31 March 2008

Love me, love my bookshelf.

My good friend Elizabeth sent me this weekend's New York Times essay in the books section, "It's Not You, Just Your Books," and right away I understood why this shot to the top of the Most E-mailed list online. If you're reading the Times, even online, you probably consider yourself more erudite than the average bear, so the issue of what you like and don't like where reading is concerned is probably pretty long. And for the souls brave enough to tell writer Rachel Donadio about their own "literary dealbreakers," well, there's always the chance that one of them dated someone you know and you can mock them. (Sadly, this was not the case, but I skimmed the article in hope!)

Dating discrimination happens for many reasons, and being a book lover myself I understand when people say, If he's reading Dan Brown, I'm out. I've been poring over the comments section to a related blog post on nytimes.com as if they were a sociological Rosetta Stone. (#155 is my favorite even though it argues against literary discrimination.) I think worse than only reading thrillers or romance novels are people who either say "I don't read" or, horrors, ridicule the act of reading. Those I would consider two of my "dealbreakers." I've had people tell me before to my face that they consider reading a waste of time -- if only they had X-ray vision they would be able to see the at least two books I carry with me at all times.

Two specific dealbreaking books I can name are Neil Strauss's THE GAME and Tucker Max's I HOPE THEY SERVE BEER IN HELL. If you are not familiar with the reputations of these authors, a quick Google search will turn up some of their misogynistic writings (which I have read, which is how I know) and, worse, their scary fan base. I have known a few good guys in life who own one or both of these books, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule for me; if I see him reading it on the subway, I will steer way clear.

In my short and unremarkable dating career I have never broken it off with a guy because he liked a book I disliked or vice versa. Not that I don't have my biases, because readers, I do, but it has never happened to me. Then again, if I had, my current boyfriend might be the casualty of such discrimination, or I would be to him. We have some books in common, but he really likes CATCHER IN THE RYE, and I really don't. He recently finished THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG, which I haven't even read (and at 1072 pages, will probably not get to for a while). But the important thing to me is, he self-identifies as a reader, despite a punishing grad school schedule that adds hundreds of pages to his weekly workload. He encourages me to read instead of scoffing at my hobby, and doesn't every bookworm deserve the same?

28 March 2008

Filmbook Preview: In the city of blinding lights

One of my perennial subjects of interest when I'm looking for books is the city of Las Vegas. Its history and architecture and culture are completely fascinating to me. I went there for the first time in 2006 (for which I packed many books about Vegas) and had a great time, and not in that "Lindsay Lohan and I danced on the banquette" sort of way. My favorite thing I did there was walk through several casinos (noting what the waitresses and the pit bosses wear and what the decor looked like) en route to the Elvis Museum, located forlornly in an empty strip across from a grossly sized mall and within shouting distance of the Stratosphere.

So I'm really looking forward to the new movie "21," opening this weekend, about MIT students who moonlight as mega-gamblers in Vegas. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that the adorable Jim Sturgess is the star.) As is my custom I picked up the nonfiction book it was based on, Ben Mezrich's BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE, and mean to finish it before I see the movie this weekend. So far, I'm enjoying it -- it's a fun, turn-your-brain-off read that manages to simplify what these math geniuses can do to control a blackjack table and come out with a better than average percentage of winnings. It helps to know what blackjack is, but you don't need to have played it to understand what's going on. The author was a thriller writer prior to this book, and his writing has many "thriller" aspects to it -- sometimes overdramatizing things like the main student's breakup with his girlfriend in an airport -- but it doesn't detract too much from the writing.

After I see the movie I'll write more about BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE and "21" next week. Incidentally, I got my copy of BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE on a mass-market rack, so it should be in drugstores everywhere.

25 March 2008

Why are these bitches so angry?

SKINNY BITCH was without question the trendy diet book of 2007, last year's Atkins or South Beach or Body For Life. It had caught on long before incredibly skinny woman Victoria Beckham was spotted with a copy, but that certainly didn't hurt. This is also the first diet book I've ever read for which I'm tempted to write a spoiler alert. If you've read any coverage about it, you'll know that there's a particular agenda authors Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin are advancing.

If you don't, well, here's the big secret of SKINNY BITCH: The way you get skinny is by adopting a total vegan diet. To advance this point the authors use a variety of strategies, like quoting a ton of statistics, providing a graphic look into the lives of farmed animals, and regular ol' cursing and abuse.

My mom's a vegetarian so I grew up familiar with meatless main courses like pasta salads and casseroles, things I may not have appreciated as a picky kid but have learned to admire as a cooking-challenged adult. SKINNY BITCH presents a lot of thought-provoking research supporting a vegan diet, but it didn't completely sway me. It's just not a lifestyle I aspire to, and the authors go out of their way to make anything less unacceptable. Hey, I understand they're pushing an agenda, but the book was entertaining and informative enough that I didn't mind the constant "eat dairy if you want to be fat forever" jabs.

They did make one point, though, that really resonated with me as a person who has been on diets and (like many Americans) would like to be thinner, and which is not specific to any diet advice: As part of rejecting the idea that eating vegan is too hard, their defense is, it's all priorities:
Recognize that anything worth having is worth fighting for. Good health, vitality, more energy, more confidence, better sex, great abs, a tight ass--you either want 'em or you don't. You can continue plodding along in your life feeling like you're not living up to your glorious potential or you can dedicate yourself to creating the life you want.
Whether you agree with how Freedman and Barouin define the life you want, there's truth to that. (Note that the chapter this quote is from is called, simply, "Don't Be A Pussy." That encapsulates the tone of this book pretty well.)

A formatting note: I used this book to test out Dailylit's new for-pay subscriptions. I paid $4.95 for it and received it in 42 installments, and I was happy with my purchase. (To compare, the paperback is listed at $13.95, with an Amazon price of $8.37 and an Amazon used price of $6.35 plus shipping.) Next time I would buy a longer book, though; because of SKINNY BITCH's punchy writing style I tore through several installments a day, not exactly maximizing my purchase.

22 March 2008

Breathing in the margins

As you may have guessed from the sporadic nature of my recent posting, I've been pretty busy lately and much of my usual reading time has fallen by the wayside. What little time I have is usually eaten in rushing to somewhere, so my iPod's on but I'm not really relaxing. So last night, with no particular plans other than checking NCAA box scores (...Siena? Isn't that in Italy somewhere?), and no Easter or Spring Break travel looming on the horizon, I stayed in, finished the book I've been carting around all week (THE ORGANIZED LIFE by Stephanie Denton) and read another, cover to cover.

I'll tell you this, I had a great time. This will probably sound terrifically implausible, but when I have time to do a little bit of reading for fun I feel like the rest of my life is in order somehow. I guess that's what it really means when people talk about hobbies; the way my mom can sit through 45000 high school basketball games as long as she has her knitting with her, my sister's newfound triathlon obsession, my old roommate's penchant for forgotten '90s music. It's that pause button that allows you to collect yourself before going back into the fray.

I hope you have time to read, or enjoy one of your hobbies, this weekend. Here's what I'm reading:

- Adam Langer, ELLINGTON BOULEVARD (yes, still)
- St. Augustine, CONFESSIONS -- this has been on my to-read list for a long time, if only because I am often quoting his line "O Lord, help me to be pure, but not yet." Soon I will see whether I have been misquoting it all this time.
- Quincey Pierce and Knute Breiding, CLASSIC COCKTAILS -- a how-to book I got in a kit for my birthday. Thanks, Aunt Trish!

21 March 2008

I always liked the phrase "March Madness."

Where does the time go? It seemed like I passed this week either doing things too dull to blog about, or conversely too interesting and off-limits to cover. One of the distractors I can name, though, is the start of the NCAA "March Madness" men's basketball tournament. I hardly ever watch men's basketball, but this is probably the sixth year I've done a bracket -- and, maybe coincidentally, have never finished higher than sixth in any pool.

Still, hope springs eternal and I'll be anxiously checking my scores like everyone else. I tried to come up with a basketball-themed book I had read in the past that really made an impression on me, but the only thing I could think of was a terrible play we read and acted out in fifth grade drama class called "Choosing Sides for Basketball." It's not really about basketball -- it's about four kids waiting to get picked for a team, but cutaways reveal they have all sorts of Big Important Problems which need to be Discussed. I played someone's mom.

Anyway, I hated fifth grade, so if you have a better basketball book to recommend, go in for the lay-up. (Er, leave a comment.) My two favorite sports books, for what it's worth, are FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (which I've mentioned before in conjunction with the TV adaptation), about high school football, and John Feinstein's HARD COURTS, about professional tennis on the 1990 tour. This was part of my first exposure to creative nonfiction and I read it a few times -- I'll never forget the opening scene in which John MacEnroe is about to be ejected from a game. In terms of the players, the book is quite dated now -- this was when Sampras and Capriati were just starting out -- but the descriptions are still as vivid. Interestingly, Slate's very funny article about teams they love to hate faulted Feinstein's basketball book THE LAST AMATEURS, about American University -- a book I had on my to-read list but am contemplating taking off after their takedown.

17 March 2008

I've got a four-leaf clover, it's bound to bring a little luck.

I never really celebrated St. Patrick's Day. I'm a little Irish, and I like green (I have green pants on today so I don't get pinched) but I've never drunk Guinness (!) and I've never been to Ireland (!!) Still, I will try to get in the spirit with a few Ireland-themed items:
  • The first St. Patrick's Day item I saw this morning was 101 Reasons' demotivational poster about drunken writers. If you aren't offended enough by that, there's always the blog every blog is contractually obligated to link to this month, Stuff White People Like, whose St. Patrick's Day entry begins, "Normally if someone were to wake up at 7:00 in the morning, take the day off work, and get drunk at a bar before 10:00 a.m., they would be called an alcoholic, and not in the artistic, edgy way that white people are so fond of."
  • Publishers Weekly found another McCourt brother who is writing a memoir (that's three so far). The only one I've read is ANGELA'S ASHES, but my memory of it is hazy -- I had to rely on Wikipedia to inform me that there is only one more McCourt brother who has not published a memoir (Michael, what are you waiting for?)
  • Powell's has a good page of books set in or about Ireland, in case you've already read ULYSSES. For me these really highlighted how much I haven't read about Ireland... I also liked this Amazon-user-created list, which contains some travel guides along with fictional works from the island.
  • My favorite Irish author, though, has to be Oscar Wilde, so I urge you, if your friends are twitting you about not taking the day off to celebrate, to sigh heavily and proclaim "Work is the curse of the drinking classes." If on the other hand, you are having a disagreement about which bar to go to (or whether to go at all), you might advance your case with, "I have but the simplest taste. I am always satisfied with the best." You get my point; I could quote Oscar Wilde all day, and I urge you to do the same.
photo of a pressed 4-leaf clover: humminggirl

12 March 2008

Your gift to me

At the risk of committing my own social scandal, I must humbly announce that today's my birthday! So if you're reading this, will you recommend a book to me? I love getting recommendations and I will happily add all the ones I haven't read to my Goodreads "want-to-read" list which I draw from all the time. Be as anonymous as you like; I promise to blog about it when I get around to reading it.

Photo: Garry Platt.

Filmbook: The Age of Innocence (1993)

If nothing else, Martin Scorsese's film "The Age of Innocence" is unfailingly faithful to the Edith Wharton novel it adapts. The movie's narration (by Joanne Woodward) is taken straight from the book and, more importantly I think, the novel's original ending is preserved from any Hollywoodizing influence. The teacher I had for the class in which we read the book faulted the film for making the naive fiancee a brunette and the sultry temptress a blonde, but Winona Ryder's wide-eyed May and Michelle Pfeiffer's perpetually on edge Madame Olenska both suited their roles really well. (This was back when Winona Ryder was everywhere... ahh, the '90s.)

I'm not familiar with Daniel Day-Lewis' body of work (with the exception of his Oscar-winning role in "There Will Be Blood") but I think he did about as good a job embodying Newland Archer as anyone could. I have a very particular idea of Newland in my mind, and Day-Lewis didn't fit exactly, but that's all right.

Still I couldn't help but feel like the heart of what makes THE AGE OF INNOCENCE great was absent from the film. What social commentary of Wharton's Scorsese managed to get into this movie just made me miss the book more; moreover, I didn't feel like the filming of the story really added anything to my idea of the book. Scorsese did use several interesting shots, but many of the dinner scenes, the setting of the opera and even Newland's private library looked familiar to me from other romantic dramas like this. I never got the feeling, as I did with "Atonement" (no, I will not shut up about the movie) that I was gaining new insight or experiencing the text in a new way. It did give me new insight on Scorsese, a director whose films I have only lately started to watch, but given the time I would rather re-read passages from the book than watch the movie.

Verdict: Read the book; if you like period dramas, or (like my roommate) Michelle Pfeiffer, see the movie.

10 March 2008

Lost to the page.

Remember that nasty cold I mentioned? I hesitate to throw around the phrase "too sick to blog," because I probably could have struggled up a two-sentence entry in the past four days, but it just didn't seem worth it. I'm not alarmingly dizzy any more, but please continue to send me all the virtual orange juice you have at your disposal.

Before I got sick, I had just finished Ken Dornstein's memoir THE BOY WHO FELL OUT OF THE SKY, which is part survivor memoir, part mystery. The boy in question is Ken's brother David, who was flying back to America after spending some time in Israel when he was killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103 at 25. After Ken graduated from college, he decided to try and find out more about his older brother, a process that would take him years and include a trip to Lockerbie, Scotland to see the crash sites and interviews with David's friends, bosses, mentors and lost loves. The best sources he had on David, though, were the notebooks, stories and random shreds of paper that his older brother, an aspiring novelist who supposedly was carrying the first draft of his great work on the plane, had entrusted to him before he died. These journals, letters and stories were the biggest influence in how Ken reconstructed his brother's life up to his last day.

Reading THE BOY WHO FELL OUT OF THE SKY was, for me, a very painful, almost unbearable experience. I never gave up on the book but I could hardly stand to read more than a few chapters at a time, not because it was bad but because of how much I didn't want to think about the ramifications of the story being told. I have three siblings, and while I don't spend my every waking hour worrying for their safety, this book threw into sharp relief for me the impossibility of being prepared for the random, stupid tragedies that life holds. David Dornstein, as depicted in the book, didn't always eat his vegetables or get enough sleep at night, but he didn't live in such a way as to foreshadow such a finale (although he does so, eerily, in some of his writings). His most risky choice, perhaps, was to live in Israel, as he did for months without incident before boarding the Pan Am flight.

Given all this, it's hard for me to recommend this book as I would hesitate to recommend anything that was so hard to get through, although it did an excellent job of humanizing an event I didn't remember and knew very little about. Even thinking about it, my heart seizes up a little. Ken found out some pretty significant things about his brother that he never learned in life (the Publishers Weekly review on Amazon spoils a major one, caveat lector), which only seemed to highlight how much of a stranger his older brother was. It made me wonder about how unknowable we really are to each other. I think it'll have to be one of those books that I'm glad I read but would not enjoy reading again.

06 March 2008

To Be Read (In Private)

I read an interesting article this morning about an Indiana University employee whose choice of reading material is getting him in trouble. Keith Sampson has been cited for racial harassment for an inflammatory book he brought with him into the employee break room. He was not allowed to participate in the subsequent investigation on the matter and "was ordered to refrain from reading the book in the immediate presence of his co-workers."

For the record, the book was NOTRE DAME VS. THE KLAN: HOW THE FIGHTING IRISH DEFEATED THE KU KLUX KLAN. Just from that title I'm curious to know how, but that's neither here nor there. (Not too inflammatory to be sold on Amazon!) But just because the idea of the Klan is morally offensive, does that mean looking at the words themselves can be considered an offense?

Of course, a university is not a public space any more than a mall or a Starbucks; a school has the right to set guidelines for behavior on its grounds and to enforce those in the way they choose. But it got me thinking about whether there are any books that one truly should not bring out in public because of language. For example, I see people carrying around uber-vegan publishing sensation SKINNY BITCH all the time; I'm not offended by it, but I guess I can see how someone toting a young child with a tendency to read everything out loud might be.

On the other hand, I think IUPUI clearly erred in judgment, and it kind of frightens me that someone might take what I'm reading as advocacy of, to pull a few things from my Goodreads record, murder or Soviet-trained commandos or speed. Do I have a responsibility to edit my reading choices for everyone, or should I rely on the common sense of the masses?

I read about this story on ...a nameless country populated by transparent badgers...

05 March 2008

Consequences, no love.

I was going to write a Filmbook entry today but I wanted to air my voice on the Margaret Seltzer affair. In case you don't follow literary news, a brief summary: Margaret Seltzer writes a memoir about growing up half-white and half-Native American in South Central L.A. among gang members and drug dealers. It's published under the name Margaret B. Jones to some acclaim.

Only Seltzer/Jones made the whole thing up; she actually grew up upper-middle-class and white in the Valley, was never a foster child and used her friends' experiences to write the book, which ironically is called LOVE AND CONSEQUENCES. (Interestingly, you can still read the first chapter of the book on nytimes.com, should you so desire.)

As much as I like celebrity gossip, I find scandals like this even more fascinating. There are so many elements to take into account -- the coincidence of the book's editor's father working at the New York Times, the Times endorsement (now withdrawn, I imagine) coming from one of its most stingy critics, the question of whether ratting out one's sister is worse than falsifying a memoir.

But the issue I'd like to focus on is not whether Seltzer's defense of wanting "to make people understand the conditions that people live in and the reasons people make the choices from the choices they don’t have" is good enough, or whether memoirs are getting so fictionalized these days the genre has lost its meaning. My concern is, what can publishers do to make sure the truths presented are actually true?

Riverhead, who published LOVE AND CONSEQUENCES, is recalling the book and offering refunds a la the James Frey publishers. They also released a statement, excerpted below:
Prior to publication the author provided a great deal of evidence to support her story: photographs, letters; parts of Peggy[Seltzer]'s life story in another published book; Peggy's story had been supported by one of her former professors; Peggy even introduced the agent to people who misrepresented themselves as her foster siblings.
So Riverhead tried to verify Seltzer/Jones' story, but clearly they didn't get far enough into that before publication to run into the contradictions that now seem more than evident. The industry seems to resist the idea of fact-checkers as a whole, for reasons I don't completely understand. The NY Sun predicted that a fact-checked book would cost over $100 at retail, and the Times quotes "J.T. LeRoy" agent Ira Silverberg saying “It is not an industry capable of checking every last detail,” as well as A MILLION LITTLE PIECES publisher Nan Talese saying fact-checking "would be very insulting and divisive in the author-editor relationship." Well, if two people failed at it, it clearly doesn't work, right?

Wrong. There's nothing insulting about having to prove what you're writing is true, as long as the same rules apply for everyone. The editor who published LOVE AND CONSEQUENCES, who worked with Seltzer for three years and will bear that black mark for her entire career, should not have to worry about jeopardizing her relationship with an author over the veracity of her story.

That's why fact-checking shouldn't be left to the editors, and publishers like Riverhead should actively seek out the nastiest, most relentless kind: fact-checkers who work in health and technical fields. They won't be cheap, but those people are used to seeing every bit of information presented in a text as potentially killing someone if it's incorrect. An untrue memoir won't kill anybody, but for memoir fans (like myself) it devalues all the good work that has come before.

Potentially unnecessary disclaimer: I once attended a workshop led by Riverhead publisher Geoff Kloske.

04 March 2008

My other car is a Bookmobile.

I've got a nasty cold today and there's nothing I would rather be doing than reading under the covers between long, delicious naps. Unfortunately, sometimes one must do things like go to one's place of employment, so cuddling with my pillow is not on the agenda. But if I were home, here's what I would be reading:

Adam Langer, ELLINGTON BOULEVARD: A NOVEL IN A-FLAT. I just got this much-anticipated-by-me third novel from the library, less than a month after I heard Langer read from it here in New York, and I'm about halfway through. Like Langer's first two books, it's a tale of several interconnected people linked by a place, specifically a second-floor apartment in Manhattan which is being sold out from under its long-time renter. This is his first novel set in New York, and I've already recognized several places (and people, almost!) in it.

Sara Paretsky, BURN MARKS. Speaking of evoking a place, my mom recommended this thriller to me because it is set in Chicago in the 1980s, when my mom used to work there. I don't read a lot of that genre, but I'm willing to give it a shot because she recommended it and has been devouring the whole detective series. I was almost born in Chicago, in fact, but that's a different story.

Charles Bock, BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN. Hey, remember the free book I posted about a few days ago? Some 15,000 people downloaded a copy of BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN from the author's site last week, according to The Millions. That seems low to me, especially considering that over a million people downloaded Suze Orman's new book which was available on Oprah's website. (The power of The Oprah is with us.) Still, the author is happy; he told USA Today, "The more people reading my book, the happier I am."

Coming up this week: The scandalous Filmbook I alluded to last week, plus lost childhoods in two directions and a look at my humble branch library.

03 March 2008

But I won't be reading it cover to cover.

Meet my new favorite book! A few weeks ago I purchased my first Mac and made the brave "switch." I'm being sarcastic; I had used a Mac before, so it wasn't like I was diving into something completely new and foreign. Still, I was planning to replace my five-and-a-half-year-old PC laptop and I wanted to make sure everything was just right, which is why I didn't hesitate to buy one of those big ol' tech manuals to go along with it -- and I'm quite satisfied with my MISSING MANUAL.

Granted, I didn't do nearly as much research on a manual for my new computer as I did in picking the computer itself, but I knew that I wanted something thorough that wasn't condescending. I recognized the author's name from his New York Times columns, and I liked how encyclopedic it was -- the very thorough index, the bold section headings, the fact that there weren't eight chapters on how to turn it on but I could get to "All I see is the beachball and I can't force quit!" within 30 seconds. I own a few "Idiots' Guides" and "...For Dummies" books, but when it comes to my laptop I wanted to feel like I was at least partly in control. (Ha!)

I realize this is kind of a niche review, but I really liked this book for what it was. I'm thinking about picking up a copy for my dad when his office switches to Leopard. I've barely scratched the surface of what I can do with my new machine, but at least I know I'll have something to bail me out should I accidentally push the "Delete Everything, Then Taunt User" button.

As for the new computer? Holy mackerel, technology sure has improved since 2002.