Archive for the ‘non-fiction’ Category

in which I confess to hate magical realism.

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

September seems to have passed me by.  I haven’t had much to say about bookthings lately, because none of the things I’ve been reading are particularly new or exciting to most people.  The only thing anyone wants to talk about is Freedom and Jonathan Franzen, and yes I like Jonathan Franzen, but no I haven’t read Freedom yet, and no, I don’t know why, and no, I don’t know if or when I will.  I am overwhelmed by new fiction & new things that I desperately do want to read (my future reading queue has bypassed my 2010 reading completed by about 15 titles–how I think this is even remotely feasible to do by the end of the year I’m not sure).

So what do I want to talk about lately?  I want to talk about Mexico, and I want to talk about women (much, much less about men), and sometimes I want to talk about science fiction, and occasionally I might want to talk about labor relations, but mostly, yea, I just want to talk about Latin America.  I want to talk about why I am so lukewarm on magical realism, and why I won’t ever be able to finish something like Love in the Time of Cholera (and why I am not sure that I even feel disappointed by this).  I want to talk about food rations in Cuba and I want to talk about babies dying in Brazil and I probably want to talk a little about Julieta Venegas.  I finished Alma Guillermoprieta’s Heart that bleeds and thought, “well this is it.”  And then I started 2666 / Roberto Bolaño and it is taking me a lifetime to read this but I can’t stop thinking about it.  This is good.  I probably need something consuming and wacky to think about.

It is almost October.  That means it is almost time for the new Ian Frazier, which I am immeasurably excited about.  Jonathan who?  October will be the time for Siberia, I think.  I think I can push my brains away from hours thinking about las fronteras y los narcotraficantes y los coyotes and so much heartbreak for a little time with Frazier in the gulag.  Yea, this I can do.

I am taking my life back from Sweden

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

I spent a few days in Toronto visiting my brother and hiding The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest from anyone who might see me reading it.  I think I can reclaim my life again now that I’ve finished it.  These books are stupidly absorbing.  They also make Sweden seem stupidly enticing.  I don’t even like winter, but now I want to get a cabin & several thick sweaters & fritter away my remaining days on some fjord.  Since that actually sounds terrible, I am just going to take some tips from Maureen Corrigan’s list for future reading.

Pre-Salander finishing, I trudged through Friday Night Lights (H.G. Bissinger).  I read this for a book club, and it made me much sadder than I thought it might.  I am afraid to admit this, but I don’t actually know very much about football (I know, a Pittsburgh girl who doesn’t understand football), and I was surprised to actually learn things about football from this book.  I had incorrectly thought that this was some fluff book about Texas and weirdos who like high school a little too much, but damn, this is actually a book about LIFE and the EIGHTIES and the OIL CRISIS and so much more.  I very much like the show (marry me, Tim Riggins?), but mostly for how out-there the plotline gets.  I don’t know what I expected from the book, but I was quite pleasantly surprised.  It even appears that Bissinger actually researched it quite thoroughly, and this always pleases the reference librarian inside me.

I am on the cusp of finishing Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which is untouchably gorgeous.  I promised myself I would go back and read things that I read in high school that I pass off as having read but really I don’t remember a word of them.  I am not, however, going to read a Separate Peace EVER. AGAIN.

Other things:

I listened to the Shawshank Redemption last week & this week.  Mistakenly, I spent 25 years thinking this was about Vietnam.  Wow, wrong.  This is another one that I wouldn’t want to read, but it was fun to listen to.  I found out yesterday that I am actually incapable of both reading and listening to Talking to Girls About Duran Duran (Rob Sheffield).  This book perpetuated about 600 gender stereotypes within the first 15 minutes and infuriated me instantly.  I get a little sad when I think that something like this?  THIS?! is selling well.  I think I am just going to listen to Last of the Mohicans next, because there is no way that won’t please me.  My only wish is that I could somehow incorporate the soundtrack of the movie into the audiobook, because that would be insanely perfect.

I want to finish this off with approximately 200 quotes from Song of Solomon, but that would be robbing you of the pleasure of reading it yourself.

Righteous Dopefiend!

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

This week I have been rushing through the new Harpers (“Readings” this month is stunning!), watching the Falcon Cam nonstop (baby falcons hatching before your eyes!), reading Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (holy opus), and reading Philippe Bourgois/Jeff Schonberg’s monumental Righteous Dopefiend.  I have also been packing, which has been much less fun.

Righteous Dopefiend is a photographic/ethnographic account of homeless heroin addicts in San Francisco.  It has been interesting for me to consider how powerful this book might be if it were one or the other–it would certainly remain shocking and moving if it were only photography, and conversely, the ethnography would be no less effective and evocative without the photography.  It should come as no surprise that this collaboration is, then, incredible.  This book should probably required reading for every single American, as it has plenty to say about addiction, drug abuse, marginalization, racism, de-industrialization, marxism, relationships, and more.  Largely, I think, this book has plenty to say about America, and an America that most Americans might be resistant to either even consider or want to explore.  It is thus both exciting and important that this book is readable, practical and rarely alienates by using anthropological jargon that an average reader might be unfamiliar with.  I am not wholly familiar with much ethnographic theory, but the resulting collaborating between Bourgois and Schonberg is inspirational and fanfuckingtastic.  My admiration for Bourgois is well documented, and this book is building on it more.

I will have more to say about this when I finish it, I think, as well as Asterios Polyp.  Additionally, I hope my archaeologist boyfriend doesn’t mind that I want to be an ethnographer anymore.  Or that I just used anymore incorrectly.

More songs about buildings & food

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Last week:

Massacre at El Mozote-Mark Danner

Salvador-Joan Didion

This week:

Shadow Tag-Louise Erdrich

Joan Didion is unfuckwithable.  The Danner book was great, but now I am even more distrustful of most people & things, which probably isn’t good.  The new Erdrich reminds me a little of the Squid & the Whale, in that the adult characters are a little despicable and my heart breaks for their children in every scene.  Last month in New York I finally saw the real squid & the whale and I stood there for awhile in front of them feeling a little sad and simultaneously really grateful.  I don’t have much to say because I feel like I am constantly reorganizing my innards & my brain, which is when you know you are a little too into classification schemes.  That or it’s because I’m moving in 2.5 weeks.

In which I gush endlessly about John D’Agata

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Last week, I lingered over John D’Agata’s About a Mountain.  This is probably the only way to read this book: lingeringly (I wish I had my own copy, to love and touch gently and reread forever!).  I have always learned so much from D’Agata.  I can’t think of many writers who indirectly taught me more about form than him & the Seneca Review.  I found this book staggering, which wasn’t a surprise.  I think I probably expected to be staggered.  Within this book I encountered so much anger and beauty and shock.  Charles Bock charges D’Agata with compromising the book by conflating two crucial dates (dates that were in reality 3 days apart), and while I was mildly irritated by this conflation, I don’t necessarily believe it compromised what was otherwise a gorgeous and important work.  This is one of those cases in which I wish I hadn’t read the review before I read the book, but as OMC has pointed out, I can’t do anything unless someone has done it first and told me what to expect (thank you restaurant reviewers!), so, here I am.  Would I have been more irritated if I had noticed it in the footnotes and Bock hadn’t pointed it out?  I certainly would have been MORE irritated if D’Agata hadn’t (methodically) footnoted it.

Can we talk about the footnotes?  This book is so meticulously researched.  The irritable reference librarian in me loses it with happiness when something is researched so lovingly.   There isn’t one sentence in this book that didn’t need to be fact-checked (I am probably exaggerating, but you get it).  This book made my brain burst with new knowledge, and I respect that.

Can we talk about the structure?  D’Agata clearly likes the list (me too!) and he uses it to terrific effect in AAM.  I would argue that D’Agata has mastered the lyric essay better than just about anybody (the only person who comes close to touching him is Lia Purpura in On Looking, which is so effing good it makes me never want to write another thing again), and AAM is just exploding with wonderful language and sentences and I want to roll around on so many of the pages, smiling wildly.

Sigh.  I loved this book.  Another thing I want to gush about is Julie Klausner’s I Don’t Care About Your Band, but Lydia is (supposedly) guest-blogging it, so I will leave that to her.  This is otherwise the year of Latin America, so next up, expect some ranting about El Salvador and, frankly, little else.

This is not for the MS13

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Last week I got a question on the reference desk about the Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha.  Because I had watched a terrifying and very affecting movie last summer about these guys, I was uncharacteristically excited to work on this question.  As I had found myself so disturbed and moved by this film, I was surprised to discover there is very little out there on the MS13, and that that is published is in Spanish.  This particular faculty member requested that the materials all be in English, so I was even more surprised to discover that there are precisely 2 books in the Pittsburgh area in English on the MS13.  I feel guilty about this, but I immediately checked out one at the public library.

This is for the Mara Salvatrucha (Samuel Logan), had for starters, one of the worst book covers I’ve ever seen: ms13

See?  Pretty bad.  The MS13 are notorious for their Mara tattooes, and Logan & his publishers really capitalized on this for the cover.  While I am taking issue with silly things, I will also take issue with the subtitle, as at one point in the narrative he writes that they are not in fact the most violent gang, but one of many.  These are by and large cosmetic flaws, so I can let them slide.

I never really bought much into true crime books, but boy, was this ever one.  I loved the material Logan was working with, and the pure shock value of much of the story almost could have carried the narrative alone.  The book is about a girl–Brenda Paz–who got jumped into the MS13 at age 15 and was ultimately murdered by her “homies” when she was 17, pregnant, and an informant.  Logan writes Brenda as this supremely likeable girl–he talks of her being nicknamed “Smiley,” and emphasizes how cheery and adorable she was, but this got really annoying after the 9th or 10th time he writes about “Smiley.”  I think Brenda’s story worked best when framed by details of the MS13–how it started, how they migrated north to the US, etc, but there frankly wasn’t enough of this.  The framing that Logan does manage to do is superficial at best, and comparable to the MS13 Wikipedia page.  Which is to say brief, and possibly nonfactual.

Reading this book got tedious and repetitive.  It was a little like how I’d imagine reading the transcripts from 20/20 would be.  Very dramatic, all in a passive voice, with very little description.  Literally every sentence was written in the past tense (I started to count how many times he used the word “had” but lost track after one chapter).  In my youth, I was a non-fiction major, and we had a saying, “Show, don’t tell,” that we would liberally scrawl all over everybody’s writing every time they skimped on dialogue and setting, and holy cow, was I tempted to write “SDT” all over Logan’s book.  I confess to having been majorly absorbed in the plot (enough so that I secretly got mad at OMC when he started to simultaneously read it as HIS bedtime reading), but the writing made me want to bang my head off of a wall.  I think I might have been better served reading the Paz/cop transcripts or something.

Which brings me to my last point.  I haven’t really researched the research behind Paz’s story, but Logan attributes nothing.  Not one thing.  I’m not asking for a 45 page annotated bib, but I don’t think it’s asking too much to include a small sampling of citations so interested readers at least have other places to turn for further (and maybe better) research.

Lies: that wasn’t my last point.  Logan paints this bleak & terrifying picture of how the MS13 is going to take over America and eat your babies and shoot your grandma and steal her Camry but he never offers much in the way of a solution.  So what, I want to say.  They’re coming and there’s nothing we can do about it?  There’s lots of room for further research and writing here, so maybe this is my way to make up for the many failings of This is for the Mara Salvatrucha.

When the worst things are true things.

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Last week’s Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks made me wish I were reading science fiction.  This week’s I, Rigoberta Menchu (as told by Rigoberta Menchu) makes me wish I were reading speculative fiction.  Regrettably, in both cases, I wasn’t.  I am so deeply bothered by Rigoberta’s story.  This is one of those books that I want to tell everybody about.  I’ve read some speculations that the many atrocities Rigoberta witnessed as a peasant Mayan woman in Guatemala might not be entirely true, and while I respect that this should be addressed, I find it hard to forget the fact that someone, somewhere in Guatemala probably lived through one or more of these horrors–if not Rigoberta herself.  It seems implausible to discount all of the many horrible things Rigoberta may or may not have lived through.  This doesn’t cheapen the story of the Guatemalan peasant organizations and subsequent uprisings (at least not for me).    I am feeling a little scatter-brained, so:

A note about the book: the text of this book was taken from a series of interviews composed by an anthropologist.  As such, the book can get repetitive.  Should you read this book, I urge you to push through the repetition & the claims that not every word in this book is true.  If nothing else, you will emerge with a haunting retelling of modern Indian life in the Altiplano of Guatemala.  Should you choose to believe Rigoberta, you will emerge with a super critical eye with which to view modern coffee consumption, as well as a new reason to hate most people.

I will reflect often on 2009. It starts here.

Friday, December 11th, 2009

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  No, not Christmas.  BOOKLIST TIME.  There are a billion best of 2009 lists floating around out there, and as I am frankly tired of doing research for other people, you can find them yourself if you are interested.  What this means is I can reflect back on my year and regret some things I’ve read and look forward to kicking 2010 (CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?  2010!!!?) off with some exciting new reads.

I have mined the following from a variety of lists, and after frowning at myself for not having read them earlier, I am hereby promising myself that they are next up.  Some are embarrassing.  Some probably suck.  Such is the nature of best of lists.

    • Lit: a Memoir-Mary Karr
    • Raymond Carver: a writer’s life-Carol Sklenicka
    • Under the Dome-Stephen King (I cave.  I really want to read this.  Blame the cover.)
    • Family Album-Penelope Lively
    • Follow Me-Joanna Scott
    • Museum of Innocence-Orhan Pamuck
    • Nocturnes-Kazuo Ishiguro
    • Dorothea Lange: a life beyond limits-Linda Gordon
    • The Mercy Papers: a memoir of three weeks-Robin Romm
    • A Paradise Built in Hell: extraordinary communities that arise in disaster-Rebecca Solnit
    • Both ways is the only way I want it-Maile Meloy
    • A Short History of Women-Kate Walbert

So what I am doing now?  I am reading Little, Big by John Crowley, which is essentially a 500-some page book about fairies and being secretly married to them and having your children kidnapped in the night.  I think that’s what it’s about.  It is one of those books that carries me along magically for about 25 pages and then drops me someplace weird in my sleep.  I obviously love it, because who doesn’t love weird fantasy books, but oi! is it ever long.

Last week I trucked through Alicia Partnoy’s The Little School, because sometimes when my life is getting me down I need to be shocked into relativity by something gruesome and awful and real, and this did that.

Next week I will happily reflect on my year of goal achieving.  More like 200FINE.  I love the end of the year.  Here’s to goals.

Overly predictable

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

In unsurprising news, I adored My Invented Country.  In surprising news, I’m switching it up.  Next book, I’m back to Erdrich.  But this first, a thing about Isabel Allende that makes me smile wildly when I think about her: she’s funny and makes me think about the States with weird new eyeballs.

“The North Americans’ sense of time is very special.  They are short on patience.  Everything must be quick, including food and sex, which the rest of the world treats ceremoniously.  Gringos invented two terms that are untranslatable into most languages: “snack” and “quickie,” to refer to eating standing up and loving on the run…that, too, sometimes standing up.  The most popular books are manuals: how to become a millionaire in ten easy lessons, how to lose fifteen pounds a week, how to recover from your divorce, and so on.  People always go around looking for shortcuts and ways to escape anything they consider unpleasant: ugliness, old age, weight, illness, poverty, and failure in any of its aspects.” (pg 188)

Take this advice.

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

I remember vividly, possibly to the day (definitely to the month), the point at which I fell deeply, maybe pathetically in love with Latin American history (in particular, military dictatorships and, best of all to me, revolutions!!!!) and knew that my life would not be complete without it.  It probably isn’t surprising that my love affair began, as so many of mine do, with a book.  At this point I was 19, and fresh out of Kentucky-land-of-the-ponies-and-the-sorority-and-the-free-drinks-for-all-girls-in-skirts, which should suggest to you I wasn’t exactly an academic.  I begrudgingly took a history class called Modern Latin America.  Begrudgingly because, duh, I was an ENGLISH major and why did I need history.  The professor (a lovely, quiet, charming woman who I harbored a secret brain-crush on–she now teaches at William & Mary and is probably at this moment influencing the lives of similarly quiet girls in Virginia) assigned a segment from A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture (Marguerite Feitlowitz).  I can’t tell you how quickly this book changed my life.  I finished this book–read well beyond the assigned 100 pages–and thought, well, holy fucking shit.  This book.

This book.  This Dirty War.  I was so inexplicably drawn to Argentina for years.  Moreover, to South America, to Central America, to the epic, terrifying and guilty history of these lovely countries and cities I could only sadly imagine and realize through books.  This love affair, it hasn’t ended.  This morning I finished Isabel Allende’s the House of Spirits.  I am too overwhelmed by the loveliness and importance of this book to write much about it.  Allende is Chilean–she lived & loved through her cousin’s all-too-brief regime and escaped during Pinochet’s all-too-long–and the family in this book deeply parallels both Allende’s experience and the experience of all too many Chileans.  Read this book.  Read this book.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Read.  This.  Book.