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.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Off Season is off its game

Once upon a time, I really enjoyed Anne Rivers Siddons' books. They were never great literature; even in terms of contemporary, mass-market Southern fiction, Pat Conroy's The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides are far stronger. But Siddons' Outer Banks and Colony were decent beach reads, and Peachtree Road was even somewhat memorable.

And then somehow, something changed. Maybe I reached my Siddons saturation point; maybe the author ran out of new ideas; maybe it was a little of both. Regardless of the whys, the bloom is definitely off the rose. I checked out #21 - Off Season for much the same reasons I'd read her last few books: I stumbled across it in the library, figured it'd be a light snack to tide me over between weightier books, and hoped somehow it'd be a guilty but entertaining pleasure a la Outer Banks et al. Well, it wasn't, really. While I've decided to give up on the numerical ratings, this book wouldn't have scored very highly. At best, it's a passable if somewhat silly weekend read; at worst, if you've read Siddons' other books, this is the literary equivalent of cleaning out the leftovers in the fridge.

Off Season is the story of Lilly, a 60 year old sculptor who, as the novel begins, is driving from her Washington, D.C. home to her long-time summer place on the coast of Maine to scatter the ashes of her late husband Cam. We then flash back to the year Lilly was 11, when what begins as another timeless, unchanging summer at the Edgewater colony is quickly shaken up by the arrival of 2 newcomers: the lovely but insufferable Peaches Davenport, who shamelessly uses a tragic loss in her past to get attention, and golden boy Jon Lowell, who has a tragic loss in his own past and becomes Lilly's first love. All is idyllic, or close, until Peaches stumbles upon Jon and Lilly's first kiss, and reveals a heretofore-unknown secret from Jon's family's past. Tragedy ensues.

Fast-forward 7 years. Lilly now has 2 tragic losses of her own under her belt, and is on the brink of starting college. She and Cam meet, fall in love at first sight, and are married within a few months. Apparently, they have a perfect marriage, though we see little between the courtship and Cam's death save the moment when they learn each other's deep, dark, tragic secrets.

If it seems like I'm hyping the tragic losses and deep, dark secrets a bit much, well ... them's just the facts. Throw in the timeless-magic-of-the-summer-place setting, a vicious coastal storm, a pinch of the crazy or supernatural, and one femme fatale whose wicked vengefulness knows no bounds, and stir. The result is a book that's been done, and done quite a bit better, before. Lilly's whimsical, just-this-side-of-crazy delusions are silly, overdramatic, and frankly, boring. While any one of the tragic losses on the story's scoreboard would certainly be devastating, the way in which they're revealed -- particularly in the cases of Cam and Jon's father -- is so overblown that you're left not reeling in shock, but shaking your head wondering what the big deal is. Likewise, while I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for some of the book's romantic moments (i.e., rose-colored memories of a first love), others Just Don't Make Sense -- namely, enduring love at first sight between an 18- and 24-year old. Lastly, the conclusion seems muddy and confusing -- as if Siddons either ran out of time to go back and revise her first draft, or just thought that we'd all have read her earlier books, and could figure out what she was getting at on our own.

Yawn. Fluff is fluff, but this enough to make me gorge on Cormac McCarthy for a few weeks.

Monday, February 23, 2009

#20 - Tsotsi

Sorry, no clever title for this one, either -- Tsotsi, by Athol Fugard, is the kind of sock-you-in-the-gut book for which it's hard to find words. Set in apartheid-era Sophiatown, a black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, it takes its name from the protagonist: a nihlistic gangster whose name means only "gangster" or "thug." Make no mistake, this is not a heartwarming, scrappy tough guy with a heart of gold kind of book. This is made abundantly clear in the second chapter, when Tsotsi and his gang murder a man on a crowded train with surgical precision in order to steal his pay packet. As another review aptly puts it, Tsotsi is completely primal; he has no given name, no memory of his past, and no aspirations beyond day-to-day survival:

"To know nothing about yourself is to be constantly in danger of nothingness, those voids of non-being over which a man walks the tightrope of his life. Tsotsi feared nothingness. He feared it because he believed in it. Even more than that, he knew with all the certainty of his being that behind the facade of life lurked nothing. Under men's prayers he heard the deep silence of it; behind man's beauty he had seen it faceless and waiting; inside man himself, beyond the lights of his loves and his hopes, there too was nothing, a darkness like an enormous unending night that closed in when the fires burned low and out, leavingonly ash as an epitaph to their passing warmth. The problem of his life was to maintain himself, to affirm his existence in the face of this nullity. He achieved this through pain and fear, and through death. He knew no other way."

This dark sameness begins to change when Tsotsi assaults a woman who, in her panic, thrusts a shoebox into his hands before running off into the night. In the box is a baby boy. With his fumbling efforts to care for the infant -- asking a terrified shopkeeper for "baby milk," forcing a young mother to feed the baby at knifepoint -- flickers of his own past come back to him, and he becomes desperate to remember more.

One critique suggests that it's clear Fugard is primarily a playwright and not a novelist. Both scenes and characters are described in broad strokes, leaving the reader to fill in the details for him- or herself with only a few key props to go on. While I found this satisfying in terms of the setting, I did wish for a little more depth to some of the characters: Boston, the clever but cowardly gang member who dares to break Tsotsi's rule about personal questions; the crippled beggar Tsotsi opts not to rob; Miriam, who in the wake of her husband's disappearance, finds renewed purpose in nursing baby David. Nowhere is this more true than for Tsotsi himself. Once he decides to buy milk and feed the baby, his transformation is gradual and believable. It's not an overwhelming surge of love for this helpless creature in his arms, but isolated smells and images that evoke something just outside his reach. What's not clear, though, is why he takes the baby home in the first place; certainly, it would be much more in character for the man we've seen up until that point to kill or abandon the child, shoebox and all, minutes after it's handed to him.

As I said initially, it's difficult to pick a theme or construct a summary to end on; I think this will be one to read through at least once more before it fully sinks in. The imagery is both bleak and beautiful, and it's certainly a book you appreciate rather than enjoy. 4 out of 5 bookmarks.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Purple Hibiscus

This morning, I finished my 19th book of the year: Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I knew next to nothing about it when I picked it off the library shelf; I was actually looking for Half a Yellow Sun, one of Adichie's later works (which I don't remember much about at this point either) ... but figured since that wasn't available and I've been trying to broaden my literary horizons, I'd start with her debut novel. I'm glad I did; it's a subtle, poetic coming-of-age novel set in Nigeria, with more than a touch of allegory mixed in.

To be continued ... Full review, complete with quotes and everything, coming soon; for now, though, Real Life beckons.

[next morning] OK, I'm back. In terms of setting the stage, Adichie packs an amazing amount into the book's first sentence: "Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere." The family's strict Catholicism, enforced by a strict, often brutal father; Jaja's growing defiance; and the isolation that comes with living a life of privilege in the midst of poverty and unrest are all important themes in the novel. When the story begins, the protagonist/ narrator, 15-year-old Kambili, seeks only to be a good Catholic and meet her father's nigh-impossible standards, thereby avoiding the punishments whose severity becomes clearer as the novel progresses.

Tension builds, however, when Kambili's Aunt Ifeoma convinces her brother to let Kambili and her brother Jaja spend a week with her, ostensibly so she can take them on a religious pilgrimage. Ifeoma, a widowed college professor, and her 3 children are probably middle-class, but this is a big step down from Kambili's wealthy family; they live in a small, run-down apartment where water, electricity, and petrol are scarce, and while there seems to be enough to eat, meat and other luxuries are carefully stretched and rationed. At the same time, they introduce Kambili and Jaja to a way of life much broader than any they've been permitted before: household chores, popular music and television, and a far more generous and relaxed brand of Catholicism than their father's (this last embodied by Father Amadi, a young, energetic priest who captivates Kambili almost immediately). Kambili and Jaja also begin to know their grandfather, who their own father has disowned for his refusal to convert to Catholicism. In her home, their lives take on the character of Aunty Ifeoma's purple hibiscus, which Kambili describes in the first chapter as, "rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do." As you might expect, this lays a foundation for conflict once they return to their father's house.

The characters in the story develop much as the title flower might unfold: slowly, without revealing everything there is at first. Kambili seems to be a perfect Daddy's girl, until Aunt Ifeoma, hearing her daughter Amaka heckle her cousin yet again for being rich and spoiled, prods Kambili to open her mouth and give it back to her. Jaja could be any rebellious adolescent, until his younger cousin's workload makes him think about his own responsibility to his family. Papa brutalizes his wife's and children's bodies in hopes of saving their souls, but he's also incredibly generous to the poor and needy, even when no one knows about it. The one character we don't really get to know is Kambili's mother, but this makes sense in the context of the book's eventual climax and resolution.

As noted above, there's also an allegorical element to the novel, although Adichie doesn't quite hit you over the head with it. The story is bookended by Kambili's description of the hibiscus in the first chapter, and Aunt Ifeoma's scoffing at those who suggest Nigerians are incapable of self-rule at the end:
"There are people, she once wrote, who think that we cannot rule ourselves because the few times we tried, we failed, as if all the others who rule themselves today got it right the first time. It is like telling a crawling baby who tries to walk, and then falls back on his buttocks, to stay there. As if the adults walking past him did not all crawl, once."
I'll admit my own ignorance of Nigerian history and politics, but it seems evident that Kambili and Jaja represent the future of Nigeria; they reach adulthood not through blind acceptance of the white man's European-style Catholicism, nor through living under a dictator's repression, but by taking on adult sacrifices and responsibilities.

If you haven't yet surmised as much, I really enjoyed this book. It stands quite ably on its own, as a coming-of-age story; it's also (at least for me) an accessible place to begin if you want to move beyond Things Fall Apart and sample African fiction in a more contemporary setting. 4 out of 5 bookmarks.

Coming soon: The contemporary African fiction theme (is that racist or reductionist in itself? How many different cultures are we talking about here? Would we think to talk about "European fiction" or even "Asian fiction?") continues with Athol Fugard's Tsotsi, set in South Africa.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Another fluffy book

Yep, I'm back. #18 was Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter. In a word, awww. A sweet story for anyone who loves libraries and/or cats. I love both, so it's not too surprising that I enjoyed the book way more than I expected to.

Ostensibly, I checked this one out because my daughter loves animals, and I thought it would be something we'd enjoy reading together. Well, we did, sort of. After I read the first chapter aloud, E snagged the book, and spent most of the afternoon in her aerie tearing through it and chortling at regular intervals; I did the same Sunday afternoon. If, as I did, you somehow missed the national press the story received, Dewey is the true story of a kitten who, on a frigid January morning in 1988, was found shivering in the book drop of the Spencer, Iowa public library. After immediately charming the library's director (Myron, the book's principal author), he's adopted by its staff and patrons, and makes the library his home for the rest of his 19 years.

For the most part, this is an animal story. Cute kitten anecdotes abound: Dewey's taste for rubber bands and the library staffers' constant struggle to thwart it, his one and only great escape attempt, his enduring love affair with the Christmas tree. These could be saccharine, but aren't, really; the tone is simple and funny, with just a touch of down-home Midwestern. The cute cat stuff is also interspersed with details about the town and surrounding farm country, the library itself, and the author's own experiences growing up in a now-abandoned farm community, going on welfare to support her daughter after divorcing an alcoholic husband, and eventually returning to school for both bachelor's and master's degrees. Myron and Witter's prose is clear, warm, and genuine; the heartland corn pone comes on a little thick at times, but for the most part, it works.

The latter part of the story spends a bit too much time on detailing Dewey's rise to regional, national, and even international fame. Personally, I'd have preferred a bit less cataloging of all the interviewers, magazines, tourists, etc. that sought out Dewey, and more about how this notoriety affected the library staff, patrons, and community members. This is a minor quibble, though. Myron would probably call this good old-fashioned Iowa practicality, but this is a simple, warm-hearted story that (its title not withstanding) doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is: a book about a cat, a library, and a small town. 4 out of 5 bookmarks.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Pigging out

I can't believe I read the whole thing, or things, that is. Not so much that my latest round of books was especially bad, more that I can't believe how much of my weekend I spent reading, gorging on books like so much Valentine's chocolate when I could have been prepping and planning my garden, cleaning the guest room for Mother Thyme's visit in a few weeks, yada yada yada. Add in a free Saturday afternoon with no real obligations, which naturally had me returning one stash and loading another into the venerable old backpack, and you can see why lazing around reading carried the day.

Anyway, for anyone who's on the edge of their seat waiting ... no, I didn't finish Bad Money. This falls into that broad category of books I want to read, really; I usually find them pretty darned interesting when I do sit down and make the time to read them ... but sometimes that's just harder to do than I expect. Ah well, maybe next time.

I did finish #15 - Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in A-Flat, by Adam Langer. An entertaining read, especially if (like me) you're fans of the New York story, where The City itself is an important character. While the characters -- have you noticed this is one of the first things that tends to strike me about fiction? -- aren't particularly well fleshed-out or complex, I almost think that's intentional; they're archetypes of the different kinds of people caught up in New York City's version of the recent real estate boom. The title refers to the street -- Ellington Boulevard, nee 106th St., home to "a-flat" in the rapidly-gentrifying Roberto Clemente Building that everyone in the story either has or wants a piece of.

The story begins with Ike Mosley, the 39 year old musician who's lived in the apartment for years, returning home from an extended stay with his dying mother in Chicago to find his apartment on the market, with yuppies and real estate people tromping through for an open house. In Ike's absence, Jerry Masler, the longtime landlord and general mensch of a guy who's been renting the place to Ike for $350 and a handshake, has died. The building now belongs to his son Mark, who wants to sell and sell big; without a lease, Ike has to either come up with $650k or find a new place to live. The stakes get higher when Rebecca Sugarman and Darryl Schiff make an offer on the place, which Mark accepts. Rebecca, a 30something magazine editor, is reluctant to buy this apartment if it means evicting the clearly distraught Ike, but concedes ... partly because she hates to squelch an all-too-rare burst of enthusiasm from Darryl, her lazy, entitled grad student husband, and partly because she's eager to start a family and suspects (correctly, it turns out) that she's already pregnant. We also meet Josh, the real estate broker who secretly longs to be a bigwig producer/ mover and shaker in New York's theater scene; Jane, Darryl's eventual girlfriend, an aspiring writer of questionable talent with a mysterious past; Allie, who agrees to become Mark's much-younger third wife after a whirlwind courtship to escape an unstable family; Chloe, Rebecca's ruthless apparent wunderkind boss; Megan, whose only escape from eating, sleeping, and breathing her job as a mortgage broker is a secret affair with her boss; and Herbie Mann, Ike's dog, who's a more important character in the book than you might think. I won't spoil all the details for you, but by the end of the story, the apartment's been sold, the mortgage bubble's begun to burst, and everyone's expectations have been completely upended. Definitely entertaining; not great literature, probably, but not complete fluff, either. 3.5 out of 5 bookmarks.

#16 was How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Yeah, another self-help'er; I've got a particular weakness for the parenting books -- have for years, ever since the lack of Saturday night TV options in the '80s led me to read Parents magazine while I was babysitting. As I've said before, I don't take everything or even most things I read in these books as gospel, but this one seemed pretty good -- practical ideas and examples for active listening and assertive, respectful parenting with teenagers. Not rocket science, certainly, especially if you're already familiar with active listening and/or have read the authors' earlier book, How to Talk So Kids ... I did, however, appreciate that the book doesn't promise miracles, and gives so many examples of how to apply the authors' principles -- identifying both teens' and the parent's own feelings; stating your expectations; offering choices; using humor to get your point across -- in so many different situations. I also liked their ideas about how parents and teens might work through problems together, and how to impose consequences for bad behavior without punishing the child per se. (Short explanation: The first time the kid does something wrong, like having a party in the parents' absence or letting his grades drop because he's spending too much time on sports, let him tell his side of the story, do some brainstorming, and come up with a plan of action together. If the problem continues, impose a consequence, i.e., hiatus from soccer or from unchaperoned weekends, but put the onus on the kid to come up with a plan and prove s/he can handle the situation better next time.) Not much more to say about it, as it's a pretty straightforward book and not a particularly long one, but worthwhile for anyone who has or is on the verge of having adolescents in the house and wants some ideas for communicating with them productively. 3 out of 5 bookmarks.

And #17, which I think I both started and finished today, was Alexandra Robbins' Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities. Almost an accident; I'd heard of the book before, but it's not a new one, and I picked it up mostly because it caught my eye while I was browsing the 370's section and I remembered enjoying Overachievers, a more recent book by the same author.

So ... Pledged was interesting, sad, and maddening, if a wee bit sensational. After requesting permission to observe a house openly from several sororities' national office, but being denied, Robbins went undercover, befriending 4 college women from 2 different sorority houses at a college she dubs only State U., and following the chapters' events through their eyes for a whole academic year, from August through April. While she claims not to want to sensationalize sorority life, and to paint a balanced picture of its pros and cons, she's clearly decided by the end that there are a whole lotta cons (racism, elitism, alcohol and drug abuse, cattiness, back-stabbing, an overemphasis on looks and clothes, eating disorders, an anachronistic focus on dates and "getting a man" from the right fraternity, and so on) and precious few pros. In fact, with the exception of the historically black sororities, which, Robbins argues, are far less exclusionary and image-based, and much more focused on service and achievement, the only half-hearted "pro" she comes up with is that many women do form strong friendships with some of their sorority sisters ... though she pretty clearly thinks this was in spite of, rather than because of, the organization itself.

Interesting to read this fairly soon after having read Charlotte Simmons again. I'm no Charlotte myself; I know people drink to excess, have indiscriminate sex, get raped, and stick their fingers down their throats on college campuses, even if none of the above featured prominently in my own college experience. But the scenes Robbins and Wolfe portray are so far removed not just from my own, but from most of my friends' (unless they all had top-secret double lives), and I wonder why that is. Was my alma mater different in some way -- not that I think the bacchanalia wasn't there at all, but was it less prevalent than elsewhere? Was I just way more sheltered and out of it than I realized -- maybe 90% of the campus really was drinking, snorting, or sleeping with whatever they could find while I was busy hanging out in cafes and movie theaters? Not sure if this makes me feel old, or just curious. 3.5 out of 5 bookmarks.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Brace of Business Books

So much for this not being a particularly personal blog; somehow, it seems all the weird quirks of my personality are leaking out in what I read. Today, you get to see yet another of my strange habits: my weakness for self-help/ "how to" books. Once upon a time, when I was young and (more) foolish, I really did believe that each one I checked out of the library or picked up at the corner bookstore was Really It -- this was The One that was finally going to help me lose weight, make more friends, succeed professionally, you name it. (Several years ago, Jennifer Niesslein poked some less-than-completely gentle fun at the self-help industry that promotes these attitudes in her book Practically Perfect in Every Way: My Misadventures Through the World of Self-Help and Back -- which I found pretty amusing, at least until I got fed up with the author's recurring comments about how her own life really is the next best thing to perfect that I opted not to finish it.)

Anyway, those optimistic-bordering-on-delusional days are long past now, but I do still enjoy a good self-helper now and then -- mostly as cultural artifacts, to see how the authors define problems or conflicts, who they seem to be targeting, and what they're proposing in terms of solutions. Soo ... without further ado, I bring you:

#13 - Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen. OK, yet another true confession: I'm a big sucker for these "how to manage your time, your work, and your life" advice books. I love, love, love me some lists, calendars, and spreadsheets. I get a rush from my Saturday morning housecleaning blitz. I start my workday with a cup of coffee in one hand and a to-do list in the other, and probably end it with a revised, color-coded, prioritized to-do list and an empty but still unwashed cup. (Yes, my friends & family remind me often that there's a word for people like this.)

But no matter how many time-management/ organization books and articles I read, I can't seem to help myself; a new one crosses my path, and before I know it, I'm a few chapters in. This one was a good start, if you're looking for some basic advice on how to manage your time and work, but certainly not the comprehensive life-changing system it purports to be, and of limited use for folks whose work leans heavily toward complex, long-term projects. Allen's main thesis seems to be that if you gather everything that's currently on your radar screen -- projects, paperwork, reading material, stuff to file -- and process it using his decision tree, you'll gain control over your work and reduce your stress level. The decision tree looks something like this:

Is it actionable?

> No -- well, then, do one of the following:

-->Trash it

-->File it for reference

-->Put it in your maybe/ someday tickler file, for possible future action

> Yes -- in that case, will it take less than 2 minutes?

-->If yes, just do it.

--> If no, do one of the following:

---->Delegate it

---->Defer it, for action at some later time

Not rocket science, but the basic premise makes some sense. Allen also offers a few isolated tips that did seem like they'd be broadly applicable. These include using your calendar only for meetings and tasks that really need to be completed on a certain day, rather than for writing and rewriting the same list of things you'd like to do over and over each day when they don't all get done; keeping separate lists of calls you need to make and items on which you're waiting for a response or action from someone else (the former so you can crank through them all when you're near a phone; the latter so you don't lose track of things you've farmed out elsewhere); and keeping your list of action items separate from your reference/ stuff to read file and your maybe/ someday file. I also appreciate that his system can be pretty low-tech; you can use a computer- or PDA-based list and calendar system if you want, but it works just as well with pencil and paper.

IMO, the major shortcoming of Allen's approach is that it doesn't address how one juggles multiple, constantly changing priorities (a hallmark of every place I've ever worked), and doesn't really offer much for the person whose work mostly involves getting assigned lots of complex projects which are defined only in broad terms, and having to figure out the details on their own. To be fair, he does concede the latter point to some extent: there are many project-management guidebooks and software packages out there, most of which are far too technical to be of use to the majority of people who use them, and this book isn't intended to be one. In most middle- to upper-level management positions, however, even after you've weeded out everything that isn't an action item (because it's waiting for someone else's response, reference materials, done and gone in 2 minutes, or relegated to the tickler file) -- you're still left with a long and largely undifferentiated list of actions, and Allen doesn't offer much in the way of how to prioritize these or whether and how to plan the intermediate steps of a longer project (e.g., implement document imaging system) beyond the first "next action" on your list (e.g., search the internet for vendors and prices).

In summary, the book may be useful to someone who's either new to the workforce (or to the white-collar, office-based workforce) or who's totally clueless about time and workflow management, but doesn't really offer much for folks at a higher level and/or who do a lot of project work. 2 out of 5 bookmarks.

#14 - One Person/ Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success, by Marci Alboher. Here's another one that would probably be shelved somewhere in the same ball park as the above, based on LoC or DD classification (disclaimer: I am not a librarian), but with a different focus. Specifically, if you have a passion in life that isn't what you do to earn a living, and have mused about finding a way to better integrate the 2, this book is a decent place to start. However, it's short on concrete advice, and what it does offer is probably only realistic for a privileged few. The thesis consists mostly of anecdotes of a variety of people working in what Alboher calls slash careers: a psychotherapist/ violin maker, computer programmer/ theater director, teacher/ male model, lawyer/ minister, and so on. She uses their experiences, coupled with some fairly vague take-home points, to suggest that almost anyone with a passion that's not their day job can create a "slash life" for themselves if they're flexible, determined, and have a touch of entreprenurial spirit.

Certainly an interesting idea, and I can certainly see that if you've been starting to burn out on your 9-to-5, and wishing you could somehow be as excited about your job as you are about your [painting/ dancing/ horseback riding/ insert your hobby here], this book might be the spark you need to start thinking about whether and how that might be possible. And some of the advice did seem fairly broadly applicable; for example, the suggestion that almost everyone can teach, speak, or write about their passion, especially if you start small and for little or no pay; and the illustrations of how several different people kept a hand in a primary job to pay the bills while they got a second off the ground. That said, my own "will it play in Peoria?" test for business/ cultural advice like this is, will it fly for the working class? Alboher, herself an attorney/ writer/ speaker, doesn't really address this point, but I think the answer is no. Granted, she does offer several examples where half of someone's slash is a blue-collar profession: a longshoreman/ filmmaker, police officer/ landscaper, and so on. However, the vast majority of her examples are folks with at least one career that's both lucrative and offers a lot of opportunity for private practice/ self-employment -- law, computer programming, medicine, and so on. And frankly, the few blue collar slashes she includes are not a representative sample of the jobs available to folks without college degrees; they're concentrated in the few remaining bastions of strong unions, overwhelmingly male, and offer/ require extremely flexible schedules. Trust me, as the sister of two firefighter/ housepainter/ bartenders, one of whom can also add / lawyer to that list (yes, you read that correctly), I get how a cop's or firefighter's schedule is very conducive to picking up a second or third job ... but I also don't think it'd work for someone who stocks the shelves at Wal-Mart or cleans bathrooms in the local Econo-Lodge. Heck, I've got a master's degree, and it wouldn't work for me ... my field is pretty much 9-to-5, year-round, and especially if you need health insurance or other benefits, part-time options are pretty darned slim.

All right, that's a bit of a tangent. Bottom line, One Person/ Multiple Careers is a conversation starter, even if that conversation may initially be with yourself. If you're fortunate enough that you either aren't financially dependent on a single full-time job (or more), or work in a field that's not always Mon-Fri 9-5, it's worth considering ... though this book alone won't tell you much about how to get there if you do decide that's what you want. 2 out of 5 bookmarks.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Old Favorites

There's been a dearth of reading at Hazel House of late; I had a big job interview (yay me!) last week, and between prepping obsessively beforehand and needing to just plain vegetate afterwards, I didn't have much quality time with the books. (Amazing how I did manage some quality time with a few truly mindless flash games, but that's a whole 'nother blog.)

I did, however, reread an old favorite during the post-interview decompression period: #11 - I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe. If you're a fan of other Wolfe novels (i.e., Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full), and have somehow missed this one, please ... stop reading this blog Right Now and go get your hands on a copy. While the 2004 New York Times review didn't agree with me, I love this book; it's a brilliant and often excruciatingly-painful satire of life on an elite college campus in the 2000's.

As the novel begins, the title character arrives on the hallowed campus of Dupont University (fictitious, but reportedly based on Duke, with hints of Penn State and Stanford thrown in) fresh off the pickup from a sheltered upbringing in rural Sparta, North Carolina, eager to immerse herself in the life of the mind. Meanwhile, elsewhere on campus, smug frat boy Hoyt Thorpe stumbles on a prominent national political figure in a compromising position; campus basketball legend Jojo Johanssen struggles to stay on top of his game when Coach threatens to bench him for a promising new player; and aspiring Rhodes Scholar Adam Gellin juggles thankless part-time jobs delivering pizza and "tutoring" athletes with regular meetings of the Millenial Mutants, a campus salon of sorts for aspiring intellectuals.

In some ways, this is a typical coming-of-age novel; in others, it's a lot more than that. As is true of Wolfe's other books, themes of class and racial tension abound here. Charlotte's lofty expectations of academic life at Dupont are confounded when she finds herself in an upper-level French literature class where books are read in English, and that's just the beginning. She's also beyond shocked at the omnipresence of alcohol, casual sex, lewd dancing, and general decadence on the campus; her roommate, the snooty Groton-educated Beverly, does not help matters. She wavers between wanting to be true to herself -- to, as her mother advised her, say "I am Charlotte Simmons, and I don't hold with that" -- and wanting desparately to belong, to somehow alleviate her excruciating loneliness. When a good-looking BMOC like Hoyt starts inviting her to visit the Saint Ray house, and then invites her to an out-of-town fraternity formal, she thinks she's got it made, but little does she know.

This is mostly Charlotte's story, but our other 3 principals are also fish out of water at Dupont. In the brains department, Adam seems to have it all, but he's desparate not only to lose his virginity, but to make the world at large see him as a person of consequence. Jojo is beginning to question his status as a golden boy of basketball; do his coach and teammates really see him as One of Them, even though he's white? Does he really want to coast through Dupont taking classes like Frere Jocko and Stocks for Jocks? Hoyt looks every inch the quintessential Dupont Man, but in reality, comes from a working-class background, and has no idea what awaits him after graduation save a vague sense that he'll go into investment banking, because it pays well and That's What Saint Rays Do.

Without giving anything away, I can never decide how I feel about the ending. In some ways, it wraps things up too tidily; in others, it's too ambiguous. I'm not sure I fully buy the transformation in Jojo's character over the course of the book. Where Charlotte finds herself by the end makes a little more sense -- there are still a few loose ends hanging out there -- but I'm not completely convinced as to the road she took to get there. I also agree that Wolfe's female characters are rather crudely drawn; Charlotte is somewhat of an exception, but her over-the-top innocence and sheltered upbringing aren't completely believable. But it's Wolfe's nature to exaggerate to make a point -- to take most aspects of the world he creates just a step or 2 too far, so that it's both plausible and ridiculous at the same time. 4.5 out of 5 bookmarks.

I've also been reading #12 - These Happy Golden Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, with my daughter. I read the whole Little House series more times than I can remember as a child; people who know me IRL have probably heard my story of getting the whole series in paperback one Christmas from a relative who gave my sister a dollhouse, and being incredibly jealous and resentful that she'd gotten the better present. The dollhouse fell apart within a year; the paperbacks are probably still in my parents' basement somewhere. Anyway, tangent aside, I've been amazed at how many things in these books I notice and understand now, reading them as an adult, that just plain went by me when I read them the first or even the tenth time as a girl.

It's very hard for me to pick a favorite in the series. Growing up, I was partial to On the Banks of Plum Creek and Little Town on the Prairie, and By the Shores of Silver Lake was probably my least favorite (i.e., I only read it once or twice). I always liked THGY, but it's definitely grown on me over the years; it's a sweet, understated story of an 1880s pioneer courtship, and of Laura's conflict between remaining safe and comfortable in her parents' home, and moving forward with her own married, adult life. As the story begins, 15-year-old Laura is on her way to her first teaching job and her first experience living away from home. After a rocky first few weeks, she finds her footing as a teacher. However, the Brewsters, with whom she's boarding, are truly wretched, and she's painfully homesick. It comes as a delightful surprise when Almanzo Wilder begins making the 12-mile drive each Friday to bring Laura home for the weekend, and then again each Sunday to bring her back.

The rest, as they say, is history. Even allowing for the fact that the Little House books are all "inspired by actual events," rather than pure biography, it's interesting to see how much our notions of romance have changed, and how much they haven't. There are glimpses of jealousy on both Almanzo's and Laura's parts (Almanzo asking suspiciously about a strange male visitor to the Ingalls' home, who turns out to be Laura's uncle; Laura telling Almanzo not to call for her if he wants to take the obnoxious Nellie Oleson driving), and an amusing scene towards the beginning where Laura tries to make it clear that she's only accepting Almanzo's rides because she wants to go home for the weekend, and he shouldn't expect her to go driving with him once her teaching gig is over with. Perhaps my favorite, though, happens later, when on a spring buggy ride, Almanzo says, seemingly out of nowhere, "I was wondering if you would like an engagement ring." "That would depend on who offered it to me," replies Laura. "If I did?" "Then it would depend upon the ring."

It's probably even harder to rate a children's book than it is for me to pick a favorite in these series, but given how much I still like this one even after umpteen readings, and given how much Littlehazel is enjoying it, even though her history with the series is only secondhand, I'll give it 4 out of 5 bookmarks.

And for something completely different, I read #13 - Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen over the weekend -- but I think I need to wait till I'm home and have the book in hand to post a review for that one.

Coming soon: I'm usually a one-book-at-a-time gal, but somehow, I ended up in the middle of 3 at once: Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, by Kevin Phillips; One Person/ Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success, by Marci Alboher; and Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in A-Flat, by Adam Langer. Not so sure I'll get through Bad Money, though I want to, and I'm enjoying both of the others. Watch this space for details.