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, January 31, 2009

#10 - Three Girls and Their Brother

Yep, I'm just gonna put that out there. "My name is Hazelthyme, and I like to read fluff now and then." There it is, deal with it. (Sheesh, can you tell I hang out with 9 year olds fairly often?)

Anyway, Three Girls and Their Brother (Theresa Rebeck) is pretty much a WYSIWYG book, not serious literature, but entertaining, complete with a warm, fuzzy, feel-good ending. The title characters are 3 attractive but unknown teenagers from Brooklyn who, for no reason other than their striking red hair and their tenuous "literary legacy" (a late grandfather who was a well-known author and critic in his day), are photographed for a high-profile feature in The New Yorker. Daria, 18, is the most determined to succeed as a model, and even a little desparate; after all, in the modeling world, 18 is old. Baby sister Amelia, 14, frankly isn't all that interested, and would rather just go back to her normal high school life, but is dragged along cussing and screaming by her elder sisters and their mother -- a former Miss Tennessee who wants nothing more than to live vicariously through her daughters' youth, beauty, and success.

Things really take a turn for the surreal when the sisters, poised on the edge of stardom, are invited to a private party with Rex Wentworth, a 40-something mega-star with an (until now) hidden penchant for very young girls. He gets a little too friendly with Amelia, who lashes out and ends up biting him in her attempt to fend off his advances, and before they know it, the story is all over the media, and the media all over the girls. Their mother and the girls' agent, the ever-present and perhaps not completely above-board Colette, coerce Amelia into a public apology, which only feeds the media frenzy. When Philip, the girls' 16 year old brother, tries to protect Amelia and egg her on in her snark and eye-rolling, Mom and Colette ship him off to live with Dad and stepmom, and do their best to limit his contact with his sisters. Amelia's fame lands her a role in an off-Broadway play, and though she's not much of an actress, she finds herself much happier and more at home in the theater than in the modeling world. Eventually, seeing how badly Philip's been treated and how vulnerable Amelia is, middle sister Polly, 17, realizes it's up to her to get her feet back on the ground and keep her family intact.

Like I said, pretty much what I'd expected. Not high literature, and doesn't pretend to be ... but still a fun lazy afternoon. 2.5 out of 5 bookmarks.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

#9 - The Maine Event

Sorry, I couldn't resist. As promised, 9 was The School on Heart's Content Road, by Carolyn Chute. Unique, vivid setting; fascinating characters. A bit slow at times, however, with a somewhat unsatisfying ending. The setting will be familiar to anyone who's read The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Chute's first novel, which was published 20-some odd years ago (tangent alert: while I didn't remember much of the book till I reread it a few years ago, I do remember smuggling it under my coat to a babysitting gig while I was in high school, because it reportedly had explicit content and I was worried about what my employers would think). Heart's Content Road is also set in Egypt, a fictitious backwoods town in rural Maine, populated by a patchwork of fascinating characters. An online review describes Chute's characters as "the working poor," which is accurate but doesn't really capture their depth and complexity. This is not some big-hearted novel full of quirky but lovable country folk; many of the scenes are uncomfortable, and the characters certainly aren't all likeable. They are, however, amazingly real -- warts and all. If that means they give you the creeps or make your skin crawl a bit, well, that's on you.

At any rate, Heart's Content Road has a tremendous cast of characters -- so many, in fact, that Chute includes an annotated character list after the end of the novel, though you don't really need it to figure out who the important players are, and I only bothered to skim it after I'd read the rest of the book. The principals are Mickey Gammon, a high-school dropout who gets kicked out of the house by his older brother and is welcomed by a citizens' militia and separatist cooperative; Jane Meserve, a precocious but isolated 6 year old who ends up living with the separatists against her will after her mother is jailed on a drug charge; Rex York, the divorced, taciturn Vietnam vet who captains the militia; and Gordon St. Onge, the charismatic, polygamist separatist leader known as "The Prophet" (though it's not clear if this is really what the separatists themselves call him, or just how he's portrayed in the media).

The plot? It's hard to describe. Certainly some of the characters and circumstances change from the book's beginning to its end, but for the most part, the book has a day-in-the-life feel to it -- it's more a series of sketches of these people's and this community's life over the course of a few months than a linear story. Interspersed with these sketches are short blurbs, some factual ("In the United States of America, 'Land of the Free.' A new prison is being built every week."), some over-the-top satirized sound bites from a TV ("Be afraid. Poor people are lazy and immoral, and violence is on their fingertips for some reason, who knows the reason, it's just their idea of fun. It's always this way; they steal cars drugs money and gunnnnnz! They are filled with sex and rotten teeth and food stamps and Cadillacs and bad English!") -- which at first seem jarring and random, but you soon get the point: the stories Chute tells about her characters stand in sharp contrast to what we typically hear or don't hear about People Like This. Why might some people be drawn to militias? What's so wacky about CSAs or off-the-grid energy or homeschooling, anyhow? (This technique could easily be ham-handed, and fortunately, it doesn't get there; we see less of it the further into the novel we get, by which time we've presumably gotten the point.)

My one complaint about the book is that it seemed both jumpy and plodding in some places. This may be deliberate -- Chute's really writing the literary equivalent of cinema verite here -- but still made it hard to pick up and put down some times. The ending also felt unsatisfying, though I'll admit I tend to like my tales a bit tidier than they come sometimes, and again, it may be part of the point that there really is no clear resolution, no obvious purpose to all this. 4.5 out of 5 bookmarks, though I'm thinking as I write this that it's a lot stronger than some of my other recent reads; it's hard to be consistent with ratings when the books themselves are so different.

On deck: Three Girls and Their Brother, by Theresa Rebeck, because after Heart's Content Road and Blonde Roots, I need to read something fluffy and fun about rich people. After that, probably Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, by Kevin Phillips. (Gee, if you think my trying to critique middlebrow fiction is pretentious ... )

Saturday, January 24, 2009

2 at one blow!

Wow, it's been a while -- polished off 2 books today. Yep, finished one I'd been working on most of the week, and started and finished another. Who says I don't still have it?
  • 7. The English Major, by Jim Harrison. Gentle, lyrical novel about aging, change, and contemporary America -- at least that's what I think it's about. (Half the reason I waited so long to start a book blog is that I'm afraid I Just Won't Get what Good Books are supposed to be about ... I'll miss the point, reveal myself to be hopelessly lowbrow, and so on. Horrors.) Anyway, I really liked this one, although the subject matter would usually bore and annoy me. Interesting to read it right on the heels of Keillor's Liberty, as the two have a good deal in common. The English Major is the first-person story of Cliff, a 60-year-old Michigan farmer and former schoolteacher who, after his wife divorces him for an old high school flame and takes most of their assets, sets off on a mission to drive through all 50 U.S. states, renaming the state birds and discarding the pieces of an old U.S. jigsaw puzzle as he goes. Along the way, he crosses paths with an insatiable, free-spirited 40-something former student; an old friend who's become a snake farmer in AZ; and his movie-industry bigwig son. Yes, it's a road novel, and from this brief synopsis, it may sound like it should be a comedy, but it's not, really. The voice and protagonist feel very much like something out of Lake Wobegon, though less over-the-top and somewhat less meandering (which is not to say they don't meander at all) ... but while Liberty is about a man's search for freedom, passion, etc. in a world that's changed little over the years, The English Major is about a man's search for self and meaning in a world where nothing's stayed the same. Read it not for the plot, but for the language and characterization and musings on life and love. 4 out of 5 bookmarks.
  • 8. Blonde Roots, by Bernardine Evaristo. Fresh, compelling novel of slavery, with a twist. The twist -- I'm not giving anything away here, as it's written on the back-cover blurb and in the New York Times review that first brought the book to my attention -- is that black Africans are the masters, and Europeans their slaves. The novel is the story of Doris, daughter of an English serf who's kidnapped and sold into slavery. While the black masters-white slaves universe gives rise to a number of pointed but funny reversals -- for example, "Aphrika" is known as the sunny continent, while "Europa" is known as the grey continent, and slave women who want to make themselves attractive to the masters rub ochre into their skins so as to appear darker -- they're subtle, and scattered here and there, rather than in your face on every page. This isn't just another slavery novel with a gimmick; it would be provocative and compelling and sad even without the twist. Well worth reading. 4 out of 5 bookmarks.
Next up (probably; I just hit the public library today, so I've got quite a selection): The School on Heart's Content Road, by Carolyn Chute.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Vacation Reads

OK, back from a week's vacation in Orlando, worshipping at the Temple of the Mouse. I'm eager to jot down my observations about this American rite of passage, road trips in general, and a whole bunch of other stuff, but that will have to wait till I've had some coffee and unpacked some suitcases. In the meantime, the book list continues:
  • 4. Peripheral Vision, by Patricia Ferguson. Pretty good, but didn't quite live up to expectations. The story itself was fairly interesting, though I found the ending a bit abrupt; without giving away too much, in case someone's actually reading this, one of the stories' conclusion seems a bit forced, and doesn't quite make sense. In terms of meta-commentary, I appreciate the point Ferguson's trying to make: that which we see clearly, right in front of our noses, is only part of the truth, and every story has bits and pieces around the edges that don't quite seem to fit at first ... but in reality, provide important clues to what really lies beneath. 3.5 out of 5 bookmarks.
  • 4a. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2009, by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa. Brilliant guidebook for anyone who wants to enjoy a Disney vacation, but can't quite bring themselves to buy into they hype completely. I'm not counting this as one of my 100 books for the year, as it's more a reference than anything else ... but I can't recommend it highly enough to anyone else planning a Disney vacation, and can't thank Ruth & Becky enough for recommending it to me. The touring plans were invaluable in helping us figure out what to see and do when, which is key in parks that are this big and crowded (though the crowds weren't bad at all when we visited). Detailed info on FastPass helped us make the most of it without overdoing it (which would have caused more trouble than it was worth), useful restaurant recommendations, detailed descriptions of who each R&A would appeal to vs. which ones could be skipped. 4.5 out of 5 bookmarks.
  • 5. The Spare Wife, by Alex Witchel. Decent but forgettable vacation read. Outing myself here: this is just the kind of thing I secretly love to read on vacation or when I'm procrastinating about something much more important. Gorgeous, wealthy model-cum-attorney in NYC, widow of a much-older, very successful husband, beloved by her NY society friends, dubbed "the spare wife" because she's such a good friend to both husbands and wives alike without being threatening. That is, until (dum dum DUM) a crass but ambitious young journalist discovers she's having a long-standing affair with the "happily" married fertility specialist to the stars. Mayhem ensues; all ultimately ends well. 2.5 out of 5 bookmarks.
  • 6. Liberty, by Garrison Keillor. Entertaining for Prairie Home Companion fans. This reads almost exactly like an episode of Keillor's radio show, for better or worse. If you enjoy Prairie Home Companion, you'll probably like the book; if you find it annoying, don't bother. On the plus side, Keillor is very funny, and has a ton of mostly good-natured observations about small-town Americana that made me laugh out loud. It's also entertaining to see him apply this same style to subjects that are a bit too risque, too political, or both for the radio. (There's a parody of the Larry Craig debacle that had me in stitches, and a definitely Palinesque congressional candidate.) On the other, his meandering, tangential style gets a little old in a 267-page novel ... and maybe this is just my own bias, but the whole theme of older man becomes enamored of young woman, and suddenly fears he's been living the wrong life all along has been done to death. (Tangent of my own: this is why I stopped reading Philip Roth, who's a brilliant writer, but clearly needs to work through some of his own aging issues before writing yet another version of this same story.) 3 out of 5 bookmarks.

All right, that coffee is calling. Let's see what else I can read before the current cache is due back to the library.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What can I get you to drink?

Hi, welcome to Cafe Hazelthyme! Come on in! Can I take your coat? What can I get you to drink?

Yep, I guess I've finally joined the blogosphere. Never mind that everyone this side of my mother-in-law has had a blog for aeons, or that I've kept a pen-and-paper journal (off and on, anyway) since the Carter administration. When it comes to technology, I'm not an early adapter. I'm no Luddite either, but eh, computers are a means, not an end. Organizing my bazillion photos? Reading those reams of journal articles I went through in grad school, without needing to run from one library and photocopier to the next tracking 'em down? E-mailing or Skype-ing overseas friends who I'd never get to talk to otherwise? I'm in. But whiling away the hours downloading, cataloguing, researching, and commenting on more iTunes than I'll ever have the chance to listen to (hi, Mrhazel!)? Compulsively updating my Facebook status? (Yes, I'm well aware that anyone old enough to remember the Carter administration is way too old to be loitering about on Facebook. Guess I'm the e-quivalent of the creepy old neighborhood guy everyone recognizes but no one knows, hanging around the playground.) Keeping a cyber-journal like Father McKenzie, "writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear"? Not so much my thing.

Yet here I am nonetheless. Mostly, I started the blog to keep track of my reading. I'm a voracious reader, and have issued a challenge of sorts -- though so far, only I know about it -- to see if I can read 100 books this year. Trouble is, I get most of my reading material from libraries, and the downside of churning through 'em as fast as I do (well, aside from not getting much else done) is that I don't always remember the details afterwards. (OK, sometimes I don't even remember the full title, or the author's name.) It's been ages since I've written a proper book review, and I don't know that's my intent anyway. At any rate, here's the 2009 tally so far:
  1. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire. Meaning to read this one for a while, finally got around to it while visiting the 'rents over Christmas. (OK, I technically started it in '08, but as I finished it on the 1st, I think it counts.) Enjoyed it, though not as much as I'd expected to. Thought there was both more to it and less than I'd expected. More in that I guess I expected something fluffier, and the story has a lot to say about the roots and nature of good and evil, about family relationships, the significance of physical beauty, and so on. I'm usually a sucker for books that tell a familiar story from a different perspective; Mists of Avalon and The Red Tent are among my all-time favorites. Less in that somehow, I just couldn't connect with any of the characters the way I like to. Perhaps that's deliberate; Maguire lets us see just enough of Elphaba, Galinda, Nessarose, Dorothy, the wizard, et al. to suggest that there's much more to them -- to all of us -- than Baum's original series would ever admit, but we still don't and can't really know them. In the interest of full disclosure, I also admit that I read a good chunk of this while on vacation, with Mom's chatter, Dad's TV, and other distractions going in the background ... and in the time it took me to realize it was a bit weightier than the typical vacation book and needed more attention, I may well have missed stuff. I'll probably go back and re-read it at some point, and may read its sequels (Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men) if I come across them ... but I don't think it'll make my all-time favorites list.
  2. Little Men, by Louisa May Alcott. Started this one way back in 2008, reading a chapter here & there with Littlehazel at bedtime for God knows how many months. I'd read Little Women repeatedly as a child, but never either of its sequels. This one was first published in 1871, and it shows. By today's standards, the moralizing is a bit heavy-handed, the plot and characters rather predictable, and the constant marveling at the wonders Jo and Fritz work on their boys with their own brand of loving firmness gets a little repetitious, even sickening, at times. It's also hard not to chafe at some of what today would be horribly sexist -- especially if you were ever a little girl who adored and wanted to be Jo March. That said, there are some interesting characters, many parts that made me laugh ... and frankly, it's fun to catch up with the characters from Little Women and see what's become of them. There's far less to the story and I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as LW, but it was a good read, especially for a parent-child read-aloud, and we'll probably pick up Jo's Boys next time we have the chance.
  3. American Therapy: The Rise of Psychotherapy in the United States, by Jonathan Engel. I also read a good deal of non-fiction, though it usually takes me longer to slog through and I'm more likely to get to the point where I wonder if I'm reading something because I want to, or just think I should. This one wasn't quite like that as it was a pretty quick read, but I didn't find it all that interesting or new, either. The first 4 chapters are pretty much strict history, from Freud and his earliest followers, through the growth of psychiatry, psychology, and social work during and after WWII, to the advent of humanist, cognitive, and behavioral schools of thought. Interesting stuff, but really just a refresher for anyone who's had a college course or 2 in psychology, without much new insight or material. Liked the chapter on how American views and treatments of alcoholism have changed in the last half-century, and thought this was probably the strongest part of the book. From there, it almost seemed like Engel was either rushing to meet a deadline or struggling to flesh out what was really only half a book's worth of material, because the latter half of the book seems to have a lot less substance (the first part wasn't that meaty to begin with), and the writing is much weaker. The narcotics chapter spends too long digressing about the evils of marijuana and heroin and their impacts on society (I'm not sure I buy the former, but regardless, it's a different book), and the final chapter (titled "Biology," but "Psychopharmacology" would be more accurate) seems a little too glib about the wonders of modern pharmaceuticals, to the point that I wonder if the author has business dealings with one of the pharmaceutical companies. In a nutshell, it was an OK book -- I didn't dislike it enough not to finish -- but I'm glad I borrowed it from the library and don't think I'd bother recommending it to anyone else.
  4. currently reading Peripheral Vision, by Patricia Ferguson. A novel of interconnected stories, set in and around London: in 1995, a successful opthamologist with a much-older husband who doesn't know what to make of her newborn daughter, and a single, unemployed 30-something man who lives a life of quiet desparation caring for his dying, elderly mother; in 1954, a kind nurse engaged to an upper-class med student whose mother disapproves of her working-class background, and a housewife guilty and shattered after an accident injures her young son's eyes and leaves him permanently disfigured. I'm only a quarter of the way through it, but so far, the characters are compelling and believable, and the individual stories interesting enough to make me want to keep reading and see what happens next and how they all end up tying together.
So much for a quick introductory first post. Let's see where this goes from here.