Back to the Books (Other People’s)

I start my TV critic job on Monday, and some of my friends have asked me how I’m going to manage the deluge. It’s a lot of watching. It’ll be a while before I figure out how to manage my time and draw sharp lines around my pop-culture compartments: The TV shows that I watch for work vs. the TV I watch for my own entertainment (I’m sure I’ll never quite know).

There are two things I haven’t done enough of lately, both of which require the TV to be off. They are 1.) Listen to complete albums on the actual big stereo and 2.) Read books.

Number 1 is complicated (iPod killed the idea of “putting on a record”), but Number 2 I’m addressing tonight and this weekend. I’m way behind on reading books.

I used to pride myself on reading 50 pages a night. About 10 years ago, I established a liberating rule: Books have to grab me by page 50, or else I’m not obligated to keep going. That also goes for books written by friends. Sometimes it’s not the writer’s fault — just wrong time, wrong subject. (Most pass the 50-pp test, especially if they managed to make it home with me from the store or the piles of new books that wash up in the Style section.)

Anyway, here are the books I managed to read recently — i.e., since about May 1:

imagesLosing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley (I liked it — reading about the domestic life of the Buckleys was like reading about alien lifeforms; I read a review that pointed out some key things he left out, which I guess is his choice to make. I recommend it);

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (fantastic, dark short stories about marginal people. I highly recommend it);

Busted by Edmund Andrews (that pathetic foreclosure epic by the NYT reporter; got too pathetic to finish. Skip it if you read the NYT Mag excerpt and some of the resulting brouhaha);

images-2Netherland by Joseph O’Neill — got the ravest reviews, but man, that first 20 pp. really made me wonder if I should keep going. The story got more interesting and I stuck with it. It’s one of those rare novels that catches the 9/11 era without being bluntly about 9/11. (Pretty good, and Obama’s read it too.)

And here’s two I just finished:

K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist, by my friend and former colleague Peter Carlson. You only think you images-3wouldn’t be very interested in a historical travelogue about Nikita Khrushchev’s trips to America. This book is hilarious and entertaining — I especially loved Khrushchev in Hollywood. Surreal … but real! And a very fast read. Highly recommend.

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. I’ve been a fan of Ehrenreich for a long time (even since before Nickel and Dimed, yo). This book — which comes out in October; I read an advance galley copy — is about how mindless upbeat-ism (you know, like people who tell you they prefer to “banish all the negativity” around them?) actually contributes to things like corporate cruelty (i.e., it’s your fault you’re not rich or that you’re unemployed or you’ve been downsized — you need to be positive, believe in “The Secret” and your vision boards, and never say anything critical about your employer, the way negative people do). A bit of rehashed material from previous essays and ideas from Bait and Switch, about white-collar despair. The first chapter, about Ehrenreich’s experience as a cancer patient trapped in a world pink-ribbon upbeatness, is just as good the second time around. I really wish we could have convinced her to read Tinsel and give it an advance blurb — but I understand. She’s probably sent every nonfiction book written in English. You should check out Bright-Sided for a real dose of medicine about how our society got taken down so many paths of economic and cultural make-believe. A wonderful book for people who are sick of being told to smile, be happy.

So now what? I’m going through the stacks — looks like I’m able to let go of about 10 books I’m pretty sure I’ll never get to. Of what’s left, I never finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and want to. I want to read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. I meant to finish Warren St. John’s Outcasts United, which I started in April. I want to read This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins. Stack too big now.

What I need is a beach, a deck, a lounge chair, some shade, some wine and about three weeks off. Also: less blogging, more reading.


  1. Vanessa on August 10, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    You HAVE to read Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War as soon as you can. Best, freakin’ craziest book I’ve read since, um, Off Ramp.

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