Sunday, January 31, 2010

Books of the Aughts: Fiction/Non-fiction breakdown

While compiling the several Books of the Aughts posts I've written in January, I noticed a pattern. A picture is worth a thousand words:

I had no idea that the breakdown would be this clear, but there it is. I like old fiction and current non-fiction. Both patterns make sense. If I'm going to pick up a novel or short story collection this decade that wasn't written this decade, chances are it's been well-reviewed or it's a classic or won awards when it was published. On the other hand, non-fiction tends to be best when fresh. It ages quickly.

One rule I would offer to non-fiction authors: don't name the president when trying to make a point. It's a sure time marker of the material, and it's unnecessary. Using "the President" in your analogy carries as much power as using "Ronald Reagan".

[Blogger's note: I tried to use the charts in Google spreadsheet for this post, but the labeling options stink, and I wasn't happy with them. I really wanted to like them,but I couldn't.]

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Books of the Aughts: Best 7 non-fiction books I've read this decade, written this decade.

OK, patient readers: my final list of books of the decade. There are some really terrific ones on this list. It was so hard to narrow it down that I named six runners-up along with seven winners. Get cracking. You've got a lot of reading to do.


Dress your Family in Corduroy and Denim,
Sedaris, David, 2004
The Sex Lives of Cannibals; Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, Troost, J. Maarten, 2004
The Best American Essays 2003, Fadiman, Anne, Robert Atwan, Editors, 2003
The Outlaw Sea; A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime, Langewiesche, William, 2004
Presentation Zen, Reynolds, Garr, 2008
Nurtureshock; New Thinking about Children, Bronson, Po and Ashley Merriman, 2009

The Top 7 Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, Brooks, David, 2000
After hearing about this book on National Public Radio, I was primed to read it. I started reading a library copy and then liked it so much, I bought my own copy. Buying any book is a rare occasion for me with access to a well-stocked public library system, but this book was worth it. Brooks writes about the educated elite in the late '90s, early 21st century, whom he terms "Bobos" for Bourgeois Bohemians. He argues that the lines between the bourgeoisie and the bohemian set have blurred. In the 60s and 80s, the bourgeois business people ruled with their conformity and prosperity. From the 50s through the 70s, there were also bohemians, opposing the squares and open to intellectual inquiry and removing limits. Today's educated class, argues Brooks, are an amalgam of both of these cultures to such a degree that he says "you can't tell the artists from the stockbrokers." He calls his technique "comic sociology." His observations are spot on about the Bobo class, of whom he considers himself one. At times, his characterizations are laugh-out-loud funny. A must read for those who wish to understand today's rich young rulers.

Population 485: meeting your neighbors one siren at a time, Perry, Michael, 2002

I heard about this book on Whaddya Know, but I didn't hear the whole story, so I was surprised to learn that it's not just essays about small-town Wisconsin life; it centers around the author's experiences as an EMT and volunteer firefighter. Perry has a very easy, accessible, down-to-earth way about his writing. Organized loosely around themes - the history of firefighting, death, bloopers - the chapters meander from character sketch to anecdote to social observation. Feeling at once an insider (he was born and raised on a farm near town) and an outsider (he writes for a living instead of farming or logging), membership on the towns VFD brings him some credibility and reduces his neighbors' suspicions about him. A mixture of humor, honest sociology and poignant story-telling, this is a wonderful book about small-town life at the turn of the 21st century.

Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs; a Low Culture Manifesto, Klosterman, Chuck, 2003

I heard a tiny snippet from this book on NPR's This American Life. It was about a party game in which the players equate 70s-90s TV shows with 70s-90s bands. That and the subtitle made it sound like my kind of book. Reviews of this book were very mixed; having read it, I now think the divide must have been a straight line on age. Gen Xers will, for the most part, adore this book, and anyone else, will for the most part, discount it or not understand it. Klosterman grew up in my exact low cultural milieu and, although we remain devoted to different features of that milieu, I can totally understand where he's coming from. Probably the best essay in the book argues that the fact that the dark side is winning at the end of the Empire Strikes Back explains the much-maligned lack of initiative and general malaise of many Gen Xers. If you were born between 1967 and 1977, read this book. Otherwise, pass it by and leave us to enjoy it.

Meet you in Hell; Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and the Bitter Partnership that Transformed America, Standiford, Les, 2005
This book was recommended to me by a work colleague who is a self-proclaimed history geek. She spoke about it in ecstatic terms, and the book did not disappoint. A close history of the relationships between Carnegie and Frick as both rose to baron-dom and became two of the richest men in the world through Pittsburgh's steel industry, the book had all the drama of a novel. The title comes from Frick's retort to Carnegie's death-bed plea that Frick visit him and that they bury the hatched before Carnegie dies. Frick tells Carnegie's courier something to the effect of "Tell Andrew I'll meet him; tell him I'll see him in hell where we're both going." The decision to focus in on the two men and their close circle is a smart one. So many histories that cover a period as long as the 50 years this book covers get too sprawling to be able to follow. I never found myself trying to remember who the players were while reading this book. Reading it and learning more about the early history of steel-making has made walking around Pittsburgh a richer experience.

Strange Piece of Paradise, Jentz, Terri, 2006

This is the incredible story of two women who set out to bike across the country in the summer of 1977. Yale sophomore Terri Jentz and a friend were camping in a state park in Oregon just 8 days into their trip when they were attacked by a well-dressed cowboy who drove over their tent and then attacked them with a hatchet. Their attacker was not caught, and Jentz went back in 1992 to start investigating the attack, on which the statute of limitations had expired. It's a gripping tale of shifting suspects and the author's quest to understand how the attack affected her.

Getting Things Done; the Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Allen, David, 2001

This is a terrific, life-changing book about how to organize projects and tasks in order to, um, get things done. A core concept is to focus on the next action, which requires breaking projects down into the next possible step for the project and executing that step. This can produce a freedom from the dread that opaque or unwritten to do lists can bring. Allen talks about our brains being like computer memory, and that it's important to free up the RAM to handle whatever we're currently working on by not trying to constantly remember all the things we have to do. The irony about this book is that I started reading it on vacation in the summer of 2005 and just finished it now. I've implemented some of Allen's tenets and wish daily that I did more of them. I think it would require dedicating a weekend to defining my current list of work projects and cleaning up my office. Sigh. I have become an evangelist for this book and everyone who has taken my recommendation to seek out a copy has been very excited by it.

There is No Me Without You, Greene, Melissa Fay, 2006

An incredible and important book that I now think everyone I know needs to read. Greene chronicles the manifestation of the AIDS epidemic in Ethiopia in general and tells the specific story of Haregewoin Teferra, an ordinary woman who happened into playing a crucial role in the lives of AIDS orphans. Taking in a few to begin with, she eventually found herself running an orphanage with dozens of children, both HIV-positive and HIV-negative. The crisis has ravaged the country, wiping out ghastly proportions of a generation and leaving millions of children parentless and homeless. Giving them a humble home that protects them from the ravages of the street is a sometimes-messy task. There is no doubt, however, that she saved life after life. Haregewoin's story and the children's stories are wrenching and gripping. Some of the times when I read the book, I'd just read with tears streaming down my face. An absolute must read

Friday, January 22, 2010

Letter substitution

Take it from me: when your 3-year-old substitutes Ts for Ks and he calls the Animal Rescue League (which we drive by often) "Kittywatch", things get dicey. Nuff said.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Books of the Aughts: Top 5 Fiction books read and written this decade

As I wrote up the other lists, I thought this one would be difficult. Turns out, it's not. Turns out, I liked non-fiction more than fiction this decade. And it seems I liked fiction written before the aughts more than fiction written during the aughts. Still and all, the list:

Drop City, Boyle, TC, 2003 After reading George Eliot's Middlemarch, I needed something lightly entertaining. I knew from previous books I've ready by Boyle that he is capable of filling that bill. Drop City was a pleasant surprise, weaving together the story of a commune in California with a bush town in Alaska. Boyle skillfully depicts the familiar interplay of a close community, albeit with the overlay of perpetual drug use and free love. Two things were striking about how he handled the subject matter. First, he takes a sober view of the consequences of being high all the time and passing each other around for unrestricted physical intimacy. Plus, he doesn't hide the fact that "hippie chicks" were the unthanked engine that made the commune run. Society quickly devolves to a hunter-gatherer division regardless of the quest for enlightenment. Second, when crises befall the commune and its new neighbors in Alaska, the high quality people are sorted out from the rest pretty quickly. The best evidence for their high quality is the way they stop buying into the hippie norms. This was a story that I wanted to get back to when I wasn’t reading it.

The Pleasure of My Company, Martin, Steve (yes, that Steve Martin), 2003
I listened to this book on CD, read by Martin, in the car on a trip back from visiting my brother Drew in New York. It was a mixture of bad weather and construction all the way home, but I so enjoyed the trip because of this novel. The protagonist is neurotic to the point of crippling mental illness, which traps him in his apartment and his imagination. He constructs a life and an alternate reality based on what he sees out his front window in Santa Monica until he meets some people who explode his boundaries and reintroduce him to the wider world. The book offers both a sensitive and insightful portrayal of mental illness and moments that made me laugh out loud. I think that the fact that I experienced the book as read by the author enhanced the experience greatly over reading it off the printed page.

After This, McDermott, Alice, 2006
McDermott is such a gifted author that she can write a book like this that's not exactly about anything. Oh, there are characters - an Irish Catholic family on Long Island from t
he 30s to the 70s - but the plot is like angel food cake. You know you're reading it and that things are happening in the lives of the characters, but you couldn't say what the story is. This is especially provocative when the title seems to refer to some specific event. It really doesn't; there are many turning-point moments in the lives of different characters, but there is no one neutron bomb for the whole family. Even as I wrote this review, I realized that that may be the point. It's not after "this" big thing for all of them. It's what life is like for each of them after specific, individual things happen. One of McDermott's most deft techniques is to progress a single storyline months, years or decades ahead in the space of a paragraph, a sentence or even a phrase. The largest voids of time appear between chapters. Suddenly, a daughter is out of high school and on a semester abroad. Suddenly, an adult character has aged irretrievably. After This is a very enjoyable read, even if I can't say what it's about.

The Entitled, DeFord, Frank, 2007
This book was all over NPR in the summer of 2007, and being a baseball fan, NPR fan and Frank DeFord fan, I felt I must follow my trifecta. This is an engrossing novel for a baseball fan to read. I would not recommend it to the non-baseball fan. The jacket quotes from baseball insiders all endorse DeFord as getting the baseball life right. It certainly felt very authentic and "inside" to me as a reader. The plot - a star player caught in a scandal and his journeyman manager's response in the midst of what may be his only shot as a big league manager - is compelling. DeFord is skilled at spooling out narrative and character development in a way that gathers speed and interest as the story proceeds. If I have one complaint, it is that the climax and denouement happen very quickly - as though DeFord reached the page limit
for which he was being paid and did not care to go further.

The Blue Star
, Earley, Tony, 2008

An excellent follow-up to Jim the Boy, Tony's novel from 2000. My boss discovered Ji
m the Boy and was surprised to hear that I knew Tony when he lived in Pittsburgh; she didn't even know he had lived here. I'm sure many of his readers don't know that. We re-encounter Jim, his mother and his uncles about 8 years after the action in Jim the Boy. Jim, a high school senior at the brink of World War II, falls in love. Those three things - high school, the war and love - drive the story, which is a page-turner that this reader found wishing not to end. A marvelous novel; a quick read.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sunday Haiku: Roux Rue

Making this roux boil
While whisking constantly feels
I don't know? Stupid?

Whisking releases
The heat that's necessary
To boiling. And yet,

Not whisking almost
Certainly would create a
Burned milk pot bottom.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Books of the Aughts: Bottom 5 Non-Fiction Books I've Read this Decade

OK, this was easy. The list was short, and the stinkers were obvious. It pains me as a feminist to pan two books that really come from a feminist point of view. If you read these two, however, you'll probably agree that, um, they deserve it.

Our Own Devices; the Past and Future of Body Technology, Tenner, Edward, 2003
The review of this book in the NY Times caught my eye, but I couldn't get it at my l
ibrary at the time, so I read Why Things Bite Back first. This book, like that one, would make a fascinating feature-length magazine article. As a book, it bogs down in Tenner's exhaustive research that benefits from no cogent argument. The reader is too exposed to all of the marvelous things Tenner learned and not given enough of a structure to figure out why he/she should care. This book would benefit extraordinarily from more photographs of the technologies he describes - sandals, office chairs, recliners, helmets, etc. Although there are a handful of image plates sprinkled throughout the book, I found narrative descriptions of the shapes and designs of helmets and other objects utterly lacking without visual accompaniment. Perhaps even better and easier to achieve than photo documentation would be simple pen and ink drawings. But no. Reading this book provides a few interesting dinner party facts but not much more. Paige read the last 18 pages aloud to me in the car on the way back from a Christmas trip to Cincinnati because she was so sick of seeing it on my nightstand.

Horatio's Drive, Duncan, Dayton, 2003
I listened to this with Paige (on cassettes! ha!) on the way to the beach for vacation. Duncan is a collaborator with Ken Burns, and this was the audiobook output some sort of joint project that was also a documentary film. Even in a "book", this collection from primary sources was in the Burns style. It just wasn't very good. The story of the first person to drive across the country, this tale is of deep interest to the author, but it was not conveyed in a way that would make the reader interested. Horatio what's his name had tons of problems getting across the country in the barely-perfected technology. There was a lot of finding blacksmiths to make replacement parts and waiting for stuff to come by train. Yawn.

A Place on the Team; the Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX, Suggs, Welch, 2005

Like Title IX, a bad law with good intentions, this is a bad book about an important topic. The best conclusion I can draw from it is that Title IX was either too vague when written or has take off in ways that were never envisioned. The Office of Civil Rights's attempts to clarify the law have required much effort and helped little. Thirty-three years after passage, it is still quite difficult to say whether a university is in compliance with Title IX for athletics (nevermind all of the other areas of equality for women that the law addresses). This was the most poorly copy-edited book I've read since a history of the Harlem Boys Choir in the late 90s. The mistakes were distracting and annoying (bad copy-editing is an entire other blog post in the making). The core problem of the book, I think, is that it's a legal history. Legal history is boring. Suggs decides to add little humanity, quoting the head of the Women & Girls Foundation instead of, say, telling the story of a volleyball player at Vanderbilt. Girls and women having more opportunities in sports is good. This book is not.

Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide, Dowd, Maureen, 2005
So I got interested in this book a little bit and then my friend Joanne called me to discuss a question about relations between the genders. Then I wanted to get past the title and find out what Maureen Dowd concludes in answer to her provocative question. Unfortunately, reading the book did not get me to anything like a conclusion - from Dowd or for myself. There's a lot of good wtiting here, but it doesn't add up to a book. Dowd is a newspaper columnist and writes like it. Except this is not Dave Barry repackaging previously published columns in a collection. There are ony 9 huge chapters in this 340-page book, the first of which is 62 pages long. Reading writing that's paced for a column but strung into a chapter and book this long is kind of exhausting. Add to that that Dowd writes on two levels - her attempt at the personal and colloquial and her typical broad, current affairs style for the paper. The former is marked by a funny quirk: every person about whom Dowd writes from personal and friends' experience is a journalist. When she needs the ideas of the young person, it's a rising reporter at the Washington Post. If she wants to find an older voice, it's Helen Gurley Brown of Cosmopolitan fame. The latter is marked by a real shrillness about the Bush administration and an astoundingly cultivated knowledge and analysis of the Clinton administration. The book is a giant mashup. Some of the best stuff is about men flirting with/hitting on Dowd in a job setting and the long coverage of HG Brown. I was entertained while I read the book but don't feel like I gained much insight from it.

Jim Thompson, the Unsolved Mystery, Warren, William, 1998

We acquired this book sometime after our trip to Thailand in 2000. We visited Jim Thompson's famous house and brought back some small silk items. Thompson vanished in 1967. No one knows why. That's what this book could be stripped down to. Those are the facts as I've known them. Here, William Warren catalogs every theory and rumor surrounding Thompson's disappearance, including links to his CIA past and Cold War era communist consipiracy theories. In the end, no one knows what happened to Thompson, and the book is just a looping, maddening examination of the dead ends in all of the theories. Finished the book out of my dogged commitment to finishing books.

Saturday, January 2, 2010