About Me

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

Sunday, 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.

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