Friday, February 24, 2006

Jacobs: The Know-It-All

I picked up A.J. Jacobs's non-fiction book The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World because I saw that it was about a guy who reads all the way through the Encyclopaedia Britannica and I thought that sounded like a really fabulously fun thing to do. I mean, I used to love flipping through my parents' encyclopedias--so much so that it usually took me about 45 minutes to look anything up because I'd get so distracted reading other stuff. Apparently, this is not a universal reaction, because a large part of his book consists of the sceptical or scornful reactions he gets from the people around him.

As the subtitle implies, part of what Jacobs is concerned with is what makes a person "smart"--he acknowledges that reading the encyclopedia won't do it, but what does? Mensa membership? Skill at crosswords? The ability to impress his wife? Jacobs portrays himself, humorously, as trying way too hard to impress people with his facts in his own insecurity over his intelligence. A lot of people in this book have the same insecurity, most particularly Jacob's wife's brother Eric, who comes across as so egotistical, bombastic, and just plain mean that I wonder if Jacobs's in-laws still speak to him. Even though Eric has a sort of OK moment at the end, he's still the closest thing to a villian in the book. Eric and A.J. show what strike me as the two opposite poles of being insecure--A.J. tries too hard to show that he's smart by spouting facts, and Eric just belittles everyone to prove the same thing to himself. In a way, this isn't just a book about what it means to be smart, but a look at how people deal with insecurities. I think A.J. has come better to terms with not just being smart, but with feeling confident about himself by the end of the book.

After the introductory chapter, each one deals with a letter of the alphabet, and A.J. tells us about his life and his reading as he gives us some of the choice facts from each of that letter's Britannica entries. This makes this book a great volume of fun trivia, too. If you like non-fiction, trivia, or reference works, this is a good one to pick up.

Speaking of a little of everything, here's a really fabulous soup (or, rather, "stoup") from Rachael Ray: Chicken, Chorizo, and Tortilla Stoup. It got thumbs-ups from the gang around here--it's very tasty, and melting the cheese over the top in the broiler adds a lot of texture to the soup.

So what's the longest reference work you've ever read? I once made my way through the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, which was a treat to read. If you've never read a reference work, which one would you like to read? Drop us a comment and let us know!

Friday, February 17, 2006

Laura Resnick: Disappearing Nightly

I picked up a copy of Disappearing Nightly because I flipped it open in the bookstore and the narrator's voice reminded me of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum (the One for the Money series), an opinion that I think is pretty well borne out by the rest of the book. In fact, next time Stephanie goes to New York, she ought to go shopping with Esther--Evanovich's series has taken a short spin through the realm of urban fantasty, after all, so they can probably share stories at the Sephora counter about maniacal magic users they've known, and the hardships of falling for a cop.

Disappearing Nightly, as its title suggests, has a struggling actress, Esther Diamond, as its heroine and narrator. It seems that the assistants to various stage magicians are actually disappearing during the "vanishing acts." Esther was the understudy to one of them, and her turn in the magician's magic box is next, so she has to figure out why the assistants are disappearing and what's happening to them. Fortunately she has the help of a 500-year magician named Max Zadoc as well as other enjoyable side characters such as a millionare Texan, an accountant, and four drag queens. This quirky cast spends most of its time trying to solve the case, without attracting the notice of Detective Lopez, the cop in charge of the first disappearance and Esther's love intrest. Lopez's behavior towards her when she's a suspect raised my eyebrows a bit, but the book never claimed to be a police procedural and his character was likeable enough. As in Evanovitch's series, the best parts were the dialogues between Esther and Lopez, particularly when he's also on the phone with his mother.

The book was lightweight--the mystery plot isn't overly taxing and the four drag-queen characters seemed particularly to replicate each other--but I enjoyed it. Apparently a whole series of books, called Manhattan Magic, is planned for these characters. If the location is important enough to feature in the series title, I'd like to see Resnick do more with it. This book could have happened in Vegas, L.A., Chicago, London, or Vancouver with absolutely no violence to the plot, since most of the action takes place indoors in fictional locations. That's OK for this first outing, but I'd like to see the future books develop a stronger sense of place. If you think Stephanie Plum is fun, and you like fantasy fiction, though, you might want to pick this one up.

Jumping to the recipe for this post: I will now reveal my super-duper burger recipe because it's quick, I actually made it up myself, and I don't think I've posted it already (I'd better start keeping a list, or I am going to repeat a recipe).

1 lb ground beef
1 handful crumbled feta cheese
2 chopped green onions
Lowry's seasoning salt, to taste (1 tsp to start)
1 tbsp Worchestershire sauce.

combine ingredients, mixing as little as possible so the meat doesn't become tough. Form into 4 patties and broil, 4-5 minutes a side for medium burgers. You can also fry these, grill them outdoors, or if you have one of those fancy grill pans, use it. I think to have the full experience, you should have some dill relish on them, as well as ketchup and mustard. My husband hates dill relish and mustard, so he disagrees.

Hey, anyone have a grill pan? I'm thinking about getting one since Rachael Ray calls for it a lot. Drop me a comment on that, burgers, or the book and let me know what you think!

Friday, February 03, 2006

An Open Letter to the Readers of A Million Little Pieces

So last September, Oprah said that she’d be featuring a book about recovering from drug addiction on an upcoming episode of her book club. You like Oprah, and her book club—you always make sure to TiVO those episodes, no matter what Joe in your office says about her. You know, Joe, the guy who framed his MBA from High-Priced U in silver-inlaid mahogany and burgundy leather to hang it up in his cubicle (although you’ve noticed that all he ever has to say about his alma mater is how great the basketball program is). Joe makes a point to clip Doonesbury and show it to you every time it makes fun of Oprah and her book club, but you like the books—you’d never have read some of them if she hadn’t recommended them, and although Anna Karenina was tough going and kind of a downer, you’re glad you finished it. You ordered James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces from Amazon, and when it came, you read it right through.

It was amazing. This guy talked about what it’s like to be addicted, and the events in his life that led up to his substance abuse problems. You thought this book really showed how people can help themselves, and even though you’ve never had anything that awful happen to you, you still felt inspired by it. It’s important to read books that make us realize that we’ve been lucky, make us look around at what we take for granted, and you gave copies to your aunt and your mother-in-law for Christmas. You talked about it with your officemates. This was one of those books that just stayed with you after you read it, a book that mattered to you.

And now, you find out it wasn’t true.

Joe has been sending you copies of all the news stories with titles along the lines of “A Million Little Lies/Problems/Questions/Deceptions” with messages like “Why on earth do you read this trash anyway?” like it’s your fault the author was lying. He’s laughing at you, like you suspect Frey was laughing at everyone the whole time they were buying his book. You’re even hearing about it from your friends who know you read the book and liked it. You wish you hadn’t given it to your mother-in-law. You wish you’d never heard of it.

Next day you’ve got another message about it, from a guy named Meyers in Washington state who says he’s putting together a lawsuit against Frey for the cost of the book and for the time that readers wasted reading it, and what with Joe in the office smirking and asking you if you’ve “read anything good lately” and the rest of the emails, you’ve got half a mind to email back to this lawyer and say, “Sure, sign me up.”

I understand. But don’t do it.

Listen, I know how you feel. I have this blog because I believe that books matter, and I know what it’s like to have a book let you down. The last time, it was the most recent book in a series I’ve been avidly following for years. I looked up the release date, waited for it to come for months, and dashed off to the bookstore to buy it, hardcover, the moment it arrived. I read it in two days, which, when you’re in the middle of writing a dissertation, is practically one sitting. And when I was finished, I wasn’t glad I’d read it. I wished very much that I hadn’t read it—in this, the 13th book in the series, the author crossed (in my opinion) the line between mystery and horror and wrote a story so disturbing that I’m afraid if I ever visit the place where the novel is set, I won’t enjoy it because it will just remind me of that book. I was crushingly disappointed—I couldn’t even sleep the night I finished the book, in part because I’d just inadvertently read a horror novel (not my genre) and in part because I had looked forward to the book so much and it had been awful to read. I’m afraid to re-read the earlier books now, too, because the last book could easily flavor how I feel about a character who had been one of my favorite heroines, in some of the best-written mystery novels I’ve read.

That isn’t exactly how you feel about A Million Little Pieces, probably—at least I didn’t think that my book was true, and if I’m going to be fair I have to admit that in hindsight there were aspects of the previous two books that should have warned me the series was about to arguably jump genres. But believe me, I know what it’s like to have a book hurt you, and Joe and the rest of them don’t. I can tell you that the way to get over a bad book isn’t by joining a lawsuit. All that’s going to do is line the pockets of some lawyer, and keep the story in the news so that messages from Joe continue to find their way into your inbox. It isn’t by writing hatemail to the author or mailing your books back to the store, as some of Elizabeth George’s fans recently did, either.

No, the only way to get over a hurtful book is by reading other books. I’ve been in love with books my whole life; that’s why I have this blog and why I went and got a degree in literature. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. Take it from a woman who knows: read more books, right now. Like mysteries? How about picking up one of the Robert B. Parker novels, or maybe a classic Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh? Or finding some of the middle-of-the-series The Cat Who. . . books, when Lillian Jackson Braun was at her gentlest and wisest? For non-fiction, how about Melanie Rehak’s charming book about Nancy Drew’s creators? If you like to learn about different historical eras and you’re not afraid of a challenge, give Dorothy Dunnett or Jane Smiley a try. If you’ve just never developed a taste for fiction and you want inspirational stuff, why not read Seabiscuit; if you don’t mind seeing both light and darkness in what humans can do, The Devil in the White City was an incredible book. There are a lot of book blogs out there besides this one—Samantha Tippy’s is one I read, and you can also check out BookPage on-line (although these reviews are written by the people who run the bookstores, so they’re intended to sell you the book). Check out the “Our staff recommends” shelves in your library. You’ll find something for you.

Read books. Read lots of them. And, when you think you’ve gotten some perspective on the whole fiasco, when Frey has finally been displaced in the news, read Salman Rushdie’s children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. This is the first book Rushdie wrote after he had been placed under a death sentence by the Ayatollah for writing the novel The Satanic Verses. Written to Rushdie’s son, Haroun is one author’s courageous response to the question, “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” Think about his answer, and then consider whether reading Frey’s book, even if he was making a lot of it up, was really a waste of your time after all.

And keep your chin up. After all, the way they’re playing right now, Joe’s basketball team won’t even make it into the NCAA tournament.