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, March 29, 2009

With a thrill in my head, and a pill on my tongue

Sorry it's been a while, folks -- I got a little over-ambitious with #30 - I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb, marking pages (responsibly, with scraps of paper) and passages willy-nilly with grand plans for a big, pretentious review ... and then of course, couldn't carve time out to actually write it. So now I'm back, determined to just write it up and move on.

At any rate, before I read this book, the title conjured up the corny pop song from the '80s by Spandau Ballet. I expected schmaltz; after all, there's an Oprah's Book Club label displayed proudly on the cover. Well, IMHO, it ain't so. In fact, it's not too much of a stretch to say the book is brilliant, complicated, and multi-layered, and I don't care who knows I think so. (So there! Nyah!) As you've probably heard, if you've paid any attention to popular novels in the 11 years since its publication, I Know This Much Is True is the life story of identical twin brothers who differ in one tremendous regard: one of them has schizophrenia. As the narrator, non-schizophrenic twin Dominick, muses at the beginning of Chapter 3, his relationship with his brother Thomas defines both the novel and his life:

"When you're the sane brother of a schizophrenic identical twin, the tricky thing about saving yourself is the blood it leaves on your hands -- the little inconvenience of the look-alike corpse at your feet. And if you're into both survival of the fittest and being your brother's keeper -- if you've promised your dying mother -- then say so long to sleep and hello to the middle of the night. Grab a book or a beer. Get used to Letterman's gap-toothed smile of the absurd, or the view of the bedroom ceiling, or the indifference of random selection. Take it from godless insomniac. Take it from the uncrazy twin -- the guy who beat the biochemical rap."

The book opens with Thomas, whose delusions have long been religious in nature, sneaking a military-issue knife of his stepfather's into the public library and amputating his own hand while quoting scripture, in a one-man attempt to protest the wrong-headedness of the war in Iraq. From here, it follows the brothers both forward, through Thomas's stay in the local psychiatric hospital, and backward, through their childhood, the gradual and painful onset of Thomas's disease during their college years, and the collapse of Dominick's marriage in the wake of his infant daughter's death.

The story spans 50 years and about 900 pages, but it's never plodding, and only occasionally jumpy or confusing. Not surprisingly, the characters are many and the relationships among them complex. Although she's passed away before the story begins, Thomas and Dominick's mother, Concettina, is a constant presence, as are the unanswered questions she left behind. Chief among these is the identity of the brothers' father, who she never married. Their stepfather, the abusive but complicated Ray, looms at least as large:

"As a kid I had had a recurring fantasy in which my biological father was Sky King, the aventuresome pilot on Saturday morning TV. ... Later, somewhere around the time I began to sprout armpit hair and lift weights down in the cellar, I gave up on heroes and took to buzzing Ray myself, goading him in small ways -- stepping, usually, on the line but not quite over it. I was still afraid of his anger but saw, now, how he punished weakness -- pounced on it. Out of self-preservation, I hid my fear. Smirked at the dinner table, answered him in grudging single syllables, and learned how to look him back in the eye. Because Ray was a bully, I showed him as often as possible that Thomas was the weaker brother. Fed him Thomas to save myself."

Other important players include Dessa, the ex-wife Dominick still loves; Joy, his much-younger live-in girlfriend; ladies-man Leo, his long-time best friend; prison social worker Lisa Sheffer; Dr. Patel, the prison psychiatrist who becomes Dominick's therapist; and the ever-present Ralph Drinkwater, a biracial former classmate of the Birdsey twins who now works as a janitor at the psychiatric hospital.

If this isn't complicated enough, Dominick's acquisition of his grandfather's autobiography provides an extended story-within-a-story, following the arrogant Domenico Tempesta from a modest, troubled childhood in Sicily through his emigration to the U.S., marriage to the beautiful Ignazia, who loathes him; and lasting bedevilment by Ignazia's best friend, Prosperine Tucci. (I'd even argue, though others might disagree, that Prosperine's lengthy recollection of Ignazia's and her own childhood is a story within the story within the story.)

It's been said that I Know This Much Is True is a tad melodramatic, and while I don't fully agree, I do understand the argument. In one admittedly long book, Lamb covers schizophrenia, racism, HIV/ AIDS, SIDS, PTSD, child abuse ... and that's just off the top of my head. That said, little of this save the last few chapters seemed forced to me. After all, these events take place over the course of half a century, and I'd wager that if you go back far enough and/or branch out far enough, most families would find their own share of skeletons in the closet.

At this point, I finished the book almost a week ago and have been at the review long enough that I won't go into more detail -- but I recommend it highly.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

#29 - The Tenth Muse

"The best Italian cooking is in the home, and that, if you are going to enjoy this daily pleasure, 'You must give liberally of time, of patience, of the best raw materials. What it returns is worth all you have to give.'" --Marcella Hazan

"'I seem to be drawn to scenes involving food, and I think that's because people's attitudes toward food reveal so much about them. Are they feeders, or withholders? Enjoyers, or self-deniers? What exactly is on their plates -- or in the saucepans they're eating directly from as they're hunching over the stove? It's all a kind of shortcut to tell my readers whom they're dealing with.'" --Anne Tyler

"'If you take away from food the wholeness of growing it or take away the joy and conviviality of preparing it in your own home, then I believe you are talking about a whole new definition of the human being.'" --Wendell Berry

"When I pursued the root of the word 'religious,' I found that it is thought to spring from religare, meaning 'to bind, to tie fast, to reconnect.' Isn't that what we do when we cook? We reconnect again to the earth, to the source of our food, and we bind to one another in the sharing of it, the breaking of bread together, the celebrating of life."
--Judith Jones
As anyone who knows me can attest, I'm a foodie. I love just about everything about food and cooking, from growing it to grocery shopping to hunting for recipes to sitting down with friends and family for an appetizing, home-cooked meal. (I do not, however, love doing the dishes.) It's not too surprising, then, that The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, by Judith Jones, struck me as a potential good read. It didn't disappoint; on the contrary, I was bowled over by how much I enjoyed both Jones' writing style and what she had to say.

The dust jacket describes Jones as a "legendary editor who helped shape modern cookbook publishing," and that's probably not hyperbole; she championed and shepherded the publication of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The Tenth Muse is her memoir, retracing her steps from a no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes childhood in World War II New York and Vermont to college days at Bennington to an extended post-college sojourn in Paris (where she discovered and fell in love not only with her future husband, Evan Jones, but with the pleasures of the French kitchen and table) to an illustrious publishing career. And I was a bit skeptical at first; most people's life stories aren't nearly as interesting in the second or third person, and after a promising first chapter, Jones devotes two chapters to her time in Paris. Initially, these read like an elderly relative relating old memories in far too much detail, but that's just because you have to soldier on a bit further to Get It. The reader needs to be as deeply immersed in the French approach to food as Jones herself was to understand how driven she later became to translate these attitudes and techniques to the U.S. -- where in the mid-1950s, remember, "a casserole of canned string beans mixed with a can of mushroom soup and topped with canned fried noodles was more to everyone's liking," and many of the fresh vegetables, herbs, cheeses, and variety meats essential to French cooking weren't even available in most places.

Where The Tenth Muse really shines, in my opinion, is when Jones veers a bit further afield from the strictly personal, and offers her take on the evolution of attitudes toward food and cooking in the U.S. from the 1940s up through the present day. She may assign Julia Child an overly large role in this transformation -- after all, this is Jones' story, and Child was her star client -- but she hardly suggests that Child did it single-handedly, and makes numerous reference to Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and other food-world notables of the era even in the "Julia to the Rescue" chapter. Their efforts, together with other beyond-the-kitchen trends in international travel and immigration, opened the floodgates, and Jones talks extensively about the influence of "ethnic" cooks and cuisines (Marcella Hazan's Italian, Madhur Jaffrey's Indian, Claudia Roden's Middle Eastern, and Irene Kuo's Chinese, to name a few), and then devotes a chapter to defining "what, in fact, is American cooking," admitting straight away that doing so "proved to be more elusive than we'd anticipated."

Personally, I was most excited by two of the last chapters. In "What is Taste?" she tackles the questions "Can taste be acquired? Is there good hunger and bad hunger?" More than once, I myself have had the same experience she describes of preparing a mouthwatering homemade casserole to please a young guest, only to have it rejected because s/he preferred the boxed stuff and declared that my own version wasn't really mac and cheese, so I felt vindicated by her discussion of processed food producers' tactics:
"'Those "comfort foods,"' [Schlosser] writes, 'become a source of pleasure and reassurance, a fact that fast food chains work hard to promote.' ... And it is obviously important for them to ensnare the taste buds of the young. That way, their victims are hooked -- once that ersatz flavor is imprinted on the taste memory, the real undiluted flavor no longer attracts. Their taste is corrupted, often for life."
Next, in "Treasures of the Earth," she talks about the rise of the organic and local foods movements, and their implications and impact. While I don't think I'll be craving fried beaver tail any time soon, I did find myself battling the urge to run down cellar mid-chapter to croon over my leek and broccoli seedlings. (I succumbed this morning before work, but I usually do this time of year, even if all I've been reading is the newspaper.)

While I did relish the wide-lens approach Jones takes in the latter half of the book, it's also my chief criticism; this volume can't quite decide whether to be an autobiography, or a broader social history, and the focus shifts pretty noticeably midway through. (My other criticism is that almost a third of the real estate is taken up by recipes, but that's mostly just sour grapes, as I don't dare test-drive 'em in my own kitchen with a library copy of the book.) This isn't a fatal flaw, though ... particularly given that it's still a fairly short book (200 pages even if you don't count the recipes), and written in such a generally warm and engaging style.

All right, this is the second night in a row this book has kept me up past bedtime, and the low batteries in my keyboard are finally giving up the ghost. I'm taking that as a sign that it's time to power down and recharge.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island

Yep, spring has sprung, and Cafe Hazelthyme needed a facelift. All that green will make me feel marginally less cagey when I'm blogging instead of out digging in my garden.

And while I was playing with the settings, I learned something interesting: Turning transliteration on will lead to some really interesting results when you start a-typing. Who knew I could blog in Hindi?

Now that that's out of the way, I finished #28, The Gate House, by Nelson DeMille, way too late last night. It was a light and silly, but fast-paced and entertaining story of life, love, death, and betrayal among Long Island's rich and infamous. The novel begins with the narrator and protagonist, John Whitman Sutter, returning to the same Gold Coast estate he'd left 10 years earlier in humiliation and disgrace because his client, Ethel Allard, is dying. He moves into the estate's gate house, where Ethel held lifetime tenancy, to await her passing and settle her affairs. This presents two problems. First, he's just a stone's throw from his ex-wife, Susan, whose affair with and subsequent murder of the mafia don next door was what drove him away in the first place; second, the late don's son also lives in the neighborhood, and just may have a score of his own to settle with Susan. Thrills, intrigue, and a moderate amount of sex ensue.

While I wouldn't rank DeMille among my favorite authors, I have read a few of his earlier books (The General's Daughter and Wild Fire), and The Gate House follows in much the same vein: a thriller with plenty of action, and lots of rich-people lifestyles to gawk at if you enjoy that sort of thing. It reads like you're watching a movie, and in fact, The Gold Coast has been purchased for the big screen by Bregman Productions. (The Gate House is actually a sequel to The Gold Coast, which I haven't read -- and when it comes to reviews, that's probably for the better, as I think any novel worth its own ink should stand on its own, even if the setting and characters are carried over from one of the author's earlier books.) In short, you don't pick a book like this up looking for great literature or brilliant social commentary. To DeMille's credit, though, he does manage to sneak a bit of the latter in there, and does so pretty smoothly. The story is set in 2002, and the aftereffects of September 11 echo throughout it: the omnipresence of American flags and lapel pins; the current assignments of the law enforcement personnel who'd worked the Bellarosa murder a decade earlier; the vague suspicion towards the Iranian emigre who's purchased the bulk of Susan's family estate; and the lingering shell shock among folks in the New York metro area, who knew the landscape and probably some of the victims. However, in contrast to the overtly political theme of Wild Fire and most Clancy novels, these details here serve primarily as background. Through Sutter's knowing but sarcastic perspective, DeMille also gets in some funny, biting observations about the Gold Coast elite, whether that's the weird eating habits of rich women (at one point, Sutter observes one of Susan's friend's taking a lunch of 5 grapes out of a $2,000 purse -- remember Tom Wolfe's social X-rays?), the execrable taste of the nouveau riche and the McMansions they live in, or the relentlessness of real estate agents in affluent areas who (paraphrasing) "could sell a toxic waste dump to a family with small children."

If I had to cite one chief quibble with the book, it's that it sometimes requires a bit too much suspension of disbelief. For example, I'm not giving much away by saying Sutter and Susan get back together; it happens somewhere around the chapter, and an astute reader can see it coming just by reading the dust jacket. I'm not convinced, though, that characters who've been apart for 10 years, haven't even seen each other in 4, and have had plenty of other company in the meantime would still be carrying torches for each other after all this time ... or that even if they were, that the public, sensational nature of their parting wouldn't be enough to overcome it. It doesn't help that they don't seem to have much in common, aside from the obvious (and frankly, you can't do that all the time); if anything, Sutter seems to forge a stronger personal and emotional connection with Ethel's daughter, Elizabeth.

Similarly, Sutter's animosity towards his mother and in-laws don't quite ring true. Obviously, in-law jokes have been around probably as long as marriage itself, and his comments about the Stanhopes are pretty darned funny -- a bit more extreme than what most of us would say or think, of course, but I'm willing to allow that. Where they fall short is about halfway through the novel, when we actually meet Susan's parents. Yes, I get that they're obnoxious, arrogant, and dull, all at the same time, and I suspect they're supposed to be satirized portraits of trust fund kids now in their dotage, folks who inherit enough wealth that they never need work a day in their lives. But William and Charlotte are cartoons, rather than caricatures. They seem more like ordinary senior citizens who just won the lottery rather than like old money, and the intensity of their dislike for Sutter is never explained. Likewise, we'd all believe some tension between Sutter and his own mother (heck, who doesn't have some issues with their parents?) ... but the depth and extent of their estrangement never quite makes sense, especially when we see how quickly it seems to thaw once we actually meet Harriet and see her interact with Sutter and his grown children.

All in all, though, these are minor-league complaints. The next Gatsby it ain't, but it's a fun read ... if it sounds like your cup of tea, it probably is.

That's it for now. Back in a few days with #29 - The Tenth Muse, which I intended to start at lunch today, but sidelined in favor of my own life in food (read: deli run with the co-workers).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

#27, take 2 - Escape

All right, I'm trying to stop apologizing for having, er, some eclectic tastes in reading matter, so here it is again. After giving up on Atmospheric Disturbances, I read Escape, Carolyn Jessop's autobiographical account of being raised in the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) church, coerced into a polygamous marriage with a much-older husband, bearing 8 children, enduring all manner of horrifying emotional and physical abuses, and ultimately, fearing for her own and her childrens' lives and safety, fleeing her husband and the FLDS.

Yes, it's a bit on the sensational side. Even with co-author Laura Palmer, Jessop's understandably too emotionally close to her subject matter for this book to pass as real journalism, in the manner of Jon Krakauer's acclaimed Under the Banner of Heaven, which tackles much the same subject matter. But what does "too sensational" mean, exactly? We've all heard the aphorism: Truth can be stranger than fiction. In my last post, I wrote about unreliable narrators, and in a sense -- when it comes to our own experience, we're all unreliable. For any episode in my life, I'd be glad to write up or retell whatever details I can remember, as honestly as I can, but that doesn't guarantee that someone else won't remember it differently or that there isn't a back story I didn't (or still don't) know that might color one's understanding of the situation. Likewise, I don't have the book at hand right now, but I don't think Escape purports to speak for all FLDS women or all women in polygamous marriages. Even if it does, it's more appropriately read as one person's account: probably accurate, as far as it can be, but neither objective nor complete. If you're conducting a study or writing a paper, use this book as one of your sources, but don't stop here. If you're particularly upset (as in, you'll have nightmares or otherwise be haunted for weeks) by accounts of child or sexual abuse, you may want to pass this one by, as, well, it's in there. OTOH, if you're interested in a less camera-friendly picture of FLDS and/or polygamy than Big Love offers, or you've ever scratched your head wondering how on earth a woman could agree to live like this in the 21st century, this is as good a place as any to begin.

Abort, Retry, Fail

OK, so number 27 was not Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen.

I tried; really, I did. But I only managed to get about 60 pages into the book before concluding I Just Didn't Get It, and this wasn't the book for me.

It's attempted reads like this that make me feel, well, not stupid, exactly, but (gasp) Ordinary. Mainstream. Lowbrow. The novel was well-reviewed (see The New Yorker and The New York Times for examples), and the premise sounded interesting enough; it's the story of Leo Liebenstein, a psychiatrist whose wife is (seemingly) replaced by another woman who looks, speaks, and behaves exactly like her. However, it quickly becomes clear that the "impostress" is nothing of the sort; rather, Leo is going mad.

Sounds fascinating, eh? Well, that's what I thought ... but for all the accolades heaped upon Galchen and her technique, I just couldn't get into this one. Perhaps my biggest problem was that it delved too quickly into Leo's digressions and delusions, before I was able to get a handle on anything concrete in terms of plot or character. Unreliable narrators or authors who play with language are fine by me, but not just for their own sake; I'm a selfish reader, and I want some sort of payoff, whether that's a good story or compelling characters or ideas to ponder once I've closed the back cover. (I feel the same way about special effects in movies, in case you were wondering ... which is one of the places where I part ways with Mrhazel and some other dear friends.) So I got far enough in Atmospheric Disturbances to appreciate some snippets of interesting description, but other than that, it felt like I was either back in my psych major days, trying to rein in the delusions of someone with severe schizophrenia or like I'd parachuted into the wrong corner of a hard-core IT geeks' Christmas party and hadn't the foggiest idea what language was being spoken.

Ah well, such is life. As Popeye once said, "I yam what I yam." Littlehazel and I did make a cold, back-breaking trek to the library last night (it was supposed to be just for her, as I already had 3 of my own on the shelf -- but how often am I that disciplined?), so I'm quite well-stocked for a while.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

#26 - The Big Squeeze. Ouch.

So, #26 was The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, by Steven Greenhouse. A well-written, convincing book that packs a punch, but probably isn't the most uplifting thing to read if you're on the job market. In a nutshell, Greenhouse's thesis is that conditions for the American worker have declined across the board over the last 20 years or so, and workers at all but the very top of the career ladder are working more, earning less, and enjoying far less security. If you're at all interested in labor issues and inequality in contemporary America (yep, this means me), much of what he's written won't be terribly new or surprising ... but the way he puts the data together, extends the argument to include white-collar workers, and uses compelling case studies to illustrate his points without implying that these individual stories are wholly representative makes for a gripping, if somewhat unsettling and depressing, read.

The first few chapters draw heavily on the anecdotal: stories of maltreated workers which are, agreeably, pretty horrific, but fairly easy for the average (read: college-educated, white collar) reader to dismiss as non-representative and/or things that only happen to workers in the lowest-paid, lowest-skill jobs. There's a Wal-Mart security guard who gets fired after he's injured in pursuit of a thief; an exploited call center worker who, repeatedly forced to work without clocking in, ends up paid even less than her already-measly $7-an-hour wage; several Wal-Mart stockers and security personnel who are locked in stores overnight to prevent "shrinkage" (a/k/a employee theft), and threatened with losing their jobs if they open the door for anything less than a fire; and so on -- all scenarios familiar to readers of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and/or any of the myriad of anti-WalMart books and articles out there. You start to think this is stuff you've seen and heard before.

Where Greenhouse's book stands out, though, is when he discusses the way white-collar workers are getting squeezed as well, and puts the pieces together to convince the reader that yes, we really are in the same boat. Many books on contemporary labor and workplace issues miss this mark (or perhaps never aim for it in the first place); either they go the Nickel and Dimed route, and paint a grim picture of how bad things are for the lowest-paid workers, or they make the mistake that The Sexual Paradox and many other work/life books do, and wring their hands about how stressed and overworked people (usually women) with higher levels of education and more occupational choices are. Greenhouse addresses both groups, and does so equally capably. For example, he argues that globalization hurts workers at all levels: employees in a Carolina slaughterhouse, where a large population of immigrants (mostly Mexican and Central/ South American, many of them undocumented) allow the employer to pay obscenely low wages for what really is a grueling, disgusting job; virtually the whole town of Galesburg, Illinois, where the closure of a Maytag factory that's relocated to Mexico has ripple effects throughout the entire community; and software engineers in Seattle, who are surprised to find themselves un- or underemployed as increasing number of high-tech jobs are exported to highly educated, low-paid workforces in India. He draws similar parallels between the experiences of vastly different workers when it comes to our increased workweeks -- whether that's the hotel housekeeper who's forced to come in early and off the clock just to get a day's work done, or the middle manager who's expected to work 12-hour days and still be available 24/7 by Blackberry. I was also impressed by Greenhouse's delicate navigation of the immigration issue; he calmly breaks it down into several sub-issues, tries to present all sides of controversial arguments, and is firm about laying the blame squarely on the employers who exploit undocumented workers, rather than the workers themselves. Similarly, the chapters on the difficulties specific to younger and older workers makes it very clear that this isn't an "us vs. them" issue -- unless it's one of CEOs vs. the rest of us.

Interspersed with the gloom and doom are several examples of companies which buck the trend. Of these, Greenhouse goes into the most detail about Costco, offering an extensive comparison of their far-more-generous wages and benefits compared to Wal-Mart's, and suggesting that they're able to afford this largely through what they save in employee turnover costs (though I think a bit more attention should have been paid to their comparatively modest executive compensation packages). I would have liked to see a bit more detail about some of the other "good" companies; the book touches only briefly on Timberland and Patagonia, and it would have been nice to see a bit more detail about how other companies in other industries manage to do right by their employees and still remain competitive.

No pithy summary or advice here, but it's an interesting, maddening, and sad book. Read it, but keep something soft nearby to throw when you feel the need.

Monday, March 16, 2009

#25 - The Brief Wondrous Life ... Wow!

As I notes last night, my 25th book o' the year, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, deserves the Pulitzer (as if I'm fit to judge!) and all the other accolades it received. A high-octane, wholly original novel of contemporary Dominican history and culture, the immigrant experience, and one boy's coming of age, this one doesn't stop ... and you don't want to stop reading it. Chapter One is titled "GhettoNerd at the End of the World 1974-1987," and that pretty much sums up who Oscar is. "Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody's always going on about -- he wasn't no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, nor a playboy with a million hots on his jock." A few pages later, Diaz describes him as "the neighborhood pariguayo," defined in 1 of 33 rambling, colloquial footnotes on Dominican culture and history as "pariguayos -- a word that in contemporary usage describes anybody who stands outside and watches while other people scoop up the girls. The kid who don't dance, who ain't got game, who lets other people clown him -- he's the pariguayo. If you looked in the Dictionary of Dominican Things, the entry for pariguayo would include a wood carving of Oscar."

Oscar, a fat Dominican growing up in New Jersey who loves comic books and science fiction, and "wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber ... Couldn't have passed for Normal if he'd wanted to" aspires to become the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien, and aches to find love, but this is not primarily an ugly duckling story. It leapfrogs from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic, and from the 1940s to the late 1990s, presenting the stories of Oscar's family as a microcosm of the Dominican and immigrant experiences. His sister Lola struggles wildly against her role as "the perfect Dominican daughter, which is just a nice way of saying a perfect Dominican slave," running away to a no-good Jersey Shore boyfriend and eventually to her grandmother's bakery in the DR in hopes of finding love and belonging. Their mother Belicia, orphaned in infancy and maltreated by the distant relations who took her in, parlays her beauty and courage into what she thinks is lasting love with the Gangster, a Trujillo henchman ... only to learn, in a heartbreaking and brutal fashion, that not only is he married, but his wife is Trujillo's sister. Diaz then takes us even further back, to the story of Belicia's father Abelard, a wealthy doctor whose favored status with the Trujillo regime goes tragically wrong when he refuses to introduce his beautiful eldest daughter to the lecherous dictator.

Themes of fate, cursedness, and familial influence vs. individual choice abound throughout the novel. Central to these is fuku, which the book's narrator, Yunior (Oscar's college roommate, and Lola's one-time boyfriend), explains thus:

Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku -- generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World. ...
[F]uku doesn't always strike like lightening. Sometimes it works patiently, drowning a nigger by degrees ... Sometimes it's slow and sometimes it's fast. It's doom-ish in that way, makes it harder to put a finger on, to brace yourself against. But be assured, like Darkseid's Omega Effect, like Morgoth's bane, no matter how many turns and digressions this shit might take, it always -- and I mean always -- gets its man. ... It's perfectly fine if you don't believe in these "superstitions." In fact, it's better than fine -- it's perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fuku believes in you.

Do we choose our own destinies, or are we compelled to follow in our elders' footsteps, forever haunted by their choices and experiences? Are some settings (i.e., the DR under Trujillo's regime, which Diaz elucidates in both footnotes and the main text "for those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history") so horrific as to beg for a supernatural explanation? The novel raises but, fittingly, never answers these questions; instead, it leaves you thinking and wondering long after you turn the last page.

My one quibble, and it's a fairly minor one, is with the female characters. Diaz devotes plenty of screen time to Lola and Beli -- together, they probably get at least as much as Oscar -- but we see a lot more of their physical attributes than I might have liked, and not quite as much of what's inside their heads making them tick, particularly in Beli's case. This may just be one of my own issues -- perhaps Beli's only option for surviving and escaping was to trade on her, um, generous physical assets, and little else about her mattered -- but there it is.

Will write more if and when it occurs to me, and I think it will -- I'll be absorbing this one for a while. In the meantime, it's an excellent read ... both enjoyable and provocative. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

#24, sort of - Crazy Lady!

'K then, my 24th book of the year was Crazy Lady!, by Jane Leslie Conly. Some might call this cheating on two counts (one, I listened to rather than read it; two, it's a children's book), but this is a blog, dang it ... not a grad-level literary seminar. And this book was really a wonderful find, a forgotten children's book with realistic characters, an engaging plot, and an imperfect but fitting ending.

The narrator and main character is Vernon Dibbs, a boy of about 12 growing up in a working-class Baltimore neighborhood in the early 1980s. Three years after his mother's sudden death, Vernon is floundering. His father is kind but remote, and must work long hours to support 5 kids with only a fourth-grade education, so much of the day-to-day work of running the household falls to his 17 year old sister Steph; big brother Tony is smart, but too caught up in his own studies and aspirations to be much help to his family. This leaves Vern mostly on his own, failing in school, hanging out with the neighborhood guys, and getting into minor-level mischief on the order of swiping candy bars from Woolworth's and heckling Maxine, the neighborhood crazy lady, whenever they catch her out with her mentally disabled teenaged son, Ronald.

Things begin to change when he meets Maxine at the corner store, and she speaks kindly of his late mother. Caught off-guard, he blurts out the truth about his poor grades, and she introduces him to Miss Annie, a retired teacher who agrees to tutor him in English. In lieu of money, she asks Vern to pay her by working odd jobs, usually to help Maxine and Vernon. A surprising friendship develops, and Vern learns that Maxine's bouts of public "craziness" are, in fact, drunkenness -- she's an alcoholic. After meeting Ronald's teacher, Vern comes up with the idea of organizing a carnival to raise money for sneakers, so Ronald can compete in the Special Olympics. In the process, Vern, Ronald, and the entire neighborhood are transformed.

That's the climax rather than the end of the story, and I won't give the rest away -- but our whole family really enjoyed the story. The characters are compelling and mostly likeable, but very much human, with warts and all. The setting, at least for a children's book, is a realistic, working-class urban neighborhood, racially mixed, and with some rough and run-down parts. Even the plot has more to it than I'd initially expected; primarily, it's the story of Vern getting to know Maxine and Ronald as individuals, but it's also about the long, slow process Vern's family goes through to rebuild their lives after his mother's death, and about an ordinary neighborhood coming together to support and take care of its own. It's an excellent car book -- complicated enough to hold the whole family's interest, and interesting to think and talk about afterwards, to boot. (If you're so inclined, several others in the same category we've enjoyed over the years are A Day No Pigs Would Die, by Robert Peck; Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry; Poppy and its sequels/ prequel, by Avi; and Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell.) It's also worth a read by older elementary, intermediate readers even if you're not in the car.

Coming soon, probably tomorrow: #25, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Finished this one today and really loved it -- it won the Pulitzer for a reason -- but that 5-hour car trip was a long one, and I'm 'bout ready for bed now.

*Finally* - #23, Shadow Country

Yes, it took me almost 2 weeks to read this book. Wow. It's a good thing I'd given up trying to rate the books I read numerically, because I'm still trying to figure out what I think about this one. Shadow Country, by Peter Matthiessen, retells and interprets the Watson legend, as explained in my last post. After finishing its nearly 900 pages ... wow. On one hand, what a story -- both the original, and the format in which Matthiessen opts to retell it. On the other, even though I know this edition cuts almost 600 pages out of the trilogy it was initially published as, it seemed really darned long.

There's little suspense about what ultimately happens to Watson; you find out in the first few chapters that he's shot to death outside his own home by a calm but determined mob of his neighbors. The conflict and theme, then, come in finding out how it came to this point: what's Watson's back story, who are his neighbors and relatives, and did he really commit all or any of the crimes of which he's suspected. The 3-book format is an unusual and interesting one, in that it tells the story from 3 different vantage points. Book I begins with Watson's shooting, and then takes the reader through the few years leading up to it from the perspective of about 12 different secondary characters: Bill House, who stands alone among his neighbors in admitting even after the smoke clears that yes, he fired at Watson, and yes, it may have been his shot that killed him; postmaster Ted Smallwood, one of the few who doesn't join the mob; Watson's grown daughter Carrie, who's torn between wanting to trust her father and loyalty to her husband's notions of respectability; and Henry Short, a light-skinned black man raised in the House home whose ambiguous status in the Watson mob -- a part of, and apart from -- mirrors his entire life. Book II, set 20 years after his death, introduces more of Watson's past and his neighbors' experience, as it tells the story of Watson's grown son Lucius, now a history professor, returning to the Ten Thousand Islands to find out what really happened to his father. Lastly, Book III is Watson's life story told in the first person, from his hardscrabble Carolina childhood through the death of his beloved first wife in childbirth, his alleged role in the killing of outlaw madam Belle Starr in the Indian Territories, and the backbreaking buildup of his sugar cane plantation on the southwestern edge of the Everglades.

Oddly, it's not so much the fact that this format essentially retells the story 3 times that makes the book seem unduly long and meandering. That aspect, I liked. While Book I at first seems jumpy and confusing, this serves to give the reader a feel for the complex reality of a multi-player crime scene. Books II and III don't so much tell you the same exact thing over and over again, as they provide additional insights and details into what really happened when ___, and what particular characters' motivations were. The effect for me was that several pieces that didn't make sense in Book I later came back with an "oh, OK, now I get it" once a bit more of the back story became clear. Matthiessen also introduces several weighty themes, which add texture and hints of allegory to the novel: the savage and arbitrary nature of race and racism in the post-Reconstruction South, the near-fatal damage to southern Florida's natural environment; what it means to be man, woman, husband, wife, parent, child in a given society. No, my quibble with the book is that given all the interesting stuff it's trying to do, there's a lot of additional detail which often seems repetitive, and doesn't add much to our understanding of the characters or story. And I'll admit this is a weakness of mine -- I'm always looking for characterization, even though I know it's not what all books are about -- but I found the characters somewhat undeveloped, with the exception of Lucius and Watson himself. Obviously, given the epic nature of the story and the sheer number of players involved, there's no way Matthiessen could have fully fleshed out all of them ... but there were a number who appeared repeatedly and were pretty central to the plot, but were never portrayed in enough detail for me to be fully clear what made this person different from the next.

This is definitely a weighty book with a lot going on. I expect elements of it will percolate through my consciousness for the next few weeks, and eventually, it may improve with a second read. Until then, my recommendation is to read it if you've got the time and patience, especially if you're a fan of historical fiction in a frontier and/or Florida setting ... but expect it to take a while, and be prepared for slow going at first.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Watch this space - #23 pending

Ok, just on the off chance that anyone other than Mr. Hazel is reading this ... #23 will be a while coming. I'm hoping to finish it before it's due back at the library next weekend, but that'll be a fine challenge (get it?).

Why, you ask? Well, I'm reading Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend, by Peter Matthiessen, and dang, this book is long. I'm no stranger to long books, but this one is over 900 pages ... and even that's a huge reduction from how it started. For the uninitiated (which I was before starting this book), the New York Times explains the Watson legend as follows:
"In 1898, 42-year-old Edgar J. Watson became a living legend when a book credited him with shooting the outlaw queen Belle Starr nine years earlier. The descendant of a prominent South Carolina family, the legal or common-law husband of five women, the father of possibly 10 children, a leading pioneer on the southwest coast of Florida and a man killed by a large group of his neighbors in 1910 ... "
Matthiessen initially conceived of this book as one long novel, but his editors balked at its 1,500-page length, and convinced him to break it up into a trilogy, the pieces of which -- Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River and Bone by Bone -- were published in the 1990s. However, as he explains in the introduction to Shadow Country, Matthiessen was less than pleased with the way the story flowed in this format, and with the capacity of the three individual novels (especially the second) to stand independently. The result is a substantial revision and condensation of the three books into one mega-novel.

So far I'm about two-thirds of the way through Book I, and my reactions are mixed. The setting is brilliantly described; I won't say "beautifully," because frankly, the book doesn't paint turn-of-the-last-century, southern Gulf Coast Florida as an especially nice place; it's more like the Wild West with more mosquitos, and even many of the book's characters tend to liken it to hell on earth. The characters are also complex and well-rendered, though the large number of different first-person narrators can be difficult to keep track of, and the "who's who" table at the front of the book is of limited use in this regard. However, the plot seems to move a bit slowly, and is a bit confusing at times (again, partly because there are so many different characters and perspectives to keep track of, and it's not always clear who says or does what). This may be deliberate on Matthiessen's part; it seems like part of the mystery of the Watson legend lies in the fact that no one really understands the whole story or knows the full truth, but it does make it a bit tough to keep up.

So ... guess I've got my evenings for the rest of the week cut out for me.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

#22 and Deja Vu

OK, it's been a while since this happened. I got about a third of the way through my 22nd book of the year, The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women, and the Real Gender Gap, by Susan Pinker, and realized, "Wait, haven't I read this before?" Yep; I had. Admittedly, I churn through books on this subject (gender roles and gender differences, especially in the workplace) about as quickly as I find them, but still ... it was kind of funny.

All right, then -- tangent aside, this book put forth some interesting ideas about the extent to which biological differences between men and women may explain some of the persistent difference in their career choices, but it also overreaches as to the importance of these differences, and often makes the mistake of confusing compelling anecdotes with solid evidence. Pinker's thesis is twofold: first, that many boys who struggle with ADHD, dyslexia, and the like during their school days end up out-earning and out-achieving the female classmates whose performance in school was far stronger, and second, there are biological and developmental differences between males and females that explain the persistent differences in their career choices and trajectories. If the second piece sounds like a hot-button issue, it is; in fact, it's what cost Obama economic advisor Lawrence Summers the presidency of Harvard several years back. And I'll admit straight-out that it's a sensitive issue for me, and that I had to try really hard to read Pinker's book the whole way through (again) with an open mind.

I'll start with the good stuff: some of Pinker's arguments are well-researched and -articulated. Perhaps the most solid is her chapter on males as the more fragile sex, both in terms of increased mortality at every age, and increased risk for difficulties in school. I was also intrigued by her chapters on dyslexia, autism and Asperger's syndrome, and ADHD, and her suggestion that in some ways, these disorders (all of which are far more prevalent in males than in females) each represent extreme examples of traits and behaviors that, in moderation, have historically been advantageous to men -- that's not to say that I'm fully convinced by this book alone that this is the case, but it's an interesting idea and one I'd like to see more research on.

That said, I think the book is far weaker when it delves into the traits and behaviors where women have traditionally had the advantage, and what this means for their career choices. In short, Pinker argues that the reason there are still so few women in the highest echelon science, math, and engineering careers is that their superior verbal and empathetic skills, coupled with their preference for intrinsically-meaningful work over that which is purely lucrative, motivate them to leave these fields (or leave the most prestigious, highly paid jobs in these fields) even when they've gotten the credentials and the jobs, and haven't been victims of discrimination. Again, I'm trying really hard to be objective here, but I think the following quote from the beginning of Chapter 3 illustrates two of the key fallacies in her reasoning:

"At the beginning of 2005, the choices of educated women became the focus of intense public scrutiny. ... [Harvard president Larry Summers] had offered some ideas about why there might be fewer women than men in high-flying academic science, math, and engineering careers. Could one reason be innate sex differences at the very extremes of performance? Or was discrimination still keeping women out? ... I thought about the high-achieving women in science I'd met over the years. They hardly seemed deficient at math, or in any academic area, for that matter. In fact, they seemed to have an array of options due to their native talents and their educational opportunities. Had they drifted into medicine, psychology, and teaching as consolation prizes after having been discouraged from pursuing physics or engineering careers? The answer, as it turned out, could be seen from my front porch."

Problem number one: Pinker seems to be trying to convince us that sex discrimination is a thing of the past, and that therefore, the differences between high-achieving men's and women's career choices must be due to innate differences between the sexes. Even if we accept for the moment her suggestion that discrimination's no longer a problem (and though I don't think it's that simple, I do believe that especially in the positions she profiles, it's probably far less prevalent than it was 25 or 30 years ago), I don't think it automatically follows that innate sex differences are the other explanation available. Sure, some women leave these fields because they decide the money and prestige just aren't worth it, and they find other work more meaningful ... but so do some men. She also seems to be a bit too quick to shrug off women's choices to leave these fields for other, more meaningful work because (oversimplification alert) "after all, it was her decision and she's much happier this way" -- glossing over the issue of whether a profession that requires 60- to 80-hour workweeks in order to succeed might itself be a problem.

Problem number two: Perhaps we should call this one the Belkin fallacy, after New York Times writer Lisa Belkin's infamous "Opt-Out Revolution" article from the early 2000's. The plural of anecdote is not data, and I'm always leery of arguments that seek to extrapolate from "people I know or know of" to society at large -- especially when the people one knows tend to fall within a pretty narrow socioeconomic spectrum. I know no one book or author can address every issue remotely connected to their topic, but I find it interesting (though not surprising any more) that Pinker doesn't even mention how different male-female occupational choices might play out among plumbers, firefighters, day care workers, secretaries, et al. It's easy to feel like it's no problem for women to be underrepresented in science and engineering if they chose to go into other fields and are still making a pretty darned comfortable living, even if it's not quite as lucrative as it might have been. However, what's going on toward the blue- and pink-collar realms? Are women really beginning careers as plumbers or mechanics or carpenters, but then leaving them because they find day care work more rewarding? And if so, are we still comfortable with the "intrinsic meaning for better pay" trade-off when it leaves them (in most cases) unable to earn a living wage?

As I said, I'm a big nerd about this stuff and could go on in this vein for quite a while, but I think you've got the idea -- worth reading, and has some interesting ideas, but I'm not sure I buy the big picture Pinker's trying to stitch together out of these threads. I'm off to do something sterotypically female and start dinner now.