60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Madison.

So this is what I discovered this weekend: ice cream, topped with Nutella, topped with cashews.

Now I can die happy. I will also be dying soon, with packed arteries, as well as carrying at least 100 extra pounds.

Seriously. The minute I tried that combination and realized it was the best thing ever, I also realized that I can never have it again, or my weight will finally spiral beyond control. My weight already has spiraled out of control, because I'm an emotional eater and there is no emotion that I haven't had in the past twelve months. Sad? Let's eat. Worried? Let's eat. Bored? Let's eat. Disgusted with myself for eating all the time? Let's eat.

60 Hikes Within 60 MilesWhich is a very awkward way to back into this review of Kevin Revolinski's 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Madison*, but there you have it. Pretty soon small children will make the truck-backing-up noise when they see me backing into anything, so it is clearly time for me to get outside and get active.

I am not a hiker or a camper or a user of state or county parks, for the most part, so I didn't know what to expect from this book. But my overall first impression was a good one: The book is meaty but not overly hefty; you could definitely chuck it in your backpack and haul it around pretty easily. It's got a ton of beautiful pictures, most taken by the author, which are not only fun to look at just as pictures, but which also help you picture the landscape and interest points of the hike being described. It's got a ton of handy charts for "hikes by category" (including such attributes as "busy," "solitude," "wildflowers," "bird-watching," "historic-interest," "kid-friendly," "dog-friendly," etc.).

When you get to each of the sixty hikes, you won't be disappointed; for each one you can see at a glance how long it is, how difficult it is, how much of it is shaded, how much the elevation changes, and whether there are facilities or wheelchair access.  The author neatly takes you through each hike, in a surprisingly comprehensive way. The trails are described so well that I'll admit I'm actually thinking about skipping the hiking and just reading the book.

I was also extremely pleased with the prose in this guidebook, which is anything but the dry, informational writing I was expecting. I particularly appreciated information in the front of the book, in a description of the Kettle Moraine State Forest:

"The most recent period of the Ice Age is known as the Wisconsin Glaciation. It came to its dwindling end in a jagged line across the state about 10,000 years ago. Thanks to the land-altering efforts of an ice sheet that was as much as a mile thick in some places, there is no better spot to see the dramatic effects of continental glaciers than in Wisconsin. Two massive lobes of glacial ice left behind two ridges approximately 120 miles long in the southeastern part of the state. Melting ice buried within glacial deposits left kettlelike depressions that have since been overgrown with hardwood forests and, in some cases, filled in with bogs. The very ground beneath your feet is strewn with sand and broken rock, some of which may have originated all the way back in Canada." (p. 1.)

If I can get through an entire paragraph about geology, it's good writing.

I've not had the chance to go through the whole thing, because Mr. CR has stolen it and is planning hikes for our family for the summer. It'll be good, but I'm kind of tired just thinking about it. Tired? Does that count as an emotion? I should go eat something.

It's a lovely book. Buy a copy for yourself if you're in Wisconsin, or if you know any Wisconsinites, consider buying them a copy as a gift. If there was ever a summer when it would be a good time to get out there and hike, far from other people who may or may not believe in wearing masks, this is the one.

*Full disclosure, because I can't not disclose. I know the author. And I'm mainly sharing that because I want you to know that after reading it, I asked him how long this book must have taken to write, because it's really detailed, and really cool. He admitted it was a lot of work. It shows, in the best possible way.

New York, New York.

So I missed a Helene Hanff book!

I think I had been saving Apple of My Eye, a travel guide/love letter to the city of New York, for a treat, and then just kind of forgot about it. Until this summer, when I had a Hanff mini-revival, re-reading all her books and getting Apple of My Eye. What's great about this guide to NYC is that it was written in 1978--how's that for a mind-blower? When the city was broke and seedy and down on its luck. Spoiler alert: Helene still loved her city.

But here's the weird part. Here's what I was reading one night:

"One thing about the World Trade Center: you don't need a map to find it. With our eyes on the severe twin towers jutting skyward, we steered a zigzag course through winding streets until we came to an intersection seething with traffic, across the street from it. As we waited for a green light, we looked across the street and saw, in front of the Trade Center and blocking the entrance to it, cement mixers, mounds of earth, piles of wooden boards and the rest of the construction mess out of which the Center's landscaped plaza will have emerged by the time you read this.

'You know the problem with this book?' I said to Patsy [a friend of Helene's, with whom she was exploring the city to do the research for this book]. 'I want to write about the Trade Center Plaza and I can't because it isn't there yet. I want to write about Radio City Music Hall and I'm not sure it'll still be there when the book comes out. No other city on earth has such a mania for tearing down the old to build the new--which I approve of. My theory is that since New Yorkers mostly come here from somewhere else, they have no interest in the city's past; they come with big plans for its future. And on a narrow strip of island, you can't build the future without tearing down the past first; there isn't room for both. But it's a headache when you're writing a book about it." (pp. 52-53.)

And then, as she and her friend looked out from the 107th-floor observatory, there's this:

"And suddenly, irrationally, I gloried in the highhanded, high-flying, damn-your-eyes audacity that had sent the Trade Center's twin columns rising impudently above the skyline at the moment when New York was declared to be dying, and so deep in debt it couldn't afford workers to dispose of the Center's trash, police its plaza or put out its fires." (pp. 55-56.)

So I paused and thought about that, and then I thought about the date. What are the odds that I would be reading exactly that chapter of this book at 11 p.m. on September 10? WEIRD.

Vivian Swift's "Le Road Trip: A Traveler's Journal of Love and France."

You know that thing that happens when a reader you love gives you a book they love and they want you to love it too?

Le road tripThat's happening to me right now. My favorite reader has given me Vivian Swift's illustrated travel/memoir title Le Road Trip: A Traveler's Journal to Love and France. It's a travelogue in which Swift details her honeymoon trip through France, complete with Swift's watercolors on every page. It is a beautiful book. It's a romantic book. It's a funny book. Each of these attributes is readily apparent: just look at that cover. Now imagine a book chock-full of beautiful watercolor illustrations like that, only many of them include detailed drawings of gorgeous French buildings, the countryside, and various sunsets. (You can also get a better feel for Swift's painting if you visit her excellent blog.)

The romance comes in when Swift describes her new marriage: "It was a rainy Thursday night in Manhattan during a cold Spring, and, at a fine-arts fundraiser/cocktail party, I was looking at a room full of people I didn't know. A distinguished-looking silver-haired gentleman in a tweed jacket asked me if I was alone. 'Yes,' I said.

'So am I,' he told me.

Small talk: he told me about the funeral that he'd been to that afternoon, I told him that I'd stopped off at a record shop on my way to the party to buy a Blow Monkeys CD.

Death and pop music from the 1980s are two of my favorite topics of conversation...

We were married a year later." (p. 9.)

Mercifully, she tempers the romance with her humor, as when she describes what happens when the going gets tough, in love and in travel:

"Wandering with God through the Sinai Desert, His people often grew restless and rebellious of His ever-presence. Their annoyance grew in spite of His miraculous provisions of food and amusements along the way: sweet water and a lo-cal carbohydrate called manna (from Heaven, no less), pillars of fire and cloud. They even tried to ditch him altogether in favor of a golden calf. The whole trip must have worn on God's love, too, because once they all got where they were going He's never taken His people on that kind of journey again." (p. 112.)

I read the whole thing in a couple of days, looked at some of the pictures very carefully (particularly the ones in which I loved the purple-y light of French evenings and nights), and enjoyed it all very much.

So why can't I join my favorite reader in LOVING, no holds barred, this book? I don't know. I think it's just a question of mood. I'm not in a very romantic mood currently, and this is a very romantic book. And although I often really enjoy travel books, I am not really in the mood for travel narratives right now. It's a tricky little bugger, mood. Especially as it pertains to reading.

You ever had a book that someone wanted you to LOVE, right at that moment, and you couldn't match your enthusiasm?*

*Full disclosure: I totally know I've done this to people. When I love a book I won't shut up about it. I try not to tell people they HAVE to read it, and I try not to ask people how they like books I've given them, but it's hard!

Paul Theroux's Deep South.

There are about a million places I want to travel to someday.

I'm rather ashamed to admit that none of those places are located in the American South.*

So when I saw that infamous travel writer Paul Theroux had written a travelogue titled Deep South, I thought, well, in lieu of traveling anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, I'll just read that.

At no point was I swept away, really, in Theroux's narrative. I actually thought he was a bit wordy/long-winded through most of it, and the entire book could have done with a much tighter editing. (Theroux is, of course, a bestselling travel writer and novelist, best known for his books The Old Patagonian Express and (the novel) The Mosquito Coast. And I have read and enjoyed at least one of his earlier works. But I wonder if he is so hallowed these days that he is not much edited.)

Over the course of the four different seasons, Theroux drove away from his home in the north and meandered through such deep Southern states as Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi. And many of the stories he tells seem to center on the deep poverty of many people living in the South, combined with wonder at their kindnesses and hospitality to him. One of his very first stories is of getting lost in Alabama, when a kind woman asks if she can help him find where he's going.

"In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on a hot Sunday morning in early October, I sat in my car in the parking lot of a motel studying a map, trying to located a certain church...

I slapped the map with the back of my hand. I must have looked befuddled.

'You lost, baby?'

I had driven from my home in New England, a three-day road trip to another world, the warm green stages of the Deep South I had longed to visit, where 'the past is never dead,' so the man famously said. 'It's not even past.' Later that month, a black barber snipping my hair in Greensboro, speaking of its racial turmoil today, laughed and said to me, in a sort of paraphrase of that writer whom he'd not heard of and never read, 'History is alive and well here.'" (p. 4.)

The woman who asked him if he was lost ended up leading him (she drove her car and he followed) to the church he wanted.

I did get a kick out of Theroux being curmudgeonly enough to ask many residents of Arkansas if they didn't think Bill Clinton's philanthropic work wouldn't be appreciated in many of the poorer areas of his own home state (as opposed to focusing on Africa). Most people didn't respond to that in any big way, but one person did reply that Clinton had his own weaknesses and proclivities, as all humans do (or something like that). And Theroux was gracious enough to agree with that and move on.

It was an interesting (if very sad, at times) read, and there's a lot of great pictures in it. Worth a look, but don't feel bad if you have to skip over some of the text because it is just taking too long.

*As a dedicated Anglophile, for one thing, I'd like to visit a lot more of England and Scotland (and Ireland, for good measure) than I've so far had the good luck to see.

Cheryl Strayed's Wild: One of the more interesting books I've hated.

So I finally got around to reading Cheryl Strayed's hugely popular memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Vintage).

I hated it.

Every night I was reading it I would say something about what I disliked about it to Mr. CR, and every night he would say, "Then why are you still reading it? Please stop.*"

But there's the rub. I did read the whole thing. I did have a strong reaction to it throughout; mostly, dislike, but sometimes interest or understanding or even liking. If nothing else, and for lack of a better word, I had a relationship with this book.

In the book, Strayed looks back on her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in the mid-1990s, when she was in her mid-twenties. The decision was motivated by her desire to change her life; in the aftermath of her mother's much too-early death from cancer, she made some poor personal choices. So off she went to be alone in the wilderness. Without, mind you, doing much in the way of preparation.

So there was my first quibble with the narrative. I actually like being outdoors, but I am not really outdoorsy and I find very little that is "redemptive" or "restorative" about natural landscapes.** I have a farm kid's understanding of (and respect for) Mother Nature: she can fuck you. You can do everything right while growing a crop, but if there's no rain or you get hail or you get flooded (or any one of a million other possibilities), you're screwed. So I've never really understood these people who find comfort in nature. Especially the way Strayed did nature: she didn't even try on her loaded backpack before she went on the trail. And I'm not the only person who was annoyed by that. I was talking with the librarian about this book, and her co-worker overheard us and interjected how much she hated this book. She hated it BECAUSE she was an outdoorsy person; she thought Strayed was unforgivably unprepared to go on a serious mountain hike, and that she had inspired other people to go when they were similarly unprepared.

But that wasn't all. I can certainly understand how losing your mother (and your best friend, which is what Strayed's mother seems to have been to her) would make you go off the deep end. But while I was reading this I also had the involuntary thought that, huh, I'd sure like to read a memoir about emotional distress where the woman doesn't turn to heroin or sex with a lot of different partners. I suppose memoirs about emotional distress where the woman turns to ice cream and wanting just to smack any potential sex partners for being different varieties of moron just don't pack the same punch.

But then? Very brief parts of the book would get past my dislike. And I'd think about them for the rest of the day. In one part of the story, Strayed hitches a ride with a woman (whose name is Lou) and two men, and learns that the woman lost her eight-year-old son in an accident a few years previously. Here's the conversation:

"She took a drag and blew the smoke out in a hard line. 'Anyway, after all that stuff about my son getting killed? After that happened, I died too. Inside." She patted her chest with the hand that held the cigarette. "I look the same, but I'm not the same in here. I mean, life goes on and all that crap, but Luke dying it took it out of me. I try not to act like it, but it did. It took the Lou out of Lou, and I ain't getting it back. You know what I mean?'

'I do,' I said, looking into her hazel eyes." (p. 186.)

I call that the paragraph that made me feel okay about reading a 315-page book I didn't particularly enjoy. And you know what? To remember that story, and to tell it in this way? I had to give Strayed some credit for that.

That is all. Have a good weekend, everyone.

*I think he meant stop reading the book, but you never know with Mr. CR. There's at least a fifty-fifty chance that what he meant was "please stop talking to me about this book."

**Unlike when I first stood on the outside observation deck of the Empire State Building and looked out at New York City. I just couldn't believe it. I looked for hours. Literally. My traveling companion was very tired of the Empire State Building by the time he finally pulled me off that observation deck.

And what an American life.

Wow, talk about living hard, dying young, and leaving a good-looking corpse: did everybody here know that author Jack London (of Call of the Wild fame) died at the age of 40? After packing more action and adventure into that short lifetime than most people do who live twice as long?

I read The Call of the Wild a million years ago, and remembered liking it, although I think that is the only piece of London's writing that I've ever read. My sister has referenced him before, though, so when I saw Earle Labor's new biography, Jack London: An American Life, in my library catalog, I placed it on hold, thinking I would lend it to her to read.

I made the (happy) mistake of reading the first few chapters of the book myself, and then I kept it for myself to read, rather than passing it along. Sorry, sis.

I couldn't stop reading this book simply because of the sheer momentum of London's life. From his illegitimacy to his hardscrabble childhood, his dedication to Socialist causes to his young adulthood filled with hard labor, his unstinting efforts to educate himself to his drive to become a published author, and his first unhappy marriage to a fulfilling second one, complete with a sailing voyage around the world, this story just never gets the chance to be dull. Labor's writing is straightforward and not nearly as flashy as its subject, and I periodically wished for some more juicy details*, but overall this was a quick read for how much ground the author had to cover.

A great biography, complete with notes, bibliography, and index, and a great read, about a truly unbelievable life. And a great book to read during this time of the year, trapped as we all feel by weather and the doldrums of January and February.**

*I forgot to place bookmarks at the places where I thought, huh, I'd like some more detail here. You'll just have to take my word on this one.

**Or am I the only one feeling this way?

Rose George* does it again.

Last year I read journalist Rose George's fantastic book on poo, titled The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. I loved it. It was, bar none, one of the best books I read all year.

So I was very excited when my copy of her latest book, Ninety Percent of Everything, came in at the library. The book is about the shipping industry, which George investigated by living: she actually traveled on a container ship, the Maersk Kendal, from Felixstowe (the Kendal is actually a Dutch ship, but George joins its crew from a port in Great Britain) to its final port of call in Singapore. She explains, early on, why this is a subject in which she is fascinated:

"The Maritime Foundation, a charity that promotes seafarer matters, recently made a video called Unreported Ocean. It asked the residents of Southampton, a port city in England, how many goods are transported by sea. The answers were varied but uniformly wrong. They all had the interrogative upswing of the unsure.**

'Thirty-five percent?'

'Not a lot?'

The answer is, nearly everything. Sometimes on trains I play a numbers game. A woman listening to headphones: 8. A man reading a book: 15. The child in the stroller: at least 4 including the stroller. The game is to reckon how many of our clothes and possessions and food products have been transported by ship..." (p. 3.)

I love that George is out there in the world, thinking and writing about shipping for us, because who else would have the time or the necessary drive to travel on a huge container ship? One that may or may not be boarded by pirates at some point along its route? (The chapters on piracy, by the way, are fascinating and horrifying in equal measures.)

It's a good book; do check it out. I'll confess it wasn't quite what I expected--I was thinking George would take a somewhat broader view of the entire shipping industry, rather than framing many of her chapters around her travels on the one ship, but the more I read the more I enjoyed her approach. Of particular note is the very human face she puts on the ship's crew members and captain, as well as the individuals worldwide who seek to offer charitable services and help to such workers (which is necessary, because people working in the shipping industry, as you might guess, are not treated very well or paid very much).

You can also read a lengthy excerpt of the book at the NPR website. Try that and I'll bet you'll be hooked!

*By the way, I totally want a cool name like "Rose George." I love the succinctness of it.

**For whatever reason I love this sentence. Beautifully written stuff.

Paris is for bureaucrats.

I'll let you in on a little secret: I've never really wanted to go to Paris.

I feel like I should travel there someday. People have told me to travel there someday. But the stubborn fact remains that even though I've been to London twice, I'd still rather go back to London (or almost any other city I've been to, in fact, and I'd love to pick up Glasgow and Manchester and Ottawa and a plethora of other British, Scottish, and Canadian places) than go see Paris for the first time. Part of this is the language barrier: I don't know any French, and although my accent for Spanish words is acceptable, my accent on French words is not. In Montreal I screwed up the courage to say "bonjour" to a museum guard, who then smiled kindly and a bit sadly at me and said, "Hello."

So I can't say that Rosecrans Baldwin's travel memoir Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down, really made me want to visit the city. But it was a highly enjoyable read, and it's made me vaguely curious to see Paris, which is more than I felt before. Baldwin is better known as one of the founders of The Morning News and a popular literary fiction novelist, but before all of that he took a job in advertising in Paris--despite, as the book jacket reveals, "the fact that he had no experience in advertising. And despite the fact that he barely spoke French."

So what you get here is a mixture of travelogue, as well as a more typical memoir-like focus on work, friendships, and his marriage. He does the travelogue stuff well, like when he describes the neighborhood where they rent an apartment:

"And where roads didn't cross was an old covered market, the Marche du Temple, blue with a dirty glass roof. Some weekends, men trucked in what appeared to be stolen leather goods, but otherwise the market stood empty--Thursdays, maybe it was Tuesdays, a tennis league strung up nets inside--and the surrounding quadrant would be filled with people dawdling over cafe tables that they'd occupy for hours, chatting with friends....Rue Bretagne had a park with a playground, two bookstores, a boutique that sold vintage radios, a booth that sold found photographs--it was the Left Bank I'd seen in picture books, preserved in time. At the center stood the oldest Paris farmer's market still operating, Le Marche des Enfants Rouges, built in the 1600s, now ringed by food stalls that sold Moroccan tagines, huge piles of Turkish desserts, West African stews, even sushi.

It was fantastic." (p. 23.)

So yes, I'll admit that paragraphs like that made Paris more interesting to me than I've ever found it before. But what I enjoyed even more about this book was Baldwin's report of working alongside his French colleagues, trying to navigate the country's many bureaucracies, and the many personality quirks of Parisians. Mr. CR read the book too, and we both enjoyed learning that Parisians love eating at McDonald's, but they spend a lot more money there per meal than Americans will. And there's a lot more lovely bits, including the ones where he discusses how he tried to pick up the knack for when to kiss people on both cheeks in greeting, arguing with the French telemarketer who calls constantly to talk about his telephone service, his coworkers getting annoyed when he has the gall to eat his lunch at his desk (which is simply not done there, I gather), and French labor strikes.

Did Paris really end up bringing Rosecrans down? Not so much. You get the feeling that it was a more exhausting experience than he thought it would be, but in the end he still seems to find the city a little magical. To think something is magic even after you get to know it better? Let's face it: that's the best kind of love story.

Who doesn't enjoy Dame Agatha Christie?

No one, that's who.

Recently I plowed through the travel diary The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery, in which Christie's grandson Matthew Prichard has gathered together her travel diary entries, letters, photographs, and snippets from her autobiography in order to re-create her 1922 world tour. Then a mother of a young toddler (Rosalind, who stayed home with Christie's mother), Christie and her first husband, Archie Christie, were invited to "join a trade mission to promote the British Empire Exhibition."

Even after reading the book, I'm not really sure what the deal was with the British Empire Exhibition. Don't you just love the early twentieth century? Trade missions! Empire Exhibitions! World's Fairs! Sure they didn't yet have antibiotics, but it sure seemed like people in those times knew how to enjoy themselves.

Anyhoo, the long and short of the matter is that Agatha got to accompany her husband on an around-the-world tour to various locations in the British Empire (South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada among them, with time for a side trip vacation to Hawaii), along with various other British dignitary/bureacrat types, in order to finish planning for the British Empire Exhibition. And the lively accounts she gives of her travels, both in her letters and in her autobiography, should not disappoint fans of Christie's mysteries. In fact, particularly while in Africa, you can see how she was already honing her descriptive style of her surroundings, which is a facet of her mysteries I think I always underestimated. And the chapter on Hawaii, when she's obsessed with surfing? Awesome:

"First you have to recognize the proper wave when it comes, and secondly, even more important, you have to know the wrong wave when it comes, because if that catches you and forces you down to the bottom. Heaven help you!" (p. 266.)

Of course she goes on to describe how she once caught the wrong wave. Scrappy gal.

The pictures of Christie herself are a lot of fun, particularly in her surfing get-ups, but most of the other snapshots are of people (mostly other bureaucrats and ex-pats) she met along the way, and are not that exciting. It's a fun book, if you're looking for something a little different in the travel line. (And if you're looking for something a little different in the review line, consider RickLibrarian's.)

To be continued...

I know, I just can't seem to get back on a regular blogging schedule. I feel like I owe you a book review, and I even just read a fantastic book that I want to tell you about, but for the love of all that's holy, I just can't get myself to do it tonight. Soon, I promise.

In the meantime, please do check out a new travel nonfiction blog that is being written by my friend and colleague, Robert Burgin. The blog is called Travel with a Book, and it's a great source for travel book suggestions. Burgin is also the former editor of the Real Stories series (for which I've written a couple of volumes) and also just wrote a travel literature guide himself (titled Going Places). I will make sure to get a link to that blog in my sidebar.

In other news, the American Library Association has announced the shortlist for their Andrew Carnegie Medal awards, and I've got very decided opinions on what should win. Not to be too melodramatic, but if the Quammen book* doesn't win I'm giving up on the ALA forever. So there!

*I'm also pulling for Richard Ford's Canada.

Where do you want to go? A travel guide to meet your every need (in books).

It's been an exciting month for the Real Stories series of nonfiction reading guides!

Last week I told you about Melissa Brackney Stoeger's new guide to epicurean nonfiction, Food Lit. This week, I have the great pleasure of telling you about Robert Burgin's Going Places: A Reader's Guide to Travel Narratives.

Going placesAgain, I know it's a bit hard for me to be unbiased about these books. But you should see this book. Robert has rounded up every travel book you have ever heard of, and a ton of new ones that you haven't. When I was reading through his manuscript before publication, I put a bunch of titles on my TBR list that intrigued me (this is how I found Paul Theroux's Kingdom by the Sea, which was a great read). In addition to providing thorough annotations and read-alike suggestions, Robert has also grouped these books by reading interest and genre--categories you won't ever find in libraries and bookstores but which are just right--like "Quests," "The Journey," and "The Expatriate Life," to name just a few.

He also noted all of the places the authors traveled to in their books*--and included those in his subject index. So when a library patron approaches you and wants something to read about Spain (that isn't a guide book), you now have a one-stop resource for accessing such a list of titles.

Do check it out. Between this book and Melissa's you will find all the great nonfiction you will ever need about travel and food, respectively.

*Robert's also started a blog about his travels and travel books--you can find him at Travel With a Book.

Bringing up Bebe

Sorry: a quick administrative note. I'm getting hit with all sorts of stupid automated comments that are somehow making it through the spam filter, so I've had to enable comment moderation for the time being. Hopefully when these comments dry up I'll be able to take that back off. In the meantime, please comment away and I'll moderate and add your comments as soon as I can!

In honor of Mother's Day coming up, I think I'll just post about parenting books all week. The last one I read was one that's getting lots of press-- Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. (I originally got it from the library because I saw the author on the Today show, actually wearing a beret, which seemed so ridiculous it almost made me like her.)

BringingDruckerman relates the tale of her whirlwind romance and marriage, and how she eventually found herself in Paris, raising a baby girl (and later, twin boys). Her account is chronological: the account of her love affair, the experience of giving birth in France, breastfeeding, getting her baby to sleep through the night, and so on. Along the way she describes how the French method of child-rearing differs from the American; for example, most French women don't breastfeed, but yet they manage to get their babies to sleep through the night much earlier than American parents. Of course French parents pay much more attention to the food their children eat, and they also tend to send their children to daycares (state-funded, mind you) much earlier, and to try and instill more independence in them. Druckerman also noted that children in France seem much more self-sufficient and well-behaved, meaning that French parents can all get together, along with their kids, and still maintain an adult conversation at the same time.

It's not nearly as annoying a book as you might think; it's actually quite interesting in parts. (I was particularly blown away that French mothers receive both abdominal/core and pelvic rehabilitation therapy services after birth--now THAT's a good idea. Or you could, as my oh-so-helpful OB/GYN suggested, "just do some crunches." Thanks for all the high-level tips, doc.) But the fact of the matter is, as my sister would say, you raise your kids like the parents around you do. I can just see if you tried to give up breastfeeding in America, or have coffee* with other mothers and chat with them about adult things rather than all of you just following your toddlers around and attempting to teach them how to share with each other.

I read the whole thing, and it was okay. But unless I move to Paris (and the attention Druckerman says everyone pays to their appearance in Paris pretty much assures me I will never bother to visit Paris, much less live there) there wasn't much for me to learn or use here.

Reviews: New York Times; NPR

*Or have coffee at all, when you're pregnant or breastfeeding. You monster!

Paul Theroux: Part 2

Just a bit more about Paul Theroux's Kingdom By the Sea, which I really enjoyed.

As I was saying yesterday, I think I have finally aged into an appreciation for Theroux's writing and mix of observational travel writing with his own quietly (very) opinionated take on the people and places around him. In this book, an account of his travels around Great Britain's copious island coastline, he shares many small stories that very admirably get at the tone of people's encounters with one another. (He also didn't make me laugh out loud as much as Bill Bryson does, but I enjoyed something about his surprisingly gentle humor all the same) I really enjoyed this exchange, about a gentleman who was really just trying to give his newspaper to his bus driver:

"The bus driver said, 'That's a Tory paper.'

'I'm through with it,' Mr. Lurley said.

Dan, the bus driver, said, 'I don't want it.'

'Why not?' Mr. Lurley said.

'Tory paper!'

'They're all the same,' Mr. Lurley said, and left it on the little shelf under the windshield with Dan's lunch bag (two cheese and chutney sandwiches, a small over-ripe tomato, and a Club Biscuit).

Dan picked up the newspaper and threw it out the bus door.

'They're not the bloody same,' he said. 'That's a Tory paper.'" (p. 94).

I really enjoyed that. This book was written in 1983, and a large part of its narrative is Theroux's observations of Brits' observations about the early days of the 1982 Falklands War. I don't know much about that period in history, but I found it interesting all the same.

And, in case you're wondering, Theroux does a good job with the standard travel writing attribute of describing one's surroundings with flair. I am not often enamored with landscape descriptions (I tend to skip right over them, as a matter of fact), but this type of writing seemed worth reading:

"Ever since Tenby I had noticed an alteration in the light, a softness and a clarity that came from a higher sky. It must have been the Atlantic--certainly I had the impression of an ocean of light, and it was not the harsh daytime sun of the tropics or the usual grayness of the industrialized temperate zone; daylight in England often lay dustily overhead like a shroud. The cool light in West Wales came steadily from every direction except from the sun." (p. 162.)

It was a good read. I'm going to try one of his non-British titles again and see what I think of it.

Have I finally aged into Paul Theroux?

I gave a short talk on nonfiction the other day, to a lovely class of library school students (at the request of their indefatigable teacher--you know who you are--thank you!) and we chatted a bit about nonfiction readers and their characteristics. As I babbled on and on, I think I said something about readers "aging into" nonfiction; this is certainly the way it happened for me. I didn't become a nonfiction junkie until my late 20s, although I always read a bit of it. In fact, I find this one of the most interesting facets of nonfiction--how young readers love perusing it (dinosaur books, anyone?), often seem to leave it behind in favor of fiction, but then sometimes return to it as older readers.

TherouxAnyway. I've read some Paul Theroux in my time, but never understood why he was such a classic travel author or how he'd gotten so popular. Well, I recently picked up his Kingdom By the Sea, and either it's because the book is about Great Britain and I'm just a sucker for all things Brit, or I've finally aged into an appreciation for Paul Theroux's writing. Or perhaps a little of both.

Theroux took as his task traveling around the entire coast of Great Britain by rail, bus, and walking, starting in London and working clockwise (including Ulster, Northern Ireland, as well). A common theme throughout is the lamenting of the dismantling of Britain's rail system, particularly as he sometimes found it difficult to "get from here to there" without a vehicle, and most particularly towards the end of the narrative when transit workers went on strike. Although the book was published in 1983, I still feel that Theroux had a good grasp on where the world was going. Consider this exchange, with a person he met on his travels:

"'Our society is changing from one based on the concept of the individual and freedom,' Mr. Bratby said, 'to one where the individual is nonexistent--lost in a collectivist state.'

I said I didn't think it would be a collectivist state so much as a wilderness in which most people lived hand to mouth, and the rich would live like princes--better than the rich had ever lived, except that their lives would constantly be in danger from the hungry predatory poor. All the technology would serve the rich, but they would need it for their own protection and to ensure their continued prosperity."

There were quite a few bits I wanted to quote from this book. More tomorrow.


A less than titillating travel read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget about audiobooks for the time being.

I have less time for reading these days, which is good and bad. It's good because I'm busier doing other things I want to be doing (watching CRjr eat, for example, continues to be a joy) and don't want to be doing (good lord, I could mop the floor under CRjr's highchair every day and my floor would still be sticky). I can't complain about any of that.* It's bad because, well, I miss reading.

So lately I thought maybe I would get some books on audiobook, and that way I could listen to some nonfiction while I did other tasks like cleaning and cooking and even playing with CRjr. This plan, however, is failing spectacularly, for a variety of reasons.

The first book I tried was Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia, which got great reviews. I listened to about three CDs of this one, and the book did seem interesting, but Frazier himself read it, and that was a huge mistake. His voice is okay, but he's got that over-enunciation thing that people who are not natural performers have. (Maybe natural performers have that problem too, if they're not very practiced in reading for recording.) And the subject's just not interesting enough to me to keep on keeping on. The only time I really perked up was when Frazier described meeting an American journalist in Russia who couldn't believe that Frazier was in love with the place--the journalist complained about nothing in Russia working, and he did so using a lot of "fuck"s. Now, I know that Matt Taibbi spent many years in Russia working as a journalist, and I know he loves to swear, so now I'm dying to know if that was Matt Taibbi. How can I find that out, short of emailing either author?

The other book I tried was Chris Hedges's Death of the Liberal Class, which I really wanted to read. Unfortunately, I started listening to it while I was trying to sort hand-me-down clothes from my sisters' kids for CRjr**, and while CRjr was playing in the room. And here's something I'm learning about parenting: even if you take what you think is going to be a braindead job like marking and sorting clothes, it takes just enough of your brain to make it impossible to focus on a book on tape. So I couldn't focus on the Hedges book, and it will have to go back too.

So we're back to listening to music CDs. CRjr seems relieved, particularly when I play Dan Wilson. He loves Dan Wilson.

*Okay, maybe I can complain about the cleaning. I HATE cleaning. And as a person with a high filth tolerance, it's sometimes more work to convince myself of the value of cleaning than it is to actually clean.

**Which I really appreciate, as the only thing I hate more than cleaning is shopping.

Gotta re-read me some Laura Ingalls Wilder.

As previously mentioned, last week I found myself reading books by authors I'd read before (and enjoyed). Author Wendy McClure won me over a few years back with her weight-loss memoir titled I'm Not the New Me, so I thought I'd try her new book, a memoir/travelogue titled The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie. After explaining her childhood fascination with the Little House books and all things Laura Ingalls, McClure further describes her multiple trips to visit historic sites and tourist traps centering on the Ingalls mythos.

Wilder McClure is a children's book editor, and perhaps the most fun thing about this book is her obvious love for her source material.* Periodically she references parts of the Little House series that she particularly enjoyed (or is a bit dismayed by, in retrospect, particularly when it comes to the portrayals of American Indians), and how those parts really fired her imagination. Anyone who has ever remembered a beloved book (or series) from childhood will identify with her nostalgia, particularly those who read and loved the Little House books.

But also fun are her descriptions of many of the Ingalls historical sites, including the little house in the big woods at Pepin (Wisconsin), her Minnesota home "on the banks of Plum Creek," and the house in Missouri where she eventually settled with her husband Almanzo and their daughter Rose. Much of McClure's writing is also augmented with biographical tidbits from a wealth of biographies and scholarly works on Laura and her family--she clearly did her homework, which gives the story some nice heft.

But perhaps my favorite part of this memoir is how she shared her reading and travels with her partner, Chris. She did a nice job of working in his commentary, like when they discussed Farmer Boy, which, as it focused on Almanzo, was never one of McClure's favorite books in the series. But Chris liked it and told her why:

"'This book rules. This kid has the best life ever. There's a doughnut jar in the kitchen.' 'The doughnut jar really is cool,' I admitted. 'In his right hand he held a doughnut, and in his left hand two cookies,' Chris said. I knew he was reading from the book. 'He took a bite of doughnut AND THEN a bite of cookie.' He was quoting the birthday scene, where Almanzo gets to stay home from school and go sledding and wander through the kitchen double-fisting baked goods. 'That is some bad-ass action right there,' Chris said." (p. 304.)

This one was a fun read for summer. (Nonfiction beach reading, anyone?) Thoughtful but not too heavy. And it's definitely left me with the desire to read the Little House series. (I loved the part where Almanzo got to stay home for his birthday too.)

*"It's just how reading the Little House books was for me as a kid. They gave me the uncanny sense that I'd experienced everything she had, that I had nearly drowned in the same flooded creek, endured the grasshopper plague of 1875, and lived through the Hard Winter. It's a classic childhood delusion, I know, and in my typically dippy way I tended to believe that the fantasy was mine alone..." (p. 2.)

A girl can dream, can't she?

If I had world enough and time, I would take the book London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World's Most Vibrant City (by Steve Roud) into a room with me, my fuzzy red throw blanket, and some coffee and bon-bons, and never come out. And I'd like to do this during a month like we're currently having: way too much snow and ridiculously cold.*

Lore Roud shares tidbits of history and legend from every nook and cranny in London--and I do mean every one. It's a thick book, with dense printing, organized so that each chapter covers a different borough and is further subdivided according to its stories, with headings like "Cock Lane, Smithfield." I read a bit of the first chapter ("Cock Lane is an inconspicuous, narrow thoroughfare, off Giltspur Street, Smithfield, which suddenly acquired international fame in 1762 when a house in the road became the scene of one of the best-known hauntings in London's history..."), but the sad fact of the matter is that I'm not going to have time to read the whole thing, and truthfully, it just reminds me I'm not IN London and therefore makes me sad.

But I have a plan! Not to put too much pressure on CRjr or anything, but I have this dream that during college he'll study abroad for a year--at Oxford! And while he does Mr. CR and I will move to London for six months, to be able to see him once in a while and to take an extended look around ourselves!! And then I can take this book along and have time to explore with it. Right? It'll totally happen, right?**

*Cold is one thing, but next week our forecasted highs are set to be several degrees below the normal LOWS for this time of year. And we've got so much snow (yes, yes, I know, still nothing compared to what the East coast has been getting this winter) that backing blindly out of our driveway between the monster drifts/snow piles on each side has become a suicide mission.

**I know it'll never happen. For one thing CRjr probably won't be able to afford college anywhere (have you seen how fast tuition is going up these days?), much less Oxford, and for another, he may grow up to find someplace like, say, France, more interesting than Great Britain.*** But I can still dream.

***This is the sort of thing I worry about, to keep myself from worrying about his health and peer pressure and other mundane crap like that.

All dressed up and nowhere to go.

I really, really enjoyed Alain de Botton's book A Week at the Airport.

Airport The book is based on such an enjoyably weird premise that I couldn't help but be charmed by it. De Botton, best known for his nonfiction books How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, and The Art of Travel, was invited by one of the owners of the newly refurbished Heathrow Airport* to hang around the airport and its connecting hotel for a week and write a book about the experience, as a sort of airport "writer in residence."

The result is a slim narrative divided into the sections of Approach, Departures, Airside, and Arrivals; and containing fantastic photographs by Richard Baker.** De Botton describes the airport, shares the stories of travelers and airport workers he interviewed, and muses a bit on the nature of travel and transience in our modern world. As always, his text is just a little bit full of itself ("The mighty steel bracing of the airport's ceiling recalled the scaffolding of the great nineteenth-century railway stations, and evoked the sense of awe--suggested in paintings such as Monet's Gare Saint-Lazare--that must have been experienced by the first crowds to step inside these light-filled, iron-limbed halls pullulating with strangers, buildings that enabled a person to sense viscerally, rather than just grasp intellectually, the vastness and diversity of humanity"), but his text isn't what I really enjoy de Botton for. I really just enjoy his ideas and the way his prose is a little bit ridiculous but still does a great job of making you feel you're in the situation he's describing.

So yeah, I liked it. Mainly I liked it because just looking at it made me remember the few airports I've had the good luck to visit,*** and the excitement I felt at being there and going on trips. I'll never forget Mr. CR's and my first morning in London--we got off the plane at Heathrow and stumbled our way, exhausted, to the attached Underground station to King's Cross, where we were going to have to catch a train for our five-hour ride to Edinburgh (on pretty much no sleep, mind you). Before we got on the subway we popped up to a surface exit where we could use the restroom, and London was waking up, with the sky just lightening, traffic starting to move, a bit of a brisk nip in the fall air, and airport and Underground workers taking a smoke break. It was all so different and sensually overpowering and I felt so untethered, what with being off my home continent and all. And I felt ALL of that again when I read this book. Fantastic.

*in London, England, another reason I was destined to like this book. And: it's only 107 pages long. Sweet!

**I love his photography, and it makes the book so much more enjoyable. Tons more adult nonfiction books should include pictures or photographs.

***I LOVE airports. I'd feel differently about them if I had to travel for a living, but once I had to kill like five hours by myself in the Detroit airport, and rarely have I had such fun.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: A lighter choice, and one with coupons!

Hey! I thought of a lighter nonfiction read that would make super giving as a holiday present!

Beer This year my friend published an updated edition of his Wisconsin's Best Beer Guide.* And what a fun book it is! Unlike many guidebooks, this one is actually a joy to read, containing many facts about beer and brewing, and the types of anecdotes only an extremely personable fellow can gather while traveling around Wisconsin, drinking beer with its residents.

And, to sweeten the pie: the book includes numerous coupon and freebie offers for brew pubs across the state. Give this one as a gift, and the grateful recipient might even take you along on their pub tour!

*Okay, this one really only works for holiday giving if you live in Wisconsin. But will you be traveling to Madison any time soon? Kevin's also published a very nice Insiders' Guide to Madison, Wi.