Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Best of 2008! The Readers Weigh In

January 2, 2009

ribbonWell, the quantity of responses was a little disappointing, I admit. BUT the quality of the responses was anything but.  Each response I got for the “Best of” categories listed warranted either an immediate “Oh, yeah” or an “Ooh, I have to check that out” from me. So kudos to the respondents who were nice enough to participate.

And now, the list:

Best Fiction:

Bestseller by Keith Latch: A horror novel in e-book form, this was an area of unplumbed depths for me. Thanks for eBookguru for the recommendation.

The A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin: This recommendation for this epic fantasy series also comes from eBookguru.

Best Non-Fiction:

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin: Although technically published in 2006, reader Jill read it in 2008 and loved it. I also read it in 2008 and was utterly blown away by the story, uncomplicatedly told, of Greg Mortenson’s journey from mountain climber to advocate for promoting girls’ education and literacy through his Central Asia Institute organization.

Best Music:

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today – David Byrne and Brian Eno. Reader Pam sums it up when she calls it “some yummy, brainy, infectious popaliciousness!”

Best Movies:

WALL-E (story by Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon): eBookguru thought this was one of the best films of 2008, and I have to agree. How does a film with so few words qualify as great writing? From the story, which transcended time and genre to transport kids and grown-ups alike.

Rachel Getting Married (screenplay by Jenny Lumet): Reader Jill voted for this film as one of the year’s best, because “I loved the characters who play against type.”

Now, for all you readers who perhaps partook of a little too much eggnog or were busy having family time, and didn’t get the chance to put your two cents worth in, I will still accept your recommendations! It is never too late (unless of course you’re writing about something from 2009, in which case it will have to wait).

WordHappy Reader “Best of 2008” List: Thinking Caps On

December 24, 2008

j0396070Now, you know and I know that these next few days are going to be a haze of wrapping paper and too much food. And no matter what holiday you celebrate, the fact remains that almost everything will be closed – and if you’re getting hammered with snow like much of the country – you don’t want to go out anyway.

So reflect – ponder, if you will – on your top-of-the-line choices for the best of 2008. What movies did you see that knocked your socks off? What music did you listen to and actually notice the words? What books did you read that made you stay up way past your bedtime? These are the things I want to hear about.

I will be taking your choices in the areas of:

  • Fiction
  • Nonfiction
  • Television
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Other

The “Other” category is for anything else that gave you goosebumps that somehow isn’t included in the above. Please post a comment with your recommendations below. I’d love it if you’d forward this post to your friends as well, so we can get even more participation.

I’ll take comments up until December 31st. Then I’ll compile a list of everyone’s choices and make it the first WordHappy post of 2009!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and  Best wishes to you all!

All I Want for Christmas: Nifty Gift Ideas 2008

December 11, 2008

elkaAll I want for Christmas is world peace, an end to homelessness, some cute ankle boots that will fit over my high instep, and a really good 2009 television season.

But if you’re not shopping for me, and you need some tried-and-true gifts for people who know the power of words, I can help you out. Even better: most of these gifts fall in the $25 and under range. Disclaimer: I carry no affiliation with any shopping powerhouse like Amazon or Target or anyone, so I’m not going to include links to these places. You will have to do a little of that work yourself. Sorry.

BODACIOUSLY BRILLIANT BOOKS

The Likeness by Tana French: For mystery lovers, this is the jackpot. This is the book that makes you call in sick to work so you can read more of it. Cassie Maddox, a former undercover cop, gets thrown into the investigation of a woman’s death – a woman who bears the name of her old undercover identity and who could be her own twin. French is an outrageously good writer, and I could not find a false step in the intricate plotting of this novel.

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey: This book is for the armchair traveler with a taste for fabulous writing. The editors assigned writers of reputation with varied styles, such as Ann Patchett, Tony Bourdain, and Sarah Vowell to contribute essays on every state in the union. The result is a smorgasbord of delicious writing that gives a real sense to the place (not all of it complimentary, incidentally). I’m only a third through my copy; it must be read in small doses, like eating flourless chocolate cake. Are you hungry yet?

Run, by Ann Patchett: In a season that revolved around politics, this quiet novel managed to combine politics, family, and race in an enormously moving and engaging way. It may not be as showy as Patchett’s Bel Canto, but it may be her best work yet.

DIVINE DVDs

For the discerning couch potato in your life, you can’t go wrong with these picks:

Mad Men, Season One: Time travel back to the early 60s when advertising was king, and people smoked and patted women on the behind and never had a second thought about it.  It’s a mad trip, almost Shakespearean in its psychology, with Don Draper as its tortured Hamlet. Great writing with an obsession with detail makes this a must-see.

State of Play: This BBC miniseries aired in 2003, but the DVD was just released in 2008, so technically, it counts. And a darn fine thing, too, since this was great drama. The series follows journalists of The Herald as they try to uncover the story behind the death of a young political researcher who may have been involved with a high profile Labour MP. The plot crackles, and the acting by terrific performers like James McAvoy, Bill Nighy, John Simm, and Kelly Macdonald, makes this a drama that doesn’t leave your consciousness easily.

The Wire, The Complete Fifth Season: Since no one apparently watched this other than me and about 10 other people (yes, still bitter about that), what better way to catch up on the best series in the history of television – SERIOUSLY – than by picking up this DVD. Season Four was probably its best, but its fifth and last season still packs a powerful punch. Actually, DVD may be the ideal way to watch this series and really appreciate its attention to story and detail.

SINFULLY STUPENDOUS CDs

Finally, a few picks for the music lover:

Break Up the Concrete, The Pretenders: This CD is filled with songs you would swear that Chrissie Hynde wrote and recorded years ago, they have such a timeless classic feel. Add a driving beat and it’s a keeper.

Rattlin’ Bones, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson: Australian Kasey Chambers has been one of the most distinctive voices to emerge on the folk scene in many years. This latest CD, collaborated on with her husband Shane Nicholson, is an addicting listen.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Wild Swans: Wildly Good

November 18, 2008

china1I have China on my mind.

Why? Well, for one, I’m traveling there tomorrow and just finished stuffing a suitcase full of everything I might need. Which, on a housekeeping note, I must tell you that while I am gone, there will be no WordHappy posts. Do not fear that I have abandoned ye faithful few. I shall return with all sorts of yummy things I got to read and hear and watch on the plane. Marathon Spongebob episodes on DVD, anyone?

The other reason I have China on my mind is because I recently finished an enormously good book chronicling three generations of women in China, beginning with the early twentieth century. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang, is a book that needed to be written, and could only have been done so by her. It is the story not only of her family, but through a century of Chinese history so epic that it boggles the mind that it could be contained in only one hundred years.

The story begins with Chang’s grandmother, who in 1924 becomes a concubine to a general in Peking, during a time when China is mostly unified from the Kuomintang under Chiang-Kai-Shek. Her daughter, Chang’s mother, comes of age as the Communist Party is rising in China, marries a Party official and becomes one herself. The reader watches as she, along with the rest of China, idealistically follows the teachings of Mao Zedong, only to be persecuted and detained during Mao’s campaign to suppress counter-revolutionaries. Then finally there is Jung herself, who spends much of her childhood entrenched within the Cultural Revolution. It is she who sees China emerge as a global entity, meeting her first foreigners in 1975 and winning a scholarship to Britain in 1978.

Wild Swans is a fascinating, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking tale.

Essays on Obama: America the Beautiful

November 6, 2008

obamaAs I’ve posted before, regardless of one’s politics or feelings about the outcome of our 2008 Presidential election, there’s one thing that can be said about President-elect Barack Obama: the man can write.

The first sentences of his remarks on election night, as people screamed and sobbed and hugged each other, gave the inspiration that so many of his speeches have evoked:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

It surprised me not one whit to be moved by his speech on election night. But what has pleasantly surprised me is how many essays I have read since Tuesday night that have equally moved me. All of the excerpts that follow invoke the same pride, inspiration, and love of country of Obama’s speeches:

The Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, in his essay “Morning in America,” wrote:

Yet something changed on Tuesday when Americans — white, black, Latino, Asian — entrusted a black man with the power and responsibility of the presidency. I always meant it when I said the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I always meant it when I sang the national anthem at ball games and shot off fireworks on the Fourth of July. But now there’s more meaning in my expressions of patriotism, because there’s more meaning in the stirring ideals that the pledge and the anthem and the fireworks represent.

Garrison Keillor had this to say in his column for The Chicago Tribune, “Advice for the Happy Couple”:

A golden November day under a blue sky and an air of sweet amiability at the polls and at the end of the day, we elected the right guy, no doubt about it. Yes, we can and we did. A nation spread its wings and achieved altitude.

Maria Niles, in her PopConsumer blog, wrote:

My 21 year-old niece voted in her first presidential election.  She will never know a different possibility – a time when only white men could lead this country.  Where black people where considered anything less than fully and completely American even though this country was built on our backs and with our blood.  My 94 year-old grandmother, our matriarch, who has been the keeper of our family’s oral history of slavery and escape is alive to see this moment.  My cousin who traveled from the north to the south to be a freedom fighter in the civil rights movement is witnessing this history.  My mother who spent days and months volunteering and making phone calls to participate in democracy and help make history is witnessing this moment.  My father who fought for the country he chose to become a citizen of has been transformed and electrified by this campaign and he is witnessing this moment.

Perhaps Roger Cohen of The New York Times best expresses in his essay “Perfecting the Union” what I am feeling as I read these essays, as well as the words of President-elect Obama: that words matter:

America can mean what it says. It can respect its friends and probe its enemies before it tries to shock and awe them. It can listen. It can rediscover the commonwealth beyond the frenzied individualism that took down Wall Street.

I know, these are mere words. They will not right the deficit or disarm an enemy. But words count. That has been a lesson of the Bush years…

Obama will reinvest words with meaning. That is the basis of everything. And an American leader able to improvise a grammatical, even a moving, English sentence is no bad thing.

Inspirational Banking: Grameen Foundation

October 16, 2008

Today is Blog Action Day 2008, where thousands of bloggers are banding together to write about the issue of poverty. Well, count me in.

Last year, I read a book that threw me for such a loop that one year later, I still think about it. Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Grameen Foundation, wrote a book about his work called Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty. You cannot read it and emerge thinking the same way about the poor. It’s just impossible.

In 1983, economist Yunus established Grameen, against the advice of bankers, government officials, and pretty much everyone. His vision was that if credit were given to the poor, then they would be able to establish businesses that would allow them to escape poverty, maintain a living wage, and best of all, pay back the loan. Grameen Bank now provides over 2.5 million dollars of micro-loans to over two million families in Bangladesh. Ninety-four percent of the clients are women, and repayment rates are near 100 percent.

The book is amazing, pure and simple. It is written in such common sense terms that it becomes hard to argue against the logic of instituting such programs everywhere, and Yunus provides advice on doing exactly that. And with success rates like Grameen’s, perhaps bankers everywhere should be looking to them for guidance.

Is this the cure for global poverty? Probably not. But boy, it sure seems like a running leap toward the cure.

Political Writing: Raging Against the Semantic Machine

September 9, 2008

Y’know, I just haven’t been able to muster much enthusiasm for all the political rhetoric this season, even after (especially after) the DNC and RNC. It’s all “Sarah” this and “Biden” that, people having Obasms everyone – and in public, mind you. And to me, it just sounds like the teachers in the Charlie Brown television specials – “Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah.”

But I have found a new hero, and his name is Leonard Pitts, Jr. A Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald, he wrote an absolute pip of a column the other day on gobbledygook and intellectual dishonesty. Pitts rails against Mitt Romney’s speech given at the RNC in St. Paul on Sept. 3, in which Romney threw out the challenge to “throw out the big-government liberals.”  According to Pitts, this is pure gobbledygook, and he responds with his own:

I mean, baffle gab on the freak flake. Really.

That is my new favorite line ever. Seriously. Say it five times and tell me that you don’t feel better.

Anyway, Pitts defines intellectual dishonesty as arguing “that which you know to be untrue” and substituting ideology for intellect “to the degree that you’ll do violence to language and logic rather than cross the party line.” Now, I’m not certain I buy Pitts’ railing against the Republicans only; to me, it seems more a bipartisan effort, with each party throwing stones at the other’s glass houses. But what I love about the column is the passion and Pitts’ dedication to calling out intellectual dishonesty. He writes that people admire the words, not daring to pull them apart to see if the message holds. But not him:

Unfortunately, some of us are too plodding and earthbound, too blind to the seduction of art, too stubbornly wedded to some vestigial notion that intellectual honesty matters, to walk past a steaming pile of bovine excreta without calling it a steaming pile of bovine excreta.

By the way, “steaming pile of bovine excreta” is my second favorite new line.

Go read the column in its entirety, and then come back here and let’s have some discussion about intellectual honesty and politics. Do you think it’s possible for politicians – particularly in a campaign year – to break free of the ideological talking points and say something true?

Baffle grab on the freak flake.

Ridiculously Fun: The Ridiculous Race

July 29, 2008

There’s nothing like a loooong plane ride trapped in the middle seat between two sleeping seatmates to make you pray to the heavens that you have a good book to keep you occupied. Fortunately for me, I was reading The Ridiculous Race. Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran have written a travelogue that reads like the love child between Bill Bryson‘s work and the ouevre of Will Farrell.

[Random book-buying note: If you purchase this book, write down the name somewhere. I went to buy it at the nearest Barnes & Noble, armed with nothing but the memory of good reviews from Entertainment Weekly and People magazine. “It’s titled something like ‘The Amazing Race,’ except that it’s not that name, obviously,” I told the woman at the help desk, when I did not see it displayed in the new books display. She proceeded to type in “The Amazing Race” and unsurprisingly did not come up with the book.

“Try just typing ‘race’ in the Title filter,” I suggested. She gave me a withering look and told me that such a search would elicit about 1.75 million responses. “Even if you narrowed the search to the last two months?”

Ooooh. She hadn’t thought of that. She tried what I suggested and immediately the name of the book came up. Learn from my mistakes. Unless you want the Barnes & Noble lady to look at you like you too are a moron, remember the name of the book.]

The set-up is simple: Steve and Vali, in a drunken fit of brilliance, decided that they should race to see who could circumnavigate the globe first using any mode of transportation except airplanes. The fact that one of them brazenly cheats on this primary rule almost from the get-go detracts from none of the enjoyment of the book – it in fact makes it funnier. The boys (for it is not possible to write of them as anything but boys) have an impressive humor pedigree: Hely writes for the cartoon comedy American Dad! and Chandrasekaran writes for the oft-cartoonish My Name is Earl.

And the book is very, very funny. For example, Vali goes to see a show in Egypt whose headliner is the most famous belly dancer in Egypt. He writes:

Two cute Japanese girls on vacation sat nearby. I shifted the position of my chair to make sure they could see me.

VALI: WHAT I WAS AIMING FOR

I took a long drag off my cigarette before resting it on the edge of the ashtray. Then I swirled the cheapest scotch on the nightclub’s menu around in my tumbler before taking a contemplative sip. Ahh life, I thought.

“I notice you were sitting alone, writing in a notebook.” I looked up to find the cuter of the Japanese girls. She licked her lips and continued, “Do you have some sort of book deal?”

VALI: WHAT ENDED UP HAPPENING

The Japanese girls giggled like Japanese girls in movies do as the Important Arab Guy, who by then had started drinking the most expensive scotch on the nightclub menu, charmingly teased them, then invited them to sit at his table.

I continued drinking alone.

There is also a scene with Steve in China that rivals anything the makers of South Park have ever come up with. I almost woke my seatmates up, I was laughing so hard.

But what takes the book to another level, and saves it from being a cute throwaway, is that often without your noticing it, the boys manage to have an insight about a place, or their experience, that is both grown-up and maybe even a little deep. Whether Vali is commenting on how his race has affected the race, or Steve is commenting on how the United States is like the prettiest girl in high school, you start thinking that there might have been something to this race other than an expensive prank, that maybe they have been changed. Then again, maybe not.

Aces: Carl Hiaasen’s The Downhill Lie

July 14, 2008

Carl Hiaasen is funnier than watching a herd of cows trying to sing “Feelings” a cappella.

I’ve been a huge fan of his novels for years, which manage to combine vivid description of the wilder parts of Florida (and by wild, I mean “natural,” as opposed to college girls on spring break) with world-weary heroes and absolutely loony, not-too-bright villains. For people who haven’t yet discovered Hiaasen, start with my personal favorites, Tourist Season (introducing one of my all-time favorite characters, Skink) and Skin Tight, which will have you looking at weed whackers in an entirely new light.

Still, Hiaasen’s most recent book is a memoir about his bipolar relationship with golf, entitled A Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to a Ruinous Sport. Anyone who has ever taken up the game or been widowed by a significant other who has taken up the game is going to love this book because it’s all about golf and why we continue to play it even when we’re just not that good at it. But you don’t have to be all that conversant in the sport to enjoy the book. A Downhill Lie actually resonates with a lot of emotion, stemming around the relationship Hiaasen had with his father, the memories of his dad, and the relationship Hiaasen is now forging with his young son – and how golf acts as the fulcrum that supports these relationships.

Now, lest you think I’m going all Field of Dreams on you, let me remind you that Hiaasen is a funny funny man. He can out-simile the best of them, and does in this book:

My first major mistake was prematurely asking to join my father for nine holes, a brisk Sunday outing during which I unraveled like a crackhead at a Billy Graham crusade.

Hooking a new Pro VI [golf ball] into the drink is like totaling a Testarossa while pulling out of the sales lot. It makes you want to puke.

After finishing this read, no matter whether you’re a weekend golfer, gave up the sport, or have never wanted to hold a golf club in your life, you’ll come away with the same conclusion: you made the right decision.

Political Writing: Ghoulishly Good White House Ghosts

July 4, 2008

In honor of Independence Day, I was looking back at the Declaration of Independence, adopted on this date in 1776. I considered writing about that fine piece of work, the words that should be imprinted upon every American’s brain: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It truly is gorgeous writing, meant to be uttered aloud, the words savored in the mouth like fine wine.

But then I thought about how, despite the primary authorship of Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence is one of the first pieces of American political writing to emerge successfully from editing by committee (Jefferson might disagree as to its success). And that led me to thinking about an amazing book I just finished reading by Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. This book covers the history of political speechwriters from FDR‘s administration up through the end of George W. Bush‘s first term. It’s WordHappy-worthy on two levels: first, Schlesinger himself does a beautiful job of laying out history in relation to a president’s relationship with his advisers and speechwriters. Secondly, the excerpts of the speeches themselves and some of the thoughts of the speechwriters quoted in the book make great reading as well.

As you read each chapter, it is fascinating to see how each president reacted differently to the challenge of communicating with the American people, whether it be on a campaign train, or via radio or television. Even more fascinating is how we learn that occasionally, being a good writer could be a detriment for a president. Jimmy Carter, for example, preferred to write his own speeches and did not use his speechwriters to their potential. But this proved to be his undoing – he did not have enough time to do his own speeches justice, and they were very badly received. [Note to Obama, who is alleged to write much of his own material: If you make it to the White House, sir, learn to delegate the writing.]

It is also fascinating to see how the process has evolved. In FDR’s tenure, he used a small stable of trusted advisers to write his speeches, that he then edited. The editing and clearance by committee apparently can be attributed to Gerald Ford‘s administration, specifically chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld. [Please appreciate the strength of character it takes that I am not making any partisan comments about this dubious honor, nor about the writing of “shadow speeches” — speeches not written by the speechwriting department — by Ford’s second chief of staff Dick Cheney. Must. Bite. Tongue.] Schlesinger uses the words of Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, to describe the process:

By Noonan’s estimate an insignificant speech would go to twenty people for approval, a major one to fifty. . . This process was “like sending a beautiful newborn fawn out into the jagged wilderness where the grosser animals would pierce its tender flesh and render mortal wounds,” Noonan wrote in her memoir, What I Saw at the Revolution. “But perhaps I understate.”

This book is an absolute must-read in today’s political climate, for anyone who is interested in the leaders running our country and the extremely dedicated men and women trying to craft those leaders’ messages to the public.

Happy July 4th, everyone!