About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

#108: Now You See Him

Now You See Him, by Eli Gottlieb
(New York: William Morrow, 2008)
"The deaths of Rob Castor and his girlfriend begin a wrenching and enthrallingly suspenseful story that mines the explosive terrains of love and paternity, marriage and its delicate intricacies, family secrets and how they fester over time, and ultimately the true nature of loyalty and trust, friendship and envy, deception and manipulation.

"As the media take hold of this sensational crime, a series of unexpected revelations unleashes hidden truths in the lives of those closest to Rob. At the center of this driving narrative is Rob's childhood best friend, Nick Framingham, whose ten-year marriage to his college sweetheart is faltering. Shocked by Rob's death, Nick begins to reevaluate his own life and past, and as he does so, a fault line opens up beneath him, leading him all the way to the novel's startling conclusion."

Opening Line:
"At this late date, would it be fair to say that people, after a fashion, have come to doubt the building blocks of life itself?"

My Take:  
Side note:  While the barrage of end-of-year books I've just posted may have gotten somewhat out of order, I do know this was the last book I read in 2012. Just as parts of our lives have their own soundtracks, much of what I've done and read this past year comes with its own scenic backdrop. (Of course, some of the scenery was prettier than the rest.) There are novels I know I read in Boston because I can't see their covers without picturing the bedspread in my Boylston Street apartment; others I place in D.C. from the memory of painstakingly cramming the flimsy Days Inn pillows into place behind me so I could lean back while I read. Strangely, I could certainly look it up, but I don't know what I read in Pullman. I can see the autumn Palouse light, golden on the rolling hills and tinged pink through my window; I know I sat in the Lighty Hall atrium at lunchtime with a mocha in my right hand and a book in front of me. (What I remember from that trip is the podcast -- Frontline's "God in America" -- that served as its soundtrack: gasping uphill through the wildfire and paper mill smog in Lewiston on the way to the Nez Perce County Fair; twilight descending between the downtown taqueria with the mural and the community garden's fading sunflowers as I took the scenic route back to my hotel; gazing out the airplane window as Minneapolis fell away and realizing I'd be back amid the familiar bustle and mess of my family within hours.)

But this book did not come to Pullman. This one came to Boston over New Year's; I fiddled with the adjustable mattress as I sprawled on my bed in the Revere, the air smelling faintly of peppermint shampoo, Eliza channel-surfing and Mike doing game prep on his laptop at the art deco-inspired desk. Perhaps I sipped a glass of the wine we picked up at the 570 Market on our way back from dinner at Addis; it's likely I schlepped it to Manchester in my satchel when we drove up to see the NH side of the family.

If only. If only I could make the time to capture moments like this more frequently, rather than just sneaking them into tangentially-related blog posts like Jessica Seinfeld's vegetable brownies.

But oh, yeah, the book. Gatsby a la Richard Russo, if you transplant the title character from Roaring '20s Long Island to 21st-century Mohawk small-town Upstate New York. This is a good thing, and a good (if sad) story.

#107: San Miguel

San Miguel, by T. C. Boyle
(New York: Viking, 2012)
"This latest novel from Boyle (The Women; When the Killing's Done) portrays two families living and working on barren San Miguel Island off the coast of California. In 1888 Marantha Waters leaves her comfortable life on mainland California and moves out to San Miguel with her adopted daughter and husband, a steely Civil War veteran convinced that he'll have success sheep ranching on the island. Marantha is seriously ill, but instead of breathing the clean, restorative air she expected, she must live in a drafty, moldy shack in a damp environment where the sun rarely shines. Years later, in 1930, Elise Lester, newly wed at 38, moves to San Miguel with her husband, Herbie, a World War I veteran. Though Herbie has his highs and lows, they are happy, and they have two daughters. The outside world learns of their pioneering ways, and they achieve a celebrity Herbie hopes will translate into additional income. Then World War II arrives, and with war in the Pacific, their insular island location may no longer be a refuge"

Opening Line:
"She was coughing, always coughing, and sometimes she coughed up blood."

My Take:
I don't think I'll ever be quite as transported by another of Boyle's books as I was by The Tortilla Curtain, but I know that's my problem. He's a fascinating writer, very skilled technically and with recurring themes (humans vs. nature, government vs. the civilian everyman or -woman, and with the addition of this to When the Killing's Done, apparently the Channel Islands) I enjoy. Intriguing characters here, especially if they were based on real people ... which would explain why the story seems not to have much of a real ending.

#106: The Outsourced Self

The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times
by Arlie Russell Hochschild
(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012)
"From the famed author of the bestselling The Second Shift and The Time Bind, a pathbreaking look at the transformation of private life in our for-profit world.

"The family has long been a haven in a heartless world, the one place immune to market forces and economic calculations, where the personal, the private, and the emotional hold sway. Yet as Arlie Russell Hochschild shows in The Outsourced Self, that is no longer the case: everything that was once part of private life—love, friendship, child rearing—is being transformed into packaged expertise to be sold back to confused, harried Americans.

"Drawing on hundreds of interviews and original research, Hochschild follows the incursions of the market into every stage of intimate life. From dating services that train you to be the CEO of your love life to wedding planners who create a couple's "personal narrative"; from nameologists (who help you name your child) to wantologists (who help you name your goals); from commercial surrogate farms in India to hired mourners who will scatter your loved one's ashes in the ocean of your choice—Hochschild reveals a world in which the most intuitive and emotional of human acts have become work for hire.

"Sharp and clear-eyed, Hochschild is full of sympathy for overstressed, outsourcing Americans, even as she warns of the market's threat to the personal realm they are striving so hard to preserve."

Table of Contents:
  1. You Have Three Seconds
  2. The Legend of the Lemon Tree
  3. For as Long as You Both Shall Live
  4. Our Baby, Her Womb
  5. My Womb, Their Baby
  6. It Takes a Service Mall
  7. Making Five-Year-Olds Laugh Is Harder than You Think
  8. A High Score in Family Memory Creation
  9. Importing Family Values
  10. I Was Invisible to Myself
  11. Nolan Enjoys My Father for Me
  12. Anything You Pay For Is Better
  13. I Would Have Done It If She'd Been My Mother
  14. Endings 
  15. The Wantologist
My Take:
Another Second Shift or Time Bind this ain't. I suspect Hochschild's decision to write it was born of her own conflicted, guilt-spiked feelings at seeking a paid caregiver for her elderly aunt, and I think the book might have been stronger and more compelling had it focused on those intimate activities -- child and elder care, for example -- that pretty much everyone needs, and which have increasingly been moved to the market sphere and paid for. That story's been told many times, though, so what we're left with seems less like a thoughtful exposition and discussion-starter and more a voyeuristic "Wow, look at all the crazy, unnecessary stuff the 1% (or maybe just the 0.1 or 0.01%) will pay people to do for them!" Sure, it's interesting and may seem creepy or just weird that someone who's rich enough will spend beaucoup bucks on a kid's birthday party or various aspects of the wedding-industrial complex, but it's hardly a social problem on the order of the second shift.

#105: Tumbleweeds

Tumbleweeds, by Leila Meacham
(New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2012)
"Recently orphaned, eleven-year-old Cathy Benson feels she has been dropped into a cultural and intellectual wasteland when she is forced to move from her academically privileged life in California to the small town of Kersey in the Texas Panhandle where the sport of football reigns supreme. She is quickly taken under the unlikely wings of up-and-coming gridiron stars and classmates John Caldwell and Trey Don Hall, orphans like herself, with whom she forms a friendship and eventual love triangle that will determine the course of the rest of their lives. Taking the three friends through their growing up years until their high school graduations when several tragic events uproot and break them apart, the novel expands to follow their careers and futures until they reunite in Kersey at forty years of age. Told with all of Meacham's signature drama, unforgettable characters, and plot twists, readers will be turning the pages, desperate to learn how it all plays out."

Opening Line:
"The call he'd been expecting for twenty-two years came at midnight when he was working late at his desk."

My Take:
Silly, entertaining, but forgettable fluff. We all have our guilty pleasures; this one wasn't the best of its kind I've read, but it wasn't the worst, either. That's all.

#104: Daughter of Fortune

Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende 
(translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)
(New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008)
"An orphan raised in Valparaiso, Chile, by a Victorian spinster and her rigid brother, vivacious young Eliza Sommers follows her lover to California during the Gold Rush of 1849. Entering a rough-and-tumble world of new arrivals driven mad by gold fever, Eliza moves in a society of single men and prostitutes with the help of her good friend and savior, the Chinese doctor Tao Chi'en. California opens the door to a new life of freedom and independence to the young Chilean, and her search for her elusive lover gradually turns into another kind of journey. By the time she finally hears news of him, Eliza must decide who her true love really is"

Opening Line: 
"Everyone is born with some special talent, and Eliza Sommers discovered early on that she had two: a good sense of smell and a good memory."

My Take:
Maybe it's because I'm now getting into the more recent parts of my backlog, or maybe it's just that Isabel Allende is a brilliant writer, but when I decided it was time for a Latin American-themed flight of books, this was what I had in mind. (The fact that the protagonist's name is Eliza doesn't hurt, but I'd have loved Daughter of Fortune anyway.) Exciting adventure story with just enough twists and turns, and great characters. Just blogging about it and remembering how much I enjoyed it is almost enough to make me look forward to my long commute tomorrow and listening to Ines of My Soul. Almost.

#103: Dancing to "Almendra"

Dancing to "Almendra," by Mayra Montero 
(translated by Edith Grossman)
(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007)
"Havana, 1957. On the same day that the Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia is assassinated in a barber's chair in New York, a hippopotamus escapes from the Havana zoo and is shot and killed by its pursuers. Assigned to cover the zoo story, Joaquin Porrata, a young Cuban journalist, instead finds himself embroiled in the mysterious connections between the hippo's death and the mobster's when a secretive zookeeper whispers to him that he 'knows too much.' In exchange for a promise to introduce the keeper to his idol, the film star George Raft, now the host of the Capri Casino, Joaquin gets information that ensnares him in an ever-thickening plot of murder, mobsters, and, finally, love.

"The love story is, of course, another mystery. Told by Yolanda, a beautiful ex-circus performer now working for the famed cabaret San Souci, it interleaves through Joaquin's underworld investigations, eventually revealing a family secret deeper even than Havana's brilliantly evoked enigmas.

"In Dancing to 'Almendra,' Mayra Montero has created an ardent and thrilling tale of innocence lost, of Havana's secret world that is 'the basis for the clamor of the city,' and of the end of a violent era of fantastic characters and extravagant crimes."

Opening Line:
"On the same day Umberto Anastasia was killed in New York, a hippopotamus escaped from the zoo in Havana."

My Take:
Awesome as that opening line is, I think this was one of those books I'd hoped to like a lot more than I did. More good writing (how I wish I could produce it instead of just recognizing it, but sadly, whatever facility with words I once had, I don't have two original thoughts to rub together), and certainly Batista-era Havana is as much a character in the novel as anyone else. Noir isn't really my favorite genre, though, so I'm probably not the person who'd get the most from this book.

#102: American Youth

American Youth, by Phil LaMarche
(New York: Random House, 2007)
"American Youth is a controlled, essential, and powerful tale of a teenager in southern New England who is confronted by a terrible moral dilemma following a firearms accident in his home. This tragedy earns him the admiration of a sinister gang of boys at his school and a girl associated with them. Set in a town riven by social and ideological tensions an old rural culture in conflict with newcomers this is a classic portrait of a young man struggling with the idea of identity and responsibility in an America ill at ease with itself."

Opening Line:
"The two boys walked the high ridge at the center of the wood road, avoiding the muddy ruts along the sides."

My Take:
As far as I remember, I liked it well enough and appreciated that it was well-written. Didn't absolutely love it or have a tough time putting it down, though.