Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Jenny's Book 5: The Things They Carried


My next book is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. I picked up this book at what has become one of my favorite days of the year: the day the the high school students clean out their lockers. The first year I started working at my current school, I was amazed at the stuff the kids threw away. Along with all the accumulated garbage of a school year, the facilities staff put huge bins in all the hallway for the recycling and donation of books, binders, and usable school supplies.

You wouldn't believe the stuff that gets tossed----especially the books. Some of the them are worn, heavily highlighted, and well used. These are the books from kids who actually study and do the reading. But on this particular day, and this day only, I hate those kids. Instead, it's the slackers' books that you want to look for. They might be awful to have in class, but their books are *pristine*. My copy of The Things They Carried probably got carried into class once. It is completely unmarked except for some pink highlighting on pages 189-202 and then some underlining, in pen, on 226-228. Sweet.

The Things They Carried is a novel based on the experiences of the author in Vietnam. I'm drawn to the book because my Dad is a Vietnam Vet, but I know that it's hard for him to talk to me about his experiences there. And yet, O'Brien is very careful not to call this a memoir. The older I get, the more open I am to different genres, but I am no fan of the memoir. The recent kerfuffle over Three Cups of Tea has only reaffirmed my dislike of memoirs. Reading one makes me feel skeptical and suspicious. Perhaps it is because, as you know, my own memory is so faulty. I simply don't believe that people are able to recall conversations and events with that level of reliability. I'm dubious that anyone can be so sure of the past and the part they played in events. Is anyone's story that clean? I know mine isn't.

In fiction, I can assume that even if people or events are partially inspired by real life, at least some of it has been invented. I'm comfortable with the idea that fiction, even though it's untrue, can reveal truths. In non-fiction, I can check the footnotes and bibliography; I can determine the validity of the argument or explore the counterargument. But a memoir is some sort of bizarre middle land, and I am unable (or unwilling?) to suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy it. I'm sure there must be authors who interview and investigate before writing their memoirs. But how can I know who's fact-checking and who isn't? I have to assume that some of the dialogue has been recreated, that some of the feelings have been reshuffled and smoothed over, but if that's the case, why not call it fiction?

What about you? Any genres out there that you are unwilling to read?

P.S. I just thought of one exception. After hearing Tina Fey on Fresh Air last week, I think I'd enjoy reading Bossypants (despite the disturbing man-hands cover). But that books seems more like the entertaining musings of a sharp, funny writer than a true memoir.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Completed: Nature's Metropolis


I finished Nature's Metropolis this afternoon. I find it harder to review non-fiction. I often pick up non-fiction books because I want to learn something, and by that measure Nature's Metropolis was an excellent read.

As you may recall, the book is split up into 3 parts. The first part outlined Cronon's thesis. That was kind of boring. The second part discussed in detail the 4 major "crops" that Chicago turned into commodities. The 3rd part discussed the economic reach of Chicago. I left off halfway through the second part, so I'll pick up there.

I was sure that this section would be the most boring, and instead it was fascinating! Early timber industries in the northern midwest, primarily WI and MN, relied heavily on pine. Why? Because pine floats. All winter long, loggers would chop and stack huge logs of pine by streams and rivers. As the water thawed, logs were simply dumped into the rivers, directed down to Lake Michigan, and from there they floated all the way to Chicago. Eventually, as railroad lines reached further into the North, heavier hardwoods could be harvested and brought to market. Although lumber proved a booming business, the great North woods were completely deforested within an amazingly short period of time.

You'll see the picture of a log jam, another interesting thing I learned about in the book. These massive blockages, some millions of board feet of wood, in rivers as they made their way to the Lake. From what I can tell, these were often broken up by just a few guys who were attached to men on shore with ropes or chains. This brave (or crazy?) individual would walk out over the jam and prod free the logs in the front. If he got into trouble, the men on shore would pull him back. Of course, many times the poor guy just got killed.

The picture above is in the book with the following caption: "Chippewa River logjam, 1869. A logger's worst nightmare happened when logs suddenly got stuck in the river and blocked everything behind them. Logs could back up for hundreds of yards, and the immense pressure could lift them thirty or more feet in the air. A jam like this one emitted an eery dull roar as the logs scraped and creaked against each other." (This also reminded me, dimly, of a novel in which a family is killed by a logjam. Or something like that. Pretty sure it was John Irving.)

I thought this section would be really interesting, and it was....sort of. Turns out I'm pretty squeamish, so I raced through some parts of this section. Ugh. Turns out there can be a little too much talk of offal. Who knew?

Chicago revolutionized the meat packing industry by "disassembling" hogs and cattle at the Union Stockyards. Yep, that's right: butchery by assembly line. Chicago furthered pioneered the industry by creating refrigerated train cars. In this way, "dressed meat" could be sold thousands of miles and many days past the time the animal was killed. For various reasons, this was very beneficial to Chicago and the huge meat packing industries, such as Armour and Swift, headquartered there. This destroyed local butchers businesses pretty much all over the country. The Union Stockyards could process meat faster, more efficiently, and use more "parts" of the animal than a local butcher ever could. As to how those extra parts were used, some of it was industrial, but some of it was food. This is where I did a lot of prodigious skimming.

The Economic Reach of Chicago
I'm guessing that this is probably the section where Cronon worked the hardest in terms of original research. He simplifies it greatly, but it is obvious that he must have spent a gazillion hours gathering and compiling the data in this section. Basically, the most reliable and accurate financial data from the late 1800s comes from bankruptcy filings. He takes the information and creates a series of maps to show which places Chicago businesses owed money to, and where they were owed money from. As you compare these maps to other cities, such as Milwaukee and St. Louis, you can see how much more extensive Chicago's "reach" was. I'm not much of an economics or money person, so I have a feeling the genius of this is lost on me. Did you ever look at a painting or piece of art, and you know there's something brilliant about it, but you lack the knowledge to explain why? That's how I felt reading this section. I'll give the final word on that to Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winning Economist. He said, "His magnificent Nature's Metropolis is the best work of economic and business history I’ve ever read — and I read a lot of that kind of thing."

My Final Thoughts
This book was so interesting, and not in the way I expected. I've read some great stuff about Chicago since moving here. For example, I loved the biography of the first Mayor Daley, American Pharaoh. I really figured that this book would be another Chicago-centric read, and it was, but it was also about all Cities, and how they came into being, and why, and how they are connected to the rural areas that surround it. My review doesn't really do it justice, because I focused on some of the cool stuff I read, while the book is really about the economic relationship between the commodity from the hinterlands and the market that Chicago created for those goods. In that way, I think any city person, or anyone interested in urbanization or economics, would enjoy this book.

I've also been on a bit of a Civil War kick this past year, and the book inadvertently helped me to better understand the mighty industrial strength of the North. For example, at one point, the book discusses why St. Louis wasn't as quick to adopt the grain elevator as Chicago, eventually making itself irrelevant to the grain industry. Essentially, St. Louis relied on slave labor and had no incentive to mechanize work it could get for free. On the other hand, Chicago was able to innovate and think of a creative solution to the problem.

Although this wasn't a Civil War book, because of the overlapping time period, it felt illuminating. It kept reminding me of a point historians often make about antebellum America: the spirit of innovation and hard work was prized in the North and scorned in the South. The reliance on slave labor made "hard work" something to be disdained rather than something to be rewarded. I didn't expect it, but the book revealed how the innovative, hard-working ethos of a big Northern city created something great.

All in all, a great read!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Dangerous Fire Sale at Borders


I hardly know what to do with myself now that the Tournament of Books is over. The big winner was A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, with Freedom losing in the final match-up. I liked both books, so either way I probably would have felt happy. I can definitely say that it was more fun to follow the Tournament having read all the books. My goal next year is to read *all* 16!

I'm now in the middle of reading a bunch of different things. I'm semi-stalled on Nature's Metropolis, not because it is boring, but because I figure I have until the end of the month, so why rush? My goal is to tackle one TBR book per month and not get ahead, so I'm happy to let that sit for a little while doing other things.

Around here, almost all of the Borders stores are going out of business. The one in my neighborhood went out of business last month, but while in the thick of the Tournament of Books, I successfully resisted the pull of the Borders fire sale. But then, last weekend, I had to take Darius to a birthday party, and right in the same parking lot was a Borders. Needless to say, this was impossible to resist.

Have you ever been to a book store that's going out of business? Talk about depressing! My guess is plenty of people go in, wander around, and go out empty handed. Not me. I headed for what was left of the fiction section and let loose. They had been moving and consolidating books onto the shelves, and everything was out of order and un-alphabetized. If you were looking for something specific, you'd be totally frustrated. (This is how I feel in places like TJMax and Marshall's.) But not only do I read a lot of books, but I also read a lot of book reviews. This means that I was pretty happy just scanning the shelves and pulling off books that I've heard are good. I limited myself to buying only 10 books for myself (and Bloodroot for you!). All told, I picked up 11 books, 7 of them hardback, for about 100 bucks. Woo hoo!

As for what I'm actually reading, I just finished a mystery from my school library called In the Woods by Tana French. It was a great read. I love a good mystery! It's so satisfying to read a book where the plot gets wrapped up at the end. Even though there is a lingering questions about the past for the main character, it was still a very satisfying read.

I've also been reading another non-fiction book. Ever since the earthquake in Japan, I've been fascinated (in a horrified way) by the nuclear crisis. This led me to wanting to know more about Chernobyl, so I ordered the book Ablaze: The Story of the Heroes and Victims of Chernobyl. So far, I'm very impressed at how readable this book is. I've come to really appreciate a writer who can take a complex and complicated real-life narrative and write it out so that it reads like a great story. I think the Chernobyl book is satisfying because it's a story that's "finished" while the events in Japan are still happening, and therefore the arc of the whole thing is still unclear. Somehow admitting that feels like a failure, but there's the truth: I like a story where the ending has already been determined.

One last final question: do you keep track of books you read? I'm semi-envious of people who keep records of what they read. I've tried in the past using sites like GoodReads, but it's never worked for me. I'm trying again, this time using a Google spreadsheet---keep it simple, stupid! I decided to try and recreate what I could starting with January 1. If my calculations are correct, I've just finished my 19th book this year.


PS: Here's a screenshot of the Borders Haul. I think I might start with Olive Kitteredge.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Kelly's Book 4: Love in the Time of Cholera

Dear Jenny,

I cannot remember how or why or when this book ended up on my shelf. This edition was published in 2003, which is after I moved to California, so at least I haven't been hauling it all over the country like the a couple of the other choices on the TBR pile.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my all time favorite books. When I read it, I said, "So that is what all the hype is about!" But I'm a little nervous about this book because, while I have had experiences where I like most of an author's works, I've also had the experience where the author of my favorite book (The Great Gatsby) also wrote one of my least favorite books (Tender is the Night. Ugh.) So, of course, I'm always afraid of that.

One random thing I know about this book is that it plays a key role in the movie Serendipity. Something like: she writes her name and number inside of a copy of it and every time he finds one at a used bookstore, he looks to see if it's that copy. Or some crap like that. (I actually do not remember much else about the movie, except that the chick had freckles on her forearm in the shape of the constellation Cassiopeia and... So. Do. I!!) (OMG!) I don't think I was a huge fan of the film, though.

As an aside, the "cholera" part of the title makes me a little nervous, as cholera is "an acute intestinal infection caused by ingestion of contaminated water or food" (Oh, yeah. I looked it up.) and I hope there isn't too much cholera talk. I think it's going to be more about the love, but I'm just sayin'.

Mostly, I'm looking forward to this book. I think I'm going to like it. Stay tuned to find out!


Friday, April 1, 2011

Completed: The Screwtape Letters

Dear Jenny,

I finished this book a week or so ago and... I'm just not quite sure what to say about it. Let's start with a brief overview and then see where I go from there...

Summary (no spoilers)
The Screwtape Letters is a collection of letters written by a senior (semi-retired?) demon named Screwtape to his nephew, a lesser demon named Wormwood. Through these letters, Screwtape is counseling Wormwood on securing the soul of a particular man, referred to only as "the patient." And by "securing the soul," I mean, of course, "to hell."

Black is white. White is black.

The brilliance of this book is that everything we ("we" meaning you and I -- mostly moral, good, uncorrupt folks -- and others like us) think of as "good" (heaven, kindness, charity, etc.) is referred to as "bad" and things we generally think of as "bad" (hell, corruption, the devil, etc.) is "good."

So there is a lot of mind-bending when reading this book. God is "the Enemy," Satan is "Our Father below" and whenever "the patient" does something positive/good/Christian, it's a "bad" thing. Sometimes I got into the flow of it, but other times I had to back up as I stumbled over concepts: "Whoa, whoa... why is ____ bad? Oh, right. Demons. Demons think 'good' is 'bad.' Got it. Carry on."

Here is where my "insight" should go
I actually have a lot to say about this book. Maybe too much. I have about 20 pages bookmarked and I had many amazing "A-ha!" moments while reading. But, for whatever reason, I'm just not able to put them into words. Maybe I'll revisit this at a later date. For now, I just want to mark this book as "completed" so I can move onto April.

I have enjoyed writing about books I've read this year, but this one just wants to live in my head. Screwtape, we may hear more about you later. Or not. We'll see.

Screwtape, the website
While poking around the internet, I found a pretty great site,, created to promote and sell an audio version of the book. Looks like it hasn't really been updated since 2009, but there's some pretty fun stuff there.

One of the premises of the book is that Hell didn't want humans to see these letters -- no one knows how they got out. So I love the animations on that site -- hover over links and they get changed ("Downloads" becomes "meaingless distractions") in an effort to dissuade us, as humans, from learning too much about the workings of Hell and their plans. Heh.

The site also includes a very well done 7 minute "making of" video. Andy Serkis, the actor who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, plays the voice of Screwtape in the audio book. And he does so brilliantly. It's worth a gander.

After I put this book down, I thought, "Did I like it?" I think the answer is, "Yes." It's not like any book I have ever read and it was not an "easy" read. But the flashes of insight make it really worth it. There were times when I put the book down just to mull over some of the ideas presented, soo... I think that Lewis's intended effect was achieved.

Would I recommend this book? I think so. It's short -- you'd burn through it. If you've ever been remotely interested in reading it, go for it. And hey, maybe we can discuss it here if you do decide to read it. But know this: it sure as shit ain't no Narnia.