31 May 2009

A park to read in: The High Line

Okay, it's not even open yet, but it's not every summer New York gets a new park, either! The High Line has been put atop an abandoned elevated track (under which I used to cross, nervously, every day) used for "trains laden with meat, milk and produce" on the west side of Manhattan, and I can't wait to get up there and see how it looks.

Time Out New York reports that bikers will not be welcome on its narrow paths, but it will still be insanely crowded despite not offering free drinks or movie tickets. Still, with a little patience I'll be able to get a glimpse of it sometime this summer. (I would read at the insane Standard Hotel behind as well, if I could find an excuse to stay there.)

Photo: lrechis

30 May 2009

It didn't suck but I didn't cry either

I'm pretty sure when I joined the Internet I signed a statement forcing me to comment on books by blogging A-listers. So about Heather Armstrong of Dooce's memoir IT SUCKED AND THEN I CRIED: The blog is better. Can you take the cuffs off now?

IT SUCKED... follows Armstrong's first pregnancy, the birth of her daughter Leta (now 5) and her struggles with post-partum depression. Dooce.com, for the 5 people on the Internet who are not familiar yet, began before Armstrong was a parent or even married, and gained its author notoriety when she was fired for writing about work. But "getting dooced" does not a popular blog make, even though it helped Armstrong gain exposure; instead it took a magic formula of "regular, interesting content" and "online marketing." What I'm saying is, I don't begrudge Armstrong for being able to support her family from Dooce, even if at heart I am a "web-based writer" mindlessly going on the attack.

Non-readers of Dooce will probably enjoy IT SUCKED AND THEN I CRIED more than I did. Even though I wasn't reading it regularly when the events described in the book happened, I was comfortable with the style, and there are some very funny scenes (including one involving Norah Jones and a purloined bottle of wine). But overall, it just didn't either captivate me or make me laugh like her hatemail responses or that time she compared her marriage to "Rob & Big." Normally the danger in a blog-to-book adaptation is that not enough new material is added to the blog, but in Armstrong's case I think she didn't pull enough from the blog that I was able to recognize the narrative I'd read before and get some context on it. Most of it I found forgettable, except the graphic bits about pregnancy which will give me medically-themed nightmares.

29 May 2009


A few odds and ends while the coffee takes hold:
  • Speaking of celebrity book deals, Dick Cheney is shopping a Bush White House memoir (not surprising). What is surprising is that someone leaked the news that he wants at least $2 million for it, which suggests he's willing to take less than what Sarah Palin reportedly got for her HarperCollins deal (current estimates: $7-$11 million, not including what they're paying her co-author). On the other hand, Lynne Cheney's publishing experience should be a real help if he's planning to write about the last 8 years as a racy lesbian escapade.
  • Eat food, not too much soft serve, mostly plants: After initially dropping it due to the economy or agricultural pressures, Washington State University (alma mater of my uncle) will once again be requiring its freshmen to read Michael Pollan's THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA for the fall, and thanks to a generous donation will get to hear Michael Pollan speak when they arrive. We didn't have a "common reading" book my freshman year, although one year when I was a peer adviser my charges were assigned to read John Edgar Wideman's PHILADELPHIA FIRE. I don't think any of them did and we never talked about it. Sorry, Mr. Wideman.
  • It's great that we have this juicy yet official biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the record on the Colombian magical-realist author, but still I must protest: where is the other two-thirds of his memoir? First volume LIVE TO TELL THE TALE (VIVIR PARA CONTARLA) only covers his life through around age 18. I'd rather read that book than "I don't think I'll ever be able to forget Condi. And most of all, I will never forget that one night. Working late on the yellowcake memos. Just the two of us..."

28 May 2009

Author: Buy my book even though I don't read

"Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed... I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life."

- Just in time for BEA! It's Kanye West, whose seemingly content-less book THANK YOU AND YOU'RE WELCOME hit stores this spring, being contrarian and illiterate. Is that the best way to honor your late mother, the former English professor?

Clearly the only revenge is to consume as much of West's four albums in print as possible. In fact this morning quite unrelated to this news I actually Googled some Kanye West lyrics, and then I read them.* Take that, O AutoTuner.

*Sometimes I do this just to marvel that it can be done after years of listening to songs over and over to copy down the lyrics. Kids these days with their search engines!

This blog is four years old

On this day in 2005 Wormbook threw open its digital doors under original moniker Ellen Versus The Modern Library with the post Why? I wrote my first review of Edith Wharton's THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, a book which has become one of my favorites (and deserves a better treatment than the one I gave it back then).

556 published posts later (counting this one, which in itself is questionable) I still haven't finished the list. It's okay, I will someday. Thanks for reading.

27 May 2009

Summer Reading 2009: Third time's the charm

It just wouldn't be summer without a wildly slightly ambitious bunch of titles -- mostly this list, with a few additions. (Only ambitious because, and I don't know why I'm even bringing this up, I finished one of the books on last year's list. And I still haven't read THE POWER BROKER.) Some paperbacks, some hardcovers, all awesome? We'll find out.

Jhumpa Lahiri, UNACCUSTOMED EARTH (finished 6/11)
Joseph Berger, THE WORLD IN A CITY (finished 6/17)
Edith Wharton, ETHAN FROME, but let's keep this just between us (finished 7/12)
Mark Harris, PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION (finished 8/14)
Richard Yates, COLD SPRING HARBOR (finished 8/15)
Markus Zusak, THE BOOK THIEF
Sheila Weller, GIRLS LIKE US

I'm also toying with participating fully implicated in Infinite Summer, a new project (found via 52 books) sponsored by The Morning News aiming to get a group read of David Foster Wallace's best known novel going this year. I am attracted by their claim that if you start INFINITE JEST on June 21st and read 75 pages a week, you will finish the book in September -- in other words, the jest is finite. And if you think that will be the only horrible joke I would make about reading the book should I take the plunge, you are mistaken.

26 May 2009

Tao Lin: Evil or genius?

Author Tao Lin (YOU ARE A LITTLE BIT HAPPIER THAN I AM, EEEEE EEE EEEE) is either bravely spoofing the "literary establishment" (quotes intended) or being a real jerk. You decide!

The facts are these: Lin sponsored a short story contest with an entry fee and a cash prize, then entered a story of his under his girlfriend's name. The story won the contest as judged by a third party whose neutrality is questionable. Lin came clean about the ruse but refused to return the money, giving eight reasons including "if [girlfriend] won the contest it would promote her blog, [redacted], and the rest of her internet presence" and "I currently have ~$1300 in my checking account." (My favorite: "The internet would seem funnier and 'happier' to me if [girlfriend] won the contest, in ways that would cause life to seem 'more amusing.'" Ah, the classic "Can't you take a joke?" defense.)

I have never read any of Tao Lin (or as he styles himself, tao lin)'s work, although I did accept his friendship on Goodreads. But from years of sleeping on copies of WRITER'S MARKET I know there is many a scam out there designed to ensnare would-be writers by promising them fame and taking their cash. I can only assume that Tao Lin was attempting to archly comment on the commercial value of art and the futility of gaining market share for print in a nonreading world with this stunt, 'cause otherwise, he'd just be an asshole, right?

ETA. A few reads from around the Internet on what Tao Lin may or may not have done:
  • The author's response says "misinformation" is to blame, pointing out that the media "won't cover something that isn't 'newsworthy' because things not 'newsworthy' don't get as many hits as things that are 'newsworthy.'"
  • The judge of the contest maintains his independence, says he "would not 'defraud' anyone, in this way."

Dial 30: Getting lost in Michigan's largest bookstore

"Looks closed to me."
"Are those busted windows on the fourth floor?"

We had been driving around looking for a restaurant that turned out to be in a different city entirely. It wasn't serendipity, we had the address, but as we passed the door the aroma of the yellowed pages of a thousand paperbacks overpowered us.

We were told by the cashier on walking in that, should we get confused, we should go to the middle of each floor and dial 30 on the house phone. The store directory ran the length of six printer pages.

John K. King Books occupies an old glove factory on West Lafayette, a few blocks from the Red Wings home rink in Joe Louis Arena. (NB: there have been better ways to promote a city's sports franchises than a series of signs reading "The Beard Is Back.") According to its history, the owner started selling used books and antiques in high school and the store began its life in Dearborn.

I gravitated to a small pink sign at the end of the hallway promising $1 books (among them Dominick Dunne's ANOTHER COUNTRY NOT MY OWN, a memoir by Ruth Gordon and THE CORRECTIONS). A ruddy long-haired clerk who found me there poked at his glasses and then a mole with one finger as he announced to me the locations of every other $1 shelf and cart on each floor.

Most of the stock consisted of older hardcovers which called to mind happy afternoons in the stacks of a college library. The signed books on display tended towards the Box of Paperbacks genres, but no snobbery was admitted: One of my favorite sections was the TV and movie tie-in section, full of books you didn't realize existed of movies you maybe caught on TV when your babysitter thought you were asleep.

I found myself alone in general fiction somewhere around the Mc's. As I looked out the window the city bathed unselfconscious in the early afternoon sun. Back over the bridge, a sign directed drivers to the "Tunnel to Canada." The creaking down the row eventually stopped and I imagined myself a sort of benevolent ghost haunting shelf to shelf, barely even a breeze.

25 May 2009

Always true to New York in my fashion

My major travel month ended last night as I touched down in Newark, and I'm looking forward to not leaving my city of residence for at least -- hmm -- a little while. I think I never love New York so much as when I am about to leave again, making the relationship more than a little dysfunctional, but everybody knows about absence and the heart.

Not surprisingly, it seemed like everything I read on the road reminded me of New York. In some cases, the city was cast as a fantasy in a character's mind, its outlines no more solid than a cloud; a naturalized Italian whose husband has gone missing in Gina Buonaguoro and Janice Kirk's CIAO BELLA dreams of escaping her concerned in-laws and running away with an American G.I. to dance in its ballrooms, while the escape route of a gay high school student in Nick Burd's THE VAST FIELDS OF ORDINARY doesn't even have an image associated with it, it's just a destination.

It's a fiction author's right to do some invention, or at least creative manipulation, of the place she or he is writing about -- yet I still love catching one in a lie. Two weekends ago I actually set down Sara Shepard's THE VISIBLES in the middle of a diner scene while I tried to figure out whether there was a diner on the described Village corner and, if not, whether there could have been one since the scene took place several years ago. (If there was, it's gone now, although the pizza place mentioned as being across the street from it lives.)

Nonfiction authors don't have that privilege, even if the scenes they describe must have vanished now. The Commodore Hotel, where Nikita Khrushchev attended a gala in Peter Carlson's K BLOWS TOP, is now a prosaic Hyatt, but the Waldorf-Astoria, where he attempted to preempt a national meeting of dentists who used the opportunity to do a little flag-waving, is still open for business. (To be fair, it is owned by Hilton and has replaced the hyphen in its name with what looks like an equals sign for reasons passing understanding.) "K" took in many ways the classic New York visiting-dignitary route, minus the stop that no one would see coming in 1959 -- Ground Zero.

24 May 2009

Iced Coffee Not Pictured

In Detroit I saw Michigan's self-proclaimed largest bookstore, and I have no reason to doubt that it was. But I walked away empty-handed, for I am faithful to my long-unfinished paperback, whose completion I am delaying still while I use my laptop to put the "douchebag" in "bookworm hipster douchebag." I know, I know, I know. Back to reading.

23 May 2009

Reading and drinking, the sequel

I picked the wrong weekends to go away this month! (Well, I didn't pick them, they picked me, but that is not the point.) I already missed the New York Lit Crawl, and this week's recommendation of a thing I cannot attend but you should is the Hudson Valley Literary Festival today in Hudson, NY. Visit with your favorite small presses from 11 to 4 at the Hudson Opera House and then hit the free reading at Hudson Wine Merchants. Free wine and recent confirmed Pearl Jam fan Joshua Ferris, who by dint of getting his second mention on this blog this week is now suspected of having a new novel coming out. You know, how stars turn up on talk shows or have tabloid affairs "conveniently" right before their blockbusters are released. Veeery interesting.

22 May 2009

Reading on the Road: Is your bed made? Is your sweater on?

Off to a wedding in Michigan, and this time I didn't even try to pack light (formalwear!). I'm bringing 5 books again, because I have even more time to kill in transit. Hey, did you know Detroit Metro Airport has a Jose Cuervo Tequileria? Who wants to do shots and talk about Ellroy?

Yes, I'm bringing LA CONFIDENTIAL and hoping that this will be the trip when I finish it, drinks or no drinks. (No drinks, likely; my attention span is short enough.) Along with the regular review cohort I've also got Mark Helprin's DIGITAL BARBARISM, which I'm sure also goes great with lime and a little salt. (Oops, forgot to run that through the Blurbinator! What I mean is: "Piquant and bitter... leaves an unforgettable taste." I haven't read the book yet.)

Suitable for packing, drinking, fretting, pining, memorializing or whatever else you are doing this fine Friday:

Photo of books reflected in a Cuervo bottle: carolinabeiertz

ETA: after this post was written but before it was published, the author discovered that she had left her cell phone in New York. On the bright side, Books 5, Phone 0 would make a great epitaph.

21 May 2009

Not a pedestrian life

Lawrence Block, mystery author and accurate prostitute locator, is also a marathon racewalker, depression survivor and memoirist, according to USA Today:

Fifteen years ago [Block] abandoned another memoir, fearing it would be presumptuous or premature, before what he calls "the Age of Relentless Reminiscence, wherein graduate students earn MFA degrees by writing down their life stories, some of them even factual."

But if he's old "to be getting into the memoir game," he figured, "I'd better do it while my memory was still intact."

But wait, there's more! He also co-wrote the screenplay of the last Wong Kar-Wai film "My Blueberry Nights" and likes to travel whimsically:

Block, a native of Buffalo, and his second wife, Lynne (married for 26 years), are partners in an intermittent "Buffalo hunt," visiting 84 places with the word Buffalo in them. It's "an essentially purposeless odyssey," he says.

This Qwantz cartoon may or may not offer some solace to the would-be writers in the crowd:

20 May 2009

Bryant Park Word For Word Announced

It's going to be a busy summer for the organizers of Bryant Park's summer reading series. I've never hit as many of these as I'd like to, because most of them are during the day and you have to work pretty close to the park (or have inattentive management) to take full advantage, but here are a few that jump out at me:

TODAY, May 20: Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere. The creator of the MP3 experiment has a book? Nifty.
July 1: Readings from HEAVY ROTATION: TWENTY WRITERS ON THE ALBUMS THAT CHANGED THEIR LIVES including Joshua Ferris on Pearl Jam and Stacy D'Erasmo on Kate Bush. Someone even wrote about ABBA for this book. Hmm, which album would I write about...
July 8: "Writers of New York" with Jonathan Ames, Joseph O'Neill, others.
August 5: McSweeney's editors (thus unnamed) on how to write and publish fiction. When I picture this event the audience is full of hipstery celebrities with burning questions about the novels they've stashed in the bottom drawer (John Krasinski) or the experimental epic poem they can't seem to finish (Natalie Portman).

Unrelated to reading: the park also announced its film festival for the summer, and while it has the worst crowds of any such series it may have the nicest lawn.

19 May 2009

Wrapped Up In Books: The AV Club chooses its next selection.

Starting June 8 we'll be virtually discussing Cormac McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN, OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST. (The extended title is for badassery.)

Since I didn't get around to reading it after reading NO COUNTRY and watching the movie or naming THE ROAD one of my favorite page turners of last year, I am very excited to be forced to do so now.

cover: angusrobertson.com.au

Too close, a little too close

Joseph O'Neill's NETHERLAND, which I read last fall, is out in paperback with what some might call the ultimate endorsement: President Obama told the New York Times he's reading it, according to CNN. (Granted, that's 2 layers of hearsay right there.) And it has a lovely new cover -- or is it? The Village Voice Sounds of the City blog notices its eerie similarity to the INFINITE JEST tenth-anniversary edition, the same one pining away on my shelf right now.

I gave a bit of a gasp when I saw this one, which is so much brighter than the Old World hardcover illustration. I feel that I can comfortably make these superficial judgments since I have, in fact, read the book inside. But the similarity is unmistakable (a commenter says they were designed by the same guy), not only to "my" Foster Wallace copy but also previous editions. Allow me to steal some of New New Yorker's thunder and take this cover up through the ages:

The question we really ought to be asking is, why take all the clouds away? Is that a subconscious communication to the reader of, "Don't worry man, it's not really that obscure?" Surely literary snobs would not agree with that, judging by this poster I also found:

18 May 2009

Do what Sully says!

Remember how US Airways #1549 captain Chesley Sullenberger dutifully called in the library book which was damaged in the water landing? He's now the poster boy for a (though since ended) San Francisco public library fine amnesty campaign -- offering patrons with long-overdue material two weeks in which they're "free 2 return."

To quote the source: "If BayNewser didn't already have a crush on Sullenberger, the news that he had not one, not two, but four library books on him during the crash sets our heart aflutter." The funny thing is I usually don't fly with library books -- hardcovers, you know.

This amnesty campaign is a novel idea, but I remember reading in Nicholas Basbanes' PATIENCE AND FORTITUDE about a redesign of San Francisco's flagship public library in the early '90s that, in efforts to make the building more user-friendly, removed a lot of shelf space -- to the point that the library was forced to discard books to fit the new building. They must have since solved that problem if they're asking people to bring books that have been gone for years.

I've kept to the straight and narrow with the NYPL (I owe just $0.50 right now), but I think my old box at school is still getting collection notes from the Harvard library system (took a class there one summer and spent a lot of time in deliciously air-conditioned Lamont). I think they wanted $3.50. When I am disqualified from ruling the world, this will be the reason.

Download your Captain Sullenberger poster (detail of which, above) and hear him and others give their best lines at the SFPL website.

17 May 2009

Bookstores of Rome

It wouldn't be a real trip without a little snooping around in unfamiliar bookstores. A few photos from my Roman holiday:

You would think from the name this nook in Piazza di San Silvestro would have been a used bookstore, but it wasn't (so far as I could tell.) It did have an excellent selection of European fashion magazines, though.

Interior of "Remainders." I was surprised how few books were stored spine-out -- the piles on the floor didn't seem to be organized in any particular way, which would have made it incredibly frustrating to find anything.

Borri Books was the major bookstore in Rome's Termini train station (named not for the word terminus but because it was built on top of the termi or classic Roman baths). Located in the mall end of the station -- think Union Station in D.C. or the international terminal at SFO -- the store was actually three stories, one below the main floor and a glassed-in balcony above. I initially mistook these paperbacks in Italian for Penguin editions, but they only had the look.

Despite my reservations about the glass spiral staircase leading to the international section, I gamely climbed to the top only to be attacked by vampires. Oddly enough I couldn't find these books anywhere in Italian, so I can only speculate on what the title would be. PENOMBRA? IL VAMPIRO QUI MI AMA? IL VIRGEN DI 104 ANNI? (Someone who actually knows Italian, help me out here.)

However, getting to the not-shabby English section did lead me to discover possibly my new favorite TV tie-in series ever. Until someone comes out with "Murphy Brown's Guide to Life" or "Frontier Medicine With Dr. Quinn," that is. (Well, I wasn't really allowed to watch "Murphy Brown" as a kid.)

16 May 2009

Reading on the Road: Milestone edition

It's back to the mighty Midwest this weekend for a momentous double graduation. I'm actually cheating and hitting PUBLISH before a pitiful night's sleep and the trip to LaGuardia, so come by and say hi! If by "say hi" I mean "allow me to glower at you because there is not enough coffee in the world right now." (Status to complain about not being able to sleep on a regular schedule: Revoked!)

I'm bringing 5 books, which is definitely too many, but I'm hoping to get some review stuff in (also the point of bringing my trusty laptop). For fun I'm bringing L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, which I never got around to finishing since the last time I wrote about it, and Mark Kitto's media memoir CHASING CHINA.

15 May 2009

Oh, so that's what "having a writer's perceptions" means...

Holly doesn’t just behave like a writer; she has a writer’s perceptions. In the middle of sex — satisfying sex — with a man she loves, she finds herself face-to-face with a pile of books on his nightstand. Of course, she tunes out to read the titles on the spines.
--Jincy Willett in the New York Times on the protagonist of Sarah Dunn's new novel SECRETS TO HAPPINESS. This blog sure is prurient this week. I am looking forward to Dunn's novel, though, having enjoyed her last one THE BIG LOVE.

Oh, the weather outside is delightful

Ah, the annual temptation to make myself a Summer Reading List. (Actually, the weather right now is not so delightful, but I'm keeping the title anyway.) I did this the last two summers running and in neither case was I particularly successful at reading the books on my list, but persist in believing that this is not a personal flaw but the list's fault entirely.

Obviously the first thing I should do is finish everything that is still lying unfinished on my nightstand, if I'm going to get around to those books at all. (Very likely.) Then I should probably tackle books people have lent and/or given to me, which would more than fill up the list for the summer. Yet I'm tempted to chuck it all and start on some Grand Project, even one which I have no dream of finishing in three months.

No, no, must be practical. If I were to make that list of borrowed and gifted books, it would look something like:
Sheila Weller, GIRLS LIKE US
Markus Zusak, THE BOOK THIEF
David Wroblewski, THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE (or, to refer to it as I did this week: THAT OPRAH BOOK, THE RETELLING OF HAMLET WHERE THEY'RE ON A FARM, I THINK IN WISCONSIN? Luckily I got bailed out at that point because I was out of subordinate clauses.)
Joseph Berger, THE WORLD IN A CITY
I'm unconvinced. Good thing I still have a few weeks to think it over. Do you do "summer reading"? Have you got a plan yet?

ETA 3:34PM The weather outside is actually delightful now. Congrats, readers! We did it again!

14 May 2009

Wrapped Up in Books: GEEK LOVE live chat today

Not doing anything in about an hour and a half? The AV Club's online book club, Wrapped Up in Books, which I mentioned last month, is crowning its week of discussions on Katherine Dunn's GEEK LOVE with a live chat today at 5 EDT. Please come over -- we're bringing out the wine and the cucumber sandwiches.

And now, a literary musical interlude

It could be successfully argued that only one of these songs is actually about reading, and that's this one:
We've been livin' in hovels/ Spendin' all our money on brand-new novels

Couldn't find an actual video for this one, just audio, but it sure is catchy.
You think she's an open book but you don't know which page to turn to, do you, do you.

This one is the newest to me. You know when you go to a place you've never been before, but you instantly feel like you've been there for years? Or meet a person who puts you at ease? That's how I felt when I heard this song. On a less ethereal note, what are the backup dancers wearing on their heads?

13 May 2009

I threw up the sponge instead of throwing down the gauntlet.

It's not every day you get to see something on Broadway that you could recite from end to end. Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" was part of my brief, fleeting career in high school drama (fun fact: I understudied regular commenter Elizabeth) and it all came rushing back last weekend when I saw Rupert Everett, Christine Ebersole and Angela Lansbury perform in it on Broadway last weekend. If I was laughing at slightly different moments than the rest of the audience -- well, that's old age for you.

"Blithe Spirit" is a fun play, but I wouldn't put it up there with my favorites. (Not even sure where my scrawled-over copy is at this point, although I'm sure I kept it.) The small collection of plays I own are the ones I read over and over without them losing their resonance. Some sparked my interest when I first read them, like when I was assigned Lorca's "As Five Years Pass"; others, like "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," I found after seeing a particularly memorable performance. ("Cat" was my go-to book one summer to such an extent that if anyone else picked up my copy it would probably burst into flames.)

If you have a favorite play, how did you find it?

12 May 2009

This deprofessionalization is probably the best thing that could have happened to the field. Film criticism requires nothing but an interesting sensibility. The more self-consciously educated one is in the field--by which I mean the more obscure the storehouse of cinematic knowledge a critic has--the less likely it is that one will have anything interesting to say to an ordinary person who isn't all that interested in the condition of Finnish cinema. Amateurism in the best sense will lead to some very interesting work by people whose primary motivation is simply to express themselves in relation to the work they're seeing--a purer critical impulse than the one that comes with collecting a paycheck along the way.

--John Podhoretz on film criticism's declining footprint. I don't think critics are going to go the way of the dodo very soon -- Podhoretz seems to be arguing for his own extinction, which seems like an unwise choice -- but my blogging side likes the notion of purity of impulse, even while my inner professional critic takes umbrage at the idea that money automatically taints the work. (Found via @editorialiste.)

11 May 2009

I'll see ya next time!

It's hard for me to get invested in the new "Star Trek" movie enough to see it, because my experience with "Star Trek" is limited to that one episode of "Reading Rainbow" where LeVar Burton goes to the Enterprise. Lo and behold, someone has uploaded (part of) that famous episode, and Burton? Is contemplating a "Reading Rainbow" for grownups out loud on Twitter. Hire me! I am already practicing the "Teamwork" song for my interview.

Because she didn't keep sweet

After I finished all the books I brought to Rome with me, I picked up Elissa Wall's STOLEN INNOCENCE: MY STORY OF GROWING UP IN A POLYGAMOUS SECT, BECOMING A TEENAGE BRIDE, AND BREAKING FREE OF WARREN JEFFS. I polished it off pretty quickly -- I'm fascinated by these Mormon splinter groups (UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN being my first exposure) and it's not hard to see why this survivor's memoir became a best-seller.

I recently reviewed a book about growing up in a cult in 1970s Queens and one of my main criticisms of it was that I never fully understood the pull of its guru leader over the community he created. Naturally, it can be hard to convey to someone outside those religious bounds the appeal of such a tight-knit organization, especially if the author (as this one had) grew up there and essentially didn't know any different for most of her life. Wall grew up FLDS, but spends a lot of time unpacking how FLDS leader Warren Jeffs controlled his flock without even the threat of bodily harm -- turning family members against each other, positioning himself and the faith as the only door to salvation and colluding with local law enforcement to create a culture of paranoia. The self-proclaimed prophet, who survived an internal power struggle after the death of his father Rulon, is currently serving 10 years in prison thanks in part to Wall's testimony that he forced her to get into an abusive marriage to her first cousin at age 14.

Wall repeatedly uses the phrase "keeping sweet" as an expression of the culture of silence and endurance fostered by FLDS church elders, particularly among the women of the church. "Keeping sweet" means responding to adverse circumstances with a smile, remaining compliant and good-natured even when things don't turn out as you planned. It's an incredibly loaded phrase for Wall because, from the time she was younger and saw the church forcibly dismantle her family multiple times (sending away her father, and later another one of his wives), she was forced to learn how to "keep sweet" to get along at church and her church school. In the years between when she first thought about leaving the FLDS and made her break with the church, she effectively had to unlearn these techniques of submission to propel herself out into the wider world. Wall grew up within driving distance of Las Vegas, but in a society as distant to me as Khomeini's Iran or medieval Britain.

10 May 2009

Dear America, We Need To Talk About Dan Brown

I finally got around to reading ANGELS AND DEMONS -- or if you prefer, I used the excuse of going to Rome, where the book is mostly set, to see what the rest of you have been reading all this time. (I previously used a rainy Sunday afternoon as an excuse to plow through and quickly forget THE DA VINCI CODE.) There will be massive spoilers for both of these books coming up, so if you care about that now, disengage.

I think it's so cute that we've all been going around pretending these books are about Religion and Deep Thinking. Really! Because they are really about sex -- those who fight for it and those who fear it. Guess which ones are the good guys? Oh, you naughty reading politic, you.

Think about it: In THE DA VINCI CODE, Robert Langdon, champion of secular life, fights the mysterious elite Opus Dei to keep word from getting out that Jesus had sex, and likely not just once in order to save a kitten from falling off a cliff. In ANGELS & DEMONS, Langdon believes he is fighting a murderous re-incarnation of the Illuminati, who are magically able to Do What Computers Can't(1), but actually in protecting a sexy nuclear scientist he is defending her questionably defined project against the legendarily sex-panicked(2) Vatican, particularly the late Pope's right-hand man whose life is totally wrecked when he finds out he is the late Pope's biological son and thus tainted by original sin despite the cold embrace of the church.

Oh yeah, and about that sexy nuclear scientist, alias Vittoria Vetra. This was a character of Denise-Richards-in-Bond-movie levels of disbelief, who is described as "smouldering" not five pages after finding out her father has been brutally murdered. Really? She can't have a few minutes of tear-stained messedness? And unfortunately her magnetic appeal is filtered through Robert Langdon, which makes him seem like a guy who would use personality tests on women in bars. "You're standing in a room... what color is that room? It's okay, I'm a symbologist." Oh, but it's okay, say his defenders, because he's sexy too. But saying a guy has a "swimmer's body" isn't the same level of objectifying as mentioning over and over how great at yoga someone is where it makes no sense to do so, only you know what that means. That means she's hot! Any community yoga class will disavow you of this notion quickly.

After an interlude of pseudoscience I dearly wish I could pick apart, Langdon and Vetra find themselves racing through Rome trying to stop the supposed Illuminati killer from slaying people in symbolically appropriate ways throughout Rome. One of their stops is the church which holds Bernini's "St. Theresa in Ecstasy," which in the book has been shoved aside by the super-prudish church despite being specially commissioned for them because it is Just Too Hot. Having visited the Vatican Museums I can confirm that the church probably just didn't have room for it among their collections of copied Greek stuff, stolen Egyptian stuff and paintings everyone else forgot about. But Brown lovingly describes how the statue looks like she's in a less than spiritual ecstasy, and her testimony sounds more like a one-night stand than a prayerful vigil. Well, maybe to modern eyes it does, but surely if the Vatican had doubts about her purity it wouldn't have canonized her in the first place. And forcing the figure of St. Theresa to act as a piller for Brown's sex-is-good thesis seems kind of insulting to the religion from which she has sprung. I'm not Catholic, I'm just sayin'.

Thanks to chapters from his point of view, we know the killer is not only a super-mean dude, but he also gets his kicks from tying up and violating women (particularly in brothels, but he doesn't seem that picky). This is Brown going "Oh no, I don't mean all sex is okay, which only strengthens my argument!" If only he had really gone all-out on this line of thinking and made Vetra a sexy lesbian won over by the redeeming love of Ben Affleck. But we're supposed to believe that the Pope's chamberlain, a celibate man among celibate men, would enlist this clearly predatory guy in order to further his own ends even though he would likely be horrified by the outcomes. This is where the science of the book makes its regrettable bow, and the concept of Vetra and her late father being able to create matter is supposed to be such a threat that it forces Pope Jr. to protect his celibate reserve by employing someone whose mores are almost opposite to his. Naturally, the killer later goes after Vetra, who would be his next victim (because she's sooooo hot), only Langdon saves her, for which his reward is sex from her. Heaven (ha?) forbid she just shake his hand and invite him to a press conference.

All this is to say that I didn't exactly enjoy ANGELS AND DEMONS, although being unable to sleep on the plane I whizzed through it. Knowing that Ewan McGregor has been cast as the extremely sex-negative former assistant to the Pope makes me almost want to see it, if only to balance out the times I have inadvertently seen him in the altogether onscreen. (3) But I think it's funny how the controversy has focused on the Vatican's refusal to allow on-location shoots because they're "still mad" about THE DA VINCI CODE and the whole Jesus-having-sex thing -- a narrative which only confirms what Brown is trying to do in his books, which is pit his sex champions (Ron Howard, in this case?) against the censoring powers that be. If the Church is not compliant, he must be onto something! Or, you know, they just decided it would be too much of a hassle to have Tom Hanks, McGregor and Ayelet Zurer (Vittoria Vetra) running around in their much visited sites for weeks with large amounts of photographic equipment.

Are we hung up more on sex as a country, or more on religion? I think we would like to believe ourselves to be the latter because it reflects better on us than the former -- after all, we're just being philosophical! Of course, the correct answer to this question is, "yes," but this will not appear in Brown's new novel THE LOST SYMBOL, due out this fall. In fact, I'm willing to call it right now: The lost symbol is some kind of cosmic booty-call Bat-signal (4) whose existence is supported by some sweet Gaia-worshipers and all but destroyed by a nefarious league of nuns. (5) Quick review without reading: The nuns were better than the albino and the possessed Vaticanite.

(1) Langdon knows the Illuminati killed a dude because they used their special perfectly symmetrical seal to brand him, a seal that cannot be reproduced via computer. Really? That's your whole proof?
(2) In college I once tried to get into a seminar called "Sex Panic." I'm still a little bitter I didn't get in, if only for the excuse to shout "Sex!! Panic!!!" on main campus.
(3) Only one worth watching is "Velvet Goldmine."
(4) Dear Google searchers, you're welcome.
(5) But if this were actually true, I would read this book, because who doesn't want to read about a league of nuns?

09 May 2009

Also, Things That Make Me Want To Clean My Apartment

File under Wish I'd Thought Of This First: A blog devoted to bookshelf porn (SFW), or photos of other people's bookshelves . This one alone inspired many off-color thoughts about real estate in me. Oh, my.

08 May 2009

Perhaps you'll find me feeling better in a day or two

Inspired perhaps by her recent in-the-flesh encounter with one Colin A. Firth, Nikki of A Small Song made a list of her fictional crushes. Hint: they trend 19th century! I went over and divulged one of mine, so it's safe to go over and spill yours. (It does say fictional men, but no need to limit yourself.)

07 May 2009

Your Assistance Please: Books about modern Rome

I'm back from my first trip to the Eternal City and the landing has been a bit bumpy, not least because today is my first ever jury duty summons.

I don't know how long this participatory venture in American justice will last*, but I sure would like to take some books about Rome with me -- but contemporary Rome, not phalanx-and-toga stuff. The only Wormbook book I found that mentions Rome is EAT, PRAY, LOVE (the "Eat" section takes place there) but, of course, I've read that. I've read DAISY MILLER which I believe takes place partly in Rome, and I knocked out ANGELS & DEMONS on the flight over (about which, more later).

Got a suggestion that will help ease the pain of re-entry? I would love to hear it, and not just if you believe you will soon be appearing on the docket in New York County and facing my wary jet-lagged eye. And while we're at it, if anyone knows why I have had "Buddy Holly" stuck in my head since I got back, have at it.

*Books I'm bringing with me to the courthouse: four. Overkill: complete.

06 May 2009

Is it time to panic yet?

In my non-professional capacity as Rhetorical Question Answerer to the world, I'm going to say no. It is not time to panic about the swine flu yet, even if there have been cases confirmed in your state, even if someone coughed on you recently and oh how gross seriously. However, if you're tempted to panic anyway, it's probably not a good idea to read any of these books about flu, epidemics or pandemics. You've been warned:

Richard Preston, THE HOT ZONE. '90s bestseller about Ebola coming to kill us (via a researcher at the CDC who risked infection to research it). Honestly I'd be surprised if most of you haven't read this one already; it's a definite page-turner though.
Peter Moore, THE LITTLE BOOK OF PANDEMICS. Aww, how cute, a collection of information on lots of different terrible things that could happen to the world! Aren't you adorable.
Mike Davis, THE MONSTER AT OUR DOOR: THE GLOBAL THREAT OF AVIAN FLU. I respect Mike Davis' work, but the man might as well call all his books BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID. This is the most terrifying between the factory farms and the very detailed symptoms of the SARS that tried to kill us. He just wrote an essay for the Guardian about the very real dangers of swine flu -- sleep well!
Steven Johnson, THE GHOST MAP: THE STORY OF LONDON'S MOST TERRIFYING PANDEMIC AND HOW IT CHANGED SCIENCE, CITIES AND THE MODERN WORLD. Actually, I'm looking forward to picking this one up because I'm fascinated by what little I know about the cholera epidemic -- the well and the popular concept of infection and so on. Call me crazy if you must.
Stephen King, THE STAND. I haven't even read a little of this one but I hear it's about a superflu that wipes out most of the human race, so there you go. Of course, when it's King, you expect to be scared a little.
Norman F. Cantor, IN THE WAKE OF THE PLAGUE: THE BLACK DEATH AND THE WORLD IT MADE. Hey, if worst comes to worst, whoever survives can have a kick-ass Renaissance. Now there's something to look forward to... kind of.

05 May 2009

I'll miss you, reading in bed

In short, I love doing it but recognize that it's bad for me. Just like eating steak, say!

A lot of sleep hygiene experts recommend reading in bed as conducive to getting a good rest, against watching TV which is supposedly a more active or involving medium. With all deference to those experts, for me I think it's the opposite; I can't read in bed because I get sucked into books and end up staying up much later turning pages. I can make this work for me while waiting for a subway train home, but can't turn it off when I get there.

I have started using phrases like "sleep hygiene" to correct the latest in a long line of sleep interruptions. As a longtime sleepwalker, any night in which I do not wake up standing in a place I don't recognize is by definition a good night of sleep, but I would like to fall asleep faster -- and that doesn't happen when I know there is a book hey, right over there just begging to be read. As for the concept of moving all non-sleep-related items out of my bedroom, well, that's a tip for people with houses.

This makes me sad because I have done some of my best reading in bed. And it's not like I have a lot of other seating options in my apartment to replace it. Maybe I could only read in bed on weekends? I'm not quite ready to give up such childish things.

04 May 2009

How To Accessorize Your Reading

Sure, your book cover speaks pretty loudly about the kind of person you are (unless you have a Kindle). But does it speak loudly enough? Make sure to add these extras to your reading and no one will be able to mistake you for the kind of reader you are.

If your book is... The latest by a modern literary giant (your Lethem, your DeLillo, your Pynchon).
Then you need... The requisite book festival and/or indie bookstore and/or publisher tote bag. Otherwise no one will believe you are actually reading it -- the souvenir says yes, you are that awesome.

If your book is... Anything with a pink cover, but chick lit in particular.
Then you need... A matching scarf and/or sweater, because the media adores a chick-lit cliche, and don't you dare let them down or you'll never find out why that mysterious man next door keeps stopping by when you're in your pajamas with a face mask on.

If your book is... Primarily concerning zombies, especially the potential of zombies in the "real world" (i.e. ZOMBIE INVASION SURVIVAL GUIDE).
Then you need... A baseball cap. No one needs to know you've lined it with tinfoil. Oops, the tinfoil's showing.

If your book is... A self-help guide
Then you need... A hammer. To beat off the negative thoughts, that is! And also to brandish at anyone who is laughing at your choice of books, and believe me, we all are.

In my defense, I own all those items -- though rare is the day when I can be found to be carrying all of them.

03 May 2009

Update: Goodbye Harry W., Hello Boswell and Next Chapter

A few months ago I elegized my former hometown independent bookshop, Harry W. Schwartz, closing its doors. But like the heads of the hydra, two new stores have sprung up in its place (or rather, two of Harry's former locations). I'm looking forward to checking out Next Chapter in Mequon and Boswell Books (see the proprietor's blog) on the East Side the next time I'm in Milwaukee.

02 May 2009

Switched on!

This is Ellen's blogging robot. Ellen entrusted me to post for her for the next five days while she is in 41°54′N 12°30′E. Topics to be disseminated through the weblog platform include:

Optimal speed of page-turning
Whether tomes quickly digested for repairs are weighted the same as the latest robot-lit
Artificial intelligence: Can it be improved?
The perils of the paper-based medium in electrically charged situations
YOU, ROBOT: Self-help for machines

Photo of books and robot: photocapy

01 May 2009

April Unbookening

Mooched 2 books (well, technically they were mooched in March and I got them now)
Got 16 from the library
Got 19 books to review
Borrowed 1 book
Was given 2 as a present (thanks, Pearl!)
Bought 1 book
41 books in

Donated 23 books to Small Thrift Store
Returned 5 to the library
Gave away 9 books
Lent 1 book
Left 1 book on a train (oops)
39 books out

I tried to go all of April without buying a book and people, I got really close. But I had to pick up a guidebook for a trip I'm going on, erm, today (more of which, next week) and while I could have waited to buy it today and had it count towards May, that would be kind of a cop-out.

Otherwise, review books made up the majority of what I read (or at least finished) this month. And I had to get a bunch of library books for a project, and didn't have time to read them yet, but that can't be helped.

Books I read in April
Brian Eule, MATCH DAY



Glen David Gold, SUNNYSIDE
Rakesh Satyal, BLUE BOY