Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mad Men: "Six Month Leave"

This week's episode of Mad Men made me think of a Sharon Olds poem from her collection The Dead and the Living.



"The Death of Marilyn Monroe"

The ambulance men touched her cold
body, lifted it, heavy as iron,
onto the stretcher, tried to close the
mouth, closed the eyes, tied the
arms to the sides, moved a caught
strand of hair, as if it mattered,
saw the shape of her breasts, flattened by
gravity, under the sheet
carried her, as if it were she,
down the steps.

These men were never the same. They went out
afterwards, as they always did,
for a drink or two, but they could not meet
each other's eyes.

Their lives took
a turn--one had nightmares, strange
pains, impotence, depression. One did not
like his work, his wife looked
different, his kids. Even death
seemed different to him--a place where she
would be waiting,

and one found himself standing at night
in the doorway to a room of sleep, listening to a
woman breathing, just an ordinary
woman
breathing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

File Under: Comics I'm Not Reading Anymore


Under the able hand of Dan Slott, She-Hulk was easily one of my favorite current comic books.

There are so many reasons I shouldn't have liked it: it was a Marvel book, for starters, and a superhero one at that, and it was totally cheesecake (though always in a fun way, never a gross one).

But She-Hulk used to be so cool. It was weird and goofy and funny and meta. A good deal of this had to do with its focus not only on the brash, hard-partying She-Hulk, but on her meek, brainy, human alter ego, Jen Walters. She-Hulk fights in the streets, but Jen Walters, practices superhuman law, which is much cooler.

Except now, she doesn't. After Peter David took over the book last year, Jen Walters all but disappeared, as did the terrific setting at Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg & Holliway, her superhuman law firm, and along with it, most of the best characters there.

And now She-Hulk is a stupid bounty hunter, and the book is no longer weird, goofy, fun, or meta. It's just another stupid Marvel superhero book.

And by stupid Marvel superhero book, I mean something very specific. I've long been annoyed by Marvel's insistence in forcing its readers to engage not with a single superhero and their storyline, but with the entire Marvel universe in a very sustained and geeky way.

The old She-Hulk, at its best, would often bring in other Marvel characters (often on trial for something), but it would do so in a way that someone who only read She-Hulk would enjoy.

Not no more.*

So, can I get on some kind of mailing list to be notified when Jen Walters comes back, and she and She-Hulk go back to practicing law? Because, until that happens, I just don't even care.**
________________________
* Okay, Dan Slott was responsible for some of that, and really, the book never quite recovered from the "Civil War" crossover stuff a summer or two ago. But if I haven't completely soured you on the book, the first two trades, Single Green Female and Superhuman Law, are just about the funniest, most entertaining superhero comic books you can lay hands on, and I recommend them without reservation.
** I just re-read this post, and realize that I sound like a raving, loser nerdlinger, but I am just too broken up about how much She-Hulk sucks these days to care.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Novelty Cookbook Round-Up: Presidents and Rock Stars


Politics & Pot Roast by Sarah Hood Salomon
I Like Food, Food Tastes Good: In the Kitchen With Your Favorite Bands by Kara Zuaro

With either of these two fun little cookbooks, you would expect interesting stories and factual tidbits, though perhaps not the tastiest of cuisine. However, both offer a surprisingly well-rounded collection of recipes one might actually make, despite a few stomach-churners (a la Death Cab for Cutie's Vegetarian Sausage with Peanut Butter, which they swear is good).

Salomon's is composed of brief entries for each of the 43 Presidents, including a little detail about the entertaining and family dining style of each First Family, as well as a handful of favorite dishes served in the White House during the administration.

As I read through the book, I found myself assigning Presidents to one of three groups:

Presidents with whom I would drink:

James Madison (Whiskey Sours)
James K. Polk (Bishop, Archbishop, or Pope; port, claret, or Burgandy w/ cloves and citrus)
William McKinley (a fan of the booze-soaked watermelon, which I thought was favored only by frat boys)
George Washington (mint juleps, of course)

Presidents with whom I would sup:

Andrew Jackson (Rachel Jackson's Famed Grape Salad and the adorably named Hedgehog Cookies)
William Henry Harrison (Pork Chops with Spiced Apples - Harrison was particular about his cuts of meat, and enjoyed doing his own marketing)
Zachary Taylor (Jambalaya, Corn Friters, Hominy Cheese Grits)
Theodore Roosevelt (Squash or Pumpkin Biscuits)

Presidents with questionable diets:

Grover Cleveland (his favorite dish was Bubble and Squeak, a corned beef and cabbage dish named both for the sounds it makes when you eat it, and the sounds your guts make after you eat it)
Martin Van Buren (a lover of stewed beets)
FDR (enjoyed moose w/ grape jelly; martinis with scrambled eggs)

I also found myself noticing patterns that would be described in today's media as elitism in the kitchen. To judge them only by their larders, James Buchanan was an elitist, as were the Grants, the Arthurs, the Wilsons, the Kennedys, and the Fords.

On the other hand, the Eisenhowers appeared to consume nothing but red meat and fudge, the Truman kitchen was delightfully down-to-earth, and the Carters and Clintons ate like it was Sunday dinner at grandma's house.

The rock stars were far better cooks than I would have imagined, although to be fair, most of them are indie rockers, who strike me as more likely to dice and sautee than say, Fred Durst.

Many of the recipes included in I Like Food, Food Tastes Good are surprisingly fancy-pants, though. I am very keen to try out The Rosebuds's recipe, Zucchini Slippers (a cheese, herb, and bread crumb-stuffed baked zucchini boat), as well as Camera Obscura's Vegetarian Paella.

If you're veggie or vegan, there are a lot of options for you here. But then, of course, there's The Hold Steady, bringin' it like the Midwestern rockers they are with a recipe for a Wisconsin staple, the beer brat.

And Gwen will be pleased to know that not only are the Drive-By Truckers included in this collection, but their recipe is for none other than banana pudding.

Don't worry, Gwen, as soon as I post this, I am emailing you the recipe.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Raised on Wicked Witches, and I Turned Out (Mostly) Fine

Interesting article in the Boston Globe over the weekend about what happens to fairy tales when you take out all the grim, twisted parts.

The author, Joanna Weiss, describes this version of "Rapunzel," which came with a doll set she bought for her daughter:

"The book went on to spin the tale of a charmed girl named Rapunzel, who spent her days in the tower sewing dresses with a friend. She loved when the witch came to visit and teach songs, including one that made Rapunzel's hair grow longer. But tension arrived: One day, Rapunzel looked out the window and saw a fair in the village nearby. She wanted to go, but the witch was off tending to her garden and couldn't let her out. Fortunately, a prince riding by in his carriage called up to her, 'Rapunzel! Why aren't you at the fair?'"

As a good little Gen X-er raised on dark children's fare like The Dark Crystal, The Rescuers, and The Secret of NIMH, I find this both baffling and horrifying.

But I also feel lucky that popular culture and the political climate of my youth prepared me for a future where life is dark and scary, nothing is to be trusted, and I will never get to retire.

Maybe it is in our best interests as a nation to focus on scaring the bejeezus out of the kiddies every now and again.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ken Follett Is My Gateway Drug

As I mentioned in the previous post, the NYT book blog, Paper Cuts, has a piece up about the books that serve as a gateway to lifelong reading. I want to play.

First: The BFG by Roald Dahl, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

And then, those books that bridged the gap between kids' books and grown-up books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

And then the "good" books: A Farewell to Arms, the short stories of Flannery O'Connor, Hamlet, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984

And the ones that made me realize that genre fiction was cool, too: It by Stephen King, Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

But perhaps none so important as the books from the next category.

Started reading for the dirty parts, stuck around for the story: Loving Women by Pete Hamill, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett, Then Again, Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

I was not permitted to watch PG-13 movies (and a lot of PG ones), but I did have a library card and an imagination.

Bits and Pieces

- 100 Awesome Blogs for History Junkies: after reading this, I have to update my links because there is some good stuff here. In addition to one of my regular reads, CLEWS, I found blogs that taught me where the word "codswallop" comes from, who was executed on this day in history, and of the existence of a song about the McKinley assassination entitled "White House Blues".

- The Boston Globe has a review of Hannah Tinti's The Good Thief, which sounds like a humdinger.

- This should be in poor taste, but somehow isn't.

- The NYT's Paper Cuts asks, Which books were your gateways to the hard stuff?

In a few short hours, I'm bound for Chicago, where I will see my in-laws, my childhood best friend, and hopefully, the Cardinals tearing up the Cubs at Wrigley Field (although Bob has warned me to keep it on the down low, as Cubs-Cards games tend to be drunk and rowdy). I am terribly excited. Happy weekend!

How to Make a Villain


Case study: Noboru Wataya of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Why We Hate Him:
1. the narrator and his wife (Noboru's sister) name their cat after him, and have a good laugh about it
2. he is accused of defiling a woman
3. he may have a thing for his dead sister
4. he has written a dull and obtuse book about economics
5. he has become famous, in a tv pundit kind of way
6. he is mean to our narrator
7. he is seen to wear green-tinted sunglasses indoors

I have never wished a minor fictional character so ill, so hats off to Haruki Murakami, who knows it's as much about the little details as the big things.

Additionally, I have never enjoyed a book so much where so little appears to be happening. Or really, where lots of things appear to be happening, but then you realize that it is a story about a man who barely leaves his house looking for a lost cat. Or is it?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Paging Dear Abby

A quick diversion from the usual bookery, as I turn to you, gentle reader, for some etiquette advice.

I'm a woman with a professional career, and here, and in many other jobs I've held previously, I've wound up spending a good portion of my workday on the phone. On a near-daily basis, people that I speak to on the phone will call me "honey," "sweetie," or "dear," despite the fact that my speaking voice is neither childlike nor particularly cute.

I am not easily offended, but these interactions tend to get my blood up.

It's not just men, and it's not just people who are a great deal older than I am (in fact, with the latter, I have no problem with letting it slide) -- this happens with men and women, young and old, and it happens a lot.

So, is there a polite and inoffensive way to advise people against this behavior when it occurs?

I once asked a co-worker of mine about this, and she sighed and said, "Well, I just tell myself, they could be calling me a lot worse." I'm afraid that this might be the only Miss Manners-approved way to deal with the situation, but I'm looking for suggestions.

And as a general PSA, gentle reader, please tell everyone you know that these terms of endearment are wonderful and warm and perfectly acceptable for use between family members, significant others, and close friends. But when you use them with strangers, it's condescending, uncomfortable, and rude.

And when you use them with me, it is taking every fiber of professionalism and will in my being not to hang up on you.

That is all.

Signed,

Not Your Sweetie

Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace: The Patron Saint of the Class of 1998

Shortly before I learned of David Foster Wallace's death, I'd been talking to a co-worker about his essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." We were debating the merits of cruise ship vacations, and I vowed I'd never do it, citing Wallace's essay as my reason. They're tacky and unimaginative and nouveau riche.

But the coffee's really good. That's how they get you.

DFW was much discussed among my fellow English majors during the late 90s. Many of us had attempted to read Infinite Jest, though few succeeded, and I was not among them. My friends who read the book in its entirety tended to be self-disciplined, self-consciously intellectual men, the sort who had been hopeless throughout puberty, but blossomed in their college years.

And if you didn't finish it, there was more debate -- was it the book, or was it you?

A friend of mine came up with an excellent concept for a New Yorker-style cartoon: a man sidles up to a woman in a bar, and says, "You know, I've read all of Infinite Jest." It was a very 1997 kind joke, but in 1997, what you thought about Infinite Jest said a lot about you.

In 1997, I wanted confessional poets and southern grotesques and naturalism and Vietnam fiction. What I wanted was muscles and blood. What I did not want was cerebral weightiness and agility. I wanted boxing, not tennis.

Many of my friends became... I hesitate to use the word disciples, because it sounds too slavish, and I don't want to say fans, because that's too casual, but something in between the two. And I eventually found my happy point of entry to Wallace's work through his essays, which were accessible to me in a way his prose wasn't. Which is not to say his prose is inaccessible, just that it is inaccessible to me.

Wallace was a tremendously important figure, but perhaps most important to the aspiring writers who were just beginning to flex their writing chops in the 1990s. I was particularly struck by something that LAT Book Editor David Ulin said: "He really restored the notion of the novel as a kind of canvas on which a writer can do anything."

For a young writer, that's an exhilarating and liberating idea, but it's also a terrifying one. David Foster Wallace made us realize that we could do anything in a book that we wanted, but also that maybe we couldn't, that we wouldn't be talented, smart, or hard-working enough to pull it off. And it's probably good for people who want to be writers to have someone like that, scaring them off of writing for good, or posing a challenge to try harder and do better.

He did that, and as for the rest, all I can really say is that it's sad, and that I'm sorry.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Friday Top 5: Poems I Will Read Recreationally

5. "Hurt Hawks" by Robinson Jeffers

Sure, it's a little melodramatic, a little over the top in its exultation of the rough, rugged, and arrogant; but with language like this, it's hard not to get caught up in the idea.

4. "Stella oft sees the very face of woe" by Sir Philip Sidney

Ever get disgusted with yourself when a stupid movie makes you cry, and real life stuff doesn't? You know a poem is great when it's as true today as it was in the 16th century -- and the last three lines get me every time.

3. "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" by James Wright

If you grew up in a small industrial town where all the factories and plants and mills were shutting down one by one, and that town had a high school football team, then you will understand why I love this poem.

2. "The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens

I still remember running into my friend, Dave Wheat, the day after we studied this poem in college:

Me: Dude! Wallace Stevens!
Dave: Dude, nothing that is not there!
Me: And the nothing that is!
Together: Hell yeah!

1. "Thirteen Ways of Being Looked At By a Possum" by Everette Maddox

Because the best poems aren't the ones that are trying to say big and important things in big and important ways. Reading this always makes me wish that more poets weren't terrified of being funny.

And yours?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

To Acquire a Void: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami


What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir by Haruki Murakami

Though running marathons and writing novels require a similar skill set, people respond very differently when you tell them you do one or the other. Tell people you've written a novel, and they will likely be impressed, as it's something that a good number of people wish they could do themselves. Tell them you run marathons, and they will also be impressed; however, it will be as though you've told them that you hold the Guinness World Record for being covered in bees. They may think your accomplishment impressive, but also slightly insane and pointless.

As Murakami writes, "I've never recommended running to others... a person doesn't become a runner because someone recommends it. People basically become runners because they're meant to."

For over twenty years, Murakami has run for an hour nearly every day, more if he's training for a marathon, which he does once a year. In recent years, he's added triathlons to his repertoire. And on top of that, he's also one of Japan's most celebrated and inventive authors, his work translated into 42 languages.

The book is less a collection of essays than journal entries, in which Murakami describes how he got into distance running at around the same time he decided to become a novelist. In some sections, he's talking about writing, in others, he's talking about running, but really, he's always talking about both -- and in doing so, he's talking about the kind of life that he's chosen to live.

Some things have fallen by the wayside, like the late night social life he enjoyed as the owner of a Tokyo jazz bar in the early 80s. It's a solitary, contemplative life, but he's found that it suits him.

Writing takes talent, which he acknowledges, cannot be acquired; however, it also takes focus and endurance, which can be. You can't run without these things, and you can't write without them either. In fact, he says, "Most of what I know about writing I've learned through running every day."

As a distance runner (and a modestly unsuccessful writer), I found Murakami's observations both immediately familiar and reassuring. People often ask me what I think about when I'm running, how I keep myself from getting bored. I've always had trouble answering this question, because although running keeps my mind occupied and focused, I'm never quite sure what it's focused towards.

Murakami writes about this, saying,

"But really as I run, I don't think much of anything worth mentioning. I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void... As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I'm not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says."

It is a pretty wonderful thing, and a pretty wonderful way of talking about it.

If you liked...: On Writing by Stephen King, and/or if you're a distance runner, this book is for you.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Past Isn't Over, It's Not Even Past: The Turnaround by George Pelecanos


The Turnaround by George Pelecanos

I suppose it's probably for the best that George Pelecanos took a break for most of the fourth season of The Wire to work on his previous novel, The Night Gardener. Heartbreaking as that season of television was, if Pelecanos had been there, it would have been emotional carnage.

This isn't to say that he was the best writer on that show (in that crowd, it's nearly impossible to pick), but in all of Pelecanos's writing, he demonstrates an almost preternatural ability to turn his characters inside out, sparing the reader nothing. It's not just the characterization, though. Pelecanos's characters exist in a moral universe that's guided by a strong sense of what it means to be good, what it means to have done wrong, and what it means to live with choices and mistakes made.

The moral crisis at the heart of The Turnaround begins on a summer night in 1972 when three white teenagers, buzzed on beer and weed, goad one another into driving through a black D.C. neighborhood. One boy shouts a racial slur, and another throws a fruit pie out the window. Unfamiliar with the neighborhood, they drive down a dead end street, where they are confronted by three black teenagers from the neighborhood.

One of the white boys runs away, another is given a beating that disfigures his face, and the third is shot in the back and killed. Two of the black teenagers are sentenced to prison terms. No one gets out unscathed.

The book moves forward 35 years, and from here, focuses mainly on two of the men involved in the incident. All charges were dropped against Raymond Monroe, a hot-headed youth who'd begun running with a bad crowd. After that night, Monroe leaves his old ways behind, and goes on to become a physical therapist at the Walter Reed Hospital. His only child is serving in Afghanistan, and helping veteran amputees learn to use their artificial limbs allows him to feel he's doing something to help, even if it doesn't help to soothe his fears for his son.

The other man is Alex Pappas, the boy who was beaten, the boy who sat in the back of the car and did nothing. His scarred face and ruined eye are the visible penance for his inaction, but Pappas lives most of his life as though he's still being punished for what happened all those years ago. He, too, had a son serve in the Middle East, but now that son is dead.

Pelecanos manages to bring the surviving characters together in a way that isn't contrived -- this isn't the sort of thing that can be resolved with a talk. Some characters are seeking oblivion and escape from the past, others want payback, and the resolution that Pappas and Monroe are looking for doesn't come easily.

Unlike Pelecanos's other books, The Turnaround isn't a crime novel in any traditional sense of the genre. There is crime, and a worthy villain, but more than anything else, the book is about the hard-won redemption of ruined lives. How things are eventually resolved is somewhat predictable, but the route there is anything but.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Refreshing! A Girly Book That Isn't Girly: It Takes More Than Balls


It Takes More Than Balls: The Savvy Girls' Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Baseball by Deidre Silva and Jackie Koney

Before he asked me if I wanted to do "dueling reviews" of It Takes More Than Balls, I'd always thought that Bob (he who mans The Griddle at Baseball Toaster) had a possibly unhealthy obsession with tracking instances of catcher's interference.

But thanks to Silva and Koney's book, I now know what it is, and more importantly, why it is interesting.* So, Bob, I'm sorry I doubted you.

It Takes More Than Balls is a concise, entertaining, and snarkily written overview of the sport and how it's played. Silva and Koney do a nice job of illustrating different aspects of the game, as well as the characteristics that separate the good from the great players, with examples plucked from all eras of baseball history.

There's the heartwarming story of Connie Mack agreeing to start aging pitcher Howard "Bob" Ehmke in the first game of the 1929 World Series after Ehmke said, "Mr. Mack, there is one great game left in this old arm." And sure enough, there was. And I couldn't help but feel a little twinge of respect for scrappy Pete Rose, who I learned routinely sprinted to first base when he got a walk, just like the coaches made us do in Little League.

But it's not all heartstrings and the soundtrack from The Natural. Silva and Koney also get in some nice digs at Manny, A-Rod, and the home run derby steroid sluggers, and have a good time (if a kinder one) rolling out stories of notorious errors, regrettable trades, and player foibles.

I do have one small beef with the book, which is that I'm not sure which part of it is for "savvy girls." This really has more to do with the book's packaging, as I really appreciated the absence of overtly girly content in Silva and Koney's approach. No "Omigod, my boyfriend is so into baseball, and I so totally do not know what is going on!" moments -- they respect their readers' intelligence and interest in the sport. However, aside from the memories and testimonials shared by female fans at the end of each chapter (most of which are horribly bland), this is really a book for any casual, yet enthusiastic baseball fan.

I enjoyed it, learned a few new things, lapped up some interesting baseball stats and stories, and was able to add a new piece of ammo to my unwavering, semi-irrational argument that the National League is superior to the American League.**

However, most "savvy guys" won't, because they will not buy a book with a pink cover and a title like It Takes More Than Balls.

I don't blame Silva and Koney for this -- I blame their publisher. And society.
_____________________
*Baseball-Reference.com describes catcher's interference as "a situation where the catcher hinders a batter's ability to hit a pitched ball by touching his bat. The call is automatic as long as the batter was standing inside the batter's box, as it is considered the catcher's responsibility to place himself so as to allow sufficient space for the batter to swing the bat unimpeded."

That is well and good, but I prefer the way the ladies describe it: "The batter is given first base, while the catcher is left writhing on the ground wondering why he didn't become a dentist, like his mother wanted."

**I will fight with total strangers about this. This, and my equally unwavering, semi-irrational argument in favor of "Sweet Child O' Mine" over "Welcome to the Jungle" as the superior GNR song.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Twitchy With Anticipation: Orange County by Gustavo Arellano

Within a matter of days, Gustavo Arellano's new book, Orange County: A Personal History will be on sale, but that's little comfort to me because I want to read it now.

Fortunately, I have been able to tide myself over with the first chapter. Unfortunately, it's so good that it only makes the waiting worse.

Now, in nearly every case, I'm very skeptical of (and not very polite about) anyone under the age of 40 who writes a memoir. But Arellano has my blessing because, based on what I've read about the book, there isn't going to be a lot of navel-gazing in this personal history. It's a history of Arellano's family (who started sneaking across the border to work thankless jobs for meager wages in 1918), and a history of Orange County, a region of the country that will terrify and amaze you, no matter which side of the culture wars you're on.

And if you read Arellano's weekly syndicated column, Ask A Mexican!, then you know he is occasionally crass, frequently hilarious, and nearly always the smartest guy in the room.

Sometimes he writes passages like this one:

There's no real reason why what you just read and anything that follows relating to my personal life should ever have been published (reviewers: there's a pull quote for ustedes if ever there was one!). The immigrant saga, the coming-of-age rebel yell, the portrait of the artist as a young hombre -- the memoir portion of this book uses those clich├ęs of American letters to tell its tale. But the sad beauty of this country is that we forget. We forget that dumb ethnics assimilate, that they share the goals and dreams of any Mayflower descendant. It takes a snot-nosed, presumptuous minority to kick the United States in its amnesiac britches every couple of years -- consider this your ass boot.

And then mixes them with stuff like this:

Meanwhile, American historians have long dismissed [Orange County] as America's fundamentalist wild, reviled as the place that spawned Nixon, ridiculed for the perfection that drew so many to find lives of leisure. We're historical ether -- invisible but dangerous.

And I am so, so, so excited to read more.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Back To Business

Due to the Olympic Games, illness, and a generally scrotty state of mind brought about by the latter, I just haven't felt much like writing book reviews this month. Now that I'm mostly better (kids, don't EVER have an allergic reaction to a drug, because it can take weeks to get over it), I still don't feel much like writing book reviews.

Or at least good book reviews involving sustained, semi-critical thought and analysis. This week is dedicated to catching up, so first up: Nixonland

When I was in junior high, and giddy with my new-found love for Janis Joplin and tie-dyed t-shirts, I asked my mother to tell me what the 60s were like. I expected some tales involving Volkswagen buses and fighting the power, but all she said was, "It was an ugly, ugly time."

At the time, I thought, "Gee, you must have been a total no-fun-having square" (although she did tell me a pretty good story about sneaking into Easy Rider underage). But after reading Nixonland, I now understand that my mother's response to the 1960s is the only appropriate one.

Reading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America is kind of like taking a nature hike that turns into a forced march. Though it only covers the years between 1965 and 1972 -- starting with the Watts Riot and Johnson's sweeping civil rights and domestic policy legislation, and ending with Nixon's landslide defeat of McGovern and the beginnings of the Watergate investigation -- it feels like too much for one book.

Perlstein's a thoughtful and engaging writer, though perhaps a bit too enthusiastic a researcher. The book is at its best when it's focused on the dirty shenanigans of its titular namesake, and it's also very good when discussing the rise of the "Silent Majority" and the nasty backlash of whites nationwide against the civil rights movement.

It's amazing to realize how inaccurate the popular narrative of the civil rights movement is -- you'd think the whole thing ended in 1964, and that segregation and racial discrimination only happened in the South. And by the time Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate," many whites and most of the conservative establishment regarded him as a riot-starter, a Communist, and a terrorist.

Ugly times, indeed.

However, on Vietnam and the anti-war movement, and the political shake-ups during those years, Perlstein's account sometimes gets bogged down by the sheer messiness of everything that transpired.

I haven't even gotten to Nixon himself, but let's just say that this book is directly responsible for two nightmares I had in the past week involving the jowly old crook and his cronies.

And also, I've realized one major difference between the Nixon administration and our current one, which are in all other significant ways, identical. One got caught and was punished. The other got caught and didn't suffer a whit.

So, ugly as that era in American history might have been, they'll always have that on us.

Nixonland is interesting, horrifying, entirely worthy of your time; however, a) Nixon nightmares, b) super depressing, and c) forced march. Don't say I didn't warn you.