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What I'm Reading

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Something really great has happened to me over the past year or so.

I remembered that I can read.

I never really forgot, of course, but it got pushed way, way back on my priority list. In 2011, I only read 17 books. 16 in 2012. It wasn't that I didn't want to read, it was just that other things got in the way. So far for 2013, I've read 40 books. That's still fewer that in years of yore (75 in 2007), and, if I'm honest, I've listened to, rather than actually read, well over half of them. But it's progress, and it's adding to my quality of life immeasurably. I'm proud to say I'm a reader again.

And since I'm a reader again, I thought I'd share a few of the things I've been reading with you.

So far, my favorite read of the year has been Jess Walters' short story collection, We Live in Water. This book reminded me of everything I love about short stories. Each story was a perfect little well-crafted gem, and they all fit together seamlessly. Walters is a native of Eastern Washington, and the stories all are set in the Pacific Northwest, which gave it that extra edge of homesickness-laced poignancy for me. The stories ranged from Raymond Chandler-esque microcosms of individual pathology ("Thief," in which a blue collar dad initiates his own little stakeout to discover which of his family members is stealing from his change jar) to hilarious and gut-wrenching dystopic satire ("Don't Eat Cat," about the zombie-filled future of the human race), but I loved every single one of them.

Another favorite of the books I've read so far this year is Rodney Crowell's memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks. I loved this one so much I sent my mom a copy after I read it. Crowell is a great storyteller, and his working class East Texas childhood is a hell of a story. You can hear Crowell-the-songwriter in languid, poetic ways in which he relates his childhood anecdotes, and he makes things that are truly awful (the book begins with a story about a little boy Rodney breaking up a boozy get-together of his parents' with a gun) seem both funny and bittersweet.

A third of my favorites of the year was Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. I resisted this book so hard--the media surrounding it irritated me, Egan herself irritated me, I just didn't want anything to do with it. But when I finally read it, I found, incredibly, that all that praise was well-deserved. The book is a collection of intersecting stories, with characters playing major or peripheral roles in each others lives, over the span of decades and multiple continents. Most of the characters are various degrees of unlikeable, but they're not completely without sympathy, and, very gradually, one learns where all that unlikeability is rooted. Much as I wanted to hate this book, I loved it.

I have not, however, loved everything I've read this year. I plodded all the way through Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America only to wonder, at the end, how anything about such an interesting subject (the Chicago World's Fair and a really gruesome mass murderer) could be so very boring. I rolled my eyes so hard at Ira Wagler's self-impressed memoir, Growing Up Amish, that I was afraid they'd get stuck. I swore I'd read my last historical novel when I reached the end of the incredibly trite Katharine: the Virgin Widow by Jean Plaidy. You can't win them all.

And, of course, I've been reading lots and lots of picture books, as my son is now old enough to be at least partially interested in them. Most of them, frankly, I could do without. However, I have developed a few favorites:

Brian Lies' Bats at the Beach and Bats at the Library are both awesome. I'm actually really afraid of bats, so I was hesitant to even pick them up, but they're great books, with a non-cloying rhyme scheme and fun illustrations. Some of Lies' other books, particularly More and Deep in the Swamp (both of which are written by other folks, but illustrated by Lies) are definitely going on E's wishlist.

Another favorite is Taro Gomi. As a small baby, E. was gifted her book, My Friends, and I fell in love both with the sweet, simple words and the fantastic illustrations. Once board books came on full force, we added Bus Stops and Wiggle to our collection. Next, I'd like to get I Lost My Dad, Santa Through the Window, or Who Ate It?

Amy Krouse Rosenthal has just gotten popular at my house, and I'm so glad. I picked up her three piece book set, Little Pea, Little Hoot, and Little Oink, and I love all three of them. They're simply worded and illustrated, but a little bit clever and cheeky, and they don't irritate me to read. I haven't looked much at her other books yet, but it looks like she has a few more that might be good for slightly older kids, so I'll check those out in the future.

So, that's what we're reading at my house. What are you reading?

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My favourite book that I've read recently was Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. I didn't think that I would like it, and was really skeptical but it was great. I'm on track to read the 75 books that were my goal for this year, and it's probably more books than I've read in past years by quite a lot. I've always read, but when you have little kids everything shifts and you have to reprioritize everything. Glad we've both moved it back up on our lists :)

Thanks, I am adding a couple to my must read list.

I'm reading "Death Comes to Pemberly" by PD James and I'm finding it a terrible slog. Way too much of the original Pride and Prejudice is repeated as though we don't all already know the story by heart. I mean, if you're reading this book it's because you are a Pride and Prejudice fan. Anyway - I'm determined to finish it.

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The Obvious Game: Review and Giveaway!

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I am not, as a rule, a huge fan of YA literature. I was when I was the target audience's age, but I haven't much taken to the trend over the last few years wherein adult bibliophiles go gaga over books meant for preteens. That said, I was quite excited to read The Obvious Game. Why? Because the author, Rita Arens, is a favorite blogger of mine (she blogs at Surrender, Dorothy). I've been reading Rita's blog for several years, and I admire her honesty, enjoy her stories, and relate to her voice. I've really loved peeking in on her work to get The Obvious Game completed and published, too--though I don't have a particular dream to publish a YA novel, it's been fascinating to read about how it happens. It's fun to watch anybody you admire work hard to accomplish something important to them, and that's how I've felt whenever I've read Rita's updates about getting the book published. Given that, it seems almost like icing on the cake that I really enjoyed the book itself.

But I did enjoy the book. The heroine, Diana, rang so true to me. Though she actually bore little resemblance to my teenaged self, I still felt, at points in the story, as if I'd had the exact feelings she was having. Though I never struggled with an eating disorder or a critically ill parent like Diana does, I still felt the truth in her reactions to those situations, just as I related to the parts of her life--difficult friendships, a rocky first romantic relationship--to which I could empathize. In a guest post at B.O.O.K.L.I.F.E, Rita describes early drafts of Diana as "too unlikeable" and "all rough edges and whining." It's exactly this part of Diana to which I most related. Too often, it seems, fictional teenagers are portrayed as far too rational, too moderated, too likeable. Diana isn't like that. She's a small town teenaged girl dealing with some very weighty stuff, and she's doing the best she can, but she screws up. A lot. And not just in the ways typical to fictional teens, like staying out all night and drinking, but in ways that, for me, felt more important. In one early scene, Diana doesn't stop her obnoxious (and again, so recognizable from my own teenhood) friend Amanda from ruining one of her mom's new wigs. The whole feeling of that scene, Diana's helplessness to stop Amanda even though she clearly knows it's not going to end well, made me feel 15 again in a way that was both uncanny and uncomfortable.

The Obvious Game
lets the reader in on just enough of Diana's internal monologue to both feel for her and get frustrated with her. So often, not just kids' literature, but in adult novels as well, looks inside a character's head, particularly when they are repeated or thematic, start to feel forced. The things that Diana thinks, though, skip right past forced and just make a weird kind of sense. For example, there are several points throughout the book where she calms herself by imagining what type of wig the person to whom she is talking might wear, if s/he needed, like Diana's bald-from-chemo mother, to wear a wig. Each time this device is used, it makes you like Diana more, and hurt more for her.

Another strength of the book is the relationship between Diana and her parents, particularly her mother. Again, something that sounds like it could be a YA novel stereotype (the mom with cancer) feels not like a plot device, but like something real. Diana's mom isn't a sickly saint--she cries, she yells, and she's a lousy cook. Even though she's not the book's central character, Rita takes the time with her to make her feel like someone you know--maybe not your mom, but your friend's mom. It's a great characterization.

I also like Diana's friends. Not Amanda, so much, but her "real" friends, who are fairly minor characters in the book but still feel fleshed out. I like that Diana has a relationship with a male friend, Seth, that is believably platonic--you see that so rarely in media about teens, but I remember it happening when I was in high school. I appreciate that it was included, especially as a counterpoint to Diana's relationship with her boyfriend, Jesse, which was the one relationship in the book that didn't really work for me.

The thing that most impresses me about Rita's book is that she takes theme that are so typical to YA novels that they're almost stereotypical--a teenaged girl with an eating disorder, a sick parent, an unequal friendship, first romance/loss of virginity--and makes them feel not like she's writing yet another novel about them, but like she's telling you a real story about a teenager named Diana that happens to include those elements. It doesn't feel preachy, or like you're supposed to be learning a lesson. It doesn't feel like ground that has been covered a million times. It feels like its own, unique story. That's really impressive.

So, obviously, I think this is a book you and/or your teen/preteen daughter should read. And Rita has been kind enough to donate one copy, either in paperback or ebook, to a lucky WINOW reader, so you can! Leave me a comment and tell me your favorite YA novel. For a second entry, tell your social network of choice (Twitter, Facebook, whatever the kids are using these days) about this book and leave another comment. I'll pick a winner on Friday, February 15. GO!

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Thank you again for your long-time support and for sharing about my book. I love your review -- you are the first to mention the wigs, and it's interesting you grew closer to Diana through them. That was one of the things I added when she was too unlikable, so I'm glad that worked for you.

I loved "Life as we knew it" by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Loved. For some of the same reasons, too. The somewhat unlikeable narrator, for example.

Picking my favorite YA novel is tough. As a teen, I loved "The Last April Dancers" by Jean Theisman and "The Outsiders". Recently I've enjoyed some of the popular dystopian YA books like "Divergent". I really liked The Curse Workers trilogy by Holly Black.

It sounds like a great book! I'd love a copy!

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The Night Circus is a great book

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As I believe I have mentioned here before, I am a member of Powell's Books' Indiespensible Book Club. The book club is awesome--every six or so weeks you get a beautiful hard back first edition of a book, typically signed, selected by the extremely knowledgeable Powell's staff, along with reading notes and some other type of goodies (usually thematically related to the book). The packages are fun to receive and the books are great!

The last installment, however, was a cut above the rest. Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus was just phenomenal (plus it came with bourbon caramel corn!). The best way I can describe it is by comparison. It has the gothic romantic magic of Sarah Waters' books, the quirky love of and beauty in the bizarre of Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, and the soft, believable look at the otherwordly of Audrey Neffenegger. All three of those women are authors I love and respect, and Erin Morgenstern is now among them.

Much as The Night Circus reminds me of the other books I mentioned, though, it's a unique work. It's a fairy tale about a very special circus, but it's nowhere near so dark or twisted as it could be given that scene. The magic is, largely, used to create beauty and keep people safe, even when it's supposed to be more self-serving. Though there is a tragic core to the story, it's much less grim than it could be, or than it would be in other hands. Had someone told me that before I read it, I think I would have been very suspicious--I don't like my fairy tales retold in golden tones by Disney. But in Morgenstern's book, it works. Though I was sure early on that things were going to turn out OK, that didn't ruin the surprise in how the characters got there.

One of the book's greatest strengths is the lush tone in which it is written, heavy with description. It reminds me a bit of another circus story that way, Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants. Though I am sadly not someone who typically sees pictures in my mind when I read, Morgenstern's attention to detail and careful language allowed a mental picture of the circus and its inhabitants to paint itself in my mind, with the end result being a reading experience that felt almost multimedia. With a story like this one, for which so much depends on the reader feeling the joy and delight of the magic, that element is essential, and it's very, very well done here.

Ultimately, The Night Circus felt a little bit like a ratcheted-up children's book to me, in the best possible way. Things were never made any worse than they needed to be, but were kept interesting enough for my adult attention span. Though there were no actual pictures, I could see lush illustrations in my head. And the story, at its core, was a simple and universal one about true love conquering over dark forces in its way. We could all use a little bit more of that.

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I'm so happy to see a Books category on your blog and this book caught my eye. It sounds like an interesting read and I've added it to my Goodreads account.

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Feminist books we both should read

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A few years back (in 2006!), I wrote a post about the feminist book canon, according to me. I am embarrassed to say that I have done a terrible job, since then, of keeping up with the new books that have been released in what I once thought would be my academic field, and what is still the field I imagine myself getting back to. To try to inspire myself (and maybe you, as well?) I thought I'd take a look and make a list of the newer books that look to be worth reading. I'm not recommending anything here--there is nothing on this list I've read--but here's where I feel like I should start if I am going to get back into reading academic feminist work.

(Please note that my choices, as before, are almost 100% United States oriented. This isn't at all because I don't think other countries have important feminist books to read, it's just that my training is in US history and that's pretty much all I know about.)

Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion by Jean H. Baker

I don't actually know much at all about birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, so I think I'd be well served to read the new biography of her, written by Jean H. Baker, set to be released in November. Baker is a prolific biographer, and I enjoyed another of her books, Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists.

Geek Girls Unite: How Fangirls, Bookworms, Indie Chicks, and Other Misfits Are Taking Over the World by Leslie Simon

I doubt Geek Girls Unite, due out next month, is an academic tome, but I am more and more interested in work about fandom, particularly female fandom, and how it coincides with art and politics and academia. This one is on my list especially because I thought so highly of Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them.

Those Girls: Single Women in Sixties and Seventies Popular Culture by Katherine J. Lehman

This is exactly the type of book I've been obsessed with since undergrad--a combo of women's history and media studies. Due in October, it's Lehman's first book, but has positive reviews from the likes of the brilliant Ruth Rosen, so I think it's probably worth a look.

College Women In The Nuclear Age: Cultural Literacy and Female Identity, 1940-1960 by Babette Faehmel

This one really excites me--the task taken on by Faehmel, in her first book (released just this month), is to explore the place of collegiate women in the age of the "Feminine Mystique." If the reviews I've read are correct, she eventually argues that while the post-WWII G.I. Bill was great for men, it hurt women. Can't wait to read that.

Women, Work, and Politics: The Political Economy of Gender Inequality by Torben Iversen and Frances Rosenbluth

Mostly out of laziness, I've tended to ignore the feminist economists. I need to stop that, as the older I get the more I realize it's allll about money. This book, written by a Harvard economist and a Yale political scientist, and claiming to tie the most micro level (household) to the most macro (international economics), might be a good place to start.

Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976-1986 by Carolyn Bronstein

I am absolutely fascinated by this book, released this past July, as it is the first I've seen that takes a historical, two-sided look at the feminist porn battle of the 70s and 80s. This particular fight is one of the internal struggles within the movement that I am most unsure about, so I'd love to read an account of the original argument.

The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild by Susan J. Douglas

As far as I'm concerned, Susan J. Douglas is a straight-up genius. Her book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media has influenced my thinking as much or more than any other. So, I'm really excited she released this new book last year, taking on the more recent "girl power" media blitz and how it has backfired. This one is pretty much at the top of my list.

America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation by Elaine Tyler May

Elaine Tyler May is another feminist historian for whom I have the utmost respect. Her book, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, is amazing. So who better to write a long-overdue history of the influence of the Pill in the lives of American women? I suspect this book will be the best kind of cultural history, both fascinating and accessible and incredibly informative.

A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s by Stephanie Coontz

Stephanie Coontz wrote The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, which I have probably recommended to four dozen people. I heard her on NPR being interviewed about this new book recently--it's an interesting premise, a look at how and why women reacted so strongly to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. What we should all be reading instead of watching Mad Men...

Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoir by Lillian Faderman

Released in 2004, this book is older than the rest of the list, but I wanted to mention it because I have been wanting to read it forever. Lillian Faderman is a lesbian feminist force (she's written several lesbian history books, including a new one, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, which I am sure is worth reading), and I often find autobiography and biography to be the best way to really "get" a writer (I loved Andrea Dworkin's autobiography so much I wanted to marry it).

Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle edited by Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard

Even today, there aren't as many well-done books on Black feminism as there should be. This, however, has potential to be one of them. The contributors list is distinguished and the premise--to take a look at the Black women who had just as much to do with Civil Rights as their more famous male counterparts--is a good one.

Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights by Martha Sonntag Bradley

This is another slightly older book, but I've heard so many good things about it, I wanted to include it. Bradley, a professor at University of Utah, gives a great account of the LDS influence on the International Women's Year (IWY) conference held in Utah in 1977 and the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment. The book is apparently based heavily on oral historical accounts given by Mormon women in Utah, which is a great basis and one I'm very curious to read.

I could go on and on, but rather than completely overwhelming both you and myself, I'll stop here for now. Anything on this list strike your fancy? Want to read it together?

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I think I'm going to have to grab that book on pornography and A Strange Stirring. those two look really good.

Many of these look great! I did a report on Margaret Sanger for a Women's Studies class in college, so the book about her is definitely right up my alley. Women, Work & Politics definitely speaks to me now. But I'd be open to reading any if you were going to lead a book club-type discussion through the blog.

Great post! I hadn't heard of all of these, and promptly put them on my Goodreads "to read" list!

Thanks for including "Geek Girls Unite" in your list! So awesome!!

I'm Carolyn Bronstein, the author of Battling Pornography, one of the books on this to-read book list. Thanks for including my work here. If anyone would like to hear me discuss the major themes, I'll share an audio link from November 1, 2011--this is me being interviewed by Alison Cuddy of the Eight Forty-Eight Show on Chicago Public Radio. Thanks!

http://www.wbez.org/sites/default/files/segment/audio/2011-November/2011-11-01/84820111101c.mp3

I love reading new and old feminists books - just to see how things have changed (or not). Definitely bookmarking this post for future reading!

-India Jones What is Spice?

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Book review: Ape House

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I read a book! If you've been reading here long, you know how exciting that is. I used to be a huge reader, and in recent years, and especially recent months, I've just...stopped. I can't remember the last novel I read in one sitting. But this past week, on a plane from Atlanta to San Diego, I read Sara Gruen's Ape House. And I liked it a lot.

Sara Gruen wrote Water for Elephants, which is now a movie. I read Water for Elephants when it was new, in hardback, because I happened to pick it up at the library and was curious about the title. I love, love, loved it. So, when I was browsing at the airport Borders and saw her name on Ape House, I picked it up without even reading the back cover.

Ape House didn't move me in the way Water for Elephants did. It lacked the magical quality and the visual description wasn't as lush. I wasn't able to watch the scenes unfold in my imagination the same way. That said, it's a very good story and it was a fun read. The story is about a primate linguist and a reporter, both of whom are at difficult crossroads in their own lives, who meet by chance and work together in order to undercover a conspiracy that has removed six bonobos from a research facility and is exploiting them. The bonobos themselves are characters in the novel, though only through the eyes of the human characters (i.e. there is no attempt to get inside their heads as narrators), and they are compelling ones. The human protagonists, too, are sympathetic, particularly Isabel, the scientist. I had a bit of trouble relating to the journalist, John, early on, but warmed up to him as the book progressed.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book, for me, was the afterward, in which Sara Gruen briefly described the factual basis of some of the books events. Primate research is something I try very hard not to think about, because I find it too upsetting. However, reading a fictionalized account of some of the issues made it a little more bearable to think about. The afterward, however, drove the truth and seriousness of the issue right back home. It's heavy stuff.

Finally, a note on Sara Gruen. I looked at her bio on Amazon when I was finding a picture for this post, and learned she tried her hand at writing fiction when she was laid off from a technical writing job. I totally feel like she's a kindred spirit. She's got two other books besides Water for Elephants (2006) and Ape House (2011): Riding Lessons (2004) and Flying Changes (2005). I'll be buying those.

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I liked Ape House better than Water for Elephants. I thought they were great. Maybe I will pick up the other two.

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The-Lives-They-Left-Behind-Suitcases-from-a-State-Hospital-Attic-1934137146-L.jpgFriends, this book was a difficult read. I cried. More than once. It's not for the faint of heart.

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny is a collection of short biographies based on a few of the suitcases found in the attic of the Willard State Hospital (and cataloged and displayed in the Willard Suitcase Exhibit, which I wrote about several years ago). Each chapter reconstructs, from research the authors performed and from the contents of the suitcase found, the life and institutionalization of one Willard patient. For the most part, the patients are people who were committed to Willard in young or mid adulthood and remained there for the rest of their lives. Most of them lived at Willard for decades.

Each story is different, and none are "representative." The details are sketchy, and the stories are based largely on conjecture and guesses. This doesn't make the book any less powerful. Though each detail is heartbreaking in its own right, the common threads provide the real narrative here. The patients profiled rarely suffered from violent or dangerous psychosis. They were, for various reasons, "outsiders" in the societies in which they lived, and were institutionalized for often spurious reasons. Once at Willard, very few, if any, efforts were made to stabilize their conditions and return them to their lives. Many of them were not even given any sort of treatment. Rather, they were warehoused for years. They were, basically, erased. It's seriously one of the very saddest things I've ever contemplated.

That said, I do have to issue a warning about the book--it is, simply put, anti-psychology propaganda. The authors make no bones about their feelings not just about the practices of Willard and institutions like it in the 1800s and the first three-quarters of the 1900s, but about the current state of things as well. And while they make some good points, their analysis is anything but balanced. The book's afterward, using the stories presented as a case against modern psychiatry and medical practices, was a bit hard for someone as pro-psychotropic medication as you all know me to be to take. My suggestion is to read this book not as well-researched history (it's not), or an even-handed medical ethics argument (it's not), but as a collection of small, heart-breaking stories about the lives of people who never got to tell their stories themselves.

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I saw this exhibit and I have wanted to read this book for sooooo long.

That's interesting about the propaganda. The exhibit was clearly against the practices of that time (which I thought was fair), but didn't really talk about now....

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Kings of the Earth

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kings of the earth.jpgOnce upon a time, I read a book called Finn, by Jon Clinch. And I loved it so much I came here and told you all about it. Then, Jon Clinch wrote another book, called Kings of the Earth. Which I loved, and came here to tell you about.

Except that while I was looking for a picture of the cover, I found this review of it at Like Fire. And this review kindly provided a very good synopsis of the plot, as well as some kudos for the feeling of the book. So now I don't have to. Go there and read that. I'll wait.

OK, you back?

The only thing I'd add to Lisa Peet's insightful comments is that I loved every page of this book right up until the last few. For some reason, the ending felt very abrupt and cut-off to me, and I found that unsettling. Really, though, given the nearly 400 pages of pure fantastic the novel was, I can't complain too much about that.

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Grace, thanks so much for the link and the nice words. I've spent most of this evening loving your dog photos and stories -- we have a very beloved beagle/coonhound rescue and three dear rescued kitties (and, weirdly, I lost my own first dog too young in July '05, and will probably never get over it). So -- pleased to meetcha.

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mamaphdcover.jpgHow proud of myself am I to still be ahead of the 12 Books, 12 Months game?

My latest read, Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life, edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant, was one I'd been putting off since I got it, because I knew it would depress me. And depress me it did! The book is a collection of short essays by women in academia, all centered around having children (or not, there is one essay from a woman who has decided not to have kids, and one from a woman who is as yet undecided). Though the details of each story are different, the themes are very similar: being a female academic with children is hard. Academia has no respect for the body in general (as opposed to the mind) and even less for outside time commitments. None of it is surprising to me--it's similar, in a lot of ways, to what women with kids face in any career. But that doesn't make it any less infuriating.

One thing reading this book did was spark a lot of discussion at my house. I am not an academic--I wanted to be, at one time, but I have since realized it's not for me, and even though I still plan to get a PhD one day, I never plan to teach. Mark, however, is a lifer. I can't imagine him doing anything else. And he's in a field with very few women. However, he currently has a lab mate who is both an impressive scientist and a mother of two. The most amazing thing about that, of course, is how unusual it seems to be.

I'm deep in the throes of new job brain sludge at the moment, and can't think of a single intelligent thing to say about this book, so I'm afraid you'll have to forgive my lack of insight. It's worth reading, if this subject interests you, just as a collection of anecdotes, but there isn't really anything new here for those of us who who are already well-versed in the mommy wars and the second shift. These things may look a bit different in academia, but they are part of the same beast.

Next up, another cheery read: The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic. But I am currently in the middle of Jon Clinch's phenomenal new one, Kings of the Earth, so I'm going to finish that first.

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I'd love to read this; alas, my library is terribly short on academia. LOL. I'll put it on my amazon wish list instead.

I'm curious about the next one in your list. There's an old state hospital of that sort near where I live, and a book about the same thing called Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret. That one was written by a journalist, so I am thinking the search will be very interesting.

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dangerous_woman_lg.jpgI read my fifth book for 12 Books, 12 Months in record time. Possibly, that's because I loved it so much. Or, possibly, it's because Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman has a few more pictures than it does words. Either way, it was a quick one.

Read this book. If you don't read any of the other books I read for this challenge, read this one. It's so much fun. I knew quite a bit about Emma Goldman's political life before I picked it up, but not much on her personal life. The graphic novel combines the two seamlessly, with dialogue that comes mostly from letters, and is supplemented perfectly by Sharon Rudahl's illustrations. I'm not a graphic novel person--I admire Maus, and I loved Fun Home--and I was skeptical of a biography in this format, but it works perfectly. It's informative, entertaining, and nearly impossible to put down.

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First - read The Inventions of Hugo Cabret. Huge book, but graphic like this, and is an amazing read.

Second - Sarah Vowell talks about Goldman a lot in Assassination Vacation, which is one of my all-time favorites. Leon Czolgosz (Sp?) that shot McKinley was a big fan of Goldman.I think you might like her book, too.

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bad girls cover.jpgMy fourth book for 12 Books, 12 Months was supposed to be Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties by Wini Breines. Unfortunately, when I went to begin this book, I couldn't find it. Anywhere. It wasn't on any bookshelf. It wasn't in any of the dozen or so boxes of as-yet unpacked books stacked up in my office. I'm sad to say I don't think it survived the move. I did a huge book purge before we left Austin, and it must have been purged.

I could have bought another copy, of course, but it seemed to me that it would be more in keeping with the intention of the 12 Books, 12 Months project to simply pick another book from the "to be read" pile that's always growing under my bedside table. So I did. And the book I picked was Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, edited by Ellen Sussman.

As the title suggests, Bad Girls is a book of personal essays by female writers, all centered on the broadly defined topic of misbehavior. The best essay in it, and the reason I bought it, is Pam Houston's heartbreaking and funny story about flirting with an attendee at her father's funeral. There are, however, other high points. I was particularly impressed by Joyce Maynard's defense of writing in her autobiography about her affair with J.D. Salinger. My black horse favorite of the essays, however, was Ann Hood's "Lying," which is all about making up stories about ourselves to tell to strangers, just because we can. That's the kind of bad I can sink my teeth into--not really salacious, and not hurting anybody, but just...naughty.

That said, a lot of the book's essays fell pretty flat to me, especially those from better-known authors. Erica Jong's explanation of how the bad girl she's always peddled in her fiction is...fiction? Left me with a big, "duh." Mary Roach's exploration of the power of confession didn't really work for me either. That said, the essays are all quick, easy reads, and I bet it took less than two hours total for me to get through the whole book, so it's not like you'll be wasting a ton of time if you read it.

One last note, which I hadn't even thought of until looking at the book's page on Amazon, but is a good point: if you're looking for "bad" to mean "sexy," you're in the wrong place. A few of the book's essays deal with sexual themes, (including editor Ellen Sussmans' "Consider the Slut," which is pretty great), but most don't. Misbehavior here is not always adult misbehavior (there are several stories about the authors' childhoods) and the subject matter it not always titillating (see Jennifer Gilmore's bulimia essay). The upshot, and I think the point, is that, especially for a woman, "bad" can mean almost anything.

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our-bodies-ourselves-and-the-work-of-writing.jpgRemember how I motored through my first two "12 Books, 12 Months" books in only a couple of weeks? Well, that ended abruptly with Susan Wells' Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Work of Writing, which is a mere 280 pages, and I've been working on for at least a month.

First, let me say that the book isn't bad. It's just not at all what I wanted it to be. I was so excited when I saw it recommended by Amazon--finally, someone writing some history about Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was the co-topic of my undergraduate thesis at Reed! I ordered it immediately.

I should have read more closely. It's not history. The author is an English professor, and a her academic work is in, God help us, rhetoric. This book is about Our Bodies, Ourselves less as a historical source, and more as a piece of writing. The analysis is of the text, as a text. Very little of the book is about the moment, or the movement. So, for me, who not only doesn't understand rhetoric but really doesn't care, it was a bit of a slog.

Next I'm on to another non-fiction book for which I have high hopes, Wini Breines' Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties. Breines isn't a historian either, she's a sociologist, but I clearly remember reading and enjoying her essay, "The "Other" Fifties: Beats and Bad Girls" in Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, so I'm holding out hope this one will be more my speed.

3 Comments

I can't decide if this sounds fascinating or disappointing. I imagine it might be of interest to my rhet nerd friends, though.

Sorry this wasn't your cup of tea. Most of the historical stuff is in Chapter 2; also check the short biographical sections on individual writers.

If you want a more movement-centered book on OBOS, there's a great book by Kathy Davis. Happy new year!

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The Beauty of Different

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beauty of different cover.jpgI've told you, a time or two, how much I admire Karen Walrond. Well, Karen's gone and written/photographed a book (which I am told my photo is in, so bully for that!). And you can buy it over at Amazon or at the publisher's site, Bright Sky Press. My copy hasn't arrived yet, so I can't tell you much about it, but I can say that I haven't ever seen anything Karen has done that wasn't just gorgeous and totally worth your time, so I have no problem recommending this one sight unseen. And watch this space--I'm thinking buying an extra copy to give away here wouldn't be a bad plan.

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inkstainedamazons.jpgLook at me go! I finished my second 12 Books, 12 Months book, Jennifer K. Stuller's Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology! The review is over at Heroine Content.

And you should read it. Not in the least because I am quoted. Twice.

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No way! 2nd book already? I'm still on number one, but nearly done.

Look at you, overachiever! This book sounds fascinating. I fear that my "to read" list is going to grow rather than shrink as a result of this challenge.

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12 Books, 12 Months Book 1: Norwegian Wood

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norwegian-wood.jpgLook at me, getting ahead early on! On my red-eye flight last night, I finished my first "12 Books, 12 Months" book, Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood. The book is a pretty straightforward novel, a story about a college student in Japan in the late 1960s/early 1970s and the two women he falls in love with. It reminded me, at times, in a ways that seemed very self-conscious, of Catcher in the Rye. I'm told Murakami's other books have a strong supernatural element, but this one doesn't--it's about self-knowledge and growing up and all that good stuff.

I didn't dislike the book, but I didn't find it particularly compelling, either. My sympathy for the narrator, Watanabe, was fairly limited, and neither of the women--Naoko and Midori--resonated with me particularly strongly either. The characters all struck me as a little bit overwritten in their oddness.

I suspect the major problem with this book, for me, was that I've read a lot of book that were inspired by it. Published in the 80s, Norwegian Wood may have been insightful or really ground-breaking when it came out (though, given my persistent imagining of Watanabe as a Japanese Holden Caulfield, maybe not), but having read a lot of similar books, it struck me as a little bit trite.

For my next "12 Books, 12 Months" book, I'm headed back into non-fiction.

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12 Books, 12 Months

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I've recently started to re-focus on reading ink on paper, as my friend Nonny calls it. I have always been a reader, but in recent years it's become something I have to do intentionally, rather than something that I do naturally, which I frankly do not like. I want to return to being a natural reader. Anyway, today's blog reader perusing (and yes, I realize that my voracious blog consumption is probably partially to blame for not reading as many books as I used to) led me to my friend Jenny's post on 12 Books, 12 Months, a challenge from The Latter Day Bohemian. The idea is simple--make a list of 12 books that are already in your to-be read pile and commit to read them over the next 12 months. The rules are like so:
12 Books, 12 Months Challenge
* Pick 12 titles from your To Read Pile. These should be titles you currently own in whatever format you prefer.
* Acquisition of other formats or translations is permitted. So, if you have a paperback but want to read on your Kindle, you can get a Kindle copy. If you have a library copy but want to buy your own, that's kosher. Heck, if you own a copy and want to check another out from the library, I'm not gonna stop you.
* Post your list in your public space of choice by September 1, 2010. If you prefer not to post, you can just leave a comment with your list.
* Read all 12 titles between now and September 5, 2011. Might as well tack on an extra long weekend at the end for cramming.
* When you finish a title on your list, post about it in your public space of choice. If you prefer not to post, you can just leave a comment with your review.
* Once a month, I'll post a round-up of the reviews posted from that month so that we all know what everyone else has read.

I'm in! Between this and the Indiespensable book club from Powell's, maybe I'll get some actual reading done in the next year!

My 12 Books:


  1. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: gift from my friend Hala, who swears I'll love it

  2. Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology by Jennifer K. Stuller: gift from my friend and co-blogger Skye. A couple of our reviews at Heroine Content are actually cited in this book, and I have been looking at it longingly for months.

  3. Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Work of Writing by Susan Wells: I was so excited about this coming out that I pre-ordered it and waited for it with baited breath, and since it's arrival it hasn't even been cracked. Embarrassing.

  4. Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties by Wini Breines: this has been on my bookshelf for years. I have no idea where it came from, but it keeps getting passed over.

  5. Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman by Sharon Rudahl: this one actually breaks the rules, since I don't already have it. However, it has been on my "MUST BUY" list forever, so I'm going to use this excuse to get it.

  6. Mama, Ph.D.: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life by Caroline Grant: Another one that I just *had* to have and then it sat on the shelf for a year or more. Sensing a pattern?

  7. The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney: And again. Had to have it, didn't read it.

  8. Cherry and Lit by Mary Karr: I bought Mary Karr's whole memoir trilogy this year, but I only actually read The Liar's Club. I enjoyed it, though, so I'd probably be well-served to read the other two books.

  9. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: my mom gave me this for Christmas last year and has asked at least a half dozen times since then if I've read it yet, so I'd better read it.

  10. Diary by Chuck Palahniuk: another one that has been sitting around at my house for quite a while, and I've never picked it up.

  11. Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory: I thrifted this back when I was in a "horrible memoirs" period, then the phase ended and I didn't read it. I should either read it or get rid of it.

Anybody else want to join in?

11 Comments

I'd love to join, but I'm gonna have to break the rules. I'm on a "no more buying books!" phase for a while, and I've read every book in my house, except for the ones on string theory. haha. I'd like to do an altered version, going with 12 books on my list that my library actually has. If this is acceptable to the lovely Grace, I'll join in on these conditions. I have to come up with my list!

Whoa... it's weird when one's online acquaintances collide with the real life ones!

But anyway, I do plan to do this!

Hi, I'm a new reader to your blog but my bookshelves are cluttered with books I haven't got around to reading, so I really need this challenge. My 12 are:
Games People Play, Eric Berne M.D.
Waste and Want, Susan Strasser
Never Done, Susan Strasser
Rubbish! The archaeology of garbage, William Rathje and Cullen Murphy
Garbage Land, Elizabeth Royte
The Republic, Plato
Set this House in Order, Matt Ruff
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
The Immoralist, Andre Gide
Heat, Bill Buford
Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham

As E & I are both librarians, I doubt either of us would stand in the way of library books! :)

Grace, I went to an art exhibit on 7 and really want to read it. Diary is probably my favorite Palahniuk book. And I have always wanted to read 10. I'd love to hear what you think of all of them.

I'm so glad people are doing this!

This is a great idea! I'm in! I'll be back with my list.

I'm in, too. Off to select my books, and I'll post my list and reference you and the LD Bohemian

I'm delighted that you've signed on, and I really look forward to your reviews. Have you read The Girls Who Went Away? It was (perhaps unsurprisingly) moving and also thematically consistent with many of the titles on your list.

Here is my list, a combination of books that I've been meaning to read for a long time (some since I was a teenager), and more recent additions:

Night- Elie Wiesel
The Count of Monte Cristo- Alexandre Dumas
Nickel and Dimed- Barbara Ehrenreich
The Great Influenza- Jon Krakauer
Into the Wild- Jon Krakauer
One Hundred Years of Solitude- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Omnivore’s Dilemma- Michael Pollan
Dracula- Bram Stoker
Haunted: A Novel- Chuck Palahniuk
Shogun- James Clavell
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance- Robert M. Prisig
The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo- Steig Larson

oops! Had a typo there. The Great Influenza was actually written by John M. Barry.

I know this is a little late but I could have sworn your missive said Sept 5th. Anyway I am in and here are my 12 books in no particular order yet. I made sure they didnt coinside with Ron's.

1. The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown
2. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
3. My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Piqualt
4. Lamb - Christopher Moore
5. Franny and Zoey - JD Salinger
6. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
7. Bite Me - Christopher Moore
8. Whitehorn Woods - Maive Binchy
9. Good Omens - Neil Gaiman and Teri Pratchett
10. Anne of the Island - LM Montgomery
11. Anne of Windy Poplars - LM Montgomery
12. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Chronicles Issue 1 (Based on the TV show)- John Vornholt, Alice Henderson

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Traveling by book

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Laurie has a great post over at BlogHer today about books and the places they can take you--both metaphorically and physically. Her piece, in turn, was inspired by Sandra Foyt's How to Plan A Read Across America Road Trip. Basically, both entries are about the places reading books inspires one to go, or at least to dream about visiting.

Laurie writes:

Since I discovered this idea I've been thinking of cities and regions I love that have amazing literary history, that have inspired me to seek out the voices writing about them - New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, London (I'm an Austen fan - I could go for a country tour, no problem.) Hemingway made me see and taste Europe almost like I was there, and when I go back, I should probably bring A Moveable Feast for a re-read.

Like Laurie, I'm enamored with the idea. Maybe a trip to Ireland would be just the thing to finally get me to read James Joyce? Again like Laurie, nothing has made me want to see Spain like Hemingway (in my case, The Sun Also Rises). I'd even be willing to re-read Anna Karenina (well, maybe), if I could do it in Russia.

Imagine re-creating Humbert and Lo's American adventure while reading along with Lolita! Or taking a slow drive from Oklahoma to California with The Grapes of Wrath? Anne Rice put New Orleans in my imagination forever, but I'd also love to see Faulkner's Mississippi and Zora Neale Hurston's Alabama.

The hallmark of a good book, for me, has always had to do with how I react to the characters. Weak plot points are not an issue if the characters can make me love them (or hate them, or pity them, or lust after them). But in the best books (and not just books, but songs, movies, etc.) location serves as a character or characters all its own. Would To Kill a Mockingbird have worked set on the Midwest? What about a Southern Sometimes a Great Notion? Could a tree have grown in Detriot instead of Brooklyn? I think not. The places in which these books are set are not just backdrops--they are essentials. The stories don't work without them.

One of the truly great things about reading books in which the location is as compelling as the characters is the way it makes you consider places you otherwise wouldn't--not always positively. I hadn't given a whole lot of thought to Newfoundland before I read The Shipping News, and Ami McKay's The Birth House made me think about Nova Scotia in a way I certainly hadn't before. While driving through Kansas a couple of years ago, my mind often returned to In Cold Blood. Europe has long been at the top of my must-see list, but The Poisonwood Bible absolutely made me want to go to Africa.

Books also help me return to the places I do know. I picked up Marion Winik's Above Us Only Sky for the first time not because it looked particularly interesting (though it turned out to be fabulous), but because the essays are set in Austin. Some of my favorite books are set in Oregon: Katherine Dunn's Geek Love; Ken Kesey's books; and of course Beverly Cleary!

Given that I'm about to move across the country, again, to a place about which I know very little, I guess now would be a good time to find some books to guide me. Anybody have a favorite set in Northern Virginia?

And what about you? What books take you places? Where would you like to make a fiction-inspired visit?

1 Comments

I love the idea of planning the trip after the book. I do it the opposite way generally.

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Well-read

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As I've written about here before, I'm not a huge fan of those lists of books one supposedly needs to have read to be considered "well-read." In part, that is because those lists tend to be really really whitemanocentric. In part, it is because looking at them makes me feel woefully poorly educated. But something I *do* love is an interactive spreadsheet. So, when I saw Arukiyomi's 1001 Books spreadsheet, I couldn't resist.

Turns out I've read 72 of the 2008 edition of 1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die, or about 7%. Of the 208 books that were replaced between the 2006 and 2008 editions of the list, I've read another 13 (about 1.3%). So, total, I've read 85 of the 1209 books I ought to have read--about 6.5%. To get through the entirety of the list, assuming everybody stops writing anything worth reading and I live to be an average age, I need to read about 23 listed books a year.

Not gonna happen. There are lots of books on that list I have no desire at all to crack. However, there are also some that are probably worth reading. To get started, I'm going to try to tackle five of those in the remainder of 2009.

The nominees?

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Doesn't sound like a bad list, does it? Anybody up to do this with me?

5 Comments

I've read 63ish of them--mostly in these categories:
--stuff read in HS classes
--stuff from Hum 220
--Russian stuff

I think this would be a more interesting count if it were only things you had read SINCE college.

Watchmen is awesome. I have been meaning to reread it. And Breakfast at Tiffanys is on my list as well!

Perhaps this is because of our reading background but I think it's bullshit that pre-1700 is so small. Also the majority of the recent books are NOT books I think would be good. However I was excited to remember the Kreyzer Sonata!

It's funny--if you know Russian lit people think you're well read, but in fact I am extremely poorly read in everything that ISNT Russian lit...

both kitchen and will be a very quick, very enjoyable reads. i am game to join you! have been feeling woefully under-read these days, since i re-read the same 5 trashy sci-fi novels every time my brain feels overtaxed.

I was surprised that I've only read 26. Lots of them I have very, very little interest in picking up, though.

Ooooh, once I can actually get the spreadsheet to work (not PC Bang friendly), I'm in!

hi there... thanks for the link.

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2008 Book Round-Up

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Inspired, as always, by my book-loving friend Jenny, here are my 2008 reading stats:

I read a total of 52 books this year. Since my goal was one per week, I more or less made it. Except that the 52 counts the 9 books I didn't finish or the two that have progressed into 2009. More depressingly, this is down from 75 last year! I read only 69% of the books this year that I did last year! 28 (54%) of the books were non-fiction, 24 (46%) were fiction. This is also a change from last year, in which I read only 31% fiction and 69% non fiction. 14 of this year's books (27%) were audio books, down from 39% last year.

Sad state of affairs. I definitely need to make reading a priority again in 2009.

My biggest surprise of the year was Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. It was so hyped that I expected it to be terrible, especially given the pre-conception I picked up somewhere about Didion as shallow and vapid. It's actually probably the best account of grief I've ever read.

The year's biggest letdown was Ariel Gore's How To Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead. I like Ariel Gore's non-fiction quite a lot, in general, but I got nothing from that book.

My favorites of the year were Alison Bechadel's amazing graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Sharon O'Brien's, The Family Silver: A Memoir of Depression and Inheritance.

The most overrated book I read this year was Zadie's Smith's god-awful White Teeth. I didn't even finish it. Terrible. Worse, even, than the horrible book I read by her last year. I'm so done with Zadie Smith.

There were quite a few books I couldn't or just didn't finish this year, but the most memorable one is The Worst Hard Time, which I didn't finish last year either and finally gave up on for good this year.

The books I most recommend this year are definitely Fun Home and The Year of Magical Thinking.

Books that carried over from 2008 to 2009 are Diana Abu-Jaber's Crescent, which I am liking OK, but going through fairly slowly, and Mary Roach's Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, which I am listening to on audio book and enjoying quite a bit. I expect I'll finish both of those.

This year, I maintain by one book/week goal, with the caveat that I want to actually *finish* one book/week. And if I could read more fiction, that would be good, too.

2 Comments

I think it was Zadie Smith's "On Beauty" that made me want to punch something.

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Winter break reading list

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This is my reading list for the beautiful beautiful upcoming vacation. If I didn't pick the book(s) you suggested, please don't take it personally--it was likely just that your suggestion(s) were not available at my library, or I'd already them.

The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel
Bella Abzug: An Oral History by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom
Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber
Gospel Hour by T.R. Pearson
The Professor's House by Willa Cather

3 Comments

Would love to get reviews on some of those when you get back, if that's possible.

Wow, my book made it onto the list! I'm very flattered. It just reminds me so much where we grew up--logging, religion, the goofy language of hicks who get some education up in them. Persevere through it--I definitely found it to be a difficult, slow, but rewarding read. The last half of the book, where he talks about the tragic histories that lead people to seek salvation, were particularly good. Have a good time in MN!

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Books

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I need some book recommendations, folks! I'm going to be vacationing for a week at Mark's parents' place in Minnesota, and I am hoping for lots of reading in front of the fire time. My preferred genres are biography/memoir, well-written history, and quality fiction. Suggestions?

11 Comments

"Crusaders," by feminist and communist Meridel LeSueur, is a great memoir/biography of her parents. Very inspiring.

"Letters from the Country" is a collection of essays by Carol Bly about rural living in the modern midwest. Sharp and witty without condescension.

The two of these are Minnesota authors. Wait, did you say you're coming to Minnesota?

the slash autobio is not bad. I have been reading a lot of Matt Ruff. One of his books is based on people with multiple personalities, which is an interesting take on fiction.

The new Sedaris book is good too of course.

Crescent, by Diana Abu-Jaber. Quality fiction. APL has it.

Have you read Anna Karenina? It's a lot of pages, but so worth it!

Christine

The best books I've read recently were Life of Pi and Fox Girl.

Into the Forest by Jean Hegland was a really good fiction book, my favorite this year actually.

I also just picked up Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp by Stephanie Klein. I haven't read it yet but it's on my holiday reading list.

I think you'd maybe love:

Veronica (Mary Gaitskill)
The Giant O'Brien (Hilary Mantel)


Veronica is maybe the only book I've ever kept reading only for the killer turns of phrase. The story is a bit grown up for me, but I think you'd dig on it.

The Giant O'Brien is maybe the best novel ever, and not very long.

I may have recommended these before, but I think you would really like some of Chris Bohjalian's books. I would start with Midwives or Trans-Sister Radio. His new one, The Double Bind, was also really good.

I just finished and unexpectedly loved The Professor's House by Willa Cather. It's a short read.

Coming to Minnesota?! If you're coming very soon you definitely will be spending time by the fire with all the snow we're expecting.

I second Krup's suggestion of Carol Bly if you want something Minnesota-y.

Or. A local author, Bill Holms, has a book called "Coming Home Crazy" about the cultural differences he experienced between Minnesota and China. I haven't read it, but my cousin, who knows Holms, always talks about it. Holms' poetry is excellent, I think, if poetry is at all your thing.

Not related to Minnesota: Have you read anything by Sarah Vowell? She's very funny and her latest, "The Wordy Shipmates" is about the historical details of the pilgrims. I listened to the audio version of "The partly Cloudy Patriot" and laughed out loud frequently.

Ha ha, I definitely won't recommend the Clan of the Cave Bear series to you, but I *do* recommend the book I just finished (and commented on when last you asked what we were reading): T. R. Pearson's Gospel Hour. That'd be in the "quality fiction" category.

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NaBloPoMo #26: What I'm Reading Wednesday

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It's here!!


Can I Sit With You Too? is the second collection of stories from the Can I Sit With You? project (www.canisitwithyou.org). These new tales represent an even wider range of schoolyard experiences, including best friend disappointments, new kid fears, harsh discrimination, living with disabilities, and emerging sexuality. By sharing moments from kindergarten through high school, these stories once again remind us that we are not alone: chances are, if it happened to you, it happened to someone else, too.

Buy Can I Sit With You Too? Right Now!
Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.

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NaBloPoMo #19: What I'm Reading Wednesday

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OK, it's Wednesday, so let's talk about books!

First, I finished The Great Gatsby. I was underwhelmed. I think what disappointed me was that I started it thinking I'd finally learn about the missing pieces of a story I basically already knew, just from references to it in other things. Well, turns out there are no missing pieces--I really already knew the whole story. There's just not too much there. It reads like something intended to be serialized and make money, not like a Great American Novel. I've definitely read other Great Novels of the same time period that were much better (Sister Carrie comes to mind). That being said, I did like Tim Robbins' narration, and the letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald at the end, read by Robert Sean Leonard, are really interesting. Next I'm taking a little break and listening to David Sedaris' new one, When You Are Engulfed in Flames.

And I am still slogging through Personal History. I mislaid it for a couple of days, so I haven't read much on it for a bit, but it is getting a bit more interesting now that Graham is talking more about running the paper herself (I'm currently in the mid-60s). Sure seems like a lot of build-up just get to to Watergate, though, which is where I (and, I'd expect, many readers) most want to go.

While I couldn't find the Graham book, I started A Walking Fire, a novel by Valerie Miner suggested to me by a friend. It's a Vietnam-war era retelling of King Lear. I'm only a chapter or two into it, so I don't have many thoughts yet.

All of that, however, is just preamble to what I really want to tell you about today. I spent a little chunk of time last week doing some editing for a book that is set to be released via Lulu this week. Do you all remember me telling you about the fantastic Can I Sit With You? Well, it was so successful that the wonderful creators, Shannon and Jennifer, have put together a second installment, Can I Sit With You Too? I've read the stories and I'll tell you--it's definitely worth buying. It would make a great Christmas present for adolescent family members or friends. The best part? The proceeds all go to SEPTAR, the Special Education Parent Teacher Association for Redwood City, California. Watch the Can I Sit With You website to see when it will be available, and to preview some of the stories that are included.

So, what are you reading?

7 Comments

- Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables (just got it)

- Pagan Christmas (good so far)

- Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth (also just received)

Since you just finished The Great Gatsby, you should put The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian in you TBR pile. I love his book and this one has a particular Gatsby connection you might enjoy.

With your focus on gender issues, you would probably also like his books Midwives and Trans-Sister Radio (one of my all-time favorites).

I just finished American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield. I loved Prep by the same author but haven't loved either of her other books.

Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff. The main characters have multiple personalities. It is awesome.

I'm reading Gospel Hour by T. R. Pearson. This is the first book of his that I've read, and I l-o-v-e love it!

The Crazed by Ha Jin. I don't love it, but I like the pace of reading it inspires - the last couple of books I read dragged a bit.

Thanks for the hard work and the citation! Barring hiccups, the books should be buyable by Wednesday 11/26.

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NaBloPoMo #5: What I'm Reading Wednesday

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I'm a reader. Always have been. And I'm also a big organizer and maker of lists. So, of course, I love Goodreads. Are you on Goodreads? If so, make me a contact! If not, sign up and then make me a contact!

I use Goodreads to keep track of what I am reading, when, and how I like it. You can see this on the blog down on the side bar. My goal for 2008 was to average one book per week, so 52 books. Right now, I'm at 44 for the year, including 2 I am currently reading and 6 I didn't finish. Probably not going to make that goal. Oh well.

I am not a multi-book person. I like to read one thing at a time. However, I do have one book and one audio book going at any given time, as I listen to the audio book in situations when I can't read (like on the bus or at the gym). Here's what I've got going now:

personal history cover.jpgPersonal History by Katharine Graham
I bought this autobiography of Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post during Watergate, several years ago at the Goodwill. I'd heard only good things about it (I think it won a Pulitzer?), and I love memoir and autobiography in general. I never picked it up, though. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I read Sara Nelson's So Many Books, So Little Time. In that book, Nelson reads Graham's autobiography and enjoys it. So it inspired me to dig my copy out and pick it up.

I'm only about 100 pages into it (it's a pretty long book, about 650 pages I think), and so far I'm unplussed. At my current point in the book, Graham is still in college at the University of Chicago, and it has just been page after page about how rich and fucked up her family was. Which is fine, I guess, but I'm ready to move on and have her actually do something. I'll try to stick with it for at least a bit longer--I know the bare bones of her story and I'd like to see what she has to say about the parts that actually were interesting--but if I have to flip through many more pages about her mother's art world connections and Republican party campaigning, I may jump ship.

day i ate whatever i wanted.jpgThe Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Acts of Liberation by Elizabeth Berg
My iPod is currently playing this short story book by Elizabeth Berg. For several novels now (Open House, We Are All Welcome Here), I have kind of liked Elizabeth Berg. I don't love her, but I find her books enjoyable and slightly off-kilter. So, when I saw she had a recent short story collection out, it sounded like perfect gym listening. Goodreads describes this book as "exhilarating short stories of women breaking free from convention." That may be a bit strong, but that's mostly what it is. Cute stories about women doing things they aren't supposed to do. A lot of them are about women who are struggling with age and/or weight-related issues, and it's handled pretty well. Their is nothing mind-blowing here, but it's funny and easy to listen to. So it is perfect gym listening. I have two and a half stories left, so I should probably finish it in the next few days.

On Deck:

To read: American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu

To listen to: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, read by Tim Robbins

Update: I just listened to the second to last story in Berg's book, "How To Make an Apple Pie." The book is so-so, but that story is fantastic.

2 Comments

I *love* Audiobooks. They are my saving grace on long car trips and sometimes the only way I can get in reading. I love reading but sometimes there just aren't enough hours.

I use libraryThing.com right now to keep track of my books. My goal this year was 25 books and I'm safely at 33. These past few months have been slow coming for a few reasons.

Where do you get your Audiobooks, Grace? I've gotten all mine through the library. Do you know of a cheap place to download audiobooks?

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Blog Action Day: The Poverty Book List

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I've been thinking for several days about what I want to write about poverty for Blog Action Day 2008. I started writing a personal story about poverty at least 10 times, but honestly, that doesn't feel the right thing to do today. I want to actually offer a resource, rather than just talking about myself like I always do. So, being as I've had some success in the past offering lists of recommended books, I thought maybe I'd use my Blog Action Day platform to offer a brief poverty studies book list. Hope it's helpful.

  1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
    No surprise here. A lot of people consider Steinbeck's 1939 novel about the Joad family's journey to California during the Dust Bowl the best book about poverty ever written, and I can't disagree. This is a fantastic book, trite as it may be to say that, and I think it should be required reading.
  2. Homecoming and Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voight
    These are children's novels about four children, the Tillermans, who, led by eldest sister Dicey, make their way across the country to find their grandmother after their mother abandons them. Homecoming gets them to their grandmother's house, Dicey's Song is about them living with her. Both books are, in part, about living in poverty, and even though I read them in elementary school, they've stuck with me. I can still remember the passage in Dicey's Song about Dicey and her grandmother eating at a restaurant and Dicey's concern at the meal's expense. Excellent stuff.
  3. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
    Though this book was widely acclaimed, I know a lot of people who really didn't like it, saying Ehrenreich, even after her experiment, doesn't actually understand the working poor and makes stupid decisions and assumptions in her book and the experiment she writes about. I don't 100% disagree with this assessment, but I still think this is a brave and important book. The fact is that most people who have never themselves been poor have no idea what it's actually like, or why poor people might make the decisions that they do. Ehrenreich gives some explanations. Would I like it better if these explanations could come from someone who has actually lived in this situation and isn't just trying it on as a journalist? Sure. Do I think people would listen as well as they listened to Ehrenreich? No.
  4. The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler
    Shipler's book has much the same task as Ehrenreich's, but instead of building a fictional life in order to have "working poor experiences" himself, Shipler extensively interviews a bunch of working poor families and mixes their first-person stories with an academic analysis of the life of the American working poor. The only really bad thing about this book is that it is outdated (it was published in 2004, but even since then things have changed radically, and the research was done for years before that). I'd like to see an updated version.
  5. Don't Call Us Out of Name: The Untold Lives of Women and Girls in Poor America by Lisa Dodson
    This is another book built much like Shipler's, mixing first person accounts of poverty with academic analysis. What makes it more interesting to me, though, is that it addresses the interplay between poverty and gender. Again, the book's major failing is being out of date, as it was published in 1998.
  6. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
    Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is one of the most amazing and most difficult novels I've ever read. Poverty is only one of the things its about, but it is in many ways the most salient. Just as Bone's tale of the violence of men is a call to feminism, her tale of the violence of poverty is a call to class activism.
  7. The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls
    Jeannette Walls' memoir is mostly about her childhood, growing up very poor with negligent and unstable parents. Walls' family was at times homeless, often hungry, and usually without running water or electricity. She recalls middle-of-the-night dashes from collecting landlords and page after page of experiences that make the reader's skin crawl. It's a hard book to read, but a good one. I only wish Walls' discussion of how it feels on the other side of that poverty, as an upper middle class adult with a world of both gratitude and guilt, was more prolonged.
  8. Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks
    bell hooks as written a lot about the intersection of race, class, and gender. This book is a conflation of memoir and social theory, and although it's a bit tough to read, it's completely worth it.
  9. Ain't No Makin' It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood by by Jay MacLeod
    Ain't No Makin' It is one of those books that I read and never forgot. I read it for intro pol sci my first year at Reed, and I've come back to it in my mind often since then. MacLeod wrote it about the kids he encountered while working as a counselor in a program for low-income youth. It focuses a lot on way poverty is spirit-crushing even at a very young age, and on the obstacles the kids have stacked against them. Once again, this book is out of date (and out of print), but it's still a good read if you can get a copy.
  10. Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class edited by Michelle Tea
    The final book on my list is an essay collection written by women who grew up working class. The topics of the pieces range pretty broadly, from discussion of class jumping to explorations of how much worse poor people are treated in day to day life.

Obviously there are a lot more books about poverty that are worth reading. These ten are just the first best ones I could come up with. Please feel free to leave other suggestions in the comments, and thanks for reading my Blog Action Day 08 post!

4 Comments

I recently reread Homecoming and Darcy's Song and they were just as fantastic as I remembered.

Great list. You've definitely given me some things to add to my library hold list.

Hmm, very cognitive post.
Is this theme good unough for the Digg?

I read this book while in my young teens and LOVED it, although I thought it was called Darcy's Song, or Dalcy's song, recently. I have craved to read this again, and am so happy that NOW i know how to find it! Its so wonderful. Some books you NEVER grow out of!

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The freedom to read

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grapes of wrath burningThis photo shows The Grapes of Wrath burning burned in a crop-picking town in California in the early 1940s.

As you may or may not already know, this week is the American Library Association's Annual Banned Books Week. Every year during the last week of September, the ALA does events and outreach to fight book bannings and promote freedom of information. What WINOW reader can't get behind that? As a little banned books week exercise, I thought I'd take a look at the list of 2007's most challenged books and see how many of them I've read (the ones I've read are in bold):


  1. "And Tango Makes Three," by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
    Reasons: Anti-Ethnic, Sexism, Homosexuality, Anti-Family, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

  2. "The Chocolate War," by Robert Cormier
    Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Violence

  3. "Olive's Ocean," by Kevin Henkes
    Reasons: Sexually Explicit and Offensive Language

  4. "The Golden Compass," by Philip Pullman
    Reasons: Religious Viewpoint

  5. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," by Mark Twain
    Reasons: Racism

  6. "The Color Purple," by Alice Walker
    Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language

  7. "TTYL," by Lauren Myracle
    Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

  8. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," by Maya Angelou
    Reasons: Sexually Explicit

  9. "It's Perfectly Normal," by Robie Harris
    Reasons: Sex Education, Sexually Explicit

  10. "The Perks of Being A Wallflower," by Stephen Chbosky
    Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Guess I'm going to have to try harder. I do slightly better on most challenged books of the 21st century list, though:

  1. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  2. "The Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier
  3. Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  4. "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck
  5. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou
  6. "Fallen Angels" by Walter Dean Myers
  7. "It's Perfectly Normal" by Robie Harris
  8. Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz
  9. Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey
  10. "Forever" by Judy Blume

How about you? Have you read a banned book lately? This week would be an excellent time to pick one up!

7 Comments

I often wear a swastika armband.. those are banned in Germany. Does that count, or is fashion not literature?

I've been reading the Earth's Children (Clan of the Cave Bear) series; currently on book 5. They are #20 on the top 100 most frequently banned books of 1990-2000, mostly because of sex.

I've gotten a variety of reactions from people when they see what I'm reading, which was unexpected at first and continues to amuse me. I think what's offensive about the books to people (and part of the reason why I like them) is that humans are portrayed as one extreme along an animal continuum. Sex is treated frankly and is considered to be as much a part of human/animal nature as hunting or gathering. I guess that just makes sense to the biologist in me, but obviously not everyone is used to thinking that way.

Anyhow, no one believes me when I tell them that I read the books because I like the protagonist, and I love the attention to Upper Paleolithic geology, botany, and ecology. The author did a ton of research for these books, and it shows.

I am a grown woman and I still read the Scary Stories book. I remember finding it at a book fair as a child. I still love it, the illustrations are amazing.

Hey,

long time lurker here. I typed your URL one day awhile ago at work when, guess what, no one was watching and.....was happy to read the interesting items from a fellow Austinite.

Have you in my Google Reader, but there might be a snafu with your .rss feed which is giving the error:

--------
There has been an error of some kind. Ack!
FeedBurner could not deliver this feed to you because of the specific problem listed below:

HTTP Error (Code) and Message: (404) Feed not found error: FeedBurner cannot locate this feed URI.

You might contact the URL admin.
------

Just an fyi, and feel free to delete this comment since it is not relevant to post.

Regards, Mitch

Define "irony":

Guess what book is #72 on the ALA's list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000-2007?

Fahrenheit 451

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Women's book meme

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Got this over at Frog's. These are 75 must-read books, as per Jezebel. The ones in bold are the ones I've read. The ones in bold italics are the ones I actually liked.


  • The Lottery (and Other Stories), Shirley Jackson

  • To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

  • The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

  • White Teeth, Zadie Smith

  • The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allenden

  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion

  • Excellent Women, Barbara Pym

  • The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

  • Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

  • The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

  • Beloved, Toni Morrison

  • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

  • Like Life, Lorrie Moore

  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

  • The Delta of Venus, Anais Nin

  • A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley

  • A Good Man Is Hard To Find (and Other Stories), Flannery O'Connor

  • The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx

  • You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, Alice Walker

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

  • Fear of Flying, Erica Jong

  • Earthly Paradise, Colette

  • Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt

  • Property, Valerie Martin

  • Middlemarch, George Eliot

  • Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid

  • The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir

  • Runaway, Alice Munro

  • The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers

  • The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston

  • Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

  • You Must Remember This, Joyce Carol Oates

  • Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

  • Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill

  • The Liars' Club, Mary Karr

  • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

  • A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Betty Smith

  • And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

  • Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

  • The Secret History, Donna Tartt

  • The Little Disturbances of Man, Grace Paley

  • The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker

  • The Group, Mary McCarthy

  • Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

  • The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

  • The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank

  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

  • Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag

  • In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez

  • The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck

  • Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

  • Three Junes, Julia Glass

  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft

  • Sophie's Choice, William Styron

  • Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann

  • Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford

  • Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin

  • The Red Tent, Anita Diamant

  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

  • The Face of War, Martha Gellhorn

  • My Antonia, Willa Cather

  • Love In The Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

  • The Harsh Voice, Rebecca West

  • Spending, Mary Gordon

  • The Lover, Marguerite Duras

  • The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

  • Tell Me a Riddle, Tillie Olsen

  • Nightwood, Djuna Barnes

  • Three Lives, Gertrude Stein

  • Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

  • I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

  • Possession, A.S. Byatt

Yikes. Not terribly well-read, am I?

5 Comments

I've read a surprisingly small number of these, as well. Aw, you haven't read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? I've loved that one since I was a kid. And Persepolis is amazing.

Easy reads to up your Feminist Canon score:

Valley of the Dolls
Tree Grows in Brooklyn
In the Time of the Butterflies
The Good Earth
Three Junes
Possession
Portable Dorothy Parker (which you will LOVE)
And Then There Were None
Delta of Venus (erotica!)
House of the Spirits
A Good Man is Hard to Find

I haven't read Persepolis, but I bet it's quick, being a graphic novel and all.


Wow, don't feel too bad, I think I've maybe only read 3-5 of those!

You are better read than I.

Wow.
I have a lot of reading to do!
Hope you do not mind, I posted this as well. with a link to you blog.

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Little Girls in Pretty Boxes

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little girls in pretty boxesIn celebration of the beginning of the Olympics, I finally picked up a book I've had around and meant to read for a long time. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters is journalist Joan Ryan's expose of the treatment of young figure skating and gymnastic Olympics hopefuls in the 80s and early 90s. Though it seems somewhat outdated, having been written when the Harding-Kerrigan scandal was still news, the book is no less chilling twelve years later as it was when it was written.

Basically, the book is about legalized and accepted child abuse. Girls who are thirteen, twelve, nine, being forced to train through injuries, berated for their weights, pumped full of drugs so that they can keep going, encouraged to leave school, and even assisted in their eating disorders, all for the sake of a slim chance at participating in the Olympics. Joan Ryan's book is sympathetic towards the girls themselves (she talks mostly to former skaters and gymnasts, not those who are currently participating in their sports), but pretty relentless in going after their parents and coaches, particularly legendary gymnastics coach Béla Károlyi. These people, Ryan argues, value winning far over the health and happiness of the girls they parent or train, to the long-term detriment of those girls.

Each story featured in the book is more horrific than the last. Teen gymnast Julissa Gomez was encouraged to perform a vault she was not comfortable with, fell and broke her neck, and spent the rest of her short life completely incapacitated, unable to move or speak. Christy Henrich, who trained at Al Fong's gym with Julissa until her accident, became an anorexic while she was training as a gymnast and the disease eventually killed her. Both of these stories are just examples of what could happen to any gymnast, at least the way Ryan tells it--nearly all the women with whom she speaks remember being pressured to train or compete when they are injured or not comfortable, being scrutinized for her weight, and taking drastic measures to stay unnaturally small and thin. The skaters to whom Ryan speaks face similar pressures, though their sport is not quite so dangerous. In her discussion of skating, Ryan also spends some time exploring the class dimension that became so apparent in ice skating when Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were both trying to be America's sweetheart.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this book is long on anecdotes and short on evidence. Ryan explains at the outset that she is focusing mostly on the women who did not make it to the gold, the girls whose sacrifices did not pay off. While this may seem to skew the story she tells, it seems fair to me given that the media mostly does focus on the winners. Certainly when reading this while everyone is gearing up for the summer Olympics it seems like the story that doesn't usually get told.

Looking at this year's roster of "women's" Olympic gymnasts, the stories in Ryan's book scare me. Though the U.S. team is a bit older than they were in the 90s (mostly of the team are in their late teens), they are so small. The current age for Olympic eligibility is 16, and some members of the Chinese team (the U.S.'s biggest rival) were scrutinized for possibly being under that age. Nothing seems to have changed.

And yet, will I watch? I don't know. I can't imagine feeling good about it. I believe these girls deserve better. Even a girl who brings home a gold medal deserves better. She deserves a childhood.

1 Comments

This is just one of the MANY REASONS I hatehatehate the Olympics. Ew.

Oddly, Glamour had an awesome spread of female athletes from the Olympics in crazy fashionwear. It was cool.

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Checking in on goals

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So I started this year with a bunch of goals, most of which are boring, but one of which was to read an average of a book a week and watch an average of a movie per week. So 52 books and movies for the year. The year is just about 1/2 over, so how have I done?

A check in at All Consuming shows me I am on track for movie watching, having watched 37 films so far this year.

Goodreads tells me I am not in quite as a good shape for books, having finished only 22 books so far this year (of the 30 I've started).

Best book so far: Tie between The Family Silver: A Memoir of Depression and Inheritance by Sharon O'Brien and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel.

Best movie so far: Juno

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Women's library II

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OK, next step. These are the books from the man's list that I'd put on the woman's list as well:

1. The Republic by Plato
2. Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
4. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
6. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
7. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
8. The Politics by Aristotle
9. Hamlet by Shakespeare
10. A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway
11. The Stranger by Albert Camus
12. The Bible
13. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Broadly, these are a collection of books that I'd identify as being about human nature, the roots of human governance, and morality, and I'd think they would have a place on an essential reading list regardless of gender.

I'm sure there are a couple from that other list that I've left out that I shouldn't have. Readers? Any books on the previous list you'd like to argue for including on our 100 must-reads for women?

(Incidentally, looking over this list, I have read all or most of 12/13 of these books. Can you guess which one I've never cracked?)

8 Comments

I'm guessing you never read "The Divine Comedy"

Will you tell?

The Brothers K?

A Farewell to Arms.


I imagine you'd have held the gun for Hemingway out of ladylike politeness.

Please do tell which you haven't read.

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Woman's library?

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My friend Jenny sent me a link a few days ago to this blog post, "100 Must-Read Books: The Essential Man's Library." Challengingly, she wrote, "care to try a female version?"

Oh do I.

But, to begin, let's have a look the books that post lists as "the top 100 books that have shaped the lives of individual men while also helping define broader cultural ideas of what it means to be a man."

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
1984 by George Orwell
The Republic by Plato
Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Call of the Wild by Jack London
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Master and Margarita by by Mikhail Bulgakov
Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins
White Noise by Don Delillo
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Young Man's Guide by William Alcott
Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond by Denis Johnson
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse
The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry by Christine De Pizan
The Art of Warfare by Sun Tzu
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
The Rough Riders by Theodore Roosevelt
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Politics by Aristotle
First Edition of the The Boy Scout Handbook
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
The Crisis by Winston Churchill
The Naked and The Dead by Norman Mailer
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Beyond Good and Evil by Freidrich Nietzsche
The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Essential Manners for Men by Peter Post
Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly
Hamlet by Shakespeare
The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe
The Pearl by John Steinbeck
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
American Boys' Handy Book
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
A River Runs Through It by Norman F. Maclean
The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
Malcolm X: The Autobiography
Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
All Quiet on The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarq
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by Plutarch
The Strenuous Life by Theodore Roosevelt
The Bible
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The Histories by Herodotus
From Here to Eternity by James Jones
The Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

First, to be clear, I have not read all of these books (as I am not man enough). By my count, I've read 40 of them, seen the film versions of four more, and have at least a passing knowledge of about half of the remainder. Maybe that makes me like half man? Anyway, my confessed ignorance aside, some thoughts:

1. Of the 100 books on this list, 3 are written by women, and one of those women is Ayn Rand. Seriously.
2. This particularly disturbing because in reality, most of these books aren't about "being a man," they are about being a human being. This will become clear when you see how much duplication there is between this list and my list of must-reads for women.
3. Could this list possibly be any less original? Or repeat itself any more? There really are writers other than Steinbeck, Vonnegut, Joyce, and Dostoevsky.
4. The obsession with Teddy Roosevelt freaks me out.
5. Some of these have to be a joke. The Dangerous Book for Boys? Essential Manners for Men?

So yeah, basically, I think there are a few keepers on this list that everyone should read, and maybe a few I really don't understand since I am not sufficiently manly, but mainly, it sucks.

Can I do better? Stay tuned to find out...

2 Comments

Care for suggestions? I'd love to help.

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Unread book meme

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From the Noble Savage.

Below is a list of the top 106 books tagged "unread" on LibraryThing. The rules:
bold = what you've read,
italics = books you started but couldn't finish
crossed out = books you hated
* = you've read more than once
underline = books you own but haven't read yourself

1. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
3. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
4. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
6. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
7. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
8. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
9. The Odyssey by Homer
10. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
11. Ulysses by James Joyce
12. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
13. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
14. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
15. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
16. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
17. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
18. The Iliad by Homer
19. Emma by Jane Austen
20. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
21. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
22. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
23. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
24. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
25. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
26. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
27. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
28. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
29. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
30. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
31. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
32. Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
33. Dracula by Bram Stoker
34. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck*
35. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
36. Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
37. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
38. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
39. Middlemarch by George Eliot
40. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
41. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
42. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
43. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner*
44. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
45. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
46. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
47. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
48. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver*
49. Wicked by Gregory Maguire
50. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
51. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
52. Dune by Frank Herbert
53. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
54. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
55. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
56. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
57. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
58. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
59. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
60. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
61. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
62. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess*
63. Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
64. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
65. Persuasion by Jane Austen
66. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey*
67. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
68. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
69. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
70. The Once and Future King by T.H. White
71. Atonement by Ian McEwan
72. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
73. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
74. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
75. Dubliners by James Joyce
76. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
77. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
78. Beloved by Toni Morrison*
79. Collapse by Jared Diamond
80. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
81. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
82. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
83. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
84. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
85. Watership Down by Richard Adams
86. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
87. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
88. Beowulf by Anonymous
89. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
90. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
91. The Aeneid by Virgil
92. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
93. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
94. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
95. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
96. Possession by A.S. Byatt
97. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
98. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
99. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
100. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
101. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
102. Candide, or Optimism by Voltaire
103. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
104. The Plague by Albert Camus
105. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
106. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

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Active watching: TV as text (Undead TV)

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undead tvA bit back, I wrote this entry sticking up for TV. I argued that TV is a morally-neutral medium like any other, and it is how you interact with it, what you choose to watch and how actively you watch it, that makes watching it better or worse than any other use of your leisure time. I have been thinking more about that since I wrote it, and last night I came across something in a book that I thought spoke to my point very well.

In Undead TV: Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer there is an essay by Mary Celeste Kearney (a faculty member right here at UT!) about Sarah Michelle Gellar as a teen "cross-over" star and what that means in the late 90s, when the teen market demographic is huge and when a star's presence is not limited to television or movies, but television and movies and the Internet (and music and video games and...). In the essay, Kearney mentions that when the WB started showing Dawson's Creek, they also opened up an online space where viewers were encouraged to go after each episode and fill out private or public diaries about how they felt about the episode, their thoughts, etc. Folks, in my liberal arts education, we called that a reading journal. You know, to encourage active reading? Sure, 90% of those Dawson diaries were probably full of comments like "Dawson iz so hawt! OMG!" but just the fact that kids were logging on and writing anything is a start. After all, do you really think there is nobody who was hooked on Pride & Prejudice because they had Darcy-lust? Come on.

The Dawson diaries are just one example of how the Internet can and has encouraged active participation with television texts. Show based chat rooms, of which there are a surprisingly huge number, are another way people watch shows and then think and write about them (active participation). So are sites like Television Without Pity--reviewing something requires interaction with it. And fan fiction..rewriting the text, using its characters to write new stories, filling in the blanks you don't see--what is that if not active participation?

As I think back, I realize that I was expressly taught, early on, to be an "active" reader. Even before I could read myself, my mom read to me, and she didn't just read to me, or even just read to me and then discuss it with me. She'd read me a chapter (I remember the Little House books as the most clear example of this), then tell me to go act it out, or to act out the part that didn't happen in the book. Sometimes she prompted ("how would this have gone if Laura had made a different decision?") and sometimes by the time the chapter ended I had my own ideas. This became my favorite part of the whole exercise. Later, when I grew out of my sun bonnet phase, I was less likely to act out the parts left out of books and more likely to write them out. There wasn't really a name for it then, at least not one that I knew. Now I'd call it fan fiction. And I'd give it credit for my being able to string words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. How was this childhood interaction with books any different than what is happening all over the Internet around TV shows?

2 Comments

Not that I've ever read any, but why is it that "fanfic" is so roundly abused?


I mean, I know it's nerdy - supremely nerdy - but it seems like the people who hate fanfic are already kind of nerdy and shouldn't be throwing stones.

Are you defending fanfic, and if so, am I allowed to laugh at you?

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Little House

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As I mentioned, I am re-reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. The idea to do so came to me a while ago. One of the places I hang out online is a very popular "natural parenting" board. I stumbled upon a conversation about these books there one day, and was surprised to read that many of the folks there wouldn't read these to their kids or let their kids read them, due to their "racism" and "violence." These were my absolute favorite as a small child (my mom read them to me, then I read them myself when I was old enough, and I always play-acted my favorite scenes), so I was really surprised. However, what you see as an adult and what you remember from childhood are different things.

Then along came a full, new set at the Goodwill, for just two bucks. I couldn't resist. Then came sickness, and that always makes me want to read kids books.

And now I am most of the way through The Banks of Plum Creek (though I admit I skipped Farmer Boy--who wants to read a book about a boy?). Though I am not yet finished, I would definitely let my kid read these books.

Are they racist? Yep. The phrase "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" is repeated more than once in Little House on the Prairie. However, given the context (settlers in Kansas in the 1870s), historical accuracy seems to fall on the side of racism. And in general the Indians in the book are portrayed as some good, some bad, just like people in general. They are definitely seen as a different "species," as was the common thought at the time, but the actual hatred is kept to a minimum. As for African American characters, the only one that has surfaced so far is the Black doctor who saved the Ingalls' from all dying when they had malaria.

And violent? I'm not really sure what that means in this context. Perhaps that the kids get spanked ("whipped")? Well, again, look at the norms for the time. Or that they hunt and kill animals, and do things like play kickball with an inflated pig's bladder? Frankly, if that bothers you so much, your position of privilege is such that I'm going to have a hard time taking your problems with these books very seriously. Subsistence farmers/hunters in the 19th century, folks--they're not likely to be vegetarians. And they have to take their toys where they get them, too.

I'm really enjoying reading them, and given the amount of perspective they are giving me on things like overconsumption as an adult, I'd think they must have done me good as a poor rural kid.

There are definitely things that are sticking out, though, that I hadn't noticed previously. For one thing, what is up with Pa? He always seemed like such a pleasant character when I was little (and I was getting that from the books, too--I wasn't watching Michael Landon on TV), but he kind of creeps me out now. Why can't he stay in one place for more than a year? What kind of a father takes his wife and three little girls out of their safe and comfortable house in the Big Woods (first book) and drags them across the country in a covered wagon just because Wisconsin is "getting too crowded"? Seems strange. I wonder if there is a historical account of all of this, and how it differs from Laura's idealized memories?

So, my feeling of outrage at having such a pillar of my childhood maligned remains.

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I've read the series to John and am working on it with Maia. I love rereading them as an adult and seeing the stories behind the stories -- what Ma must have been going through, what the hell Pa's deal was, etc.

The reason you're missing the violence is because you've skipped Farmer Boy. The story opens with the children walking to school, worried about when the "big boys" (16-year-olds) are going to come and thrash the teacher to break up the school; the last teacher they thrashed died.

And I read that one to the kids, too.

Farmer Boy is actually very interesting to read because Almanzo came from a rich farmer's family. He had a very different upbringing than Laura.

Everyone remembers the popcorn and milk part. And then everyone tries it!

re: racism - there's also an actual minstrel show, complete with blackface, in one of the later books.

As to why Pa was always moving around, I think it's pretty clear from the text - they had a run of serious bad luck with farming. Farming in Wisconsin was tough- all the trees, and when the woods get crowded it means less hunting and trapping, which they seem to depend on. They get booted out of Kansas, and on Plum Creek they build their house on borrowed money, then lose the wheat crop to the grasshoppers. They stay on the first farm where disaster doesn't occur within the first few years.

I recently reread these also, and then picked up a couple of adult biographies of Laura, which give a lot more context.

My students love them - they get excerpted in a lot of textbooks and the kids almost always end up checking the full book out of the library.

I haven't reread one in awhile. Perhaps that might be a good project, though I don't think our library has all of them.

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Bored

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You'd think, with as often as I am sick and as much of my life as I've spent sick, I'd have it down. But I don't. I'm so bored. My head is killing me, such that very much TV or reading is a problem. I hate crosswords and Suduko and all that. I simply cannot sleep any more right now. I'm too tired to do anything that requires standing up. I paid some bills today, and though that felt like a huge victory, it was exhausting.

Perhaps I really should take up embroidery.

A couple of weeks ago, on a whim, I bought a set of Little House books at the GW for $2. I just read Little House in the Big Woods while taking a bath. What do you bet I'll be all the way up through The First Four Years before I ever start being able to breathe out of my nose or taste food again?

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I am sorry you are ill. We are all on the other side of strep and I'm grateful to be here. I hope you get back to healthy very soon!

Hey, i just reread those. They go so fast, getting through the series is a short time, really. (Not to make light of the misery that is flu - feel better).

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family silver book coverI just finished The Family Silver: A Memoir of Depression and Inheritance by Sharon O'Brien. It's very, very good.

The book is partially O'Brien's memoir, partially a memoir of the last three generations of her Irish-American family, and partially a book about depression, both in general and O'Brien and her family's specific experiences. This medley of subjects work perfectly. O'Brien ties her own depression not only to her upbringing, but to genetic inheritance, and makes a strong case for these things being intertwined. She moves back and forth between herself, each of her parents, her siblings, and her more distant relatives, as well as moving geographically between Ireland and several towns in Massachusetts and update New York, weaving a seamless tale that is both enlightening and heartbreaking.

Sharon O'Brien is a professor of English, specializing in Willa Cather (about whom she wrote a biography I am now anxious to read). She's suffered from depression and anxiety since childhood, as do her parents and as did their parents. O'Brien, however, has the distinction of being a member of a generation that has begun to recognize depression as an illness that can be (at least in most cases) treated, rather than a personality problem. Because of this, she's able to distance herself from her depression enough to write about it, and to look back at the history of depression in her family as well. O'Brien also has the distinction of not being self-hating due to her depression, or feeling too guilty for having the help she's had when her relatives (including and especially her father) did not. And her book is much better because of it.

In general, I am not crazy about the way people write about depression. Their experience does not correspond with mine enough for me to feel solidarity, and then I feel guilty for thinking they are whining, or for not being as sick as they are. O'Brien, however, tells her story in a way I can relate to, and tempers her personal depression anecdotes with a fascinating family history, which makes the whole thing go down much easier.

I'd highly recommend this book to those who are depressed, have been depressed, have depressed family members, or are just interested in Irish-American family life in early 20th century to mid-century America. Or just those who dig a well-written memoir.

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Baby Catcher

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Baby Catcher book coverI read Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife by Peggy Vincent this weekend. I felt crappy all weekend, unable to even concentrate on TV, headachy, allergy-ridden, and wanting to nap, and I still read the entire book without even considering that I could be doing something else. That's how compelling it is.

Vincent's story starts with one of the first births she attends, in 1962, as a nursing student at Duke. She spends several hours with a young black woman who wants to give birth without drugs (uncommon in 1962) and who has had two previous children at home, attended by her grandmother (also uncommon). Though the woman's labor is unlike the others Vincent has seen (she makes a lot of noise, sings, yells, and walks around), she can see it is working and tries to keep the other hospital staff from noticing so drugs won't be forced on the laboring woman. Of course, since Vincent is a mere student and the woman is poor and black, a doctor eventually forces her into what sounds like twilight sleep, but the experience changes Vincent forever.

The book goes on to trace, mostly through anecdotes of specific births she attends, Vincent's graduation from nursing school and move to Berkeley, her ten years as an L&D nurse in a hospital and role in starting the first in-hospital alternative birth center in the area, her enrollment in and graduation from midwifery school in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and her twelve years as a midwife in private practice, doing both home and hospital births, throughout the 80s and early 90s. The stories are not 100% happy, but most of them are, and they provide a very clear picture of how variable birth can be.

The book takes an unexpected (to me) unpleasant turn about three-quarters of the way through, when Vincent is sued by a client and even though there is clearly no wrong-doing on her part, her insurance company forces her to settle. And then her insurance company drops her. Without insurance, Vincent can't do the type of private practice midwifery she's become accustomed to and is forced to take a staff midwife position with an HMO, which she refers to as a birthing factory. At the book's end, Vincent is still working at the HMO three days a week and doing a couple of uninsured home births a month, mostly for women with whom she has already worked.

For the most part, Vincent keeps her book personal, talking about her own experience more than national birthing trends. However, her political agenda, one focused on woman-centered home births, is clear. It is not long after Vincent loses her insurance coverage that insurance becomes widely unavailable to all independent nurse midwives, effectively putting them out of business. The 80s, Vincent writes, was the heyday for U.S. home births, and the 90s was a big backlash.

The book is quick, easy read, but also provides compelling evidence of Vincent's political position with regard to birthing without beating the reader over the head. I'd highly recommend it to anyone interested in birth history in the U.S. or alternative births, or anybody interested in birth in general, just for the great stories Vincent tells.

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I luuuuuuuurve this book. Glad you do too!

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2007: The Year in Books

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Inspired by my friend Jenny and her bibliophile record keeping, I give you my 2007 book round-up.

In 2007, I read a total of 75 books. I didn't finish 10 of them (13%) and am still reading 2 of them (3%). 29 of the 75 (39%) were audio books. 23 were fiction (31%), 52 (69%) were non-fiction.

And, following Jenny's lead:
Biggest surprise: Sarah Vowell
Biggest letdown: The Emperor's Children, Sellevision
Favorites: Skin, Above Us Only Sky
Most Overrated: The History of Love, The Emperor's Children
Books I could not finish this year included:
Two carry overs: The Traveling Death & Resurrection Show and The Worst Hard Time
A few that I should have finished but didn't: Jo Freeman's book about the 60s, the Daughters of Bilitis book

Now, if someone can suggest something like Goodreads but for movies, I'll be set...

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http://allconsuming.net/ ?

I have been staying away from Sellovision...

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On Beauty

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on beauty book coverDoes it ever happen to you that something is recommended to you very highly and then you finally read or watch it and it sucks so very much that you think maybe you made a mistake and got the wrong thing? Well, that's what happened to me with Zadie Smith's On Beauty. Over and over people told me how great this book was and how much I would love it. And then I suffered through reading (well, listening to, actually) the whole damn thing, and it never got any good at all.

The first and most pressing problem with On Beauty is that I had no sympathy for any of the characters, save Kiki, and got very little insight into her. The major character, Howard, is a repulsive human being. And I get that he's supposed to be, and that the book seeks to expose liberal academics as racists and narcissists, but good Lord it's hard to keep at a book where you hate everybody! Howard is only slightly worse than any of his three children, who also play large roles in the story. It's not even that I hate them so much as just don't care about them in the least. If you don't care about the characters, it's hard to care what happens to them.

And, in On Beauty, nothing much does happen to them. The book is so impressed with itself that it actually goes into extensive detail of a university faculty meeting. There is nothing in the world that could make me want to sit through one of those meetings, much less read a book about sitting through one of them. The characters talk endlessly at each other, and we're treated to even more of their inane internal monologue, but there is no real action. There is one death, which takes place off-screen, as it were. There is some totally meaningless travel, in order to facilitate more talking. There are a couple of arguments and a couple of sex scenes. That's about it.

This is a long, boring, trite, self-impressed book. It's just bad. Don't read. Whoever told you you'd like it was has no clue about your literary taste.

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Hear, hear. HATED it. Hated all the characters. Hated the lack of plot, the bad dialog - I finished it too, out of sheer perversity, I suppose.

I hated this as well. I only got about a quarter of the way through, I couldn't figure out why it had received so much praise. Go figure.

Also not a fan. I loved White Teeth, so I was really looking forward to this. I finished it because I kept waiting for it to get good and I have a bad habit of hating most books for the first 100 pages or so, but it never went much of anywhere.

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Cavedweller

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cavedweller book cover(The image is of the cover of the paperback Cavedweller. It shows a black and white picture of a small house overlooking a field of caves, with the title above it on a red banner.)

I've told you before how much I love and admire Dorothy Allison. Both her non-fiction work (Skin, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure) and her fiction (Trash, Bastard out of Carolina) is extremely impressive on an intellectual level, as well as deeply moving on a gut level. So I expected no less from Cavedweller, her second novel. And I'm sure it is only because I went in to reading it with such very high expectations that it was disappointing.

Cavedweller is a very good book. It's just not as good a book as Allison's other books.

The story, which follows the childhood of Cissy, who moves at a young age from Los Angeles to Cayro, Georgia with her mother, Delia, a recovering alcoholic and faded second-tier rock singer, doesn't hurt the way Bone's story in Bastard out of Carolina does. Though you are alternately in love with and pissed off by Delia, she doesn't spark the kind of pity and fury Bone's mother, Anney, does. Like in Bastard, the women in Cavedweller are strong and hard and more than a little bit crazy, and then men, both good and bad, are a little bit weak and simple. There is more room for forgiveness for that weakness and simplicity in Cavedweller, though, which may speak to Allison's greater maturity when she wrote it. The moral universe is not quite so black and white. But what it loses in clarity also makes it less compelling.

Bastard out of Carolina, is, to my mind, the kind of novel that someone writes only once. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, it is the novel that takes the other novels out of you. Given that, I think it was brave of Allison to write Cavedweller at all. Still, it's a sophomore novel, and it reads like one (albeit a particularly good one). Farther, probably, from Allison's personal essays than any of her other fiction, it loses something as it moves away from her. The characters in it that seem the most familiar (the wild and pained Dede in particular) are the strongest elements.

Should you read Cavedweller? Absolutely. You should just read all of Allison's other work first.

1 Comments

Yeah, I didn't like Cavedweller at all.

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#62 Hit the stacks.

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In this suggestion, Maggie directed me to LibraryThing, where, if one is so inclined, one can catalog and categorize one's books, as well as getting suggestions based on what you have, writing reviews, etc. Even I am not up to the level of time-wasting it would take to add every book I own, but I did add all of those I have read in the past year, with the intention of keeping it up as I read. My bookshelf is here. I like this more than my previous way of tracking my reading, if only because I don't have to alphabetize it myself. Now if I could just find a way to keep a "to-read" list on it, I'd be all set.

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Library Thing is fun, but I like Goodreads.com more. I'm addicted.

Oh, that is cooler! I'm totally using that now.

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Can I Sit With You?

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Big big news!!!

Can I Sit With You? is a book! For sale! In time for Christmas!

Got a kid in your life who could use some empathy about his/her social situation? BUY THIS BOOK. It's good stuff. For a good cause.

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Operation Paperback

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As I mentioned last year, it has for a few years now been my Thanksgiving time custom to send a care package or two to enlisted folks via anysoldier.com. I was about to head on over there to get some lists to fill this year, but then heard about a different project, Operation Paperback. Operation Paperback is a troops-supporting endeavor as well, but it is specifically to send gently used books to soldiers living abroad. I can definitely appreciate why books would be a great comfort when you're so far away from home, as well as being a source of entertainment (my understanding is that extreme boredom is one of the biggest problems for soldiers) so I'm going to do that this year instead.

I know I've said this before, but I in no way equate wanting to make this season a little bit brighter for those people who are unfortunate to be stuck on the ground in this stupid fucking war with supporting it. I can both be intensively, obsessively against them being there and want to make being there as easy for them as possible. And, if you are so inclined, so can you.

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how sassy changed my life book cover

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was a Sassy girl. Though I was a wee bit young for the demographic, being only nine or ten when the magazine started publishing and sixteen or so when it stopped, I loved my every issue of Sassy. It spoke to me. It taught me. It understood my freaky teen aged self.

And, according to Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer, authors of How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time, I was very much not alone. They posit that there are a whole nation of us Sassy girls, including luminaries like Bitch founders Andi Zeisler and Lisa Jervis and Bust creator Debbie Stoller, all of whom credit Sassy as a major influence in their work. And the book, as much as being about Sassy, is about us.

As fair warning, this book is not an intellectual criticism of Sassy or the articles that ran in it. While there is certainly history here (Jesella and Meltzer talked to nearly everyone ever involved with the magazine), there is also a fair amount of nostalgia. And near hero-worship of Sassy's staff, particularly the indomitable Christina Kelly, who served first as Sassy's entertainment editor and then eventually as the managing editor. But the book never claims to be impartial--it says right in the title that it's a love letter--so I think that's OK.

Reading the book got me back into thinking about Sassy, and about how different it was to be a girl outside the mainstream in the late 80s and early 90s compared to now. Before Sassy, and the time period that spurred it (grunge and riot grrrl music, the advent of Generation X, etc.) there had for many years been very little commoditization of being "alternative", especially for girls. Sassy was, the book claims (and I agree), integral to making it hip to be weird by the mid-90s. And although that has certainly turned back on itself by now (emo?), I still think it was culturally positive. It certainly made it easier to be me going through high school.

When I did my undergrad thesis research on Ms. magazine in the 1970s, I was astounded at how much difference a magazine can make, especially to people in the middle of the country and outside cities, and especially before we all had the Internet to easily connect us to like-minded souls all over the place. Reading this book's account of Sassy readers, and remembering my own relationship with the magazine, I got the same feeling. Its major purpose wasn't entertaining me, or educating me, or introducing me to the cool new stuff, it was helping me realize that I wasn't alone.

Now that the Internet serves that purpose for many teens, I wonder if the heyday of magazines is really over? The book implies that it is, pointing out that the 90s zine revolution has been nearly completely replaced by blogs. Stupid as it may be, I'd never made this connection, but I think it's astute. And, again as the book points out, blogs are far more accessible to your average small town girl than zines, which had to be ordered through the postal service if you didn't have a hip local bookstore or coffee shop (which I certainly didn't). Which is good. But I still feel a pretty big pang of sadness to think of girls now not having the monthly mail thrill I got when my Sassy came.

So, if you are a teen magazine scholar of some sort, this book is probably going to bug you. However, if you're a nostalgic Sassy girl like me, you'll enjoy it. It's a quick easy read and gives a bit of behind-the-scenes dirt that is still exciting after all these years. And it will really make you wish you'd kept all those magazines, because you'll want to read them again and they are really expensive on Ebay.

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Objects of my unexpected significance

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Yesterday, Jenny of Triumphantly Jenny posted a brief review of the book Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance, Basically, the book is photographs of objects that artists/literati/etc. give significance to and short essays about why. An interesting idea for a book, I think, and an even better one for blog fodder. So I went around my house last night and looked for significant objects to photograph. In doing so, I learned that there are very few objects that have a lot of significance to me--mostly objects are just objects--and those that are significant are generally representative of larger concepts. But anyway, I'll post a few over the the next few days.

living room bookshelves full of books

The first object I chose is actually objects. It's the built-in bookshelf in my living room. The value of this object is both literal and representative. It's representative of my need to horde books, and my love of organizing things. Literally, it houses some of my favorite books, which are objects I do treasure, as well as some pottery I like a lot, made by the potter in my home town, and some photographs I cherish (photos are definitely among my most valued objects). And, of course, it holds the urn with Chance's ashes.

Plus, if you've never been to my house, isn't it fun to look at the picture and feel like you are looking through my stuff? I did no touching up or reorganizing for this photo, just snapped the bookshelves as they are, in all of their cluttered glory.

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You have rainbow books too!

Do you organize books by color on purpose, or did it turn out that way? (It looks cool, BTW.)

It's on purpose--I saw it in a magazine and thought it looked cool. Mark keeps messing up the cookbooks (lefthand side) though.

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Finn

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Finn coverI usually have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to fiction. In television and movies, I can handle most anything and am not really bothered by violence, gore, or abuse. Because I don't see pictures when I read, this is even more the case with books than with visual media--give me the nasty stuff, I can take it.

Jon Cinch's Finn, however, bothered me. The book is not supremely graphic in its gore, but it does contain multiple murders, one of which includes body dismemberment, and the sexual abuse of both an adult and a child, and something about how these scenes were written stayed with me. So before I say anything else, take that to heart--it's violent, and the violence, for whatever reason, stuck with even my hardened heart.

That being said, it's a hell of a book.

The task Cinch sets for himself is not an easy one. While remaining true to events and characters portrayed in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Cinch tells the story of Huck's ne'er do well alcoholic father, "Pap" Finn (who even in Cinch's book is never given a first name). Moving back and forth in time, Cinch weaves the threads of Finn's strange and horrific childhood, his early relationship with Mary, Huck's escaped/stolen slave mother, his loss of Huck to the Widow Douglas, Mary's murder, and eventually Finn's own untimely death.

It has been a long time (two decades, perhaps) since I've read Twain's books, so I don't remember all of the details surrounding Pap Finn, but it seems that Cinch works into his narrative explanations for things that go unexplained in Twain's own work, such as the discovery of Pap Finn's body in a whitewashed room with walls covered in bizarre charcoal drawings (these drawings are done by Finn himself as he descends into madness after murdering Mary). What he does not try to do, however, is take on Twain's tone (as Alexandria Ripley did--poorly--in her less successful Gone With the Wind sequel, Scarlett). Perhaps because he doesn't spend much time trying to write the same characters on which Twain focused (Huck in particular), Cinch has no need to imitate Twain's style of writing, and I think the book is better for it.

Cinch writes Pap Finn to be as bigoted, mean, and drunk as Twain's supporting character, but fleshes him out in his own voice, making him a real character with a past and reasons for his horrible actions, rather than just a foil for Huck. This (albeit limited) sympathy for Finn, as well as Cinch's original characters, is the strength of the novel. The places where Cinch overlaps with Twain (Judge Thatcher, Widow Douglas, etc.) are a bit weaker. It seems almost as if Cinch is too careful with these characters, perhaps afraid to upset Twain purists. Tellingly, Tom Sawyer doesn't appear at all, and most of Huck's appearances are at a younger age than when we first meet him in Twain.

Please do not think you'll love Finn if you loved Twain's books. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are children's characters, and though their adventures did get a little wild, and even a little political, their stories are nothing like Finn. Cinch's book is almost gothic, the cornerstones of its story are violence, alcoholism, and madness. There are no frolicking adventures here, and what humor there is has a very dark underbelly. Finn is every inch a contemporary adult novel, even if its basis is in children's literature from a previous century. However, it's a very good contemporary novel, and if read as such will likely stay with you in a way most contemporary novels don't. Cinch balances the horrific aspects of his story with just enough hope to keep your turning the pages, and at the end you are left feeling as if it was good that you read that, even if reading it was harder than you'd expected it to be. If you think you have the stomach for it, this is a book I would definitely recommend.

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The Birth House

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Birth House book coverby Ami McKay

I requested Ami McKay's The Birth House from the library at the recommendation of my friend Trudi, a Nova Scotian. The book takes place in Nova Scotia and is written by a Canadian radio journalist. Reportedly, McKay lives in a house that was formerly owned by a midwife, and her curiosity about and investigation into that woman's life led her to write the novel.

The Birth House takes place mostly during World War II (though it does travel back in time some and the final chapter takes place during World War II). It is the story of a shipbuilder's daughter, Dora Rare, who is taken under the wing of the town's Cajun midwife and taught her trade. The bulk of the book centers around the conflict between the new, hospital-driven male model of medical care for birthing women and the traditional, home and midwife-based female model, but it also branches into other conflicts between men and women, and the ways in which Dora and the rural women around her asserted their independence and agency. Issues including women's suffrage (in the U.S.), temperance, education, and spousal abuse are all addressed.

The book is a quick and interesting read (it took me two evenings). While it is probably not something I will go out of my way to force all of my friends to read, or read again, it is definitely worth reading and I enjoyed it very much.

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Have you ever read Midwives by Chris Bojalian? (Hopefully I spelled his name correctly!) I read Midwives as part of a women's studies class in college and loved it, but I love his book Trans-Sister Radio even more. It is amazing the way he writes female characters.

I have read "Midwives," and liked it very much. I have his older book, "Water Witches" at home to read as well, and I'll put "Tran-Sister Radio" on my list.

Water Witches is one of my favorite books.

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Babble

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I've been drinking a lot of coffee lately. Beer and coffee (not together--ick). I have been drinking less Pepsi, and these are the super-healthy replacements I've found. Anyway, my increase in coffee consumption seems to have precipitated an increase in thoughts. Really. I am just having more thoughts. I know this because many more times a day than I am accustomed to I am stopping and saying to myself, "I should blog about that." That's how I know I have a thought--I consider blogging about it. (And does Grace think if there is nowhere to write it down? Probably not.)

Anyway, since I have all these thoughts, and I have this blog, and I still have a little bit of coffee left in my thermos...

I'm not a huge worrier in general. I don't stay up at night worrying about war, or global warming, or my increase in gray hair, or anything. But there is one thing that keeps me up at night sometimes. Books. I am horrified by the fact that there is no way for me to read all the books. I feel like I got started so late, and they just keep making more of them! Even if nobody ever wrote another book starting now, I still wouldn't make it through all the interesting ones before I died. It's my number one reason for wanting to become an immortal, actually--then I'd have a possibility of reading all the books.

Nights spend on this particular worry are generally preceded by evenings spent at in the Goodwill book section (like, oh, last evening). I never come home with fewer than 5 new paperbacks, and I never read more than 2 of them. But I have the very best intentions. Especially with novels. I have hundreds of novels to read. Some of them are on my book list, but most of them are not. They are just sitting there, taunting me while I page slowly through yet another social history and feel myself running out of time.

If I start to consider the huge wholes in my canonical reading, and how much I've forgotten of the canonical books I have read (Plato is so vague to me...there was a cave, right?), it gets even more depressing. I took a lit course in college called "Narrative and the New American," which was all focused on books written by/about first-generation Americans. The professor had a habit of recalling other works in our discussions of the books were reading, in such a way that assumed we were familiar with them. He did it so much that by the end of the semester I filled both sides of several sheets of paper making a list of all the books, stories, and plays he'd mentioned. I swore then that some day I'd be that well-read, to be able to make casual connections between whatever I was reading and hundreds or thousands of other things I'd read previously. I'm so not there.

Another thing I've been thinking about is whether or not there would be any market for a guide on how to thrift shop successfully and how such a thing would be best written. It's something I'd love to do, in a real, committed way and not just a half-assed rambling way.

I've also been thinking about what I want to do next. I'm pretty content in my present job, but it's not something I want to do forever. I've been saying I want to go back to school and get that Ph.D. in history that I decided not to get because it was too self-indulgent a few years back. Seems backwards--shouldn't I be less self-indulgent now? Then I think about going into some actual writing program, since I am the world's least disciplined writer. But they'd probably make me write fiction or something, which I don't want to do. Then again, is there really room in the world for yet another personal essayist? Especially one who doesn't have any particular niche about which to essay and isn't all that funny? Probably not.

There are lots of other things I've been thinking and wanting to blog about too, but since I didn't write them down when I thought them, they don't exist anymore. Must be time for more coffee.

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Why not post your guide to thrifting here (in pieces)? I'd be interested!

What is it with the beer? I'm drinking a lot of it right now, too, which is totally unlike me.

I think.

1. Thrift guide on the blog...hmmm...I will take that idea under consideration.

2. The beer. For me, I think it's because I was just home, and the part of the country where I'm from makes damn good beer, so I drank a lot of it there, and then I came back and discovered a pretty kick-ass local brewery, about which I am all excited. Also? Football season.

i would love to collaborate with you on the thrifting guide...it's something i've been pondering as well.

and now you've made me want more coffee...

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The Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays

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The Merry Recluse Book CoverBy the time I was introduced to Caroline Knapp's work in 2005, she had already been dead for several years. When I learned this, after reading and being astonished by her book, Pack of Two, I was heartbroken. I went on to read her other books, Drinking: A Love Story and Appetites: Why Women Want and found myself very sad that I couldn't read the newspaper column she refers to writing or any of her magazine articles.

The Merry Recluse fixes that problem, at least to some extent. Published several years after Knapp's death, the book is a collection of some of her most notable essays from her time at the Boston Phoenix and her magazine writing. For the most part, the subject matter is the same as that found in her books--her alcoholism, her anorexia, her relationship with her family, her relationship with her dog. One thing the essays get at that the books didn't as much, though, is Knapp's decision to live alone and to be what she terms a "merry recluse"--a person who is content and even happy with her solitude.

One of the reasons I was more impressed with Pack of Two than with Knapp's other books was that I had previously read intelligent discussions of alcoholism and anorexia, but I'd never read anything that took relationships with dogs so seriously or talked about them in such an intelligent way as Knapp does in Pack of Two. While reading the essays in The Merry Recluse that dealt with Knapp's living alone and being "reclusive," I felt the same way. The human need to be alone, and the desire of some of us to be alone much or most of the time, isn't something I've seen much discussion of anywhere, and Knapp discusses it with both humor and gravitas.

For someone who has not read Knapp's other books, reading some of the essays in The Merry Recluse is definitely a quick way to tell you if you'd enjoy her longer stuff or not, and which of her books you should start with. For me, most of it was not new, but it was still great to "hear" her voice again. Caroline, you are missed.

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Online lists? What could be better?

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Yesterday, as I was whining about not having any place online to store a running list of books I want to read, I decided to try and find something. Everything exists online, so why not a list tool? Well, I didn't have to look very hard before I found Ta-da Lists, which is exactly what I'd been looking for. It's free, simple to use, and allows me to make multiple lists, which can be either public or private. Perfect!

My Books to Read list is here (also down on the sidebar). Check it out and tell me what needs to be added?

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Ooh, have you checked out goodreads.com? I'm addicted to it, you can make lists of books you've read and rate them, put them in categories, and make a "to read" shelf. As well as see what other people are reading and review books.

I

There's also a Facebook ap that helps you keep track of books. I put stuff on my amazn wish list. Also, Shelfari and Allconsuming.net....

TMI!

Oh also, librarything

Oh my, so many choices...why didn't I know about these before? I LOVE LISTS!

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Thanks for your kids

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Last night, I started reading The Merry Recluse, a posthumously published book of essays by an writer I really admire, Caroline Knapp. Knapp was not married and never had children (she died very young, in her mid-40s I think, of cancer). A couple of the essays in the book are about her decision not to have children and the importance of other people's children in her life. Knapp is clear that just because she has no particular desire to have children of her own does not mean that she doesn't like kids, or that she doesn't want to spend time with them. Quite the opposite, actually. She dotes on a niece and nephew in one essay and another niece in another essay, and even credits the relationship she wants to have with her niece as being a primary reason for her decision to stop drinking. The children in her life are clearly very important to her.

And they are to me, too.

Even if I decide once and for all that I do not want my own kids (which seems like about a 50-50 bet at this point), I can't imagine not being very happy to have kids in my life. With me, it's less my actual nieces, who are both too old to want to hang out with me and very far away, and more the children of my friends. Here in Austin, pretty much all of my friends have kids now, and I'm really happy about that. I like hanging out with them and with their kids. They have enriched my life by bringing their kids into it, and allowing me time to spend with them. I appreciate that.

Two of my best friends and their daughter moved away a bit less than a year ago. I miss all three of them terribly, but honestly, I think I miss the little girl the most. This isn't because I love her any more than I love her parents, but rather because I know from experience that her parents, as adults, will likely be very similar the next time I see them to what they were the last time I saw them. She, however, won't. She's quickly moved from a toddler to a little girl, and she'll be a pretty big girl by the next time I see her. She's been potty trained, started school, and I can only imagine what else. And I haven't seen any of it. That causes some pretty big missing. It is also much harder to maintain a long-distance relationship with a child--she's not old enough to email, you know?

My point, such as it is, is just to express my gratitude to my friends and their children for allowing people like Caroline Knapp and me to enjoy and experience children in our lives without having them ourselves. I really appreciate it.

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I hear you. It's my nieces I miss the most, living overseas.

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Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature

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Skin book coverDorothy Allison published Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature in 1994, only a couple of years after her amazing first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina. I've read the novel probably three times, but for some reason it never occurred to me to look for further work by Allison. I guess I assumed that she, like Harper Lee, had probably given so much to write that amazing novel that she didn't have any writing left in her.

I was so wrong.

I got an inclination of this a couple of years ago when, on the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Allison's 1995 memoir, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure. Just as much as Allison's fiction, and in many of the same ways, her memoir was stunning, beautiful, mean, and hard to get through. I read it twice back-to-back. Then I didn't read anything else of Allison's.

Until this week, when, on a whim, I picked up Skin from the library. Collected and published a year before the memoir but spanning the decade or so before, the essays in Skin cover much of the same ground, but in a different way. In Skin, Allison reconciles her life and work as a feminist activist with both her radical sexuality (Allison is a lesbian who identifies herself as a "pervert" a "femme," and a masochist) and her Southern working class background. In the essays, she speaks passionately and honestly about two things most people can never be honest about: sex and money. She also talks a great deal about writing and what it means to her to be a writer as well as a working class Southern lesbian feminist.

Skin is one of the most seeringly honest and brave books I've ever read (and it is in the company of Allison's other work in that category). Allison is insistent that you absorb her truth when you read her books, face it head on and deal with it, and I admire that about her. When she speaks of her family and the poverty and pain in which she grew up, she paints her relatives neither as martyred deserving poor nor as indolent trash, but as people in often desperate situations doing what they could. It's rarely pretty and often heart wrenching, but it is real, and because it's so real, it is easy to recognize oneself in Allison's stories.

The more surprising thing about Skin, though, is not Allison's discussion of her childhood and class background, which is ground she covers in Bastard and in Two or Three Things, but her discussion of her sexuality. She not only speaks candidly of her own sexual preferences and needs, but is also honest about how alienated she was and is from many feminist and lesbian circles due to the way she expresses her sexuality. Allison is critical of "political lesbians" and of the way women repress their sexual desires in general. She writes not hesitantly but insistently about violent sex, sex toys, and pornography. She claims her sexuality, like her class, not as something at odds with her feminism, but integral to it. Reading it is a revelation.

Reading Skin took me from being a fan of Allison's work to being a convert to her brand o feminism. I plan to immediately read Trash, her first book of short stories (1988) and follow it with her most recent work, the novel Cavedweller (1998). Then I'll wait with baited breath for the release of her next novel. Reading Allison's work makes me not only want to live honestly, but to write honestly. I can't emphasize strongly enough what that's worth.

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Trash is amazing, I re-read it recently... I read her non-fiction, but it's been years and years. I'm going to put it on my to read list.

I love Allison, but really didn't like Cavedweller, though I've blocked out what my problem was with it, apparently, since I can't remember anything about it. I'll be interested to hear what you think, though.

You might also be interested in Jonis Agee's fiction--particularly .38 Special and a Broken Heart.

i picked up cavedweller a few years ago in a little used bookstore (in pullman, wa of all places), read the whole thing straight through, and have read it many times since. the writing is as clear and potent as in bastard, but the subject matter is less agonizing. it's actually become one of my favorite comfort books...

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Football and Ursula Le Guin

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First, about football. Both of my teams won on Saturday. Oregon's butt-stomping of much higher-ranked and more-respected Michigan was a particular cause for joy at my house. Today, the AP has Texas at No. 6 and Oregon at No. 19. From what I've seen so far, I think that is an over-ranking for Texas and an under-ranking for Oregon, but we'll see.

Left Hand of Darkness book coverIn other news, I read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness this weekend. No fewer than a dozen people have recommended Le Guin to me over the past few years, and a couple of people whose tastes I generally trust recommended to me recently that I start with this particular book, so I picked it up at the library last week. And...I don't get it. I read the whole book, but I probably would have put it down less than halfway through if it hadn't been so highly recommended. To me, it seemed unnecessarily opaque and kind of poorly written. I had very little empathy for the characters, particularly the protagonist, Genly Ai, and spent most of the time I was reading it hoping it would be over soon. While I found the concepts very cool, the execution just didn't do a thing for me. So now I'm not sure if I should give up on Le Guin completely or try another of her novels. I had so hoped she would be a new author I could really get into.

Not all recommendations are futile, though! Another friend recently suggested that I give Grace Potter and the Nocturnals a listen, and I am rawkin' out. As soon as I can justify buying more new CDs, their new one is going to be headed my way.


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I've always preferred her Earthsea series; I liked TLHOD, but it's a wee bit contrived with the gender stuff. If you want to give her another shot, I'd start with A Wizard of Earthsea.

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Book meme

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I am feeling both book-y and meme-y today, so I give you a book meme that I found...somewhere.

Total number of books owned:
I'm not sure, having never counted, but I'd say somewhere around 1,000, maybe? They rotate in and out.

Last book bought: I actually went to Book People with my friends on Monday and picked up three books, How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, and another one I can't remember the name of that is about the disappearance of rural communities.

Last book read: Well, I'm working on both Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and Dorothy Allison's Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature. The last book I read before those was Everything I Needed to Know about Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume.

Five Books that Mean a Lot to You:
This is a tough question for me, as I tend to read things and then forget them, even if I really loved them. I'm changing it to

Best Five Books You Read in the Last Year:
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year by Anne Lamott
The Stardust Lounge: Stories From a Boy's Adolescence by Deborah Digges
The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

I Tag:
Frog
Laurie
Jenny
Suebob

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DAMMIT!

Okay, this weekend, when my books are around me. :)

I will do this one, though I might have a hard time remembering...I tend to read and forget.

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Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules

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herculesaudio.jpgedited by David Sedaris
Simon & Schuster Ltd, August 1, 2005
Audiobook, abridged

As a big fan of David Sedaris, let me just say that I am very very glad he has not been able to better emulate his writing heroes. Because for a very talented storyteller, the man has appalling taste in stories.

Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules is a Sedaris-edited short story collection. Sedaris makes clear in the book's introduction that these are stories by authors he particularly loves, and that he aims to be as great as he thinks they are. Oh dear.

The version I listened to is abridged--quite abridged, actually. It only contains five of the 17 stories included in the print version. The first story, Patricia Highsmith's "Where the Door Is Always Open and the Welcome Mat Is Out" (read by Cherry Jones) is one of the dullest 45 minutes I have ever spent. A plodding account of a neurotic middle-aged woman preparing for a a visit from her judgmental sister, the story seems to be intended to be farcical, but it's just. not. funny. I ended up with no feeling for either of the two characters, no laughs, no thoughts, and mainly amazing relief when it was finally over.

On the other end of the book is "Cosmopolitan," by Akhil Sharma (read by the author), and it similarly dragged and irritated me. It's the story of a newly separated Indian-American man who falls in love with his neighbor, and again I felt nothing but distaste for the characters and there wasn't actually any plot with which to get involved. Bah.

The only high point of the audio collection was Mary-Louise Parker's reading of Amy Hempel's "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried." A brief interlude into the life of a young woman watching her best friend die, the story is well-written and completely heartbreaking, and Parker's reading is excellent (better, even, than the reading Sedaris himself does of a silly story about a substitute teacher, "Gryphon," by Charles Baxter).

I like David Sedaris. I like short stories, especially in audio format. I was really, really excited about this little collection. So it's difficult to admit how much it sucked, but it really, really did. The print version may well be better (though it really seems to me that short stories are meant to be read aloud), as it includes some stories I know are of higher quality, including "The Girl with the Blackened Eye" by Joyce Carol Oates and "Revelation" by Flannery O'Connor, as well as an afterward by Sarah Vowell. However, I was so put off by this sampling I probably won't pick it up to see.

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Thanks for the review on this one, I was thinking about getting it. I'll probably skip it now.

Charlie Baxter rocks, but I'm not particularly fond of that story, either.

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PSA: Paperbackswap.com

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Through murmurings on a message board, I recently discovered something so great I have to share it here: Paperbackswap.com. The premise is fairly simple--you join up, then list books you have (don't have to be paperbacks, can also be hardcovers or even audio) that are in good shape, but you want to get rid of. These books get listed on the site, and when someone wants one of them, the system emails you and lets you know. You send it to them them. When they get it, they log in and tell the system, and then you are issued a credit, which you can use to order another book from someone else. Simple enough. As a bonus, you get three credits when you list your first nine or more books, even before anybody requests any of them.

It's fantastic! Media mail shipping isn't expensive (usually $1.59 for a regular sized paperback), so you can fairly cheaply get rid of your old reading material and get new stuff. The selection is good, if not great. If you were a genre fiction or series reader (can you feel me judging you?), it would be really great--the site is full of Harlequin romances and those westernish Christianish series. But even if you're more like a me, a just-about-anything reader with a focus on Oprah's book club type novels (can I feel you judging me now?), there's a lot to choose from. Plus it has a feature where you can "wish list" books you are looking for, then if anyone adds them, the system gives you right of first refusal on them. Excellent.

Also, if you happen to have active readers for children (more young adult than little kids), I think it would be great to get them into it. The site is full of the type of kids' books I consumed like candy when between the ages of about 8 and 13. Babysitters Club, Lemony Snickett, Harry Potter, Judy Blume, Lois Lowry...it would be great for a kid to have an account all his/her own, to swap books via U.S. Mail with others like him/her all over the country. I would have LOVED that.

I don't think there is any bonus for signing up new members, so you don't have to tell 'em I sent you, but if you're a reader who isn't 100% library (I know, I know...), definitely check it out.

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Assassination Vacation

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assassination%20vacation.jpgby Sarah Vowell
Simon & Schuster, 2005

Sarah Vowell, will you marry me?

I liked The Partly Cloud Patriot, but I loved Assassination Vacation. Vowell's pilgrimage to sites associated with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley struck so many cords with me it is hard to know where to begin. First, I learned a ton. I knew a lot of what she mentioned about the Lincoln assassination (though by no means all of it), but really, does anybody know much about Garfield or McKinley? I knew McKinley's assassin was somehow associated with Emma Goldman, but that was about it. So the book is worth reading (or, in my case, listening to, because Vowell's story-telling style lends itself so well to audio book) just for the information it contains.

But it's so much more than that. It's also funny, and it's funny in a dorky way that I just adore. Vowell's ability to embrace her inner civics geek is commendable, especially for someone who was once a rock journalist. The fact that she is giddily interested in presidential assassinations and all manner of morbid and grotesque history is impressive, but what is more impressive is that she relishes this interest and is unapologetic about it. The story she tells connecting her Oneida tea pot to the Oneida cult/"intentional community" in upstate New York and then to Garfield's assassin is not only fascinating, it also seriously makes me want to marry her. Or at least be her best friend forever. I mean, who wouldn't love someone who could come out with that while pouring you a cup of tea?

It's not Vowell's relentless and uber-cute dorkiness that gets me the most, though, it's her honest devotion to and nearly spiritual belief in U.S. history, government, and myth. More than anything, the book made me want to take a trip to Washington D.C., to see if I'm as mesmerized by the Lincoln monument as Vowell is, to move through the Smithsonian at a snail's pace like I'm sure she does. As someone with a degree in American history and a lifelong interest in it's minutiae, I'm hardly a tough audience, but Vowell got me more excited about it than I have been in years, and excited about a whole different aspect of it (i.e. presidential history, which I've never cared for at all). Like Utah Phillips, her words convince you that the past is important, that it means something, and that it ought to be considered, honored, respected, and made fun of. I'm into that.

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Glad you liked it! You ought to check out her Take the Cannoli, if only for the written version of her Trail of Tears experience; though, if you prefer audio, you can find it on the This American Life website archives--they dedicated an entire show to it. There is more to the book than that, though, and it is a quick read.

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In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle

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hope_is_a_muscle.jpgby Madeleine Blais
Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995

After reading Larry Colton's Counting Coup a couple of months ago, I became a little bit obsessed with women's and girl's basketball. In keeping with that obsession, this book, In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle was repeatedly recommended to me. So, this past week, I read it.

It certainly begs comparison with Colton's book. Both books are about high school girl's basketball teams with big dreams in the early 1990s. But really, the similarities end there. To begin with, Colton's book is about poor girls in a lousy school on a Montana reservation. Blais' book is about upper-middle class girls at a good high school in Amherst, Massachusetts. The problems faced by Colton's subjects, white and (mostly) Native American, are quite different than those faced by Blais', who are largely white, with the exception of two Black girls and one Cuban. Sharon, the star of the high school team Colton follows, harbors a hope to go to a regional or community college (and she does not succeed). The stars of the team Blais follows go to Stanford and Dartmouth. Perhaps most importantly, Blais' team wins, and Colton's loses.

There are also striking differences in the authors themselves. Both Blais and Colton are journalists, but Blais is a "serious" journalist and a professor at the University of Massachusetts who says she's never played a team sport, while Colton is a former professional baseball player who writes about sports and heads up a Portland, Oregon non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of writing instruction in public schools. Maybe most importantly, Blais is a woman and a feminist reflecting on the importance of sports for women. She goes into detail about the mothers of the players she observes, how they weren't allowed to play the way their daughters are, and how they feel about that. She talks extensively about Title IX and what it has meant for women. She puts basketball in a larger context of teenage girls learning to respect themselves and their bodies and raise their voices. Colton is...not. He pays some homage to Title IX and to the importance of girls being respected as athletes, but his perspective as a middle-aged white man is by definition very different than Blais' as a woman of the same generation.

Blais' book is certainly more uplifting. The players Blais follows are headed to college. They have stable families and bright futures. If basketball doesn't work out for them, something else will. Colton's players have a much harder row to hoe. However, I still preferred Colton's book, with its focus on life on the res and the surviving vestiges of American Indian culture to Blais' look at a politically correct Massachusetts college town. Simply put, even if they aren't as talented, basketball seems to mean more to the girls with whom Colton interacts than to those in Blais' book. They need it more. Even though Blais addresses Title IX and the need for women's sports more directly, Colton's argument for it is stronger, and I care more about his players.

I would recommend both books, and I certainly think they are excellent to read together. Maybe now I'll be able to move on to another subject.

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murphy_brown_book.jpg"/by Allison Klein
Seal Press, 2006

This is a fun little book. Basically, Allison Klein writes about the roles of women in sitcoms in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. She focuses on a handful of shows to illustrate the metamorphosis of women's roles from the typical 50's sitcom mom (June Cleaver, etc.) to the independent women that came with and after Mary Tyler Moore. She addresses women's relationships with men, children, careers, and their own bodies. Though there has been linear progression of women's roles by no means, Klein argues, women have in each decade been able to push a bit farther on television, in one arena or another.

Parts of the book were a bit lost on me, as a result of having never or rarely seen the shows Klein analyzes. Though she talks about a lot of shows, she focuses heavily on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude,
Roseanne, Golden Girls, Murphy Brown, Friends, and Sex in the City. Of these, the only one I ever watched often was Roseanne (though I am, of course, aware of the premises of the other shows and have seen a few episodes of Golden Girls and Friends). Her points seem well argued, though, even for someone who isn't familiar with all of the characters about who she writes. She views certain things a bit optimistically, I think, but the claims she makes are generally well-founded.

Though she also talks about examples of non-beautiful TV women (Roseanne, Maude) and women aging on TV (Maude, everyone on The Golden Girls), Klein focuses the bulk of her book on TV women moving from a single type (married upper-middle class housewives with children) to multiple types (married or single, mothers or non, various careers, various classes, etc.). The title character, Murphy Brown, illustrates single career womanhood and single motherhood. Roseanne and Grace from Grace Under Fire illustrate two types (married and unmarried) of working-class motherhood (and both work, at least in part of the shows' runs, in traditionally masculine occupations). The women on Friends and Sex in the City show sexual liberation and updated attitudes towards dating. And so on. While many of these arguments leave me with a feeling of "well, duh," they are still interesting to read.

There are issues I think Klein could have addressed that she does not. In particular, I would have liked to see a chapter on younger women on TV. Not only is Roseanne interesting, but so are Becky and Darlene. How does having these newly feminist TV moms change TV daughters? She alludes briefly to My So-Called Life and The Gilmore Girls, but doesn't go into any detail. But perhaps that would be another book. I also found her treatment of body image (particularly weight) and aging on TV to be more cursory than I would have liked.

All in all, this book is worth reading. Klein draws on some good books for her background and theory, and she has obviously done her homework in terms of watching countless hours of sitcoms. It's nothing revolutionary, but if you are a TV-lover, it is fascinating.

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The thing with the Murphy Brown kerfuffle that rankles, and that TO THIS DAY I have never seen acknowledged, is that it was obvious that Quayle et al HAD NOT SEEN THE SHOW.

How do I know? Well, because I did. And I remember just about everything from that series of episodes. The 7+ pregnancy tests lined up in her bathroom as she finally accepted her situation. The discussion she had with the child-to-be's father. The look on his face when she told him. The very timbre of his voice as he responded to this information.

He was a long-lost love with whom she had recently re-connected. They were talking marriage. Of course this was before her pregnancy. When she sat down to talk to him about it, he was adamant--if she had the child, he would walk. He did not want to be a father.

She chose the child. And for this she was pilloried for knowingly bringing a fatherless child into the world as a "lifestyle choice".

And not one of those sanctimonious twits EVER mentioned the fact that the kid DID have a father. Only, the father LEFT. He RAN. He gave her the choice of abortion and marriage or him leaving. And not one pundit ever took him to task.

Because they hadn't seen the show, AND because it was so much easier to attack Murphy, the powerful woman-type.

Ah, smell the patriarchy!

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Magical Thinking: True Stories

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magical_thinking.jpgby Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin's Press, 2004

As I've mentioned before, I'm a pretty big fan of Augusten Burroughs. I loved Running with Scissors, I thought it was a beautiful, hysterically funny book; and I thought Dry was quite good as well. I've defended Burroughs' choice to make his horrible childhood experiences and his battle with alcoholism at once poignant and comical, and I admire his ability to do so.

That being said, Magical Thinking is a whole other thing. It's a more mature, reflective Burroughs that shows through the stories that make up this book. It's a more likable Burroughs, who has, in some way, gotten past some of his baggage. And it's great stuff.

The stories in the book aren't chronological--they skip backwards and forwards in time, from Burroughs' childhood and adolescence through his drinking years to his present and around again. This is a bit confusing at first (causing me to think, among other things, that the person who turns out to be Burroughs' partner, Dennis, is a posthumous look at the same person as his friend Pighead, who is featured in Dry), but once you realize that's what Burroughs is doing, it makes sense. In some ways, it makes it easier to see his increased maturity and self-awareness in the more recent stories. And knowing that he, in some sense, "made it," that he's happy and successful in the more recent stories, makes the heart-rendering earlier ones a bit easier to listen to and to see the humor in.

Though it is easier to handle than his previous memoirs, Magical Thinking is still Augusten Burroughs, and so isn't for everybody. He still doesn't shy away from hard topics, or from shining the light on his own flaws. One story, "The Rat Thing," is a long exposition on his torturous killing of a rat he finds in his bathroom (when he's still drinking). It's nasty. It's hard to listen to. But it's still funny, in the way only truly awful things can be. As always, though, if you are someone who believes that there are some subjects that are never funny, this book probably isn't going to do it for you.

One of my favorite parts of the audio book (and I again recommend "reading" Burroughs on audio book, as he's got a great voice and tells his own stories so well) is the "bonus" at the end--a short interview of Burroughs, done by his literary agent. Here, in Burroughs' rambling answers to the agent's questions, you get a bit of insight into how his writing develops, and how he thinks about his own life and the very dark humor in his past. If you have any lingering guilt about finding humor in his horrible stories (which I really didn't, but could have), you lose it when you hear him say that he doesn't find his childhood difficult to talk about, but that he sees humor in it. He goes on to explain that he's really a very average type of person, who just seems to have had a magnet for disaster in his early life. He doesn't seem to regret this, just accept it. It's fun to listen to him talk. He seems very naturally funny and comfortable in his own skin, and if you've listened to or read much of his work, you know it took him a long time to get there.

So I'd recommend Magical Thinking to anyone who likes Burroughs' other books. I'd also say it's probably the best of the three memoirs to start with if you are new to his work. Work your way up to Running with Scissors.

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The Stardust Lounge: Stories from a Boy's Adolescence

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stardust_lounge.JPGby Deborah Digges
Anchor, 2002

This is a great book. You should read it. Seriously.

Deborah Digges is a single mother of two boys. This story is about her youngest son, Stephen. When the book starts, Stephen is 13 and he's in a lot of trouble. He's associated with gangs, doing drugs, carrying weapons, skipping school, in trouble with the police, the whole nine yards. Digges is desperate not only to turn her son around, but to regain her close relationship with him. In her desperation, she turns to whatever ideas she can grasp--Stephen is sent to live with his father, Digges tries to be more stern, military school is even considered. There are serious repercussions to Stephen's behavior and to Digges responses to it, including the ultimate break up of her second marriage.

Then, with the help of an unconventional therapist, Digges and Stephen both learn to stop trying to be the people they aren't and to embrace themselves and each other as the people they are. They move out of the city, they adopt a passel of pets, including a very high-maintenance bulldog with epilepsy. Digges serves as a foster parent to a friend of Stephen's who has been kicked out by his own parents. And Digges stops trying to get Stephen to obey rules that are only there for the sake of society and serve no real purpose. Digges focuses on what is actually fair and actually necessary. So while the teenage boys may stay up late and there may be dogs on the beds and cats coming in and out of the windows, some kind of peace is restored.

And it turns out OK. Stephen graduates from high school and goes to college. Trevor, Digges' foster son, gets his GED, gets a job, and moves into his own apartment. The animals are happy and live good lives. Digges eventually even meets another man and at the end of the book the two of them are cohabitating.

Digges writes about parenting, both the joys and the sorrows, in a way that is both realistic and enthralling. She truly loves her sons and loves being a mother to them, and she truly wants Stephen to do well not for the sake of her own pride, but for himself. She's not perfect and she never indicates that she thinks the route she takes is the only way to deal with a "difficult" child. She shows a willingness to learn right along side her son that I can't help but think is the hallmark of a great parent. The book is inspirational in that sense.

Another thing about it that is really wonderful is the importance than the Digges' animals play. Getting the first bulldog puppy, G.Q., is Digges first original and true to herself idea for how to help Stephen, and it does. The later adoption of Buster, the epileptic bulldog, with all of his many needs, cements Stephen's willingness and ability to be a responsible person. Both Digges and her son are clearly people who respond better to animals than they do to other people, and the book shows the beauty and grace in that, never even allowing for the idea that it is some kind of psychopathy.

Delinquent kids are very rarely given any kind of chance in our society. The book's characters, particularly Stephen and Trevor, are constantly butting their heads against a system that "has them pegged" and actively discourages them from succeeding in the ways in which they are able. It is a rare parent, however, who both assists her kids in bucking that system and still expects responsible and fair behavior from them. Digges never lowers her expectations of Stephen or Trevor, she just reevaluates what is really important, and it is both instructive and inspiring to watch that play out. I ended the book really feeling for the Digges family, happy to hear of both Stephen and Trevor's accomplishments, and seeing something of my own mother in Deborah, which is a very high compliment.

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That sounds like a terrific book. I might look for it--though my own brother's problems might make the subject matter a little sensitive.

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More books

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Two more books to mini-review...

partly_cloudy_patriot.jpgThe Partly Cloudy Patriot
by Sarah Vowell
Simon & Schuster, 2003

In the past, I have resisted Sarah Vowell. The reason for my resistance is that I have been told that her books are far more interesting to listen to in audio book format than to read, and her voice drives me bat shit insane. So I haven't listened to them. However, because I was enjoying David Sedaris so much, and I associate the two of them in my head (for no good reason, as it turns out), I finally gave in and decided I'd give Sarah Vowell a try. Why I started with this particular book is anybody's guess...I think maybe I just liked the title.

Well, I loved it. Vowell is just my kind of geek. Her writing is smart and funny and self-deprecating, and she's interested in just the same kind of dorky stuff I am. I mean, the first chapter of the book is about Gettysburg. The woman clearly has a crush on Abe Lincoln. And I'm all for that.

And her voice...well, it's still irritating, but somehow it seems like it's supposed to sound that way after a few paragraphs. And when she says that she's convinced that the supposedly high-voiced Lincoln "sounds just like me," I almost believed her. I'll definitely be getting her other books in audio format and will probably go through them just as quickly as I did this one.

miss_american_pie.jpgMiss American Pie: A Diary
by Margaret Sartor
Bloomsbury, 2006

There are few things I can think of that are more self indulgent than publishing your diary from 7th through 12th grades. Seriously. I mean, who wants to read that? Well, apparently, me. This book is Margaret Sartor's unadulterated (I think) diary from those years of her life, in the 1970s, in Louisiana. While interesting things may have been happening in her state and in the country, most of them were not happening to her. Mostly, her entries are about her friends, with whom she's never close enough, her boyfriends, with whom she's often too close, her family, who are pretty garden-variety fucked-up, and her on-again off-again relationship with God. And how frizzy her hair is. I'd say it's about 10% about her relationship with her hair. And yet it's weirdly interesting, particularly in the age of the blog, when (assumedly) this kind of unabashedly self-centered private rambling is out of vogue. It's a really quick read (it took maybe an hour and a half all together?) and is definitely more entertaining than it should be, at least if you're the voyeur type. It also got me started on old-fashioned by-hand journaling again. Who knows if that will last.

3 Comments

It's not for no reason: Sedaris and Vowell are frequent contributors to This American Life.

Oooh, I love Sarah Vowell! If you like the Abe Lincoln bits, you should read Assassination Vacation - it's all about Vowell's obsession with the assassinated US Presidents.

Oops, I was going to post the Vowell-Sedaris link, but Jenny beat me to it.

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Book round-up

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I've been doing a lot of reading and audiobook listening lately, and haven't posted about much of it. I don't really feel like doing full reviews, but here are some briefs:

double_crossed.jpgDouble Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns
by Kenneth Briggs
Doubleday, 2006

This is an interesting little book about the post-Vatican II changes in the lives of American nuns, the ways in which many orders changed and wished to change, and the barriers that were put in their way by Catholic officials. It's all very interesting stuff to me, as I know almost nothing about Catholicism. I wanted more information about the specifics of the nuns lives in and outside convents, but I suppose that would be already known by most people interested in this book. Another interesting thing it went into was the retirement problem American nuns are facing--there are not nearly enough young working nuns to support all of the elderly retired nuns. In part this is due to lack of interest in entering the convent in recent decades, and in part it's due to the pittance nuns have traditionally been paid for their work. I had never even considered how nuns are funded (or not funded, as seems to be the case), so that was really interesting. All in all, this is a quick and fascinating read.

mother_jones.jpgMother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America
by Elliott J. Gorn
Hill and Wang, 2002

This is another good read, though not as quick. It busts up a lot of the myths about Mother Jones that those of us who are fairly romantic and non-critical in our idealization of labor history (me) might be guilty of, which still giving Mother Jones credit for everything she did. Gorn is a good historian, the book is very well researched, and if you can get past his critical eye (which took me some time to re-adapt to, as I haven't read any "real" history in quite a while), the book is really interesting.

history_of_love.jpgThe History of Love
by Nicole Krauss
Norton, 2006

This is, to my mind, a mediocre novel. I know a lot of people really loved it, but it didn't hold my attention at all. In fact, I don't think I even finished listening to it. I started before Christmas, but when I got back I switched to something else.

close_range.jpgClose Range: Wyoming Stories
by Annie Proulx
Scribner, 2000

I'd read some, but not all, of these stories before, but listening to them was a whole different thing. The narrators of the audio book are fantastic, with perfect, Western accented voices for the stories Proulx tells. The stories are, on the whole, incredibly depressing ("Brokeback Mountain" is, I swear, one of the happier stories in the book), but also really good. If you like Annie Proulx, I'd definitely recommend trying her short stories on audio book.

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Best of 2006

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Here is a list of some of my favorite things in 2006.

Top 5 Books
5. I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence by Amy Sedaris
4. My Life in France by Julia Child
3. The Class Castle: A Memoir by Jeanette Walls
2. The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue
1. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Top 5 Movies
5. Wordplay
4. The Science of Sleep
3. V for Vendetta
2. Little Miss Sunshine
1. Kinky Boots

Top 2 TV
2. House, Season 3
1. The Wire, Season 4

Top 5 CDs
5. The Be Good Tanyas, Hello Love
4. The Little Willies, The Little Willies
3. Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
2. The Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way
1. Roseanne Cash, Black Cadillac

What'd I miss?

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I just blogged about Wordplay and Kinky Boots. I really kinda hated Kinky Boots, though...

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Breaking Clean

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breaking_clean_cover.jpgby Judy Blunt
Knopf, February 5, 2002

Judy Blunt's Breaking Clean continued my recent trend of reading books about the West, and like most of the Western authors I've picked up recently, Blunt tells her story in a sparse, no-holds-barred way that I both appreciate and identify with. She takes it one step further, though, making explicit her thoughts and feelings about the role of women in the West in a way that other writers (Annie Proulx and Pam Houston come to mind) haven't. The book is simply fabulous.

Breaking Clean is a fairly chronological retelling of Blunt's life growing up on a secluded Montana ranch, her marriage to neighboring rancher and life as part of an increasingly corporate ranching culture, and her eventual decision to leave the land and the lifestyle that makes up the only thing she has ever known. Skipping entire years and dedicating multiple pages to describing in painstaking detail the seemingly small events that her memories turn around (including a multiple page account of pulling a calf that made me cry with its honesty and gorgeousness), Blunt is less interested in a literal retelling of the events of her life and more in sharing with readers both her visceral love for the land and the lifestyle on which she grew up and her crippling disappointment and rage at the role she was forced to take as a woman in that lifestyle and on that land.

Blunt makes no secret of her feminism, nor does she shy away from idealizing the strong backs and stiff upper lips of the women around who she came of age--women who would never call themselves feminists. She sees, at a young age and increasingly as she grows up, the ways in which these women are short-shrifted. She takes on the problems of patriarchal land and family management and the traditional movement of family ranches from father to son head-on, calling them what they are and speaking with clarity about the role of these practices in her eventual decision to take her children away from the land she loves.

Breaking Clean is just the right mixture of thought and action, switching seamlessly from Blunt's internal monologue to the physical reality of the land around her and back again. Blunt's version of self-reliant feminism, invented from equal parts 1970s coming of age and a lifetime of exposure to the old world customs and near superhuman strength of ranching women, may well be the most comfortable and reasonable one I've ever observed. Even if you don't want to read Blunt's book for the feminism, though, you should read it for the stories. Her retelling of the great blizzard that plagued her family's ranch in the early 1960s, freezing most of the cattle to death, her baby sister facing off with an Angus bull, and her own uncomfortable move from a one-room school house to high school in "town" are worth the read in and of themselves. Blunt is both a fantastic theorist and memoirist and first-rate storyteller, and it doesn't get much better than that.

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Counting Coup

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Counting Coup book coverby Larry Colton
Warner Books, October 2001

Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor in the Little Bighorn was recommended to me by my stepdad when he and my mom visited last month. His description didn't make it sound like much--a book about high school girls' basketball on a Montana Indian reservation?--but his taste is often excellent and he swore I'd love it, so I requested it from the library.

He was right. It's fantastic.

I grew up in a basketball town, though I never played myself (much to the chagrin of many, given my height). Through a little bit of paying attention and a whole lot of osmosis, I understand basketball pretty well. That probably added to my enjoyment of this book, since none of the technical basketball details were lost on me. However, I don't think any knowledge of or interest in basketball is necessary to enjoy the book. At its heart, it's not really about the game. It's about the girls, about the place, about hope and taking control of your own life. And it's about those things in a really non-hokey way.

Colton is a sports writer (I think) who went to live for a year in Hardin, Montana, on the edge of a Crow Indian reservation, with the idea of writing about the traditional of high school basketball (specifically, boys' basketball) among the Crow. However, soon after arriving in Hardin, Colton observes (by chance) one of the stars of the girls' high school team, Sharon LaForge, casually shooting hoops. Impressed with LaForge, Colton takes an interest in the girls' team, and soon his project changes from the boys to the girls.

Colton follows the team throughout the season, interviewing all of the players extensively, going to all of the games and many of the practices, spending time with the players and their families and friends outside of basketball, etc. His narrative focuses on the team's season, but also on the details of the girls' lives, their relationships with each other and with their families, and the racial tension between the Indian and white players (Hardin is about 50-50). While he focuses on LaForge, Colton takes an interest in many of the players on the team, as well as a couple of high school students who are only peripherally related to basketball.

The picture Colton paints is bleak, particularly for Crow students like LaForge. Part of the original question he came to Montana to investigate was why Crow students almost never play basketball in college, no matter how good they are in high school. The answers he finds--a mixture of pure racism and socioeconomic and cultural conditions that stand in the way of Crow students going to college--is depressing. Much of Sharon LaForge's life is depressing. Her father is absent, her mother is a terrible alcoholic, her boyfriend is abusive, and her prospects are bleak, no matter how she shines on the court. Colton doesn't sugarcoat this.

On the other hand, though, neither does he give in completely to hopelessness. To his credit, at least in my mind, Colton does not even pretend to be an uninvested observer of LaForge and the other girls he writes about. He tries to help them, especially LaForge. He lends money, give rides, makes calls to college coaches. He cheers his heart out at every game, plays HORSE, scrimmages. He attends family dinners, puts in his time in the sweat lodge, and even goes to a player's wedding. And he feels the players' triumphs, on and off the court, as much as their failures.

Another thing I really loved about the book and respect about Colton is that there never seems to be a question as to whether or not the female basketball players are real athletes. They are playing the same game as the boys, with the same stakes, and it seems that Colton takes his female subjects just as seriously as he would have had they been male. The story is different, obviously, as the obstacles faced by the young women Colton observes and interviews are different than those of their male counterparts, but it's not lesser. This is an especially bright spot in a story that is full of male-to-female violence, as is reportedly very common on the reservation.

A final thing I admire about Colton's approach is that he doesn't leave the team, or LaForge, at the end of the last game of the season. He follows them, particularly LaForge, for several years. He cares about the outcomes, not just of their season, but of their lives. And he tries--and in some cases succeeds, I think--to find victory in their decisions, even if they don't make the choices he would have made for them.

All in all, this book is a great read. It moves fast, it makes you care, and if you happen to like basketball, or be interested in modern reservations, all the better. If not, though, pick it up anyway, just because it's well done.

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Hello,

You are right on with the review of Counting Coup. I am reading it for the 4th time, it is a novel I revisit every couple of years. Does anyone know what Sharon Laforge is doing now? I have searched for her several times. Her grandmother's obituary surfaced, but other than that, nothing.

I really enjoyed Counting Coup..I am a Crow member who returned to the reservation 4 years ago and it seems to be just as I left it so many years ago, maybe worse, with the meth addiction that has consumed so many of our tribal members. I had some good laughs and recognized all the characters in the book..I loved that he told it like it was, and cared so much about Sharon..I know her family but am not sure where she is..I have heard through the "grapevine" that she may have been a victim to the meth epidemic..I hope not, my heart ached for her as I read the book..

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Smackdown: David Sedaris v. Augusten Burroughs

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David SedarisAugusten BurroughsI've been doing a lot of listening to audio books lately. The purpose, when I got a new iPod for my birthday, was supposed to be to listen to them while exercising. Which I'm not. But I do listen to them as I move to and fro, and sometimes while going to sleep, or cleaning the house, or walking the dogs if I'm by myself. One of the first books I listened to was Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors (which I reviewed here). A few books later, I listened to Burroughs' Dry. Now, I'm listening to David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day. I've heard bits and pieces of a couple of Sedaris' other works as well.

It's not hard to draw parallels between the two writers. Both are gay men living in New York (for at least some of their stories). Both talk at length about their fucked-up childhoods. Both talk openly about their addictions (Burroughs' alcoholism and Sedaris' speed usage). Both have a merciless, dark, nothing-sacred brand of humor that appeals very much to me, but I'm sure horrifies some people. Sedaris is more famous, more popular, and less controversial.

And, to my mind, Burroughs is more talented.

Burroughs has been criticized for making up some of what he writes, or at least exaggerating heavily, particularly in Running with Scissors. This may or may not be true. My guess would be it's partially true, and I'd also guess that Sedaris plays fast and loose with actual history in his autobiographical writing as well. I think it's part of this genre, especially when you are making the morbid, improbable, and truly demented funny, which is what both men do. Whether or not the things they write about are actually true makes very little difference to me. They could be true. They are probably true for somebody. And, like Tim O'Brien said, "a lie, sometimes, can be truer than the truth." I suspect this is so for both Sedaris and Burroughs. Some of what they remember actually happened, I'm sure, and some of it, perhaps, feels like it happened.

Regardless, there is, to my mind, a very basic difference between the two men (both of whom read their own work on audio book, by the way, and do it very well). Sedaris is a humorist who happens to find most of his humor in memoir. Burroughs is a memoirist that happens to be hilarious. This doesn't, in and of itself, make Burroughs better, it just makes his stories better. What gives him the real edge, I think, is that he's also the funnier of the two men.

David Sedaris is very funny. He has a great ability to take things that should be sacred and make them profane, and I highly admire that. Turning the death of family pets into a joke isn't something I'd have thought I would appreciate until I heard his story "The Youth in Asia." Burroughs, however, simply does him one better. Not only is his sacred more sacred (parental abandonment, rape), but his profane is more profane--and this makes it both feel more heartfelt (whether or not it actually is being a separate question) and come off a lot funnier.

I enjoy both Sedaris and Burroughs. I'll read (or more likely listen to) more from either one of them. But I think the characterization of Burroughs as a Sedaris wanna-be is just plain bullshit. More than Sedaris, Burroughs reminds me of a more academically gifted and urbane Christopher Titus--someone for whom the comedy, and the exaggeration, are therapy. While Sedaris seems to want to be funny and be happy to mine his family for material, Titus and Burroughs seem much more to be men dealing with growing up the way they did and being the men they are by being funny. While both ways are fun to observe, Burroughs (and Titus) stays with me longer.

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I never thought of David Sedaris as having a bad childhood at all! I mean weird, yes, but his family seems well adjusted and friendly enough, whereas Burroughs seems truly neglected, and, to my mind, sexually molested.

I LOVED Dry. Running with Scissors was at points so depressing I had to turn it off. I just can't think of that story as funny at all. It was fucked up and depressing. Sedaris' famiy is odd, and different, but not feloniously wrong. Adults raping and neglecting children just isn't funny to me, pretty much. I don't think of them as that similar for this reason. I would have never thought Running with Scissors was a comedy. It's about the most depressing book I have ever read.

I have ripped two other Burroughs books, so we'll see how I like them. I think part of it is I hate how Burroughs reads his books, and yet, Sedaris' readings are SO much better than the actual text.

here was my review.

I am going to download all of those books onto my iPod now!

I totally agree.

I actually read Burroughs before Sedaris. And, I found myself comparing the two while reading the latter.

Burroughs hit me in an emotional place that Sedaris just didn't reach. Sedaris is fine, but I find Burroughs to be really exceptional.

sam has a stratagem

Count me as the first, and only on this post so far, to vote for Sedaris being the better of the two. I give him a slight edge because his memoirs are a bit more humorously enjoyable (duh, he is a humorist) and less melancholy than Burroughs. Sedaris has a lighter, offbeat take on sexuality than his hornier, frequently eroticizing contemporary. When reading Sedaris, for me at least, it's harder to stop and bookmark between essays/chapters, as some are beyond drop dead funny and I want to read what he has written that will make me laugh next, whereas Burroughs can be downright depressing at times and stopping is just necessary. Plus, anyone who concocts (tee-hee, fun word) a title, Me Talk Pretty One Day, that alone makes me laugh is clearly the winner in my book.

Some of Sedaris' best: "Town & Country" (my favorite and the first I ever read by him out of an issue of GQ magazine. He had me practically pissing my pants...although, I was also high at the time...) from the recent When You Are Engulfed in Flames; "Next of Kin" out of Naked; and Holidays on Ice warrants a few laughs, from the autobiographic SantaLand Diaries to the fictitious good-will contest between neighbors tale and the (very) darkly comedic Christmas letter. I recommend all his books, as each has its moments. Also, I didn't figure out right away that he was gay when I first began to read his books, so that came as a surprise (I also hadn't heard him speak until right before the release of WYAEIF).

In contrast, Burroughs' Sellevision is a fun, entertaining comedy and Possible Side Effects has a few comedic gems that had me lol-ing, such as the romantic getaway at the inn of dolls and his wacky antics in educating bad drivers with extreme pornography. I'm currently reading Magical Thinking, which is okay (but no Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim), and have yet to read A Wolf at the Dinner Table; I hear it's more depressing than RWS, which was sad but also interesting and at times laughable. Not sure if grammaticality is an issue, but Burroughs loves writing fragments, which slightly irks me, for someone to make as much money and get away with such poor grammar, savvy?

On a final note, Sedaris is a bit less in your face about being gay than Burroughs. Not that I have a problem with this, but I'm not sure how crazy a heterosexual reader feels reading about Burroughs feeling an erection pressing up against his butt while embracing a crack addict boyfriend. It seems that Augusten reaches, better yet overreaches, for the shock value at times, a Marilyn Manson of the literary world, if you will. In comparison, David would be the literary equivalent of Beck, funky, eccentric and sometimes innovatively genius.

Ooh, saucy! Need I say that I oppose you on that preference as well? I like both rockers too, but the one begins to irritate with his incessant "Babble, babble, bitch, bitch, rebel, rebel, party, party, sex, sex, sex, and don't forget the violence." "I'll clap my hands along, and rattle on like a vagabond" over that grotesque shit anyday. WHAMMY! Smackdown: Marilyn Manson vs. Beck - WHAMMY! ;)

I'd just like to start by saying the two are absolutely not comparable. Like you said, the main things that come to mind when thinking of these characters is that they're both gay, and they live or have lived in New York City. That's it. While, sure, they both write about their lives, Sedaris writes (short) humorous essays while Burroughs has a memoir. Maybe you should try actually reading the books rather than listening to them while you're dozing off, because I'm fairly certain he didn't mean any of running with scissors to be blatantly humorous. Just honest.
P.S. I agree with the Bruin Bum Alum.

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NaBloPoMo and No One Cares What You Had for Lunch

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No One Cares What You Had for Lunch book coverby Margaret Mason
Peachpit Press, August 11, 2006

As November quickly approaches, and with it, National Blog Posting Month, I am becoming a bit trepadatious about my ability to blog something worth reading every single day for 30 days running. Or to blog anything at all for 30 days running, worth reading or not. So, as I suspect many other bloggers will be doing, I'll be relying on Margaret Mason's new(ish) book, No One Cares What You Had For Lunch: 100 Ideas for Your Blog to provide me with post ideas on days when my mind is fallow.

I got Mason's book as a birthday gift from my friend The Princess, and I've really enjoyed looking through it. Quite a few of the ideas are things I've written about before (either from memes or they've just come up), but there are several that are new to me, which I'll definitely be using. A lot of them remind me of the "free writes" I've done in creative writing classes and workshops before, when you're given a general subject and told to write on it for X minutes without letting your pen leave the paper. And there's certainly some element of that in blogging, at least for a blogger like me, who tends to write unedited, stream-of-conciousness posts.

Mason's book isn't rocket science. It's a few good ideas, presented in a cute, funny, easily readable way. Great for a gift if you know a blogger with a birthday coming up, and likely very helpful to those of us who've made the commitment to NaBloPoMo.

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Running with Scissors: A Memoir

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Running with Scissors book coverby Augusten Burroughs
Audio Renaissance; UNABRIDGED edition, October 28, 2002

I started listening to Augusten Burrough's weird-ass childhood memoir, Running with Scissors a long time ago--sometime last winter, I think. After seeing the preview for the new movie version of it recently, I picked it back up. I'd only made it about an hour in the first time, to the point where Augusten has just met the Finches. So I was ill-prepared for how weird it was going to get.

Basically, young Augusten Burroughs is pawned off at the age of 12 on the family of his mother's shrink, a man who is, arguably, even more nuts than mom. Running with Scissors is his tale of his adolescence moving between life with his psychotic poet mother and life with the variously bizarre Finches. Burroughs' gift is clear, as he makes the story not just sad and absurd, but also hilarious. It's a very strange thing to finish the story and realize that you've been entertained by such a horrible tale, with abuses of power, several instances of rape, victimizing of the mentally ill, and the eating of dog food. You feel almost guilty for enjoying it, as Burroughs' assumedly lived through at least some version of it, but then you realize that enjoying it is exactly what he wanted you to do.

I'll admit it, I'm a convert. I already have Burroughs' other memoir, Dry, on order from the library. Mixing a Sedaris-only-funnier type of dark humor into memoirs of a truly strange life is my recipe for good audiobooks, and Burroughs' is among the best I've heard.

And I look forward to the movie.

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I really could not get over the depressingness part of it....and basically that the main character is getting raped, or at least is being inappropriately sexually taken advantage of.

Dry though I loved.

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Devil in the Details book coverby Jennifer Traig
Highbridge Audio; UNABRIDGED edition, September 9, 2004

After getting a new iPod for my birthday, I have once again fallen in love with audio books. I used to be scandalized by the very idea of the audio book--listening rather than reading? ABRIDGEMENT? But then I realized two things: 1) the good ones come unabridged, and 2) audio books don't replace books, they allow you to "read" in circumstances you otherwise wouldn't be able to. Like when you are walking somewhere. Or in the car, when reading makes you carsick like it does me. Or on a treadmill. So it's all very exciting. I don't have to listen instead of read, I can listen AND read. Brilliant.

The first audio book I listened to on my new iPod was one I had from Audible.com from my last iPod and gym phase, Jennifer Traig's Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood. Devil in the Details is Traig's memoir about growing up as a sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder, including bouts with anorexia and the hyper-religious form of OCD known as scrupulosity. Traig is both self-effacing and funny, while treating her condition as the serious mental illness she now knows it is (growing up in the 70s and 80s she and her family had no idea her strange behavior had a brain chemistry cause). The book is interesting both because of the hilarity of her antics and her descriptions of them and because of the thought Traig has obviously given to what it means, philosophically, to have obsessive compulsive disorder, and particularly to be scrupulous.

A theme in the book nearly as strong as Traig's OCD, and certainly, in her mind at least, connected to it, is her childhood in an inter-faith family. Traig's father is a first-generation American Jew, his parents having immigrated from Russia by way of France during his childhood, but his Judaism is more cultural than religious, with only occasional synagogue services, lots of pork products, etc. Her mother is a practicing Catholic. When they married, her parents agreed to bring up their children as Jewish, but little thought was apparently given to what that would mean, given that the religious half of the parenting duo was Catholic. So the household's celebrations and rituals, at least as described through Jennifer's eyes, were very barely Jewish. Jennifer herself, however, was drawn to Judaism at a very young age and "practiced" in her own way, early on. Her scrupulosity was based on Torah.

The clear parallel Traig makes between religious practice and obsessive-compulsive behavior is probably the most interesting part of the book. Traig is a practicing Jew as an adult, and is obviously quite serious about her faith, but also considers it a way to work her OCD tendencies into her life. She makes no bones about the fact that rules and denials are at least part of what draw her to Judaism, and she suspects this is the case for other practitioners (of all religions) as well. Having that kind of perspective about your mental illness, once you are properly treated, isn't that surprising. Having that perspective about your faith, however, is something I've never seen before, and it is the thing that sets this book apart from many of the other "fucked up girlhood/adolescence" memoirs I've read. Or listened to.

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Book Club

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I've recently decided that I really want to join a book club. The problem is, how do I go about that? There are several local book clubs I could pick from--the ones at the library, several at bookstores, including a woman's book club at the local feminist bookstore and another one at the local indie bookstore, and various annoucements for book clubs soliciting members on Craigslist. No shortage of places to try out.

So what's the problem?

Well, me.

The idea of making an effort go interact with a group of strangers, even if it does revolve around a common interest like books, terrifies me. What if they don't like me? What if I don't like them? What if they only have stupid ideas about the books? What if I do? What if they only like stupid books? And assuming I can get my gumption up enough to try one of the clubs, which one should I try?

This is all an excellent example of why I don't have very many friends. I don't seek people out, even for specific purposes like talking about books. Instead I obsess about what might happen if I did, letting it all flow through my tiny brain and make me crazy. I know, intellectually, that it would not hurt me to try out a book club meetings, and that if I hated it, I wouldn't be obliged to go back. And yet emotionally it's paralyzing. And it should be such a small thing.

I don't think I started out this insecure. I vaguely remember being put in new situations as a kid (summer camp and that kind of thing) and being able to make new acquaintances fairly easily. I was never the most popular girl in the room, but I did OK all the way through college. So what is it about adulthood that makes the stakes seem so much higher? I have much more control over who I spend time with now than I did when there was forced social interaction (school events, etc.). If anything, I should be more willing to try new things out, knowing I can abandon them if they don't suit me. Yet instead I go home and sit on my couch with my introvert partner and our dogs (a species I have a very easy time making friends with) and feel bad about myself.

And as the introvert partner won't read fiction and the dogs can't read, I have nobody to talk about books with.

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You don't sound insecure to me--you sound introverted. And possibly depressed.

first, i always try to find a book club whenever i have moved and it's always unsuccessful since no book clubs seem to have informative web sites, nor do any of them read non-fiction. grrr.

i feel the same way and wonder if reed made me more anti-social, or at least more awkward.

i think part of it though is that an adult, there are only so many hours in a day, and if you have an hour to talk with strangers versus and hour to sit at home alone, i would almost always take that hour alone, objectively. but then i realize that if i take all those hours alone, i end up generally with no friends. so as much as i like those singular hours alone, they add up to many hours of unhappiness later. so i put in the awkward times at the beginning in order to reap reward just like i would in any other endeavor.

I'm commenting a little late, mostly to say:

1. I have the exact same social issues.

2. Pick your book club with at least some degree of care--I joined my aunt's because she asked and I didn't wish to hurt her feelings, and it's kind of awful.

3. If you're at all like me wrt the anxiety with new people thing, you might be better off trying something at a bookstore or library, that probably has some fluctuation in membership, a variety of people, easy acceptance of new members, as opposed to an already-established group. The one I joined is like a tiny social club of people who know each other, that I don't know, and with whom I have nearly nothing in common. I would think a feminist bookstore one might be cool and welcoming.

I am about to join one. I'm pretty nervous, but I would like to make some more friends here in Korea. I will probably also get horribly lost on my way there, as there are no street addresses and so the directions are random. But I am looking forward to it.

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Middlesex

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middlesex.jpgby Jeffery Eugenides
Farrar Straus Giroux; September 4, 2002

Middlesex is one of those books that was recommended to me so many times that I put off reading it out of spite. It was recommended as a great novel, a Pulitzer winner, another novel by the author of The Virgin Suicides, and a novel about an intersexed individual. That last one is the really important one. I took a year-long seminar on the moral and legal position of intersexuality in the U.S. my first year of graduate school, and I've been very interested in the challenges and bigotries faced by intersexed people ever since.

And, to the extent that it is a novel about an intersexed person, I liked Middlesex. I thought Eugenides portrayed his intersexual narrator, Cal, as a complete person facing a very serious and very complicated relationship with his body, without making him a freak, and I appreciated that. The last third of the book, in fact, was great.

But man the first two-thirds were slow. Starting in early 20th century Europe, with the emigration of Cal's paternal grandparents, the book slogs through three generations of tedious family history, all of which lends very little to Cal's particular story. Besides making it a mediocre 550 page book that could have been a very good 250 page book, the first sections also give the reader (or at least gave this reader) every reason to put the book down and not pick it back up. It was only the hope that eventually it would actually get to Cal himself that kept me reading, and having finished Middlesex, I'm off fiction for a while. At some point, the self-indulgence just gets to be too much.

All of that being said, I think Middlesex is worth reading. Intersexuality is a subject that has not been adequately dealt with in our culture, and Eugenides' fictional account of it rang very true in comparison to the multiple non-fiction accounts I've read (see Intersex in the Age of Ethics and Lessons from the Intersexed, for example). I believe fiction has much to add to this discussion, and for that reason if for no other, I'm glad Eugenides wrote this book.

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i loved the book a lot, tho i have never read anything else by him. i only picked it up because i needed an audiobook.

oddly, i liked the first two thirds and disliked the last. i found the intersexed issue the least interesting part of the book. i guess i saw it as equally about city/labor/race history and growing up in an immigrant ethnicity in america. and so those are the parts i really enjoyed.

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Bait and Switch

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Bait and Switch book coverby Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books (September 6, 2005)

Much as I loved Ehrenreich's previous bit of class-conscious undercover work, Nickel and Dimed, and much as I admire her in general (we did go to the same school, after all), it took me a long time to get around to reading her newest work, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. A number of my acquaintances read it and didn't like it, their criticism ranging from a perceived lack of dedication to this project on Ehrenreich's part through criticism of her hubris in expecting to get a middle-class job with false or no credentials at all, but it wasn't really these criticisms that stopped me from picking it up. Really, what it came down to was that I didn't understand why Ehrenreich would bother with this project. I mean, given the work she did trying to understand what it was like to be part of America's working poor, why would she then revert back to (in my mind) wasting her time with the middle-class?

I can't say that reading the book completely answered that question for me, but it did shed some light on something I hadn't expected--middle-class or "professional" joblessness as a cottage industry. It makes sense, in a country where those who have can buy just about anything, that newly unemployed professionals would assume they could buy themselves into a new job, but it's not something I'd ever given any thought to, and it's the subject that Ehrenreich ends up delving into the deepest in this book, given that she is not able to actually find a professional middle-class job.

For those who don't know Ehrenreich's work, what she did in Nickel and Dimed was go "undercover" as a middle-aged woman with very few marketable skills, in several parts of the country. In each city, she found a minimum wage or slightly better job (waitress, house-cleaner, Wal-Mart employee) and tried to live on what she earned. She had a lot of trouble, and I thought the book brought a lot of things to light about how hard it is to make it in America as a low-wage worker. Many people were offended by this book as well, saying Ehrenreich was "posing," that as a highly educated and relatively affluent woman, she doesn't get it, etc. I disagreed with these criticisms, for the most part, because I think she had a very sensitive eye towards those around her and the truth is, for better or for worse, that her audience is likely to believe things coming from her, a journalist and author in good academic standing, that they would not necessarily believe coming from someone who was actually writing from the working poor class.

In Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich plans to employee the same techniques to infiltrating the middle-class business world. The parameters she sets for herself, when she goes about looking for a job with her falsified resume, are that she will take the first thing she is offered in a business environment that is steady, benefited, and pays $50,000/year or more. Then she goes about looking, utilizing all sorts of job finding services, support groups, career coaches, etc.

And she doesn't find anything. She spends months, jumps through all the hoops, including make-overs and faith-based networking events, and puts in hundreds of applications, but her only job offers are for direct sales positions with no security. So the book morphs, and rather than being about having a middle-class business job, it's about trying to find one.

In my mind, that makes it a better book than it likely would have been. I don't think the seedy underside of desk jockeying is quite as interesting as Ehrenreich started out believing it might be. I've done it for a number of years now, and there's really not much to say about it. You sell a little piece of your soul, I guess, but you don't sell your physical health or your sense of security, and it's basically a pretty easy ride. Once you're employed, that is. Getting a job is the hard part, the interesting part, and the part that I was happy to read about in this book.

Some of the criticisms I've heard regarding the reasons Ehrenreich couldn't find the type of employment she was seeking are probably correct, but I think she did a better job acknowledging them than some. For example, she knew from the outset that her age (I believe she is in her 50s, but I'm not completely sure) would be a problem in her job search. This is a well-established fact. She acknowledges late in the book that the type of jobs she was applying to may have been a far reach for the experience listed on her mostly-fake resume, and I think that was likely a factor, especially given the tight job market she was attempting to enter. It seemed to me that by the end of the book, Ehrenreich was aware that the goals she set out with weren't completely reasonable, and I agree with her.

I suspect some of the criticism of this book comes from middle-class Americans not wanting to believe that their particular industries could be infiltrated by someone who has little or no actual experience, the way Ehrenreich did with working class occupations in Nickel and Dimed. People who make $50,000/year are far less willing to believe that anybody could do their jobs than people who make $5.00/hr. From my experience so far, this simply isn't true. My professional jobs may have been harder to snag, but they haven't been any harder to learn. My college degree has granted me entrance, sure, but the stuff I learned in college has had very little to do with what I've actually done on the job. Most jobs, from what I've seen so far (with obvious exceptions), are comprised of a number of tasks that can be learned by just about anybody of average intelligence and willingness. You may not understand the whole picture, but in order to do what you're actually employed to do, you don't have to. And I still hold that waiting tables is by far the most physically and mentally challenging job I've had yet.

To wrap up, I think this book is worth a read. It's not the groundbreaker Nickel and Dimed was, and I hope Ehrenreich turns her talents back towards a population that actually needs help for her next effort, but it's still interesting stuff, and well-done on the author/investigator's part. You can sense her learning with you as you read, just as you could in Nickel and Dimed, and I like that.

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No Shame in My Game

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No Shame book coverby Katherine S. Newman
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and the Russell Sage Foundation, 1999

Katherine Newman's No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City is one of those books I've been meaning to read for quite some time. I first encountered excerpts from it about a year ago, while taking a class on Family Policy that focused heavily on urban poverty, but we didn't read the whole book for class, so it found its way to my personal reading list. A year later, I actually picked it up from the library and started reading it.

It's quite good. Newman is an anthropologist at Columbia, and she and her team of graduate students spent the better part of two years talking to hundreds of employees, managers, owners, and job seekers at several fast food restaurants (pseudonymed "Burger Barns" in the book) in Harlem. Newman's goal was to bring the perspective of the working poor into the poverty debate, which at the time of her research and writing (the second half of the 1990s), was heavily centered on welfare reform. She and her students work hard in the service of that goal, logging hundreds of hours of interviews and even, in some cases, taking jobs at "Burger Barn" themselves in order to get a better view of the culture and the employees.

Along the way, in a combination of anecdotes from her interviews and evidence from academic and popular sources, Newman dispels several myths--that anyone can get a job in the fast food industry, that only teenagers who aren't trying to fully support themselves (much less anyone else) work for minimum wage, that people who work full-time year-round make enough to support themselves, and that an education is a magic panacea for all employment ills. Newman painstakingly chronicles the hurdles her subjects must overcome in order to even get a job at Burger Barn, much less move beyond minimum wage, and points out key differences between the unlucky job seekers she interviewed and those who were actually employed. She also makes a strong argument about the moral conservativism of many of Harlem's poor residents, and how strongly work is equated with dignity, just as it is--or is supposed to be--in America's middle class.

For anyone who is interested in poverty studies, this book isn't to be missed. Though the slice of American poverty Newman chooses to focus on is quite specific, narrowed down to just a few blocks in Harlem, many of the arguments she makes can be broadened to include all of the working poor in this country. Where they can't, if you feel you need more perspectives, I'd highly recommend David K. Shipler's The Working Poor: Invisible in America (Knopf, 2004), which takes a broader look at many of the same questions Newman addresses.

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The Mercy of Thin Air

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mercy of thin airby Ronlyn Domingue
Atria, September 13, 2005

Razi, the narrator and protagonist of The Mercy of Thin Air, is dead. The story moves back and forth between memories of her life before she drowns in the late 1920s and her observations on the present, over seventy five years later, where she lives "between" life and death. In common parlance, Razi is a ghost--she has no physical form, but she can see, hear, and smell everything around her in the living world, as well as moving objects and herself telekinetically.

At the beginning of the novel, Razi takes up residence with a young couple, Scott and Amy, by following a bookcase she knows from her life move from an estate sale into their home. As Scott and Amy's story unfolds in the present, so do Razi's memories of what happened between her and her fiancé, Andrew, in the years before her death. Slowly, the connection between Razi's past and her "present" become clear both to her and to the reader.

The Mercy of Thin Air is a good book. It's a bit reminiscent of The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, which I loved (and, I'm told, Alice Seibold's The Lovely Bones), in subject matter and in its deft navigation of the line between being a believable love story and just being goopy. It's a book about the supernatural in which the supernatural is not the point, and I like that. It's a quick, easy read (took me two days), good for a plane, the beach, or before bed down time. Not something I'd recommend a chapter-a-night approach to, though, as I found it very difficult to put down.

The Mercy of Thin Air is Ronlyn Domingue's first novel.

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Water for Elephants

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Water for Elephants book coverby Sara Gruen
May 2006, Algonquin Books

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants is a book after my own heart. It takes place in a travelling circus in the 1930s--what could be better than that? Told through the recollections of an elderly (either 90 or 93, he claims) man who is unwillingly cooped up in a nursing home, this tale of animals, intrigue, and true love on the circus circuit in the early 1930s kept me rapt for the entire 300+ pages, and wishing there were more when it ended.

Gruen's narrative is very colorful, with both the spectacle of the show itself and its cast of characters described so I could clearly see them in my head. This is unusual for me, as someone who usually sees nothing more than words when she reads, and it was very nice. It also really made me hope that somebody in Hollywood reads this novel, because it would make a great movie.

Which isn't to say that the whole book is cheerful, because it's most certainly not. This circus is more dark than bright, with every scene covered in Depression-era grime and dust, and the people who populate the book are mostly hard luck stories and villians. Much of the story is very sad, and the abuse of people an animals it portrays will make you sick. However, the story is ultimately redemptive, though in a brutal way.

Though there are obvious parallels between Water for Elephants and Katherine Dunn's brilliant Geek Love, Gruen's book isn't as grisly, nor is it as people-centered, as Dunn's. Gruen's sympathy clearly lies with the animals in her story, which gives the circus a completely different feel. There is also an undercurrent of hope in Water for Elephants that doesn't run through Geek Love, making it a bit easier to stomach the rough parts.

All in all, I'd highly recommend this book. It's some of the best fiction I've read in quite some time.

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Pam Houston

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I've recently been very into Pam Houston. It started when I picked up her first book of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness (remember, Amazon is for research, indie bookstores are for buying!), based solely on my love for its title. Not generally being a short story person, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. The stories are basically all about the same woman/type of woman--a early-mid 30's woman born and raised on the East coast by dysfunctional parents who expatriates to Colorado, gets into an artistic profession (usually photography or writing), does a lot of outdoor activities, especially boating/rafting, has unsuitable taste in men, and loves dogs. But they are not boring, each story illuminating a bit more of this woman/these women, and Houston's love for nature, the West, and especially dogs shines through.

Sight Hound book coverNext, I encountered Houston in her introduction to Woman's Best Friend: Women Writers on the Dogs in Their Lives (edited by Megan McMorris, Seal Press, March 28, 2006), which I reviewed here. In her piece, Houston wrote about her Irish Wolfhound, Dante, and mentioned the autobiographical novel she'd written about him, Sight Hound (W.W. Norton, January 30, 2005). After reading about Dante, and seeing a copy of Sight Hound's amazing paperback cover, I couldn't wait to read it. So I got it from the library and cried my way through it a couple of weeks ago. It's about Rae, the same type of woman as those featured in Cowboys Are My Weakness, though this time she's older and much more clearly based very closely on Houston herself.

Waltzing the Cat book coverI finished Sight Hound just in time for Houston's more recent book of short stories, Waltzing the Cat (W.W. Norton, October 1998) to come in from the library, and I've consumed it over the past couple of days. The stories are very much in the same vein as those in Cowboys Are My Weakness, showcasing the same composite of Houston-like characters in their time in between where we left them in Cowboys and when they all merged into Rae in Sight Hound. There are stories about rafting, dogs, and a ranch in Colorado that feels like home. And the stories feel like home to me.

A Little More About Me book coverThe last Houston book on my list, which I haven't yet started, is her book of personal essays, A Little More About Me (Washington Square Press, October 3, 2000). Given the clearly autobiographical nature of Houston's fictional characters, I'm curious to see what she has to say when she's not under the auspices of fiction. I can't imagine it will be anything but enjoyable. And then I hope she publishes something else really quickly.

Houston is compared (at least by Amazon) to another Western-inspired female short story writer, Annie Proulx. Proulx is, as I'm sure you remember, responsible for the short story (and, with Larry McMurtry, the screenplay) "Brokeback Mountain." I'm a big fan of Proulx's (maybe I like short stories more than I thought, or maybe just ones about the West...), but in many ways I like Houston better. Although she explores some of the same issues as Proulx (the interplay between people and land, love and independence, etc.), Houston's stories are more accessible to me and more amusing, and she is able to write about rural life without divorcing it entirely from non-rural life (her characters spend time in cities as well as in Colorado and find beauty and meaning in both). If you like Proulx, though, chances are Houston is worth a read for you as well. And if you've never read either, I'd start with Close Range: Wyoming Stories (Scribner, May 10, 1999) for Proulx and Cowboys for Houston.

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nonono, amazon is for research, libraries are for reading. :) j/k

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love book coverI've been reading a lot of fiction over the past few weeks, which has been really nice. I started by picking up Toni Morrison's latest offering, Love (Knopf, October 28, 2003), which I really liked. I'm not generally a huge Morrison fan (I liked Paradise a lot, as well as The Bluest Eye but most of the books she wrote in between the two didn't do too much for me), but Love was a good read. Intense, the way all her books are, but not particularly confusing and not as irritatingly overt as some of her other work. I'd recommend it.

After I finished Love (in a couple of nights, it really is quick), I started Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (Nan A. Talese, November 1, 1996). Atwood is another one I've never really been able to get into. Everybody loves The Handmaid's Tale, but I found it fairly irritating. And Alias Grace was even worse. Or at least started out that way. To be perfectly honest, I put it down about 50 pages in and haven't picked it back up.

Tattoo Artist book coverThen, on the plane home, I read Jill Ciment's The Tattoo Artist (Pantheon, August 23, 2005), which I picked up at the library based solely on the title and on Howard Zinn's back-cover rave. It was pretty good, but not exceptional. The subject matter--a Bohemian New York artist getting stuck on a Polynesian island for 30 years, "going native" and becoming a tattoo artist--is certainly interesting, but the narrative itself didn't do a whole lot for me. It had its moments, though, and was certainly worth reading.

Queen of Dreams book coverLast night I finished Chitra Divakaruni's Queen of Dreams (Doubleday, September 14, 2004). Divakaruni is an Indian-American author my friend The Princess turned me on to a couple of years ago, when she lent me Mistress of Spices and gave me a copy of Sister of my Heart for my birthday. Of the three, I liked Queen of Dreams, the most recent, the best. It's a little more accessible/believable to a Westerner than Mistress of Spices, and a little more interesting than Sister of My Heart. It could be that I liked it better because it is set in the States, rather than in India, but I think there's more to it than that. It didn't seem to be trying as hard as the earlier books. After reading it, I'm a bit more convinced of Divakurani's talent of her own right, and will probably stop calling her a rip off of Bharati Mukherjee.

Good Women book coverAnd now I need something new to read. I picked up Jane Stevenson's three novella book, Good Women (Mariner Books, January 6, 2006) last night, but the first couple of chapters really irritated me, so I don't know if I'll finish it. I recently scored used copies of Vanity Fair and Jane Austen'sPersuasion, neither of which I've read, so maybe I'll try one of those. Other ideas are very welcome in the comments.

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I loooove Persuasion. It's my favourite Jane Austen novel, because there's so much more subtle malice in it than any of the others, and there's nothing I like more than malice. :) I'm not crazy about Margaret Atwood either. The only one of her books I really like is Cat's Eye, which I think every woman who was bullied as a pre-teen girl should read. It's a tiny bit triggering, but it helped me make sense of a lot of the crap I went through as a child. And I just started Vanity Fair too! I saw the movie with Reese Witherspoon recently, and fell in love with it. I can't believe I'd never read the book before. It's fabulous!!

Here's a book I really liked. It's lighter than the stuff you're reading lately, though: http://yummywc.blogspot.com/2006/02/i-really-liked-this-book.html I just finishe "To Kill A Mockingbird", which I liked a lot, and I'm getting into "In Cold Blood". Both spurred by a viewing of "Capote". :-)

Ok, so I'm not sure you and I have ever agreed on a book, but since I've been reading recently, I thought I'd share. 1. When All is Said and Done (auth Robert Hill) 2. Apathy and Other Small Victories (auth Paul Neilan) 3. Flashman (auth George MacDonald Fraser) But who has time to read, these days? Aren't we all busy fighting terrorism? Shouldn't novels and books be banished, sent back to the decadent, mollycoddling Europeans?

That's funny, I found Queen of Dreams rather shallow.

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Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin book coverby Marion Meade
Nan A. Talese, May 18, 2004

As hard as it was to pull myself away from the television this weekend (six soccer matches! eight episodes of Gilmore Girls!), I did also read a book. A non-fiction book, even. This book, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, which is a mixed autobiography of four American women writers from the 1920s, Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edna Ferber, and Zelda Fitzgerald.

You'd think that with subject matter like that, you couldn't lose. Unfortunately, you'd be wrong. This book is just not very good. It portrays all four women, to greater or lesser degrees, as pampered, marginally talented, mentally ill, alcoholics. Which, in some cases, is likely true, but it's not very interesting, particularly when all four of the female protagonists, who were, to my knowledge, quite different, are treated interchangeably.

I started the book knowing very little about any of the women it portrayed, and I think I ended it knowing not much more. The accounts given in the book seemed very surface level, artificial, and doubtfully well-researched. And more lines and thought seemed to be given to the male characters who should have been out the outskirts (especially the fairly repulsive F. Scott Fitzgerald) than they were warranted. All in all, I found it disappointing. It did peak my interest in these women (particularly Edna Ferber, about whom I previously knew nothing) and this time period for American female writers, but it did nothing to hold it. Guess I'll have to look elsewhere.

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Woman's Best Friend book coveredited by Megan McMorris
Seal Press, March 28, 2006

This is a book of short pieces from a variety of female writers (mostly journalists), all about dogs. I've been slowly reading it for several weeks now, and just finished it the other night.

A few of the women featured in the book are ones I've read before, most notably Pam Houston and (the late) Caroline Knapp, both of whom have other work I much admire. The dogs featured are a motley bunch, from Pam Houston's herd of Irish Wolfhounds (how I envy that!) to a couple of dauschunds. They are personal pets, dogs of friends and family, or neighborhood menances. Some of them are already gone, but most are still alive. And the essays in the book explore several angles of the human-dog relationship. Or, I guess, more specifically, the woman-dog relationship. There are good dogs and bad dogs, and relationships that are more and less fulfilling. Which is exactly why I liked the book as a whole--it portrays the relationships between women and their dogs as something more than a simple idea of unconditional love or, worse yet, surrogate children. It portrays these relationships as complex, organic entities. Which is what, in my experience, they are. As books about dogs go, I'd rank this one up there with Knapp's full length work, Pack of Two. And that's saying something.

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This book sounds interesting, but is it going to make me cry? I am so over-sensitive to anything about dogs, that often I can't read some of the articles in Bark Magazine because they upset me too much...

A few of the stories are very sad, but most of them aren't. It's worth the sadness.

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Chick lit

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Chick Lit signTo your left, you see a sign I spotted in a bookstore the first night I was in Minneapolis. It caught my eye, and I have since been thinking about chick lit.

From what I can tell, chick lit covers any book by a woman or about a woman. And it is-surprise!-a derogatory term for these works. They aren't real literature. They're literature lite. Literature for girls. Diet literature. Chick lit.

On one of the message boards I read, someone posted a link to an L.A. Times article about men's vs. women's favorite fiction. The men's top five were:

1. "The Outsider," Albert Camus
2. "Catcher in the Rye," J.D. Salinger
3. "Slaughterhouse Five," Kurt Vonnegut
4. (tie)
"One Hundred Years of Solitude," Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"The Hobbit," J.R.R. Tolkien
5. "Catch-22"," Joseph Heller

The women's top five were:
1. "Jane Eyre," Charlotte Bronte
2. "Wuthering Heights," Emily Bronte
3. "The Handmaid's Tale," Margaret Atwood
4. "Middlemarch," George Eliot
5. (tie)
"Pride and Prejudice," Jane Austen
"Beloved," Toni Morrison

You will notice, of course that all 6 of the women's list are by female authors, while all 6 of the men's are by male authors. The article goes on to say that only one book by a woman ("To Kill a Mockingbird") appeared on the men's Top 20 list, while six male authors appeared on the women's Top 20.

What's more interesting to me than the gender of the authors, however, is what the books on these lists are about. In the men's list, you have one book about a self-involved alientated guy accused of murder, one coming of age book about another self-involved college guy, two books centered on soldiers or veterans, one patriarchal family history, and one fantasy book about a bunch of short guys on an adventure. The women's list, however, features a much more broad-reaching woman's coming of age story, one dystopian feminist novel, one novel about a slave woman, and three books that are basically about getting married. Yup, I'm not a literary purist. At the end of the day, to my eye, "Wuthering Heights," "Middlemarch," and "Pride and Prejudice" are all basically about getting married.

And maybe that's the problem.

The books that are written by women that get the most press, the biggest readership, the most Oprah-time, whatever, are, speaking very generally, about things like catching a man. While there may be some biting social commentary underneath, the top level of the story is about man-catching. And it's hard to take that as seriously as war, or coming of age, or even destroying the ring.

The thing is that's it's not that women don't write books about other things, or even that we don't read books about other things, it's that when women are asked on surveys like this one what their five favorite novels are, they don't list books about other things. And classes that focus on "women's literature" (academicese for chick lit) always start in the same place: Bronte, Eliot, Austen. Marriage, marriage, marriage.

Which isn't to say that there is anything wrong with books about relationships, even romantic ones. But why in the world should books that focus on this one topic define women's literature? We can do better than that, and have done better than that. Women write, and write well, about their other relationships, about their place in society, about adaptation and maladapation, about coming of age, about drugs, about sex, about major ethical dilemmas, even about war. It's no accident, to my mind, that Harper Lee is the only female author who showed up on the male Top 20 list--Harper Lee wrote about something.

There are people, I'm sure, who will argue that books about romantic relationships (always heterosexual, always ending in marriage) are just what woman want to read. I don't buy it. I think that's what we're taught to want to read, from Jane Austen through Jennifer Werner. And it's not enough. We're selling ourselves short, both as readers and as writers. Relegating ourselves to chit lit. Which is downstairs, by romance.

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Well, if it's any consolation, I think the reason "Chick-Lit" is a title at all is because fiction in the US is more of a ladies game - they're considered a real market whereas guys (and by that I mean Dudes) are no longer such a market. In the UK I think they have a whole category of books called like, "Lads Books", which is more or less the equivalent of "Chick Lit". I'm pretty sure I remember there being some male writer who in the US would be considered all "smarty pants" who went to the UK for a book tour and was shocked to find that there was a strong contingent of guys reading his books, and they were wearing striped shirts, pressed jeans and getting shitfaced on beer while screaming soccer slogans. I think that was like, Chuck Palahniuk. What the hell am I rambling about? I started thinking about this in terms of gendered storytelling and ran off into talking about market demographics. Sorry for the incoherence, ya'll. I'd can it, but I think this is an interesting line of talk and want to hear more people's thoughts.

Oh, and since when are Relationships and Marriages not Things?

It's not that they aren't Things, it's just that they aren't the Only Things That Happen to Women, you know? Anyway, I think your demographic argument is actually kind of interesting. I mean, if you think about who is reading novels in America, outside academia, one of the first things that comes to mind (or my mind, anyway) is book clubs. And book clubs are nearly 100% female, from my understanding. I wonder what the gender-based patterns on book sales actually are? The article also mentioned that women are comfortable with used/borrowed books, while men are more comfortable with new books.

I took a class about this! Yay look, my education pays off! THe best distinction is that chicklit is genre fiction, ie NOT literature. If you go into a Borders, you'll notice romance, scifi, mysteries, christian, westerns are all outside of the mainstream fiction section. Except fiction is called "literature." So Toni Morrison is not chick lit, she is literature. So the distinction of chick lit is most definitely NOT just a woman author. A lot of people are "above" genre literature. I think pretty much everyone still has some sort of snobbery about one of the genres I listed above (i.e. "OH fantasy books aren't REAL fiction--they're just junk food/guilty pleasure books.") But the most maligned of all of these is probably romance fiction. Chicklit has a lot of the themes of romance, but is a lot more modern than most chicklit books. Hallmarks of chicklit include --Working single young woman main character with high powered career, or at least working hard toward a good career --some romantic element/interest, though usually not erotic. Maybe she's trying to get married or just got out of some big relationship. --shopping! shoes! booze/partying! --brightly colored covers/graphics. --humor --lots of female relationships (ie her friends) So big examples--Bridget Jones, and the Sophie Kinsella Books, Sex in the City, etc. So some chicklit titles I am sure are penned by men, so author is not the factor. Chicklit is POPULAR fiction meaning you probably aren't familiar with a lot of the women writing literary fiction. Which is why these books get more press, Oprah time, etc. not because of their subject matter. Simon is right about women having more publishing purchase power, and the UK and lads books. So Nick Hornby is the classical example of a lad author. I don't think Chicklit is NECESSARILY a negative term for the genre, but it can be used as such in the same way romance is. Basically lots of people like reading "throwaway" or "lowbrow" lit for fun. Because it's fun. It's not about their actual day to day struggles. I would point out that in these top 5's you mentioned, most of those books are on HS reading lists. My guess is people who don't really read just rattle off something they read in HS. A lot of people who read genre fiction are really ashamed of it. And won't admit to reading it even though it's FUN. They don't define women's lit, because these books are by definition NOT literature. I think chicklit is what some women want to read. You don't do things like hide reading a certain genre of books for fun unless you really want to do it. However, I doubt most people read ONLY one genre. There are books we read when we want to be intellectually challenged and those we read when we want something to take to the beach, relax and not think. Do I disagree with some of the themes in these books? Sure. Do I think American culture is a vast conspiracy poised to make us think our lives our meaningless if we are single? Yep. Do I care if people read what they want for fun? No. Do I think them reading these books indoctinates them? No--you aren't looking for in depth social commentary when you pick up "The Devil Wears Prada." You want to laugh.

Oh and most books and music are about finding love, so I don't think that's just chicklit. I mean the themes of "About a Boy" by Hornby are pretty much exactly the same as chicklit. Even Palahniuk, who is considered "transgressive" writes pretty much all about finding someone to love.

It's nice that my damaged memory has apparently latched onto something a third party can confirm. One thing that I think it interesting is that of all the genres mentioned, only "chick-lit" has any tag-on (admittedly abbreviated) of the word "literature". I suspect this is less of an argument for the literary value of the books and more of a "what sounds best" situation. But that question leads me back to Grace's post in two ways: #1: Is Jane Eyre chick-lit and was Jane Austen a chick-lit writer? #2: Is Grace's concern not so much the whole respectability of "chick-lit" in general, and much more the idea that the Real Literature that women say they like shares so many themes with less respected genre stuff. For #2: Is the stuff in the guy section any less concerned with less respected genre crap? Adventure, murder, etc.? I don't know, as I cannot read and have not read any of the books on the list. I did see "Lord of the Rings", which I understand to be based on "The Hobbit". After seeing it, I spent the next two months experimenting with homosexuality, only to eventually realize that homosexuality is gay, and therefore, not for me. I do think that the two most popular stories in the US (and probably all over) are gender tales, either ones about being a Woman or being a Man. Consensus?

To answer the intelligible part of Simon's post... #1: Is Jane Eyre chick-lit and was Jane Austen a chick-lit writer? I'd say yes. #2: Is Grace's concern not so much the whole respectability of "chick-lit" in general, and much more the idea that the Real Literature that women say they like shares so many themes with less respected genre stuff. Yep, exactly. My gripe is with the idea that "women's books"--from "genre" chick lit all the way to Women's Literature, is basically concerned with the subject of getting heroines In Love and better yet Married Off.

I did my thesis on the intersection between 'chicklit' as a genre (and societal judgement) and political literature. Most women writers address some serious political issues through the lens of social networks. I concentrated on Kingsolver because her writing about love and family and community is seeped in politics and criticism of society's view of communities and women. She gets stuck in chicklit. Because she writes about women's lives without the self-censorship of 'things that make literature'. Christ, just look at 'Ulysses' for an example of literature that isn't about 'things'. Life, for women, has been scially constructed to revolve around relationships (whatever they may be) so it is no surprise to me that women writers use that as their basis for exploration of life.

"At the end of the day, to my eye, "Wuthering Heights," "Middlemarch," and "Pride and Prejudice" are all basically about getting married." Well, I disagree. One of the strongest themes in Middlemarch is how the social pressures towards matrimony can hurt *everyone*, not just women, and how several of the characters (both female and male) find themselves trapped in marriages that, in a more enlightened age, they could have left. (George Eliot's own unconventional relationships may have influenced her feelings about marriage = trap.) Also, Middlemarch is more about the unfairness of the class struggle in Britain, and the intolerable pressures resulting from totally unfair social inequalities. Wuthering Heights also subverts the 19th-century social ideals of matrimony by having a series of disastrous, toxic marriages throughout the book that aren't at all "happily ever after", and leave you feeling as if it would have been healthier if no one had married at all. Catherine Linton/Heathcliff and Hareton Earnshaw do get married at the end, but this is peripheral to the unfolding action of the novel, which centres around the complicated, bizarre character of Heathcliff and deals with issues of race (Heathcliff is probably black), social class (again - lots of that in English literature), madness, obsession, and good old Victorian melodrama (with a touch of necrophilia - nice touch, Emily). The only important "love story" bit is the affair between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw/Linton, which never really happens, because apart from all other considerations, she dies halfway through the novel. Pride and Prejudice is a lot more concentrated around getting married than Middlemarch and Wuthering Heights, but the idea here isn't the same as chick lit. Chick lit is mostly about young, modern women with careers who are preoccupied with getting married because they're lonely or want sex or whatever, and usually, after a series of calamities and poor choices (not to mention the shopping), the heroine ends up with some sweet dopey guy (hopefully with lots of money and charmingly floppy hair). In P&P, the women want to get married, not because they're lonely, but because if they don't, they'll likely be homeless, because women couldn't inherit property. If you read Jane Austen closely, her bitterness at the wretched unfairness of women's lot in life virtually leaps off the page at you. It's not about "Ohhh, I want to get married to some dreeeeamy guy", it's more about social commentary and women's rage at the ludicrous, appalling, horrible lack of options there were for women in Georgian England. Getting married wasn't fun and games - it was a matter of life or death. It's just not the same as chick lit. *Describing* women scrabbling about desperately trying to find husbands is not the same as *approving* of it. I wouldn't say P&P is about getting married at all. It's about women trying to find the most bearable way to live what is essentially an intolerable way of life, because if you make a mistake, you can't do a damn thing about it and you'll either starve to death or suffer horribly for the rest of your life. In that way, I think Jane Austen's books are practically protest works - there's so much social injustice in there, you could write a PhD thesis on it. Hm. I just looked up a database of PhD theses, and it appears quite a lot of people already have. Anyway, I wouldn't put too much belief in this book survey. I know plenty of men who are as obsessed with Austen, the Brontes and Eliot as I am, and feel powerfully influenced by fiction written by women also. :)

Oh god, I practically wrote a novel myself just then. Sorry! I get excited about 19th-century literature.

I tried to reply the other day but my computer kept crashing. GRRR! Jane Eyre/Bronte/ etc is actually classical LITERATURE. IE not genre fiction. All of the books on your list are ones that most of us had to read in HS. I would guess that's a good reason for them being on that list. A lot of people who read genre lit won't admit to it nor would they say it's their favorite book--it's popcorn. Also Jane Eyre-type lit is actually gothic lit, the predecessor to romance, so it's sort of has to be about marriage/romance. I have no idea what Women's Literature is. I would also point out that a quick look at amazon's literary fiction in general shows that pretty much ALL popular books are about families/romance/marriage. I don't think it's a woman thing, I think it's an everyone thing. I mean look at popular music! Everything is about finding that soulmate. Or them breaking up with you. Pretty much. And all of these lad books are about the same thing, sayign to me that everyone is interested in these subjects. Is that right? I would say no, but I don't think it's a "woman" thing or a marketing to women thing.

Ok, but what we're not asking here is WHO is making decisions about what is and is not publishable? It seems to me that the publishing industry is still, to this day, heavily male-dominated. Therefore, what we see gracing the shelves of a bookstore is not necessarily what is being written, but what publishers think women should be writing about and will sell. Lord knows there are thousands of would-be authors out there who either don't have the publicist that Atwood does, or whose books haven't been snapped up by a publisher. Second, what is the recent proliferation of Chick Lit doing for feminism? Is it reversing the gains made by first and second-wave feminists? Or is it a result of a fourth wave of feminism where it is ok to celebrate one's femininity while at the same time remaining a feminist? Just a few thoughts that have been bugging me about this genre (because I, too, happen to have snuck a few guilty pleasures from time to time with Kinsella's and other such books). Another thought: why has this genre not yet proliferated among Canadian authors?

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Cowboys are My Weakness

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Cowboys are My Weakness book coverby Pam Houston
W.W. Norton and Company, January 1992

I'll admit it, I picked this up based on the title. I mean, what a great title, right? Unlike most books chosen based on title, though, this one paid off. It's a great book of short stories, mostly centered around women's relationships with men who are unsuitable for one reason or another, generally due to being one kind or another of "cowboy."

Which I realize doesn't make it sound very good. In fact, it makes it sound pretty fucking trite. But it's mostly not.

Houston's female characters are strong and self-aware, even as they become enmeshed in or unraveled from men who are not good enough for them. They are thinking, feeling, acting women, and are fun to read about for that reason. She writes about them with empathy, but without pity, and although the strands of autobiography are certainly there, they don't seem to cloud things too much.

The best of the stories, though, are the ones that don't center around weak relationships, but around strong ones. The first of these, "For Bo," is a fairly simple tale of a day in the life of a woman, her husband, her dogs, and her pain-in-the-ass mother. It had me laughing hysterically, and it also had an underlying romantic feeling--real romance, not the flowers and lace kind--that left me feeling lighter for having read it. The second, the book's last story, "In My Next Life," is the heartbreaking tale of a friendship between two women, one of whom is dying of cancer, and of its unrealized potential. Though the story is very sad, Houston's decision to have it end a book of stories mostly about unsatisfactory relationships between women and men is telling--I love the implication that, as Abby says in the story, there is so much more to life than romantic relationships with men.

Other reviews of this book have criticized the similarities between Houston's female characters (almost all Easterners in love with the West, almost all women in love with untameable men, blah blah blah), and those criticisms are valid. However, given the shortness of the stories and the differing conclusions (or un-conclusions) the women in them come to, I was not bored by this similarity. I felt it gave the book an overarching narrative, something that tied all of the short pieces together, and I liked that.

I'll admit that cowboys are my weakness, too. Not in the sense of specific men, as is the case in most of Houston's stories, but in the sense of my having a natural predilection towards anything "
"Western." I get a pass on it, because I'm actually from the West, but it may have biased me in favor of this book. Be that as it may, though, I enjoyed the stories a lot and would recommend them.

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Final batch of book reviews

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These are the first three books we've read in my U.S. Policy History course this semester, and once I get this review up, I'll be all caught up!

On Capitol HIll book coverby Julian E. Zelizer
Cambridge University Press, March 22, 2004

Don't read this book. It's boring. I'm interested in policy history and how Congress works, and I was bored out of my mind. It's also a lousy primer, because it skips around in time and doesn't spell things out clearly. It's a book all about Congressional reform written for people who already know all about Congressional reform. With that audience of around 13, Zelizer ought to be rolling in dough.

Friends in High Places book coverby David McKean and Douglas Frantz
Little, Brown; 1st ed edition, September 12, 1995

Clark Clifford was a powerful Washington insider/lobbyist/lawyer/Secretary of Defense for LBJ. He reigned in Washington all the way from Truman's administration through Clinton's, and pulled all sorts of tricks without getting caught until the late 80s in a shady banking deal. This book is a fairly sympathetic biography of him, and it's a fun read if you are in to political scandal, especially as it has changed (or not) over the years. I didn't come away from the book liking or respecting Clifford (who was a liberal Democrat, or at least supposed to be one), as I think the authors may have wanted me to, but I did come away from it amused and aghast, and there was definitely some political dirt in it worth knowing. It was also interesting to get an idea of the old-school cronyism that went on to mediate my feelings about W's brand--he's not doing anything that wasn't perfected before he was even born. Maybe thinking things never actually change makes me a bad historian, but if the shoe fits...

LBJ book coverby Robert Dallek
Oxford University Press, USA, January 8, 2004

If you thought the Clifford book was scandalous...

LBJ liked to show his penis to people. 'Nuff said.

This book is a shortened version of Dallek's much longer and more complete LBJ biography. If you are going to read one of the two, I suggest this one, because the other one is just way too much LBJ, though the editing isn't very good and there are things he leaves out that I would have kept in and visa versa. That being said, it's another fun read, because LBJ was a political dynamo, as well as being an absolutely appalling human being, and the things he did and said leave you both laughing and seething. And, weirdly, sometimes respecting him (especially when he was in the Senate). Sort of the way you'd respect Madonna as a businessperson but not a musician, I guess. Also like Madonna, it's worth a look at LBJ's early work--we think too much about how his career ended up and not enough about how it began. Anyway, it's an entertaining book, if presidential biography is your thing, but it's certainly not the best one I've read.

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(Cross-posted at Avast! Feminist Conspiracy!)

Selling Women Short book coverby Liza Featherstone
Basic Books, November 30, 2004

This excellent, interview-based book follows the case of Dukes v. Wal-Mart, the gigantic class-action suit brought against Wal-Mart by its female employees. Journalist Featherstone talks to what have to be a hundred current and former Wal-Mart employees, managers, lawyers, etc. in her effort to get the whole story, and the story isn't pretty. The picture painted is one of institutional discrimination against women on a scale of over a million. The discrimination permeates all levels at Wal-Mart, with women making less than men for the same jobs, being sexually harassed, and all of the usual crimes. The thing that makes Wal-Mart different, though (or at least this is the case the prosecution will be making) is that the policy of discrimination is not limited to a given man, or a given store, but to the entire, huge company. As women fight their ways up the management ranks at Wal-Mart, things get worse rather than better, and eventually nearly all women top out. For all of its rhetoric about being woman-friendly and family-friendly, Wal-Mart does worse by women than any other company its size.

The strength of Featherstone's book is on two counts. The first is her persuasive rhetoric and extensive interviewing, the second is her focus. Featherstone largely allows the women involved in the case to speak for themselves as to their treatment at Wal-Mart, and their stories provide a very strong foundation for the institutional statistics she provides, but doesn't bore you with. Giving Wal-Mart management their say, she also talks extensively to current and former high level Wal-Marters, and quotes from the testimony that has already been heard in the pre-trial motions for the case. While her sympathy to the protestants is obvious, she seems a decent journalist in at least trying to get the other side of the story. Such as it is.

As opposed to other anti-Wal-Mart pieces, such as The High Cost of Low Prices, Featherstone focuses her work not on everything that is wrong with the company, but specifically on its sexism. While she does end up arguing that unionization will do more for Wal-Mart's female employees than this lawsuit or anything else that may come along, she spends most of the book focusing on the specific problems of female Wal-Mart workers, and given how much information is available just on that one subject, this is a good call. Though the discrimination of women at Wal-Mart does tie into other problems with the company (hypocritical conservative moralism, poor treatment of workers), it is refreshing to see a focus on women, and to see Featherstone's academic rigor in defining her subject.

Overall, this book is the best piece I've seen or read on the evil that is Wal-Mart. While it misses whole huge problems with what Wal-Mart does (like the conditions of overseas workers, for example), it does a wonderful job with the issue that it does take up, which is one of the ones that I'm most concerned with as a feminist. I'd highly recommend it.

Sisters book coverby Jean H. Baker
Hill and Wang, September 14, 2005

I picked up this book after watching the movie about Alice Paul and the end of the suffrage movement, Iron-Jawed Angels. I realized while watching the film that I didn't know enough about Paul, or about feminism's "First Wave" in general, to tell if the movie was giving her a fair portrayal or not. This book was a good introduction, I think, but more information will definitely be needed.

Sisters is divided into five sections, each dedicated to the life and work of one particular famous suffragist: Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, and Alice Paul. By her own admission, Baker focuses more on the women themselves than on the history of the work they did. In her mind, the women of the first generation of American feminism are largely forgotten by all us Second Wavers and beyond, relegated to images of uptight prudes in high-collared dresses, with no lives or histories of their own, and she seeks to correct that. Due to this focus, and to each section only being about 50 pages long, she doesn't get much into the politics and activism, so look for that elsewhere. What she does talk about is each woman's childhood (three of five were very bad), religion (two Quakers, two Christians, and one atheist), personal relationships (Stone and Stanton were married, the other three were not, and four of the five women may have had lesbian relationships), and general personality. So I came out of the reading knowing not a whole lot more than I had started out knowing about suffrage politics, but thinking that Susan B. Anthony was probably been a damn fun person to be around, while Lucy Stone was probably not.

Given what it is--a lightweight, biographical account of five tremendously important women in less than 300 pages--it's fantastic. And while I hunger for more information, I know at least know what and who specifically I want more information on. Alice Paul remains the most intriguing figure to me, and Frances Willard appeals even less than before. The earliest years of the suffrage movement, particularly those that eclipse the Civil War and Reconstruction, are unbearably depressing, and it's much more fun to focus on the 20th century part of the battle. The book gives me lots of starting points. It's also a very easy read, and I'd recommend it for others who, like me, are embarrassingly ignorant of the suffrage movement in the U.S., especially if it is something you want to know about and don't want to dedicate a lot of time to. Iron-Jawed Angels isn't bad on that count either, actually. I'm going to be trying to move on to something a bit more substantive next, so suggestions are welcome.

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Reading Oprah book coverby Cecilia Konchar Farr
State University of New York Press, November 4, 2004

This is an interesting little book. Even though it's written by a full professor (at St. Catherine's College in St. Paul, Minnesota), it seems almost like a dissertation. A really good dissertation, but a dissertation. I think the short length is part of the reason, but part of it is also Farr's willingness to take up a topic that, as she admits, more "serious" scholars have avoided.

And, she thinks (and so do I), avoided to their detriment. Oprah's Book Club has been an amazing force, and one worth studying. Farr does a great job of it, too, associating the Book Club not only within contemporary American consumer and talk show culture, but within the history of the novel and the book group as well. She's obviously done her homework, making insightful comments both on the books that have been chosen and on the shows that were dedicated to them, and I agree with 99% of the insights she provides.

She also provides, as an appendix, a complete list of the books Oprah took on in the first six years (her "regular" book club, before she started with the classic stuff she's doing now). She analyzes the choices and argues that many of them are good books, no matter what any book club critic says. She goes into the Jonathan Franzen incident as well, and unsurprisingly comes out on Oprah's side.

One criticism I do have is that Farr didn't spend as much time as I'd have liked answering the book club's critics. When she did, she rightly pointed out the classism in their criticism, and touched on the racism, but shyed away from the gendered element, at least more than I thought she should have. She does point out how many of the books Oprah chose are from female authors, previously unknown authors, and minority authors, though, which is good.

For anyone who is interested in Oprah's Book Club, the history of the novel, or just reading a short, well-done cultural study, I'd recommend this one.

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Grace's feminist canon

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My friend T. recently asked me for a list of my favorite feminist books, to use for a book review website project he's putting together. Unable to contain myself with the joy of this task, I put together a fairly comprehensive list (though I edited it down quite a bit). It was so much fun, I thought I'd share it here. Disagree with my picks? Think I left something essential out? Comment--I'd love to hear what you think!

Foundations

vindication of the rights of women1. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (W.W. Norton and Company, 1987)
2. The Second Sex by Simone DeBeauvoir (Everyman's Library, 1993)
3. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (W.W. Norton and Company, 1963)

It's tempting to me to skip these books altogether, because I don't like any of them, but I think they are necessary as foundation if you really want to get into this stuff.

Histories

the world split open4. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America by Ruth Rosen (Penguin, 2001)
5. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left by Sara Evans (Vintage, 1980)
6. Tidal Wave: How Women Changed at Century's End by Sara Evans (Free Press, 2003)
7. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women by Estelle Freidman (Ballantine Books, 2003).

If you only read one book about feminism, the Ruth Rosen book gets my vote. It's very comprehensive, yet easy to read, and it has an amazing bibliography, sorted by subject. It's a great place to start. Personal Politics is also important, as it situates 2nd wave feminism in the other social movements of the time, which is something people are likely to miss. I haven't read Tidal Wave, but given what a good historian Sara Evans is, I can't imagine it's anything but good. Freedman is also a top-notch historian, and her book is excellent. It does a better job than the others with feminism before the 1960s.

2nd Wave
Dear Sisters8. Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement edited by Robin Morgan (Random House, 1970)
9. Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement edited by Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon (Basic Books, 2001)
10. Sexual Politics by Kate Millett (Doubleday, 1970)
11. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution by Shulamith Firestone (Vintage, 1971)
12. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (McGraw Hill, 1971).

Of the first two, which are both document/essay collections, I'd say Sisterhood is Powerful is probably the better book, but Dear Sisters is a lot easier on the eyes and more reader-friendly. Both are definitely worth reading. The other three are all books written by activist women during the late 60s and early 70s. Kate Millett's has to do with sexism in literature, while Greer's and Firestone's are more broad-reaching.

3rd Wave

manifesta13. To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism by Rebecca Edby Walker (Anchor, 1995)
14. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000)
15. Listen Up! Voices from the Next Feminist Generation edited by Barbara Findlen (Seal Press, 1995)
16. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio (Seal Press, 2002)

I'm not a huge fan of most of the 3rd wave writing, but I think Manifesta gives a nice overview, and I am a big fan of nearly everything Rebecca Walker has written. Listen Up! is also a primer of sorts--short, easy-read essays. There is actually a newer version of it as well, Listen Up 2 Edition, which was published in 2001, but I haven't read it. Cunt is a must-read.

Radical Feminism

gynecology17. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism by Mary Daly (Beacon Press, 1990)
18. Pornography: Men Possessing Women by Andrea Dworkin (E.P. Dutton, 1989)
19. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law by Catharine A. MacKinnon (Harvard University Press, 1988)

This is a category I am not all that well-versed in, but I've read Pornography, and got quite a lot out of it, and the other two books seem to be standards.

Women of Color

feminism is for everybody20. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks (South End Press, 2000)
21. Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks (South End Press, 1981)
22. Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis (Vintage, 1983)
23. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lord (Crossing Press, 1984)
24. Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman (Seal Press, 2002)

I am ashamed to say that I don't know nearly as much as I should about this category. However, I can vouch for both the Davis book and Feminism is for Everybody, and I have heard nothing but good things about Ain't I a Woman. Sister Outsider is mostly short stuff, and I have read most of it and loved all I've read. Colonize This! is anther one I haven't read, but since the rest of these are older writings/writings by older women, I think it's good to include a younger perspective as well.

Sexual Minority Feminism

stone butch blues25. Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation by Karla Jay (Basic Books, 1999)
26. Stone Butch Blues: A Novel by Leslie Feinberg (Firebrand Books, 1993)
27. Female Masculinity by Judith Halberstam (Duke University Press, 1998)
28. Amazon to Zami: Towards a Global Lesbian Feminism edited by Monika Reinfelder (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1996)

Again I haven't read all of these, but have heard good things about all of them. I can personally vouch for Tales of the Lavender Menace and Stone Butch Blues, and neither should be missed, in my opinion.

Beauty/Body Image

the beauty myth29. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf (Anchor, 1992)
30. Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image edited by Ophira Edut (Seal Press, 2003) (Formerly Adios, Barbie! Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity, Seal Press, 1998)
31. Girl Culture by Lauren Greenfield and Joan Jacobs Brumberg (Chronicle Books, 2002)

The Beauty Myth is an all-time favorite of mine, and I think it holds up well over time. Body Outlaws is more fun to read, however, and is also quite good. Girl Culture is a photo essay book, and it's amazing.

Memoirs/Autobiographies

in our time32. In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution by Susan Brownmiller (Delta, 2000)
33. Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant by Andrea Dworkin (Basic Books, 2002)
34. Saturday's Child: A Memoir by Robin Morgan (W.W. Norton and Company, 2000)
35. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem (New American Library, 1992)

For my money, memoirs are the best way to get into reading feminist writers, especially someone like Andrea Dworkin. The Brownmiller and Morgan memoirs are both excellent, and Steinem's is a bit too wishy-washy for my taste, but you can't argue with her selling power or her staying power.

Misc

backlash36. Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape by Susan Brownmiller (Ballantine Books, 1993)
37. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi (Crown, 1991)
38. Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood by Naomi Wolf (Random House, 1997)
39. Femininity by Susan Brownmiller (Ballantine Books, 1985)

These are about a variety of topics, obviously, but they are books I think are important and beneficial that don't fit in elsewhere.

4 Comments

So, what book would you recommend as a primer for the average guy?

Hrm. Depends. I think Against Our Will is the one guys should really read, but it is a tough read and it's certainly not a primer. On a more accessible front, Femininity gives some insight guys would do well with having.

Hey Grace! I'm working on my Master's in Women's Studies at TWU in Denton, and we are required to take a couple of classes dealing with women of colors. The books we read in the "intro" class were real eyeopeners: This Bridge Called My Back, by Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga and the follow up text, This Bridge We Call Home by AnaLouise Keating and Gloria Anzaldua. Dr. Keating teaches the class, btw, so it's totally excellent. Anyway, in my Epistemologies class we are reading Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins, which is EXCELLENT also. Just thought I'd throw a couple of really great ones into the pot for consideration...

excellent list- thanks!

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Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music

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Rednecks and Bluenecks cover.jpgby Chris Willman
New Press, November 17, 2005

This book is a fascinating look at the political makeup of the stars and establishment of country music. Working both forward and backward from the Dixie Chicks' scandal, Willman interviews a whole host of musicians, songwriters, and other country music types to get their takes on where the country music establishment falls on the political spectrum.

Unsurprisingly, most everyone agrees that the majority of mainstream country acts are conservative, while the majority of alt-country/Americana acts are liberal. What's interesting, though, are the nuances to these positions that the interviewees themselves articulate, as well as the ways they have found to put their political differences aside and work and play together, as shown in the cover photo of the very liberal Willie Nelson and the conservative (and, IMO, war-mongering and obnoxious) Toby Keith.

Some of the interviews are surprising, some are typical, some are just frightening. Willman's goal is to let the interviewees speak for themselves, with minimal editorializing, and he does that, although it's clear in his choice of who to talk to and what he quotes them as saying where his loyalties lie. Toby Keith is irritating. Uber-Christian Sara Evans both typical and grinding, as is Ricky Scaggs (who proves the exception to the alt-country rule as a bluegrass musician who is also very conservative). Ronnie Dunn is just plain frightening. To my mind, though, Steve Earle, Roseanne Cash, Nanci Griffith, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and especially Rodney Crowell (i.e. the liberals) come off in a much better light. Of course, that could just be because I agree with them. It isn't coincidental, however, that most of the people making sucky mainstream country are conservatives while the ones making music that is interesting and worth listening to are liberal. As someone (I think Alison Moorer) finally points out, a lot of "star" performers are just plain dumb.

For me, the book's highlight is one of the final chapters, when Willman takes on the political postions of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. He points out that everyone from right to left claims both of these men as one of their own, but they aren't so easy to pin down. For a take on Cash's positions, he talks to daughter Roseanne Cash, former son-in-law Rodney Crowell, friends Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, etc. The picture that comes out is one of a man who considered his individual positions carefully, who never stopped caring about the "common man," and whose Christian faith did temper his politics. Kris Kristofferson related an anecdote of opening for Cash and riling up the conservative audience with a lot of his own liberal banter. When he went to apologize, Cash wouldn't hear it, saying that Kris had every right to his opinions. I admire that.

Being still alive, Haggard mostly spoke for himself, and was one of the more articulate and admirable folks interviewed. He admitted to being mercurial and having positions that changed over time, but basically came off as another man who thinks his positions out for himself and doesn't subscribe to a particular idealogy. As far as his voting record, I laughed outloud when Haggard pointed out that as an ex-con, he couldn't vote, so he never got used to doing it and never has. That puts a bit of a different spin on things, doesn't it?

All in all, this is definitely a book worth reading, particularly for a country music junkie. Having read it, I was forced to order a few new CDs from BMG, and I've been spinning the Dixie Chicks' Home in the car since the first chapter. Though not much in here is revolutionary, it's interesting to see it all pulled together, and Willman (a writer for Entertainment Weekly) does a good job with the material.

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I look forward to reading this book. Thanks for the review!

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Nine Steps to Financial Freedom book coverby Suze Orman
Random House, Inc., December 2000

While I was feeling sick and depressed last week, I decided thinking about finances probably wouldn't make things any worse, so I picked up this book. Suze Orman has been recommended to me before, though I think the book I was actually supposed to read was The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke. However, that one was not available at the Goodwill for $1.99, and this one was, so this is the one I picked up.

And, freakish pictures of the author aside, I'm not sorry I picked it up. As far as financial books go, this is about the best one I've read. The first 3/4 of it are basic financial advice: investing, wills and trusts, credit cards, etc. A lot of it was review, some of it was new, and all of it is useful. It gave me a much needed butt kicking as far as putting steps in place to work towards my 2006 financial goals, and it wasn't nearly so preachy and holier-than-thou as it could have been. I felt like the audience Orman was speaking to was a bit older and a bit wealthier than I am, but it was still helpful.

The really interesting part of the book, though, is the last quarter. Here, Orman talks less about the nuts and bolts of good financial planning and more about her philosophies of money. The part that really got me was the chapter where she advocates for generous charitable giving. She doesn't argue for it on the basis of your tax refund, or any sort of PR, but says that in her view, being generous gives you a kind of good money karma, and the more generous you are, the better money will come back to you. I was reminded of the Girl Scout song about love being like a magic penny, hold it close and you won't have any, spend it, lend it, you'll have so many, they'll roll all over the floor. Anyway, this is a philosophy I can get behind. Orman goes on to say that the best way she's found to get herself out of a financial slump or depression is to give. I don't know how typical that is in the realm of financial advice, but I'm guessing not very, and I admire that. And agree with it.

My biggest criticism of the book is Orman's anti-tax rhetoric. I know it's par for the course, but it still irritates me. We pay taxes for a reason, it's not just some evil system to part you from your money, and while I agree that there is no need to pay more than your fair share, I'm irked by the idea of trying to manipulate what that fair share is, particularly when it is major wealth you're protecting. Still, given the genre, this is a fairly minor component of Orman's overall philosophy, so it wasn't that hard to stomach.

All in all, I found this book fairly compelling and not near so bad to read as it could have been, given that reading financial instruction is not my idea of a good time. Orman advocates an involved, hands-on approach to financial planning, which makes good sense to me. I'll take much of her advice, and I didn't find the rest of it, or the parts that just don't apply to me at this point, to be too self-aggrandizing. Good stuff.

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just so's we're clear: she's *my* bff. i'll check that book out from the library. i was hesitant because i hadn't heard anything about it and didn't want something that would assume i, you know, have a job or something.

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Farewell to Arms

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farewell to armsby Ernest Hemingway
Scribner; Reprint edition, June 1, 1995
336 pages

For those who, like me, are new to the audiobook world, I have a tip to share: skip the classics. If you are going to read classic literature, pick it up and read it. Listening to it is no good.

At least that was the case with me and Farewell to Arms. I like Ernest Hemingway a lot, perhaps more as a character than as a writer, but as a writer as well. I've read most of his other work, and am a particular fan of The Sun Also Rises. So I was happy when, upon finding myself with several hours alone in a car over my Christmas break, I thought of taking along the old CDs of Farewell to Arms I've been hanging on to since we made the Portland-Austin trip.

And it started off well enough, with the somewhat baudry (in that early 20th century way) tales of a muddled displaced American man, working as an ambulance driver for the Italian army during World War I. But then the love story came in. Ug, ug, ug. I really, really disliked Catherine Barkley. The outcome of the story was clear from the point of her pregnancy announcement on, but still, I couldn't wait for it to just happen and get over with so I wouldn't have to listen to her stupid, stilted dialogue one more time. Every other word was "darling." Every other word! And Henry, who was minorly interesting in the non-Catherine elements of the story, turned into a simpering idiot when she was part of the scene, replying with a similarly unnecessary barage of "darlings." It was enough to make one puke.

It occured to me, towards the end of the final disc, that I would probably be having a lot less harsh reaction to the bad dialogue if I were reading the book, rather than listening to it. I probably still wouldn't like Catherine Barkley, but she wouldn't make me want to claw my ears out. So no more classic lit on CD for me. Some things are definitely best left on the page.

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A Million Little Pieces

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A MIllion Little Pieces book coverby James Frey
Anchor, September 22, 2005

I really wish I'd gotten my shit together to review this before all of the news about how much of it might be fiction started swirling around. But since I didn't, I feel some responsibility to talk about that, as well as about the book itself. Oh well.

The drama, in case you live under a rock, is that the truth of a number of the claims Frey makes in this book, a memoir, is being contested. You can take a look at this article if you'd like more information. My thoughts are that Frey probably did exaggerate or simply make up some of the things he writes in A Million Little Pieces. Mostly, though, I don't care.

My not caring is twofold. First, this is a great book, and it would be a great book if it were fiction, so why should it matter how much of it actually happened? Secondly, I think it's naive to expect a memoir to be 100% factual (if 100% factual even exists). People write with an agenda, people even remember with an agenda, and that's always going to come across, to some extent. That being said, if it's true that Frey exaggerated or invented a lot of what is in this book, then a disclaimer to that effect should have been printed at the front of the book. Tim O'Brien, one of my favorite writers of all time, wrote several partially-factual/partially-fiction works dealing with Vietnam. His response to critics of his not being 100% accurate was that he was writing the truth about what being there felt like, about what being there was, and sometimes the actual facts fit into that and sometimes they don't. I can accept that, and I even admire the perspective. But it's not fair to the reader not to lay it out at the beginning if that is what you are doing. O'Brien does lay it out, and Frey probably should have.

That all being said, I thought this was a very high quality book. The plot is, in many ways, predictable. Frey is a young, well-off, white alcoholic, drug addict, and criminal. The book is the story of his six-week "last chance" rehab, during which time he comes off his addictions and begins his path of sobriety. Nothing revolutionary there. However, Frey's writing is top notch, which makes the story interesting to read, and his take on addiction and recovery is much less that you find in most people who write about it and much more like that I've found in the real life addicts I know. Frey has little respect for AA or 12 stepping in general, and he insists throughout the book on taking responsibility for his own actions and for his addictions. He even finds fault with the untouchable tenant that addiction is a disease. To me, at least, these things are interesting. And whether Frey the human being ever really held them or to what extent matters very little to me. What I'm interested in is what Frey the writer has to say about them.

I like this book because it was interesting to read, it didn't remind me of every other addiction book I've ever read, and it made me think. None of those things require a single word of it to have been true. So I recommend you read it. However, if there is a sharp and important delineation in your mind between fiction and memoir, you'd probably better read this one as fiction.

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I wholeheartedly agree. Lots of great books are fiction. War of the Worlds is good as fiction precisely BECAUSE people thought it was so powerful they believed it is true. Whether you think the Bible is fiction or non-fiction, it still has good stories. I don't get why if very very small facts in this book were different it would be less good. I mean the overarching story is still true anyways (he was an addict...he got clean). And I don't see how not being able to verify something means it isn't true.

I agree with most of what is said here. The only thing that bothers me is that there are people out there with a real story to tell, that will have a hard time getting noticed now, in light of the press this book received. Overall, I wondered what the big deal was about. It's a book...

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Shoot the Moon

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Shoot the Moon book coverby Billie Letts
Warner Books, July 1, 2005

Billie Letts' newest book, Shoot the Moon, is a lot better than her first, the saccharine Where the Heart Is. Though the characters Letts follows through Shoot the Moon are from similar geographic and socioeconomic situations as those in Where the Heart Is, they are much better fleshed out and much easier to identify with, even if the plotline is similarly unusual. Whereas I spent most of Where the Heart Is irritated with the characters' and plotline's sillyness, I was cautiously enamored with both in Shoot the Moon.

The basic premise of the novel is the return of a man, Nicky Jack Harjo, to the small Oklahoma town of his birth. The twist is that Harjo has no idea he was born there, and knows nothing about the circumstances of his disappearance from the town at the age of 10 months. What unfolds is the reopening of the nearly 30 year-old murder case of Harjo's mother. While unravelling the mystery, Harjo befriends several townspeople, including some of his long-lost family.

This is not great literature. It's a sweet and strange story, kept exciting by the element of mystery. It's a good airplane read, which is where I read it. Go into it with those expectations, and you shouldn't be disappointed.

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The Stone Diaries

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The Stone Diaries book coverby Carol Shields
Penguin (Non-Classics), April 1, 1995

This book won a Pulitizer Prize in 1995, and it was an honor well deserved. I'd never even heard of it, I just picked up up at the Goodwill because the description on the back cover intrigued me, but once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down.

The story is a fictionalized autobiography of one Daisy Goodwill Flett. Born around the turn of the 20th century and living until the 1980s, Shield's Flett reflects simultaneously on her own tragic life and the life of a North American century. The mix and overlap between these two subjects is fascinating, and Shields' writing is first rate, making this a pleasure to read.

Though it is written as if it's an autiobiography, The Stone Diaries does not limit itself to subject matter that its protagonist could have known. Starting on the day of Daisy's birth, with her mother, Mercy, and moving both backward and forward through time, the book gives perspectives and experiences of many of the supporting characters as well, including Daisy's father, the woman who raises her, her husband, and her children. Though the speaker is sometimes not clearly identified, the moves between perspectives are far less confusing than would be expected (don't worry, it doesn't read like As I Lay Dying or anything like that). The story is actually told in a way I don't think I've ever seen before, with a mix of omniscent and present narration, and constantly moving time and perspective. Shields deserves her award just for being able to pull that off successfully, nevermind the story!

But the story is compelling. Daisy's life is hard and full of tragedy (the childbearing death of her mother, twice widowhood, etc.), but the tragedy takes backseat the both Daisy's and the other characters' knack for reinvention of themselves when circumstances change. Both as a human story and as a parable for the countries in which the novel takes place (the U.S. and Canada), these reinventions work very well.

I was impressed enough by this book that I passed it on to my mother, and I will be on the lookout for more of Carol Shields' work. I'd definitely recommend it.

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Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood

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smashed book coverby Koren Zailckas
Viking Adult, February 7, 2005
368 pages

This is another one I didn't read, but listened to. And there was a big gap in my listening, as I didn't make it to the gym for the whole month of December, for various and sundry reasons.

During the time when I wasn't listening to it, though, I was still thinking about it. And when I put my iPod headphones back on during my flight to Oregon for Christmas, it took only a minute for me to be right back in Zailckas' story.

Whether you agree with Zailckas' conclusions or not (I haven't totally decided yet, myself), this is a great book. It is part memoir, with Zailckas chronicling her drinking life from her first drink as a young teenager to quitting in her early twenties; part treatise on the fucked up nature of America's relationship to alcohol, with a specific emphasis on the relationship between booze and young women. These two threads meld together very nicely, with the author making it clear that she's after more than a retelling of her story, which is, in most ways, pretty average. Zailckas says that she is not an alcoholic, but that she has a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. This dysfunctional relationship, however, is both shared by many of her peers and condoned by society, and the places in which she points this out are the most thought-provoking in her book.

The stories Zailckas tells about her drinking, particularly in college, are very like those I and my friends experience, and very like those experienced by college students across the country. Very little about them is exceptional, and on the whole they aren't even all that extreme. Zailkcas experiences alcohol poisoning, blackouts, and even possible date rape, but none of these stories are all that unique. One fear I have about this book is that people will misread it as a worse-case scenario cautionary tale. It's not. Koren Zailckas mostly did what was expected of her, mostly succeeded in the ways in which she was supposed to (being a cheerleader, joining a sorority, graduating from college, getting a job), and mostly got off easy. However, the normalcy of her experiences, and of the emotional retardation she attributes to them, doesn't make them any less of a problem. Hopefully readers of this book realize that.

Zailckas' conclusions about alcohol may lean on the side of teetolating a bit too much for some readers. She is not a believer in moderation, and does not seem to think most people are even willing or capable of drinking moderately. This may strike some readers as overly dramatic, but given the strong argument Zailckas makes between the "typical" use of alcohol among young people and a whole host of other issues, I can see how she gets there. While I never abused alcohol to the extent she did in college, many of the people I know did, and I can definitely see an argument for this abuse being a detriment not only to their lives at that time, but to the growing up they were supposed to be doing.

A final thing about this book I find striking is the short retrospect with which Zailckas writes. It is my understanding that she quit drinking at 22 or 23 and published Smashed at 24. Normally, memoirs having to do with things about which an individual is not proud, such as substance abuse, take longer to come to the surface, and I admire Zailckas' willingness to write about these issues without further distance from them. In some ways, it means more coming from someone who isn't far removed from it than it does coming from someone who is writing about his/her more distant past. It's more authentic, even if it does also have the prosletizing smack of the newly converted.

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Book recommendations needed

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I am finally seeing the light at the end of the semester tunnel, and I am getting all excited about reading for pleaure again. And reading real books, not the light stuff I've been reading in between school books. So I need recommendations! Specifically, I am interested in:

1. Really good biographies. Doesn't matter who the subject is, I love a good biography.
2. Face-paced non-U.S. history books. In specific, I'd like to read something comprehensive about the Russian Revolution. French and Chinese Revolutions would be interesting as well.
3. Really spectacular fiction. I'm not much for fiction in general these days, so it has to be really excellent fiction for me to be willing to devote much time to it.

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I just got this one: http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/biblio?inkey=17-1876175435-0 You might like it. Amazon

The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel That's a novel. I think heem very good.

I'm in your position too - looking forward to the between semester reading that's NOT for school. I splurged and bought two books, one of which is a Phillipa Gregory book (the new one). She's a historical fiction writer - a genre which I find really interesting. The first one of hers that I encountered was this one: http://www.philippagregory.com/BookBoleynGirl.shtml It's historical, but it's fiction, and I've always loved old history stuff like that. I'm a nerd. I'm amazed that I don't have anything else to suggest. Other than textbooks. I used to read 2 and 3 novels at a time...then came graduate school and put the kibosh on that... :-)

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I Have Chosen to Stay and FightTwisty has a brilliant review of Margaret Cho's new book-and-DVD combo on her site, and that is what got me thinking about writing this, though it has been in my head for some time. While I haven't read the book, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, I did see a live performance of Cho's Assasin tour (which is what the DVD is), so I am pretty familiar with what Twisty's talking about. And my reaction was very much like her's.

I think Margaret Cho is funny. But I think she used to be funnier, and I think her funniest bits now are the ones that happen when she stops trying so hard to be political, stops pandering to her gay male audience, and tells her own truth. Unfortunately, at least when I saw her, these moments were few and far between.

I have a vague memory of the first time I saw Margaret Cho, doing standup on TV. I still lived at home, so I guess it would have been the mid-90s. She was talking about a tour she took through the South, and said something about southern weather and racism, along the lines of: "It's not the heat, it's the humidity, and it's not the hate, it's the stupidity." It was brilliant. She went on to make fun of her mother, and I laughed until I was on the floor. Later, probably in I'm the One That I Want, she took on the celebrity machine that wanted her to lose weight and take "Asian" lessons in order to play herself on her short-lived sitcom. That was funny. And it was more than funny--it was personal, it was political, it was insightful. I miss that Margaret Cho.

In contrast, her Assasin show seemed mostly to be about the fabulousness of gay men. While I certainly have no problem with gay men, they're men, and frankly, I could use fewer men in my entertainment. More than that, though, I was uncomfortable with the underlying misogyny of the things Cho did say about women (most notable was the Laura-Bush's-pussy-tastes-like-Lysol comment--I really could have lived without that one). If these comments had been in the context of a woman-focused show, they'd have been no issue to me, but because they were pretty much all Cho seemed to have to say about women, they rubbed me completely wrong.

Twisty says that Cho is "an Air America personality, not a militant." I couldn't agree more with that statement. There is something uncomfortably trendy about Cho's politics, and it leaves me with the same discomfort as the rest of the Air America crowd does. Which pains me to say, because these are folks--particularly Cho and Janeane Garafalo--for whom I had tremendous respect before. I have absolutely no issue with celebrities taking on politics--in fact, I think it's great--but when they seem to be using politics to further their celebrity, rather than using their celebrity to further causes they believe in, I get a little bit itchy.

To compound my distaste, I came upon a blurb in some entertainment rag the other day announcing the production of Cho's new sitcom. That's cool, I thought. Then I read on, and saw how proud Cho was said to be about her recent weight loss. Now, this blurb could well have been bullshit (and I can't for the life of me remember where I read it), but if it's not, then how short a distance have we come? Didn't Cho already fight this battle? In my mind, her best work has been what she's had to say about this subject, but that doesn't mean I want her to have to go through it again.

I have great admiration for a lot of Margaret Cho's work, and I don't doubt her commitment to at least some of her political causes. However, Cho's words meant more to me before they seemed so constructed. I loved hearing her rail against racial and sexual stereotypes and the body image industry, and I missed that while I was listening to her go on and on about the fabulousness of all her gay male friends. I miss her being about women. There are so few celebrities out there who really seem dedicated to our gender, and it makes me sad to think we may have lost one.

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I agree on all points.
I think I saw that same show in the 90's - I remember her making fun of her Mom & it was hilarious. I was 15 at the time & I remember looking up to her for a long time.

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince CoverI am a Harry Potter-phile. Certainly not to the extent of some people (today has been my first troll around the fansites, for instance), but I'm a fan. I pre-ordered the book, I read it in two nights, etc. I've only read each book in the series once (though I have seen the first and third movies twice each, but that's more circumstance than anything else), but I have a pretty good idea of the general mythology. I think these books are Lord of the Rings for our generation, and they thrill me.

Which is why, now that I've gulped down book six, the second-to-last book, by most accounts, I am suffering from some post-Potter depression. I want more! I don't want to wait two years for it! I don't want just one more book! Wah!

Thinking about this last night, and about how lame it is that my joy at having just read book six and how good it was is overshadowed by what basically comes down to greed. Wanting more. I didn't take time to savor what I had, but rushed through it to get to the end, and now I'm sad to be done. It's one of those things I was supposed to learn better about when I was 5, you know?

And that got me thinking about Chance, and about how grief is, at least in part, about wanting more. It's about focusing on not having more time, rather than focusing on the time you had.

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Addie Bundren is dead (As I Lay Dying)

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as i lay dying coverI'll come right out and admit it: I'm a fan of Oprah's book club. Not only do I think it's a good idea in theory, and not only do I think it has been a help to a number of virtually unknown female authors, but I have also really liked quite a few of the books I've read (yeah, most weren't great literature, but a couple were, and most weren't crap). Anyway. A few weeks ago, I heard quite a bit of hoopla about Oprah's Summer of Faulkner. The upshot of her plan, if you don't feel like bothering with the link, is that she has picked three William Faulkner books for the club's summer month selections: As I Lay Dying for June, The Sound and the Fury for July, and Light in August for August. At first, my reaction was simply continued dismay that she is now highlighting dead white male authors who are already famous, rather than current female authors, as she was doing in the first few years. Then I considered that my exposure to Faulkner has been limited to three books, two of which were for school (Absalom, Absalom and As I Lay Dying) and one of which I tried to read on my own and got frustrated with and didn't finish (The Sound and the Fury). This fact, in combination with the fact that I have a Faulkner-obsessed Masters-in-Literature office mate, as well as my general brain atrophy, led me to decide that I was going to enroll in Oprah's Summer of Faulkner.

Other than just offering a reading list, Oprah has quite a bit of information available on her site--there is a new lecture posted every week, given by a Faulkner scholar and pertaining to the book that is currently being read. These lectures are not extremely academic, and they are not very long (about 20-30 minutes each), but so far they've been pretty good. The site also offers reading notes, Q&A, and a quiz on the book (I got 90% for As I Lay Dying!). Regardless of whether you love or hate Faulkner, it's not the easiest stuff in the world to read, especially when you aren't used to it, and these resources have definitely helped me get a lot more out of the book. As I mentioned, I'd read As I Lay Dying before, and I both liked it more and understood it better this time. Whether that should be attributed to my not being 16 anymore or to the resources I don't know, but it was a good experience either way.

So I'm looking forward to starting The Sound and the Fury, which is the one I didn't get more than a few chapters into the last time I tried it. And then I'm going to write a letter to Oprah and ask her if she wants to do James Joyce in the fall...

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I'm a big fan of both the OBC and Faulkner, too. I think Oprah gets a lot of criticism from more literary types because some of the books thrown into the mix were very simple "Secret Life of Bees/Ya-ya Sisterhood" type stories. What I wish they would acknowledge is that Oprah put those books in there specifically for women who had, in the words of one reader, "not read a book since high school." If Oprah had picked all Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Morrison right off the bat, the book club would not have been as successful. And you know, it's a tv show. You're not obligated to read every single book and then write a book report on it. Pick and choose the ones that are up to your standards, you know? Also, I think the whole flap over The Corrections and that asshole Franzen, complaining that his work was too lofty to be demeaned by the lazy, stupid eyes of us fat midwestern housewives may have soured her on living authors just a bit.

Love, love, love Faulkner! Absolom, Absolom! is one of my all-time favorite books, as is The Sound and the Fury. More people should read Faulkner, even if he is a dead, white man. Familiarity with Faulkner has made me a better reader of Toni Morrison who is neither dead, nor white, nor male...

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Book meme

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I've stolen this from an entry a few days back on Bitch, Ph.D..

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

We actually had a long midnight discussion about this once when I was in college. I can't remember what I said then, but now I think I'd go with People's History of the United States. Not fiction, I know, and quite a lot to memorize, but it's the first thing that came to mind. The Beauty Myth would be another contender.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
Hasn't everyone? The first one I remember having was on Sodapop Curtis from The Outsiders. Honestly, though, even before that, it was probably Harriet the Spy. Most recently I crushed on both of the main characters from The Time Traveller's Wife.

The last book you bought is:
Hrm...I'm not sure. The last book I remember buying was Temptress: From Original Bad Girls to Women on Top.


The last book you read:
Consumed: Why Americans Love, Hate, and Fear Food

What are you currently reading?
When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies: Freeing Yourself from Food and Weight Obsession. Sensing a pattern?

Five books you would take to a deserted island:

The Clown of God
Hayden Herrera's biography of Frida Kahlo (this is obviously the only way I would ever get through it)
Anything by Andrea Dworkin (see above)
Some complete works of the Bronte sisters collection
A really great art book


Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons)? And Why?
Honestly, I probably won't pass it on, but I'd like it if Frog, Melinda, and Emilin to do it. I'd also be curious to see what G. has to say.

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Anorectic (Confessions of a Reformed Dieter)

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confessions of a reformed dieterSo last night I'm on the Stair Stepper, listening to an audiobook I just downloaded. It's Confessions Of A Reformed Dieter: How I Dropped Eight Dress Sizes and Took My Life Back (perfect for the Stair Stepper, don't you think?). So I am listening and huffing and puffing along, and then she says it. Something that has been in the back of my mind since Tracey Gold was on the cover of People in 1992. Something that other people have thought and said as well, but never so clearly, at least not within my hearing.

Sad story articles about anorexic celebrities are not meant to be warnings, or just tear-jerkers. They are instruction manuals. The pictures they print of the "deathly skinny" celebrity aren't for shock value, they are something to aspire to.

Whether magazines do this on purpose or not is really neither here nor there, as far as I'm concerned. The fact of the matter is that I remember the Tracey Gold story in People really well. When it came out, I was 13 years old, skinny as a rail, and already worried about being fat. I read with fascination about how she guzzled liters of Diet Coke and only ate one meal a day (pasta with chicken, reheated over and over). I looked at the pictures of her frail arms and collarbones and did not think she looked sick, but thought she looked fabulous. Most of all, I read about her behavior not with sympathy, or with disgust, or even with morbid fascination, but with a sense of awe at her determination and will-power. I didn't pity her, or fear for her--I admired her.

In the first 30 minutes of her book, A.J. Rochester details many of the different diets she has tried, including the "All Egg Diet," the "All Apple Diet," Jenny Craig, South Beach, you name it. Telling the story of her initial attempts to diet, as an aspiring dancer and actress in mid-1980s Syndey, Australia, however, she talks about going on "the diet that was working so well for all of the models:" anorexia. She speaks clearly about seeing anorexia not as a disease, but as a diet plan, something to consciously aspire to. And that is exactly how I saw it reading about Tracey Gold in 1992, and how I am ashamed and horrified to admit I still see it today.

I intellectually know that you can't just be anorexic for long enough to drop your extra 20 lbs and then go back to normal. I know that the physical and emotional side effects of anorexia can be horrific at best, and can even be fatal. I know that the human body cannot survive without food, I know that laxatives give you diarrhea, I know that speed can bring on a heart attack. I know that the right way to lose the weight that is bothering me is to eat healthier and exercise. Still, though, my first thought, the one I don't admit even to myself, when reading about Mary-Kate Olsen or Laura Flynn Boyle or whomever, is still one of awe at the accomplishment of being a successful anorexic.

I've attempted anorexia a few times, and been a raging failure. Maybe my self-protection mechanisms are strong enough to keep it from happening. More likely, I'm just not disciplined enough to do it intentionally and it's never become an obsession for me, so I always fall of it as soon as I get hungry enough. Either way, I'm enormously lucky. If I were able to see these stories for the warnings that they should be, I would be thanking God for whatever has protected me from success in this endeavor. But I don't. Instead, in the back of my mind, in that place I don't like to admit to, I just feel another level of regret, of disgust in my lack of willpower. And there are no words for how fucked up that feeling is.

I'm not saying that the media should stop reporting on anorexia, or even necessarily that the way it's been done has been wrong. I'm just wondering how we got to the point where a description of the symptoms of a disease started to be a manual for how to get it. How did our feelings about our bodies get so fucked up that we intentionally work on wasting away? And Jesus, how can we fix it?

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natalie winter's website is a very coherent, often gruesome depiction of one woman's 30-odd year battle with anorexia. she doesn't shy away from describing in detail the kind of damage she's done to her body, her self-image, and her relationships, which is not usually something you get from the celebrity stories. also, wasted by marya hornbacher is another such account. and appetites by the late, brilliant caroline knapp takes a look at the larger reasons why women loathe themselves as much as they do. i don't know about the larger culture though. i think we have to start with one person at a time, starting with ourselves.

And, yes, w/r/t my request above, this is a really really helpful and good start.

Gosh, yes. I remember reading some warning-cum-celebrity-gossip about someone with an eating disorder, and they were discussing how she has used ipecac to induce vomiting. I had never heard of ipecac until then, and I promptly went out an bought a bottle. In the end, I didn't want it enough - just as I was too squeamish to ever manage to make myself vomit using my finger, I wasn't willing to stomach the taste of ipecac.

I feel absolutely and exactly the same. I am a constant failure at anorexia and I admire the people who have the incredible will power to do it. stories of others in magazines are dangerous ways of learning tricks. I am not advocating anorexia, merely saying that I understand and empathise with that crap feeling of failure! I wouldn't even say i have been anorexic as I haven't lost 15% of my body fat or whatever, but maybe it's the state of mind. I had never heard of laxatives before I read an article about a celebrity using them to diet and I bought them and the celebrity said she had taken 60/70 at a time so that's what I did.

to the previous "anonymous" comment- speaking as a semi-recovered anorexic who tried laxatives in the early days of my disease, I know for a fact that taking 60-70 pills will KILL YOU. The max I would ever take was 6 and that came damn close to liquifying my intestines. I would be sick on the toilet for hours with six pills. Multiply that by 10? you wouldn't be alive today, kiddo

Wow -- Grace, you summed up my feelings on my weight and body image 100% perfectly! I always think to myself that I am a failed anorexic. I too have the same protective mechanisms that stop me from going over the edge, but I obsess over my weight constantly --have my whole life. I don't know where it comes from or how to stop it, and I do look at those celeb stories as a how-to and am amazed by women who can drop 20 lbs in 2 months, even though I know it's sick. I really do want to break the cycle, but nothing I have read has convinced me of why I should be happy with my body (and I am a normal, healthy weight). And that makes me feel guilty because there are people with REAL problems out there....people with no arms or legs or sight...It's pathetic, and a viscious cycle I can't escape! But just reading people's comments who fit into my "not fat/not skinny" category is somehow comforting....

Hrmm that was weird, my comment got eaten. Anyway I wanted to say that it's nice to know that someone else also mentioned this as I had trouble finding the same info elsewhere. This was the first place that told me the answer. Thanks.

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simple living guide coverSo I'm reading Janet Luhrs' The Simple Living Guide. Well, not so much reading it as being consumed by it, actually. I have hardly put it down all day. With every passing chapter I am more and more sure that my life needs major changes, and that parts of what Ms. Luhrs writes about should be speaking to me very directly.

So, I'm probably about to embark on a whole bunch of navel-gazing entries. Don't say I didn't warn you.

The first thing she's got me thinking about is money, and shopping, and why I do it and what it means. This is hardly a new subject for me, but it's one I've sort of put aside for a while recently. It's cropped back up now not only because of the book, but also because Mark and I have started really looking at houses, and this is shopping like I have never known it before. First of all, with the exception of my education, I've never bought anything on credit before (I mean, I've used my credit cards, but I've never used them much and I've never used them to finance anything major). The whole idea of it feels really weird to me. Shopping for something that not only costs more than I have, but costs more than I will have for the next x amount of years, even if I remain gainfully employed--it's just a new way of looking at things.

The more interesting thing, though, is my impatience. Stupid as it is, I want to shop for a house like I do for everything else--on impulse. We looked at ten houses today, and if it had been totally up to me, I'd probably be writing up an offer on one of them tonight (Mark, thankfully, does not have this affliction). I can hardly stand the idea that this is going to take months. Now that we have decided to buy a house, I want to do it! And I'm like that about everything. What does that say about me?

One thing it says is that I have no patience and no attention span (surprise!). I've always just thought of those things as "the way I am," but in reality they can be changed if I have the discipline and the drive to change them. What would the benefit of being a more patient, mindful person be? Would I be healthier, sleep better, feel more at peace? I've never had any patience, can I learn patience now? Do I even want to?

Another thing it says is that I am massively insecure. I want to jump on a house right now because I am afraid it won't there tomorrow, and I'm like that about everything, too. I make decisions hastily for fear that my options will disappear if I don't. Why is that? It seems like most people are either "something better might come along" people or "I'll never have this chance again" people, and I am definitely in the latter category. But what makes us like that? While on one hand I have no desire to spend my entire life waiting for something better to come along, I also should know by now the danger in settling for something just because it's what is available now. Why is it so hard not to? Where does that insecurity come from? Does it come from growing up poor? From having an absent parent? Better stop, lest I start getting Freudian here.

I'm going to start a running list of things I'd like to do, for one reason or another. It's probably not going to make much sense, but I am going to keep it here so that it will be easy to add to and will stick in my mind.

1. Buy only used clothes. There would be some exceptions to this, like underwear and shoes, but I would LOVE to stop contributing to the demand for mass-marketed clothing, and the best way to do this, besides learning to sew, would be to only buy my clothes used. I know I could do this, too, if I had the discipline. It would make a huge difference financially, obviously, but it's something that I should do for political reasons as well.

2. Save 40%-50% of my income. Sounds like a lot, but I also know that a year ago I lived on less than 50% of what I am making now, so it's possible. Why can't I seem to do it?

3. Learn to meditate. I've always wanted to be able to meditate and my attempts so far have been dismal failures. A still mind is something I can't even imagine myself having. But I should at least try.

4. Get serious about volunteering. I have been volunteering here and there and everywhere for years, but I've not made a serious long-term commitment to anything. There are several things I feel strongly enough about that I'd like to commit time every week to them, and yet I don't. Where does the fear of being over-involved come from? Is this were I, too, am guilty of always thinking something better might come along?

5. Find my spirituality. This is a quest I have been on for awhile, off and on, but I need to get back to it. There is a hole in my life where my spirituality should be--I recognize that. I also recognize that I have to look for it, because sitting here and waiting for it to find me isn't working. Trying out different places/kinds of worship and seeing if anything felt right was my plan of how to go about looking for it, and I still think it's a good plan, but so far I haven't put the time into it that I should have (I've gone to one Lutheran church once and one Unitarian Universalist church twice--that's not going to cut it). I need to make time for this, not only to go, but to think about it, to reflect on it, to try and find prayer.

All this list is at this point is ideas, obviously. I'm notorious for making lists, coming up with plans, and then not following through. It's just easier to remain the way you are. And I am, in many ways, happy with the way I am. Sometimes I'm even happy, and that could be enough. But I know there is more out there, and it's up to me to find it.

*Title courtesy of Utah Phillips.

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Ummm . . . did I offend in some way with my last comment to this post? If so, I apologize!

NOt in the least! I lost all of my old comments when I switched my template. :(

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With a heavy heart (Odd Girl Out)

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Odd Girl Out book coverAs anyone who has been anywhere near me recently is undoubtably sick of hearing, I just read this really great book. It's called Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. Basically, a writer took the time to talk to a bunch of groups of elementary-to-high school aged girls about how and why they are mean to each other. Teaching girls not to be aggressive, the author postulates (and I think she's right), backfires into girls putting their aggressions into all of this underhanded, backbiting meanness. Rather than just getting in an argument or a even a fight and getting it over with, girls spread rumors, exclude, keep secrets, use particular kinds of body language, "kill with kindness," etc. And it causes psychological damage that haunts us for the rest of our lives, sometimes sutble ways, sometimes in clear-cut ones, like abusive romantic relationships, self injury, and eating disorders.

Every single fucking thing in the book rang true to me, both from the perspective of the aggressor and from the perspective of the victim. The thing is, it didn't just ring true to my childhood memories, but to my interactions with women now. The fear of exclusion and of being talked trash about, the cliquishness, the jealousy, and the searing, barely hidden anger that underlies it all--it's all still here, and I am not at all sure that I am reacting to it any differently at 25 than I did at 15, or even at 5.

If it's here for me, is it here for other women? Is it poisoning our relationships with each other? Most importantly, how can we get past it? Can we talk about it without falling too deep down a well of recrimination? Can we lay our feelings at each other's feet, bare ourselves, and still live to tell about it? Can we learn to trust each other?

I'm caught up in trying to figure out what the first step could possibly be. The truth is that I am terrified of women. The truth is that I want more than anything else in the world to be able to love and cherish and trust other women, to be a part of a sisterhood, but I don't. And every time I think I am getting close, I get burned worse than the time before. And I don't know how to stop it, I don't know how to fight my way through the layers of bullshit that lie between me and my sisters. I keep trying, because really, what else can I do, but frankly I'm losing hope. We were taught from birth to fear each other, to hate each other, and to keep all of our rage to ourselves until we could find a suitably "feminine" outlet for it. We were doing it in kindergarten, and in middle school, and we're doing it now. How do we unlearn that? Individually and collectively, how do we get past what we've become?

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8 Ball Chicks

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8 Ball Chicks book coverby Gini Sikes
Doubleday, December 1, 1996

Last night, I finished reading Gini Sikes' 8 Ball Chicks. The book is a study of female gang members in Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, circa the mid-late 1990s. Sikes did a year of research, traveling around and talking to the girls themselves, their families, police, social workers, etc. Her level of involvement is amazing. She obviously cares about her "subjects" and her willingness to go into depth with them, and to examine herself as much as she is examining them, is truly inspirational. I will definitely look for other work she's done (I think she's a journalist and this is her only book, but I'm not certain).

The subject matter of the book is amazing and horrifying. I am totally aware that I grew up white and rural and privledged, but being aware of it in a vague way is different than reading these stories. The things some of these girls lived through before they were even in their late teens were truly worse than I could have imagined. And their cavalier attitudes about it all, the expectation that it wasn't going to go away and that was just the way life was...it chilled me. The common threads in their stories--abusive parents, sexual abuse at a young age, poverty, violent
relationships with boyfriends, pregnancy early and often--are the stuff stereotypes are made of, but when you read about it happening to someone specific, Coco or Alicia or Sad Eyes, it becomes something totally different. I think that speaks really well of Sikes' work.

I don't know where I am really going with this...I haven't gathered my thoughts about the book enough to write anything resembling an actual critique of it. I guess I just wanted to recommend it (with a huge trigger warning, because it is HARD to read). It's making me think a little bit differently about feminism this week.

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Book lists

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Books I've read recently:
The Red Tent
The Bonesetter's Daughter
Janet Frame's autobiography

Books I have waiting to be read:
The Nanny Diaries
A Moveable Feast
When We Were the Mulvaneys
The Hours
Backlash
Susan Brownmiller's book on rape
Death Comes for the Archbishop
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them
You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You

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