them. I'll say this: there's naughty bits about every two pages, so you don't have to bother with a lot of plot, if that's what you like in your erotica. The other hilarious thing about these books is how they are COMPLETE fantasy, and I emphatically don't mean the naughty bits. Throughout the three books, Ana and Christian do very little besides make out, worry about if they've upset the other person (mainly Ana worrying about upsetting Christian, which does get a little old), drive, fly, and otherwise travel around; buy and wear expensive clothes to a variety of fabulous functions; and oh yeah, every now and then meet up with friends for wine (again, this is Ana). Periodically Ana goes to her job at a publishing house (and I do mean periodically--it takes time to be the girlfriend of a millionaire who wants you to be submissive, after all), where she starts out as some sort of assistant to an editor and (SPOILER ALERT) eventually ends up running the company.** 

Christian also takes care of making sure Ana eats (she tends not to when she's stressed), buys her closets full of clothes, and has a doctor that makes house calls for her to get her birth control shots (oh, and he also has a lovely housekeeper/cook who waits on her as well). Like I said: complete and utter fantasy. I know at least partly why women are loving these books, and it's not all the sexy bits. Who doesn't fantasize about having all the demands of real life (work, housework, family bullshit, doctor visits, etc.) effortlessly met? All WHILE having a lot of mind-blowing sex?

I really, really, REALLY enjoyed the books. But, I'll admit, more for the good laugh than for the titillation. And if you want to continue your good time, ask every woman you know if they've read these books. I spent all summer asking this question...and every woman I met had! It's unbelievable. And all a lot of fun. (For the best time of all, watch the 3 Grannies review on YouTube. It is emphatically not suitable for work, but it is hilarious, and one of the grannies refers to women in their 30s as "young women," which made me very happy.)

*And this is a line from The Simpsons, when an old lady who employs Bart for housework tells him not to interrupt her while she's "watching her stories." As she settles in to watch her soaps in her rocking chair, she says, "Filthy...but genuinely arousing!"

**Now that's the kind of job I need! Show up a few hours a week, and then be put in charge.

Summer Reading 2012: Canada

Towards the end of summer the CR family went and joined my brother for a couple of days in fabulous Door County, WI, at a cabin he and his family had rented on Lake Michigan.

It was nothing short of fantastic. CRjr was good in the car and enjoyed the lake, and I enjoyed just not being in my house for a couple of days (please note I was with my family and my brother's family, so it was like I had the best part of being at home--being with loved ones--with none of the crap, like feeling I should be cleaning the bathroom or cooking or doing something educational with CRjr).

by Richard Ford

One drawback to the trip was that when night fell, and everyone else went to bed, I could not get to sleep to save my life. But no biggie--I had brought along Richard Ford's latest novel, Canada, and it was a perfect read for 2 a.m. in a rustic cabin, with the door open to catch a cool breeze off the lake. The novel follows a simple, but odd, story: it is told in flashback by the narrator (Dell Parsons), who relates the story of how his parents decided to rob a bank when he was a teenager, and were easily caught and thrown in jail, at which point he and his twin sister followed different paths. His sister ran away, and he was taken to Canada to live as a fugitive with a relative of one of his mother's friends. To say the book is slow-moving is an understatement, but there was something eerie and atmospheric about it that I really enjoyed. As I told my brother the next morning, it was almost a gift not being able to sleep--I could read all I wanted. And I don't get that much anymore.*

I've not read a lot by Richard Ford, but I did read his novel The Sportswriter, and liked it. I couldn't tell you anymore what the story was about, or why I liked it, but I think I probably just enjoyed his writing. My favorite part in this novel is when the narrator is discussing how his parents probably felt before they were caught, and why they confessed their bank-robbing crime:

"What a person becomes in such a situation is paralyzed--caught in one long, sustained, intolerable present. Who wouldn't want to stop that--if he could? Make the present give way to almost any future at all. Who wouldn't admit everything just to gain release from the terrible present? I would. Only a saint wouldn't." (page 179.)

Something about that really struck me. And not just in a discussion of guilt. Who hasn't, at some point, wanted release from a terrible present? I've read that paragraph now probably a hundred times and it still strikes me, not only the idea, but the flow of it.

Also: I am aware this is a terrible review and plot synopsis. For a much more complete description of the book, check out Becky's review at RA for All.

*I'm not complaining. Sometimes CRjr gets in the way of uninterrupted reading, but he compensates in other ways, like having conversations with me about what animals make which sounds (his high-pitched kitty-cat "meow" being my favorite).

Catching up: Shirley Jackson, part 2.

The beginning of the summer found me blown away by Shirley Jackson.

As noted here yesterday, Jackson is perhaps best known for her short story "The Lottery." I've read that, and although I remember liking it okay back in high school, I couldn't remember much about it. But when I found Jackson's humorous collection of vignettes about raising her kids, Life Among the Savages, I became completely fascinated by her. So much so that I checked out the only biography I could find about her, Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, by Judy Oppenheimer (published in 1989).

ShirleyReading that biography was quite a trip, I'll tell you. Jackson was an interesting personality from the start, but I thought the story really took off when it examined both her writing life and her marriage. She married a man she met in college, who was a literary critic, and taught at Bennington College in Vermont (near which they lived). In addition to having and looking after their four kids, and still writing prolifically herself, she also had to look after her very needy husband Stanley.* I forget the details now, but the book is full of ridiculous stories like Shirley having to stop whatever she was doing in the house and run to sharpen Stanley's pencils whenever he needed.

It's also a trip reading a biography from 1989. Is it really so long ago? It got the job done, and I can't rightly remember what took me by surprise about the book, but the author seemed to offer a great deal of conjecture and amateur psychoanalysis of her subject. Biographies I've read in recent years seem to be a lot better, leading me to believe perhaps we are in a golden age for biography? Anyone else have an opinion on this?

In addition to simply being fascinated by Jackson, I'll never forget the experience of reading this biography. I read it when I was having a slight health blip, and one day when I was feeling particularly lousy, Mr. CR took CRjr to the park for me and for an hour or so I just lazed about in bed, reading about Shirley Jackson and eating a Hershey bar (my condition was not one that precluded me from having chocolate, mercifully). For whatever reason, the whole experience made me feel very warmly about Shirley Jackson. Interesting how people think reading is entirely passive, and yet many of my very strong and visceral physical memories include books and reading. Do you find this to be true as well?

*She lived intensely, but she didn't live long, the poor thing: she died in 1965 at age 48.

Any historical true crime readers out there?

If so, I need your help.

I'm working on a project involving historical true crime nonfiction,* and I've got some questions about it. This is a genre that includes such popular bestsellers as Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook. Normally I find True Crime somewhat interesting nonfiction, but it's a hard nonfiction genre to research--nobody really talks about what it is or how it attracts readers.

My biggest question is mainly how to group similar Historical True Crime titles together. Would you say historical true crime readers are more interested in the types of crimes and criminals (e.g., serial killers), or are they more interested in the historical period (e.g., modern European history or the American Civil War)? What is it, do you think, that readers find compelling about historical true crime and true crime in general?

Thanks for any insight on this matter!

Oh, and I can't resist: read Matt Taibbi's latest article on the post office. Amen, Matt Taibbi. I for one LOVE the postal service and think they're getting a raw deal. I have always opined that anyone who thinks the post office is a rip-off has not sent anything by UPS or FedEx lately. Once I had to return a book I worked on to a publisher by UPS (the publisher's rule), and it cost me $30 bucks to send a package the USPS could have sent, taking one day longer, for about 6 dollars. And while you're at it, send someone a card or letter today. They'll enjoy it, and so will the post office. Happy weekend, all.

*I'll be glad to be done with the project--reading all this true crime, all at once, is starting to freak me out just a little bit.

The whys and wherefores of re-reading.

For the past year I have been more in the mood to re-read books I have already read than to pick up new ones.

This is a wee bit of a problem, particularly when one writes a blog purporting to offer opinions on new and different nonfiction books. Let's face it: most of my pithy thoughts on titles I'm reading for the first time aren't really all that pithy, so I really don't want to bore you with second and third posts on books I'm re-reading.

But I will today anyway.

When I look back on books I'm re-reading--Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It (the movie was on TV last night and of course I got sucked in--particularly since it starred Brad Pitt in pre-Angelina Jolie times and I could still enjoy him then), Agatha Christies of all sorts, Anne of Green Gables, John Green's Looking for Alaska*, it strikes me that when I re-read I am mainly seeking comfort. Books I have known and loved and that spoke to me particularly for one reason or another. When re-reading (and watching) A River Runs through It, for instance, I cannot NOT break down when Norman and his father talk about Norman's brother Paul (I can't give you the full context because I don't want to give the spoiler) and realize the age-old truth: "But you can love completely without complete understanding."

Christ. It still gets me every time.

Anyway. It strikes me that I re-read almost exclusively for comfort. Is there any other reason to re-read? Are there any other reasons why you re-read books, or certain times when you do?

*More on this one later.

That righteous feeling.

Yesterday morning I had a hilarious conversation with my sister regarding Dylan Ratigan's book Greedy Bastards: How We Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters, and Other Vampires from Sucking America Dry and Matt Taibbi's Griftopia. She is reading the Ratigan book currently, and is planning to read the Taibbi. Because I cannot help but have an opinion on ALL nonfiction books, even those I haven't read (and I haven't read the Ratigan), I did have to say that I thought Ratigan, host of The Dylan Ratigan Show on MSNBC, has a bit more of a "shtick"* than Matt Taibbi and therefore his book might not be as good. Although, I admitted, Taibbi does swear a lot.

At which point my sister pointed out, and rightly so, that swearing is Taibbi's shtick, and that I don't think he has a shtick simply because I like his shtick better. Well played, Sis. But I maintain that anyone who has an MSNBC show has more of a, for lack of a better word, "salesmanesque" approach** to furthering their media and publishing brand, than does a Rolling Stone columnist such as Taibbi.

This is all neither here nor there. The point of this post is that it got me thinking: Who are the authors (fiction or non) who you feel the most righteous for liking? That's an odd question, I know. But I think it's an interesting one. I think a lot of readers, if they're honest, have authors they feel a bit superior for a) knowing about, and b) liking to the point of being blind to that author's particular shtick. The authors I feel most righteous about are Taibbi, William Langewiesche, Wendell Berry, and Anne Tyler (and no, I do not consider what she writes to be "women's fiction"--more book snobbishness on my part!). How about you? Come on, give in, feel superior--and list your faves in the comments!

*Shtick, defined.

**I read the description of Greedy Bastards at Amazon, and this part also struck me as very schticky: "This country, now more than ever, needs passionate debate and smart policy, a brazen willingness to scrap what doesn’t work, and the entrepreneurial spirit to try what does." Puke. Because we all know all it ever takes to get ahead is an "entrepreneurial spirit."

Little readers.

Whenever I see or hear about one, I tend always to pick up books on reading or how to get people interested in reading. This is a leftover habit from my public library job, where people often asked me how to get their kids to read something, or what books we might suggest for kids who hated reading.

I'm ashamed to admit, I was always REALLY BAD at answering that question.

WhispererIt wasn't that I wasn't interested, or that I didn't want to help. I did. I typically went with such parents to the kids' book shelves, where we tried to figure out what their kid (who never seemed to be with them--the first problem) might enjoy. These were always totally painful encounters. The parents typically acted like they had no idea what their kids' interests might be, and they seemed completely uninterested in books themselves. They were usually only there because their kid had tested poorly on reading skills or a teacher had suggested they read more, and they typically left with the first Harry Potter book, regardless of what else I suggested.

So when I read about Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, I thought I would give it a look. I don't have too many concerns about CRjr's reading as yet--the only benchmark the boy has ever been early on is "can turn picture book pages without ripping them"--but people still do periodically ask me how to encourage reading in their children. My sole answer, and one that I now know is supported by Miller, is stated in her book as:

"My credibility with students and the reason they trut me when I recommend books to them stems from the fact that I read every day of my life and that I talk about reading constantly. I am not mandating an activity for them that I do not engage in myself. I do not promote reading to my students because it is good for them or because it is required for school success...

Findings from a 2007 Associated Press poll,reported in the Washington Post, indicate that the average adult American read only four books that entire year. This statistic does not tell the whole story; of the adults who read, their average was seven books, but 25 percent of the respondents did not read a book at all (Fram, 2007). Teachers fare no better on surveys of adult reading behaviors than the general population; in the 2004 article 'The Peter Effect,' Anthony and Mary Applegate report that of the preservice teachers whom they studied, 54.3 percent were unenthusiastic about reading." (pp. 106-107.)

And there you have it. If you don't read, and your kids' teachers don't read, they simply will not see reading as something that is done, or worth doing. It's as simple as that. Almost all the parents who asked me to find books for their kids never wandered over to the adult stacks when we were done and picked out anything for themselves; at most, they would stop at the video cart on the way out.

The book is interesting, but is told from a Language Arts teacher's point of view and has more to do with teaching strategies and tips for larger groups of children. But the paragraphs above make me trust this author--she knows what she's talking about when she says the key to reading is "walking the walk."*

*Which is not to say I think the only way kids can be happy or successful is by reading. I don't believe that at all. But if YOU think you'd like your kids to read more, YOU have to pick up a book or magazine yourself sometimes. That's all there is to it.

2012 nonfiction trends: the conclusion.

Let's wrap up this series on nonfiction trends in 2012, with a little question-and-answer.

Q: So are there any 2012 nonfiction titles that you DO want to read, CR, you big crank?

A: Why yes, as a matter of fact, there are. Not many, though.

Q: Okay, so what are they?

A: Well, there is one title that actually made me go, "oooh," in a high-pitched falsetto. (This is a good thing.) That title is The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, which is based on the correspondence between a nonfiction author and his fact-checker. That's pure awesomeness. It seems to be getting a lot of press, although not all of it is good.

Q: But that's it? Just the one title? What, are you ridiculously picky or something?

A: Yes, now that I have less time to read, I do find myself becoming a bit more, as you say, "ridiculously picky." But I also wouldn't push these forthcoming books out of bed for eating crackers:

Any of the new biographies on Queen Elizabeth

Susan Sontag: As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh (just based on that title alone)

Colm Toibin: New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families

Michael J. Sandel: What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Julia Fox: Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castille

Craig Taylor: Londoners (an oral history--I'm actually pumped pumped PUMPED to get a look at this one)

Baldwin Rosecrans: Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down (Another one where I am primarily charmed by the title)

Rachel Cusk: Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (I just love Rachel Cusk.)

Caitlin Flanagan: Girl Land (Flanagan just makes me laugh; I enjoy how feminists hate her SO MUCH, and yet even they have to admit she can really write)

Q: That's all you can find, out of 300+ titles?

A: Well, yeah. See aforementioned "crank" and "less time for reading" disclaimers. If it's shiny happy book coverage you're looking for, well, go to most any other lit blog besides this one.

2012 nonfiction trends: part 3.

To me, it seems that a third trend in 2012 nonfiction titles is a focus on Environmental and Natural History titles.

I have absolutely nothing against Environmental titles; many of them have been written by some of my favorite authors (Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry, I'm looking at you). All the same, I can't say that there is anything in the spreadsheet (under Environmental writing) or on this list that I really, really must read any time soon. Although Richard Fortey's Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Time Left Behind does sound kind of interesting.

So there's my ideas about 2012 nonfiction trends: politics, comforting history and historical biography, and environmental titles. If you'd like to see a PDF version of the talk I gave, here it is (or you can click on the Nonfiction Trends 2012 (OWLS) link at the right).

What I want to know is: do you agree with these trends? Have you been noticing any nonfiction trends? (I also think that there's fewer memoirs coming out this year, although I think they'll continue to be popular with readers.) Any trends that you'd LIKE to see?

2012 nonfiction trends: part 1.

In my trolling for forthcoming nonfiction titles I formulated some ideas about what's going to be big in nonfiction this year. These trends are, of course, based on my opinion--I've never really looked at or considered trends before, so I can't speak to my accuracy. All I can really tell you is that I looked at more than 300 forthcoming nonfiction titles, as well as a number of various blog and journal articles, to formulate these ideas.

So what's going to be big, and why?

I have two words that are bound to strike fear into the heart of anyone who never had or has completely lost any interest in politics: Election Year. God help us all, but 2012 is a big election year and correspondingly, political and current events books are going to be big. Not only will candidates be putting out their own books and having books written about them, plenty of authors are getting in on the subject. In addition to current political titles, there's a number of big political historical biographies coming out.

Curious about what the actual politics titles are? Please check the spreadsheet I posted a link to Monday*, or check out a condensed list of forthcoming political titles here.

I can't be objective about these titles; the very idea of reading any of these books makes me want to puke, but I'd like to give an extra special pukey shout-out to Dennis Prager's title Still the Last Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph, which is described at Prager's website as explaining how "Humanity stands at a crossroads, and the only alternatives to the 'American Trinity' of liberty, natural rights, and the melting-pot ideal of national unity are Islamic totalitarianism, European democratic socialism, capitalist dictatorship, or global chaos if we should fail."**

But if you're interested in politics? This is going to be a very good nonfiction year for you.

*A word about the spreadsheet. It's organized by genre, but those are my genre headings. Where I use the heading "name memoir," that means "celebrity memoirs." Also, books tagged with my genre heading "Malcolm Gladwell," are variously known as "Making Sense..." books, "Big Idea" books, "Big Think" books, and many other headings. I tend to call them Malcolm Gladwell books, myself, since his titles (e.g., The Tipping Point) are the best known in the genre.

**Does this sentence even make sense? It's hard for me to tell, I get bored in the middle of it and can't view it as a whole.

Looking at 2012 nonfiction trends.

Somewhere in the middle of my neverending nonfiction reading slump I gave a presentation (for the Outagamie Waupaca Library System continuing education program--thanks again for hiring me!) on nonfiction trends in 2012.

As I told the attendees, it was somewhat hilarious for me to be giving a talk on trends. Me and any kind of "trends" are rarely in the same room together. I've never  particularly cared what the "it" books of each season are (I do, but more out of professional curiosity than out of a burning desire to read them myself) and I'm definitely not up on fashion trends. I put on a "work outfit" to give the presentation--it was given through web meeting software, and no one could see me, but I find it gives a little "oomph" to your presentation to be dressed professionally (or as "professionally" as I can manage)--and the sweater I was wearing was about fifteen years old. Pathetic. But I was happy to be speaking on a new topic--a topic about newness, if you will, so I read what I could and researched what I could to try and suss out some nonfiction trends of the coming year.

While researching the trends, I threw together a quick spreadsheet of nonfiction titles that will be coming out this year. I entered the authors and titles, the month they're coming out, and then assigned some quick-n-dirty genre headings. You can download that spreadsheet yourself; it can be sorted alphabetically by author or title, by genre (which is how it's sorted now), or by release month. All week I'll be talking about what I learned putting that spreadsheet together, so buckle your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy trends ride.

I'm really overthinking storytime.

CRjr and I are just back from a library storytime for one- and two-year-olds. He's taking a short nap, and I feel like I should also. Just to recover.

Now, storytime was just fine. Very nice, in fact. Some songs and singing, clapping and hand motions, a few stories, and then some coloring for those who wanted to. Lots of other little kids and their moms. (Yes, all moms or female nannies.)

So why did the whole scene make me so tired?

Now, I think CRjr enjoyed himself okay. He didn't seem too interested at first, but when the program started he faced forward (sitting on my lap, he wiggled back towards me after starting on a little carpet) and watched carefully. Of course we didn't know some of the songs and hand motions but everyone else seemed to, and we caught up after a while. The stories were good, the librarian kept things moving around nicely, and CRjr definitely enjoyed just looking around.

But my question is this: is it really important that CRjr learn the movements to "The Wheels on the Bus"?* That he learn to follow along with what everyone else is doing? To me it seemed eerily like preparing him for school, which will prepare him for an office job of some sort. To quote something I tell CRjr about unsuitable things to touch: Ucky.

But of course I am overthinking it. It doesn't help that CRjr seems by nature not to be much of a follower. He's hitting his gross and fine motor skill benchmarks, but the boy refuses to play things like patty cake. I should know--I've been trying to play patty cake with him for months now. He laughs and engages while I do the motions, but he seems uninclined to play the game with me. So, like any mother who just wants her kid to fit in with the crowd, I feel a little like we stick out, and it makes me nervous. I know it shouldn't.

I think we'll go next week. CRjr doesn't know enough to look forward to it, and I definitely won't, which seems the wrong attitude to have. But there you have it.

*I know it probably is important. But it's so hard for me to understand why. I was not taken to the library or storytimes (not because Mom didn't love me; it just wasn't something they did) and I learned to read and interact just fine.