Friday, February 29, 2008

Report: NBCC Event

Click on over to Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, for my write up of Wednesday's event. The direct link is here.

Special thanks to Daisy Fried, Kermit Roosevelt, Frank Wilson and Ben Yagoda for being part of the panel; and to Joseph Fox Bookshop and Friends Select for sponsoring the event.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Book 34 of 52: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

If you're American and heard of Alan Bennett, you'll know that he is author of The History Boys a smashing Broadway success and then movie. If you're British and heard of Alan Bennett, you'll more likely know of him as an extraordinary playwright, novelist and all around comedic guy.

I studied Bennett's plays while abroad at Oxford. He was a key author in my course about modern British playrights, along with Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard. Where Orton's humor is preverse with his humor, and Stoppard is clever when slotted into his dramas (Stoppard also wrote Shakespeare in Love), I found Bennett's comedy the most clever.

Which is why I was delighted when I picked up a copy of The Uncommon Reader at last year's Book Expo America, and I'm berating myself for waiting to read this fun, slim novel when I've had it since June.

The uncommon reader is the Queen of England who, one day finds a mobile library outside her door (a mobile library is a bus loaded up with books that drives from town to town for people who can't get to the library -- Ian Sansom has a whole series around this concept, which I also recommend). Obviously, this book is made up -- a mobile library would never get close enough to the palace grounds that the Queen and her dogs could just walk outside and take a book. But it happens, and it changes the Queen's life. She becomes a voracious reader, which changes how she sees her job, her self, and other people, mostly for the better even if her staff sees her reading habit as dangerous.

Not only is this a fun farce, but it also seems to be Bennett's love letter to books: "What she was finding also was how one book lead to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do." Anyone who's ever gotten wrapped up in a book knows that feeling. In fact, I put work aside for 20 minutes this morning to finish The Uncommon Reader and write about it here before delving into a lengthy article I'm writing about tax debt. Blick.

This issue of how you pick books, and how one leads to another was something we talked about at last night's National Book Critics Circle panel. So here's my question to you: what book have you found by accident? How did you get there? And where did it take you?

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Book 33 of 52: Lee Miller: A Life by Carolyn Burke

Quick reminder before I get into the review: on Wednesday, I'm moderating a National Book Critics Circle panel on books and all the wonderful things involved with the publishing world. It's at 7pm at Friends Select in Philadelphia. And it's FREE. How could you pass that up?

Now onto the review of book 33 of 52: Wow. Just wow.

That was my initial reaction to finally finishing Carolyn Burke's Lee Miller: A Lifethis evening. The book is an epic, and an exceptionally well researched and written one at that (it was a National Book Critics Circle finalist for 2005). It recounts the life Lee Miller, who has the kind of life that would seem completely unfathomable if presented as fiction.

I'd read about Lee Miller briefly in Francine Prose's The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired. Miller, having been a muse for Man Ray, was one of the nine women featured (and pictured on the cover). I thought she was interesting, yes, but the profile was relatively brief and packed in with eight other people. I came across Burke's book because I read about the Lee Miller exhibit currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and figured I might as well read about her before seeing the show. I'm glad I did.

Miller was an extremely complex and, at, at times, tragic figure. She was raped at the age of seven, an event that not only divorced love from sex, but also gave her gonorrhea. She was a restless girl and young woman and, after being 'discovered' in Paris by Conde Nast (the man behind Vogue) in 1927, left that provincial American life behind to became the face of an era. She also became the muse to Man Ray. With him, she learned and studied photography, which would bring her out of being just a pretty face and into a World War II correspondent for Vogue where she photographed some harrowing experiences, including the first use of napalm, the liberation of Paris, and the liberation of concentration camps (she was also photographed bathing in Hilter's tub). The war experience produced thousands of images, most of which were found after her death, but also left with a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder. Some of the pictures are featured in the book -- if you'd like to see them, click over to the Lee Miller archive, but I warn you: some of them are graphic, so proceed with caution.

She bottled up the experience and sought release and relief mostly through alcohol. I only marked one quote in this book, which came near the end of the book: "Because Lee rarely spoke of the war, her entourage thought that this chapter of her life was closed. Few knew that it had gone underground, to resurface late at night when she could not sleep, or when drinking with a female guest or relation -- a younger version of herself. You must be careful, she warned them, you could get in over your head."

It's the last part that brought up an issue I've been struggling with myself -- the issue of sacrifice for art. Granted, my experience is not nearly on par with Miller's, but it's an issue that floated up while I read through the final chapters of the book. So if you'll allow me a to take a tangent:

As I've mentioned, I've been working on what had become a very personal essay about a rather difficult period of my life. The writing and editing of that piece was brutal because it brought back an experience I've been trying to bury. With the writing came a wash of loss, regret, anger heartbreak and renewed grief.

In the mist of all this -- the sobbing binges, the restless nights, the evenings working on the essay in the dark -- I wondered why I was putting myself through the ringer. I could have just left the memories buried and moved on with my life. No one would miss the essay if it was never published, while forcing it into print would bring a new heap of problems. But publishing it would also exorcise an internal demon, and, to fall back on an old cliche, if one person reads it and sees herself in it and makes a change, well, then it will be all worth it. And reading through Miller’s life, and about her issues with drinking (my essay is not about that, but involves someone else’s drinking problem), I decided to finish the piece and submit it to a big name publication yesterday.

I hope I fare a bit better in the end than Miller did -- I think my inclination to turn to the treadmill and weights instead of alcohol to burn through the hurt, is a good start. Plus, that I can write about it while Miller didn’t talk about the war and left most of the photos in an attic only to be discovered after a her death, is promising.

Back to the book: I hope that Miller found some peace in the end. From Burke's account, she got her drinking under control, and she devoted herself to cooking (much like Julia Child, she turned to the kitchen late in life). She also reconciled with her son before her death, and died in the arms of her husband.

I spent a long time with this book -- it's the only book in this 52 books in 52 weeks series that’s taken me longer than a week to read. Instead of saying "I've had enough Lee Miller," I want to know more. I'll have to wait to see the exhibit since the certain someone who’s taking me is leaving for vacation tomorrow (lucky duck). Until then, you can read about her, and see more pictures here and here.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Weekend Wandering: Hedge Funds for Dummies

How do you make a video clip for Hedge Funds For Dummies by Annie C. Logue? Like this:

I'm glad he got his piggy.

Read more at To learn more about the filmmaker, Steve Delahoyde, click here.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Article: Marry Him!

I didn't write this piece from The Atlantic, but I caught a link of it on Trish Ryan's blog. In the article, Lori Gottlieb writes about settling. Why am I posting it here? Because she dedicates a chunk of this rather long essay to dating books for women. A sample:

"The approaches in these books may differ, but the message is the same: more important than love is marriage. To achieve that goal, women across the country are poring over guidebooks that all boil down to determining, 'Does he like me?,' while completely overlooking the equally essential question, 'Do I like him?'

I'm not giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to her opinion (though I do agree with her stance on dating books written for women). Just thought it was interesting. Plus, I'm still deep in the trenches of that wonderful-yet-dense-book. So read on!

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Recommendation: Mike McGrath's Book of Compost

I'm working my way through a very wonderful yet incredibly dense book, so I'm not sure when I'll get another review up here. In the meantime, I'd like to recommend Mike McGrath's Book of Compost, which I read before I started this project.

I, like a lot of freelancers, are under an avalanche of assignments about green living. I'm not complaining -- I won't claim to be the most green person, but I bought my house where I did with the idea that I wouldn't have to drive everywhere (to check out how walking-friendly your town is, check out I also wrote an article for the fall issue of Edible Jersey about composting, and in the last two weeks, I've had three people ask me about that article. At a party I had two weeks ago, I even gave people a tour of how I compost (not a grand tour, but they seemed to like it).

This book really helped. McGrath, who is the former editor of Organic Gardening and current voice behind You Bet Your Garden, writes in such a lively, fun way that the book doesn't feel like a reference guide but still has all that information need to compost right.

Plus, composting is one of the easiest and best ways to go green. Not only are you putting less trash out by the curb (and therefore in a landfill), but you're putting nutrients back into the earth.

I'm also writing this on a day where it was 60 degrees in New Jersey in February, so anything we can do at this point is a good thing.

For more tips on green living, check out Leah Ingram's excellent "Lean Green Family" blog at

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Weekend Wandering: Career and Corporate Cool

I sometimes (okay, almost always) do a bit of work on the weekends, and I'm betting a bunch of you do, too, or at least spend some of your Saturday or Sunday wandering around the web. So, every weekend, I'm going to post a video related to books, and given that a lot of books now have trailers, I think I'll have plenty to pick from. I'm running the same kind of feature (albeit about the South Jersey Shore) on my other blog, though with a slightly different name.

Anyway, our first Weekend Wandering is the trailer of Rachel C. Weingarten's Career and Corporate Cool (TM). I read the book before I started this Book a Week project, so I couldn't review it here, but I will say that it's a very cool book of career advice without that "white guy in a suit" mentality.

Doesn't it just make you want to watch a Doris Day movie?

You can

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Free Reading!

Galleycat pointed out a few free reading downloads today.

One is "The Lovers of Vertigo" by Timothy Schaffert, which you can download for free here. It's even formatted so you can print it and make it into a little booklet. I've got mine printed and ready to go so I have something to read on my train ride into Philly tonight. No sense carrying a big purse to fit a big book when I can slip this little story in a slim bag that matches my planned outfit for the evening. Here's what the booklet looks like:

It does come in color, but I'm out of color toner, so black and white will have to do.

The Harlequin estore is also giving away free downloads of Sherryl Woods's The Valentine Wedding Dress. I downloaded it, but couldn't print it. Boo.

For more info about these deals and everything wonderful (and not so wonderful) in the book world, check out Galleycat here.

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Book 32 of 52: Things I've Learned from Women Who've Dumped Me

I wanted to include Things I've Learned From Women Who've Dumped Meedited by Ben Karlin in my Philadelphia Inquirer article about dating books for guys, but it didn't quite fit. It's not offering advice per say. It's more comradery at being kicked by cupid.

It's an anthology, so 46 different voices come to the table to give their take this thing we call love. Most of these are essays about relationships that went wrong (though must guys writing that they did eventually get married). A few comics are sprinkled in -- not as on comedians (though there are a few of those -- Stephen Colbert and Will Forte contributed essays) but as in drawn pictures of heartbreak. Marcellus Hall's "Lessons from a Cyclical Heart" is brilliant if not a reminder that no matter how well things are going, they could always come to an end.

It's a fun book to read, but not all the essays are winners. I wasn't too enthralled with Colbert's entry (though, hell, if he said he'd like to contribute something to my book, I'd jump at the chance, and Karlin was an executive producer at the Daily Show, so it makes sense), and some essays were little more than navel gazing.

But the essays are short, and you can skip if one's jiving with you. My favorite piece was by Damian Kulash, Jr. of OK Go about adopting a dog with his then-girlfriend and how they probably stayed together too long because of the dog. My favorite line: "We were becoming adults, we told ourselves. So what if sex was less frequent than trips to the Home Depot? Adults have significant hardware needs." Todd Hanson's "Things More Majestic and Terrible Than You Could Ever Imagine" is great, too -- he's funny without looking like he's trying too hard to be funny (working at The Onion probably helps sharpen your comedy writing skills). A sample: "This feels great -- until they dump you on a whim again. But hey -- then they can take you back on yet another whim! This cycle can continue for not one, not two, but five years...until you have finally established a love/hate codependency not dissimilar from the Miami economy's relationship with cocaine."

I also love that Karlin's mom writes the Foreword. Because who doesn't see you through the rosiest of glasses but your mom?

A few more random thoughts, then I'm off to figure out where me and the guy should have dinner tonight without being crushed by Valentine's Day revelers:

1. As I read/looked at Marcellus Hall's "Lessons from a Cyclical Heart," I thought, Wow that must have taken a long time to draw. Then I said, Wait a minute. I spent hours on essays to make every single word make it look effortless.
2. I'm taking an essay class right now, so I read a lot of these essays like a writer. Well, I always read like a writer, but this timeI read with a more critical eye since I'm writing in the exact same format. Writing about relationships is heady stuff. It's not easy living through relationships or breakups, but writing about them...yeesh. I've spent two hours of the last three days in tears at my laptop. Not because I'm living through a break up, but because I was writing about some really bad stuff, and in doing so, brought back all that crap up I'd tried to tamp down. Not writing about it would seem an easy solution, but you know what? I feel better. I've taken it out of my head and put it on paper where I can move things around, highlight this detail or that, and make it something that someone else might find interesting. It's like exorcising a demon.
3. If that ever gets published, the shit is going to hit the fan.

Great way to kick of my Valentine's Day dinner search, huh? Well, OK, I shouldn't complain. I started this blog because of a breakup, and I now have someone who I assumed I'd be going out with on Valentine's Day. Isn't that nice? A year ago, I didn't know if I'd get back to this point, but I did (and, yes, book 2 of 52 helped). And after reading Things I've Learned From Women Who've Dumped Me, I know that if this one tanks, too, there's still going to be hope down the line.

In any case, I'll leave you with this then since I mentioned OK Go. You've probably seen the video, but it's a fun watch (and from a great album).

I'll throw this one in, too, because, this is the first OK Go clip I saw.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Book 31 of 52: "Strong Medicine" Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say by Amy Hill Hearth

As I mentioned in my review of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, which was book 30 of 52, my next book is "Strong Medicine" Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say. Now you can guess why I'd be reading two books by the same author back to back: I'm writing a profile of Amy Hill Hearth. And today I got to meet Hill Hearth and talk to her -- for four hours. I knew within five minutes that this would be a good interview. She greeted me while holding a seven pound dwarf Boston Terrier named Dot. We jumped right into a conversation about adopting dogs, and we were off.

"Strong Medicine" Speaks is her third oral history book. This one hits close to home for me since the tribe she writes about, the Lenni Lenape, is just about in my backyard, and I grew up hearing about them. In "Strong Medicine" Speaks, Hill Hearth gives the chief's mother, Marion "Strong Medicine" Gould a book to tell her story, from growing up learning to deny that was Native American (many said they were "colored" instead because they didn't want to be shuttled to a reservation) to working as a building inspector in Atlantic City to her current role as an elder. I liked Having Our Say, but I enjoyed "Strong Medicine" Speaks more. As Hill Hearth says, there's more context here, more about what life is currently like for Strong Medicine, and more reporting. Hill Hearth takes us into a modern tribal meeting, into a Powwow. And I think the fact that this book is the oral history of one person instead of two gives it better focus.

Like Having Our Say, the oral history makes this book incredibly accessible, and I hope it earns the same acclaim as Having Our Say, especially after spending the day with Hill Hearth.

Now what's that connection I mentioned in my review of Having Our Say? It's a big reason why you should stay in touch with your college advisor: Hill Hearth both went to the University of Tampa, and we both served as editor of The Minaret, UT's newspaper, and learned the basics of journalism from the same person, Dr. Andy Solomon. If not for him, I probably wouldn't be a journalist today, and it was fun swapping Minaret stories over lunch.

I won't say too much more about Hill Hearth -- I'm saving that for the profile (and I hope my editor can make that push to give me more space for the article). Of course, I'll post a link to that profile here when it runs.

If you'd like meet Hill Hearth, here's a list of her scheduled events. She'll also be signing with me at Cape May's Harbor Fest on June 21. I'm not sure what time yet (heck, I don't even know what time I'm signing), so I'll keep you posted!

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

So Long, marsRED

Sense a pattern here? I do, too, and I'm not happy about it.

Excuse me for straying from books again, but I have to write something about this, especially when you consider that I listen to music while writing: My favorite indie music store, marsRED in Haddonfield, NJ is closing. It's the kind of music store you don't find much of anymore, which is probably one of the reasons Scott Wellborn decided to close its doors. It's a tough business to be in, and even though it seemed Scott had a lot of local support, music downloads has changed the way music works. Scott's a casualty.

I started shopping at marsRED when I lived in Haddonfield soon after college graduation (I went to high school there, too). I'd just left my full time job as editor of SJ Magazine to try my hand at this freelance thing. It's a lonely job, and in the times before Emily and distance running, I needed an excuse to get out of my apartment. I'd walk to Haddonfield's downtown, visit my friend Sumer at SIX Clothing, and then head down to marsRED to check out the used CDs.

I did a little music writing at the time, and had been shamed by a friend into getting my head out of top 40 radio and into better music (he even mailed 'food' for my iPod in the form of MP3 CDs). marsRED became an important source for me, especially when I'd been assigned to write about music acts I'd never heard of. He always knew who I was talking about, and if he didn't, he'd ask.

I ordered most of my music from him -- he even got me Pipettes's debut album before it was available in the US, and when they finally crossed the Atlantic, they played in his store, and he saved me an autographed print because I couldn't make it that day. As I look over at my CD collection now (and, yes, I buy CDs, I'm old fashioned like that), most of what's there came from marsRED -- Ben Lee, Richard Swift, Alexi Murdoch, Capitol Years, Dr. Dog, Thievery Corporation. I hadn't even heard of matt pond PA or Pete Yorn, two of my favorite bands, until marsRED. Sure, some of the artists I read about, some I heard while in the store, and some Scott recommended.

I even got my first clip in the New York Times because of marsRED. Scott sells Sara O'Brien's "I Really Like NJ" t-shirt. I thought it was an interesting shirt, and when Scott told me the story behind it, I pitched the article and -- boom -- I finally made it into the Times. You can read that article here.

My point in writing this? The 'store closing' sale starts tomorrow and will run until the doors are finally locked on March 15. So if you're within driving distance of 57A Kings Highway East in Haddonfield, stop by (I'm not doing my usual links in hopes that you'll head to the store instead of buying online, at least this one last time). Heck, even ask for a recommendation and try out someone new. Scott'll lead you the right way, even if he won't be behind the counter much longer.


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Article: Dating Books for Guys

Finally here, folks: my article about dating books for guys, which includes short reviews of The Pocket Idiot's Guide to Getting Girls, Rules of the Game and This Book Will Get You Laid, books 23, 24 and 25 from this 'book a week' series.

If you're wondering about the "Love - the getting" title, you might want to take a peek at the article that ran alongside it called "Love - the giving". My article is on the left hand side of an image of a tree, and Lisa Scottoline's was on the right. And even though my mom's miffed they didn't run my picture, I don't mind. Maybe the guy I wrote about won't realize it was him (because, really, how often do you look at bylines? I read this article all the way through without knowing Kristin Graham wrote it -- and I'm a writer. You would expect I'd pay attention!)

Today also marks Frank Wilson's last review as book editor. I expected a farewell column, but, in true Frank style, he dedicated that space to a book review -- a review of a poetry book, at that.

Fortunately, Frank will continue to share his thoughts through the blogsphere -- he'll continue his wildly popular blog Books, Inq here.

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Saturday, February 9, 2008

Book 30 of 52: Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years

I don't know what I could say about Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years that hasn't already been said. This oral history of Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany, which was published in 1993, has been a sensation. Not only was it a New York Times bestseller (where it stayed for 28 weeks), but it was turned into a TV movie and play.

I can see why. The book is wonderful, and the oral history format is perfect for it. Amy Hill Hearth, who wrote the narrative, captured the wit and humor of the 100 year+ old Delany sisters, and their story says a lot about racism in America.

Their father was born a slave, and their mother was the daughter of a white man and black woman who couldn't marry because it was illegal in Virginia (though they considered themselves married). Together, they had 10 children, and all of them went to college. A. Elizabeth "Bessie" was the second black female dentist to be licensed in New York, and Sarah "Sadie" was the first black person to teach high school domestic science in a New York public school. Together, they give first person accounts of what it was like to live through everything from Jim Crow to Depression-era Harlem to moving into a white suburbs.

A few passages stuck out to me, who read the book 15 years after it was first published. One was on moving into that white suburb. Bessie says, "Back when Negroes were started to move into Mount Vernon, some of the white folks were mighty ornery. They would complain about such petty things, like the way that Negro children would play in the was little things like that, little cultural differences, that were the source of tension."

It reminded me of a recent post on about a movement to keep African Americans out of the Fishtown part of Philadelphia. I wasn't so shocked that Sadie and Bessie got the cold shoulder, but that, 50 years later, this attitude still exists? And people actually post it on telephone poles? Unbelievable.

Then, given the close race between Hilary and Obama, this was really interesting -- Bessie says, "See, I think while people would rather die than vote for a Negro president. I predict there will be a white woman president before there is a Negro president. And if a Negro is elected president? That person will be a Negro woman." Will Bessie be right? We'll see.

I'm interviewing Amy Hill Hearth on Monday. Her next book, "Strong Medicine" Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say, comes out in March. It's another oral history, and I can't wait to start reading it. I'll write more about my interesting connection to Hearth in the next stay tuned!

But I'll leave you with my favorite line in the book, again from Bessie: "When Negroes are average, they fail, unless they are very, very lucky. Now, if you're average and white, honey, you can go far. Just look at Dan Quayle. If that boy was colored he'd be washing dishes somewhere."


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Redux: Donkeys

Andy Merrifield's The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic Worldis one of those books I cannot stop talking about. I've recommended it to several people, and even posted on, which is a fab site for freelance writers, about how much I loved loved loved this book.

Sharon Anne Waldrop, a freelance writer who hails from Crawford, Georgia (population 850), replied that she has a donkey named Donkey Kong. So I asked her to write a little bit about him:

'I'm usually the one in the family who comes home with a new pet or animal, but this time it was my husband! He took the kids to visit a neighbor with a two month old miniature donkey. The neighbor owned the parents and the baby was not yet weaned. My husband gave a deposit to reserve the baby donkey until he was weaned from him mother. He told me that he was too cute and he couldn't resist! The owner said that it's best to keep the baby with his mother for three to four months. Although we couldn't wait to get our hands on him, we decided to let him stay with his mother for 4 months for his benefit.

The donkey came home with us on Christmas Eve, 2006. His mother is very friendly, and he is too. He comes up to say "hi" to everyone. He loves to be scratched and will follow you around until you do it. We named him Donkey Kong, after the Nintendo character. He is playful and always getting into mischief. Whenever something is missing, we know that he did something with it! Now that he is full-grown, we let him in the pasture with our horses. He is not as big as a horse, but big enough to hang out with them. When the horses run around, he can't quite keep up with them, but he sure does try. He looks soooooo cute when he is galloping. He takes short cuts when he can't keep up with the horses which shows that his brain is thinking. But he can get feisty at times.

One day my two pot-bellied pigs came running to me as though they were tattling on something. I knew that it had to be Kong. Sure enough, Kong was eating the pigs' food even though he had his own. He figured that he'd eat theirs first, then eat his own. And the feistyness didn't end there. When he matured, we had to get him gelded (neutered) because he wouldn't leave our mares alone! They are three times his size, but that sure didn't stop him!'

That's a picture of Donkey Kong at two months old. And if that's not a Cute Overload, I don't know what is.

On another note, my dad just called me to ask what a Mack is. He's referring to my article about dating books, in which I refer to Tariq Nasheed's The Mack Within. The essay appears in the Image section of tomorrow's Philadelphia Inquirer. If you subscribe, you got that section of the paper today. The link's not live yet -- I'll post that tomorrow.

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Event Update: National Book Critics Circle Does Good Reads

As I've posted before, I'm moderating a National Book Critics Circle panel in Philadelphia on February 27. I'm happy to announce that we've just added Ben Yagoda as our fifth panelist. The book dork in me is jumping for joy. I reviewed Yagoda's When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worsefor the newsletter of the American Society of Journalists, and I love his work, which you can read about here. He's a great addition to our panel, which also includes poet and PEW fellow Daisy Fried; retired-as-of-5pm-today Philadelphia Inquirer book review editor Frank Wilson; author of In the Shadow of the Law: A Novel Kermit Roosevelt; and me. Just another reason to come out to this free -- yes, free -- event. Mark it: February 27 at 7pm, Friends Select (17th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway) in Philadelphia.

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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Book 29 of 52: The Wisdom of Donkeys by Andy Merrifield

A friend of mine is going through a rough time right now, and I'd like to bring him a donkey.

Go ahead, laugh. I would have laughed, too. But then I read Andy Merrifield's The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World. So if I could, I would bring him a donkey.

Donkeys, believe it or not, are very docile creatures. Yes, they have that loudbray (because they vocalize when they breathe in AND out), and they can deliver one powerful kick. But they are revered in many cultures (Jesus came rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday, remember), and kept as pets in many parts of the world.

Merrifield borrows Gribouille, a friend's donkey, for a long walking journey through the Haute-Auvergne region of southern France. The donkey carries the packs, and serves as Merrifield's friend and confidante. Portions of The Wisdom of Donkeysare addressed directly to Gribouille -- I can imagine Merrifield stopping to write those passages in his notebook with Gribouille by his side.

So why would I want to bring a donkey to my friend? Because, in some portions of the world, they're used like therapy dogs are used here. They're brought to the sick, the infirm, and the old, and these little creatures can pull those people out of their sickness and their shells. I read most of The Wisdom of Donkeyswith my dog, Emily, sitting on my lap, so I know the calm animals can bring. But donkeys don't pester you like terriers do, and I would have given anything at that moment to reach out and stroke a tuft of Gribouille’s fur.

Merrifield's journey with Gribouille is his therapy. He grew up in Liverpool and, after a childhood trip to New York City, decided he wanted to live there (in the Empire State Building, no less). But his dream, like many dreams, deflated when confronted with reality. His New York life had little to do with the one he imagined, so he packed it in and moved to the French countryside.

It would be easy to call The Wisdom of Donkeysa memoir about finding yourself, something along the lines of Eat, Pray, Love (boy, wouldn't his publisher be happy about that?). But Merrifield's recounting of how he got from Manhattan to donkeys is different. It's more introspective. More contemplative. More poetic, so much so that at times I thought he was slipping into passages of poetry without the line breaks.

The Wisdom of Donkeysis not for everybody. It's a slow book, much like walking with a donkey is a slow journey. It doesn't have a focused plot. Merrifield writes flashes of his story around blocks of philosophy, about the mechanics of how donkeys survive, about donkeys in history and literature, and about how donkeys got their reputation (Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream did that one for me).

I don't normally like books like this, but I'm sad to see it end. I liked slowing down. Reading this book was like my few days in Cape May -- I'm so on the go that I liked being forced to stop, slow down, and enjoy, to take a long soak in a tub, to walk along the beach with a friend and his dogs, to linger over everything and anything. I don't do that here. The simples things are lost on me, gobbled up in the rush to do everything at once. So sitting down with The Wisdom of Donkeysgave me permission to stop and take a breath, to enjoy wandering through Merrifield and Gribouille’s eyes. It was a joy, and I'm sad that the book is over, especially since I read the final pages while my neighbor's voice, which pierces plaster walls, squeaked throughout my room -- thank God she rents and will be moving out at some point. Still, even with her shrieking, I still managed to savor the final pages while watching the sun set over the trees a few blocks away. That time, when my bedroom is lighted by sunset, is my favorite time to day. I don't enjoy it nearly enough. Maybe now I will.

So would my friend benefit from a visit from a donkey? Probably. Where I would get one in Southern New Jersey that did not live on the other side of a zoo fence, I don't know. But it's lovely idea, as is The Wisdom of Donkeys.

On a side note -- I've been taking Andrea Collier King's essay class, and she made a good point about reading your essay-in-progress and writing a one sentence summarizing what the essay is about. Then take out anything that doesn't support that sentence. It's a simple but powerful concept. Merrifield did this in The Wisdom of Donkeys. Even though the narrative shoots many different directions, everything he wrote about had to do with his journey with Gribouille. He didn't even say he was married until the end of the book. I think anything that had to do with romance, wife, marriage, etc. would have pulled away from the narrative. Smart move. Great book.

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So Long, Frank

It'll be hard to top what John Freeman, president of the National Book Critic Circle, said about Frank Wilson in a beautifully written “enjoy retirement” piece he posted on the NBCC blog (which you can read here). But I might as well take a shot because I'd like to think, at least, that I'm one of those "young reviewers" John references -- I was only 25 when I started reviewing books for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In high school, I told everyone I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to study fish or coral or something like that -- who knows where my microscope would have landed if I hadn't joined the college student newspaper. But I also thought that if science didn't work out, I could always review books for The New York Times Book Review (HA!)

So when I graduated college and decided to give this writer thing a whirl, I pitched book reviews to the Philadelphia Inquirer. I'd been reading the book review section since seventh grade and thought my college newspaper reviews would be enough.

I'm not surprised that Frank Wilson never got back to me. I wouldn't have hired me either, some kid who was all talk and no clips. But I kept trying, and as I gained more experience writing about books and authors for more high profile magazines, I kept sending samples Frank's way. First I'd try email, then mail, then email again.

Finally, I got a reply, and an assignment: Curtis Sittenfeld's The Man of My Dreams: A Novel, a book that Frank picked out for me to review. Finally -- FINALLY persistence had paid off. And it was a book by an author whose first novel, Prep: A Novel, I adored.

I ripped open the galley package when it came in, and hunkered down on my couch with a pen and a highlighter, ready to offer my insights into the second work of this promising author, ready to tell the world what I thought. It took me hours to write that review. I knew that if I did well, this could be my onramp into book reviewing. I was petrified to turn it in (the fact that I didn't like the book, and said so loud and clear in the review, didn't help). But Frank accepted it, with a few changes. The day it ran, I laid that page out on my kitchen table and left it there all day. It's one of my proudest moments as a writer.

Frank kept giving me assignments -- Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, Calling Out, Please, Mr. Einstein(which was, by the way, the most difficult review I've ever written). He let me pick these wacky books that other reviewers might not have even noticed, and let me have my say.

I should have known something was up in the middle of last month when Frank kept giving my name and information to other editors for assignments. I thought maybe he was finally fed up with the cut backs at the paper, and he was. Retirement, I think, will suit him well. So thanks, Frank, for giving me that big break, which has lead me to so many other wonderful things. As John said, enjoy “beating back weeds, not budget cuts.”

And if you’d like to see Frank ‘bloviate,’ as he calls it, he’ll be on the NBCC “Good Reads” panel with me on February 27.

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