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.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

#40 - Queen of Babble in the Big City

Yep, I'm on a roll this week. Amazing how that works when you're reading books with the substance and complexity of cotton candy. #40 was Queen of Babble in the Big City, by Meg Cabot (William Morrow, 2007). Yes, the same Meg Cabot who wrote The Princess Diaries and its countless spinoffs. She also wrote Size 12 Is Not Fat, which I haven't read, but it's a great title. Mostly, Cabot's a young adult author who's written a few books aimed at grown women (read: the characters aren't really any more mature, but they're older and have sex now and then, though it's all off-camera); I picked this one up after Littlehazel, who's read a few of her YA novels, insisted that I'd like her. So, complaining that this was a silly, fluffy read would be akin to complaining that the Finger Lakes are cold this time of year, or that I get my hands dirty when I work in the garden. Um, yeah -- but isn't that the point?

The story opens with heroine, Lizzie Nichols, freshly graduated (almost) from the University of Michigan and just moved to New York City. Her plan is to get an apartment with her BFF Shari and find a job restoring and preserving vintage dresses, but that quickly gets scrapped when her summer-fling-cum-boyfriend Luke (who just happens to be descended from French royalty and have a small-but-posh apartment on Fifth Avenue) invites her to move in with him. (I didn't read the original Queen of Babble, but suspect the summer romance with Luke may happen there.) Lizzie's not as lucky finding a job in the vintage clothing biz, though she does volunteer to work for a wedding-gown restorer and preserver for free, but Shari's prince of a boyfriend Chaz hooks her up with a part-time receptionist's gig at his father's law firm so she can pay the bills. There, she meets Jill Higgins, the ugly duckling of a zookeeper whose impending marriage into a Manhattan society family comes with far more media attention than she'd bargained for. Various and sundry hijinks ensue.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are illustrated excerpts from Lizzie's guide to wedding gowns -- presumably a book she's working on with all sorts of information about different dress styles, sleeve lengths, and so on. Exactly what this is or why Cabot included it wasn't quite clear, unless it's to drive home the point that Lizzie is, frankly, obsessed with weddings ... specifically, with wedding dresses. Not only is this what she wants to do professionally, the woman just plain has weddings on the brain all the time ... so much so that she's fantasizing about marrying Luke only 3 months after they meet, and automatically assumes that "a secret about Chaz and Shari" means "Chaz is going to propose."

For the most part, this is a pretty typical chick lit book, Big City style. Lizzie's exuberance and compulsion to babble incessantly were funny at times, but seemed a bit over the top; again, I haven't read Queen of Babble, but suspect this may have been a joke that played out there. One thing that does set it apart from others in the genre (The Devil Wears Prada and pretty much anything else by Lauren Weisberger; The Nanny Diaries) is the narrator's frank discussion of what it's like to live in the ritzier parts of Manhattan if you're broke. The aforementioned posh apartment has an honest-to-goodness original Renoir painting in the bedroom, but in some ways, Lizzie envies Shari and Chaz's apartment ... it's a walk-up in a much grittier neighborhood, sure, but at least there are cheap groceries and takeout a stone's throw away.

My biggest complaint about the story is that the romances tend to fall flat. (Seeing as half the point of these books is supposed to be enjoying an amusing, juicy romance, this is a problem.) We know Luke's rich, good-looking, and has the pseudo-royalty thing going on, but frankly, Lizzie seems to have far more chemistry with Chaz. And without giving too much away, there's another relationship that crops up midway through the book that Just Doesn't Make Sense. These drawbacks make the ending, which is ambiguous, distinctly unsatisfying. I suspect Cabot's gearing up for yet another sequel, but honestly, I probably won't bother.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

#39 - Heart and Soul, and not much of either

Did you ever have a much-anticipated reunion with an old friend, or revisit a place you once loved, only to find it not nearly as wonderful as you'd remembered? You've grown apart from your friend, or your favorite diner has gone to seed ... either way, you have this treasured picture in your mind, and reality just doesn't measure up.

Or have you ever been out to eat, and seen your mouth water at that lovely-looking lemon meringue pie that was on its way out for dessert ... only to discover, with the first disgusted mouthful, that it's not actually lemon after all, but (blagh! ptui!) banana.

Well, that's kinda what happened when I read Heart and Soul, by Maeve Binchy (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). I usually enjoy Binchy's books; they're not great literature, but they're warm feel-good reads with interesting characters and satisfying plot developments. Circle of Friends is still in high rotation when I'm in the mood to reread an old favorite, and I feel I know its principals better than most of my cousins. Not so here, sadly. I was trying to explain how disappointed I was by this book, and stumbled across an online review that captured my own reactions rather nicely:

"It's a sad day when an author you first discovered decades ago as a reliable purveyor of great escapist sagas can no longer deliver the goods the way he or she once did. But I must admit, reluctantly, the Maeve Binchy I once enjoyed ... is no more. In her place, someone is writing cute, but slight, feel-good tales set in a Binchy-like landscape."

-S. McGee, from this review

The story revolves around a new cardiac care clinic in a rough-but-up-and-coming Dublin neighborhood. Its main character is the clinic's reluctant director, Dr. Clara Casey, who knows this job isn't quite where she'd expected to be, but ends up throwing herself into it wholeheartedly (pardon the pun) rather than expend any more energy on her soon-to-be-ex-husband and their two selfish, entitled grown daughters. She quickly staffs the facility with a typical Binchy mix of quirky characters: kind young doctor Declan Carroll, whose proud but judgmental parents leave him little space for a life of his own; Jill-of-all-trades Ania, a hardworking Polish immigrant struggling to save enough money to make up for disgracing her mother with a sleazy, two-timing boyfriend; Hillary, whose fierce devotion to the mother who helped her raise her son after Hillary's husband died makes her blind to her mother's growing need for more care than she can provide; and Fiona, a lovely but humble nurse whose history with heartbreak and unsuitable men keeps her from trusting her deepening love for Declan, or his for her.

Frequent Maeve mavens may recognize Fiona from Nights of Rain and Stars, and indeed, Heart and Soul features a veritable reunion of old Binchy characters in supporting roles. Every special occasion is celebrated in Quentins restaurant, where Brenda and Patrick Brennan make their appearance. Aidan Dunne from Evening Class has a heart attack that leaves him torn between retiring from his rewarding-but-rough teaching position or soldiering on to provide a comfy pension for his beloved Nora. Maud and Simon, the energetic oddball twins from Scarlet Feather, help cater a fancy anniversary party attended by the principals. And I understand that Father Brian Flynn, the new-to-Dublin country priest whose commitment to Ireland's immigrants is nearly undone by deluded stalker Eileen Edwards, comes to us straight from Whitethorn Woods, though I didn't read this one myself.

While some reviewers enjoyed all these special guest stars, and I usually get a chuckle from seeing this done in moderation, I found it a bit excessive and lazy in this case. For one thing, it makes for so many characters and story lines that they all seem a bit pot-bound, and none gets quite enough light or soil to really develop fully. Instead of basically good-hearted characters with a handful of humanizing quirks and flaws, we get a whole chorus of stock characters, who for the most part are two-dimensional, and seem too perfect to be believable. For another, the small-town coincidences that work fairly well in some of Binchy's other books don't quite seem credible in the bustling Dublin of the early 2000s. Are we really to believe that Quentin's is the only restaurant in the city equipped for a proper, pull-out-the-stops celebration? That the mysterious Eileen's mother just happens to turn up at the clinic? That Fiona's experience in Greece still affects her so deeply after all this time?

I also found the structure and pacing of the novel a bit cumbersome. Rather than weaving the character's stories together throughout the book, Binchy tells each character's story in turn. One chapter tells Hillary's story, the next Declan's, the next Ania's, and so on. The end result is that this feels less like a single cohesive narrative than like a collection of interrelated short stories, and not a particularly compelling one at that. Then, in about the last quarter of the book, it's as though Binchy threw all the characters and stories up into the air, and patched them together as best as she could with duct tape and twist ties. The ending manages to be both sloppy and overly tidy at the same time.

Perhaps I'm being unduly harsh here, as this really wasn't an awful book. I did enjoy the glimpses of the new, prosperous Ireland of the 1990s and early 2000s, especially from an author who's set stories there in pretty much every decade of the last 50 years. We see an exuberant real estate bubble, an influx of Eastern European immigrants, an explosion of ethnic groceries and restaurants, and naturally, some backlash from the native-born Irish. The plot and characters were mildly interesting, so it wasn't a chore to get through ... it's just a big leap from there to "couldn't put it down," which was what I'd hoped for from this author.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

#38 - Summer People

With the unseasonably warm, no, make that brutally hot weather we've had in the Northeast these last few days, I've been rereading what's probably the quintessential beach read as far as I'm concerned: Summer People, by Marge Piercy (1989). OK, truth be told, I was rereading it even before this weekend's spate of August in April set in; once it did, I did a lot more sleeping than reading. (I Do. Not. Like. hot weather. I live in upstate NY for a reason, people.)

I love this book. I picked my copy up at a used book sale years ago, after the story stayed with me long after I'd returned my borrowed copy to the library and I realized it was one I needed to own. This edition wasn't well-made to begin with, the kind of thing you'd pick up in the airport or supermarket as you're heading outta Dodge for a vacation. By now, the front cover hangs on by a single masking tape-sized corner, and the pages have faded to an indeterminate shade of yellowbrowngrey. In short, it's been around the block a few times, and I still pick it up to reread when I'm sick, stressed, or otherwise not firing on all cylinders. It's a grrlbook, sure, but it's a darned good one.

Summer People follows three year-round residents of a small Cape Cod town for the year surrounding the breakup of their long-lived menage a trois. Dinah is a composer and musician who guards her independence fiercely, but still longs deeply for intimacy. For years, she's found it with her neighbors: Willie, a gentle, idealistic sculptor, and his wife Susan, an ethereal, fragile fabric designer. As the novel opens, though, tensions are beginning to flicker, fueled by the principals' conflicting relationships to the town's wealthy summer residents. Susan's long been captivated by the glamour and sophistication of the summer people -- particularly Tyrone Burdock, the unctuous and manipulative wheeler-dealer whose summer estate adjoins their own. Dinah has little patience for Tyrone's arrogance and intrusiveness, and rarely misses a chance to make this known; Willie thinks Tyrone's a nuisance, but mostly holds his tongue for the sake of keeping the peace (a frequent habit of his, we soon learn). When Susan ventures out in a snowstorm to check on Tyrone's empty house, and narrowly escapes serious injury, Dinah scolds her furiously. The ensuing argument leads Susan to sever not just her own relationship with Dinah, but Willie's as well.

It's only as the triangle falls apart that its members (and the reader) fully grasp its significance: how it's sustained and strengthened all three of them, but also how it's limited them. Without the emotional connection to Dinah, Susan becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her work and life on the Cape, and ever more convinced that her friendship with Tyrone is her ticket to the fast-paced, fashionable big city lifestyle she craves. Willie finds himself at loose ends professionally and personally, so embroiled in a construction project for Tyrone that his own work suffers, and unable to either give up his relationship with Dinah or to admit this to Susan. And Dinah is torn between trying to recapture what she shared with Willie and Susan, and recognizing those needs the triangle hadn't filled: for spiritual roots, shared passion for music, and just maybe a different sort of love and creativity.

Piercy employs the same technique she's used in other novels (including Gone to Soldiers and The Longings of Women), telling the story from four different characters' perspectives. The fourth is Tyrone's daughter Laurie, a timid aspiring artist who, after her husband dies of a drug overdoes, flees NYC for the safety and healing of the Cape. Susan and Willie's son Jimmy is in the same boat, home from Seattle to lick his wounds after the collapse of both his business and his marriage. Not surprisingly, Jimmy and Laurie are drawn to each other's familiarity and vulnerability, and become involved ... much to Susan's and Tyrone's chagrin. We also get to know Itzak, the acclaimed flutist who Dinah meets when she's commissioned to compose a piece for him, and who proves to be a kindred spirit; and Susan and Willie's daughter Johnny (nee Siobhan), a Minneapolis-based punk artist who never fails to push Susan's buttons.

As is true of most of Piercy's books, the plot is solid enough, but it's the characters who really shine. With the exception of Tyrone, they're all intriguingly multi-faceted, with much more going on beneath the surface than we see at first glance. The changes they undergo over the course of the novel are mostly believable, though I do wish Jimmy's and Laurie's motivations were fleshed out a bit more, and I'd like to have seen Susan portrayed in a slightly more sympathetic light.

I also enjoy some of the vignettes Piercy offers to give the story its texture. My favorite scene is probably one in which Dinah, free to celebrate Passover for the first time in a decade, decides to host a seder, cobbing together a guest list that includes Jimmy, Laurie, Itzak, a rabble-rousing 60-something steelworker's widow, a gay neighbor and his partner, and a bland "summer people" couple and their pre-teen daughter. The results are sweet, funny, and pitch-perfect; anyone who's celebrated holidays with a motley, patchwork guest list won't know whether to laugh or cry.

Matter of fact, that's probably why I enjoy Piercy's books so much. Her characters are flawed, and she pokes fun at them sometimes, but it's neither mean-spirited nor melodramatic. I find myself sorry when I finish the story, as if my old friends are moving away. Fortunately, the bookshelf in my living room isn't all that far.

#37 - ARGH!

No, that's not a reflection on #37 - Cherishing Our Daughters: How Parents Can Raise Girls to Become Strong and Loving Women, by Evelyn Bassoff (1998, The Putnam Group), which was OK if not perfect ... more a sense that the parenting, marriage, and family theme has run its course. If I were a grad student, the common themes found in popular books from this genre and era (the mid-1990s) would be a fascinating thesis topic. And like any grad student I've ever known, I'd probably get sick to death of the topic after a while. I'm there now after what, 3 or 4 books ... so it's probably a good thing I'm not a grad student anymore. You'll notice that the latest additions to my bookshelf are heavy on the entertaining, mass market fiction; I even went so far as to check out one of the adult-oriented offerings from Meg Cabot, a mostly-YA author Littlehazel's become fond of lately. And at this very moment, I'm halfway through an utterly predictable Maeve Binchy book and enjoying it thoroughly, TYVM.

All righty, then, where was I? Right, Cherishing Our Daughters. After seeing Mary Pipher's praise quoted on the cover, my hopes weren't too high, but this book was actually better than I expected. Essentially, the book is Bassoff's extended meditation on the ten parental "gifts" that are most critical to raising strong, loving daughters: maternal devotion, paternal care, "letting in" (i.e., allowing extended family members to love and support one's daughter, too), protectiveness, limit-setting, respect, wholeness, courage, roots, and wings. I found the "loving and letting in" chapter interesting, having just read The Shelter of Each Other. While Pipher's thoughts on extended family relationships seemed narrow and dictatorial, Bassoff's seem more balanced; she focuses mostly on the grandparent-granddaughter relationship, but acknowledges that there's room for other relatives and close friends to perform similar functions, and addresses the extra wrinkles that arise when there's a blended family and/or a stepparent in the picture.

I also enjoyed the chapters on protectiveness and limit-setting. So often, we hear "protectiveness" prefaced by "over"; by contrast, this book seems to place as much emphasis on teaching girls to be assertive, say no, and trust their gut instincts when something Just Doesn't Seem Right ... in other words, protecting themselves. Bassoff also acknowledges the risks of being too protective, quoting Ellen Goodman (as she does frequently throughout the book):
"But at some point in time, we must also begin to acknowledge the risks of protectiveness. Risks that come when children are taught to be afraid. Risks that come to a diverse society when kids grow up to be suspicious of 'others.' Without even knowing it and with the best intentions, we can stunt our children with our deep longing to keep them safe."
I wasn't thrilled with the end of the protectiveness chapter. This is one of several places throughout the book where Bassoff recounts a popular legend or fairy tale (in this case, that of Briar Rose, a/k/a Sleeping Beauty), and attempts to draw from it some lesson or other to inform our understanding of girls' development. In most cases, I found this approach clunky and out-of-place. The first paragraph of this thread is clear enough:
"[E]ven the most cherished child cannot be kept perfectly safe. Indeed, in one way the curse of the bad fairy represents the inevitable misfortunes that beset every child's life. Although we parents can mitigate the dangers that confront our daughters, we cannot eliminate them. Nor can we stop time and lock our daughters in eternal childhood to preserve their innocence."

Hear, hear; makes sense to me. Unfortunately, rather than stopping here while she's ahead, Bassoff goes on to suggest that the fairy's "curse" represents menstrual bleeding, talk about the feminist critique of the Briar Rose story as "a metaphor for a woman's unhealthy passivity -- the comatose existence that is expected to last until she is rescued by a man's sexual overtures," and so on ... all of which seemed digressive, like it belonged more to a high school junior English class than a book on parenting and female development.

My other main critique of Cherishing Our Daughters was that it contains just a bit too much gender essentialism for my taste. (If you haven't guessed yet, this is a sore spot of mine.) I appreciate the author's repeated emphasis on the importance of both parents' involvement in a girl's development; I recognize that fathers and mothers tend to interact differently with their children, and that this is generally a good thing. I don't, however, agree that "focus, determination, direction, assertiveness, ambition, [and] adventurousness" are primarly masculine qualities which only a father can transmit, any more than I think fathers are incapable of being patient, tender, or comforting. And frankly, though the rest of the "Father's Care" chapter is pretty rational and well-balanced, the comment about "When men are encouraged to be fathermen, and not 'Mr. Moms,' they are empowered -- and so are their daughters" seemed gratuitous. I'm not sure exactly what a "Mr. Mom" is in this context, but this argument would have been stronger had Bassoff just encouraged the reader to respect fathers' unique talents and styles, rather than suggesting it's unreasonable for them to pitch in with the scutwork more commonly done by moms. Some tasks of parenting are empowering, sure ... others are just plain unpleasant. They still need to get done.

In a similar vein, I was a bit cranky at Bassoff's insistence that the best mothers stay home, or at least work part-time, while their children are babies ... period, the end. Do we need longer, more generous parental leave policies in the U.S.? Absolutely. But she seems to place the blame and guilt sorely on the mother's shoulders, without recognizing that one single solution probably isn't best for everyone:
"The truth of the matter is that being a mother is the most important and most demanding of all vocations. At stake is the life and well-being of another human being. If children are to thrive, mothers must once again realize the importance and the joy of being present in their lives, just as the bright, capable women of past generations did. This does not mean that all women give up their personal ambitions and creative aspirations, although these might be realized before having children or put off until after the children need less in the way of daily care. It does not mean that all women forgo outside employment, although, for at least the first year after having a baby, part-time, rather than full-time, employment ought to be considered."

On the following page, she goes on to claim that mothers need to be with their children minute by minute and hour by hour during their early months and years in order to become attuned to the children's needs. OK, I'll grant that the book was published in 1998 and the "Mommy Wars" were still a-raging at the time, but devoting the first ten pages to a contentious, polarizing topic that could have consumed a whole book by itself may not have been the best move. As it was, I managed to keep reading and was pleased not to find Bassoff harping further on this issue later on ... but it did take me a few chapters to calm down and start reading with an open mind again.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

#36 - The sky is falling! Gimme Shelter!

A bit behind on the blogging lately, but my 36th book of the year was The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families, by Mary Pipher (1996, G.P. Putnam & Sons). I knew nothing about it beforehand, but had high hopes based on Pipher's earlier mega-hit, Reviving Ophelia, which I'd read years ago. (As an aside, I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember much about that one; one of the perils of being a quick reader, and one of the reasons I started this blog, was to force myself to think about what I read a bit more deeply and critically.)

Anyway, I hate to say it, but I was underwhelmed by The Shelter of Each Other. I'd hoped for some research and observations on building and maintaining strong, solid family relationships in today's complex, ever-changing culture, and there was some of that here, mostly in the very last chapter. However, the bulk of the book seems overly focused on idealizing the past (specifically, Midwestern small-town life in the 1950s, which mirrors Pipher's own childhood), and lamenting everything that's gone to heck in a handbasket since then. Ever since reading Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Never Were, I'm leery of rose-colored accounts of the 1950s, and frankly, even the ancient Greeks engaged in hand-wringing over "What's the matter with kids today?" And to her credit, Pipher seems to recognize the dangers here; she acknowledges in the first chapter that "today's families have the old problems that they have had for centuries, the problems described in the Bible, The Canterbury Tales, and the works of Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Ibsen: ungrateful children, self-involved parents, jealous siblings, insane relatives, unfaithful mates and prodigal sons." Shortly thereafter, she acknowledges that yes, the 1950s were "a time of Jim Crow laws, anti-Semitism, McCarthyism and the enforced housewifery for women," among other things.

But that's about where the balance ends. When Pipher writes about today (or the mid-90's, when she wrote the book), it's almost always negative and vastly oversimplified. Some examples:

"Unwritten rules of civility -- for taking turns, not cutting in lines, holding doors open for others and lowering our voices in theaters -- organize civic life. Unfortunately, those rules of civility seem to be crumbling in America. We are becoming a nation of people who get angry when anyone gets in our way."

"We have a crisis in meaning in our culture. The crisis comes from our isolation from each other, from the values we learn in a culture of consumption and from the fuzzy, self-help message that the only commitment is to the self and the only important question is -- Am I happy? We learn that we are number one and that our own immediate needs are the most important ones."

"This generation is sophisticated, cynical and tired. There's a morass of angst. Some young adults are dissatisfied with corporate consumer values. They drop out of mainstream culture and go trekking in Tibet or work minimum-wage jobs and write poetry."

I mean, come on, now. For someone who devotes so much time to criticizing "junk media," Pipher seems to have fallen hook, line, and sinker for all the worst things said media tell us about today's youth. Surely she understands that even at the height of the 1990s economic boom, not everyone under 30 was either a soulless corporate shill or a poetry-writing, Tibet-trekking, Gen X slacker. To me, statements like this just seem unnecessarily hysterical and polarizing. Similarly, she claims that "in the 1990s the dysfunctional version of the family seems the most influential," and that our contemporary culture is one of narcissism. These are interesting ideas, and I'd have loved to see a reasoned discussion to do them justice, but instead, Pipher backs them up only by citing "pop psychology" and "talk shows" -- hardly a complete or accurate reflection of the larger culture.

Similar flaws undercut Pipher's discussions the shortcomings of therapy and the different impact of external vs. internal problems on families. In both cases, she presents some interesting ideas, but then degenerates into statements and case studies so extreme and inflammatory that they generate lots of heat, but not much light. The anti-therapy chapter is promising at the outset; it's a rare mental health professional that will come out and admit in plain English that not all therapies are created equal, and some may do more harm than good. Says Pipher:

"[Popular psychology] has been oversold. Its hackneyed, imprecise language is part of all our vocabularies. ... Popular psychology uses generic language that reduces people to slogans and categories. ... Sometimes therapy derived from popular psychology encourages self-doubt, self-pity, and self-absorption. It can give people labels rather than direction, and excuses rather than motivation. Sometimes therapy is a Band-Aid that gives people just enough support to stay in miserable situations."

Sounds good, until she goes on to flesh out her list of 10 mistakes therapists make with more than a few straw men, e.g., her assertion that therapists believe "[f]amily is the cause of all problems," "[encourage] narcissism and [check] basic morality at the door," and "[suggest] that therapy is more important than real life." Do they really? Where's the evidence? Sure, I'd believe there are hack therapists out there on the loose, just like there are bad cops and teachers, but I hardly think any of these subgroups' mistakes are widespread enough to tar their entire professions, and Pipher doesn't offer any compelling evidence to convince me otherwise.

Perhaps Pipher's strongest argument about the current state of American families is her comparison of the concrete external problems which confronted Depression-era families with the diffuse, often internal challenges we face today. "[In the 1930s] families were clear that their biggest enemy was low cattle prices, dust or hailstorms and farm foreclosures. These outside problems united Depression-era families. Fighting them together built up family loyalty." I do think Pipher's understanding of the '30s is limited by her Midwestern upbringing, so I'd expand this list to include urban poverty and racism, but I don't dispute her claim that the families of 75 years ago faced major problems which clearly originated far outside the home. By contrast, "today's families are much more confused about who the enemy is .... They are less clear about their external enemies, such as an unfair economic system, an alcohol- and drug-soaked society, crime and the fear that comes with it, junk media and the pressures of consumerism. It's harder to fight an enemy that isn't properly identified." Again, I'd personally be inclined to place more emphasis on the unfair economic system and less on Pipher's "junk media" (a symptom and/or an escape from contemporary problems, rather than their cause, IMO), but I do think her point about the perils of prosperity is interesting, and deserves a lot more attention than it gets in this book. "Today we have the poverty of consumerism, which means never having enough. We're impoverished in a different way -- we are ... 'thirsty in the rain.'"

I'd be a lot more inclined to recommend this book, albeit with a few grains of salt, if I didn't think Pipher's gross oversimplifications wouldn't do more harm than good for someone who's honestly trying to keep her family safe and strong, but doesn't have the option of returning to a 1950s-style small Midwestern town surrounded by 7 generations of extended family. She presents a number of truly horrific case studies based on her experience as a therapist, which were certainly jarring, but again, probably not representative of the general population (and without solid explanations or data, it's not clear what purpose Pipher intends these extreme examples to serve.) In contrast to numerous gratuitous references to mothers who work long hours while leaving their kids in mediocre-but-affordable day care, there's the cloying example of Eduardo and Sabrina, whose problems are miraculously solved when Sabrina quitting her job, Eduardo begins refusing to work Saturdays, and they're able to make ends meet by moving Sabrina's mother in with them and pooling both households' resources.

"Building family means driving all night to a cousin's funeral or telling co-workers that you can't work Saturdays. It means avoiding the need to work overtime by going without a new car, or turning down a promotion that involves moving teenagers to a faraway city. It means missing Seinfeld to attend a grandmother's Eastern Star installation."

Hey, more power to Eduardo and Sabrina -- but certainly, not everyone has the option of making it on a factory worker's salary, turning down overtime and still keeping their job, or moving Grandma into the spare room to help out. And to imply that those who don't are selfish, choosing to prioritize new cars and favorite TV shows over their families, does a disservice to those for whom reality is far more complicated.

#35 - More of the same

Yep, I'm on another of my thematic kicks; this time, I'm reading about gender and family issues. Earlier this week, I finished Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women, by Susan Maushart. In a word -- eh. The title itself is a tall order; there are a lot of married women out there, and it's hard to imagine that one book can deconstruct every last one of their marriages in 247 pages. Frankly, this one doesn't even come close. Maushart's thesis is that today's high divorce rate is due to the inequalities behind married partners, the differences between (borrowing a page from American sociologist Jessie Bernard) His marriage and Her marriage:
"We can't make up our minds about marriage because we have not acknowledged that these two versions of the one relationship are fundamentally and perhaps irreconcilably divergent. And, more to the point, we have not yet acknowledged -- perhaps not even to ourselves -- that His marriage still works. And Hers doesn't."
She defines "wifework" in some detail in the first chapter to include performing a disproportionate share of household and child care tasks, emotional caretaking, maintaining His diet and physical well-being, deferring to His intimacy and conversational needs, et al. You get the idea. She then suggests that wifework evolved as a little extra something women did to help keep their men monogamous -- "a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of monogamy go down." Subsequent chapters explore the prevalence and persistence of wifework, and how it plays out in the arenas of housework, parenting, and emptional caregiving.

The book was a reasonably interesting read, and much of it did resonate with, um, things I've heard from married woman friends. It also offers some amusing observations, e.g., "In my opinion, love isn't blind. It just provides exceptional camouflage." I particularly enjoyed the "Rising Expectations and Diminishing Returns" chapter, about the growing gap between what we expect of marriage on one hand and what we actually get on the other -- though Marriage: A History tackled this same subject more clearly and comprehensively. I'm not, however, convinced that Wifework is solid scholarship. For one thing, Maushart has a habit of citing a study or statistic related to whatever point she's trying to make, but then extrapolating (sometimes with a witty but misleading quote thrown in for good measure) to draw conclusions far beyond what the evidence supports; witness her statements in Chapter 5 that "It is a sociological truism that unmarried males represent the dregs of society, and unmarried females the cream," and "what keeps marriages together are wives who have no choice but to keep them together. What puts marriage asunder are wives with access to other options."

For another, in offering anecdotes to illustrate her points, Maushart relies far too heavily on her own experience. The first time, when she regales us in Chapter 2 with her sudden compulsion to cook dinners and scrub toilets after her first marriage in 1985, it's amusing; by Chapter 14, the umpteenth reference (this time, to a tiff with her second husband over earning vs. decision-making power), it's gotten old. Moreover, it makes her sound bitter and lacking in objectivity -- both of which detract from the arguments she's trying to make. Coupled with her breezy, flippant tone and cutesy chapter titles (e.g., "Equality Go Bye-Byes" and "Whose Wife Is It, Anyway?"), this makes the book feel somewhere like a cross between a series of popular essays and a mudslide-fueled gripefest with a girlfriend, rather than like a legitimate contribution to social science.

Overall, if you're new to the subject, Wifework is a readable introduction, and offers some interesting food for thought. It's definitely a light appetizer, though, and not a full meal; long-time addicts of the genre won't find much new here, and will probably find the tone off-putting.

Next up: My review for the equally disappointing The Shelter of Each Other, by Mary Pipher. I really need to stock up on some good, juicy fiction, stat.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Love and marriage ...

Sorry, folks -- if you were hoping for a juicy personal expose on the seamy side of life at Hazel's House, this ain't it. Double the "bad idea" quotient on that because Mrhazel is one of the few people who actually reads my blog, and then double that because we just had Mrhazel's mom with us for the weekend. Cafe Hazelthyme remains PG-rated at best. Nothing to see here.

Well, nothing except my review for #34 - Marriage, A History: From Intimacy to Obedience, or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. I'll admit up front that I was predisposed to like this one; I'm interested in family and gender issues, I devour histories that are less about battles and conquests than about the everyday lives of regular people, and I really enjoyed The Way We Never Were and The Way We Really Are, Coontz's earlier books about much the same subject (namely, the history of family life). While I ended up not enjoying Marriage quite as much as the other two -- possibly because I've read a number of books and articles on the topic since then, so it's harder to find something new or surprising -- it was nonetheless an interesting read, informative, and written in a clear, engaging style.

The book starts with a premise that will be familiar to readers of Coontz's earlier books: namely, that what we think of as "traditional" in terms of marriage and family life isn't, really. More precisely, she argues that people only began marrying for love about 200 years ago, and that the iconic traditional family depicted in Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver was both a recent invention and a short-lived one:
"The long decade of the 1950s, stretching from 1947 to the early 1960s in the United States and from 1952 to the late 1960s in Western Europe, was a unique moment in the history of marriage. Neve before had so many people shared the experience of courting their own mates, getting married at will, and setting up their own households. Never had married couples been so independent of extended family ties and community groups. And never before had so many people agreed that only one kind of family was 'normal.'

"The cultural consensus that everyone should marry and form a male breadwinner family was like a steamroller that crushed every alternative view. By the end of the 1950s even people who had grown up in completely different family systems had come to believe that universal marriage into a male breadwinner family was the traditional and permanent form of marriage."
In reality, according to Coontz, it was neither. By contrast, "the single most important function of marriage through most of history ... was its role in establishing cooperative relationships between families and communities. ... Marriage also allowed families to pool labor and resources or to establish some kind of partnership between two different kin groups." She devotes roughly the first half of the book to a survey of marriage customs across cultures and time periods in the thousands of years before the love match became widely accepted, from political marriages in ancient Athens and then Rome (including Antony's to Cleopatra, of which she writes "both Cleopatra and Antony were playing for stakes that had little to do with undying love ... on everyone's part this was a calculated, even ruthless, political intrigue") to early Christianity's evolving requirements for marriage and divorce to the essential role of marriage in allowing medieval peasants to create economically viable households.

The tipping point occurred toward the close of the 18th century, when industrialization shifted production from home to factory, and Enlightenment philosophers came to emphasize individual rights and justice over domination and force. Says Coontz, the result was as follows:
"The husband, once the supervisor of the family labor force, came to be seen as the person who, by himself, provided for the family. The wife's role was redefined to focus on her emotional and moral contributions to family life rather than her economic inputs. The husband was the family's economic motor, and the wife its sentimental core."
Realizing that this is becoming long, I'm barely halfway through the book, and I'm still mostly summarizing rather than offering any intelligent reflections ... I'll recommend this book as both entertaining and informative, and direct those seeking a more in-depth analysis to this review from an April 2007 California Literary Review, which I wish I'd written. (I mostly agree with the author, but I'm not that good. Then again, he probably wasn't sitting on the couch with an afghan on his feet and an elderly iBook on his lap when he wrote it, either.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

#33 - Our Lady of Greenwich Village

This one -- Our Lady of Greenwich Village, by Dermot McEvoy -- started off strong, but got considerably weaker when it veered off from politics into a rather mundane romance.

I had fairly high hopes. After a somewhat-confusing first chapter or so (too many characters introduced too quickly to keep them all straight, at least at first), the story line and McEvoy's writing became very funny. I love me some New York stories, and enjoy a good political satire, and this book offers both. It opens in 2000, with journalist Benedict "Cyclops" O'Reilly (so named because he lost an eye in Vietnam) getting a tip that Republican congressman and family-values champion Jackie Swift has been hospitalized at St. Vincent's under suspicious circumstances. In truth, Swift suffered a heart attack in the midst of a cocaine-fueled tryst with his chief of staff ... but needless to say, his press secretary isn't eager to have this get out. To cover up, the secretary claims that Swift collapsed after receiving a very long distance visitor: the Virgin Mary, who's urging him to be a champion for the anti-abortion movement.

The patrons of Hogan's Moat, the bar of choice for the Irish literati and/or politicoes of Greenwich Village, respond with disbelief and profanity. Among them are Cyclops O'Reilly and Wolfe Tone O'Rourke -- long-time buddy of O'Reilly's, legendary political consultant, and our hero. However, the "Virgin Mary appears to Swift" story takes on a life of its own when it's seized on by Cardinal Declan Sweeney. Against the advice of his top staffer, Monsignor Sean Pius "Johnny Pie" Burke (who just happens to be Cyclops O'Reilly's cousin), Sweeney joins with some strange bedfellows -- Operation Free Fetus/ God's Scout's director Cockburn, and the mysterious Rev. Dr. Costello -- to decry abortion and endorse Swift. Somewhere along the line, O'Rourke gets fed up, and decides to run for Congress himself against Swift.

Up till now, and even afterwards, this part of the story is pretty good. The madcap adventures of pedophile priests, Machiavellian politicians, and jaded journalists are funny without being hackneyed, and there are more than enough bad guys getting their just desserts to make it juicy and satisfying.

Where the book falls short, though, is in trying to overlay a love story onto the political one. I suspected from the get-go that O'Rourke's beautiful young assistant, Simone "Sam" McGuire, would double as a love interest, but hoped I was wrong. I wasn't, and frankly, this piece of the story does seem both trite and not-quite-believeable. It's no secret that I have little patience for the "much older man recaptures his lost youth with beautiful younger woman" story line, which has been done to death ... and McEvoy doesn't even do it particularly well. Long-unresolved sexual tension? Sure, I'd buy that ... but when it comes to a character as smart and no-nonsense as Sam suddenly morphing from rising political star to perfect girlfriend, I need a lot more convincing. Likewise, O'Rourke's eventual escape to Ireland in search of his roots both comes out of nowhere, and adds little in terms of plot or character development when it comes up.

All in all, an OK read with some entertaining parts ... but not one I'd go back to, or feel the need to own.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Book 32, Child 44

What an interesting premise for a book. I finished Child 44, Tom Rob Smith's debut novel, last night, and only just now learned that it's loosely based on the true criminal exploits of Andrei Chikatilo in the Stalinist-era USSR. Perhaps that's proof that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.

At any rate, Child 44 is part murder mystery, part spy thriller, and if you'll pardon the pun, the combination makes for quite a novel read. After a brief but harrowing opening vignette in the famine-ravaged Ukraine of the 1930s, in which two brothers go into the woods on a desparate hunt for meat, but only one returns, the story jumps forward to 1950s Moscow. Here, we meet our protagonist, Leo Demidov, a war hero-cum-secret police officer who appears to be at the top of his game. Possible methamphetamine addiction aside, Leo's unwavering Party loyalty and ruthlessness have served him well; he's risen rapidly through the MGB ranks; has a beautiful wife, Raisa; and has been rewarded with a comfortable apartment of his own and cushy jobs for his aging parents. Moreover, Leo is not just a good politician or an expert spy; he's a true believer in the aims of the State, and in whatever brutal means are necessary to achieve them. When a fellow officer insists that his young son Arkady was murdered, this makes Leo an excellent choice to set the grieving family straight: Arkady's death was a tragic accident, to be sure, but as Stalin's USSR is a worker's paradise, crime -- even murder -- simply doesn't exist.

The limits of Leo's loyalty are tested when, after butting heads with long-time rival Vasili during the capture and torture of a "spy" who turns out to be just an ordinary veterinarian, he finds Raisa's name inserted into a coerced confession. Despite his suspicions, he refuses to save his parents and himself by denouncing her. Given the many interrogations and punishments he himself has administered on the State's behalf, he's not surprised by the 4 a.m. arrest that follows, but he is deeply stricken to learn that Raisa never loved him in the first place, and married him only for the sake of fear and survival. The pair are shipped off to a meager apartment in a remote Ural outpost, where Leo is assigned to a low-level militia job under the command of General Nesterov. Here, he gets involved in investigating the killing of a teenaged prostitute. While the locals are content to pin the blame on a mentally disabled man, Leo recognizes the graphic details as being identical to those reported in Arkady's murder. With Nesterov's grudging support, he sets out to find a pattern and stop the killer ... never mind that no crime records are kept, so there's not much to go on, and if he's discovered, he and his parents will be sent to the gulag or worse.

According to one review, Smith initially envisioned Child 44 as a movie, and it has the feel of one. In many places, he effectively conveys a mood with just a few pointed details. There's one particular escape-and-chase scene I could almost picture watching on the big screen as I read it, and the opening description of a region so beseiged by famine that people boil their shoes and eat bark to stave off starvation is positively haunting.. The only colorful or bright thing about the story is its stark red and white covers; in between, the reader really feels the grey, suffocating nature of the omnipresent Stalinist regime.

Unfortunately, the characters were also a bit monochromatic; by the end of the novel, we've learned a fair amount about Raisa's past and motivations, but little about any of the other principals'. In Leo's case, this may be deliberate -- he believes so completely in the rightness of the State that he really has subsumed his own individual memories -- but it's not clear how he got that way or why the story's events precipitate a change. It's also been suggested that Vasili's intense loathing of Leo needs further explaining, though I'm not sure I agree. As I see it, both Leo and Vasili are just trying to survive, politically and personally -- a situation that's made enemies in far less cut-throat professions than this one.

I do, however, think the ending seems to wrap things up a bit too tidily, given the grim nature of most of the story. The professional side of the resolution was amusing (yes, I'm deliberately being vague so as not to spoil it), but the rest just felt a little too happily-ever-after to ring true. Nonetheless, I found the book up until these last few chapters exciting and intriguing -- enough that I've added Gorky Park and The Gulag Archipelago to my "must read" list, in keeping with the theme. If you enjoy a good spy novel with a decent amount of meat to it, I'd recommend this one.

Next up: Political intrigue enters the 21st century, with Our Lady of Greenwich Village, and then it's on to Marriage, A History ... which is bound to raise some eyebrows during a visit with the in-laws!

Monday, April 6, 2009

#31 - Another spring Lamb

Yep, this is my Wally Lamb kick for the season. #31 was The Hour I First Believed, by the same Wally Lamb who brought you I Know This Much Is True. This one was a halfway-decent read, and I might have liked it more if I hadn't just read I Know ... immediately before this one, but as it was, I found The Hour ... a bit overdone and repetitive.

This novel takes us back to the fictional town of Three Rivers, Connecticut, where I Know This Much Is True was set, and a handful of the earlier book's characters, including Dominick Birdsey and Dr. Patel, make cameo appearances. This time, though, the main character is Caelum Quirk, a high school teacher who moves west to Colorado in an attempt to rebuild his marriage after his wife, Maureen, has an affair. In April 1999, he's called back to Three Rivers to bid farewell to the dying Lolly, the aunt who raised him. Maureen remains behind in Littleton, where she works as a school nurse, and ends up at ground zero for the Columbine massacre, hiding in a library supply closet as students are murdered, and expecting she'll be next. She survives, but (without giving too much away) is unable to recover, and her life is forever changed.

This alone would make for a compelling story, and indeed, the parts that deal directly with the Columbine shooting and its lasting effects on both Maureen and Caelum were pretty gripping. The couple (and through them, the reader) grapple with survivor's guilt, with what it means to survive or recover from a trauma of this nature, with the conflict between the survivors' or victims' need for justice and the wrongdoers' need for redemption.

Where The Hour I First Believed falters, though, is where Lamb tries to hitch too many other themes and plots (in this case, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the ongoing suffering of Iraq war veterans, and the indignities faced by inmates in a women's prison) to the Columbine wagon. As I said earlier, I might have been more tolerant of this had I not come to this book fresh from I Know This Much Is True, but since I did, much of the add-ons in The Hour ... seemed derivative and formulaic. Story within a story, based on the life and times of the main character's ancestor, that somehow allow him to come to grips with both his past and present? Check. Deep dark secret concerning the protagonist's parentage? Check. Sardonic main character, prone to fits of temper, but basically a good guy? Got it. Attractive younger woman who helps the main character heal, though she isn't really his soul mate? Yep. Where the earlier book was intriguingly complex, this one just seems jumpy and convoluted -- as though the author is just throwing plot twists in because he thinks he should (and after all, people ate them up in I Know ... ), rather than because they really make sense with the story.

Don't get me wrong; I still thought The Hour I First Believed was a pretty decent book. Coming on the heels of a far better one, it's just a victim of high expectations, and can't quite measure up.