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Bag Balm and Duct Tape

Another slice of life book from Vermont. This is written by someone who actually used to live in New England, before he moved to rural Vermont, so it spares you some of ther “wow, these people are backward” observations. Conger thinks of himself as a bit of a funny man, so you have to sometimes endure his ribbing of his patients [in a sort of wink wink way as he prescribes them placebos for their pains and aches as if they were some new wonder drug] in ways that seem somewhat disrespectful. On the other hand, when he tries to go the other way and give long lectures on apprpriate medical treatments, his patients' eyes glaze over and he’s not really giving them good care either. Being a doctor in a community that is quite traditional and somewhat ruled by superstition must be sort of tough. Conger seems to have made the best of it and maintained his sense of humor.


Chuck Palahniuk can be sort of gross. Most people who read his books already pretty much know this, but this was the first book of his that got reviewed pretty much as it was coming off the presses and so may be getting attention from people who only know that he wrote the movie Fight Club. And that may be trouble because this book is sort of icky, like his other books. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I did, very much. But I knew what to expect -- dead babies, necrophilia, raw infected wounds, deeply damaged human beings. Palahniuk writes these things like no one else, except maybe David Foster Wallace, who I’ve always suspected was a bit mean-spirited about it all.

This story reads more like his other book Survivor. It’s about a lullaby that kills kids and the messed-up guy who discovers this, and what he does about it. When you have the power to kill people with your mind, not always on purpose, is that a skill you want to lose? This book goes into all to gory details onvolved in answering that question.

In the Little World - A True Story of Dwarfs, Love, and Trouble

This book grew out of an article that Richardson wrote for Esquire magazine about attending a convention of Little People of America, a once a year event that is attended by thousands of dwarfs. Richardson makes friends with amny of the particpants and his continued relationships with them make up the rest of the post-conference part of the book. He is a good writer, though perhaps better suited to the magazine format than the longer book style. I enjoyed the parts that talked about the dwarf world, interviews with people who have spent their entire lives less than four feet tall, some who have married people of average stature, some who have married people their own size, some who haven’t married at all. Dwarfism is quite rare and so this convention is one of the few chances that small statured people have to mingle with and meet people their own size.

The book is strongest when it is letting people tell their own stories. It is least strong when Richardson’s relations with some of the people involved -- a dwarf woman who befriends him, a couple unhappy with his protrayal of them in the magazine, a mother trying to get good medical care for her dwarf daughter and splitting up the rest of her family in the process -- because Richardson himself has his own set of problems. He is happily married with children and yet carries on this tumultous long-distance email and phone call friendship/relationship with a woman that only ends when the woman wants them to go into therapy to work out some of their differences and Richardson’s wife tells him flat out “friends don’t go into therapy together.” The long-suffering mother of the dwarf daughter is such a mess of a character that reading about her and her increasing obsession with the online world is wincingly painful. And, of course, I agreed with the couple who were upset at his portrayal of them -- in the quest for a hook for his story, he wound up carelessly hurting these people’s feelings becaue he felt like he was one of them, in on the scene, when he clearly wasn’t. And, of course, like any popular writer, when he starts looking at social phenomena and quoting the likes of Derrida and other French philosophers discussing the nature of “difference” I just start skimming.

Enabling Romance: A Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships for the Disabled

I’m not sure why I picked this book up, except that I’ve been reading about diability issues lately and this seemed to be a logical extension of the other boooks I had been reading. The book is written by a couple, he is disabled, she is not. They discuss all manner of disabled relationships and sex, with chapters devoted to specific disabilities -- blindness, polio, deafness, MS, cerebral palsy, quadriplegia -- as well as just general information for people contemplating a relationship with a disabled partner. The bulk of the book is told in the words of the disabled people that were interviewed by the author; many are in or have been in fulfilling sexual relationships. Some have not. The tone is matter-of-fact “well why shouldn’t I be having a healthy sexual relationship?” and is full of chatty advice on how to re-engineer sexual relationships to accomodate various sorts of disabilities, including the often problematic situation of working with an aide. The book also has accompanying Joy of Sex style drawings which depict disabled people in sexual situations. The models themselves seem suspiciously able-bodied, but the drawings serve to normalize the book as a how-to manual for any sort of people. The authors admit in the introduction that the respondents to their survey were all heterosexual, but stress that they are as much in favor of homosexual relationships as heterosexual ones.

The Club Dumas

When my sister learned that I had been reading antique book mysteries, she thrust this into my hands. The main character of this book is actually a bookscout of a sort, tracking down and buying or otherwise obtaining the rarest of the rare books in Europe. And, of course, a book he is commissioned to attain has a mystery associated with it. Actually, there are two mysteries that interweave and may or may not be related. There are many sumptuous books and a lot of lovely libraries and a lot of fanatical book folk. Perez-Reverte is a skillful storyteller and a great writer. The story has a lot of depth, depending on how much you know about the subjects he discusses: the devil, angels, the Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas. Lots of interesting characters, a top notch book about books.

Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Program in the Green Mountain State

Mention the term Eugenics nowadays and most people think of the horros of Nazi Germany and their creepy master race ideas. People don’t remember, or choose to forget, that Eugenics was in many ways the predecessor to much of biological and evolutionary science education at the turn of the century. This book traces the Eugenics movement in Vermont, particularly the work of Harry Perkins who got into the field of Eugenics early and left it a bit late. Vermont hung on to many ideas about Eugenics even after it was thought ot be passe or tacky or just errant in the rest of the country. Sterilization laws -- allegedly voluntary -- were passed as late as 1931 in Vermont. The combination of pseudosientific declarations of “unfitness to breed” and the possible threat of sterilization caused the Abenaki nationals -- Vermont’s only Native Americans -- to go underground for the next few decades

Gallagher tries to undo some of the simplistic “eugenicists were Nazis” argument on favor of a more fleshed out history explaining the motives and ideals of this group of people. Though not an apologist by any means, she tries to instill some humanity and sense of purpose into the people who were basically trying to set up a system in which they would decide who should and should not be able to bear and raise offspring, supposedly all in their best interests. Through it all, the problems faced by the borderline “unfit” seem to be more those of poverty than any sort of genetic traits of insanity or other bad inborn habits. Gallagher paints a lot of the genetic battlefield as more of a class war, the rich trying to monitor and control the poor, immigrants and asocial people of Vermont.

The Bookman’s Wake

It’s hard to tell when reviewing genre fiction that you really like, whether the book itself is really excellent, or if you just fit the niche completely perfectly. I loved this book. It’s the second book by Dunning concerning this particular character -- Cliff Janeway, cop turned rare book dealer. This particular story concerns a pair of brothers who specialize in printing ultra-rare fine art press books. They die in a mysterious accident and then, years later, someone is killing people to acquire one of their rarest volumes. It sounds dorky but the story was very believable with interesting quirky characters and enough obscure book information, especially about the rare book trade, to keep a book nut interested indefinitely. This is head and shoulders above his last book which, while good, had some not-unexpected plot twists. It also takes place primarily in Seattle and outlying areas which made it all the more relevant to me, personally.

The New Disability History : American perspectives

Snappy new book this was, an almost completely unreadable unless you are interested, not only in disability history, but also the semiotics of disability and the whole concept of “otherness” and people relentlessly talking about it. While I am interested to learn more about Helen Keller and her Socialism and politics in particular, I don’t really want to hear about Helen Keller reinterpreted accoding to modern-day mores and ideas about the place of the disabled in society as it appears to us today. While this book has many fine essays that cover historical issues in disability studies, overall it is plodding and weighted down with too much pomo theory which seems to me to be as potentially disrespectful to the disabled as the discrimination the essays describe.

Pattern Recognition

One of my favorite things about Gibson is that I trust him not only to not disgust me with graphic sex, violence and crappy writing, but also to provide compelling female characters and plotlines that neither try my patience nor test conventional credibility. This is his latest, a seemingly up-to-the-minute story much like many of his others, a mystery and some travel and some online interactions and some offline interactions. The injection of current day themes like the World Trade Center disaster and steganography make this book seem even more likely-real than many of his others. Like his other novels it’s not super deep, but also like his other noveals, I didn’t care; I was sad when it was over.

Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival

I don’t know if it’s the fact that my family is Jewish or the fact that I was just a scared paranoid child, but while I was growing up, I would always make sure I had a good hiding place, in case the bad people came. Reading books like this takes that whole idea a step further -- what if you had to live off of just what nature gave you and what you could do on your own? My easy answer is “I would probably die” but Brown tries to make you think that wilderness survival is not only possible, it might actually be fun.

I first learned about Brown while reading David Rakoff’s Book Fraud. Rakoff goes to a survival camp that Brown runs and, while he has a tough time there, being a city kid and all, gains a fairly strong respect for Brown and all the stuff he knows. Brown grew up in and aorund the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and was taught a lot of his skills by a Native american man who was the father of a friend of his. They would take instructive trips out into the woods and Brown would get educated through doing, not be reading books [like this one]. He passes on a lot of these ideas in a very common sense way, explaining that while getting by in the wilderness may not always be fun and easy, it is possible if you keep some very basic things in mind. I’m sure if I were stuck in the forest alone, most of the things he teaches would not seem quite as easy as he portrays them to be, but just knowing enough to say “build the shelter first, then worry about food” might mean the difference between a good and a very bad time.

How Do They Do That?

I never tire of trivia books that actually are good at explaining things. Sutton tackles big questions like How do they build suspension bridges? and more personal ones like How do they select donors at a sperm bank? Her writing style is illustrative and also somewhat amusing. There are a few pictures, but not many. The answer to How do they notate dance choreography? was absolutely fascinating.

Posters of the WPA

I’ve always been fascinated by the look and feel of the WPA poster series that I’ve soemtimes browsed on the Library of Congress website. They have an almost Bauhausian set of lines and fonts and yet the topics they cover are all distinctly American -- tourism posters, hygeine posters, crazy racist WWII posters. This book compiles many of the posters in an attractive volume, sandwiched between commentary by a few of the original WPA artists and some of the people involved in the WPA project. Unlike many other WPA projects [the federal theater project, the federal music project, etc] the posters were intended as ephemeral art, and as a result very few of the original pieces remain, and many of them are just available by accident. The original artists -- who were paid by the federal government to operate a poster shop and make promotional materials for other WPA projects as well as local endeavors -- are all nearing their eighties and nineties, so this book may be the last chance to get firsthand stories about this government project from the Thirties and Forties.

Still Weird

I’ve been reading Gahan Wilson comics since I was a kid. He and George Price were my two favorite New Yorker cartoonists -- both of them had a very strange sense of the world. Price’s was filled with disheveled hillbillies and oddballs, Wilson’s was filled with strange creepiness in otherwise normal situations. His book Nuts is quite possibly the funniest book about childhood I have ever read, filled with horrid parents, cheery little brothers and an overwhelming sense of impending doom. This book, while amusing, is somewhat of a disappointment. Though it claims to have “100 brand new cartoons” [some of which are the same old horror updated with new 90’s sensibilities] a lot of the older works are really poorly reproduced, sort of murky and in some cases obscuring whatever the gag is supposed to be. The work is still good and the selection is good but the poor layout and general book design make the whole affair a bit lackluster.