other readers: street librarian : jen : sara : fil : step : sharyn
An Underground Educahtion by Richard Zacks
Did you know that in the original Italian version of Sleeping Beauty the prince awakens Sleeping Beauty by raping her? And that there are no less than seven churches claiming to have Jesus's foreskin? There are so many more fun anecdotes in this book that I won't try to list them all. Unlike many books of similar trivia, this one comes with a big list of sources and all claims that could people could potentially call bullshit on are scrupulously cited. There are chapters on religion [oh those popes!], crime [a section on bestiality and the law] and U.S. History [Lincoln favoring an all-African nation for freed slaves ]. Zacks' tastes do run to the prurient and the volume is quite well-illustrated so the faint of heart need not apply. All others will no doubt find it as enlightening a page-turner as I did and a catalyst to further curious studying.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling
Friends gave me this book upon hearing that I was a librarian and hadn't read it yet. It is the British version which means that Harry wears a jumper instead of a sweater and eats sweets instead of candy. Fine with me.This book was a glorious romp in the park with wizards and owls who deliver mail and dragon eggs and all kinds of crazy whatnot. Anyone who thinks it isn't appropriate for children is crazy-ass nuts. It was fun, it was interesting, it was well-written and it was just one more book in a stream of excellent books with a theme that I call Triumph of the Uber Nerd in which the nice-but-geeky protagonist is resoundly despised by everyone in the beginning yet ultimately comes out ahead at the end. Go read it, it's worth the wait on your library hold list.
Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
I approached this book reluctantly because while I really enjoyed Proulx's other book Postcards, I found it profoundly depressing. In fact, when I told people I was reading Shipping News, they uniformly said "Oh god, she's depressing" so I assumed that the main character was always heading towards certain doom and kept an eye out for foreshadowing of something awful happening to his children. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised. Not that bad things don't happen, but overall the characters are noble, they do their best, and the book is only as depressing as your opinion on rural poverty which, since I am living among it, I don't see as such a big deal. This book made me want to visit Newfoundland.
The Census Taker: Stories of a Traveler in India and Nepal by Marilyn Stablein
This book showed up in my mailbox with no note, only a return address. I think its delivery was spurred by my taking the census test, though this book has very little to do with the census. It is a series of short essays by Stablein who was in India and Nepal back in the hippie days. Unlike a lot of stories about this time period, it is not all about taking heroin and finding your inner Buddha. Stablein has a good reflective perspective and can portray her time abroad with clarity as well as a bit of amusement. Many of her stories are not about her at all, but the Sadhus who she meets or a man who runs a laundry in town. There is a kind gentle quality to her writings, many of which have appeared in magazines as short stories, which makes this slim volume a pleasure to read.
Pecked to Death by Ducks by Tim Cahill
Nothing really about ducks in this book, and Tim Cahill does not die, as usual. More adventure stories, including a lot of rappelling, insane sports and insane sportsmen, and sorority girls going winter camping. A lot of these articles have appeared in Outside magazine, but at least one has never been published before [some gross out story about animal mutilations]. The only reason to not go out and read this book immediately is that you might finish all of Cahill's books too soon.
Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard
Maybe I was confusing this author with Anne Tyler, or maybe even another Anne. At any rate, I picked up this book, admired its cover and its few pages and decided to give it a go. The author lived for a time in a one room cabin of sorts on Puget Sound and wrote about it. I figured it might have some good descriptions of the oceans or something. Instead, this book seems to be a disjointed monologue about all things holy in a kind of rambly style that never really worked for me. Dilard's writing is beautiful, but I found her subject matter completely inaccessible.
A Wolverine is Eating My Leg by Tim Cahill
Having only read one novel by Cahill, I was surprised to find that this was a collection of short stories. Cahill is well-known for his travel writing but a lot of these episodes took on the flavor of more journalistic reporting, as when he investigated the deaths of the Jim Jones cultists in Jonestown, Guyana, or when he spenty some time with a local cult in the hills in California. Cahill's humorous though non-judgmental style makes him a great writer about touchy subjects such as these and though there is no wolverine in the book, I treasured every minute of it.
Questioning the Millennium by Stephen Jay Gould
I picked up this book due to its topical content and stuck with it because of Gould's marvelous style and unassailable logic. He has a few points to make about the Millennium, including the correct date it occurs on [1/1/01] and what people were doing 1,000 years ago [not much] as well as a side note about his son who is an autistic day/date calculator. The book itself is short, perhaps too short, and worth picking up in the next three weeks.
Dinner at Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
This is a story about generations of a dysfunctional family who can never finish a meal together. Lumped into categories of "eaters" and "feeders" they all have their own strange hang-ups about the family that manifest themselves in odd ways when they all get together. Tyler is great in that she creates characters that are simulaneously flawed and redeemable, leading us to cheer for all of them and hope for the best. The character descriptions and food descriptions in this novel are detailed without being overwhelming.
Dark Lady by Richard North Patterson
Now this guy knows how to tell a story. Partway through it I realized that all the chapters are about 3-5 pages long, perfectly digestable without getting bogged down in too many details. Potato chip writing, but good at it. This story is about a big baseball stadium [you getting one of those? Isn't everyone] and a bunch of people who wind up dead during election season. The lead character is a nifty woman who doesn't just fall in love with the good looking detective but has actual aspirations and goals. A good genre read.
Single & Single by John LeCarre
It's hard for me to remember if I ever really liked John LeCarre or just hadn't read any other better spy novelists... This book is a lot like his others: droll Brits, some international intrigue, a leading man and a host of others whose names are interchangeable and who I can't keep straight. The opening chapter is seen through the eyes of a guy who is getting tortured and murdered, maybe that set the tone poorly for me. Either way, I never got totally into this book.
The Unfashionable Human Body by Bernard Rudovsky
Rudovsky traces the history of human awareness of our own bodies in this oddly titled book with a picture of a hermaphroditic Adam and Eve couple on the cover. Paying special attention [perhaps too much] on feet and adornment, he traces humanity's attempts to reveal or obscure particular body parts or attributes depending in the fashions of the times, and tries to explain some of the weirdness that we call fashion. The book is well-illustrated with lots of old engravings and paintings and a pleasant read for anyone interested in how they view their own bodies. A good pullquote:
"Trousers represent a typical paradox of modern dress -- an abstract shape, the tube, superimposed upon an organic shape, the leg. The trinity of thigh, knee and calf, each marvelously molded and replete with eye and sex appeal, is stuck into a cylinder that would be just right for a peg leg but fails to do justice to a live one. As packaging jobs go, the result is ludicrous and not a little sad."
The Genesis Code by John Case
Isn't John Case a great name for a suspense novelist? I picked this book off the new shelf of the local library when I was looking at a long snowy weekend here. The book is big and red and has big yellow letters. I picked it for all the wrong reasons, yet it turned out to be pretty good. Italian Priests, hard boiled detectives, high tech security specialists and a mystery of why young boys are being burned to death in their sleep. A page turner that doesn't make you feel cheap when you are done reading it, and without all the usual sensationalist raping and killing that tends to accompany a lot of suspense novels nowadays.
The Two by Irving and Amy Wallace
Ever wonder how Chang and Eng Bunker, famous Siamese twins, had sex? Or why, if they were fron Siam, their last name was Bunker? Well, look no further. This entertaining and well-researched biography of Chang and Eng is a real page turner. It's got some neat pictures and a lot of direct quotes from letters and interviews with folks around at the time. Chang and Eng were mostly gentleman famers in North Carolina once they retired from full-time show business. They married sisters and had a bazillion children. Chang drank too much. Eng was more mild mannered. This book is big fun.
Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Green
If you really grooved on the idyllic descriptions of Southern Life in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this book is a good complement. It describes the days to day lives of black and white folk in Georgia in the seventies when civil rights hadn't quite come to McIntosh County. Some people got fed up and, with the help of the Georgia Legal Services Program, fought the county for representation and an end to at least some discrimination. Green does a great job with place and character descriptions, although she describes so many people that it can be tough to discern who the major players are. The stories unfold as told through the personal lives of the GLSP folks, the local sheriff who has always ruled absolutely, and some local men who want the system -- with its flagrant abuses of power -- to change. No one is a superhero [though the GLSP lawyers, including Green's husband, come close] and almost no one is an absolute villain.
Vegetariana by Nava Atlas
Remember the eighties when we thought that not eating meat was the best way to save the planet? Okay, not eating meat is a pretty good way to stay healthy as well as live low on the food chain, but I'm on a roll here... Technically, this is a cookbook. I found it in the kitchen when I was looking for useful things to do with cucumbers. However, it is also so much more. Nava A tlas is a great illustrator and thorough researcher so the borders of every page are filled with anecdotes and illustrations of famous vegetarians [Franz Kafka and Leonardo Da Vinci] and stories about food. The recipes are mostly easy and no-nonsense [are you listening Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant?] and the book is big and square and stays open on your countertop while y ou are cooking.
547 Ways to Save Energy in Your Home by Roger Albright
Remember the seventies when we all thought that the best way to save the world was to stop giving all of our money away to the power companies and save save save energy? This book epitomoizes a lot of what was good and bad about that whole movement. I got it to give me some advice on how to deal with a new woodstove, but I also got some tips on insulating my windows and cutting my hot water bills. There's lots of common sense advice on insulating and winter preparedness, though some of the solutions seem a bit extreme to me: a mini-refrigerator for frequently used items, for instance.
I am Not a Number: Freeing America from the ID State by Claire Wolfe
I always expect any title that comes from Loompanics to have a certain amount of ranting in it, this book is no exception. Claire Wolfe is fervently against any sort of national identity system, against using social security numbers as personal identifiers, and in general would like to be free to lead her own life free of government interference. Her arguments are well structured and often very compelling. She explores such institutions as health care, banking and even travel [try to get on an airplane without some sort of government identification] and offers commentary and sometimes alternatives to having to identify yourself and get entered into large-scale databases that track your personal information. Unfortunately, though Wolfe seems to be doing an okay job of leading her life this way, it is clearly not for everyone. Additionally, she spends more ink arguing philosophically about why you shouldn't have to give up your identifying information -- seemingly preaching to the converted -- than offering pragmatic ways of doing it yourself.
Patients: The Experience of Illness by Mark Rosenberg
Rosenberg sets out to create a series of photo essays that try to show what it's like to experience illness as a patient. He follows some of his own patients and the patients of others as they receive their diagnoses, undergo treatment and operations and convalesce. The pictures are often tough to look at -- operations on children, giant gruesome scars, a lot of misery -- but they do a good job at showing rather than telling about the experience of being sick. The patients are interviewed and discuss their treatments in their own words and sometimes friends or family are called upon to add commentary.
The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
I've really never read this book before. In the anarchist collective bookstore that I used to work in, we don't carry it. It has too many dangerous recipies and dubious street cred in anarchist circles. While it is interesting to look through, and has some good rants on your rights to be free of opression, in general it it is more a manual of lawlessness than anything having to do with anarchism. The intense focus on drug use gets tiring after a while. Excerpt: "Glue: I don't understand how anyone would want to sniff glue, when just as legally they could smoke toad skins..."
Small Inventions that Make a Big Difference by the National Geographic Society
Here in Vermont, a book gets extra credit merely by being big enough to stay open while I eat my oatmeal. This is such a book. Anyone who has already explored the weird world of odd patents will not find anything too surprising about the inventions listed in this book, and there is an awful lot of page space dedicated to plastic, but the pictures are large and colorful and there is a special section dedicated to junior inventors that caught my eye.
The Book of Zines by Chip Rowe
Chip Rowe is an editor at Playboy and also a serious zine fanatic. If you want to get a peek into people's fascinations with things and the zines they write about them, this book is a great primer, and a whole lot easier to read than Factsheet Five. You can learn about the Great Boston Molasses Flood, as reprinted from Murder Can Be Fun. You can read step-by-step instructions on how to make fruitleather underwear [aka edible underwear] courtesy of Ben is Dead. And, my favorite, "Dont's For Boys", dating advice from the girls at Bust. Example: "Don't kiss and tell. But because I know you will, you slob, do me the favor of not degrading me. Mention that I'm cool, funny and smart and that you're super lucky to even be telling your friends about my naked action." There are lots of juicy excerpts as well as contact info for all the zines mentioned.
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
I would have loved this book even if it had been 500 pages longer. In fact, I was a bit miffed at how short it was. It takes an incredibly interesting story and picks out the most interesting parts to appeal to a wider range of readers. Anyone who loves dictionaries will enjoy the stories about how the OED was put together at first [I referred to my own copy from time to time just to see]. Anyone who likes stories of sympathetic lunatics will also enjoy this, as will anyone who likes period pieces taking place at roughly the turn of the century. It's an epic story. Everyone dies. It also has a good bibliography in case you want the real unexpurgated-for-popular-readers scoop.
Road Fever by Tim Cahill
If you read one travel book this year.....This is an account of driving a new GM pickup truck from Tierra Del Fuego to somewhere in Alaska in order to break the land speed drving record. Tim Cahill rides and drives with professional endurance driver Garry Sowerby. They have a truck filled with milkshakes, beef jerky and instant coffee. They go a little crazy. They fear for their safety. They carry a three-ring binder stuffed with documents designed to assuage any grouchy border patrol. Best of all, this book is just plain funny. I laughed out loud while reading it, not once but often.
Cry of the Halidon by Robert Ludlum
How can you tell a spy novel was set in Jamaica? All the locals say "Mon" a lot. I picked this book up on the way home from Capitol Hill on the bus, which is where I get a lot of my trashy fiction. I am in the middle of reading a scholarly-type book that is far too heavy to go on bus journeys, so there you have it. I was kind of hoping that this book would have lots of lovely descriptions of Jamaica in the way many novels that seem to be an excuse for the writer to take tax deductions to travel usually do. Alas, it was a fairly standard non-spine-tingling account of mega-corporations trying to take over the world and thwarted by the little guy. Good news: the good guys win. Bad news: I kind of thought they would and this book is 450 pages long.
Cloudsplitter by Russel Banks
Got this book with a gift certificate. It is 800+ pages long and has a neat cover. It follows the story of John Brown -- the guy who led the Harper's Ferry revolt -- in a story as told by his son and acolyte, Owen. Now, I know nearly nothing about Harper's Ferry except what I learned in social studies and this book is historical fiction anyhow, I don't even know if John Brown even had a son named Owen... but now I'm dying to find out. I think good historical fiction makes you wonder about the characters and, since they exist or existed in real life, you can go learn even more if you want. This book was slow going -- very chock full of description and many lengthy religious explications that made no sense to me whatsoever. John Brown truly believed he was fighting a holy war against slavery and the success or failure of his ventures rested on his ability to convince his followers of that fact.
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
I found this book lying in the road in San Francisco and thought "hey, I've heard a lot about this book, how neat". Now that I've read it, I can't quite remember what I had read about it, or what I had thought it was going to be about. This is a coming of age tale of a hardluck girl in rural North Carolina. In this case, coming of age seems to primarily mean lots of horrific abuse from her Mom's new husband culminating in a brutal rape. The constant question in my head as I read it was "is she going to tell anyone about it this time?" as the abuse got more and more horrible. She never does and her mother -- who seems like a good woman except for this one glaring defect -- eventually leaves the girl, now 13, to run off with this abusive jerk. The book is beautifully well written and there are some other redeeming characters but the central tale is one of injury and betrayal repeated over and over. I'm going to go leave it in the street now....
Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe
I grabbed this book from the booksale because the title rang some sort of bell in my mind. However, upon looking it up [and reading the book] all I can find is an Iron Maiden song by the same name. While this book of short stories was quite interesting, it wasn't anything you'd make a feature film about. Stories about lower class adolescents in the UK, some who turn to lives of crime, some of whom just muck about waging wars on the other kid gangs or evesdropping on their neighbors. At times, the slang and the accents: "If I see yo' gooin' about wi' that daft Frankie Buller I'll clink yer tab-'ole" can get pretty thick making for some challenging reading, but this book has an authenticity about it that you won't get from Trainspotting somehow.
Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa
I grabbed this book off of a fifty cent cart when I was anticipating a 45 minute bus ride with no reading material. It tells the story of a young man from the country who joins the Air Force and gets brutally murdered. The local police try to investigate and are stonewalled at every step. Then, suddenly, everyone starts talking and they don't know who to believe. The book takes us from the air force base to the whorehouse to the shores of the oily ocean [where the American petroleum company is set up]. It was an interesting read in the South American tradition and worth much more than fifty cents.
In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
Richard Brautigan makes very little sense in any sort of conventional way but all of his books and stories make sense in their own sort of internal way. In Watermelon Sugar weaves a tale of people who live in a town with a mythology, an uncoventional spelling, lots of bridges, foxfire that glows and nearly everything made of watermelon sugar. The sugar is different colors on different days and the black sugar is also soundless. Everything made out of it is also soundless: shingles, clocks, dresses. Hard to imagine without reading the whole story [told in very short separately titled chapters] but it all makes a very sensible tidy package that evokes other times and other places.
Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms : Essays on Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould
This is easily the best book I've read all year so far. I've been really into SJG since The Mismeasure of Man, his expose of the skull-measurers and their influence on today's standardized testing craze. As usual, this compendium of essays contains a lot of good trivia, some chunky science, and a lot of wry humor and interesting insights -- all in good proportion to one another. From this book I learned that until the great aquarium craze of 1860 or so, marine life in naturalists' drawings was often depicted as it was usually seem -- washed up on shore. It wasn't until people had aquariums in their homes that the drawings started to represent fish from the side. Gould also takes up the sticky issue of religion vs. science when he explores the pope's fairly recent acknowledgement of evolution as not being contrary to any religious doctrine. In the past I have always thought of Gould as a bit reverential for my tastes and now I am wondering if I imagined the whole thing -- he comes across in this book as a carefully reasoned yet respectfully agnostic. There is also a wonderful essay on Jewish naturalist Mendes da Costa which touches on the subject of religious persectution in addition to Linnean nomenclature. An analytical discussion of Leonardo da Vinci's codices leads off this book to insure that just about anyone will find it interesting.
Handbook of Homemade Power by Mother Earth News
I cheated and did not finish this book because the last chapter is on methane energy/heat production and I do not own a cow. I went to Bellingham last year and met a guy who powers his entire house with two windmills and a garage full of batteries. Back in the days of Jimmie Carter, we were all going to live this way. Back when there were solar panels on the White House [it's true]. We had debates in seventh grade about energy sources and no one wanted to debate for nuclear power because we knew it was a lost cause. What the hell happened?! This book has a lot of common sense plans and diagrams as well as interesting interviews with people really using alternative energy sources. You can send $2 and get plans for nearly everything that is explained to you. I am going to get a windmill for my place in Vermont -- I now know that they need to be black so ice doesn't stick on them -- I really really am.
Knowing the Gururumba by Philip Newman
Another in the series of Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology, this book takes you to New Guinea where you get to meet people with bones in their noses who have many wives and are forever swapping pigs. It's interesting, but not in the same way as the hippie anthropology book I read. In that case, I knew enough about hippie culture to kid of read between the lines of the story the narrator was telling. Here, I needed to take most things at face value, limiting the usefulness of this book as a reflection on anthropology itself. The fact that the people who were studied in this book probably now wear Nike sneakers is a matter of some concern and reflection on my part.
Coyotes : a journey through the secret world of America's illegal aliens by Ted Conover
This is one of those books where someone privileged tries slumming it for a while and then becomes even more privileged writing about his experiences slumming. This is a great book and Ted really went through some interesting stuff: frequent illegal border crossings and arrests, migrant farm work, hardscrabble life on the lam. However, the more crap he went through, travelling with illegal immigrants up and back to and from Mexico, the more it become apparent that he could have walked away at any time, though he did go through pains to try to appear as Mexican as possible. This definitely highlighted the plight of the immigrants, but also made Ted appear more like a college student out for a lark. He is a good writer though sometimes his analysis seemed a bit simplistic "Then I realized ... these guys couldn't even read..." but in trying to get a "real" story, he winds up telling an even more interesting story about himself. This book can be annoying but the insider view of the whole border crossing process is worth overlooking the pesky parts.
Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky an Anthology from The Sun Magazine
I started picking up issues of The Sun and reading them lately. They have a lot of stories about people overcoming adversity, or just plain old dealing with adversity. A lot of stories about pain, healing, growth, whatever. A lot of good photography. I was always kind of wondering what the magazines hook was, since it seemed to have a vibe that resonated rather well with me. Recently I got a copy of volume 1 of Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky which is an anthology from this magazine from years earlier. I found that the hook, at least back inthe day, was a more New Age bent. There were intervies with Ran Dass and Robert Bly and a lot more folks [than nowadays] talking about spirituality and healing and whatnot. I think The Sun took some of the good vibes from the New Age movement and took out all the pyramid schemes and fakey rip-offs of other spiritualities and came up with something that is a really unique voice. The stories and interviews in this book are lovely and have a certain empathic quality to them that is rare in today's writing. I read it straight through two days of jury duty and was sorry when I finished.
Trailerpark by Russel Banks
Another flu-inspired find. A collection of short stories that have as their connecting theme that they are all about different members of one trailer park. The stories take place at different points in time and often don't even take place in the trailer park itself. Unlike what you might expect, Banks manages to infuse all memebers of the trailer park with some degree of humanity, even the true weirdos like the Guinea Pig Lady. The stories are sometimes tough to take but always interesting and all kind of build on eachother, adding to your overall understanding of this unlikely community.
Disappearance: A Map by Shelia Nickerson
This is an interesting book. I picked it up because of the nice cover and because it was on the new shelf in the library where I work. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be written by a guy who slept with my husband's ex girlfriend's mother [hmm, that's not quite right, the mother is the mother of the guy who slept with my husband's ex, the mother wrote the book, is this clear?]. Anyhow, the book documents people who have disappeared in the higher latitudes of the U.S. in kind of a singsongy narrative way. Detailing the people who vanished, sometimes the attempts to find them. What was left and what was learned. It goes back to the early days of early exploration and tracks up to the present, talking briefly about Chris McCandless who was the subject of Into the Wild. These narratives are interspersed with the author's own reflections about disappearing and her life in Alaska. A cute book that feels good in your hands and a really interesting read.
The Fat Man in History by Peter Carey
When I go to the video store I often go straight for the Australian section. I don't think, however, that I've ever read any Australian fiction. This will have to change. This book is a lovely collection of short stories that I picked up at the public library when I was feeling sick and needed something that looked small and manageable. The stories are absurd and often bizarre and the title story bears a weird offbeat resemblance to Donald Barthelme's Snow White. Characters in the various stories build miniatures of their towns, turn their appendages blue, plot a revolutionary act of eating the war statue [that would be the fat men], and disappear into this air. All through it there is an amusing undercurrent of "The Americans" and how they may or may not show up and what they might or might not do.
Lord of the Barnyard by Tristan Egolf
I won this book on the web by answering a reference question. I got a proof copy so I don't know if it's snazzier looking in final form or not. This book goes into a newly discovered genre that I call "bad childhood revenge rampage" where kids grow up in an unbelieveably awful/repressive/abusive environment and grow up to wreak havoc on everything and everyone as we cheer them on because they're finally getting their comeuppance. This book involves turkey processing plants, unbelievably horrible garbage strikes, recalcitrant sheep and multiple bar brawls. It must be read to be believed.
The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk
Normally, you would have to threaten me with the dentist to get me to read a book by someone named Starhawk, but a good friend of mine recommended this to me and I dug in. It's 700 pages and I read it in about three days [well, having the flu helped]. It's a ecotopic novel set in San Francisco about sevent years hence. San Fran is a green enclave in an otherwise hostile and miserable world. Why? Because everyone there has learned the secrets of living together and supporting the community, not just continuing along mankind's selfish path. The San Fran folks make do with less and yet they all have more. Starhawk's vision is great in that it is not too fruity or exclusionary of people with other backgrounds and perspectives -- you could believe that just about anyone with enough love in their heart could make this thing work. The city has to defend itself from an attacking army due to their fresh running water and ample foodstuffs. Makes for great reading and good dreams.
Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee
John McPhee is sometimes playful. In this series of essays he takes super-preservationist David Brower [founder of the Sierra Club?] and takes him on hikes and river rafting trips with some of the country's most fervent developers: The Bureau of Reclamation guy [dam builder], a big developer on the East Coast and some guy who wants to build copper mines everywhere. They go on trips to the outdoors and they talk, with McPhee to record their odd and humorous and oftentimes antagonistic conversations. The oddest thing about these exchanges is that they seem to be governed by some sort of old boy decorum. No one yells, no one sulks, and at the end of the day they're all drinking whiskey together like buddies. To me it said something about the kinship of privilege [all the guys are older white established males] even when everything else is at odds.
Come Back Dr. Caligari by Donald Barthelme
A friend of mine lent this to me so I could check on a discrepancy brought to my attention in one of the stories in this volume. Apparently there is a racier version of this in a collection somewhere. Or maybe they are just having me on. Like any Barthelme book, I devoured this. While not as unarguably classic as Amateur or 40 or 60 Stories, it has a flavor all its own and some of the stories are just a bit too ... postmodern ... for my tastes, but who cares? Love it love it love it.
The Hippie Ghetto : The Natural History of a Subculture William L. Partridge
How interesting to read anthropology about a subculture you already know about! Unlike the Yanamamo or the Bushmen of the Kalahari, I actually know a thing or two about hippies. This book uses the Natural History approach meaning that the author actually lived with the hippies and observed their rituals and community behaviors. Though there is a bit of a focus on the evils of drug use, this book serves to highlight the actual anthropology itself and is fascinating reading. Do I need to mention that it was written in the sixties? Great purple cover.
Young Men and Fire by Norman MacLean
This book is a brilliant analysis of a forest fire a long time ago that claimed the lives of a bunch of young smokejumpers. Maclean died while writing it and so it was published posthumously which may be why it reads like it could still go through one more edit. It's a guy book, in that it explores the classic guy themes of honor and valor and death and machismo and peril. I really liked it though because MacLean has a light touch [and does not seem too horribly macho himself like, say, Hemmingway] and really does his homework. He goes back to Mann Gulch, the site of the fire, again and again to try to uncover more clues as to what really happened [there were two survivors] and, more importantly, why.
Pissing in the Snow & other Ozark Folktales by Vance Randolph
The word ribald has a strange set of connotations. It has sort of an old-timey feel to it and at the same time implies sex without being smutty, intrigue without overkill. These stories are ribald. Collected by Randolph, a noted folklorist, they are mostly one-page fable-type yarns about sex and other off-color topics. Usually funny as hell. There are notes after each one to indicate if the story is an oft repeated folktale, or particular to a given town or region. Sample beginning: "One time there was a widow woman had a pretty daughter and three young fellows come a-sparkin'. All of a sudden a storm blows up so the widow woman says they better stay all night..." Another sample line: "Just call me Fuckemboth..." Unlike your standard American porn, all kinds of people get laid in these stories and generally wind up enjoying themselves. My favorite part was learning all the regionalisms for genitalia that we don't get up North.
The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr
I devoured this book. Read it every night. Deliberately took the bus when I could have driven in order to spend more time reading it. I think New York at the turn of the century is one of my favorite time periods for novels and Carr's subject matter -- psychology just when it was beginning to become a science and the status of criminal investigations before such methods as fingerprinting and lie detection were given any credence -- is fascinating. His plot devices can become a bit heavy handed in the "If I had only known then how badly it was going to turn out for all of us..." way but nitpicking aside, this is a page turning story of a criminal investigation into a woman who is suspected of murdering several children. Guest cameo appearances by Clarence Darrow, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Teddy Roosevelt and portions of the US Navy.
The Lonely Crossing of Juan Cabrera by J. Joaquin Fraxedas
I made a book display about Cuba for the library I work at. It went up and came down in about three days. I was all set to cry "Censorship!" but it seems that we just got an unusually large amount of new books in and they wanted to highlight them as soon as possible. Yeah, maybe. Anyhow, it means that I got to read this book even sooner than I might have. It was a "gift book" to our library which sometimes can be code for "sucks" but I thought it was beautiful. It tells the story of a Cuban emigre who comes to Miami in a raft, but really it's about people's struggle with identity and nationalism and it tells some great stories of Cubans in Miami on various sides of the struggle. It's a long poetic love story about people's love affairs with their countries and there are some great descriptions of fish.
Running Dog by Don Delillo
All Don Delillo's characters talk in near-non-sequitors. Short jerky phrases that rarely relate much to one another. This works out pretty well in this semi-detective novel. Lots of disjointed characters none of which are very connected to other people or the world around them. It centers on a bunch of collectors who are all trying to get their hands on a porno flick that supposedly shows Adolf Hitler getting it on in the bunker. Only Delillo could make this not appear ridiculous at the outset. People chase other people, spy on eachother, sleep with eachother and get killed. The resolution is unsatisfying, the way you know it's going to be when you realize how little you have left to read and how much you still want to know.
Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski
This book took me forever to read. Answering such questions as "have we always had chairs?" it traces the history of homes, and more specifically the notion as the home as a place for comfort, from what seems like the beginnign if time [caves] up through the invention of chairs, right up to the era of labor saving devices. It is fascinating and dense with some silly pictures and a lot of anecdotal stories, not all of which seem apropos.
Wise Children by Angela Carter
I really like Angela Carter. Her stories are full of life, wild sex, weird characters, odd babies, and a lot of interesting stories of worlds you can only half imagine on your own. This one is a reflective tale about the show biz career of two aging twin dancing girls. I can do the story no justice by explaining it further. Twin girls named Chance, twin brothers named Hazard, a lot of interesting wordplay in lush settings and many crazy Brits.
Life is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera
A lovely title for a completely unlikable character. This book is loosely about a poet who has a dysfunctional codependent relationship with his mother. As a result, he treats women badly, has an inflated opinion of himself and is obnoxious to other people. Oh yeah, and there's a revolution going on, cuz it's Kundera. Even a revolution could not save this book. Uck.
Hide & Seek by Jessamyn West
Another in the series of books-written-by-that-lady-with-the-same-name-as-me. This is one of JW's autobiographical books. Inspired by spending some time alone in a travel trailer on the side of the Colorado River, she is constantly reminded of things from her past and inspired to tell stories about whatever. Some of the stories have to do with the people around her in the present, many have to do with life with her family when she was younger and moved to California way back in the day when cars had wheels with wooden spokes and you made butter by hand. It's a great read, very non-linear and a soothing change from the jangle of every day city life.
Because They Wanted to : Stories by Mary Gaitskill
According to Amazon.com [the first and last mention of that company in these pages] people who bought this book also liked one called Guided Tours of Hell. No surprise. This book is about bad sex and people who can't love. It's deliciously written, achingly poignant and raw raw raw. I'm not sure if I liked it overall, but the stories that touch you [there's one about a woman with a feverish crush on her dentist who can only be described as a No Vibe Guy] are right on. There's too many gang bangs  for my tastes and her characters often seem to elude happiness through constant overthinking and nitpicking. I think one story has a happy ending. Gaitskill is a true talent, but topically not quite my style.
Tales of the Night by Peter Hoeg
If I hadn't read the book jacket, I might not have clued into the fact that all these tales revolve around one single date in time. They are all, though, strongly themed on LOVE, capital L, very heavy and heady. While Hoeg had a very narrative colloquilal style in Smilla, this book's language is very flowery and lovely and descriptive and emotional. The characters are almost archetypes in their successes and failures. I would find myself reading a few pages and then staring out the window for minutes at a time, so evocative were his descriptions and characters. Not for the lovelorn.
Did Mohawks Wear Mohawks? by Bruce Tindall and Mark Watson
This is an excellent trivia book that I just got back from being on loan for over a year, and hence had forgotten the answers to all the questions like: Who Invented the Wheel? Did Cannibals Really Exist? and Who Named the Numbers? It's fun, interesting and more importantly well-researched. If you were ever curious about what could have possibly inspired people to invent Coke Classic, or how astronauts pee in space, then and now, this is the book for you.
Love is Not What You Think by Jessamyn West
This lovely letterpressed 38 page number felt good in my hand, but was a bit on the mushy side for me. The upshot is that Ms. West feels that life is truly fulfilled for a woman by having loved. And not just loved anyone or anything, but having loved a man. A bit heterosexist and a bit on the poetic side, but fun to look at and not too terribly annoying.
last updated 12/26/99