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.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

127 - The White Tiger

And then last night, after the guests had gone and the dishes were washed, I finished The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga (New York: Free Press, 2008).

Jacket excerpt: "Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher, Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, Balram tells us the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life -- having nothing but his own wits to help him along. And with a charisma as undeniable as it is unexpected, Balram teaches us that religion doesn't create virtue, and money doesn't solve every problem -- but decency can still be found in a corrupt world, and you can get what you want out of life if you eavesdrop on the right conversations.

"Amoral, irreverent, deeply endearing, and utterly contemporary, this novel is an international sensation -- and a startling, provocative debut."

It's just been a night, and there've been a few other things going on lately (Christmas brunch for 25, anyone?), so I'm still trying to figure out what I think of this one. The novel is set in contemporary India, but not an India that will seem familiar to western readers or flattering to Indians themselves. As New York Times reviewer Akash Kapur describes it,
"[T]he background against which [Balram] operates is not just a resurgent economy and nation but a landscape of corruption, inequality and poverty. In some of the book’s more convincing passages, Balram describes his family’s life in 'the Darkness,' a region deep in the heartland marked by medieval hardship, where brutal landlords hold sway, children are pulled out of school into indentured servitude and elections are routinely bought and sold.

"This grim world is far removed from the glossy images of Bollywood stars and technology entrepreneurs that have been displacing earlier (and equally clich├ęd) Indian stereotypes featuring yoga and spirituality. It is not a world that rich urban Indians like to see. Indeed, when Adiga’s book recently won the Man Booker Prize, some in India lambasted it as a Western conspiracy to deny the country’s economic progress. Yet Adiga isn’t impressed by such nationalistic fervor. In bare, unsentimental prose, he strips away the sheen of a self-congratulatory nation and reveals instead a country where the social compact is being stretched to the breaking point."

The stark brutality of the setting is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel, though I agree with Kapur's assessment about it getting monotonous after a while. Likewise, I'll grant that the protagonist, former Laxmangarh peasant cum driver cum Bangalore entrepreneur Balram Halwai, is complex and intriguing, but don't know if I'd go so far as to call him roguish or charismatic as other (real) reviewers have done. And the book's other characters -- weak, spineless Ashok, Balram's employer and eventual victim; the inscrutable Vijay, his first exposure to Indian-style entrepreneurship; and amoral, opportunistic fellow driver Vitiglio Lips, who shows him the way to get there (shady as it may be) -- are completely one-dimensional. If you read the novel as a parable, this makes some sense, but leaves you with an ultimately unsatisfying resolution to the complex questions it raises.

The novel is an epistolary of sorts: over the course of seven nights, Balram writes a long letter to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, ostensibly on the eve of a state visit by the latter to India, with the goal of "[telling him], free of charge, the truth about Bangalore. By telling [him] my life's story." As he explains rather circuitously in the first chapter,
"Neither you nor I speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English.

"My ex-employer the late Mr. Ashok's ex-wife, Pinky Madam, taught me one of these things, and at 11:32 p.m. today, which was about ten minutes ago, when the lady on All India Radio announced, 'Premier Jiabao is coming to Bangalore next week,' I said that thing at once.

"In fact, each time when great men like you visit our country I say it. Not that I have anything against great men. In my way, sir, I consider myself one of your kind. But whenever I see our prime minister and his distinguished sidekicks drive to the airport in black cars and get out and do namaste before you in front of a TV camera and tell you about how moral and saintly India is, I have to say that thing in English. ...

"You hope to learn how to make a few Chinese entrepreneurs, that's why you're visiting. That made me feel good. But then it hit me that in keeping with international protocol, the prime minister and foreign minister of my country will meet you at the airport with garlands, small take-home sandalwood statues of Gandhi, and a booklet full of information about India's past, present, and future.

"That's when I had to say that thing in English, sir. Out loud.

"That was at 11:37 p.m. Five minutes ago.

"I don't just swear and curse. I'm a man of action and change. I decided right there and then to start dictating a letter to you. ...

"Out of respect for the love of liberty shown by the Chinese people, and also in the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, cell phone usage, and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore.

"By telling you my lifes story.

"See, when you come to Bangalore, and stop at a traffic light, some boy will run up to your car and knock on your window, while holding up a bootlegged copy of an American business book, wrapped carefully in cellophane and with a title like:




"Don't wast your money on those American books. They're so yesterday.

"I am tomorrow. ...

"Let us begin.

"Before we do that, sir, the phrase in English that I learned from my ex-employer the late Mr. Ashok's ex-wife Pinky Madam is:

"What a fucking joke."

By the end of "The First Night," the plot has been outlined for us: Balram has somehow risen above his humble, nameless beginnings as the son of a Laxmangarh rickshaw puller to become a successful Bangalore entrepreneur, and oh, yes, murdered the aforementioned "ex-employer the late Mr. Ashok" along the way. He spends the next six days filling Premier Wen in on the details of this journey.

But if the characters are a bit flat, the setting and supporting details are brilliantly rendered. A bit simplistic? Yes, but so are woodcuts and graphic novels, which is part and parcel of their artistry. As an allegory, The White Tiger is fascinating; if it's imperfect, well, perhaps that's where future books and authors should begin. Early on, Adiga offers a stark, micro-level description of the much-ballyhooed success stories of India's hi-tech sector ("The Light") and "The Darkness" that comprises Balram's world:
"A rich man's body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank. Ours are different. My father's spine was a knotted rope, the kind that women use in villages to pull water from wells; the clavicle curved around his neck in high relief, like a dog's collar; cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist. ... The story of a poor man's life is written on his body, in a sharp pen."
However dull and primitive their rich masters imagine them to be, the poor are not only aware that their lives of toil, indignity, and abuse are less than fully human, but fully capable of envisioning something better -- if not for themselves, then for their children. As Balram recalls his father, who has since died of TB and neglect in a filthy Laxmangarh hospital, saying: "'My whole life, I have been treated like a donkey. All I want is that one son of mine -- at least one -- should live like a man.'" At the time, he muses, "What it meant to live like a man was a mystery." Gradually, though, the answer dawns on him: what keeps the poor enslaved is their passivity:
"Go to Old Delhi, behind the Jama Masjid, and look at the way they keep the chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench -- the stench of terrified, feathered flesh. On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark blood. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. The do not try to get out of the coop.

"The very same thing is done with human beings in this country."
While Balram pays lip service to a poetic definition of freedom that fits with the "moral and saintly India" he derides ("Iqbal, that great poet, was so right. The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave. ... If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India."), ultimately, it's not poetry, but sheer ruthlessness, that unlocks his shackles:
"Now what happens in your typical Murder Weekly story -- or Hindi film, for that matter? A poor man kills a rich man. Good. Then he takes the money. Good. But then he gets dreams in which the dead man pursues him with bloody fingers, saying Mur-der-er, mur-der-er.

"Doesn't happen like that in real life. Trust me. ...

"The real nightmare you get is the other kind. You toss about in the bed dreaming that you haven't done it -- that you lost your nerve and let Mr. Ashok get away -- that you're still in Delhi, still the servant of another man, and then you wake up."

Later, reflecting on an accident in which one of his own employees kills a poor young man, he is defiantly unrepentant:
"And it was not his fault. Not mine either. Our outsourcing companies are so cheap that they force their taxi operators to promise them an impossible number of runs every night. To meet such schedules, we have to drive recklessly; we have to keep hitting and hurting people on the roads. It's a problem every taxi operator in this city faces. Don't blame me."
If that's not enough to make western captains of industry squirm in their leather office chairs, his final speech to Wen should more than do the trick:
"Am I not a part of all that is changing in this country? Haven't I succeeded in the struggle that every poor man here should be making -- the struggle not to take the lashes your father took, not to end up in a mound of indistinguishable bodies that will rot in the black mud of Mother Ganga? True, there was the matter of murder -- which is a wrong thing to do, no question about it. It has darkened my soul. All the skin-whitening creams sold in the markets of India won't clean my hands again.

"But isn't it likely that everyone who counts in this world, including our prime minister (including you, Mr. Jiabao) has killed someone or other on their way to the top? Kill enough people and they will put up bronze statues to you near Parliament House in Delhi -- but that is glory, and not what I am after. All I wanted was the chance to be a man -- and for that, one murder was enough."

126 - Second Helpings

On a web site, in the guest room,
Wasting lots and lots of time
Surfed a blogger, now a slacker,
'Twas yours truly, Hazelthyme.

Yep, that pretty much explains what I've been doing these last few weeks while I haven't been blogging. Reading? Some, but not nearly as much as usual. I could blame my absence on spending far too much time trying to read this book before admitting it Just. Wasn't. Gonna. Happen. and giving up (I've been on a bit of a history kick since reading A Short History of the United States last month, but this wasn't the best way to indulge it); on the focused, brilliantly successful job search efforts I've been mounting (between Thanksgiving and New Years? Get real.); on hours and hours of painstaking Christmas preparations ... but none of it would be true.

Anyway, several weeks ago, I finished Megan McCafferty's Second Helpings (New York: Three Rivers, 2003) -- the second in her Jessica Darling series, for those who admit to following these things. I sent it back to the library weeks ago, so had to raid Liv's book blog for the jacket blurb:

"Jessica Darl
ing is up in arms again in this much-anticipated, hilarious sequel to Sloppy Firsts. This time, the hyperobservant, angst-riden teenager is going through the social and emotional ordeal of her senior year at Pineville High. Not only does the mysterious and oh-so-compelling Marcus Flutie continue to distract Jessica, but her best friend, Hope, still lives in another state, and she can't seem to excape the clutches of the Clueless Crew, her annoying so-called friends. To top it off, Jessica's parents won't get off her butt about choosing a college, and her sister Bethany's pregnancy is causing a big stir in the Darling household."

After being very much underwhelmed by Perfect Fifths, I was a bit skeptical about this one, but found myself pleasantly surprised. OK, OK -- I really liked it. Sure, Jessica is self-absorbed, but that's part of what makes her character so believable; she is, after all, in high school. And maybe certain aspects of her personality -- feeling smarter than most of her classmates, longing desparately to break free of a stifling suburban home town, struggling to Go Through the Motions of senior year, especially in the wake of 9/11 -- hit a wee bit too close to home for me to be objective, but frankly, if this stuff strikes a chord with me, I'm probably not the only one. Where McCafferty really excels here is in both telling the story from Jessica's perspective and giving us just a glimmer of insight into where that perspective falls short. Is Jessica's childhood friend Bridget, now the class beauty queen, really as shallow as Jess thinks, for example? Who is the mysterious author of the anonymous, gossipy Pinevile Low e-mails making the rounds, anyway? Is Jessica's ex-crush turned Columbia undergrad, Paul Parlipiano, truly the gay best friend of her dreams? And of course, will she and Marcus Flutie ever finally get it on?

Yes, most of these are leading questions and the answers (except possibly the Pinevile Low one ... unless I'm just thick) may not surprise you -- but how McCafferty gets there and how much she makes you care made for an entertaining read, at least for me.

Monday, December 7, 2009

125 - The Dissident

Yikes. Got a little too overambitious, and ran down to the wire with a whole mess of library books right before they were due back. Ergo, even though I finished Nell Freudenberger's The Dissident (Ecco/ HarperCollins, 2006) last night, it's already back in the return bin. No dust jacket excerpts or quotes today.

Sooo ... if I were still rating books, this one would be a solid 3. As this New York Times review puts it, the story has potential, but never quite lives up to it. It tells the story of Yuan Zhao, a Chinese artist who's accepted a year-long fellowship/ residency at an exclusive private girls' school in L.A. His hosts are the wealthy but dysfunctional Traverses: psychiatrist Gordon, who's too obsessed with his pet genealogical research project to pay much heed to his family; his wife Cece, whose volunteer work at school and constant need to nurture (whether it's small stray animals or her typically difficult teenagers) belies a restless emptiness; their daughter Olivia, a dancer who just wants to fit in with the right clique at St. Anselm's; and son Max, by turns depressed and arrogant.

The story is told alternately by Mr. Yuan in the first person, and by an omniscient third-person narrator who focuses mainly on Cece. We learn about the now-vanished artists' enclave in Beijing, dubbed the East Village, where Yuan Zhao's cousin X (so dubbed to avoid political trouble, as he still lives in Beijing) was at the center, while he himself was more bystander than participant. We meet Yuan's old flame Meiling, pregnant by someone else at the time of his departure, for whom he still apparently carries a torch. We catch glimpses of his embarrassingly middle-class childhood, and his English-speaking mother -- both facts he allows both peers and American hosts to remain ignorant of when it adds to his exotic and mystique. We grapple with his sense of unease, his fear of being unmasked as an impostor ... and his troublesome fascination with June Wang, a misfit but exceptionally talented Chinese-American student in his AP art class.

When it comes to Cece, the story is much less satisfying. I found Mr. Yuan's tale a bit confusing at times, but I think that was deliberate: in the beginning, he's as inscrutable to the reader as he is to his California neighbors. The Travers family, though, has a whole bunch of plot points thrown in and then neglected or out and out dropped: Max's budding romance with fellow delinquent Jasmine; Gordon's sister Joan's increasing suspicion about who, exactly, Yuan Zhao is; Olivia's near-invisibility. A decent story, but I expected more in terms of tension or comedy.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

124 - The World is Flat

Thanksgiving Break, round 2: 124 was The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

Jacket excerpt: "When scholars write the history of the world twenty years from now and they come to the chapter 'Y2K to March 2004,' what will they say was the most crucial development? The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 and the Iraq war? Or the convergence of technology and events that allowed India, China, and so many other countries to become part of the global supply chain for services and manufacturing, creating an explosion of wealth in the middle classes of the world's two biggest nations and giving them a huge new stake in the success of globalization? And with this 'flattening' of the globe, which requires us to run faster in order to stay in place, has the world gotten too small and too fast for human beings and their political systems to adjust in a stable manner?"

OK, so a week or 2 ago, I started keeping a little file card-sized notebook beside me when I read, to jot down quotes or interesting ideas or what have you that I stumbled across in my literary travels. Because just plain reading all the time (while the rest of my family watches Star Trek: The Next Generation in the next room) isn't quite geeky enough. Well, until now, most books have generated 2-4 tiny pages of chicken scratch.

Until now. Until I read The World Is Flat, and found myself with 28 pages of notes. Yes, they're small pages, but still. Father Thyme saw me with the book in one hand and my notebook in the other over my Turkey Weekend trip, and thought I'd somehow forgotten to tell him I'd started a Ph.D. program. For the, oh, 5 or 6 people out there who haven't come across it yet, this is a fascinating book. You can question some of Friedman's conclusions, but I guarantee that if you read it, you'll never again look at India, China, or globalization the same way again.

Friedman's principal argument is that somewhere around the year 2000, technology brought the world's economy into the third wave of globalization. Globalization 1.0 lasted from 1492 until @1800, and involved "countries and governments ... breaking down walls and knitting the world together, driving global integration." 2.0, lasting until about 2000 and powered by falling transportation and then telecommunications cost, saw multinational corporations transcend national borders in their search for markets and labor. And then came 3.0.
"The dynamic force in Globalization 3.0 -- the thing that gives it its unique character -- is the newfound power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally. And the lever that is enabling individuals and groups to go global so easily and so seamlessly is not horsepower, and not hardware, but software -- all sorts of new applications -- in conjunction with the creation of a global fiber-optic network that has made us all next-door neighbors. Individuals must, and can, now ask, Where do I fit into the global competition and opportunities of the day, and how can I, on my own, collaborate with others globally?

"But Globalization 3.0 not only differs from the previous eras in how it is shrinking and flattening the world and in how it is empowering individuals. It is different in that Globalization 1.0 and 2.0 were driven primarily by European and American individuals and businesses. Even though China actually had the biggest economy in the world in the eighteenth century, it was Western countries, companies, and explorers who were doing most of the globalizing and shaping of the system. But going forward, this will be less and less true. Because it is flattening and shrinking the world, Globalization 3.0 is going to be more and more driven not only by individuals but also by a much more diverse -- non-Western, non-white -- group of individuals. Individuals from every corner of the flat world are being empowered."
I read the introduction with the usual skepticism about Friedman's seeming rah-rah take on the Bangalore tiger; "What are the implications for India's culture and future if their best and brightest are starting work at 6 pm and doing the West's grunt work?" This particular doubt was premature, though, as Friedman goes on to explain that this isn't what's happening at all:
"Neither India not China nor Russia has a critical mass of talent that can handle the whole product cycle for a big American multinational. But these countries are steadily developing their research and development capabilities to handle more and more of these phases. As that continues, we really will see the beginning of what Satyan Cherukuri, of Sarnoff, an American research and development firm, has called 'the globalization of innovation,' and an end to the old model of a single American or European multinational handling all the elements of the development product cycle from its own resources. More and more American and European companies are outsourcing significant research and development to India, Russia, and China."
So how did we get here? What forces prompted the circumstances described so vividly in Chapter 1, events so significant, if Friedman is correct, as to constitute a sea change in political, social, and business models? Chapter 2, somewhat grandiosely titled "The Ten Forces that Flattened the World," spends over 100 pages on this question, identifying and discussing the following forces:
  1. The fall of the Berlin Wall on 11/9/89, which "tipped the balance of power across the world toward those advocating democratic, consensual, free-market-oriented governance, and away from those advocating authoritarian rule with centrally planned economies." Especially significant were the repercussions in India, where then-finance minister (now PM) Manmohan Singh abandoned the Cold War-era, Soviet-designed planned economy in favor of a more open one.
  2. Netscape going public in August 1995, closely followed by the release of Windows 95, which ushered in the late '90s internet boom, the dot-com bubble, and a huge overinvestment in fiber-optic cable -- which Friedman proclaims "a disaster for many of the companies and their investors ... [but] a great boon for consumers." (More on that later.)
  3. Work flow software and protocols(specifically, XML and SOAP) which enabled different computer systems, within and even across companies, to talk to one another. This, coupled with the first two items, brought us to a watershed moment of sorts:
  4. "We need to stop here and take stock, because at this point -- the mid-1990s -- the platform for the flattening of the world has started to emerge. First, the falling walls, the opening of Windows, the digitization of content, and the spreading of the Internet browser seamlessly connected people with people as never before. Then work flow software seamlessly connected applications to applications, so that people could manipulate all their digitized content, using computers and the Internet, as never before.

    "When you add this unprecedented new level of people-to-people communication to all these Web-based application-to-application work flow programs, you end up with a whole new global platform for multiple forms of collaboration. This is the Genesis moment for the flattening of the world. This is when it started to take shape."
  5. Open-Sourcing, a bottom-up, grassroots approach to developing software, operating systems, or just about anything else where the author makes her work available free to all comers, generally with the stipulation that they not sell it, and share their own contributions and improvements in return. Sounds crazy and almost un-American, but we need only look at the success of Linux and Wikepedia (which even I was familiar with) and Apache (which I wasn't) for proof that it works. Friedman deems the open source movement "an important flattener because it makes available for free many tools, from software to encyclopedias, that millions of people around the world would have had to buy in order to use, and because open-source network associations -- with their open borders and come-one-come-all approach -- can challenge hierarchical structures with a horizontal model of innovation that is clearly working in a growing number of areas."
  6. Outsourcing has long been the bogeyman in the closet where the U.S. is concerned, and perhaps it's here that I most appreciated Friedman's balanced, non-hysterical treatment. He suggests that India may be "the luckiest country in the history of the late twentieth century," as the U.S. fiber-optic explosion allowed it to benefit at no cost from the excess cable capacity and bandwidth. Take the grunt work of Y2K remediation, which Indian engineers could do far more cheaply than their American counterparts, and follow it up with the dot-com bust, which drastically reduced companies' available capital, and made the Y2K-tested Indian engineers look like a real bargain. Says Indian-American hedge fund manager Dinakar Singh, "India had no resources and no infrastructure. ... It produced people with quality and by quantity. But many of them rotted on the docks of India like vegetables. Only a relative few could get on ships and get out. Not anymore, because we built this ocean crosser, called fiber-optic cable. ... For decades you had to leave India to be a professional. ... Now you can plug into the world from India. You don't have to go to Yale and go to work for Goldman Sachs."
  7. If the near-exclusive emphasis on India thus far seems like Friedman's ignoring the biggest elephant in the room, offshoring is where China comes to the party. Offshoring takes outsourcing a step further, not just having a specific, limited function performed by another company, but moving the whole factory to another country, where it "produces the very same product in the very same way, only with cheaper labor, lower taxes, subsidized energy, and lower health care costs." Friedman argues that China is not "simply racing everyone to the bottom" with low wages, product quality, and workplace standards"; rather, "China's real long-term strategy is to outrace American and the E.U. countries to the top." Moreover, companies offshore not just to take advantage of cheaper labor costs, but to gain a toehold in host countries' markets -- a trend which goes both ways. "While much attention is paid to American countries going offshore to China, little attention is paid to the huge attention is paid to the huge amount of offshore investment coming into America every year, because foreigners want access to American markets and labor just like we want access to theirs."
  8. Earlier in the book, Friedman introduces the coefficient of flatness: "The fewer natural resources your country or company had, the more you will dig inside yourself in order to survive." While the first example he offers is India's investment in science and technology education, in lieu of the natural resources and infrastructure it lacked, it's equally applicable to Bentonville, Arkansas -- birthplace of Wal-Mart and thus, of supply chaining, "a method of collaborating horizontally -- among suppliers, retailers, and customers -- to create value." By purchasing the goods it sells directly from the manufacturers, rather than through wholesalers, and by using sophisticated inventory-management systems, Wal-Mart is able to keep its costs down. I was just starting to raise my eyebrows again at this apparent lauding of Wal-Mart, when Friedman acknowledges that in many cases, the company's "ruthless quest for efficiency" crosses the line to become "a degree of ruthlessness period." I'll allow that Wal-Mart's supply chain management may be a brilliant innovation, but I still object on principle to giving a company whose workers can't afford health insurance credit for leveling the playing field. And I know this isn't a book about the wicked ways of Wal-Mart -- there are plenty of those out there -- but I do wish Friedman had paid a bit more attention to this issue.
  9. Insourcing: In many ways, Wal-Mart really is the 900-pound gorilla: it can do whatever it wants. However, as Friedman points out, "not every company ... can afford to develop and support a complex global supply chain of the scale and scope that Wal-Mart has developed." Therefore, yet another opportunity was born, with traditional courier services like UPS turning their hands to servicing and synchronizing supply chains the world over. This, in turn, breeds still more flattening, as supply chain managers convince clients to adopt consistent rules, labels, and tracking systems.
  10. In-Forming: At this point, some of the flatteners are seeming a little forced, making me wonder if Friedman opted for some catchy phrases and a nice, round number, rather than stopping at a more natural point. Nonetheless, I did find his description here interesting: "In-forming is the individual person's analog to open-sourcing, outsourcing, insourcing, supply-chaining, and offshoring. In-forming is the ability to build and deploy your own personal supply chain -- a supply chain of information, knowledge, and entertainment. In-forming is about self-collaboration -- becoming your own self-directed and self-empowered researcher, editor, and selector of entertainment. ... In-forming is searching for knowledge. It is about seeking like-minded people and communities."
  11. The Steroids: Again, the phrasing here is a bit cute, but the point is a solid one: new technologies like cell phones, file sharing, VoIP, and wireless internet access, can't help but "amplify and turbocharge" the flatteners mentioned previously.
From here, Friedman goes on to suggest that the convergence of all 10 flatteners, the evolution of new ways of doing business that allowed these technologies to boost productivity, and the arrival of 3 billion new players (chiefly from China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Central Asia) on the global stage constitutes a triple convergence. In a chapter on "America and the Flat World," he argues that in the main the U.S. will benefit more from free trade than from protectionism. Moreover, no matter how ominous the flat world sounds, he's convinced that the U.S. still has the right stuff to come out on top, if only we apply ourselves: the best research universities in the world, important traditions of openness and intellectual property protection, a tremendous domestic consumer market, and a relatively stable political system. (Friedman also includes flexible labor laws on this list; I'm not sure I agree, though this may be another philosophical gripe of mine as much as it is a factual one.) This may all be true, I can't help thinking he's minimized the short- and intermediate-term pain that's confronting our less-skilled workers in the meantime. He urges workers to become a new kind of untouchables -- people whose jobs cannot be outsourced -- by, if all else fails, being uber-adaptable, and learning how to be a lifelong learner; good advice, to be sure, but hardly a fail-safe solution for all or even most displaced workers.

The next section of the book -- chapters entitled "The Quiet Crisis" and "This Is Not a Test" -- attempt to convince the reader that while the U.S. could weather this global, triple-convergence storm comfortably if we made up our collective minds to do so, that's not the track we're currently on. In short, we're not devoting sufficient funds to math, science, and technology research and education, nor are we fostering enough enthusiasm for these fields among our young people. Applications to law and business school continue to rise, but two-thirds of the top science and math students in American high schools are the children of immigrants, and a plurality of science and engineering graduate students in our universities are foreign-born. Once again, just when things are starting to sound a little xenophobic, Friedman calls for improvements in the U.S. -- strong political leadership, portable employee benefits, low-cost post-secondary educational opportunities for all, corporate social activism -- that it's mostly hard to argue with (though of necessity, a few pages on wage insurance vs. unemployment insurance, and parenting to promote delayed gratification, seem pretty superficial).

The last three sections address the questions of what the world's flattening means for developing countries, companies, and world geopolitics. Nations, suggest Friedman, fare best when they have strong, visionary leaders willing to use their power to push for positive change (rather than to line their own pockets), and a cultural willingness to pull together and sacrifice for the sake of economic development. Likewise, companies will flourish in the flat world to the extent that they dig inside themselves to identify their core competencies; leveraging available technologies to "reach farther, faster, wider, and deeper" and to customize individual clients' experiences; and constantly identifying and strengthening their core, and outsourcing those functions that aren't differentiating.

I was most intrigued by the section on geopolitics, which (in a sharp departure from the rest of the book) takes an extended detour to examine where and why the world isn't really flat -- that is, why some people, cultures, and entire countries haven't yet made it onto the level playing field. The reasons, says Friedman, are many. Many, including significant pockets in India and China, are too sick, entire societies ravaged by HIV/ AIDS or malaria for lack of funds, medicine, or even a viable health care delivery system. Others are too disempowered; they may see the level playing field, but lack the education and infrastructure (often due to local governments' shortcomings) they need to get in the game. Most frightening, perhaps, are those who are too frustrated, which includes much of the Arab Muslim world; people who are uncomfortable with the pace of change and contact thrust upon them by outside forces, especially when it gives them a less-than-favorable view of where they stand. The argument here veers a bit too close to Dubya's jingoistic "they hate our freedom" blather, but does make some interesting points: the slow pace of scientific and technological advancement in the Arab world; the parallels between radicals channeling young men's alienation in 1930s Germany and today's Middle East; and the failure of moderate Islamic political leaders to offer a more progressive interpretation of Islam to counter that espoused by the radicals.

Lastly, setting the stage for Friedman's next book, there's the problem of too many Toyotas; in other words, if most of the new kids on the playing field want a U.S.-style standard of living, we're bound to face an energy shortage and/or energy wars before too long. From here, it's a logical step to his Dell theory of conflict prevention:
"No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain ... will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain. Because people embedded in major global supply chains don't want to fight old-time wars anymore. They want to make just-in-time deliveries of goods and services -- and enjyo the rising standards of living that come with that."
Here's the rub, though: Many countries and factions aren't part of a major global supply chain. And BTW, it's not just the CEOs that use open-sourcing and supply chaining to their benefit; al-Qaeda's figured much of this stuff out, too.

Utterly fascinating stuff, all of it. Not surprisingly, I think Friedman's a little too optimistic in singing the praises of the free market; sometimes markets fail. And I'll need to digest the text a bit more completely before I can offer any sort of balanced evaluation; this is weighty material. I'll say one thing, though -- I can't wait till my hold on Hot, Flat, and Crowded comes in.
"There are two ways to flatten the world. One is to use your imagination to bring everyone up to the same level, anf the other is to use your imagination to bring everyone down to the same level."

123 - The Story Sisters

Thanksgiving Break edition, part 1. 123 was The Story Sisters, another one by Alice Hoffman (Shaye Areheart, 2009).

Dust jacket blurb: "Alice Hoffman's previous novel, The Third Angel, was hailed as 'an unforgettable portrait of the depth of true love' (USA Today), 'stunning' (Jodi Picoult), and 'spellbinding' (Miami Herald). Her new novel, The Story Sisters, charts the lives of three sisters -- Elv, Claire, and Meg. Each has a fate she must meet alone: one on a country road, one in the streets of Paris, and one in the corridors of her own imagination. Inhabiting their world are a charismatic man who cannot tell the truth, a neighbor who is not who he appears to be, a clumsy boy in Paris who falls in love and stays there, a detective who finds his heart's desire, and a demon who will not let go.

"What does a mother do when one of her children goes astray? How does she save one daughter without sacrificing the others? How deep can love go, and how far can it take you? These are the questions this luminous novel asks."

After reading Property Of, my hopes for savoring the rest of Hoffman's ouvre were high. Now, I'm not so sure. I liked Story Sisters well enough, and found elements of the story excellent -- but overall, I don't think it lived up to its potential. Perhaps Wendy Smith, in this Washington Post review, captures it best:
"It's a rare year that doesn't bring a novel from Alice Hoffman, and those who follow this maddeningly uneven writer have learned to cast a wary eye on each new offering. Will it be Good Alice, poser of uncomfortable moral dilemmas and marvelously rich portraitist of family life ... ? Or will it be Bad Alice, blatantly careless plotter and outrageous overdoer of the magic-beneath-the-surface-of-our-lives shtick ... ? The Story Sisters, actually, is In-Between Alice: excessive and over-determined but ultimately so moving that it overwhelms these faults."
On this last point, I mostly concur. There's a lot to be said for this book, even if I have become suspicious of any novel deemed "luminous" by its jacket, but Hoffman comes near to spoiling it by gilding the lily. The title sisters are simply too darned beautiful, and their imagined language (Arnish, which New York Times reviewer Chelsea Cain describes as "[looking] a little like the Italian a Tolkien elf might speak after a year in Rome") too precious. I'm no stranger to excess verbiage, but the purple description in the first chapter made me feel like I'd wandered into a Danielle Steele novel by mistake:
"The Story sisters were sharing a room on the evening of their grandparents' fiftieth anniversary party. Their mother trusted them completely. They were not the sort of teenagers who would steel from the minibar only to wind up drunk in the hallway, sprawled out on the carpet or nodding off in a doorway, embarrassing themselves and their families. They would never hang out the window to wave away cigarette smoke or toss water balloons onto unsuspecting pedestrians below. They were diligent, beautiful girls, well behaved, thoughtful. Most people were charmed to discover that the girls had a private, shared language. It was lovely to hear, musical. When they spoke to each other, they sounded like birds.

"The eldest girl was Elisabeth, called Elv, now fifteen. Meg was only a year younger, and Claire had just turned twelve. Each had long, dark hair and pale eyes, a startling combination. Elv was a disciplined dancer, the most beautiful in many people's opinions, the one who had invented the Story sisters' secret world. Meg was a great reader and was never without a book; while walking to school she often had one open in her hands, so engrossed she would sometimes trip while navigating familiar streets. Claire was diligent, kindhearted, never one to shirk chores. Her bed was made before her sisters opened their sleepy eyes. She raked the lawn and watered the garden and always went to sleep on time. All were self-reliant and practical, honor students any parent would be proud to claim as their own."
The storybook anniversary party goes wrong when the Story sisters attempt to rescue a (so they think) "mistreated" Central Park carriage horse, only to have Claire break both arms and the horse end up dead. This incident sets the stage for the rest of the novel: a place where innocence is lost, and fairytales go wrong in grotesque, unimagined ways. Early on, we learn that "the worst had happened" already, at least for Elv: the summer of her parents' divorce, when she was eleven, she jumped into a neighbor's car to stop him from abducting Claire, and was snatched and molested in her stead.

The girls never tell Meg or their mother, Annie, and it's this summer that Elv invents Arnish and an fairyland, Arnelle, to go with it. Frankly, this is the part of the story that loses me a bit -- perhaps because we get only snippets of it in retrospect, after the horse-rescuing, arm-breaking party when the trio begins to crumble and Arnelle starts to lose some of its luster. At the same time, Elv loses control, staying out all night, using marijuana and methamphetamine, running around with all sorts of disreputable boys. This could be poignant and gripping, but isn't, really; Hoffman offers no clue as to why, after four years of holding her secret, Elv falls apart so suddenly and so completely. Moreover, we see only her defiance and lashing out at her mother and sisters; I know I'm supposed to assume this behavior is somehow related to her earlier trauma, but with nary a glimpse of what she's thinking and feeling all the while, she just comes off like a spoiled brat.

Eventually, the situation becomes so untenable and Elv so uncontrollable that Annie (reluctantly abetted by her ex-husband Alan) plans an intervention, packing the girls off for a drive to New Hampshire that, unbeknownst to Elv, ends at a therapeutic boarding school. Here, her life is transformed, but it's not the treatment that does it; Elv is quick to get around, rather than with, the Westfield program:
"By the end of the first month Elv had come to understand the school's philosophy. They swiftly broke you down until you were nothing. They destroyed you, then built you back up again. Only they did it their way, the Westfield way. What they wanted were clones, people without minds of their own who had the Westfield agenda imprinted on their souls. ...

"If you wanted to survive in this place, you had to let them think you had given in. The harder you fought, the harder they broke you. You had to hide yourself away. ...

"She wanted to jump up and cheer. Inshead, she said 'Thank you' in a solemn, soft voice. 'I'm grateful for your trust and support.' She had the language of self-help down pat. In group therapy, she told sorrowful stories that shocked everyone. It felt as if she was lying even if it was the truth, how she'd been fed bread and water, how he'd tied her down. When she cried, her tears were made of glass. They broke her in half when they fell to the floor. No one noticed; they thought they were real. As if she would ever cry over what had happened.

"The staff began to like her, she could tell. They pitied her. They though she'd been treated unfairly at home, that she'd come from a dysfunctional family of divorce and shared secrets and was trying to reclaim her life."
No, the change comes when Elv meets Lorry, the brother of one of her classmates, who readers of Property Of will recognize as a classic McKay-style bad boy:
"Lorry liked people to hand over what was precious to them, convinced that they had made their own decision to do so. He was tall and thin, handsome, dark, with hooded eyes and an uncanny ability to read people. Women said he had a lethal smile and that he was difficult to resist. Everyone agreed -- he could talk himself out of just about any kind of trouble. ... Unlike his little brother, he didn't have to brag. He simply knew what he wanted."
Elv finally feels "turned inside out by love", and falls "feetfirst, as though dropped from a bridge." Soon, Lorry reluctantly introduces her to his "fatal flaw": heroin. Before long, Annie's second thoughts get the best of her, and she arrives to sign Elv out of Westfield, but discovers almost immediately that the daughter she brings home has changed, but not as she'd expected. Elv's pre-Westfield hijinks resume with a vengeance, and not surprisingly, a tragedy ensues, tearing the family apart.

The aforementioned Times review calls the latter part of the novel "histrionic," but I disagree. While it's not without its cliches (Annie's illness, and her budding romance with the detective she hires to find the runaway Elv), I found Part 2 far more compelling and believable than Part 1. Elv lives in Queens with Lorry, a stone's throw from her childhood home on Long Island, which, er, happens to be where he works:
"People had to live, didn't they? If a lion took a lamb for its supper, did anyone complain or say it was unnatural? She went with him sometimes when he drove out to Long Island, to wealthy neighborhoods where the people were so rich, they wouldn't miss a few things. And if they did, all they had to do was phone their insurance companies and everything would be replaced within the week. Elv sat behind the wheel of the car, the engine running, the headlights low, chewing on her lip while Lorry robbed houses. She thought of herself as an accomplice, and she savored the word."
Too much more detail at this point would spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the surviving Storys are left to discover, each in her own way, the perils, power, and limitations of love. As the girls' grandmother, Natalia, muses while sewing a wedding dress, "that was the way love was, invisible, there whether or not you wanted to see it or admit to it." Likewise, in the final chapter, one of the sisters observes:
"The nature of love had totally escaped her until now. She had thought that if you lost it, you could never get it back, like a stone thrown down a well. But it was like the water at the bottom of the well, there when you can't even see it, shifting in the dark. She remembered everything."
Her sister, telling her own daughter stories of a fairyland whose demons have now been exorcised, concurs:
"Maybe some love was guaranteed. Maybe it fit inside you and around you like skin and bones. This is what she remembered and always would: the sisters who sat with her in the garden, the grandmother who stitched her a dress the color of the sky, the man who spied her in the grass and loved her beyond all measure, the mother who set up a tent in the garden to tell her a story when she was a child, neither good nor bad, selfish nor strong, only a girl who wanted to hear a familiar voice as the dark fell down, and the moths rose, and the night was sure to come."

Monday, November 23, 2009

122 - Property Of

Property Of, by Alice Hoffman (Berkley Books, 2000; orig. published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1974).

Dust jacket excerpt: "When Property Of was first published, Kirkus Reviews described it as 'that precious commodity, the first novel of great promise.' That promise was fulfilled, as Alice Hoffman went on to give us such acclaimed bestsellers as Here on Earth, Practical Magic, and Turtle Moon. Here, she introduces us to 'the Property of the Orphans' -- sullen, sultry, tough girls who belong to the boys on the Avenue -- and a lonely, infatuated outsider who wants desperately to belong to someone as well. And as she determinedly romances the gang's brooding, fearless leader, she will discover what can, and cannot, be possessed -- and what can happen when you hand your heart over to a man who claims to care nothing about love."

I found Property Of a short, deceptively simple book that packs an emotional wallop. I only finished it yesterday, but suspect it will be one of those whose characters haunt me for quite a while.

The story is set on the Avenue, a gritty Manhattan neighborhood home to Monty's candy store and contested by two rival gangs, the Orphans and the Pack. It opens in January on the Night of the Wolf, described by our unnamed narrator as "the hour when the Orphans went hunting their enemy from the south end of the Avenue -- the Pack; a night to celebrate when the snow is covering alleyways and the moon shines white." After considerable wheedling, she convinces her old friend Danny the Sweet, a peripheral, none-too-bright Orphan, to let her tag along to the gang's secret meeting. She's not interested in the Orphans' war council, and sees the Property -- "those girls in mascara and leather and silence who belonged to the Orphans" -- as having nothing to do with her; in fact, as she muses on the way into their clubhouse, she's not exactly sure what she expects. "Did I imagine that the Orphans were all like Danny? Smarter, maybe, but with kind, chocolate-covered hearts?"

She is, however, fascinated with gang president McKay, having watched him from afar for who knows how long:
"McKay -- I knew something of him. I had memorized the lettering on the back of his leather jacket. 'President of the Orphans." I could conjure the name, the sound of his boot heels on cement; I could recite the number of the license plate of his '59 Chevy in my sleep. McKay -- President of the Orphans at seventeen, sworn into office on the night of Alf Canntini's death. An hour after Canntini had totaled his Corvette, the Avenue knew that McKay was now President; for four years, the Avenue had known the name of the leader of the Orphans. ...

"So. McKay. I forgot cement, and Tosh at the doorway, and melted ice seeping into my boot. I forgot fear of alleys and the lyrics to all the songs I ever knew. And I remembered only how many girls in Brooklyn and Queens had carved McKay's name into their thighs with slick razor blades. His name in hearts on subway trains and in toilets. President Of. McKay. I could not help but turn."
The first chapter introduces some of the book's principal themes: the battle between belonging ("the Pack") and isolation ("the Orphans"); the violence and destructiveness intrinsic to love, Orphan style; and the role of the gang's female affiliates as dependent, disaffected Property. While the narrator tells McKay, on meeting him, "'I don't belong to anyone. ... I belong to myself,'" her actions tell a different story. Later, she reflects,
"I fell in love with them on that night, though I suppose I had been even before I knew any names. I could not help it, because the spell was cast, the mood was set, and with the wind of the Avenue moving around me and the ice shining like a mirror, there was no choice at all. ...

"From where I stood I could only hear sighs, words that were a story of love. Nothing more than that. And nothing less. And so I waited in the alleyway. I waited for some time, smoking a cigarette, watching for the morning, for McKay."
All it takes, on that first Night of the Wolf, is McKay's asking the narrator to wait for him in the clubhouse while he heads out to hunt the pack, and she's a goner, beginning her "walk into darkness where no neon reaches."
"Look, I was in love.

"What more can I say? Oh, I was a fool. Is that it? If that's what you want me to say I can't say it. Listen. It wasn't only McKay. It was all of them, each one. Even the Dolphin, in a way. From that night on I thought of nothing but the Orphans, nothing but McKay. That's how love is, isn't it? Song lyrics and printing the name hundreds of times on hundreds of pieces of paper."
Even though McKay tells her from the get-go that he "don't take any Property. ... I find it too constricting," and Number One Property Starry warns her repeatedly that "McKay is gonna make you cry" and "McKay screws everyone," she forges ahead. The next morning, after the Night has left Starry missing a tooth and Pack President Kid Harris's hands shattered, the narrator dispenses with her virginity, describing the scene in painfully clear-headed terms:
"Sometimes love is made on the George Washington Bridge and the traffic still flows by and the radio music plays on without interruption. No sirens flash, no gale winds rise off the Hudson. I did not love McKay any more than I had when I watched him from second-story windows without knowing the color of his eyes."
One aspect of the story that's either brilliant or maddening is the narrator's utter inscrutability. Throughout the course of the novel, we learn a good deal about what makes McKay tick, but not who the narrator is or why she's so drawn to him. Perhaps this is deliberate on Hoffman's part; this is, after all, a tale about losing your identity in a blood-from-a-stone attempt to wring love from someone utterly incapable of returning it. The narrator desperately wills herself to see what she wants to see, knowing all the while that it's useless; early on, when fellow Orphan Jose chides McKay for bringing her to a meeting, McKay angrily stares him down.
"'You say something to me?' McKay said quietly. Jose blinked his eyes against th light. 'I don't think I heard you. You say something to me?'

"I could feel Jose's fear and the anger of McKay. Was McKay defending me and my presence in this uptown apartment? Could this be something like love? Or only honor once again?"
Above all, McKay values honor -- which, as the narrator and others observe repeatedly, is a dangerous proposition for a gang leader. Advises convenience store owner, local drunk-cum-sage Monty:
"'Oh, I've heard McKay is a man of his word. Yes, yes, a man of honor. ... [So] is McKay well known for his honor. That is the problem. As you should never trust a liar so should you never trust a man of honor. Those two are the worst of mankind. ... McKay and the Orphans are not to be separated. Be with one, and you be with the other.'"
Six months later, Monty's words continue to ring true. Our narrator has discovered and occasionally shared McKay's heroin habit; the two are living together, but still, she thinks:
"After all the months, the words, the kisses, I still have not gotten what I wanted. Yes, McKay allowed me to unpack my suitcase in his closet, but he would not admit me into his sol. And I wanted nothing less. If you say that was too much to ask, I will agree. And then I will repeat: I wanted nothing less. It seemed I could not get what I wanted."
But hope springs eternal, almost. Gangsters, both innocent and less so, die, none of them honorably. Others foresake the orphans for coupledom; Starry, who has become overly dependent on heroin and prostitution, is banished. McKay publicly cheats on the narrator with aspiring Number One Property Kind, but the narrator, knowing Kind sees only McKay's title, is unfazed. "Kind read the golden letters the way McKay wanted them to be read, but the Dolphin and I saw them as McKay did -- as a lie." Ultimately, even a violent coup that strips McKay of his beloved President Of leather and nets him a six-month stint in prison isn't enough to turn her affections, though it does give her more than enough time to ponder her role:
"For six months I did what women do. I waited. This is what women are taught to be good at. It's said that a woman's life is merely preparation for the primal nine-month wait. Whatever the reason, they do it well. Sometimes they drink or bite their fingernails down to the wrist. They count stars and initials and wait: for something to happen, for something to pass, to change. to begin, to end. In wide cotton blouses beside empty cradles there is the wait for a child; in black and veils there is the wait for death. In bathrobes and with painted eyes, with the counting of stars and the turning of glossy magazine pages, there is the wait for him, for the man. There is always the wait for him. ...

"They walk; they drink coffee; they drink gallons of gin or wine; they place their heads in the ovens or under the hair driers; they call fifty men into their bedroom at one time, or they never turn their eyes to men. They watch second hands and suns and moons; they find ways to fill the waiting.

"And the reason they wait is that they do not know they have a choice. The reason they wait is that they do it so well; because it is what they are expected to do. ...

"And do women complain of all this waiting. Sometimes; sometimes some of them complain. Some of them are allowed to complain, allowed to pull at their hair, to wail, or to list their complaints in lipstick or ink upon the wall. Those that do this do it well. Some complain, but most do not.

"Either way, they wait. Usually, they wait for men. Men who are in offices or in jail. They wait for men to go away; they wait for them to come home. They wait for men to live; and it's true, many of them wait for men to die. They also do this well; even if the waiting takes a lifetime; they do it well."
As to whether the narrator's waiting will take a lifetime, or whether she'll eventually stop carving McKay's name into flesh and trains and remember her own, well ... you'll have to read the book.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

121 - Reality Gap

#121 was Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex -- What Parents Don't Know and Teens Aren't Telling, by Stephen Wallace (Union Square Press, 2008).

Dust jacket excerpt: "On one side of the reality gap that gives this book its title are parents' wishful perceptions of what their teens are up to when mom and dad aren't watching. On the other side is the truth. For decades, the gap has been widening -- damaging and even destroying young lives. In this often alarming but ultimately hopeful and life-saving book, Stephen Wallace, the chairman and CEO of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), shares groundbreaking research revealing what teens aren't telling their parents."

OK, so the title and blurb sound a little hysterical. And I know, I know -- I swore off the fear-mongering perils of adolescence tracts all of, what, a month ago? Forgive me; I was weak. (Besides, this one was already in the bull pen when I finished Disappearing Girl and made said vow. And heaven knows, if I don't always read my library books in the proper, preordained order, Bad Things just may happen.)

This will not be a marathon review akin to my last 2, but sometimes, I guess low expectations are a good thing. I didn't agree with all Wallace's points, and he does tend to go over the top at times ... but he did have some useful ideas, and his research methodology (a 6-year, randomly-sampled national survey of middle and high school students) seemed on the whole fairly sound. The book's central thesis is that a much higher percentage of adolescents are engaging in risky behavior (drinking, using drugs, driving dangerously, having sex, and contemplating suicide), and at much younger ages, than their parents tend to expect. Some of the summary stats Wallace throws the reader's way:
  • 20% of 8th graders and 50% of 12th graders report consuming alcohol within the past 30 days. 20% of 8th graders have been drunk at least once, and 30% of 12th graders have engaged in at least 1 episode of binge drinking.
  • 46% of 12th graders report at least some drug use; those who do use drugs begin, on average, at 13.
  • 25% of middle schoolers and 2/3 of high school students have engaged in sexual activity other than kissing; over half of high school students report having had intercourse.
  • 33% of teen drivers don't wear a seat belt; over 60% speed and/or talk on their cell phones while driving; and 20% have driven under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Based on the research methods he outlines in the introduction, I'm inclined to think the above numbers fairly accurate, although I do wish he'd been a bit clearer in some of his definitions. For example, does the percentage of teens who use drugs include anyone who's ever taken a toke of a joint, or even bummed a prescription-strength pain reliever off a friend? Or does it only count repeat or habitual users? Likewise, "sexual activity other than kissing" can encompass a wide range of behaviors. One might argue that any illegal drug use or sexual activity is in appropriate for adolescents. At least for drugs and alcohol, this does seem to be Wallace's argument. While I tend to agree when it comes to illegal drug use, I'm not so sure about alcohol -- and even if I were, the way I'd approach teen drinking or drug use might well vary based on whether my child got caught with beer at a party once, or was coming home drunk every weekend. Wallace does distinguish between 3 categories of adolescent behavior around risky decision-making (avoiders, who eschew alcohol/ drugs/ sex altogether; experimenters, who indulge occasionally; and repeaters, who do so regularly), and acknowledges that "knowing where a teen falls on this continuum of decision-making is crucial, because this information allows us to plan our communication, prevention, and intervention strategies accordingly," so this oversight is somewhat surprising.

After a chapter outlining the prevalence of various dangerous behaviors, Wallace proceeds to the "Risky Business" chapter, discussing why each of these activities is dangerous. When it comes to alcohol, he repeatedly comes back to the point that teens whose parents allow them to drink at home, even if it's just on special occasions, are almost 4 times as likely to drink with their friends as are those whose parents allow now underage drinking whatsoever. Maybe I'm being self-serving here, but I'm not sure I buy it -- or at least, I'm not sure there's not some third factor at work here (e.g., perhaps some of the parents who never allow drinking have religious prohibitions against it, which their kids would also be likely to have). As the chairman of SADD, it's not surprising that Wallace wants to take a hard, absolute line against teen drinking, but I'm also not sure it tells the whole story. Granted, drinking or possessing alcohol is illegal if you're under 21, which opens you up to a whole host of potential legal problems. Additionally, alcohol is a factor in many bad decisions about sex, driving, and other risky activities -- perhaps more so for teens, who are still fairly new to all 3. I'll even allow that excess drinking may be more dangerous to children and adolescents, whose brains aren't yet fully developed, than to adults. That said, however, the fact that many (granted, not all) adults can drink safely in moderation, and that many other countries allow at least some teens to drink without negative consequence, suggests that this isn't as simple an issue as he'd have us believe.

One interesting concept Wallace puts forth, which I hadn't really considered before, is that of decision points: predictable times when first-time experimentation with certain behaviors is likely to take place. He argues:
"Negative risk-taking tends to increase throughout adolescence. This trend presents an inherent problem -- an inverse correlation of parental persuasion. The younger teens are, the more likely they are to listen to the views and directions of their parents. Yet the behaviors their parents find most troublesome don't often appear until later in adolescence, when their opinions hold more limited sway. But by discussing certain issues before they are likely to become relevant, parents lay the groundwork for good decision-making by well-prepared teens. 'Early and often' remins an important catch phrase in educating young people about healthy choices -- before they 'jump the shark.'"
He goes on to suggest that drinking tends to increase between 6th and 7th grades, drug use between 8th and 9th, and sexual activity between 10th and 11th, and to explore the reasons why kids may choose at these times either to drink (or smoke, or ... ) or not.

From here, it's an extended and not particularly ground-breaking few chapters on how to talk to your teenager. (Summary: Don't avoid tough topics; bring them up in a casual, non-judgmental way; make your values and expectations clear.) Similarly, while I agree in principle with the idea of gradually shifting responsibility from parents to teens as the latter grow up, this isn't exactly new information.

So, in a word, eh. While I may now be thinking about locking up my liquor cabinet sooner rather than later, this certainly isn't a life-changing read.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

120 - The Shiksa Syndrome

120 was The Shiksa Syndrome, by Laurie Graff (Broadway Books, 2008).

Dust Jacket: "Manhattan publicist Aimee Albert knows a good spin, but she's the one who winds up reeling when her gorgeous, goyishe boyfriend breaks up with her -- on Christmas! For a stand-up comedian, you'd think he would have better timing. But Aimee's not about to let a man who doesn't even have a real job get her down. She dusts herself off and decides to seek companionship with a member of her own tribe. There's just one problem: all the shiksas are snapping them up!"

Just in case you didn't already judge this book by it's cover, Serious Literature this ain't. (My friend L says I'm a book snob. Guilty as charged.) It is, however, a heck of a lot of fun, despite a few plausibility gaps, and has enough to say about identity and intimacy to save it from the realm of the totally vapid. (It also has chick-flick screenplay written all over it, especially in some of the comic scenes; if you see a trailer in a year or so, remember you heard it here first.)

While the Christmas breakup referenced above is indeed ill-timed, the reasons behind it aren't primarily religious. Simply put, 39-year-old Aimee wants a family; Peter, a struggling standup comic, isn't there yet. Things come to ahead when, after a Christmas dinner in which Aimee's parents' latkes feature prominently, she asks if Peter could give up Christmas to raise a Jewish family with her. His response is not the "No" you might expect, but a more complicated one:
"'Funny you bring this up,' Peter says. ... 'Because I was just thinking today how you never ask me anything about my religion.' ...

"'Okay, I know it's totally unfair,' I say, 'but I guess I always feel that my holidays are ... well, dominant,' I finish, kind of ashamed of how I feel. 'It's probably because everything's here. My family. Synagogue. New York. For me it's all the same things like always. Only it's better because now you're here too. Though --

"'I wonder. Are you ever homesick? ... Do you ever want your stuff back?'

"'Sometimes. I know I'll never move back, but sometimes I really miss Minnesota. The snowstorms. My family. Sunday dinners. All of us going to church. I never told you this, but I sang in the choir as a kid. ... But it never really did it for me. ... When I first got to New York, I tried a few places. Felt like I was missing something. But all that changed when I met you. I really enjoy your family. I can totally get into all your traditions. ...

"'Committing to you feels like having to commit to your world. Not just New York, also about how you're Jewish. ... I mean your Jewish identity. ...

"'But, Aim, I can't. I'm sorry. .... I can't even think about it until I'm in a different place with work. Till I'm earning real money. And I'm ... just not ready ... not yet ....' he says. 'I can't make any of these decisions now. And I won't make any promises. I still want to be with you, but it has to stay like this until ... I feel like I'm just too young -- '

"'Look, I'm so not close to being there. But you are,' he says ... 'You're ready. So maybe it's best. I don't want to be wasting your time. I love you.'"
Mourning the breakup with Peter, and still grieving the 9/11 death of then-beau Sam Feinstein in the World Trade Center, Aimee probably would have withdrawn from the dating scene for a while, were it not for her best friend Krista. Krista, also newly single, decides Jewish men are the ticket, and starts dragging Aimee along as her wingman to Jewish singles mixers. The first time out, Krista's shiksa-goddess looks prove to be a hunk magnet, while Amy's left dancing with dweebs; the one halfway-promising guy she sees won't look twice at her.

That, however, is B.C. -- before coloring. For Aimee's birthday, her brother Jon and his girlfriend surprise her with a makeover that leave her with sleek red hair and green contacts. Coupled with her post-breakup weight loss, the transformation is so complete that Krista (who's now posted a profile on JDate listing her religious affiliation as "willing to convert") walks right by without recognizing her. At the next singles event, Mr. Halfway-Promising from the first mixer, Josh Hirsch, is clearly taken with the new Aimee, who gradually realizes as the night winds down that he's mistaken her for a shiksa. On their first date, a pull-out-all-the-stops dinner at the tres-chic China Grill, he makes it clear that that's a huge plus from his perspective:
"'My last girlfriend would never have anything but a glass of red wine, if she would even drink at all. Jewish girls. ... So she was on the partner track. Total workaholic. And in the end really disappointed I wasn't quite the Jewish professional she hoped me to be. ... She wanted what she wanted, and, I have to tell you, it kind of made me rethink Jewish women."'
Aimee's protest of the stereotype is anemic at best, and before long, she's invented a parallel Gentile life for herself, complete with a faux childhood in Middle America-sounding Scranton. After all, as a P.R. executive, who knows better how to maintain a perfect impression?
"What I can appreciate is the power of brand building. Don't let anyone ever tell you first impressions aren't everything. See, your brand stands for something to your customers. They can relate to who you are because somehow you've created a connection with their soul. And you can control that perception."
Shortly thereafter, she convinces herself that Josh buys her brand because he wants to be fooled. Over the objections of a disapproving Krista, who's begun to fall hard for Josh's friend Matt, she decides not to come clean ... even though she regrets the decision almost immediately.
"Suddenly, I miss being Jewish. Although I'm not quite sure what I'm missing because nothing has been taken from me. Well, perhaps a little of my humor ... some of my disclosure ... parts of my vocabulary ... and a lot of my Jewish know-it-all because now I don't. But I am enjoying Josh and love feeling like a sweet, adorable, pampered girl."
Over the coming months, Aimee's efforts to maintain the charade result in some Three's Company-worthy slapstick/ farce action, including an unplanned run-in with her sister and niece in the New Jersey 'burbs. Moreover, she's not the only one denying her identity; despite growing up in Long Island's Five Towns, Josh and his family's Judaism is so minimalist that they celebrate not a seder, but a simple, tasteful Passover dinner, complete with bread on the table. He's quick to reassure her, however, that they do celebrate Christmas. (Why a dude who neither identifies strongly as a Jewish man nor has any interest in dating Jewish women is trolling Jewish singles mixers is never really explained.)

Not surprisingly, amid these shenanigans, Aimee can't help but rethink her own religious and cultural identity. She's positively crushed at missing not just her family's seder, but Krista's first one, for the Hirsches' Passover Lite dinner. When a longtime friend of Josh's family dies, Aimee accompanies him to sit shivah with the family, and aches to be the requisite tenth adult for their minyan so the mourners can say Kaddish -- especially since it almost doesn't happen without her. (Josh himself, though he was bar mitzvahed and is eligible, declines.) While it was easy to box up her menorah and bat mitzvah album for safekeeping at Krista's, replacing them with Christmas wrap, setting aside so much of her very self proves to be a lot more complicated:
"How far am I willing to let all this go? How much am I giving up so I can get? I keep making myself less in order to get more. In the end I'm afraid it won't be. But what if I'm wrong? Or do I mean right? Once I straighten this all out, could Josh make me happy? For now I'm unsure where we stand on issues I never even thought we would have."
Ironically, much as Dorothy has to go to Oz to find out how much she values her own home, Aimee has to go to church to fully understand her own faith. After meeting with a West Side pastor, she muses:
"Jim says when it comes to reverence, the Torah is to Jews as Jesus is to Christians. I never thought of it like that but find it more than interesting to contemplate. I mean, Jewish people are known to stress learning. The focus on interpretation and discussion, the openness to debate. Or in the words of Tevye, 'On the one hand ... on the other hand ... on the other hand ... '

"I wonder if all that study gave birth to the stereotype of the overly analytical Jew. I've been accused of that myself. If you're one to think the constant back-and-forth over the same thing a little analytical. Maybe more like a little neurotic. But in kindness it is just the ability to see, yet, another hand. There's always more than one way to look at something, and how you do informs your behavior. I only have to look as far as myself to know this is true."
Likewise, it's in church on Easter that she fully comes to appreciate the Jewish approach to prayer:
"'Now tell him your needs and desires,' says the pastor.

"Wow. Christians get straight to it, I think. It feels so unencumbered.

"In Judaism, we praise and honor God before we ask him for stuff. In fact, for me it has always felt as if we really should skirt around the idea of too much personal asking. Better to ask for help and guidance rather than a direct 'Dear God, please let me win that new account.' Rewards will be attained through mitzvahs and good deeds. We step back before we step forward. Honor, but know your place.

"But what do I know? It's all my interpretation. To me, Jim's words feel like permission to go for it. That said, I'm such a mess I don't have the chutzpah to ask God to hook me up with a husband. My best bet at this point is to ask for help and guidance."
Themes of identity and self-determination recur throughout the novel. Early on, it's established that Aimee doesn't drive -- hardly unheard of in Manhattan, but after a series of scheduled road tests pre-empted by tragedy (the last, and most devastating, on 9/11), she's terrified of the possibility, and convinced herself it's just not meant to be. This seems emblematic of her willingness to be a passenger in her own life, letting others determine where she's going and how she gets there. Josh, to his credit, springs a surprise on her that's not the marriage proposal she expected, but a driving lesson, and Aimee responds with "gratitude that he is taking charge."

Gradually, though. Aimee comes to see that it's her undemanding nature Josh has fallen in love with, which isn't really her at all. As she describes the conversation just before the driving lesson:
"'How easygoing you are,' he says, driving over to the side of the empty road. Stopping the car. 'You're so low-maintenance.'


"He means this as a compliment, but I don't hear it that way. Low or high, it's one of those terms I do not like. What does it really mean? Everyone requires maintenance. So does everything. If the maintenance feels too high, it's probably more a reflection on the other person. He or she feeling that something or someone isn't really worth that level of their energy or attention. ...

"'What do you mean?' I ask Josh, anxious to hear him explain.

"'Like now. I'm always in these relationships where those silences mean the woman wants to know where it's going. Always all this analysis. Man, it gives me a headache. But with you --'

"Me? Oh yes, little ole low-maintenance me.

"See, to be with someone, to be with anyone is to make accommodations. But if you really want to be with that person, you don't feel you are making them. Doesn't Josh see how he accommodates me by simply filling in the blanks? To prove this point to myself, I don't answer. I look at him. Questioningly. And then I smile.

"'You just roll with it. You don't ask for anything. It makes me want to give that much more.'"
With this knowledge comes the unsettling realization that if she's compromising too much for Josh's sake now, she may not have compromised enough in the past. Says Peter, confronting Aimee during a surprise run-in in Scranton (don't ask!):
"'Just get this,' Peter says in a commanding voice I never have heard. 'You are deceiving him that you're his -- oh, what do you always call it? -- oh, yeah ... his Shiksa Goddess. And you think he'll fall so in love with you he won't care you betrayed him? ... You know, Aim, if you tried this hard with me, you could have been my goddess and gotten to still be you in the bargain.'"
As you'd probably expect, Aimee's secret is ultimately revealed, but the outcome isn't quite the one you'd (or at least I'd) expected.

The jacket blurb calls The Shiksa Syndrome "disarmingly poignant," and I'll almost buy it. It would, however, be a far better book if it weren't for a few factual and plausability errors. I can suspend my disbelief for a few silly coincidences (specifically, the chance meetings with Aimee's sister in NJ and with Peter in Scranton). I'll even ignore Gershow's creative license with upstate NY and PA geography, as it's certainly not my first encounter with metro-NYC chauvinism ... but c'mon, people, Syracuse, where Josh and Aimee attend Josh's college reunion, is hardly "[Aimee's] neck of the woods ... not far from Pennsylvania" (it's 90 miles from Syracuse to the Penna. border, and another 40 to Scranton), and is not the scene of quaint country roads like the one where Aimee's driving lesson allegedly takes place. I draw the line, though, at believing hip, professional adults in 21st century Manhattan would be as ignorant of common Yiddish words and originally-Jewish customs as Gershow would have us believe. Kristi can't pronounce "oy vey" or "mishegas"? Josh asks Aimee if she's ever eaten corned beef, or knows what a bar mitzvah is? Puh-leeze. Not only did I (a tasty blend of Irish Catholic and WASP wannabe who grew up not far from Josh on Long Giland) start preschool knowing this stuff; even my maple-eatin', BoSox-cheerin', L.L. Bean-shoppin' New Englander husband learned it at least by junior high. And while we're at it, how did Aimee's makeover render her so changed that her best friend didn't know her on the street at point-blank range, but still recognizable in a moving car half a block away by her niece?

Vent over now. Still a fun read, but not one to be taken too seriously.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

119 - The Local News

Trying a slightly new approach here.

My 119th book of the year (wow, do I need to get out more!) was The Local News, by Miriam Gershow (Spiegel & Grau, 2009).

Dust jacket blurb: "Even a decade later, the memories of the year Lydia Pasternak turned sixteen continue to haunt her. As a teenager, Lydia lived in her older brother's shadow. While Danny's athletic skills and good looks established his place with the popular set at school, Lydia's smarts relegated her to the sidelines, where she rolled her eyes at her brother and his meathead friends and suffered his casual cruelty with resigned bewilderment. Though a part of her secretly wished for a return of the easy friendship she and Danny shared as children, another part of her wished Danny would just vanish. And then, one night, he did."

Maybe I'm easy, but both this one and the book that followed it were far better and more thought-provoking than I'd expected them to be. It's always a pleasant surprise when that happens, like getting dragged along to a party where you actually end up having a great time in spite of yourself.

Or maybe I'm just a sucker for smart but lonely high school students. Lydia, our narrator and protagonist, was both even before her brother's disappearance, which transforms her overnight from mere invisibility to downright alienation. The initial chapters, set after the shock of Danny's vanishing has begun to dissipate and the local shopkeepers are no longer so willing to display his "Missing" posters, introduce the themes we and Lydia will become intimately familiar with in the months and chapters to come: the inadequacy of others' good intentions and her own unspoken guilt at not grieving Danny's loss more deeply. Even years after the fact, she fumes silently at a support group meeting:
"Finding myself backed into the overly familiar terrain of heartache and desperation brought out the worst in me. I was cornered, wanting to scream or kick my chair over or run my nails along the chalkboard where the woman had made us brainstorm a list of feeling words about our siblings (love, confusion, fear, sadness, the list began, predictably). I wanted to reel off my own list of shitty things Danny had done to me when we were teenagers (calling me the titless wonder, mashing my face in a pillow once until I couldn't breathe, ignoring me in front of his friends). I wanted to be irreverent and inappropriate. I wanted to shake up the righteous anguish. Going missing, I wanted to yell from some deep, dark pit in the middle of me, was the only interesting thing my brother had ever done."
Perhaps most heartbreaking is Lydia's description of her parents' collapse into numbness, so bereft at the loss of their son that they scarcely notice their daughter:
"We couldn't keep the refrigerator stocked; its contents dwindled to bread heels and condiments in a matter of days. My mom started smoking again, years after having quit. Her energy was both frenetic and focused: she designed posters, concocted overly elaborate phone trees to recruit people for the area sweep searches, and added to her steadily growing stack of index cards, each one scribbled with a 'clue' to helo the police. ... My father became quietly obsessed with the TV news -- local, national, international, as if he couldn't rule out any possibility. Maybe Danny was part of the throngs of Bosnian Serb refugees; maybe he'd been victim to the floods in the Philippines. Dad could go days without speaking. He could sit for hours ... in his sunken chair without once getting up. And we kept running out of toilet paper. Over and over again we had to use tissues instead, until those ran out too and we moved to paper towels, which quickly clogged the pipes. I'd never before had to think about the supply of toilet paper in our household. It had always simply been there. I was fifteen. Up to that point, I'd believed that the world more or less worked -- toilet paper sat on its roll, dinner was served hot at the table, everyone came home at the end of a day -- simply because it was supposed to and it always had."
Unusually perceptive, Lydia describes the "uncomfortable stillness" and "impermeable smell of neglect" which pervade her family's home. She wakes one night to find her father rummaging through Danny's room, making an unearthly sound "like nothing I'd heard from him before, not even after that first night Danny did not return and the next morning and then the night again, when it was clear something had gone terribly wrong. It was a throaty hum of a noise, high-pitched and childish-sounding. No, dog-sounding. He was whimpering."

Only with her best friend, the slight and equally brainy David, can Lydia let her guard down and just be herself. Even that changes, though, when an unexpected and ill-timed kiss renders their once-easy closeness stilted and suspect. "[H]e'd crossed a line, a line which I knew -- instantaneously -- we couldn't just cross back from with the hopes that everything would revert to its rightful place. He'd changed things, created a moment after which nothing would be the same. I already had one of those, recently acquired. One was too much. I couldn't have another. Not now."

Instead, she lets herself be befriended by Lola Pepper, the terminally perky flag team girl ("one significant and humiliating step down in the Franklin High hierarchy from the actual cheerleaders") who's apparently transferred her dogged pursuit of Danny to his sister. Lydia alternately pities and looks down on Lola, but accepts her friendship and invitations for their sheer undemandingness. "It was hard to stay prickly in Lola's world, pliant and fluffy as it was." The two play Hungry Hungry Hippos, Lite Brite, and other long-outgrown toys that still line Lola's closets. She also forges a wary connection with Tip, Danny's best friend and the last person to have seen him, a musclehead who, in his less-than-articulate way, nonetheless "gets" Lydia's isolation:
"'Your problem, Pasternak, is that you're like this little grown-up already. Nobody f-----g knows what to do with you. But like give it a few years. Give it college or something. I don't know, after college, when you have some job running the world and the rest of us are just your little employees, you're going to be like a total guy killer, with like a male secretary and shit."
And then there's Denis Jiminez, the detective assigned to Danny's case. Not only does Denis actually notice and listen to Lydia, he also maintains a "steadfast indifference toward Danny" rather than "[surrendering] to the tales of charisma and popularity and charm and [being] taken in like the rest of them." He even ventures to ask Lydia if she misses her brother, and after a brief flurry of "'Sure. I mean, of course," the floodgates open:
"I talked quickly then -- it came out in a rush -- about the oppressive, nearly suffocating quiet of the house now, but at least we were free of the ever-present vigilance of the tracking and cataloging of Danny Pasternak's every move. I described the countless evenings of waiting for him to get home from swim or football practice as the spaghetti sauce simmered on the stove and my parents busied themselves with tasks, my mother wiping down the dinner table, my father sorting through the mail, but really, all of us just waiting to see if he would come bursting through the door after a missed pass or a butterfly stroke that clocked nineteen seconds slower than usual, full of venom and glowering. Those were dinners spent gingerly passing the rolls, the three of us making polite conversayion, trying to avoid the vitriol that could roll so easily off his tongue ... as my parents impotently chided him.

"I told him about the time when Danny jammed my bedroom door closed with his desk chair so I was trapped inside for hours until my parents got home from work. I told him about when Danny ripped my National Junior Honor Society certificate off the fridge and then denied it when my dad found it torn to bits in the garbage. ...

"I told him then about the whole titless wonder thing, about Danny one time kicking me in the shin and leaving a flowery bruise, about splattering bleach on one of my favorite shirts. I was no longer worried about humiliating myself, instead feeling like this was my chance to shift things permanently, to ensure that Denis would never be lulled by the gravitational pull of all things Danny."
Not surprisingly, Denis's attention and kindness give rise to a wee crush on Lydia's part, inspiring her to put so much effort into organizing clues and leads that he starts to question her motives.

Gershow's take on Lydia seems pitch-perfect, making the reader (at least this one) recall her own awkward, square-peg-in-round-hole adolescence, and then imagine what it would be like to have that overlaid with a tragedy that utterly shatters your family. Lydia describes her sixteenth birthday as "one of those recidivist cold days ... an event marked by almost no one." She's given Lola a fake birth date "to avoid the brownie-and-Rice-Krispies-treat tower, the You look like a monkey and you smell like one too that was a birthday at Lola's lunch table." David, who "had always made me handmade birthday cards on his computer, with inappropriate quotes ... or with pictures of fractals or nebulae," tracks her down as she's leaving school and shoves a card into her hand, but their conversation is artificial, and the card itself downright perplexing:
"It turned out to be store-bought, with a pastel drawing on the front of deer in a field. Inside was a printed poem following a basic meter and simple rhyme scheme (The seasons are turning, one line read; which means you are growing and learning, read the next). At the bottom David had written simply Happy Birthday and signed his name. I was a little surprised. Had he meant it, I wondered, as a bit of a dig? Did he think me now the sort of person we'd always made fun of, the kind who liked this Hallmarky sort of bad poetry?"
She does pass her road test, but freezes up on the drive home and ultimately, humiliatingly, needs to let her father take the wheel. A few months later, as the school year winds down, she's just begun to enjoy ordinary people and pleasures (like the flag team's end-of-year banquet) when Danny's case again takes center stage, a painful and abrupt reminder that Lydia's life will never be normal.

I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending, which takes place at Lydia's ten-year high school reunion. On one hand, it seems a bit tacked-on; on the other, I do appreciate Gershow's restraint in not using this setting as an excuse to wrap everything up in tidy little packages. The effect is less like the Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows epilogue, which is so pat and perfect it seems a cop-out, and more like Prep, where the protagonist has to be an adult looking back on her teenage years to have the perspective she does. Ultimately, Lydia comes to grips with the loss of what might have been, not just in terms of her own coming of age, but the chance to know and love her brother as an adult.

I'm never good at pithy concluding statements (heck, I'm not much good at pithy anything) but all in all, it was a good read: poignant, funny, believable, and sweet. I may even want to own this one.