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Check It Out

Courier Article by Lucy Clem
Sunday, January 23, 2006

E-mail Newsletters Can Lead Down a Well-Read Path

As a librarian and an obsessive reader, I'm often asked how I find the books I choose. Lately, one of my best sources is BookLetters, an e-mail newsletter service provided by EVPL at Set up an account, choose the subjects you're interested in, and you'll receive regular e-mails with short reviews and a link to the EVPL catalog so you can locate copies of the titles you like. That's how I found Don't Get Too Comfortable: the Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems, by David Rakoff (Doubleday, 2005).

Rakoff is a regular contributor to GQ, Outside, and the New York Times Magazine, among others. This book is described as "a grand tour of our culture of excess." Rakoff's biting wit makes his essays entertaining, but on occasion he's also insightful and thoughtful. He accompanies a bevy of models to Belize for a Playboy shoot, and muses on the contrast between his accommodations and the local lifestyle. He spends a day with the crew who actually make the crafts so sumptuously photographed in Martha Stewart's magazine. In the funniest piece, he works for three days as a pool attendant at a Miami hotel, where his job is primarily to keep non-paying guests from walking in off the beach. Like David Sedaris, Rakoff makes the American lifestyle look absurd, but he does it so deftly we don't really mind.

I look forward to the free weekly e-mail book update I subscribe to from the New York Times. To receive the latest reviews and literary news, go to and click on the Books Update link near the bottom of the page. That's where I discovered that the film Brokeback Mountain was based on the short story by the same name, contained in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx (Scribner, 1999). Illustrated with the striking watercolors of William Matthews, this collection captures the raw simplicity and everyday brutality of life in the modern west. The controversial aspects of Brokeback Mountain are just one part of an enormous story about the land and the men who live and work there. There's a touch of the supernatural in Pair a Spurs, where a selfish gift seems to curse everyone it touches. The Blood Bay has the feel of a broadly humorous folk tale, right down to its title. Waitresses and rodeo riders, ranch hands and lady wranglers, and a mute but powerful cast of animals and machines come together to paint a portrait of a hard, pure life. This is strong writing about a powerful place.

And finally, my favorite source for what to read next—the monthly book discussion with my co-workers, where we talk about what we're reading. That's where I heard about The March, by E.L. Doctorow (Random House, 2005). A fictional account of Sherman's march to the sea during the Civil War, this book is meticulously researched and masterfully characterized. The imagery is as clear and unforgettable as the photographs taken by the unfortunate Josiah Culp, contracted by the government to chronicle the war. Central to the story are Arly and Will, two misfit Confederates who, thanks to Arly's wiliness, change sides and lie their way through the march directed by messages from God. There's Pearl, a beautiful young Negro girl who appears as white as her Confederate father, and there is General Sherman himself, a brilliant strategist and near madman. The descriptions of the pillage and destruction of Southern cities and towns, with hollow-eyed citizens numbly watching their homes and livelihoods going up in flames, leave an image that makes "Gone with the Wind" seem almost gentle.

If you're not in the mood for dark, cynical, or grim, take a look at Being Dead Is No Excuse: the Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral, by Gayden Metcalfe (Miramax, 2005). Also from our library book group, this is an extremely humorous look at the Southern way of death, complete with recipes—think the Sweet Potato Queens doing funerals. This could be considered an authentic study of Southern culture, but to take the book seriously would be a shame. The Episcopalian/Methodist class division goes only as far as a can of cream of mushroom soup—and to understand that deep concept, you'll have to read the book!

Lucy Young Clem is the Tech Center Supervisor at Central Library, where she sandwiches reading book reviews between computer training sessions.