Monday, January 9, 2017

Books 2 and 3: "The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper" and "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer"

I'm talking about books 2 and 3 for this year as a pair, because they kind of are. The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper and The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer are both tie-in books for the early 1990s television series Twin Peaks, which is coming back to Showtime this year. As part of the preparation for the return, I decided to reread the secret diary and to read the autobiography for the first time. There are similarities between the two books, but also a number of differences.

Both books attempt to give more background material on main characters from the show. In an ideal world, this would enhance the experience of watching the show, but it really only works for the secret diary. In the show, Laura Palmer is the honor student, Meals on Wheels delivery driver, special education tutor Homecoming queen, and after her murder Agent Cooper discovers that Laura hid a number of very dark secrets. Her secret diary expands on that, detailing her descent into drug dealing and prostitution and the reasons behind it. The book, which actually appears in the show, gives voice to a character who doesn't really have one for the simple reason that the first time Laura shows up in the pilot, she's already dead. While she eventually speaks a little through tape recordings and video tapes, this book is the only time fans get to hear her speak for herself.

The autobiography, on the other hand, adds almost nothing to the show. It's the story of Agent Cooper's life as told through tape recordings he made from the age of nine onward, but it doesn't tell the story of anything that fans and viewers would want to know. Wondering how Cooper became a devotee of mysticism? This book won't really tell you, because Cooper didn't make any tapes during that time. Wondering about his career in the FBI before he went to the town of Twin Peaks to investigate Laura's murder? Sorry, those recordings are classified. On the other hand, if you're wondering what puberty was like for a young Dale Cooper, well, there are pages of it. I can't imagine that any fans of the show who bought this were all that glad that they did so.

So, I read two books. One of them expands and illuminates the fictional world it is based in, while the other is a shameless grab for fan cash. That probably explains why the secret diary has been put back in print, while the autobiography, which I paid a dollar for at a library book sale, is now selling for fifty bucks on Amazon.

I'm assuming people who are willing to pay that are people who haven't read it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book #1: Donna Tartt's "The Secret History"

I ended 2016 by rereading Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a book with which I have a long and complicated history of my own. It continues to be one of my three favorite books in the world, and continues to be a book that I recommend and give out to others. This past year, I gave it to one person in the Facebook book exchange, and I hope they liked it.

(And yes, I know the book exchange was a terrible pyramid scheme, but I sent out one book and got back two, so as far as I'm concerned the book exchange worked, because I got a free book.)

I generally only reread this book when I have a "hey, I haven't read that in a while" feeling, the way that I sometimes decide that it's been a while since I watched a particular movie, but right before Christmas my friend Jackie decided that we should reread it together. She has not yet finished her re-read, but she also started later than I did, as she was locating her copy. I'm not going to talk too much about the book, since I've already written the long entry about it linked above, but I have a few thoughts.

The first thing I noticed was that I find it much harder to get into this book when it isn't winter. The book itself, for the most part, covers an academic year at the fictitious Hampden College, so a good chunk of it is in winter and a lot of important plot developments take place then, but even though a lot of the plot is also in the other three seasons it's fixed in my head as a wintertime book, possibly since that's also when I first read it. By about a third of the way through I had slipped comfortably back into the story, but in the beginning I was kind of not really in this mood.

Even when I did finally get into it, I still felt a little detached from the plot, fully aware of what was coming up next and mentally bookmarking where I was in the story. Because of that, I noticed a small continuity error that I hadn't noticed before: Francis, one of the main characters, lives in an apartment that's owned by the college. Richard, the narrator, spends a few paragraphs describing the building being owned by the college, being sought-after upperclass student housing, having 70's fixtures and finishes, and mentioning the kind of things that Francis has furnished the apartment with. A few pages after that, though, on page 167, Henry, while sitting in Francis' apartment with Francis and Richard, mentions an interaction with his landlady, and Francis claims the same interaction. Francis doesn't have a house and landlady, though, because he lives in campus housing. I've never caught the error before in any of my other readings, but it comes right at a pretty central moment in the plot, so I assume I've always been too caught up in the story at that point to nitpick something like that out.

The other thing I thought while reading this is that Tartt does a really good job at something that I would call offhand authenticity, or maybe local Hampden College color. Most of the random characters mentioned in the book as asides and world-building extras feel like the kind of random people and random stories that I ran into in college. Judy, Richard's neighbor, casually tells a story involving "Flipper" Leach, so-called because she flipped her car "four or five times" (Judy, a notorious cokehead, is probably exaggerating), and I'm reminded of Left Field, a girl who moved onto our floor in the spring of freshman year and was called "Left Field" at her old school because she got hit in the mouth with a softball and it knocked out a bunch of her teeth. Midway through spring of that year I watched a drunken Left Field and Michelle, my friend Alena's roommate who once almost crushed Alena by bunking their beds herself instead of having maintenance do it and then being surprised when they came crashing down in the middle of the night, stopped only by the dresser, sing "I will Survive" without looking at the screen during a karaoke night. Tartt peppers the book with those kind of random stories and asides about the people that Richard interacts with at Hampden, and it makes the college seem real because people who have been to college and lived on campus know people like that. Granted, it's probably because all of these small and small stories are based on people that Tartt met in college, but it still makes reading this sound like a real college.

By the end of this, I was glad I reread it again, as I always am. If you haven't read it, maybe you should.

Onward, to Book #2 for 2017!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Best Books I Read in 2016

This year I ended up reading 76 books, which I feel is a decently respectable total. It's not nearly as high as 2015, when I read 99 books, but is pretty much on track for what I consider a "regular" reading year: 2011's tally was also 76, 2012's was 74, 2013's was 79, and 2014's was 87, so for now it seems that 2015 was a weird outlier and I will probably read 70 or so books this year.

We'll find out as the year progresses whether or not that's true, because for 2017 I'm going to do something new with my reading tally: I'm going to write a blog about every book that I read, as I finish them. No monthly tallies and no yearly tallies. Instead, I'm going to read and immediately write, counting as I go, and see if this is another 70+ year.

Before I finish the first book of the new year, though, even though it was mostly read in the old year, here are the best books I read this year:

LaFeyette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

What I said in February: Sarah Vowell takes us on a trip back to a time when the US begged for France's help, when Freedom Fries did not exist, and when the patriots of the Revolutionary War welcomed the aid of a French general who was below the current legal drinking age. Following Lafeyette's journey through the US both during the war and later, when he came back to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the victory and spent a year being celebrated by everyone in the US, Vowell gives an amusing picture of the way the war is remembered today contrasted with the way it actually was. This was an entertaining, informative read.

This was the best book I read all month, because Vowell is adept at combining the past with current events in a way that lets the reader see exactly how one flowed into the other without the sense that you are reading a textbook. She also has a very dry sense of humor, and I appreciate being educated about the Revolutionary War through the lens of her getting the reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg to break character or a description of how hard it is to find a monument that now stands in the corner of someone's front yard. Her books present American history in a way that entertains Americans.

Why I list it here: Like I said then, Vowell makes American history entertaining for Americans. I talk to a lot of people who are murky on how we got to where we are as a country, so I think any exposure to US history is a good thing, even if it's only bits and pieces mixed in with trivia. Also, I just liked reading this.

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

What I said in May: Was creepy and disturbing, and a very good read.

Merry is eight years old, and her family is in trouble. Her father was laid off after two decades working a factory job, and is slowly becoming devoutly, obsessively religious as her skeptic mother tries to support the family of four on a bank teller's salary. Meanwhile, Merry's sister, Marjorie, starts to exhibit strange behavior: hearing voices, telling stories, acting out, and then spiraling into bizarre physical behavior. When medical treatment can't help her, Marjorie's father and his priest reach a disturbing conclusion: Marjorie is possessed, and must be exorcised. As bad as that sounds, there's a possible opportunity for the family to pull themselves out of their disastrous financial situation while still helping Marjorie. Fifteen years later, Rachel, a bestselling author, is interviewing Merry. Rachel wants to write a book about "The Possessed", the six episode reality show that Merry's family starred in. She wants to explore what happened to Marjorie, what happened to the family, and how Merry ended up as the only survivor.

I really liked that this book was unclear about a lot of things, even whether or not the ending really happened the way Merry remembers it. Tremblay uses his unreliable narrator, Merry, in the best possible way, leaving the reader with an unsettling story of a family in some sort of crisis, but maybe not the kind that it seems like they're in.

Why I list it here: Months later, some of the images and scenes from this book still linger with me. It would be really easy to just discount this as a horror novel, but it was so much more than just a genre novel. As a person who consumes a good bit of reality television on a weekly basis, this book also gives a little bit of a nudge to think a little more deeply about the real people behind those shows, and the things that may drive them to be on them.

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

What I said in June: Columbine is so iconic to Americans that we don't even call it "the Columbine high school shooting" or something like that. It has its own shorthand where we say the name of the town and the school shooting is the first thing people think of. It's the first school shooting that I remember getting major, around the clock media coverage. It's been exhaustively picked apart and analyzed in books, magazines, documentaries, and internet conspiracy theories, but in "A Mother's Reckoning" Sue Klebold reminds us that there's a side we haven't ever really heard: the families of the shooters. Who was Dylan Klebold? How did he grow up? Were there warning signs his parents missed, or did they see them and interpret them incorrectly? What's it like to receive a call at work that tells you your son murdered his classmates? How do you mourn him and mourn his victims at the same time? What happens to the rest of your life?

I found this compulsively readable. Sue Klebold comes across as honest and genuine, and shares her grief, anger, confusion, and what's she's learned as she struggles to carry on. She also points out that Columbine isn't just a story of murder and rage, but also a story about two boys who committed suicide. Could recognizing Dylan's suicidal depression have prevented what happened? Klebold doesn't make excuses, but she does point out as best she can the places where she could have done better.

I think it was very brave of her to come forward and finally tell her story this honestly and openly, because she lives a life that the rest of us can barely imagine: she's the mother of a mass murderer who has been savaged in the press and the courts of public opinion as a horrible parent who allowed this to happen, and she says over and over through the book that she would think the same thing about a mother if she saw this story on the news. There are some things she can't talk about, because of the many lawsuits that have been leveled against her family by those of the victims, but she also shares things that I never knew, like that she spent over a month after the shootings writing apology letters to each family, or that she is now a cancer survivor, or that she works for organizations promoting mental health and suicide awareness.

I don't know if I can say I enjoyed this book, but I did find it inspiring and sympathetic.

Why I list it here: Everything I said in June still stands. This book was raw and real and powerful, and tells a story we think we already know in a way that we've never heard before. Sue Klebold could have lived the rest of her life as a hermit, shunned and silent, but she chose to speak. She doesn't ask for pity, only for understanding, and wants to help others. Her story deserves to be heard.

Hide by Matthew Griffin

What I said in July: A touching, sad love story. Wendell and Frank have lived together outside of town for decades, cut off from their families and not having any friends. They don't leave the house together, keep separate mailing addresses, and never reveal to anyone in their tiny southern town that the two of them are lovers. That all changes when Frank suffers a stroke in the garden, and his recovery and deterioration forces them to confront all of the things they gave up to be together in a time when doing so was illegal.

I don't think this was annoyingly sad in the way I was complaining about above, though, because the sadness here is more from the oppression of society. The characters in the book were able to build a life despite that, but they could have been so much more happy if the world wasn't such a terrible place to people who are different.

Why I list it here: I cried. Actual tears. This book broke my heart. It was sad and real and touching and I cried while I was reading it.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

What I said in August: Arthur Leander is a famous actor orbited by a collection of friends, family, and strangers. Kirsten Raymonde, a child actress, is onstage with Arthur the night he dies of a heart attack during "King Lear", and it's also the night that the rapidly lethal Georgia Flu breaks out in Toronto. Within days, civilization as we know it collapses, and fifteen years later Kirsten wanders the ruins of the country with the Travelling Symphony, a troupe of musicians and actors. They move from town to town until they meet the Prophet, a man who may destroy them. In a world of survivors, what else is important besides continuing to survive? What's worth fighting for? And how is Arthur still guiding Kirsten, long after his death and the death of modern civilization entirely?

This was definitely worth reading and worth thinking about. Weeks later, I can still see some of the scenes in my mind.

Why I list it here: This book has received a lot of praise, and I've seen it on a lot of "best of" lists. It deserves to be there, because it's a good book.

Beyond the Grass Ocean by Ron Horsley

What I said in September: It's a children's book, but engaging and moving enough for adults as well.

Nary, a young girl in the fishing village of Rains Perish, lives alongside the great Grass Ocean, a wide sea of grass so deep that ships sail on it and unknown creatures live in its dark depths. When Nary was younger, her mother got very sick, and then went away, forever away, and now Nary wants to know where forever away is, and why the people who go there never come back. When no one can answer her question, she and her friends set off across the Grass Ocean, searching for the Twined Cities and the twins, Somnol and Mortol, who run the world.

In some ways, this is a typical coming of age novel, but it's also filled with magical, lingering imagery. It made me think a lot about grief, loss, and coping, but also it was just an interesting read. The illustrations are well done, too.

I'm glad I read this. It's the only book out of the four I read this month that I'm going to keep.

Why I list it here: It was beautiful and magical and deserves a wider audience. And yes, it's a little expensive, but I'm told that's because of the cost of self-publishing it.

That seems to be it for the year. This isn't to say that everything else I read this year was terrible or anything (except in January; most of what I read in January was garbage), but these are the books that stick out at the end of the year as things I'm glad I read.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Both the Books I Read in December

There is a possibility that I'm going to finish my current book before midnight, but I kind of doubt it. I had the last two or three hours blocked out for reading, but something came up, and I don't think I'm staying up until midnight, anyway, so I'm going to just go ahead and say I only read two books in December, rather than three.

The two books were:

1) Jon Morris' Legion of Regrettable Supervillains was an interesting glance at some of the more hilariously bad villains that have graced the pages of comic books over the years, but I think it spent too much time in the Golden Age, and missed some real modern era clunkers like Nanny, Dr. Mayavale, or Orca the Whale Woman.

I breezed through this like I did the companion book, The League of Regrettable Superheroes last year. I didn't learn much in either case, but I was entertained.

2) I took most of the month reading Paul Theroux’s Deep South because I was thinking about it a lot as I read. Over the course of four seasons (spread, I think, over two years), Theroux gets in his car in New England and drives south, over back roads and highways, avoiding major cities and instead focusing on small towns across the southern US. Along the way, he goes to festivals, barbershops, churches, cafes, gun shows, small businesses, social support agencies, and anywhere else that he thinks people will talk to him. And they do love to talk to him, telling their stories and the stories of people before them.

Between talking to people, Theroux also discusses the literature of the South, and mixes in some history. What he really focuses on, though, is poverty, both generational and recent (mostly due to factory closings as jobs move overseas), and the ways in which the US is failing its own people while giving millions to countries abroad to build schools, homes, and farms. Theroux talks to people in the back woods, the hollers, and the Mississippi delta who don’t have electricity, who still use outhouses, and who have no hope for change, and wonders why our government and many global charitable foundations aren’t doing more for them. Reading this, I wonder the same things. I'm not saying we shouldn't help other countries, but we could definitely do a better job taking care of our own.

It was a decently long book, so I don't feel too badly about my poor December showing, but I think two books in a month is my lowest showing for a couple of years, at least.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Superhero

Long, long ago, when my friend Kristin still lived in North Carolina (actually, two years ago), I went out to visit, and one day we went to the Ava Gardner Museum, but didn't actually go inside because it was closed. We did go inside some antique stores, though, where I bought a little bit of Pyrex and this record:

Rock Reflections of a Superhero

It looked interesting, but also maybe a little bit cheesy, especially when I looked at the back:

Rock Reflections of a Superhero

and saw all the pictures of how the singing and music were all allegedly performed by Marvel Comics characters like the Hulk and the Falcon:

Rock Reflections of a Superhero

Conan (On strings? Really? Violins weren't even invented yet) and Captain America:

Rock Reflections of a Superhero

and even the Fantastic Four:


Too late, Reed. You're on the cover art:

Rock Reflections of a Superhero

The song titles were intriguing, as they hinted at stories but, by themselves, didn't actually tell one: "No One's Got a Crush on Peter" was probably about Peter Parker's awkward high school years, as was "Square Boy". "Peter Stays and Spider-Man Goes" might be a reference to Amazing Spider-Man 50, a well known issue from the 1960's when Peter decides that he's done being Spider-Man, but other songs could mean anything: "High Wire"? "Count On Me"? Others were fairly obvious. There's no mistaking what "Dr. Octopus" or "Green Goblin" are about, since those are some of Spider-Man's best known foes.

And "Gwendolyn" is clearly about Gwen Stacy, Peter's first girlfriend, a character who should have been in all of the Spider-Man movies but only ended up being in some of them because Peter was married to Mary Jane Watson during the 90s (before he sold his marriage to Satan) and the movies had to match the comics and cartoon. Although she's been a little mishandled by writers since her death (looking at you, Straczynski) and readers today generally only see her as a sweet, smiling girlfriend in flashback scenes, Gwen Stacy in the 1960's was an independent woman who fought for women's rights and functioned as more than just a love interest.


She was, but I'm digressing. I just got really irritated that the Tobey Maguire movies didn't even have Gwen until the third (and worst) one, and then she was pretty undeveloped as a character. I wasn't a big fan of the Andrew Garfield movies, on the whole, but at least they had the right love interest, and she was well written.

Back to the album, all I could do was guess at what was inside, because I don't have a record player.

This Christmas, though, my parents changed all that, not by giving me a record player, but by getting me this CD:

Rock Reflections of a Superhero

It's all I've listened to in the car since Christmas, and it's very entertaining. There's not really any new art:

Rock Reflections of a Superhero

Rock Reflections of a Superhero

other than this weirdly creepy photo of someone in a Spider-Man costume holding the original record:

Rock Reflections of a Superhero

but it does have a story from Mike Ragogna, a songwriter from the original album who was 17 at the time, about how the record came to be:

Rock Reflections of a Superhero

which basically boils down to "Marvel was making a ton of money licensing Spider-Man out for pretty much anything, so they asked Lifesong Records to make a Spider-Man rock album."

While that story is interesting, the album itself is, too. It's like listening to a Broadway show that didn't actually exist, with the songs telling a story that's linked together by narration between each song, spoken by none other than Stan Lee himself. Shockingly, he doesn't overact it, and there's something about listening to a story of Spider-Man, a hero whose identity is grounded in being from New York City, told in Stan Lee's unpolished New York accent that makes it all even better. The general plot is that Peter is doubting himself, and looks back on his beginnings as Spider-Man, his self-doubt, and finally his resolve to be a better hero. Sadly, it also touches on the death of Gwen at the hands of the Green Goblin, an event that shaped Spider-Man's character for decades to come and which was kind of terrible to relive while driving to the grocery store.

The songs themselves are kind of a mixed bag of styles and impact, and the album is a little reminiscent of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in the way that every song is a different musical style. Some of them sound very 60's and 70's, with "Dr. Octopus" and "A Soldier Starts to Bleed" reminding me a lot of the ensemble songs in Hair, but some of the songs probably sounded pretty dated already when this came out in 1975. That's not surprising, coming from a company that rolled out (no pun intended, given her roller skates) Disco Dazzler in 1981, when disco was already pretty much dead.


Sorry, Dazzler. I love you, but it's true.

It's an interesting album for comics fans, but I'm not sure how much non-fans will get out of it. I think the best song on the album turned out to be "Peter Stays and Spider-Man Goes", but your mileage may vary.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Tale of Two Fudgies

It's December, and my holiday traditions are in full swing. I just did the Jingle Bell Run this weekend, I've already started fielding concerned calls about being all alone at Christmas (I'm fine, everybody, I swear; I have something planned for every single day that we are off from work), I've misplaced the ice scraper for my car and will go buy a new one knowing that this will make the old one appear, and I bought the Carnation Famous Fudge Kit for my yearly adventure in kitchen masochism.

Before we walk through the inevitable disappointment of opening this year's box:

Fudge 2016

(why do I take a new picture of the box every year?), I want to take a minute to talk about last year's fudge. As you may recall, I made three kinds to take to work with me: the fudge kit, my Uncle Mike's pumpkin spice fudge, and Velveeta fudge.

I really need to explain why you should never make or eat Velveeta fudge, no matter how many family members or old ladies in the grocery store swear by it.

The fudge kit fudge turned out the best that this stupid box has ever turned out for me. That includes this year, which we'll get to in a minute. People at work ate it, but no one talked about it being great fudge or delicious or anything. They ate it the same way that people in our office will eventually eat any food that you leave in the breakroom, but no one seemed to enjoy it. People did seem to enjoy the pumpkin spice fudge. They ate it quickly, except for the people who don't like peanut butter and didn't eat any of it, and mentioned without prompting that it was tasty.

And then there was the Velveeta fudge.

No one ate the Velveeta fudge. Even I didn't eat the Velveeta fudge after the one piece to evaluate it for the blog entry. Over the course of the week, though, something happened to it. It started out soft, but by the end of the week it somehow got softer and less substantial, even though we were keeping it in the office fridge. It got almost spongy, but still looked the same, and then it started... discorporating? Dissolving? I don't know the word for what happened to it, but it began to leak an odorless clear liquid, and at the end of the week I threw it away along with its container, just in case it was cursed.

Do not make the Velveeta fudge, even for your enemies.

Maybe don't make them the Carnation fudge, either.

I decided last year that the trick to making the fudge kit is not to care about making the fudge kit. If you follow all of the instructions to the letter and second, the kit doesn't work. If you half-ass your way through it, though, you get something passable, like my mom, my friend Elizabeth, my friend Bernadatte, and me last year. It's not the best fudge you ever had in your life, but it's passably decent. This year I approached it the same way. I boiled the sugar and milk mix:

Fudge 2016

dumped in the chocolate chips and marshmallows, and then spread it in the pan, and just like every year I could tell immediately that it looked grainy and choppy and like an old pioneer woman's face:

Fudge 2016

I put it in the refrigerator to set, and got to work on my friend Jim's fudge recipe.

Jim sent me his recipe after I liked a photo on Facebook of the fudge houses he made. His fudge turns out so well that he pours it into silicone molds and makes objects out of it. He swore that I would be able to follow it without trouble, and at this point I would try any fudge recipe if it looked even halfway promising. I made fudge last year out of processed cheese food and powdered sugar, for God's sake. Does that seem like the kind of thing that a person who is afraid to take chances on fudge recipes does? No, it does not.

I am no longer afraid of any fudge recipe.

I have stared into the Velveeta fudge abyss, and the Velveeta fudge abyss has stared into me also.

Not that Jim's recipe was an abyss. It actually was really easy, just like he said. It started with heating up light corn syrup, chocolate chips, and condensed milk:

Fudge 2016

and then, when it was melted:

Fudge 2016

I removed it from the heat, stirred in the vanilla, and then sifted in powdered sugar.

I also screamed, "THIS IS THE FUDGE! THIS IS THE FUDGE ON THE BOX!" because it was. It was glossy and smooth and poured easily and I could even smooth the top. It was like thick frosting. I've been fooled before, though, so I tried to keep my hopes low as I put it in the fridge and ignored it for two hours. There was every chance that it would crystallize, or remain liquid forever, or do whatever the Velveeta fudge did to itself. Just because it looks good doesn't mean it is good, especially in my fudge workshop.

When I took it out of the fridge, though, it still seemed promising. Note the contract with the fudge kit fudge:

Fudge 2016

and then note the finished products:

Fudge 2016

One of those is a gritty, crumbling disappointment that finds new ways to hurt me every time I try to make it, and one of those is a soft, creamy, delicious square of shiny fudge that looks exactly like the perfect fudge on the box that a food stylist spent hours making out of modelling putty and a thin sheen of glycerin. I'm taking them both to work tomorrow, but I bet my coworkers will be a lot more thankful for my friend Jim than they will be for Carnation's stupid box kit.

Now I just need a foolproof recipe for peanut butter fudge.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Month in Books: November

After last month's "All Joyce Carol Oates All The Time" reading adventure, I didn't really have a theme going into November. I knew I was going to travel for Thanksgiving, so I figured I'd get through several books, but I unintentionally read almost entirely nonfiction this month. A lot of it was really good, though, so here's what I read and what I thought about it in November.

1) The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife walks you through the post-death options of forty world religions (or thirty-nine, if you don't count atheism as a religion) and the ninety-one places that those religions think death could leave you in. Want your own planet? Here are your religious options. Want to hedge your bets and get somewhere nice with minimal effort? You have a few choices. It also gives a one page summary of each religion and has a lot of really cute graphics.

My friend Jackie disagreed that atheism could be considered a religion, but the book made an argument that it's a religion whose belief structure is science. There are laws that must be obeyed, faith in things not yet proven, people who identify as atheists, etc. I guess that doesn't make it a religion, but it's a group that mimics some of the behavior of a religion and has a belief that something happens to your body after death (SPOILER: that "something" would be "decomposition"), so I'm ok with it being in this book.

There's not much depth here, but as an overview it was interesting.

2) I don't remember what book I was reading last year that kept referencing Patrick McGovern's Uncorking the Past, but whatever it was intrigued me enough to add this to my wish list, and I got it for either my birthday or for Christmas.

An interesting tour through the ancient world's fermented beverages and how they were brewed and consumed, the book explores humanity's long fascination with getting drunk, and discusses all of the reasons why we did and continue to do so. It manages to cover almost every continent (I wasn't expecting to see anything about Antarctica, but Australia was noticeably absent) and moved effortlessly from the ancient past to the present day without getting boring or overly academic.

3) Did you know that Stephenie Meyer had a new book out? It somehow escaped my notice, but when I saw The Chemist at the used bookstore I picked it up immediately.

It was so much worse than I thought it could be.

The main character constantly changes her name because she is a lady on the run. For most of the story, she's Alex, and Alex used to be a government interrogator for a secret black ops agency. They tried to burn her, and now she sleeps every night in booby-trapped hideaways, having survived three attempts on her life. When she receives an email saying the agency needs her help to stop a massive biological terrorist attack, she kidnaps Daniel, the suspect, to interrogate him before the agency does so that she can see if this is real or an attempt to draw her out of hiding, and that's where this starts going off the rails. She immediately starts to fall in love with Daniel for no reason, immediately abandons her three years of safety measures, and now that she's in love wants to find a way to come out of hiding.

And that's before the secret agent evil twin, superintelligent dog, and the sinister vice-president (not Biden) show up.

Seriously, this book was so bad, and so full of the same clich├ęs as her other books: mysterious love at first sight for no reason, a beautiful woman with adorable flaws, and buildups to big fights that kind of fizzle out. I'm so glad she didn't get any of my money out of this, and so ashamed to admit that I read it.

4) Just after seeing a production of "The Crucible" on campus, I noticed that Stacy Schiff's The Witches was available in paperback, so I picked it up with the idea that it was thick enough to be a good book for a travel day. It was! It lasted through an entire day of airplane travel and a four hour drive downstate.

Carefully researched and easy to read, Schiff's book walks us through the entire outbreak and aftermath of the Massachusetts witchcraft panic in 1692, from the political and historical groundwork through the lingering effects on the families and their attempts at restitution. She clears up misconceptions that were added to the story later (it didn't take place only in Salem, and nobody was burned, among others) and lets the facts (the few that remain) speak for themselves rather than dropping in a lot of her own commentary. The only thing I wish she would have gone into more detail on (but the book is already just over 500 pages, so I can totally understand not doing so) is giving more of a look at the present day, and how the community of Salem continues to profit off of what should be something more shameful.

5) Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened was the first (of two so far) book I received from the latest version of the Facebook book exchange pyramid scheme. My friends told me not to participate in it, but I only had to send one book and received two, which means the exchange worked for me and I came out ahead.

Back to this book, I'd read a few of her blog entries before, as they were getting linked around on Facebook for a while, and she's very funny a lot of the time. At the same time, though, she's very funny in small doses of a couple of blog entries at a time. Over the course of a whole book I kind of needed a break, so reading this took a little longer than it should have because I kept having to put it down, because sometimes reading about her many psychological problems was mentally exhausting, due to my own psychological problems.

6) My friend Kate, who knows I like weird Americana, sent me Robert Schneck's Mrs. Wakeman vs. The Antichrist a while ago, possibly more than a year, and I just now got around to reading this brief sampling of American cults, Bigfoot hunts, Ouija board panics, killer clown sightings (suddenly relevant again this past summer), and other weird bits of American lore. Some of this I had heard of, but I never knew that in the early 1900s it was common practice for people to visit slaughterhouses across the nation to drink fresh cow blood, for example. America is, and always has been, a weird place. (See book #4 up above for another example of that.)

This was entertaining and enlightening.

7) Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction was a fast, fascinating read. It was also kind of sad, because we're slowly murdering our planet and everyone on it, but she took a lot of heavy science and made it breezy and easy to devour. I liked the way that she doesn't belabor the point that global warming is killing everything, but manages to bring it up enough times that it's always in the back of your mind while thinking about meteors and breeding pairs and dead bats. The basic premise of the book, that man has impacted the planet so severely that it will register in the geologic record for whatever intelligent race (most likely giant rats) comes after us, seems inarguable after reading this.

8) Chrystia Freeland's Plutocrats did the opposite of the book before it: it took a lot of data and a premise that should have been interesting and made it a slow, dragging read that eventually turned into a chore to get through. I thought it might help me understand a little more where our new president is coming from, but oddly enough none of the stories of affluent excess included him.

I really should have finished the book I'm reading on the kindle this month, too, but it's so bad that I keep finding other places to walk besides the treadmill, just so I don't have to read it.

I guess there's always hope for December.