Friday, December 31, 2010

Currently reading...

This morning, I started reading Trilobite!: Eyewitness to Evolution, by Richard Fortey (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000; 284 pages).

I love science, although I don't have the mathematical knowlege and ability to understand the hard sciences. I especially love geology, and even more especially love historical geology. And I adore trilobites, which lived a very long time ago, long before there were animals, or even plants, on land. So, how could I resist a whole book about them? Add to that the fact that I've already read one book by Fortey, Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, and found that he can write like a scientist (which he is) and a poet all at the same time, and this book becomes a must-read for me.

Because I often read more than one book at a time, I'm also reading American Conspiracies, by Jesse Ventura, with Dick Russell (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010; 228 pages).

Yeah, I know. You're laughing. The thing is, I don't much believe in conspiracy theories (although I'll be happy to admit that I don't believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone; I just don't), but I'm fascinated by them.

Part of this fascination probably has to do with the fact that I was 7 years old when John Kennedy was assassinated and I pretty much grew up with all of the various theories surrounding his murder. Part of it is that conspiracy theories seem to be more a part of American culture now than they ever have been before, although they've been around a lot longer than most people might think. And part of my interest has to do with the fact that, along with religions, I'm interested in the anthropology, sociology, and psychology of belief systems in general, and conspiracy theories as a phenomenon fit right into that interest. I'm especially interested in what makes people buy into conspiracy theories, maybe because I'm not sure why I'm so adamant in my belief that Oswald was not a lone gunman.

At any rate, I'm not one of those people who only reads books that I know ahead of time that I'm going to agree with. Anyway, I've also got a book that debunks conspiracy theories waiting to be read, and I thought it would be interesting to read the two in tandem, or at least in very close proximity to one another.

A few words on what you'll find here...

So, far, the books I've mentioned here have had to do with religion, serial killers, rock and roll. Oh, and then there was the mystery novel.

This might be causing you to wonder about what you might be seeing here in the future. What kinds of books I'm going to review, what kind of other reading material I might write about, that sort of thing.

The short answer is: Almost anything.

No. Really. I'll read almost anything. Fiction and non-fiction. Oh, I have my favorites, of course. I read a lot of history and current affairs, and quite a bit of anthropology and the other social sciences. My education was in anthropology, with an emphasis in the anthropology of religion, so there will be some of that. In fiction, my favorite genres are science ficiton and fantasy and mysteries. But I do not limit myself to those genres and topics. Right now, I've got a book about trilobites on my to-read pile, as well as a couple of books about conspiracy theories (one advancing them and one debunking them), a memoir by an Iranian woman, and a Russian science fiction (or maybe it's fantasy) novel in translation. And those are just the books I've got out of the library right now.

Besides writing about the specific books I'm reading now, am getting ready to read, or have read in the past, I also plan to write about the topic of reading in general. Because, and I'll be frank about it, I think that most people don't read enough.

I'll probably also be writing about libraries from time to time. I love libraries. I use them all the time, and I think more people should use their public libraries more often. I'll likely also write about bookstores and their somewhat precarious position these days.

Another thing I hope to do here is to point you all toward interesting things to read on the internet. I love books, but there is also a lot of information to read on the 'net. Even entire books, free for the reading. When I find those, I'll tell you about them.

So, you'll just have to come back and check, to see what I'm on about on any particular day. Of course, I won't promise that I will post new content every single day. I do have a day job that I have to keep up, after all. But I'll be around most days, even if it's just to let you know what I'm reading and to see if you've dropped any recommendations of your own into comments. Which I really hope you will do. I'm always looking for more good things to read.

Review: "The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir", by Elna Baker

Since I last posted, I finished reading The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir, by Elna Baker (Dutton, 2009; 276 pages).

It is not a bad book, really. As I wrote before, it's a little too chick-lit for me. Still, Baker's story of living in New York City as a twenty-something practicing Mormon had its moments. Some of those moments were triumphant, such as when she had finally had enough of a holier-than-thou woman in a church group who said one mean thing to many to Baker's sister and instinctively launched a piece of fruit (a tangerine, if I recall correctly) at the woman, hitting her right between the eyes with it. Does that sound mean? Well, judging by Baker's description of the woman's behavior, she richly deserved it.

Other moments were cringingly hilarous, such as the Halloween when Baker attened the annual dance referred to in the book's title dressed as a fortune cookie. The only problem was that on the subway trip to the dance, bits of the costume rearranged themselves into something that looked more like a portion of the female anatomy that just should not be seen in public, much less at a church dance. Other moments were heartbreaking, including the episode in which Baker thought she had finally met the Mormon man of her dreams and moved to Utah to marry him, only to have him break it off with her a week after she arrived.

Some things in the book made me uncomfortable, such as Baker's account of her struggles with her weight, which included going to a medical weight control clinic which encouraged, or at least did nothing to discourage her from, losing forty pounds in seven and a half weeks. That is much too fast and too unhealthy a way to lose that much weight no matter how heavy an individual is. And indeed, after she gained some of the weight back, she obtained the drug she had used under the doctor's care from an internet site to lose the weight again and instead ended up in the hospital.

My feeling is that Baker spent much to much time describing her pursuit of men to kiss. Which, being a good Mormon girl, was about all she could do and maintain the standards of her religion. Although, she did describe an encounter she once had with a French man who asked her what she could do with her body as a praciticing Mormon. The discussion with him on the topic led to her conclusion that she could do anything she wanted to with her armpit. Baker also tells the story of how she walked away from an encounter with an older, apparently very well-known and very married actor with most of her virtue intact.

Throught the book, Baker chronicles her ambivalence about her religion. Raised a Mormon, but in a non-Utah and fairly liberal family, Baker questioned her religion from a very young age. As a former Mormon myself, I know that just that alone, the asking of questions, very often marks one as an outcast within the religion. Yet, despite her questions, Baker remains in the religion, only near the end of the book announcing to a non-Moromon man she had once had a relationship with, that she was no longer Mormon in an attempt to rekindle their relationship. And, even then, by the last pages, it still isn't clear whether Baker really does consider herself a practicing Mormon or not.

I do have to complement Baker for explaining the parts of the Mormon religion she discusses accurately and without sensationalizing it, and without being defensive about the church's beliefs, even when her feelings about them were ambivalent. It is difficult to do that when discussing any religion and, from my experience, it is even more difficult to do that when writing about Mormonism. Her explanations of the parts of the church and its beliefs which she wrote about were clear and easily accessible.

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is probably not a book I will re-read. It isn't a great book. But it is a good book, especially for those who are interested in reading memoirs which present a way of life and a point of view that isn't often presented in this personal sort of way.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Just finished and currently reading...

Recnetly finished:

Spider Bones, by Kathy Reichs (Scribner, 2010), 306 pages. This is the latest in the series of Temperance Brennan novels by Reichs, and it isn't the best of the series, but it kept me turning the pages and I definitely didn't see the resoslution of thhe mystery coming.

If you've been avoiding these books becuase you don't like the Fox television series Bones, which is based on these books, don't let that stop you from reading. About the only things the books share with the television series are the name of the main character and her occupation as a forensic anthropologist. I love the books, and I like the series very much, but they are two different things altogether.

My Life Among the Serial Killers: Inside the Minds of the World's Most Notorious Murderers, by Helen Morrison, M.D. and Harold Goldberg (William Morrow, 2004), 276 pages. Don't read this book if you're squeamish. Really. It is non-fiction by a psychiatrist (Morrison) who has interviewed pretty much every serial murderer you've heard of - more than eighty of them, she claims.

There were things about this book that irritated me, such as the fact that Dr. Morrison seems to have a bit of a persecution complex of her own as a woman who started practicing psychiatry in the 1970s, when there weren't that many women in the field and those who were there weren't taken very seriously. It isn' that her complaints don't have merit. I'm sure it was a rough row to hoe, especially as she started having to deal with the law enforcement and legal communities when she began her studies of serial killers. The problem with the book is, she tends to stop in the middle of a story to air her issues on the subject in a way that interrupts the flow of the information she is trying to explain.

Dr. Morrison theorizes in the book that serial killers are born, not made, an idea that contradicts current paradigms on the subject, and from the quick bit of research I did after reading the book her opinions and her book have come in for a certain amount of criticism from her peers. Still, especially if you are interested in the subject of serial killers, it is a book worth reading. I'll probably be writing more about it soon. Finished reading: 29 December 2010.

Currently reading (for a complete change of pace):

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir, by Elna Baker (Dutton, 2009), 276 pages. I'm over halfway through this one, and I'm still not at all sure about it. It may well be a little too chick-litish for me. On the other hand, Baker writes from a fresh perspective. And she's funny, altoughh some of the stories she tells might not be quite as funny as she thinks they are.

Recently read: "Wonderland Avenue" by Danny Sugerman

When I mentioned on an internet forum I’m active on that I was reading a book about Laurel Canyon and the music industry in the 1960s and 1970s, someone recommended that I read Wonderland Avenue: Tales of Glamour and Excess, by Danny Sugerman (William Morrow and Company, 1989; 407 pages), I figured I would give it a try. I read Sugerman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive, a biography of Jim Morrison, years ago. I wasn’t sure how much of it was true and how much of it was hopeful memory, but as a fan of The Doors from way, way back, I didn’t find it a waste of my time.

Again, I’m not sure how much of Wonderland Avenue I should really take as gospel truth, but I’m glad I read it anyway. Now, I’m not saying that Sugerman was a liar. I’m not saying that I can’t imagine that a major rock band would let a thirteen-year-old hang out at their office and rehearsal space. After all, it was the 1960s, a completely different universe than the one we live in today, in which any adult who lets a kid not related to them hang around is just asking to be investigated as a pedophile. I’m not even saying that I find it unbelievable that they would hire kid that age to answer their fan mail. Goodness only knows, stranger things happen in show business every day, and a good proportion of that fan mail was probably from kids who were not much older than that. But I’m not as sure that a major recording label would let a teenager write official press releases for the band, or hire on a teenager as press agent and then as manager.

I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that I don’t know how much of Sugerman’s story is how it really was, and how much of it represents how he wishes it had been. Unfortunately, we can’t ask him; Sugerman died of lung cancer in 2005 at the age of 50.

He’s lucky he didn’t die much earlier, and that’s a large part of what Wonderland Avenue is about. If he wasn’t already taking drugs when he met the members of The Doors, at the age of twelve through an umpire who worked the youth baseball games Sugerman played in, he was probably thinking about it. The umpire was also a roadie for The Doors and took Sugerman to a concert one night. The rest, given Sugerman’s unhappy home and school life and his rebellion against them, was probably inevitable.

The first part of the book details how the band, and especially Jim Morrison, took Sugerman under their collective wings. We see Morrison here as not a good influence, especially, but not nearly as bad an influence as he could have been. While he did not stop Sugerman from doing drugs, and actually facilitated the boy’s first use of cocaine, Morrison also insisted that he stay in school, do his assignments, and pass his classes. Morrison also gave his young follower stacks and boxes of books to read.

But then Jim Morrison was gone, first to Paris and then to wherever it is that rock and roll drug users go when they die. Bereft of his mentor, Sugerman started down an increasing and accelerating path of drug use and generally self-destructive behavior. Still, he more or less managed,, for a time, to function as press agent and then manager for Ray Manzarek, who had played keyboards for The Doors, and as manager for Iggy Pop who, if anything, was crazier than Jim Morrison ever thought of being. But the drug use caught up to Sugerman and, at the age of 21, he found himself in the hospital with less than a week to live unless he kicked drugs.

There were points while I read Wonderland Avenue where I was uncomfortable with Sugerman’s avowals of how much fun he had sometimes while he was taking drugs. This is not, I thought as I was reading, how to convince people that a cocaine addiction or a heroin habit (or both) is not a good thing. But I think that his excruciatingly detailed descriptions of what doing way too many drugs does to both body and mind manage to counteract any impression that he might give that drugs are fun.

By way of introduction...

I read a lot. Or, anyway, I used to read a lot, before that inconvenient thing called the Real World got in the way. Even at that, I read a lot more than most people do. However...

I used to read between 50 and 100 books per year. A few less when I was in school, but still more than the maybe 20 full books I read in 2010. I’m not sure of the exact number this year because it was so embarrassingly few that I quit keeping track.

But then the aforementioned real life got serious, and between one thing and another, my book count dropped dramatically and it has been difficult to get back to my normal reading habits. There is still work, there are still knit nights, and movies to watch and SCA events to attend. But there is more time to read than I've been devoting to reading. And many more books out there than anyone could possibly get through in ten lifetimes.

So, I decided that I need a place to log my reading, to write about what I've been reading and what my reading is moving me to think about, and to get feedback from other folks about what they're reading.

This is that place.