SANF — April 2010
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Snap Judgments


KATIE CROUCH: MEN AND DOGS (Little, Brown and Co.)

What do guys and canines have in common? San Francisco novelist Katie Crouch answers this eternal question in her assured sophomore effort. Leading the cast is Hannah Legare, who needs another lover like she needs a hole in the head—but when she tries to break into her Upper Terrace apartment after her husband kicks her out for serial infidelity, a punctured skull is the least of her troubles. Sent home to Charleston, South Carolina, Hannah is faced with her wealthy, Goodwill-obsessed mother and a stepfather she can’t trust; her ex, now a minister married to “the airheaded homecoming queen”; and her brother, whose boyfriend’s biological clock is sounding alarms for the couple’s future. Shadowing all this is Hannah’s father, who went fishing one day and never returned. His daughter is equal parts southern charm and fatal attraction—she’s hard to like when she’s lolling on the couch, getting plastered and whining. But multiple plot twists parallel Hannah’s growth, and cameos by characters from Crouch’s 2008 debut, Girls in Trucks, add necessary humor. Men and dogs, it turns out, are both loyal to a fault. This book may create the same bond between the author and her fans. HEATHER SEGGEL



An architect with 15 years’ experience in green building (he’s a principal at S.F.-based organicARCHITECT), Eric Corey Freed certainly has the chops to hold forth on the subject, as he does at 40-plus con ferences a year. He also penned Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies. In his second book, Freed joins another Dummies alumnus, which may be why the book initially feels like part of that series. In a section devoted to “16 Green Home Projects You Can Do Today,” the authors tell us to replace incandescents with compact fluorescents, and how to weatherize windows and doors. Could the general public really be so unaware of these elementary energy-saving ideas, some of which have been around since the Ford administration? But despite such basic tips, many of Freed and Daum’s other suggestions are helpful and even cutting-edge. In the best chapters, the authors compare different types of kitchen countertops and flooring, weighing their ecological benefits, cost, and installation difficulty, and introduce us to insulating concrete forms and advanced framing. If you’re ready to remodel or build anew, this is a good guide to have around— the exotic mat erials and techniques of today are sure to become the compact fluorescents of tomorrow. JOANNE FURIO



In the past, Joanna Newsom seemed determined to sound like no one else. The Nevada City native and former Mills student eschewed the folk musician’s usual instruments of choice (acoustic guitar, piano) for a giant Celtic harp. At the same time, she sang in a histrionic voice that jumped octaves as if they were Olympic hurdles, spinning 10-minutelong fairy tales that seemed straight out of the Middle Ages. Now, on her first fulllength album in four years—the three-CD, two-hour-plus Have One on Me—Newsom inches toward accessibility. Yes, her voice still cracks like a bullwhip, but she forgoes vocal gymnastics for emotionality. Though she continues to offer plenty of plucked wood-nymph orchestrations, she also tries her hand at piano-led balladry (“Occident”), spirituals (“Baby Birch”), and stripped-down folk (“On a Good Day”). And while Newsom still exists in an anachronistic landscape replete with hairy wolf-spiders, dappled sanatoriums, and fig poultices, she now traffics in the terrestrial as well—tracks like “Easy” and “Does Not Suffice” are striking in their naked depictions of love gone sour. While still sounding like no one other than herself, Newsom has figured out how to connect with everyone. DAN STRACHOTA



Novelist Anne Lamott’s biggest rival is essayist Anne Lamott, and novelist Anne always loses. For her new book, the beloved Marin writer has resurrected Elizabeth and Rosie, a mother and daughter with almost interchangeable voices whom we didn’t care about much in two earlier Lamott novels, to follow Rosie’s teenage descent into a smattering of drugs and trouble—which we also don’t care about much, if at all. Hackneyed phrases like “Rosie’s heart burst with joy and anger” subtract from delightful Lamottisms such as “Rosie [stood] straight and long-suffering, like someone at the tailor’s.” Such witty lines are few and far between in Lamott’s seriousminded and minimally plotted novels, and the weak ones make us forget that they’re written by the same author who can move us to laugh and cry inside the same par agraph in Traveling Mercies, Operating Instructions, and even the writing guide Bird by Bird (to which I’d hoped Imperfect Birds might be the sequel). I have come to resent Anne Lamott’s novels for the time they take away from her nonfiction career, and I wish I could say that Imperfect Birds gives me a reason to think otherwise. STEPHANIE LOSEE



Mac McClelland’s first book offers a rare and fascinating glimpse into the political climate, civil war, and human rights violations in Burma. The Mother Jones reporter lived for six weeks as a volunteer English teacher with a group of young refugee human rights documenters on the Thai border. Her lack of knowledge about Burma upon arrival makes it easy for readers new to the subject to learn alongside her: McClelland intersperses dense chapters on Burmese history and poli tics with tales of her own experience—part memoir, part love story, and part immersion journalism—in a strange, harrowing land. She describes trips to the 7-11 and household flirtations in parallel with third-person accounts of the horrors of the refugee camps, slayings of whole villages, torture, and the perils of trying to report such crimes against humanity. Sometimes McClelland goes overboard with the slang—for instance, when she explains that locals choose to call the country Burma instead of Myanmar because “the junta sucks”—but overall, her colloquial tone makes the complex subject matter less intimidating and more entertaining. Any reporting on the notoriously underdocumented Burmese war is critical reading; a pageturner like this one is not to be missed. JUSTINE SHARROCK