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« October, 2003 »
Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them

Al Franken in on a par with Thomas Frank for writing hard-hitting political critique that is not completely painful to read. This book which outlines the lies told by popular right-wing media pundits and not-as-popular right wing government officials is researched within an inch of its life. Or at least I think it is. Franken spends a lot of time discussing how he hates liars and how he has done the research on topic that windbags like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity talk out their ass about. I think he’s right and I agree with his analysis, but I find myself wondering how much I’d agree with his research if I didn’t already agree with his conclusions.

In any case, it’s good to see intelligent well-respected Democrats standing up for what they believe in and taking the Right to task for a lot of their egregious lying, playing with the truth and misrepresentation about things that actually happened. Franken discusses a wide range of issues ranging from teen abstinence programs [they don’t work, conservatives say they do], Paul Wellstone’s memorial [the right says it was staged, Franken knows it wasn’t] and Ann Coulter [she says she tells the truth, Franken points out where she lies throughout her book]. Many times the subjects of Franken’s analysis will refute his claims that they are liars and he goes after these claims as well. The man is merciless and gives no quarter when pursuing the truth. This makes for an interesting spectator sport when he is skewering Fox’s Billl O’Reilly, but it’s really uncomfortable when he discusses the huige amount of money Dick Cheney’s Halliburton has made with questionable contracts with the federal government. I spent a lot of time thinking “But hey, isn’t that ILLEGAL?”

At the same time Franken does a pretty good job of not absolving himself of all culpability. He mentions that his kids go to private schools, he attends showy press and government functions and he spoke at a ClearChannel pro-war rally before he changed his mind about the war. He admits when jokes of his don’t go over well and definitely tries to play the reasonable man and not some practical joker who just does this sort of thing for fun. This works well because his main point is “hey, anyone with a Lexis-Nexis account can discover the truth about these people!” Also, did I mention he’s just really funny?

The Dewey Decimal System of Love

Little fluffy romance about a librarian in love with a married man, his weird wife, and some symphony works. The librarian in question is 40, unmarried and for all intents and purposes a virgin, though she is not actually a virgin. She is often dressed sensibly by her brand-conscious mother [I sort of skimmed the paragraphs outlining what she wore] and likes her job and likes her life. While not a super-positive role model in the world of men, she as a character has a lot to like about her as a librarian and a professional. A quick book but not at all unpleasant.

Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers

I had mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, it’s yet another astute critique of the mega-rich, everyone’s obsession with branding, and the icky way corporations are marketing to younger and younger people. On the other hand, hasn’t this been done before? Additionally, I always feel a bit queasy when attempts to take a hard look at brand culture actually manage to do the same name-dropping [albeit in a slightly different arena] as the ones they are critiquing. Maybe I’m just feeling holier-than-thou because I don’t even recognize most of the teen fashion brands the author discusses. On the other, I don’t get some of the more subtle messages the author is putting out there because I don’t even know the subtext of brand language.

The author herself is a great writer, really on par with the best cultural critics out there, and she wisely waits until late in the book to reveal her own youthful obsessions with branding, weight and good schools. And yet, she speaks the language of brands which betrays a certain attention level and knowledge that means she’s just not on the outside looking in. The book also is sort of all over the map in terms of topics: school advertising, pro-anorexia websites, lipstick marketed to grade schoolers, obsession with good schools and trainers. Some of these sections are stronger than others and they don’t quite coalesce into one overall message, at least not a strong one. When this book is at its best it’s discussing the massive business of marketing and selling brands to those too young to get into a PG-13 movie, at it’s worst it’s a boring look at the super rich and how they spend too much money getting their bland children into top schools. If this is an area you’re into, you’ll like this book. Otherwise, read Thomas Frank instead.

The Book on the Book Shelf

So delightful! I languished over this book for weeks and weeks because I couldn’t really stand to be done with it. The book is a detailed history of shelving, or the ways we have stored our books since before there were books. Petroski starts with papyrus and gets all the way to ebooks before wrapping it up. Not only is this book interesting to read, but it is also fun to look at because there are many many illustrations of the various shelving apparati that the author describes. In many cases there is simply not much known about the book storage devices of the time and so Petroski paints a word picture of how he thinks the devices would work. Lovely illustrations of chain libraries, Saint Jerome, big old libraries and books galore. The author is certainly a lover of books and yet this book strives to answer the question “how do we decide how to store these books for use, not just for looks?” The conclusions he comes up with -- and the appendix listing the various orderings ones book collection could be put into is a delight -- are practical, well-reasoned and entertaining.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

Krakauer always teeters on the edge of writing stuff I don’t want to read. Not because of his subject matter -- which is often somewhat issue-laden -- but because of the depth to which he pokes at the little ugly bits of his stories. This book is about Mormons, fundamentalists, and the ugly things that can happen when people get overzealous about their faith. Krakauer’s underlying premise is that Mormonism -- the most homegrown of all American religions -- is at some level a breeding ground for irrational hotheads, even if the fundamentalist sects have very little in common on the surface with their more traditional bretheren.

The ugly bits in this case are a lot of rapes of teenagers, described in more detail than I needed it, and the graphic murder of two Mormons, a mother and child, described by their killers. I just kept feeling that it would be awful to have known these people and learned the details of their deaths from the unrepentant people who killed them. In any case, the book is about much more than pedophilia and murder. It recounts the history of Mormonism, from its unlikely beginnings in Vermont 150 years ago, to the present-day where it is the fastest growing world religion. At the same time, many people see it as some sort of cult. Krakauer doesn’t really tip his hand about his own leanings, and tries to be respectful towards the people who practice the faith, but the patriarchiality of it gets to him, as do the young brides and the insular nature of the faithful. While the book isn’t an out and out condemnation of the Latter Day Saints, it’s definitely more anti- than pro-. Great reading, as always, but a bit more puerile than sometimes seemed necessary.

She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders

This story goes beyond the normal transgendered narrative to include more of the feelings and impressions of those around the subject. James Boylan, a Colby professor, became Jenny Boylan, a Colby professor, at the late age of 41. She already had a wife, two kids, a close friendship with writer Richard Russo, and a whole life history as a man. Jenny relates why she came to her decision to actually have surgery to become physically female, and how it affected those around her. She is lucky to have not only a strong writing ability, but friends who share her skills. Sections of this book are just email conversations between her [then him] and Richard Russo, talking about some of the more complex issues of the transgendered transformation -- while Jenny felt that she was becoming what she always had been on the inside, her friends and her wife were having a tougher time saying goodbye to Jim.

A good deal of this book is also wrapped up in describing Jenny’s childhood as James, what his sexual and gender identity was like, what his family was like, how he grew up. Notably missing is his sister who was hostile to his transformation and she does not appear in the book except towards the end as someone who was not supportive and with whom Jenny had broken off contact. In retrospect, her absence from Jenny’s childhood is somewhat palpable. At the time you don’t notice it. The book contains many lively anecdotes and a small amount of female brand fetishization [who cares what brand of makeup you wear? girls do, I guess] which reads as more ironic than annoying.


Ate this book up. If you like Chuck P. you won’t be disappointed unless you are really into the queasy edge of intestinal ailements. There’s not as much bowel trouble here. Also, many of the characters -- within the little Stepford Wives set-up, granted -- seem moderately sane. The story is fascinating as always. Poor little artist girl meets handsome rich and troubled island man who immediately knocks her up and marrries her and moves her home. They get embroiled in a major island drama which may or may not have played itself out several times before. He goes nuts, she goes nuts. Kids hate parents, people do weird stuff. Lots of interesting things to say about art. Not as many interesting factoids as usual and this book, unlike many of his others, had an obvious plot device and path from the first couple pages. It’s a diary whose conundrum is revealed somewhat early and we know that what we want to figure out is at the very end. The book is a scant 240 pages or so, so waiting until then is not difficult.

I feel that I enjoy Chuck’s writing so much [even as I can not trust myself to spell his last name correctly] that I am always happy when a book comes out, but then I read it immediately, and then I am sad that there is not another one. I am waiting for him to get like Stephen King and really write a magnum opus. This book was enjoyable to read, but opus it is not.