Year in the Life

David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

I read a lot of True Crime books, and I've tried to research True Crime classics, so how on earth did I miss David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets?

Simon is perhaps best known for being the creator, head writer, and show runner for the TV show "The Wire"* (or, before that, the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Street"), but before he took on TV, he was a journalist working at The Baltimore Sun. While there he got the idea to shadow several homicide detectives on the Baltimore police force, and after a year of doing that he published this book.

HomicideAnd it's a really, REALLY good book. I had difficulty putting it down (the younger CRjr was not best pleased that I was reading it at breakfast, until I went and got him his own book to look at while he ate his Cheerios--I know, I know, I'm a terrible mother, but I'm going to call that our "modeling the enjoyment of reading" for the day) even though it was not a lighthearted read. Mr. CR was also not best pleased because I simply had to tell him some of the stories in this book--and they were not cheery stories. There is something about what I think of as the "cop sense of humor" (read: DARK) that I really, really enjoy. Like how the detectives in this book called a riot and round of looting that took place in Baltimore during the winter of 1979 simply "the Winter Olympics."

I'm sorry. That's funny.**

But most of this book is NOT funny. And years before there was as much conversation about race and community policing as there is now (the book was published in 1991), the reader can quite clearly see where some issues between the police and the policed are going to come to a head.

Simon does a good job of introducing his characters, primarily homicide detectives and their many bosses, and he does a very good job of describing their investigative techniques and the heartbreaking details of the cases involved (including the rape/murder of an 11-year-old girl, as well as numerous shootings, knifings, a prison riot, and any number of other tragedies). But the structure of the book is what's really something to behold; Simon relates what he saw in a linear fashion throughout each chapter, but each chapter/month of the year also showcases a broader theme. How a case can get away from you and go cold, even if it's a high-priority case. Interrogation techniques. Investigating when cops are shot and when cops engage in "bad shoots." What happens at the morgue. How the legal system works. If you forget the details involved, this is really quite a stunning work of nonfiction reportage and writing. And that is rare. Many journalists tell fascinating stories well; many nonfiction authors put their larger narratives together beautifully. David Simon does both things at once.

It's not a happy read. But it is a fascinating one; I think it'll end up being one of the best books I read this year. (Although I'd like to do you this favor: if you do read this book, and you should, just skip pages 547-548, or the first few pages of the section headed Thursday, December 15. It is very, very hard to read, and you don't actually need to read the details there to understand the bigger narrative.)

*Actually, I've always kind of wanted to see "The Wire," but this trailer makes me feel like I don't want to. After reading this book, I don't think I'm in the mood to see these stories "dramatized," complete with soundtrack. The trailer makes me feel a little dirty, like the drug war and cop investigations are being played for my entertainment. Hmm.

**This is my other favorite story--on one case the main suspect actually called in and confessed, and one of the detectives thought another detective was playing a joke on him:

"'This is James Baskerville. I'm calling to surrender to you for killing Lucille.'

'Goddammit Constantine, you bald-headed motherfucker, I'm up here trying to do a crime scene and all you can find to do is fuck with me. Either come up here and help or--'

Click. Mark Tomlin listens to a dead phone line for a moment, then turns to a family member. 'What did you say was the name of Lucille's boyfriend?'

'Baskerville. James Baskerville.'

When the second call comes, Tomlin catches it on the first ring. 'Mr. Baskerville, listen, I'm real sorry about that. I thought you were someone else...Where are you now?'

Later that night, in the large interrogation room, James Baskerville--who would later agree to life plus twenty years at his arraignment--offers no excuses and readily initials each page of his statement of confession. 'I've committed a serious crime and I should be punished,' he says.

'Mr. Baskerville,' asks Tomlin, 'are there any more like you at home?'" (p. 164.)

Jared Stone's Year of the Cow: Skip it.

I'm not sure why I originally requested Jared Stone's memoir Year of the Cow: How 420 Pounds of Beef Built a Better Life for One American Family from the library. I just liked the title, I suppose.

I've been chipping away at this book for what feels like months, but I've only gotten to about page 52. The book is exactly what its title advertises: Stone buys his family a butchered beef steer, and then writes about their year eating it. My only thought after getting through those 50 pages was "Wow, we're really just writing memoirs about ANYTHING now." Along the way he throws in some history of meat animals and cooking; some family vignettes from his busy Los Angeles existence; and some recipes, but at the end of the day? It's a whole memoir about buying a lot of beef and eating it.

I've seen this done in similar ways, but better, and mostly by Steven Rinella (author of The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine: How I Spent a Year in the American Wild to Re-Create a Feast from the Classic Recipes of French Master Chef Au and Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter).

Here's your sample, so you can decide for yourself. This is the beginning of chapter 1:

"One cow is approximately one Prius-full of meat.

This is the latest fact I've learned in the past twenty-four hours. It's also the most pressing, as the aforementioned cow has been frozen, packed into eight neat boxes, and stacked into the back of my jet-black Prius. I'm behind the wheel, hell-bent for leather, racing against the cold pouring off the boxes in palpable waves. Due south. Los Angeles by sundown." (p. 7.)

Even the word "mooncup" makes me shudder.

MoneylessI honestly don't know why I read the entire book The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living, by Mark Boyle.

This entire "living frugal/living without money" genre is one that I never particularly enjoy, but yet I can't stop reading them anyway. I think subconsciously I'm looking for money-saving tips that don't have anything to do with extreme couponing. I already try to spend as little money as possible (I spent the entire summer babying my one pair of shorts along, sometimes hand-washing them, so they didn't develop big holes and I could make them last through the summer), but I do not like couponing.

Unfortunately this book was an extreme version of its kind. Boyle spent a year living in the UK with absolutely no money--living in a trailer, creating his own power/electricity, using a woodstove, biking or hitching anywhere he needed to go, and doing everything he could to get the word out about moneyless living. I guess it wasn't a boring read--I did make it through the whole thing--but I can't say I really enjoyed it. There's a lot of this sort of thing:

"...if I wanted bread, I was going to have to come up with a new solution. And I did. I decided that although I loved bread, it would have to be a treat. Instead, I would sprout the grains. This means sprinkling a layer of rye grains along a couple of stacked, perforated trays and rinsing them with water twice a day until they sprout. This only takes five minutes and so is much less effort, for more nutritional gain, than making bread. Although not quite so pleasing to taste and smell!" (p. 28.)

Oh brother. It's all I can do to get through the day even when I just buy my bread like a sucker.* Experiments like this are just too extreme for me, I'll admit it. But I have to give the guy credit for trying something a little different with his life, and for writing the book about it.

*I also wouldn't be much good as a moneyless woman. Here's what Boyle has to say on certain, ahem, feminine needs: "For coping with periods without money, there is an obvious solution that even I know about: a mooncup. This is a rubber cup, which the user inserts in her vagina to collect the menstrual flow. It's held in place over the cervix by suction." (p. 180.) At the risk of sounding twelve, I've got only two words in response to that idea: icky poo.

Finally, a readable book on reading.

Howards Susan Hill's memoir of a year spent reading, Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home, was so great that I only allowed myself one chapter of it per day, to make it last. It was the book equivalent of a box of chocolate truffles.

Hill is a British author who specializes in ghost and detective stories (her novel The Woman In Black has been made into a film, starring Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, that will open in 2012), but she's clearly very widely read and seems to know or at least have met everyone who's anyone in the British publishing scene. In this memoir, she moves through her own house and bookshelves, explaining why she finds certain books the places she does, and the experiences she relives in revisiting and re-reading them.

Normally these books don't do a whole lot for me. But this one was so wonderful, so straightforward, so imbued with a love for books and reading that I found myself wanting to run right out and get everything she suggests. I also happen to agree with Ms. Hill on her attitude toward the printed book:

 "It ain't broke: the book, that is. I know because I just went round the house looking for something to read, and on the way I reassured myself that as the book ain't broke around here, I do not propose to fix it with an electronic reader. Yes, let's use the whole word. Let's tell it like it is. Electronic reader. Something monotonous-looking and made of plastic, is grey and has a screen...I will stick to paper and print and pages for reading books. If it ain't broke. Of course, someone wants to persuade us that it is so that they can sell us their device. 'Twas ever thus." (p. 76.)


But the real genius of her book is in her descriptions of the books she has read and loved: she makes you want to read each and every last one of them. I found a lot of great authors who I already love referenced (she's got a great Penelope Fitzgerald story), and Hill also introduced me to other writers I now want to read. And in addition to recommending specific authors, she also makes a grand case just for READING:

"But if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all the same books and only the same books, as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I have the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA...

All through the house, the books are murmuring, turning over in sleep like pebbles on the shoreline as the tide recedes." (p. 202.)

Awesome. Just awesome.

How convenient is a convenience store without smokes?

The second book about retail/service last week was Ben Ryder Howe's My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store.

Korean This one got a lot of pre-publication buzz, and a lot of good reviews, so I thought, hey, why not? Sounds good. A guy (who happens to be an editor at the Paris Review) agrees to help purchase a convenience store with his wife in New York City that they can give to her hard-working Korean parents, in order to "pay them back" for all the sacrifices they made immigrating to America. They'll help work in the store, too, the whole family will make it a success, they'll get their investment back, and they'll move out of his wife's parents' house and start a family of their own.

SPOILER ALERT: This is not how things work out.

Instead, the convenience store/deli nearly does kill them, starting with Howe's redoubtable mother-in-law. Howe weaves a tale of mishaps and bad luck, and if the stress from running a convenience store in Brooklyn (early on his mother-in-law Kay gives up the dream of owning a fancier deli, with a cash-cow lunchtime buffet steam table, in Manhattan*) isn't bad enough, he also witnesses the end of an era at The Paris Review as he and his colleagues try valiantly to make it more "professional" without stepping on George Plimpton's toes (and especially so in his absence, after his death).

And he does weave a fairly good tale. I started it at night, and then stayed up a bit later than usual to read it (fun in itself, as it's been a while since I've found something, anything, I really wanted to KEEP reading) and ended up blowing through 250 pages, so it's an easy read. And I really felt for him, as I can't imagine trying to serve the types of people he describes serving. It was, in its own way, an interesting look at a type of store I've (mercifully) never had to work in.

But this was another nonfiction book in which topics were raised and then never resolved. There is the incident, for example, where, when the deli/store is already struggling, Howe is seduced by a fancy groceries catalog into buying more than a thousand dollars' worth of upscale foodstuffs. There's some reference to his wife asking him if he placed an order that large, but that's pretty much all that's ever said about it. Now, me, when I hear about $1500 in fancy groceries bought for a convenience store which is mainly known for its sale of beers and lottery tickets, I kind of want to know what happened to those groceries. Did they sell? How fancy were they? Did his wife and mother-in-law ever chew him out for spending so much money when they were already hard up? 

At another point the family is faced with losing their license to sell cigarettes (for one violation for selling cigarettes to someone underage), so they voluntarily stop selling them. I ask you: what kind of convenience store owner thinks they're going to be able to keep the business going without selling cigarettes?

So there you have it: two books on retail/service, and neither of them fantastic reads. I'll have to give up on the subject for a while and wait for something better to come along.

*Howe's writing about the steam table and his mother-in-law is some of the most fun writing in the whole book, and it comes on pages 3-4: "My mother-in-law, Kay, the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers, wants a deli with a steam table, one of those stainless steel, cafeteria-style salad bars that heat the food to just below the temperature that kills bacteria--the zone in which bacteria thrive. She wants to serve food that is either sticky and sweet, or too salty, or somehow all of the above, and that roasts in the dusty air of New York City all day, while roiling crowds examine it at close distance--pushing it around, sampling it, breathing on it. Kay's reason for wanting a deli of this kind is that steam tables bring in a lot of money..." What's really sad is how much that paragraph makes me want to take another trip to New York City.

Retail (non)therapy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow, I forgot dating was THIS bad.

I'm a total sucker for investigative/"year in the life" books. Even when I don't particularly enjoy them, I almost always feel compelled to finish them. This was the case, this past weekend, with Rachel Machacek's The Science of Single: One Woman's Grand Experiment in Modern Dating, Creating Chemistry, and Finding Love.

Single Machacek, who lives in Washington DC and works for a trade magazine, decided that she would undertake a year's worth of power dating--leaving no stone unturned* in her search for "the one." During her quest she enrolled in online dating services, attended singles events and mixers, paid dating services**, committed to dating in other cities, read a pile of dating advice books, and hired dating coaches.

I'll let you read it and find out if she finds her "One," but let me just say this: if the guys she dates are representative, wow, it's a scary dating world out there. Although I wasn't crazy about the author as a character (she did seem a little picky, I'll admit it, and her insistence on immediate and overpowering chemistry was a bit off-putting after a while), she did make me laugh a few times. Consider:

 "He's a good kisser, but the chemistry has waned at exactly the same rate that my buzz has worn off. It's gone by the time he goes for the boob grab, awkwardly reaching under my seat belt that's still fastened. There's a time and place for boob grabbing, and when you are thirty-five years old, you should know when and where that is." (p. 38.)

Ha. (Funny sad.) Although I can't find the page right now, later on she decides that guys should really be taught the aforementioned proper place and time in health class, as they are all helpless at mastering a properly timed boob grab. I totally agree.

I'm sitting here trying to think of some pithy way to sum this one up, but nothing's really coming to me. It's that kind of read--okay but not really anything to write home (or on one's blog) about.

*It seems like this literally sometimes, as many of the guys she dates seem to have slithered out from under a primordial rock somewhere.

**She paid one company, It's Just Lunch, $1300 for fourteen date match-ups. Holy cow. I need to get into the dating advice business.

Read this one along with Griftopia.

Paul Clemens's new nonfiction book, Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant, was not at all what I expected.

Punching From its subtitle, I expected this would be an investigative narrative in which Clemens somehow got a job in an auto plant right before it closed. I was wrong--Clemens was in the auto plant (the Budd Company, in Detroit) after it was already closed; he witnessed the disassembly of the massive machinery that used to be used to stamp out auto parts. Not only did he watch the machinery come down; he also watched it get packed and shipped out to plants across the world where such stamping work could be done more cheaply.

I was not alone in my confusion re: the book's subtitle. And I was a bit taken aback by the prologue and the first chapter, which seemed a bit too detailed and technical for me ("Where there is no die in a press, as is the case in a closed stamping plant, a straight-side stamping press forms an arch..."). But somewhere along the way I became enthralled by this title, sad as it was. I particularly enjoyed Clemens's interactions with a former plant worker turned security guard for the rigging company (the company taking down the large equipment) named Eddie, as well as with the various rigging workers and even the plant's former Union representative (these workers don't really appear in the narrative until page 90, which is when the book came more alive for me).

As Clemens himself points out in the Daily Show interview I posted last week, his book doesn't really have a larger theme. He learns about the history of the Budd plant, he watches it get dismantled, he hears some of the plant's history from former workers and explores it with its current skeleton staff, and he even makes the journey to Mexico to see where some of the plant's equipment ends up. And that is all. And that's enough. Because here's what got me: the subtitle made me think this would be yet another narrative about jobs going, which would have been sad enough. But the quiet genius of this book, and of Clemens's quiet observation, is that the jobs are already GONE.

It's not an expose, it's an elegy.* Read it, along with Matt Taibbi's Griftopia, and you'll probably have a pretty accurate picture of where the country's at.

*I was really proud of myself for coming up with this word, and then I saw it's how they described it over at Powell's, too. Originality, thy name is Citizen Reader.

More dark reads in the middle of the night.

So another book I've been reading after CRjr's early morning feedings is Avi Steinberg's well-reviewed title Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.*

Running It's taking me forever to get through it, because as much as I love reading in the wee small hours, lately I've been so tired that I can only keep it up for fifteen minutes or so at a crack, and it takes a long time to get through a 400-page book in 15-minute increments, even if you are a fast reader. That doesn't mean I'm not enjoying it, although "enjoying" might be the wrong word.

Steinberg details the time he spent as a prison librarian after he decided he needed a steady job with health insurance benefits.* In addition to narrating his work experiences (complete with working with prison inmates on work detail, teaching writing classes, sweeping the library after each period of visitors to clear out the numerous letters and notes (or "kites") left behind in books for other inmates, and even helping one inmate write his pimping memoir) he discusses his own career direction, or lack thereof, which he admits is less than focused and therefore reviled within his own Jewish community.

It's an interesting read but it's another one I'm finding sad. Thinking of all these people locked up in prison just makes me sick--not because I feel they don't deserve it, but more because the thought of all that roiling, always-in-danger-of-exploding violence and aggression in one place makes me very, very uneasy. And the author does do a good job of explaining things about prison that make it too horrifyingly realistic:

"There are various reasons to cry in prison.

Crying as initiation rite. Dice claimed that any inmate who tells you didn't cry when he first came to prison is a liar. As he said this, the three inmates standing around us nodded. One of them confessed he was so stressed his first day in prison he could hardly breathe. When he heard the door of the cell bolt shut for the night, he panicked and began pacing, beating on the door and shouting...

His cellmate was an old guy who took pity on him. 'He just said to me, 'Get into bed, son. Let yourself cry. There ain't no shame in that. Just do it, and then you'll be done with it.' And so that's what I did.'" (p. 338.)

To his credit Steinberg doesn't sugarcoat his own role in the prison hierarchy or attempt to make excuses for any of the inmates--a particularly strong chapter is the one in which he questions his helping with the pimp memoir, after seeing a different inmate out in "real life," (a Dunkin' Donuts, to be exact) pimping out another former inmate). So yes, I'm finding it interesting. But to say it makes for light or humorous reading would be all wrong. I've got about fifty pages to go--I'll let you know what I end up thinking about it.

*It's got a great cover, too. You probably can't tell here, but the images making up his face are library date due stamps.

**So sad that this is the only reason I figure about 80% of people keep going to their jobs. Good old health insurance.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Working in the Shadows

I know. One of these nonfiction gift choices should be a lighter read. I'll find one somewhere, eventually. But this year all the really good books seemed to be the more serious reads. (At least that's what I found.) And Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do was one of the best books of the year.

Working Thompson spent a year doing the back-breaking and cheap labor jobs that, as of now, are chiefly performed in our society by new legal and illegal immigrants. Along the way he worked cutting lettuce, butchering, and as a delivery man for a New York City restaurant. Along the way he learned that these jobs are poorly paid, demoralizing, and hell on the body. So what, you say, Barbara Ehrenreich did the same thing in her bestselling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.

Well, nothing against Ehrenreich, but this book is better. It makes you think about the big picture--not only the workers who are killing themselves for eight bucks an hour and change, but also what it says about us as a society; namely, that we are willing make people work themselves to death so we can have cheap food and goods.

Okay, maybe you don't give book gifts to make people think about the big picture. But maybe that is something we should be doing. Don't look on it as trying to bum people out; look at it as helping to educate others so we can all try and make the world a little better for each other. Isn't that part of what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown?

So, who might like this book?

Anyone who likes current event or investigative works like those by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Anyone who likes "stunt journalism," wherein an author does something for a year or so and then reports back on it.

Anyone who has shown an interest in learning more about labor history, American society and politics, or our food sources.

Both ends of the spectrum: Death.

I enjoyed the hell out of Tom Jokinen's Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training.

This is weird, I know, but I ALWAYS seem to enjoy books about death and funerals. I really liked Lisa Takeuchi Cullens's Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death, and I loved Jessica Mitford's classic The American Way of Death. I know three books does not a whole lot of experience make, but I have this feeling I've read other books on the subject and am just not remembering them right now.

CurtainsJokinen is a Canadian author who takes some time off from his job in order to become an undertaker's apprentice; basically, helping out at a local funeral home business with such tasks as transporting bodies, assisting at embalmings, and just being a general all-around helper. I know, it sounds morbid, doesn't it? But it's really not. His personal reaction to the jobs he's given is interesting, his insight into his employer's funeral home business is fascinating, and his wider look at current trends in funeral services (including "green" burials and cremation, of course), especially as they become ever more separated from tradition and religion, is also really well done.*

I liked it for its non-sentimentality. Consider this job tip: "Summer at the Factory [Jokinen's name for the funeral home] means the smell of freshly turned earth from Brookside cemetery, and Zep bug spray, which Shannon uses to fog the dressing room to keep flies off the customers. 'The last thing you want is to open the casket and have a fly come out of someone's nose,' she says. Shannon's full of helpful hints. When threading a needle in the prep room, she says, resist the urge to put it in your mouth. Moisten the end with water from the sink. 'Never lick anything in a funeral home.'" (p. 75.)

Now that's good advice. It's a great book--give it a try if you can handle the subject matter.

*Plus, he's Canadian, which means I love him by default. At one point he references the band Blue Rodeo, which is a great Canadian band, and one of my favorites, which made me feel very Canadian myself. Please, Canada, just adopt me already?

Worth the whole month.

While I took my fiction reading vacation over the past month, I couldn't entirely neglect nonfiction (of course). Earlier I alluded to a nonfiction book that took me a month to read; the book in question was Suzanne Strempek Shea's Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip In Search of Christian Faith.

Sundays It didn't take me a month to read because I didn't like it, or because it was hard to read. It took a month to read because for once I gave myself the luxury of simply slowly chipping away at a book--I read it three or five pages at a time, and yes, although this may be too much information, I read much of it in the bathroom.

It was perfect for that kind of reading. Shea did exactly what her subtitle promises; she spent a year going to different Christian religious services, and then wrote about each week in short chapters about five to ten pages long. She roamed all over the country to do so, although many of her experiences were based in her native New England. The result is a thoughtful, fascinating book, not only about religion, but also about a personal search for meaning (told from the perspective of someone who is primarily observing others' searches for meaning). As a Catholic who "had experienced a spiritual disconnect," she relates her memory of watching the outpouring of grief over the death of John Paul II, and wishes she could feel such passion about her religion and spirituality again. Hence, her quest to "to on a pilgrimage of sorts, tour a few other houses of worship, finally find out just what goes on in those churches I grew up forbidden to enter, and understand what makes for devotion to a religious community." (p. xi.)

She only chose various Christian denominations (she was particularly interested, as a Catholic, in those "banned" Protestant churches she'd heard more about during her childhood) to visit, and each of the chapters describing her experiences in Baptist, Quaker, Greek Orthodox, Episcopalian, Pentecostal (and many other faiths) is a fascinating window into new worlds. As is my habit, I stuck bookmarks in wherever I really enjoyed something or thought I might want to quote it; rather than trying to put any such quotes in context, I'll simply say that this book collected no fewer than seven bookmarks, which is pretty impressive.* My favorite chapters were the ones where she really felt at home, and I also enjoyed her chapters about several "megachurches" she attended, as she managed to be much less judgmental about Rick Warren and Joel Osteen than I would have been.

I wouldn't have minded a little longer conclusion, discussing a bit more how she felt after her year and what services particularly stayed with her, but that's a small quibble. If this isn't the subject matter for you, I can also recommend her earlier memoir, Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama, and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore.

*It's always very satisfying to me to finish a book and see it still stuffed with bookmarks. I feel like I really got something accomplished.

Still looking for a book that grabs me.

I have been decidedly "meh" about a lot of nonfiction books lately. Sorry about that. I know that these types of experiences make for rather "meh" book blogging as well.*

Darling The latest entry in the Meh Files is Katharine Darling's Under the Table: Saucy Tales from Culinary School. Darling chronicles her stint at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, dishing on the experience as a whole, the chef professors, and her fellow students. She also includes a few personal memoirish details about her life and love affair (she gets engaged over the course of the story), and throws in a few recipes for good measure.

Now, there's nothing really wrong with the book, and I did read the whole thing, and the recipes do look good. But there was something about Darling's tone that didn't do a whole lot for me. Then again, I may just be biased by her author photo, which really bugged me, for some reason. If you can picture it, the tone of the book sounds a little bit like how she looks in that photo; ever so slightly a bit too over-confident for me. Consider:

"It was 8:00 a.m. sharp on our very first day of class, and as I walked into the large room that was dazzlingly bright with the glow of many overhead fluorescent lights bouncing off the stainless steel workstations, ovens, pots, pans, sinks, and even the tools of my classmates, I saw that Tucker [a classmate] had taken up a spot at the front of the room, closest to our chef-instructor's dark green marble-topped lecture station...And my parents thought I was too competitive. If I were competitive, I would have created a diversion and just snatched his spot when he was momentarily distracted. Okay, maybe I was a little bit competitive, but as it turned out, so was Tucker." (p. 18.)

The lady also doth protest too much--throughout she worries about her class standing and never, ever dreams that she deserved to be at the top of her class--and of course she graduates with the top honor. It reminded me a little bit of an old college roommate who used to throw herself on her bed in despair after tests, wailing that she had failed, but who would then tell me later she got something ridiculous like 110% (with extra credit).**

But, if you're a foodie, and you love all things cooking, you might still enjoy this one.

*No, I'm not trying to shunt the blame for lackluster blogging on lackluster authors. Well, maybe a little bit.

**I still love this roommate, she's a sweetie, but I just never believed in bewailing your performance on tests unless you really did fuck it up, with at least a C or lower.

In the neighborhood.

Lovenheim I honestly didn't know what to think about Peter Lovenheim's new nonfiction book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. On the one hand, I thought it was a pretty neat little work of investigative and personal journalism (and I love that it came in at 238 pages, making it easily readable over a couple of nights); but on the other hand, I am too conflicted in my own feelings about neighbors, and what constitutes a community,* to wholeheartedly enjoy anything on the subject.

The impetus for Lovenheim's story came from an incident in his neighborhood in 2000, when a couple who lived just a few houses away from him died in a murder-suicide (the husband killed his wife and then himself). He was shocked to find how little he himself had known about them and their lives, and it got him thinking:

"What would it take, I wondered, to penetrate the barriers between us? I thought about childhood sleepovers and the insight I used to get from waking up inside a friend's home. More recently, my family and I had done summer house exchanges with families in Europe--they stayed in our house while we stayed in theirs. After living in these strangers' homes--waking in their beds, fixing meals in their kitchens, and walking in their neighborhoods--we had a strong sense of what their lives were about, something that would have been impossible to achieve just through conversation...But would my neighbors let me sleep over and write about their lives from inside their houses?" (pp. xvii-xviii.)

In fact, a bunch of his neighbors DID let him sleep over, and his descriptions of those experiences are the most interesting chapters in the book. I really did kind of enjoy it. Lovenheim's a skillful enough narrator, and the stories move right along--he gets to know an elderly neighbor, as well as a number of families, and another woman who is struggling with cancer. Along the way they do all become somewhat more involved in each other's lives--Lovenheim facilitates his older neighbor's desire to help individuals (rather than volunteering) by matching him up with the woman with cancer who needs help driving to some appointments, and he does become friends with many more people on his block.

I wouldn't say this book is a favorite, but it definitely was interesting (I felt the same way about the author's earlier title, Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf, which I read a million years ago and enjoyed but didn't love--and which I didn't realize was done by the same author until I read his bio on this book). Check it out if you're interested in the continuing cultural debate about communities, neighborhoods, and social preferences.

*And when I say conflicted, I mean I want nothing to do, personally, with any of my actual neighbors. Ask Mr. CR: when taking walks, I have been known to cross the street to avoid talking to any of my neighbors who might actually be out in their front yards. I know the names of the people in the houses on either side of me, but other than that I only know other neighbors by nicknames like "the bossy old lady in the house behind us." I know this is not right, but I can't seem to help it. I try to be a good citizen otherwise; I volunteer time for other causes, I take care to keep my house and lawn neat, and I have called the cops before when noticing suspicious behavior at other houses on my street. But that doesn't change the fact that we once went to a movie specifically because we knew our nearest neighbor was throwing a party designed to help all the neighbors meet each other, just so we wouldn't have to go. Part of this is because I have made the choice, along with other members of my family, to stick near them and in my hometown, so I feel like THEY are my community. If you have moved away from or don't get along with your family, I can see how the need for neighbors might be a very real one indeed.

What was the point of this farming experiment, exactly?

I did not enjoy Manny Howard's My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm.

Manny I did end up reading most of it, although I could tell from the start it wasn't really going to be my type of "back to the land" narrative. Although, to be honest, I can't think of one of these types of books that I've really, really loved, other than perhaps Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru, which was at least kind of charming, or Michael Ableman's On Good Land, which was more of a "staying on the land" story. I did not like Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, either. I think I tend to find these books either obnoxious or smug, neither of which are tones I enjoy in most of my nonfiction (unless, of course, the obnoxious is coming from Anthony Bourdain, who has a new book coming out!).

This book grew out of a New York Magazine article that Howard wrote in 2007, in which the magazine challenged him to live the locavore lifestyle by growing enough vegetables and livestock in his 800-square-foot Brooklyn backyard to keep him in food for a month. Perhaps the book just needed tighter editing; Howard seems to bounce, without any sort of plan, from one scheme to the next: growing plants from seed in his basement, growing vegetables through hydroponics, breeding rabbits for food, and eventually getting a few chickens and ducks as well. I was also annoyed that, throughout, he seemed to have endless money and resources for these projects; I couldn't tell if that was because his wife had a great job in the city, or if the magazine was footing all of his expenses. Consider his exploits in the hydroponics store, when he realizes the salespeople probably think he is a narc looking for information about home marijuana growers:

"Have the boys here made me for a narc? Me? Maybe...I may not be a narc or a drug-enforcement agent, but ever since I walked into the store I have been doing what my profession trained me to do, ask as many dumb questions as you can think of...But I neglected to identify myself as a reporter--because I am not, I am a farmer--so I have inadvertently communicated only a deep desire to burn vast amounts of money on a project I know nothing about. I have spent the last half hour asking after only the most obvious covert growing rigs--ones designed to fit inside closets. I can be one of only two things, the dumbest cannabis grow king ever to step through this front door, or a cop." (p. 85.)

I have two problems with that paragraph. First: dude, you are no farmer, even if you do keep trying to quote Wendell Berry. (Anytime you grow something for just the one season, I can call you at most a gardener.) And secondly, I have no patience for people who get to burn vast amounts of money on any project, because I have never had vast amounts of money, and frankly, hearing about other people burn through such amounts makes me both jealous and annoyed. It's the way the entire book progresses; he goes from one project to the next, and eventually does get some garden produce, but at the end of the season a tornado (first tornado in Brooklyn in a hundred years, which was unfortunate) wrecks most of his backyard and most of his animals die off. By the next season he's back to putting sod over his backyard, and that's the end of that. Leaving me with only the one feeling: What was the point of all that?

Meh. If you're looking for a better book on living off the land, do try Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru. Likewise, if you're interested in a more humorous memoir of a man bumbling through the first years of his marriage and home improvement, try Lawrence LaRose's vastly superior Gutted: Down to the Studs In My House, My Marriage, My Entire Life.

War nonfiction hiatus.

If American readers try to plead ignorance about how wars affect the soldiers who fight them, they're big fat liars. I have now officially read so many nonfiction narratives from American soldiers' points of view, or which tell their stories, that I can't read any more. I am done. I don't even know why I kept reading them in the first place; I keep thinking maybe at some point I'll understand our love for all things military in this country. But I never will.

Junger The latest entry in this canon was Sebastian Junger's War. It's been getting a lot of press attention, so I wanted to see it, but I should have quit reading last week when I was in the middle of it and couldn't tell you why I was still reading it. Junger is best known for his runaway bestseller The Perfect Storm, and he brings a lot of his skill in relating telling details, as well as for describing situations in which hope is pretty much lost, to this book. For a year (2007-2008) Junger was embedded with soldiers fighting in one of the most violent regions in Afghanistan, and this book is his account of, as the jacket copy exclaims, "what war actually feels like."

The book is divided into three sections: Fear, Killing, and Love. What I couldn't discern was how Junger was telling his story; anecdotes in the Love section, for example, seemed like they could just as easily have gone in Fear (etc.,) and I couldn't tell if the narrative was purely chronological, or what. Perhaps that was by design, proving how disconcerting war can be to your sense of time and continuity. Perhaps it was my fault, because I started reading the book pretty fast after page 100 or so. Either way, I couldn't keep hold of any sort of story arc.

What Junger does do well is share his personal observations on how the American soldiers withstand and actually come to love their ordeals. These are the tidbits that started to scare hell out of me after a while. Consider:

"War is a lot of things and it's useless to pretend that exciting isn't one of them. It's insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most excting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. Soldiers discuss that fact with each other and eventually with their chaplains and their shrinks and maybe even their spouses, but the public will never hear about it...In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn't where you might die---though that does happen--it's where you find out whether you get to keep living. Don't underestimate the power of that revelation. Don't underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time." (p. 144-145.)

"It's a stressful way to live but once it's blown out your levels almost everything else looks boring. O'Byrne knows himself: when he gets bored he starts drinking and getting into fights, and then it's only a matter of time until he's back in the system. If that's the case, he might as well stay in the system--a better one--and actually move upward...We are at one of the most exposed outposts in the entire U.S. military, and he's crawling out of his skin because there hasn't been a good firefight in a week. How do you bring a guy like that back into the world?" (p. 233.)

Cripes. This book saddened me like few have. Can't humans find larger meaning in anything except killing each other? Perhaps this book was just a little too much from the soldiers' point of view for me. If you'd like to read something on the subject, but not this book, I would highly recommend Theodore Nadelson's Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War, which was also depressing, but not quite as testosterone-soaked.

The best part of jobs: reading memoirs about them.

I have always loved a good "work memoir." As much as I don't enjoy working jobs, I do enjoy learning about them, particularly ones I know I am never going to do. This was the case with Claire Lewis's new memoir Exposed: Confessions of a Wedding Photographer.

Exposed I know I'm never going to be a wedding photographer not only because I'm not a very good photographer, but also because I hate all things associated with weddings. I disliked every moment of planning mine (well, picking out the food was okay), even though we kept it as simple as possible, and to this day I rather wish we'd eloped. Live and learn. Lewis's memoir was pretty much what I expected it to be: the unreasonable demands of mothers-in-law; working with bridezillas; wedding day disasters (evidently it never, ever works for your wedding attendees to release butterflies that they sell in individual boxes, just for that purpose--where are the PETA people when that crap is going on?); and rare anecdotes of joyful couples who are just happy to be getting married and take everything in stride.

I also enjoyed the interactions between Lewis and her assistant, Sarah. During one of their meetings, Claire was complaining about one particularly picky bride who was emailing constantly with messages like "We are having a MAJOR PROBLEM.* We want to use an ivory tablecloth on our cake table...People are telling me the ivory doesn't photograph well?!! We're pretty upset about it because it took us a super long time to make our linen decisions and it wasn't easy..." To which her assistant advised her on the following course of action: "Just tell her that ivory won't work and will look terrible. Then she'll have to start the whole linen planning over again. She'll be in heaven. It'll give her and her fiance something to worry about. Happiest time of their lives. They'll never have so much in common again." (pp. 131-146.) Ha!

In between her work experiences, Lewis also relates the story of her own romance, marriage, and childbirth, although those chapters felt a little rushed and slight to me. No matter: this was still a light, fun read. And now I can officially add "wedding photographer" to the long list of jobs I never want to hold.

*I also got a chuckle out of this book because it never ceases to amazes me what people categorize as "problems."

A book so good it actually put me off chicken.

Once again, it doesn't really sound right to say that I "enjoyed the hell out of" Gabriel Thompson's new book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won't Do, but that's really the only way to say it. The book is horrifying and depressing and stupendous.

Working Whether you call this type of work immersion journalism or "stunt lit," the style is becoming familiar: a journalist or a memoirist decides they are going to do something over the course of a set time period, and then write about it. One of the best known examples of this genre is Barbara Ehrenreich's now-classic title Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, in which she tried to live on the wages she could make as a waitress, cleaning person, and Wal-Mart employee. This book is very similar to Ehrenreich's, but for some reason it resonated with me more.

Thompson set out, not to live on the wages he could make, but simply to experience the types of jobs in this country that are often filled by immigrants and undocumented workers. He decided to spend two months each working in the agricultural field, a chicken processing plant, and the kitchens of New York City's restaurants. Each job is described over roughly a third of the book.

Let me tell you this right now: his first job, picking lettuce in Yuma, Arizona? One day of it would kill me.* Thompson joined workers who worked longer than eight-hour days, continually bending and cutting lettuce, all for $8.37 an hour. And his second job, at a chicken processing plant in Alabama, only got worse. Ehrenreich did a good job of describing the toll these types of jobs take on the human body, too, but for some reason, when Thompson was describing the pain and chronic conditions he was developing, I could actually feel how terrible he felt. The very fact that there was a vending machine of painkillers next to the pop and snacks machines at the chicken should indicate what workers are going through. 

This has been my favorite "eye-opening" book since John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. And I promise you, I've read many, many books about the horrors of chicken processing plants, but before now, I've gone the way of most Americans and tried not to think about where most of my food is coming from when I shop in the grocery store (although I also try to shop at markets and find alternative sources for my meat). But now? It'll probably wear off again, but even the thought of buying chicken breasts in the store makes me ill. What makes this book so different? Because of paragraphs like this (in Thompson's conclusion):

"At the moment, many of the issues being raised are centered on the consumer: Is the food safe for my children? How far did it travel to get to my grocery store? We should expand these concerns, demanding that the foods are produced in a way that is not only safe for consumers and environmentally sustainable, but also safe and sustainable for workers. This, in turn, demands that we rethink our notions of the benefits of cheap food, because much of the pressure driving down wages comes from companies in competition with each other for contracts with national chain...An order of twenty hot wings for less than $10 might seem like a great deal, but the hidden costs are borne by workers in places like Russellville." (p. 291.)

That says it pretty plainly, doesn't it? Check this book out.** If it doesn't make you a. more thankful for whatever job you might have (and I know about hating jobs, believe you me, and I sympathize), and b. slightly more interested in food issues and immigration reform, I'll eat my made-in-China shirt.

*And I grew up on a farm, so I am not unfamiliar with long days and hard physical work.

**It's a great book for another reason: Thompson's stories of worker solidarity are weirdly and totally inspirational.

When subject trumps style.

I tend to be somewhat of a generalist nonfiction reader; I am not so much interested in specific subjects* as I am in well-written and interesting nonfiction titles. This is why I am such a huge fan of William Langewiesche; he writes about a ton of disparate subjects in his magazine articles and books, and no matter what he's writing about, it's always a pleasure to read.

Welch But sometimes even I get suckered in by subjects I find fascinating. This week's case in point is Gina Welch's immersion journalism title In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church. I really didn't enjoy it (although parts were very interesting, and I don't think Welch is an unskilled writer), but I'll be damned if I didn't end up reading the whole thing anyway, for one reason and one reason alone:

I am fascinated by Evangelicals, and Evangelical churches. I mean, really, I can't look away.

I don't really know why this is, although I have always tended to find all things religious, even books about atheism, vaguely interesting. And I don't even mean it in a bad way. I have known and loved many people who are members of more evangelical churches. And, as I am Catholic and very well aware of the disorder and problems in my church's house, I want to emphatically state that I don't really care much one way or the other what religion people choose to practice. But there is something I so deeply don't understand about the Evangelical experience that I just had to finish this book.

Welch, a young writer and atheist who grew up in Berkeley, also seems fascinated by Evangelicals, and she doesn't fool around in her choice of churches to infiltrate: she goes right for Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia. For two years she attended the church, joined some of its classes and ministries, befriended many of its members, and even joined a mission trip to Alaska to "save souls."

As previously noted, the writing here is just fine. It was just more that I couldn't figure out Welch's tone--she seemed committed to staying an atheist, yet she also enjoyed the feeling of warmth and community and the stirring nature of the church music. She was conflicted about lying to people she was befriending, but still became quite close to some of them. She seemed genuinely very sad when Falwell died, but throughout, it quite simply seemed like she was focusing more on the church practices and trappings than on the religion behind it. I'm explaining it badly. But when I read a work of immersion journalism, I just like to have a little better idea of where the author is coming from; in Barbara Ehrenreich's classic in the genre, Nickel and Dimed, the reader is never left in any doubt that she thinks paying people non-living wages to work as maids, waitresses, and at Wal-Mart is complete bullshit. But I could never get a read on this author.

She still provided some interesting information, which showed she really did start to understand the mindset. I liked this paragraph: "Considering the Evangelicals' inclination to trust and support their Christian brethren, it makes sense that there's a strong desire to work primarily with Christian businesses...One directory, Ohio's Blue Pages, polled its users and found that the top two reasons people used it were a 'higher trust level' in Christian businesses and a desire to 'be good stewards of their finances'; payments to Christian businesses, the users assumed, circulated back to the church through tithes and offerings, keeping the money within the fold." (p. 104.)

I just chuckled at that. I typically throw away any business ads with prominent Christian symbols on them, even though I am a Christian, because I always figure if you're low enough to try and exploit God for business, where else will you be cutting corners? But, obviously, the thought process can go a different way. I was also shocked at Welch's many stories of how welcoming and accepting many strangers were of her church groups' proselytizing. Again, something I'll never understand, as my first reaction when anyone knocks on my door or talks to me about being saved is, "I'm Catholic and I LOVE being Catholic," at which point they usually can't get far enough away from me.

So, yeah. I think I'm still waiting for a slightly better or less uneven book on this subject, but if learning more about the Evangelical Christian lifestyle holds any interest for you, I'd still consider picking this one up. And I did like one of Welch's stated reasons for undertaking this project: she considers it more important to understand this lifestyle than to dismiss it. I can't really argue with that--it's as good a reason as any to write, not to mention read, nonfiction in general.

*British history, and, well, all things Brit notwithstanding.

Surely going to hell for this review.

I know. It is the height of bad taste to give a bad review to a book about grieving. So I won't call this a bad review. I will simply call it a "review of a book that wasn't for me."

Toast The book in question is Roger Rosenblatt's short memoir Making Toast: A Family Story. The story itself is insanely sad; Rosenblatt writes about the sudden death of his thirty-eight-year-old daughter Amy, who left behind not only a husband and a career as a pediatrician, but also three very young children. She died suddenly, while exercising at home, of an "anomalous right coronary artery"--in circumstances which seem doubly tragic because her children were the first ones to find her and her surgeon husband tried to revive her but couldn't. Rosenblatt and his wife Ginny moved in with their son-in-law and their grandchildren immediately, and the memoir is his account of the year after Amy's death.

It's really not a bad book. The writing is beautiful and anyone who's lost a close family member or loved one, or watched a parent struggle with the untimely death of their child, will recognize many of the family's struggles and griefs. Although it cannot, by definition, have a happy ending, it does read as a celebration of a beloved daughter's life and a testament to the power of family and relationships, even relationships that turn out to be different than everyone had planned.

But it was not a book I can heartily recommend. I am convinced that Amy Elizabeth Rosenblatt Solomon was a singular person. And perhaps a father can never really look critically on a daughter, particularly when she's died too soon. But I never really felt like I got to know her--and by that, I never got any glimpse of her that was less than perfect, less than beatified. And maybe that's the point. But I must admit that I get more out of stories in which authors explore just a bit more of their loved ones' less saintly qualities. The sadness and loss in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne, was palpable; yet I didn't feel that Dunne was a saint or that their marriage was always perfect. (In fact Didion seemed more than honest about some of their struggles.) It's been a long time since I read it, but I don't think C.S. Lewis's brief book A Grief Observed was solely about how his beloved wife Joy Gresham was perfect. In fact it rather felt like he missed her all the more because she was imperfect (although, arguably, perfect for him). Although it was published as a novel, I also never got the feeling that Norman Maclean's brother Paul was without fault in his title A River Runs Through It--a fact which only made me like Paul, and by extension, Norman, even more.

It's probably very wrong of me, but the small item that stood out most to me in this memoir was Rosenblatt's recounting of his grandchildren's nanny Ligaya's wisdom:

"Ligaya is a small, lithe woman in her early fifties. I know little of her life except that she is from the Philippines, with a daughter there and a grown son here who is a supervisor in a restaurant, and that she has a work ethic of steel and the flexibility to deal with any contingency...Ligaya altered her schedule to be with us twelve hours a day, five days a week--an indispensible gift, especially to her small charge [Rosenblatt's youngest grandson James], who giggles with delight when he hears her key in the front door. No one outside the family could have felt Amy's death more acutely. Yet what she said to Harris, and to the rest of us, was dispassionate: 'You are not the first to go through such a thing, and you are better able to handle it than most.'" (pp. 7-8.)

I think I'm going to remember that one for a long time. I'm going to remember it next time I'm in the depths of despair (and there's always a next time). I think what I really want is to read a book about this Ligaya woman.