Books Are Pretty

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Under My Roof.

It’s really difficult to write a good speculative fiction novel. For every Dune that gets published, there are forty Battlefield Earths out there. (I don’t even like typing the title of that book. It sucks so hard it almost pulled my eyes out of my head when I tried to read it. Now it’s being used to cover up an open sewage pipe in a spare bathroom in my house until the plumber can come out and install a new toilet. Seriously. It’s not often that I hate a book so much I harbor a grudge, but when I do, watch out.)

As much as I hate B*** E***, I love Dune, because Frank Herbert could do what Scientology guy and so many others can’t, which is to create an entirely new world on a different planet with different beings, technology, religion, and economics and do it so well that you feel like you’ve learned something about politics, culture, and economics, when really all you’ve learned is that you can’t write as well as Frank Herbert.

Not to mention how exhausting it is to play God and create a whole new planet. Why bother when you can write a perfectly nifty little speculative fiction book just taking some crappy aspect of the world today and taking it to its next logical step?

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace got rid of the numerical system of naming years, 2004, 2005, 2006, etc., and replaced it a system subsidized by corporations, turning 2004 into the Year of the Whopper, 2005 the Year of the Tuck’s Medicated Pad, and so on.

In H2O, Mark Swartz got rid of all the water, and in Nick Mamatas’ Under My Roof, Daniel Weinberg cracks under the relentless pressure of phony patriotism and the growing “us against the world” philosophy that our current administration is embracing. (In the book, the entirety of Latin America is considered an enemy, and Canada is referred to as the White Menace.*) His solution is to arm himself with a homemade nuclear bomb stuffed into a garden gnome and secede from the United States.

The aftermath of his declaration is chronicled by Weinberg’s telepathic twelve-year-old son, Herbert, who Daniel crowns the Prince of Weinbergia. Herbert, who loves his Dad but isn’t too wild about the turn of events, chronicles the secession, starting with giving the reader a specific recipe for constructing a nuclear weapon to his dismay at seeing his home fill up with refugees, mostly flaky, disgruntled hippies looking for a miracle in the more literal sense.

During the upheaval, Herbert’s mother leaves Weinbergia and goes on a publicity tour, enthusiastically telling of her love for Herbert and her victimization by Daniel, who did not even discuss the secession with her before pulling it off. With the help of the police, she manages to kidnap Herbert, only to find his actual presence isn’t as fulfilling as missing him. For the remainder of the novel, Herbert tries to go back home, while his father busies himself forging alliances with the country of Palau, and the Islamic Republic of the Qool Mart Store No. 351, a convenience store whose employees have also decided to secede. Musad, the leader of the Qool Mart, creates a treaty pledging eternal peace between Weinbergia and the entire Muslim world.

Five years…peace between Weinbergia and the entire Muslim world, as vouchsafed and guaranteed by the Islamic Republic of Qool Mart,” Dad read aloud.

“Wait a minute,” said Whiting, “these people don’t speak for the entire Muslim world.”

“Hyah,” said Barry. “He’s got a point there.” Barry hoped making friends with Whiting would get him out of here alive, maybe even without a prison sentence.

Musad said, “Of course I speak for the entire Muslim world. You, man,” he continued, pointing his chin at Barry. “You made it so.”

“We have video,” Richard said.

Musad reached up to the security monitor and punched a button. The real-time footage on the screen went black and then a moment later was replaced with the same scene, but daylight, with Musad and Barry, only the latter in other clothes, chatting.

Video Barry waved a copy of Newsday in Musad’s face and, his voice tinny as a thought from both the mic and the fact that the playback was on the small security speakers, said, “Why did your people go crazy this time? Bombing our soldiers just for trying to protect your freedom to sell me this newspaper!”

“So, you don’t want the newspaper?” Musad-on-tape asked.


Mamatas deftly satirizes both public and private life, with the fetishizing and commercialization of 9/11 and eternal war, as well as skewering parents who become so wrapped up in their own agenda their kid gets pushed by the wayside.

Under My Roof is a funny, biting young adult novel about rebellion in a country populated with people who would like to rebel, provided the revolution doesn’t wipe out what they’ve Tivo’d.

*Slogan: We will become your overlords, but we’ll be very polite and charmingly self-deprecating about the whole thing.


Under My Roof
By Nick Mamatas
2007 by Soft Skull Press
Softcover, 151 pp
ISBN: 1-933368-43-8

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Punk Rock Dad.

"I cannot wait, I cannot wait," says my husband, "until the last Baby Boomer is dead."

After almost fifteen years of living with him, I've racked up a lot of hours listening to anti-Baby Boomer rants, always predicated on him hearing some wide-eyed discovery by some former hippie that, wow! they're aging! and who'da thunk it?

"I took my first Geritol today," one newspaper article that I read breathlessly began, and that was as far as I got before I quit reading.

Typical Gen Xers that we are, we spent our twenties mostly wishing the hippies would just shut the fuck up so we can curl up in a ball and listen to our own particular brand of anti-authoritarian music, peacefully contemplating our comforting nihilism.

And then in this decade we all started turning forty, and as it turns out, there's one area where we're mopping the floor with the Boomers in the self-absorbtion department. We can call this category Wow! We're parents! Who'da thunk it!

The requirement of aging Gen Xers in the '00s seems to be to write a book about Our Parenting Experience, where we ponder the same things: 1.) We don't know what the hell we're doing, but 2.) It seems to be working out. Or we can write a thinly veiled work of fiction about parenting, a Mommy book, that covers the following ground: 1.) She doesn't know what she's doing, but 2.) It seems to be working out.

To be fair, when writing a parenting book from an autobiographical point of view, a certain amount of self-effacing charm is necessary, as well as the reassurance that despite all the war stories the writer has just told (and war stories are a must, too, the messier the better), parenting is such a worthy endeavor - the best decision they've ever made, in fact - that s/he wouldn't trade places with anybody else in the world.

Otherwise the writer comes across as either an egocentric asshole, one of those know-it-all parents the rest of us love to hate, or a monster that publicly admits s/he doesn't love the children they created.

When writing a book with criteria so narrowly defined, then, its readability comes down to the charm and talent of the author. It doesn't matter if the writer is a born-again Christian, like Anne Lamott, an arty hippie-wannabe like Ayun Halliday, or a completely insane rightwing lunatic like G. Gordon Liddy, all that matters in the end is whether the writer has the ability to make the reader want to spend time with them, regardless of how many times the reader has heard this particular tale.

Which brings us to Jim Lindberg, lead singer of the veteran hardcore punk band, Pennywise,* and his parenting memoir Punk Rock Dad.

I was given this book for review, but if it was something I'd browsed through in a book store I wouldn't have made it past the blurb on the inside jacket.

When he drives his kids to school in the morning, they only listen to the Ramones, the Clash or the Descendents. This is family time; the girls can listen to Brittney and Justin on their own time. He goes to all the soccer games, dance rehearsals and piano recitals like all the other dads, but when he feels the need, he also goes to punk shows and runs into the slam pit and comes home bruised and beaten, but somehow feeling strangely better. While the other dad's dye their hair brown to cover the gray, Jim occasionally dyes his blue or green.

And so on, making him sound like he's less of a father and more like some dude with a high sperm count that doesn't let his kids get in the way of his life.

Despite the fact that this is an excerpt from the book's introduction, the message of the book as a whole is almost completely the opposite, as he instead portrays himself in a utterly charming way, as a kind of old-fashioned father who surprised himself by forging a career as a punk rock star.

Of course, this isn't true, either. Lindberg was a musician long before he got married and had children. The first part of the book describes his own disaffected, lonely childhood and his feeling that he wasn't accepted by his peers. Punk music gave him a creative outlet for his anger and frustration, and provided the social comfort he'd been looking for.

Even so, Lindberg seemed to understand at a young age that it was better to grow up to be Howard Cunningham than GG Allin, because there comes a point when sleeping under a blanket of your own puke loses its appeal.

His memoir then settles into the normal adjustment from single guy to married guy to father, and his eventual acceptance of the uncool homebody marriage and fatherhood has forced him to become.

In one of his more humorous anecdotes, Lindberg describes being recognized by the cashier at an all-night drugstore. The fan initially gushes enthusiastically about the band as he rings up Lindberg's purchases, then, $95 dollars later, finds he doesn't have that much to say to him, after all.

[He] wants me to sign something for him, and then says his friend Paul loves us and he won't believe this, and asks another few questions before he remembers he's actually working and starts to scan my items through. With each item, he and I are both let down further and further. Children's anal suppository. Child rectal thermometer. Breast pads. Just for Men Extra Gray Coverage Brown Hair Dye. Metamucil. Nair for Men. Mylanta. With each swipe across the scanner I go from being punk rock, superstar, Warped Tour legend, to rapidly aging, grayhaired father of a constipated child, with a nipple-dripping wife. I'm not a radical, punk-scene voice of a generation, I'm a pathetic middle-aged loser having problems with heartburn, irregularity, and back hair.

In a single anecdote, Lindberg drops the main lesson of parenting: It doesn't matter who you once were, once you become a parent the playing field has been leveled and you are no longer cool.

And wisely, Lindberg knows fighting against it just makes things worse, so he goes the opposite route and embraces it, even devoting the last section of the book to marital and parenting advice that honestly, could have come from Dear Abby, with a more liberal use of the word "asshole."

And while we're on the subject of the Death of Cool, Lindberg addresses one more thing about his life as a punk rock star that, somewhat surprisingly, has lost its appeal for him: bad manners. This seems to be somewhat hypocritical of someone who makes his living off giving the finger to others, but he has a point:

I usually get to a show about five minutes before we play and don't hang around any longer than I have to. I'm not complaining, and certain people are going to read this and think I'm an asshole, but the whole preshow center of attention thing has become kind of a drag for me. Sounds stupid, I know, becaase why would you be in a band if you don't want attention, but I'm jaded and lame now and that's just how it is. There are parts of the whole show night interaction that I like a lot...[but] there's a dark side as well.

When you're a singer, or actor, or radio host, or even the guy announcing the local little league game, basically anyone who puts themselves out into the public eye, you unknowingly open yourself up to pointed criticism from everyone from your best friend to complete strangers. Someone with horrible beer breath will come up to you and say they love your band but they like the old stuff better and didn't really care for the last few albums, and "what's with the third song on the new album, that song sucks, and why don't you guys play more like (insert stupid band here) and what time are you guys on tonight, and can I get a backstage pass for my girlfriend's cousin, and are there any more beers in your dressing room, because I looked and someone already drank them all, and bro, could you get me a shirt for my little brother? He really loves you guys, but like I said, he wasn't really that into your last record, either, and by the way, who did your last video? That thing was so gay! What was it even supposed to be about anyway? You guys should go back to playing superfast like you did on your first album, and write more songs with works like 'fight' and 'fuck' in them 'cause that's cool, like 'fuck authority,' that's awesome. Yeah, dude, and don't forget, backstage pass for my cousin and a shirt for my brother. Oh, and a hat for me, too. Thanks, bro. You rule."

I'll meet ten people exactly like this on the way into the club, there will be twenty more in the dressing room drinking all our beers and eating our deli tray, and thirty more on stage drunk when we play. Some of them, and this is no lie, will come out onto the stage in the middle of a song while I'm singing and yell in my ear, "Dude, are there any more beers left? Hey, and play song four off the second album, I forget what it's called."

If you're physically unable to give them five extra laminates and a wristband for their girlfriend's cousin, a shirt for their little brother, and a few dozen beers, and if you won't party with them until dawn, well, then you're an asshole and your last album sucked.

Although there's just something inherently funny about a hardcore punk rocker complaining that the new music the kids today are playing is too loud and just sounds like a bunch of noise (which he does), this rant makes him sound like the quintessential grumpy old man. Until you stumble across an internet punk forum where they're discussing his book, and the conversation can be summed up with, "Jim Lindberg is a fag. Having sex with women is so gay."

(While we all know how I love my hyperbole, I'm actually not exaggerating. Verbatim quote from the message board: "Jim Lindbergh has three kids? What a fag.")

Can you blame the man for preferring to spend his evening with a sick child, scrubbing partially digested hot dogs and cottage cheese off his bathroom floor?** The company of his daughter alone raises the average IQ in the room by about 20 points.

And although Punk Rock Dad doesn't deviate from the Mommy book format in any meaningful way, Lindberg infuses his particular story with intelligence, wit, and a competent writing style that makes the reader enjoy spending time with him, watching him scrub away.

*The link takes you to the band's official website, where you can click the little Play button at the top of the page to hear one of their more recent songs.

**There's that war story!
Punk Rock Dad
by Jim Lindberg
HarperCollins, 2007
Hardcover, 212pp.
ISBN: 006114875X

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Tale of Despereaux.

The last time the boys and I went to Women & Children First to stock up on books, I picked Despereaux out for Alex, hoping that if he wasn't ready for chapter books yet, he would be soon.

"Look, Alex," I said, pulling out the hard sell, "it has a gold medal on it. It won a prize."

"Okay, okay," he said, but I gushed on.

"It won a prize for best book of the year!"

And so it had. I'd been wanting to read Despereaux ever since 2004, when the Newbery award was slapped on it. I didn't even know anything about it, but it was one of those books that just emit the feeling that there's a great story inside.

And Reader, there is.

Kate DiCamillo has written a classic children's book; one that I am sorry was not published when I was Alex's age, because it would have blown my kid self away. So every night the 37-year-old child would ask the seven-year-old child, begging hopefully, "Despereaux? Tonight?"

And every night the little sadist would say, "No, not tonight." And he'd hand me some crappy Junie B. Jones book that we'd already read a thousand times. He knew, Reader. He knew how badly I wanted to read it, and he reveled in his cruelty.

Finally, though, after literally months of abusing me, he relented, and permitted me to read him Despereaux as a bedtime tale.

The chapters are short, and we read four a night. Each night, he begged me for five. I'd like to say I wreaked my revenge on him and refused, but sometimes I did read five, because I also wanted to know What Happened Next.

Born to a French mother in a castle in an unnamed land, Despereaux grows up to be an undersized mouse with oversized dreams. While his brothers and sisters are scrambling for crumbs dropped on the castle floor, Despereaux is in the library, staring at the four words in an opened book that ignite his passions and drive his life forward - "Once upon a time."

Like the title character in Beverly Cleary's Runaway Ralph, Despereaux is a mouse who strives to take more from life than what is expected of him.

One day, Despereaux hears the king play a bedtime song for his daughter, the Princess Pea. Despereaux is so engrossed in the melody that he is lured out of his hiding place, and sees the princess for the first time. He falls into an instant, courtly love.

This rush of emotion sets into play a series of events that entwine Despereaux's life with the lives of two other creatures with similarly oversized dreams: Chiaroscuro, the vicious dungeon rat with a passion to live in light, and Miggery Sow, a tragically abused servant girl whose strongest desire is to be a princess.

DiCamillo slowly braids the three stories together - the tales of Despereaux, Chiaroscuro, and Miggery Sow - tightly and artfully, drawing the suspense out almost painfully as all three creatures reach toward their respective dreams, fall into deep disgrace, and develop methods of pulling themselves out that puts them at odds with each other. Toward the climax, Alex began bouncing up and down in bed, saying, "This is really freaking me out! This is freaking me out now!"

And to tell the truth, it was freaking me out a little, too, because we had reached the fifth and last chapter of the night, and, like Alex, I was dying to know What Happened Next.

The Tale of Despereaux
by Kate DiCamillo
2004 by Candlewick Press
Paperback, 269 pp
ISBN: 0-76-36252-9

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Over the weekend, Christopher and I picked Green Eggs and Ham for one of his bedtime stories.

"I would not like them
here or there.

I would not like them

I do not like
Green Eggs and Ham.

I do not like them,
," I read. "Would you like them in a house?"

"Why is he doing that?" asked Christopher.

"Why is who doing what?"

"Why does he want the other guy to eat Green Eggs and Ham?"

"I guess because he thinks the other guy will like it if he tries it."

"But he said no," said Christopher.

"Yes, he did," I said, "but the point is, uh, if he just keeps after the other guy, he'll finally say yes."

"But he said no," repeated Christopher.

"Yes, he did say no. But it supposed to be funny, see, because the other guy is grumpy, and...well, I guess if someone kept trying to make me do something I didn't want to do, even after I'd said No, even after I left the room and tried to get away from him, if he kept following me and insisting, I suppose I'd be grumpy, too."

"What does he keep following him for, even though he said no?"

"...uh, well, it's...Actually, it's called harassment," I said. "And actually, in real life, it would be against the law to continue to pester someone like this after this many refusals."

"Why does he finally say Yes?" asked Christopher.

"Because he got tired of fighting and just gave in," I said, "which um...actually, he probably shouldn't have done that, because the only thing he taught Sam-I-am was that if he hears "No" twenty times and then on the twenty first time he hears "Yes," he knows next time he'll just have to make sure he asks twenty times. Probably the guy in the black had should have filed a restraining order with the police."

This conversation was starting to get out of hand. But Christopher kept persisting.

"This book is bad. Why did they do that?"

"It's supposed to be funny."

"I don't think it's funny."

"No, I...I suppose it isn't, when you look at it that way. Do you want me to keep reading it?"

"Yeah, sure."


Would you like them
in a house?

Would you like them
with a mouse?

I didn't begin the evening with the intention of turning the fourth best-selling children's book in the world from a story of a plucky little creature with a never give up attitude to a grim tale of stalking and harassment, but for some reason the conversation got away from me and was pulled inexorably to the dark, seamy underbelly of the Seuss world.

I'm afraid to read him other Seuss stories, like perhaps The Cat in the Hat. Breaking and entering, vandalism, Contributing to the deliquency of minor children - who knows what joy I'll bring to it?

To make amends, I present you with this classic rendition of Green Eggs and Ham, as read by the Rev. Jesse Jackson:

Green Eggs and Ham
by Dr. Seuss
1960 by Random House
Hardcover, 72pp
ISBN: 0-39-480016-8

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Do you know who invented the vaccine for mumps? Measles? Rubella? Hepatitis A and B? Chicken Pox? How about your annual flu vaccine?

Yeah, I didn't know, either. Which is really weird, since it's clear that these vaccine have changed the world and saved millions of lives. As it turns out, all the above vaccines were made by a single man - Maurice Hilleman.

Dr. Paul A. Offit's latest book, Vaccinated, is in part a biography of Hilleman, but is also a science history lesson covering the lives and careers of the scientists who made the big discoveries in modern disease prevention, and a little Biology 101 about viruses and bacteria for the layman, too.

Born in rural Montana, Hilleman spent his childhood working the family farm and chafing under his father's strict religious fundamentalism. Finding solace in science, and, in particular, Darwin's Origin of the Species, Hilleman left the farm for the University of Chicago, and from there he bucked tradition, choosing to work for pharmaceutical giant Merck rather than a career in academia.

Given a fairly free rein at the company, Hilleman was able to research and develop 9 life saving vaccines that benefit the world over, eradicating many diseases completely in some areas and drastically cutting down on premature deaths and disease induced birth defects.

Offit takes a short detour to explain the nature of viruses, and their discovery and the scientists who studied them, as well as how vaccines are created so Hilleman's work could better be understood by people who only went to Biology 101 four times the entire semester.

Now, either you like biology nerd stuff or you don't. I do, so I found Offit's book very interesting and cornered coworkers with talk of the severed heads of chicken embryos and such. If science isn't your bag, or you oppose vaccinations for for religious or hippie reasons, this is not the book for you.

Offit isn't afraid to dive into the middle of the problems caused by religious fundamentalists, either, lamenting the religious right's constant stream of deception and misinformation regarding the vaccine for cervical cancer, and, most shockingly, opposition to the vaccination for rubella, a disease that causes severe birth defects, and, often infant and fetal death if a pregnant woman becomes infected.

Why? Because the vaccine was created back in 1962 using the cells of an aborted fetus. Offit tries very hard to maintain a neutral tone when rebutting the ignorance of a group so ridiculous in their willingness to kill millions of babies to avoid using cells from a single 45-year-old donated fetus that even the Vatican flatly told them their anti-abortion stance went too far. However, after explaining why all their ideas of how to create a vaccine using alternate methods would not be possible, he laments the group's spreading of misinformation:

It's unlikely that vaccine makers are going to remake routine children's vaccines - such as those for rubella, hepatitis A, and chickenpox - at great cost for no financial benefit. And inflammatory, incorrect statements regarding vaccines in current use don't help.


Unfortunately, the chapter on vaccines made from human blood has quite a large error of its own. While I'm confident Dr. Offit can be trusted with regard to the science part of the book, he is way off the mark on gay history.

In this chapter, of course the AIDS virus is covered. Offit writes about a French-Canadian flight attendant named Gaetan Dugas.

The first forty people diagnosed in the United States with AIDS were gay men living in California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas. To figure out how the AIDS virus...spread, investigators constructed a diagram showing who had had sex with whom. In the center of the diagram was one man. All forty AIDS victims had had sex with this man or with someone who had had sex with him. They called him Patient Zero...Dugas was 28 when a biopsy of an enlarging purple spot below his right ear revealed Kaposi's sarcoma - "gay cancer." At the time, Dugas estimated that he had slept with two hundred and fifty men a year for ten years - twenty-five hundred sexual partners in all. Knowing that AIDS was contagious didn't stop Dugas from continuing to satisfy his sexual appetites. "Rumors began on Castro Street about a strange guy at the Eighth and Howard bathhouse, a blond with a French accent,"noted [Randy] Shilts, [author of And the Band Played on] "He would have sex with you, turn up the lights in the cubicle, and point out his Kaposi's sarcoma lesions. 'I've got cancer,' he said. 'I'm going to die. [And now] so are you.'"

This was quite a sensational story. I did some Googling for "Gaetan Dugas," curious about the person who went down in history as the biggest disease-carrying whore the world has ever known.

Turns out this story? Not true.

Much was made in the early years of the epidemic of a so-called 'Patient Zero' who was the basis of a complex "transmission scenario" compiled by Dr. William Darrow and colleagues at the Centre for Disease Control in the US. This epidemiological study showed how 'Patient O' (mistakenly identified in the press as 'Patient Zero') had given HIV to multiple partners, who then in turn transmitted it to others and rapidly spread the virus to locations all over the world. A journalist, Randy Shilts, subsequently wrote an book based on Darrow's findings, which named Patient Zero as a gay Canadian flight attendant called Gaetan Dugas. For several years, Dugas was vilified as a 'mass spreader' of HIV and the original source of the HIV epidemic among gay men. However, four years after the publication of Shilts' article, Dr. Darrow repudiated his study, admitting its methods were flawed and that Shilts' had misrepresented its conclusions.

While Gaetan Dugas was a real person who did eventually die of AIDS, the Patient Zero story was not much more than myth and scaremongering. HIV in the US was to a large degree initially spread by gay men, but this occurred on a huge scale over many years, probably a long time before Dugas even began to travel.

This is a substantial error, not to mention unfair to Dugas' family to continue to vilify him based on what is mostly scaremongering and myth, and I hope that in subsequent publishings this misinformation is removed.

If this small section is corrected, I would whole-heartedly recommend Vaccinated. Until it is, though, wait for the paperback.

by Paul A. Offit, MD
June 2007 by Harper Collins
Hardcover, 272pp
ISBN: 978-0-06-122795-0

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Garage Sale America.

As much as I love to read, there aren't many books that cause me to chase my husband around the house, shouting about things I know he isn't interested in. Bruce Littlefield's Garage Sale America got me going, though.

"Look!" I yelled, running out to the backyard where Steve was catching fireflies with our four-year-old, "The Lincoln Highway has a 400 mile long garage sale!"

"Yay!" shouted Christopher, pausing in his pursuit of winged phosphorescent tushies. (His patented method of firefly catching: to run after them, arms outstretched, palms flat. When he gets a firefly in his sights, he puts a hand on either side of the doomed insect and claps them together as hard as he can. We've tried to show him less lethal ways to enjoy this activity, but what can you do? He's four.)

"Huh," said Steve.

"And we haven't missed it yet!" I enthused. "It's August 8-11th!"

This information motivated him to address me directly.

"If you think for one minute," he said, speaking slowly and clearly, "that I'm going to spend my birthday going to a four hundred mile long garage sale, then you are out of your mind."

This is exactly why having a straight husband is a bad idea. Sexual interest will wane over time, but yard sales and back roads will always be there.

It seems to be too late to correct Steve's rotten attitude, but it isn't too late yet for my boys - they love garage sales. During the summer, when they go outside to play on weekend mornings, they're on the lookout for garage sales or, now that Alex can read, signs advertising garage sales. If they see one, they burst back into the house, screaming, "Mommy! Hurry! Grab your purse! There's a garage sale!"

Sometimes I run down the street after them in a tee shirt and pajama pants.

The appeal of garage sales to children is obvious. There are toys there, yes, but what's almost equally important is that a yard sale satisfies children's curiosity about the world around them. They can go to a total stranger's house and have free rein to paw through their stuff and, for a quarter, take away one of their toys. They get to find out how other people live, what they do, what they like. It's a wonderful way to learn about people, and America's life history.

Some of us never outgrow that curiosity about hunting and exploring and sifting though debris to find out valuable information about the world. I get my kicks taking road trips down historical by-ways, like the Lincoln Highway and Route 66. Bruce Littlefield gets his by going to garage sales.

There's really not that much difference between the two, which is why having an enormous yard sale on a historic highway dovetails so perfectly.

On my last trip down the Lincoln Highway, on a narrow, bumpy section of it in Central Illinois where you could clearly see the ghostly remnants of what it used to be, a woman sat by the side of the road in a plastic folding chair, her stuff strewn out all over her yard. Without hesitating I leaped out of the car and dashed over. I found a child-sized electric guitar, in excellent condition, and a dozen instruction books for five dollars. My son had been begging for a guitar for months. My journey back and forth on the Lincoln Highway was fabulous, as always, but that yard sale was definitely the high point.

In Garage Sale America, Littlefield covers more territory than you'd think would be possible in a book about yard sales - which states have excellent ones, which neighborhoods have the best yard sales, how to be a good seller, how to be a good buyer, how to find deals and how to avoid getting burned by buying, say, fake Bakelite, which yard sales are becoming legendary, and many interviews with other garage sale addicts, such as the world's youngest garage saler, a little boy named Lance Bedell, and Wini Williams, who at 91 is the oldest. There's even an interview with the Trachtenburg Family, who are the coolest nerds on the planet.

Littlefield has a wonderful photograph of himself and Williams on his blog, as she sees for the first time his interview with her in Garage Sale America :

What I love most about this photograph are how much the facial expressions tell the observer. Littlefield's interview is very respectful and admiring, and it's clear that Littlefield is more eager to please her with what he's written about her than she is to be immortalized in a book. Not to say that she doesn't like it; her bemused facial expression indicates that she does. It's just that this picture is such a great example of how often loving can give more pleasure than being loved. And you've got to love that NYPD baseball cap.

Littlefield gathers all this information together and binds it with a very honest, personal joy of sharing an activity that makes him happy in the hopes that it can make the reader happy, too. This results in a very uplifting little book, a great gift idea for the person in your life who hasn't outgrown their curiosity of exploring the world and finding out how other people live.

Garage Sale America
by Bruce Littlefield
June 2007 by HarperCollins
Paperback, 144pp.
ISBN: 978-0-06-115165-1

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