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, July 30, 2009

#69 - Winning Nice

OK, not only are all my library books save one due back tomorrow, but if I don't catch up on blogging soon, I'm going to forget what I read ... which kinda defeats the purpose.

So, my 69th book of the year was Winning Nice: How to Succeed in Business and Life Without Waging War, by Dawna Stone (Center Street, 2007). I have a weekness for books about leadership and management even when I'm not on the job market (yeah, I really know how to have a good time, I know), which is why this one jumped out at me. Overall, it was a better than average specimen of the genre. The author, a successful entrepreneur and executive (among other things, she founded Her Sports + Fitness magazine -- now Women's Running, and was the winner of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart), argues that not only does one not need to be an S.O.B. or a bee-with-an-itch to be successful, but being a nice girl (or guy) actually reaps significant professional dividends.

The book is divided into two main sections: "Build Your Foundation," which outlines seven interpersonal skills key to personal success and making a difference to others, and "Build Your Future," which discusses how to apply these skills in one's own personal and professional life. Specifically, the skills she champions are as follows:
  1. Believe in yourself - i.e., believe that you can truly make a difference.
  2. Learn to communicate, because essentially, all interaction is communication, and the higher you go in your career, the more of it you need to do.
  3. Give recognition. The key to genuine, inspiring leadership (not to mention retaining the best employees) is effective recognition.
  4. Take an interest in others -- treat everyone as a potential customer, client, or friend, because hey, you never know.
  5. Help others help themselves, whether that's by encouragement, mentoring, or just plain listening.
  6. Be part of the team -- go the extra mile, do what you say you will, and show some enthusiasm.
  7. Exude professionalism. Here I was afraid this would be all about dressing for success, but it's not -- appearance and attire are mentioned, of course, but so are punctuality (which won points with me right there), communication, and sensitivity.
Once you've mastered everything in the tool box, Stone urges readers to kick it up a notch by doing the following:
  1. Find your passion. This seems to flow logically from believing in yourself; if you do this, you can and should find a line of work that you truly love and are committed to.
  2. Promote yourself. This isn't about (or advocating) bragging, so much as communication ... which darned well better include making sure your bosses know what you've done and that you want to advance beyond your current position one day. I'd personally always thought this was obvious, but it's actually not -- especially in the non-profit sector, where I work -- but that's a whole 'nother conversation.
  3. Learn the art of managing nice. This one's a bit tough to summarize, but basically -- be approachable, set clear goals, and build trust.
  4. Become a great leader. Stone argues that what sets true leaders apart from mere managers is "the vision thing" -- seeking out opportunities, changing the rules, and so on.
  5. Build lasting relationships. Again, this seems like a pretty clear parallel with taking an interest in others. Networking may be a cliche, but it really is the name of the game.
  6. Embrace your customers and clients. The book argues that we all have customers, whether they're people who walk into our store, our employees, advertisers, vendors, and so on. Whoever they are, if you don't make their experience a good one, they won't want to do business with you.
  7. Give back. Just as you should ideally do something for a living that you're passionate about, you should find a cause outside your primary job to support, with time and/or money.
  8. Be your best (yeah, this one sounds a little Oprah-ish): Focus on what you really want to do, and put in the effort you need to do it well.
As is often the case with books of this ilk, much of this isn't rocket science -- but Stone does include enough details and anecdotes to both make for interesting reading and provide some useful ideas for most early- and mid-career professionals. Definitely worth a read, though probably not a hardcover purchase.

#68 - I'm Too Sexy

Not sure what I think about this one. #68 was So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, by Diane E. Levin and (Ballantine, 2008). On one hand, the book does a good job of being interesting and compelling but not alarmist; on the other, doesn't really cover much new ground. If you're interested in the topic (for more details, check the official web site for the book here) and haven't read much about it, this one's worth reading; if you're already fairly familiar, you probably won't get much new from this book.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

67 - Wet, Wet, Wet

My 67th book of the year was Matt Bondurant's The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on a True Story (Scribner, 2008). In short, I enjoyed it -- even if the pacing was a bit slow initially, and the book couldn't seem to decide whether it wanted to be, as the title suggests, more of "a novel" or "based on a true story." What made it worth reading anyhow was Bondurant's stellar writing. He sets a scene like nobody's business, transplanting you to the Franklin County, Virginia of the 1920s and '30s in a manner reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy (of the Border Trilogy and No Country for Old Men era, not the boring and overrated The Road), depicting both the natural and manmade in a way that's stark and beautiful and harsh all at once. The title is a paraphrase of Sherwood Anderson's writings in Liberty magazine in 1935, as quoted at the beginning of Part I:
"What is the wettest section in the U.S.A., the place where during prohibition and since, the most illicit liquor has been made? The extreme wet spot, per number of people, isn't New York or Chicago ... the spot that fairly dripped illicit liquor, and kept right on dripping it after prohibition ended ... is Franklin County, Virginia."
The same chapter heading quotes the Official Records of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement 1935 as estimating that 99 out of 100 people in Franklin County at that time "[were] making, or [had] some connection with, illicit liquor." The Wettest County is the story of 3 of them -- namely, the infamous "blockading" Bondurant brothers, Forrest, Howard, and Jack. Bereft of their mother and 2 sisters by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919, the brothers see no path to survival save making and running illicit liquor; their father's general store barely stays afloat during the Depression, and small-scale tobacco farming is a marginal enterprise -- described by the book's quasi-narrator as "the most awful, thankless, and debilitating agricultural work he ever witnessed" -- even at the best of times (which clearly, this ain't).

Contrary to local folklore, which imagines the Bondurants as birds of a feather, all cut from the same bad boy cloth, the brothers are very different men. Forrest, the eldest, is somewhat of a legend, revered and feared in equal parts after a liquor sale gone bad reveals his seemingly inhuman strength. When asked why everyone is afraid to talk about the Bondurants, neighbor Tom Cundiff explains,
"Tell you what ... Man got his head cut off with a razor. Left for dead, not a spoonful of blood left in 'im, you unnerstan'? And what if I told you this man got up, walked ten miles through a blizzard? What would you say to that? ... Would you believe it?" When the inquirer says he wouldn't, "Well, then, Cundiff said, you got nothin' to be scared of, do you?"
Howard, a giant of a man who even his brothers dismiss as "some kind of machine or animal, reacting to the world in an instinctual manner," is haunted by memories of the Great War, and finds solace only in the exhausting physicality of farm labor.
"Sometimes while in the barn moving hay or in his father's tobacco field he would stop listening to the world and just work, concentrating on the basic repetition of movements, the strain and crack of his muscles. Every so often the perfect cycle of motion and strength was found and it was better than effortless, and the sweetness of the moment rang in delicious ripples through his body."
Sadly, this alone isn't enough to provide for his frail wife, Lucy, and their sickly infant daughter, and he's drawn repeatedly back into the far more lucrative business of making moonshine. And then there's baby brother Jack, probably the most well-developed character, who fervently, desperately hopes blockading will be his ticket out of Franklin County and its hardscrabble existence (well, except for maybe that alluring, Dunkard-churchgoing, banjo player, Bertha Minnix). Older and wiser, Forrest has his doubts, asking Jack, "What makes you think ... that after it gets going you will want it to end?"

What ties the brothers together is family loyalty, of course, and a willingness to fight tooth and nail for what they believe, even when it gets very ugly indeed. As Howard explains to Jack,
"Never does turn out like you think, Howard said. When the first swing happens everything is new an' nothin' is the way you thought. ... I'll tell you what, Howard said, you only need to know one thing. Something ol' Forrest knows. That's you gotta hit first, hit with everythin' you got, and then keep hittin' until the man is down, and then you hit him some more. ... Many men, Howard said, like the idea of fightin' but very few likes to get hit. You can make a man wanna quit real quick with that first shot. A good straight left into the nose bone and most will let it be. A man who likes to get hit is the one to watch out for."
This philosophy is put to the test as Prohibition ends, and local law enforcement officials take the opportunity to put some house rules of their own in play: sure, the liquor trade can continue, but they want a piece of the action, too. Eventually, the Bondurants and Cundiff remain the only holdouts against the "granny fees," and their occupational hazards devolve from the occasional still bust-up to ever more brutal violence. With this angle, the story is less a grown-up Dukes of Hazzard rip-off than a meditation on the loss of the working man's individuality and dignity as the south industrialized, and I definitely found myself rooting for the decidedly non-pastoral Bondurants over the greedy good ole boys in charge.

As I noted above, I think the book's weakest point is Bondurant's (the author's, not the characters' -- and no, this isn't a coincidence, though you don't learn the specifics till the very end) seeming indecision as to whether he's writing historical fiction, or a slightly-dramatized retelling of historical events, a la In Cold Blood. Specifically, the presence of real-life author Sherwood Anderson, who comes to Franklin County to cover a major bootlegging trial, and develops an almost-Capote-like fascination with the illicit liquor trade in general and the Bondurants in particular, muddies up the story. In his struggle to understand the truth of Franklin County, rather than the cliches, he functions almost like a Greek chorus:
"Nights at the boardinghouse Anderson sat scribbling at a battered old sideboard table, trying to think of all the things he had seen that day, trying to remember the hands of the men in the fields, the boys in the curing shed, the grim farmwives in the cookhouse, the lines of their faces, the cut of their work shirts, the seams of their shoes. But in all these things he saw very little. It was as if the character of these people encouraged a sort of blank anonymity ... [T]he strange confines of Franklin, its long skylines, rolling hills, left him with a feeling of enclosure and confinement, as if something dangerous was contained there and the minds of the citizens having to focus on not letting it out."
As such, he offers some interesting observations -- but all in all, I found his chapters distracting and slow, and think his role could have been much smaller while still offering the same sense of perspective.

Old Favorites, Redux

OK, a bit backlogged again, so these next few reviews will be quick. A few weeks ago, I had a kinda sucky day. Nothing disastrous, loyal readers; just the sort of low-grade, flat tire and cat barf nuisances that make you think you're walking around under a black cloud. It also inspired 2 cravings in me: the desire to just curl up in the safety of my living room with a good book until the @#$%^ day was over, and the desire not to further tax my feeble, grouchified brain with something I might actually have to focus on. The first thing I saw on my bookshelf that fit the bill was Bebe Moore Campbell's Brothers and Sisters (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1994) (#66), and so, well, here we are.

Set in Los Angeles just a few months after the early 1990s riots, Brothers and Sisters explores some complicated questions about the conflicts between our racial, gender, and class loyalties. It's also a darned good story. The protagonist, Esther Jackson, is a 30-something African American transplant from the South Side of Chicago who's clearly on her way up. She's got an MBA under her belt, has a successful career as a bank operations manager, and a nice home in a neighborhood she loves. Now, if only she could get into the more lucrative and prestigious lending side of the bank ... well, that, and find a man who won't drag her down. As she explains to her best friend Vanessa:
"'What's wrong with wanting to be with someone who has goals and aspirations that are similar to mine? Listen, I've dated Mr. Blue Collar. I've dated Mr. Starving Actor. I've even dated Mr. Unemployed. I'm sorry, the Jackson University for the Remedial Training of Brothers with Potential is closed. No more mismatches. This isn't about [unfaithful ex-boyfriend and doctor] Mitchell Harris. It's about me knowing what I want.'"
Over the course of the novel, two cases come up that call Esther's exacting standards into question. One is Humphrey Boone, a rising star in the lending world who's hired at Angel City in its efforts to promote diversity. Successful, involved in the black community, and easy on the eyes to boot, he just might be what Esther's been looking for. The only trouble is, he's partial to vanilla, and more interested in her white co-worker, Mallory (who doesn't return the favor). The second is Tyrone, who's hunky, ambitious, crazy about Esther to boot ... and a UPS driver. Much as she enjoys their time together, she insists that Tyrone's just something to do for now, not realizing until much later that "the man who was just 'something to do' might have his own agenda."

The above might make it sound like this is primarily a romance novel, but it's not. It's also the story of the wary friendships that form across racial lines. Esther and Mallory begin by celebrating the transfer of a sexist co-worker, but their bond is cemented when they run into Mallory's married lover having a wonderful time on a date with his wife, and Esther keeps Mallory from making a public scene. Later, when the arrogant but attractive Mitchell arrives on Esther's doorstep, and she sleeps with him in a moment of weakness, she calls Mallory instead of Vanessa, figuring she'll be more sympathetic ... and a tentative friendship develops. At the same time, what begins as a self-serving outreach from bank president Preston Sinclair toward Humphrey Boone becomes a genuine fondness, even withstanding the turmoil Preston's world is thrown into when his teenaged son is gravely injured. Esther takes a chance on hiring LaKeesha, a hard-working but unpolished single mom who's determined to get off welfare, for a teller's position, taking the extra time to mentor her even at the risk of sidelining her own career. Long-time teller Hector doesn't know how to take this. On one hand, he likes LaKeesha and can see that she's a hard worker; on the other, if blood is thicker than water, and it's only reasonable for Esther to help LaKeesha ... should he stand up for LaKeesha when the need arises, or seize the chance to bring his fiancee on board in her place? And then there are Esther's new neighbors, fresh off the boat from West Virginia: Harold, Carol, and their wild-haired daughter Sara. While they seem nice enough, and someone sure has to explain Sara's hair to Carol, PDQ, Esther just can't get past the irritation of seeing yet another black man with a white woman and make herself do the right thing.

OK, so much for a short review -- and I still have about 5 more to go (some time soon, anyway). A good read if you want to be entertained, but still think a little at the same time.

A Mixed Bag

So, dilemma of the day: Simple Prosperity, or Smugly Pretentious? My reactions to my 65th book of the year, whose full title is Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle, by David Wann (St. Martin's Griffin, 2007) were decidedly mixed. On one hand, Wann's central premise is appealing: it's possible even in contemporary American culture to live a life where we consume less, but enjoy more "real wealth" ("efficiency, quality, care giving, trust, and teamwork"); moreover, not only is this better for the planet, but it's better for us, yielding "a more moderate, more enjoyable, less frantic American lifestyle." It's also well-developed in many places, particularly in the opening and last few chapters. On the other, when he delves into specific examples of simpler, more sustainable choices, he often comes off as myopic and classist, mistaking "my own, or my loved ones' life choices" for "the right choices," without acknowledging that a) people's tastes and interests differ, and b) many of the "simple" alternatives he offers aren't feasible without a substantial up-front capital and/or educational investment. On balance, I was glad I stuck it out to the ends -- but there were many points in the middle chapters where that wasn't a foregone conclusion.

The seeds of this dilemma are evident in the book's preface. Wann's opening sentence is, "This is a book about how to recover from the debilitating disease of overconsumption." If that sounds familiar, you may be thinking of affluenza, defined first in a PBS program and then in a book Wann co-authored with John DeGraf and Thomas H. Naylor as "an epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream." And whether or not it's familiar, you've got to admit that this is both an interesting concept and a tall order for one book. However, Wann goes on to describe the observations that led him to write Simple Prosperity in vivid, clear terms that suck you in (at least, they did me):
"Back when I was a teenager in the 1960s, I felt queasiness lurking in the euphoria of the American lifestyle. ... [I]t was obvious to me that the accelerating pace of life in the United States didn't have a real direction. Everything was becoming automatic, comfortable, and 'convenient,' yet other than going to the moon, banishing germs from our kitchens, and scrapping with the communists, we seemed to be floating up and away from reality like soap bubbles. We each wanted to expend as little effort as possible but still get paid handsomely for it so we could live the good life, before we ... popped. But somehow, the cost and dimensions of hte good life kept morphing, first into a 'new, improved life,' then a 'better' life. (There was always a better life.)"
By contrast, Wann claims to have observed at the same time that
"[P]eople whose lifestyle didn't center on money were often healthier and more interesting. They seemed more caring and unselfish, and they were passionate about doing active, celebratory things like playing music, dancing, playing chess or bridge, embroidering, fly fishing, cooking delicious meals, studying history, gardening, and staying current with political issues. ... What they earned seemed less important than what they learned. ... [I]n many cases, the ordinary, American Dream-life was much more expensive than the extraordinary lives of these unique, self-creating people who lived their lives rather than trying to buy them. They had real wealth, or you might say, the right stuff."
More specifically, Wann argues that over the last half-century, mainstream American culture has increasingly become synonymous with consumerism. Not only does this deplete both the environment and our wallets, but it also fails to provide what we really want and need: less stress, more control over our time, more energy, people in our lives who love and respect us, and safe communities. He argues that those whose lives are filled with "activities and passions that foster creativity and self-expression" are happier, healthier, and less inclined to shop and consume to excess.

From here, he goes on to suggest that the key to authentic satisfaction is to know ourselves: to figure out what we're good at and what we believe in. While I like the overall message here about "[following] a script you believe in, based on values that resonate for you," this is also the section of the book where I though Wann started getting a bit self-absorbed, and just didn't seem to get the real-world constraints most Americans live with. He tells the story of a friend whose script and values called her to make a living as an uninsured freelance writer, mentioning that she still gets top-notch medical care by persuading doctors to let her pay her bills in installments. He then goes on to talk about how he himself voluntarily left a conventional "good" job to live below the poverty line while writing a book, and how his sister defended his choice to their mother by citing all the things most people want money for that he already had: college educations for his children, a nice house in a good neighborhood, and travel to numerous exotic locales. While I don't doubt that this is more or less an accurate reflection of Wann's experience, I also don't think it's one easily replicated by just anyone. Homes, travel, and college aren't cheap; presumably, either Wann had enough money to pay for these at some point, or was lucky enough to find someone else who would.

We see more of the same in the "Mindful Money" chapter, which is mostly about how simplicity means "more value from better stuff." As Wann explains it, "[n]o one wants to spend money for products or experiences that don't deliver value. ... The new lifestyle will contain fewer things but better things, and the typical household will be less cluttered with junk." Sounds good to me, but when he then waxed poetic about his affinity for fine Belgian, Swiss, and Italian chocolate, and how different it is from "American chocolate, [which] has so much sugar and so many additives that it makes me feel jumpy -- and fat," it hit me: Wann is a Bobo. (This suspicion is confirmed later, in the chapter on housing, where he cites Jay Walljasper's criteria for good neighborhoods: "great spots to 'sip latte, watch foreign films, and browse used-book shops.'" For more on the whole Bobo phenomenon, check out this book, which coined the term -- even though I'm not usually a David Brooks fan.) The trouble is, what counts as "better stuff" is highly subjective, and the dividing line between "worthwhile investment" and "symptom of affluenza" is very grey. He speaks in glowing terms about his daughter's sojourn as an exchange student in Nepal, which sounds fascinating but costly, both environmentally (hello, carbon footprint, anyone?) and financially. Moreover, his suggestions on how to live simply and spend money mindfully contradict one another in places; for example, he urges us to spend less on housing by choosing smaller, more efficient houses, but then advises us to live close enough to walk to the places we want and need to go. Perhaps it's just me, but a home that meets all these criteria and is affordable is a pretty tall order in most places. Likewise, his adult son's decision to live in a parked van and work only two days a week is certainly unorthodox, but probably sustainable only so long as he remains healthy, strong, and unencumbered by recession or dependents.

In short, while I might personally agree that the "mindful" lifestyle and consumption patterns Wann describes are more appealing than some of those we're more accustomed to seeing, they seem like choices that are only available to a privileged few ... and in some cases, like ones that are at least as much about personal preference as they are about sustainability. What if I'd rather sip beer, watch high school football, and browse hardware stores than "sip latte, watch foreign films, and browse used-book shops"? What if I, too, am more interested in a neighborhood's "safety, walkability, public spaces, and proximity to both big-city culture and natural peace and quiet than in its "income, appearance, and exclusivity," but don't have the do-re-mi to live in Larchmont, the old home town Wann presents as idyllic ... without ever mentioning its homogeneity (92% white), affluence (median family income $164,000), and pricey housing stock (the median home price is over $900,000).

The underlying classism here is really a shame, because it makes the fence-sitters less inclined to take Wann seriously or think this book really has anything to offer them ... which means they miss out on a number of valuable insights. Larchmont aside, his comments on the importance of meaningful social relationships and communities and connections to the natural world were interesting and insightful (though the latter chapter is mostly drawn from Last Child in the Woods, itself a brilliant book). There are also some light bulb moments in the closing chapters, where he connects a call for "right-sizing" -- in particular, seeking housing and food that meet our needs precisely, rather than providing too much and still leaving us lacking -- to energy savings and better health (though I do wish he'd focused less on "organic" food and more on sustainability; for more info on the perils of "big organic" and how food that wears the organic label may not be as sustainable as you think, of course, read The Omnivore's Dilemma). Additionally, as perhaps the world's biggest anti-fan of reality TV, I love the riff on this subject, even though Wann is quoting Adbusters here: "'We live, you watch,' say the photogenic contestants. 'We're too dazed and confused to live, anyway,' respond the viewers, crunching handfuls of Cheetos."

The final chapter of the book, entitled "Cultural Prosperity," is really the capstone of Wann's argument. He calls for a cultural shift, "from an emphasis on material wealth to an abundance of time, relationships, and experiences." While his chart on the characteristics of cultural creatives seems a bit elitist (he might just as well have said "they listen to NPR"), the overall premise is good -- which, I guess, is true for the book as a whole.
"We'll get more value from less stuff and better stuff, by tapping into riches like quality products, brilliant design and redesign of cities and towns, cultural and aesthetic greatness, curiosity and fascination about how nature really works, cooperation with coworkers and neighbors, and generosity, just because it feels right. ... We're ready, in these most critical times, to continue the transition -- individually and culturally -- from the 'love of consumption' to the 'love of life.'"

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

#64 - The bookshelf made me do it

OK, I wasn't going to seek it out -- really. Yeah, maybe I did look Megan McCafferty up in the online catalog Monday night, just to see what the next book in the Jessica Darling series was called (it's Second Helpings, if you're wondering) -- but when my local branch didn't have a copy, I thought that was that. And then, right there in my face as I stood in the self-checkout line, as if to tempt me -- bam! There it was. Not Second Helpings, but the fifth in the series -- appropriately titled Perfect Fifths (Crown Publishers, 2009). So, I decided it was fate, brought it home (when, oh when, will I learn that just because I can cram 13 books into a backpack doesn't mean I should, especially when the walk home is half a mile uphill?) ... and well, Mrhazel was out for a weekly guy thing last night, and it kept me off the streets.

Sadly, that's about all I can say for this one. Again, I may read 2 through 4 if the opportunity presents itself (really, I can stop any time I want to), just to see exactly where the series jumps the shark ... but given how much I enjoyed Sloppy Firsts, this one was really underwhelming. By this time, our heroine, the aforementioned Jessica Darling, is a successful professional in her early 20s, making a living and even a bit of a name for herself traveling to schools all over the country to mentor at-risk teens through writing courses. The entire novel takes place in and around an unnamed airport (I think it's one of New York City's, but having grown up in its shadow, that's always what I picture when I hear or read "big city"), where Jessica's desperately trying to catch a flight to St. Thomas for the wedding of two old high school friends. She's running at top speed to the gate as the PA system announces a final boarding call with her name on it, when -- what a coinky-dink -- she runs smack into ex-boyfriend Marcus Flutie (leading the reader like me who skipped the middle 3 books to conclude that the 2 must have gotten together and then broken up somewhere in there). While they exchange only a quick "hi, gotta run, call me," it's enough to make her miss her flight. They end up in a bar and eventually getting a hotel room (just to talk, nach -- Jessica makes it perfectly clear from the get-go that there will be no hanky-panky whatsoever, TYVM) to catch up on old times.

The book was disappointing on several fronts. I always try to judge sequels by how well they stand on their own, apart from the original ... and this one really doesn't. The glimpses of Jessica's work are mildly interesting, but we don't see enough of them, and what's there seems mainly to be thrown in to explain part of the main plot. The bulk of the story is the awkward, "so, how have you been?" conversation between any 2 old friends that seems to go on for way too long, and frankly, it's not any more interesting in a novel than it tends to be in real life.

Moreover, the original Beverly Hills 90210 notwithstanding, it's just plain not plausible that almost all the principals from Sloppy Firsts are still so neatly tied up with all their old high school friends. I'll allow the lingering sparks between Jessica and Marcus; the whole "reuniting with your first love, the One Who Got Away, has been done, sure, but it's got somewhat of a classic feel to it. I'll even buy that Hope (who must have moved back from TN to NJ some time after the first book) is still Jessica's BFF. But beyond that, c'mon, now -- doesn't anyone grow up or meet new people after high school? Apparently not. Our old nemesis Hy (nee Cinthia) Wallace is back, still a hipster trustafarian, and now Jessica's benefactress; the wedding Jess is trying to get to is that of former Pineville beauty queen Bridget and unrequited crush-bearer Percy; and oh, did I mention that gossipy rich girl Sara and jock-next-door Scotty are not only married, but the proud parents of 3?

Probably my biggest gripe about Perfect Fifths, though, is that it doesn't break any new ground. With Sloppy Firsts, I almost bought the Wall Street Journal accolade quoted on the back cover, about McCafferty being Judy Blume meets Dorothy Parker. Certainly she's not the first author to have written about the outsider and/or the minutae that are the stuff of so much drama in high school ... but she did it pretty well, and in a voice that was reasonably fresh and authentic. Here though, meh -- not so much. If S1st wasn't groundbreaking, the field of books about bright-eyed 20somethings in the Big City is much more crowded ... and the quirky, cynical tone not nearly so endearing. One can only hope, for the undisciplined trainwreck fans among us, that there isn't a Still Staler Sixths in the works. (Must. Resist.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

#63 - The End of Nature

During less ungodly hours, I finished The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006). The deceptively short book (186 pages) is apparently somewhat of a classic in environmental literature; it was originally published in 1989 and was one of the first books to discuss global warming in a manner laypeople could both understand and care about. Little has changed with this republication except for the author's introduction.

I need a new approach to reading non-fiction. It's not that I don't want to read it -- if I didn't, I'd stop checking the books out -- but I need to stop trying to read it the same way I do a juicy novel, where you just sit down and turn pages without any conscious effort. Reading non-fiction, especially on a subject I don't yet know much about, is much more deliberate, at least for me. It's horribly dorky, but I find myself taking mental notes as if I were doing the reading for a college class. This must say something about my learning style, though I'm not sure exactly what it is.

Anyway, this was an interesting and fairly readable book -- a bit unsettling and/or depressing, but given the subject matter, that's probably to be expected. In some ways, the book seems oddly quaint, and not in a good way; McKibben cites 1988's dramatic heat wave and Hurricane Gilbert as an example of the bigger, more devastating weather extremes we might expect; and I couldn't help but think that in our contemporary, post-Andrew, -Katrina, and -Wilma world, we've all but forgotten about the "good old days" when Gilbert was a big bad wolf. It also predates most of the first Bush administration, let alone those that followed it, which have changed the terms of the debate a bit. In short, McKibben's argument is that nature -- that is, as a force independent of and uncontrolled by/ unaffected by human beings -- is already ending, and global warming isn't a maybe, someday, eventually problem, but one we need to deal with Right. Now. (See how well we've responded in the last 20 years?) The book is divided into two sections; the first, titled "The Present" provides a short history of humanity's (in particular, the United States') concept of "nature," and describes the current (as of 1989) state of our natural environment. The second, "The Near Future," tells us why we should care, and what we can do about it. Specifically, he offers two options: one, which he calls "The Defiant Reflex," involves finding new, man-made, technological solutions to save the earth (which, he argues, might stabilize the temperature, but would still mean the end of nature as we now know it); and a second, "A Path of More Resistance," which calls for a new relationship between humans and nature, one in which human beings aren't of utmost importance, but respect and preserve nature for its own sake -- rather than as something that exists just for us to enjoy on weekends and vacations.

I had visions of writing a thorough review, complete with summary -- but I'm behind again and the book's already gone back to the libe, so this will have to do. Again, it's short, very accessible, and (especially together with Storm World) a good introduction to environmental literature in general and global warming in particular. (In fact, I've already added McKibben's Deep Ecology to my list -- admittedly, not a very exclusive club -- and am even more convinced that I need to go back even further and read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring to see where it all began.) Read it if the topic interests you even a little bit, and you're up for something sobering; if you want a bit more info or convincing, check out this review first.

#62 - Bad YA habits, take 2 - Sloppy Firsts

Gotta love insomnia. Not. Baffling because it's rarely a problem for me, but this makes twice this week I've gone to bed at a reasonable time and lain there for an hour or so before acknowledging that my mind's racing a mile a minute and I'm Just. Not. Tired. Perhaps it's time to lay off the evening caffeine.

Anyway, once I faced facts and made my way down to the living room to read, I knocked off Sloppy Firsts, by Megan McCafferty (Crown, 2001) in about 2 hours. Y'know, it was a lot of fun; I really wish I'd had something like this to read back when I was in high school. The first of what's now a 5-book series, it chronicles a year in the life of New Jersey high school student Jessica Darling. As the book opens, on New Year's Day of her sophomore year in high school, Jessica's best friend Hope has just moved to Tennessee, leaving her rudderless and very, very lonely. Her remaining "friends" -- gossipy rich-girl Sara; sexually adventurous Manda; and beautiful but dim childhood pal Bridget -- drive her crazy with their vapid prattle, and while most girls would die for a crush or a rose from hunky, athletic old pal Scotty, Jess just finds it annoying. Her parents, preoccupied with older sister Bethany's upcoming wedding and Jessica's performance on the school track team, have little patience with her drawn-out moping about Hope's absence. Honestly, what's a self-respecting, cynical brainiac to do?

Perhaps it's to be expected that two very different individuals intrude to throw off Jess's angsty adolescent equilibrium. (Who was it that said there are really just 2 plots in all of literature: A Stranger Comes to Town and Somebody Takes a Trip?) One is Hy Wallace, a hip NYC fashionista whose sudden arrival in Pineville just doesn't make sense. The other is notorious stoner and Lothario Marcus Flutie, who, impressed at hearing Jess con a guidance counselor and grateful for a bizarre favor she does for him, slowly insinuates himself into her thoughts. This presents two problems: first, Jess has no interest in feeding Sara and Manda's thirst for rumor-mongering; and second, the absent Hope loathes Marcus.

You'd expect the ending to be fairly predictable, but it wasn't -- at least for me. I don't know if McCaffrey had one or more sequels in mind when she wrote this one, but I still liked the resolution -- it's neither too neatly wrapped up, nor too obviously a "stay tuned for volume 2" cliffhanger. I don't know that I'll go crazy for the series like many people did for the Twilight books (bor-ing, IMO -- with apologies to my vampire-lovin' sister-in-law) ... but I'll certainly read the others if they turn up.

Friday, July 17, 2009

#61 - In the Company of Young Adult books

OK, you know I've taken vacation reading to a new low when I start finding books in the Young Adult section. Even worse, I'm going to blame my daughter. I was at the library with Littlehazel last week, trying desperately not to look at the new adult fiction section that tends to get me in trouble, and I spied Nancy Mace's In the Company of Men: A Woman at The Citadel (Simon & Schuster, 2001) in the YA paperback rack. You can guess the rest.

The author, Mace, was 1 of 4 women admitted to The Citadel in 1996 (the year after the Shannon Faulkner fiasco), and the first to actually graduate. The book is mostly what you'd expect from the memoir of someone who enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame, but was an interesting quick read nonetheless; Mace comes off as fairly modest, neither overdramatizing nor sugar-coating her experience, and provides what's probably a more balanced, realistic account of the knob year than readers of The Lords of Discipline might expect. As she tells it, she entered The Citadel mainly to preserve a family tradition; her father was a well-known Citadel alum, and in fact became Commandant of the Corps during her tenure there. The book focuses mainly on her arrival and first (knob) year at the school, and isn't without humor; the overreaction of her COs to her first menstrual emergency on campus, and the embarrassed reaction of a senior on confiscating what looked like a forbidden food package only to find a box of tampons are two examples. Her overall attitude here seems pretty matter-of-fact: yes, she bore some harrassment solely for being female, but also garnered lots of encouragement for her determination -- most notably, from an upperclassmen who, a week after accusing her of "ruining" his school, admired her Hell Night fortitude, and made her promise not to quit.

All right, enough blogging -- time to get something productive done now.

#60 - The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet

Clearly written with a movie or miniseries in mind, but a fun read nonetheless -- though true Jane Austen devotees would probably cringe. The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, by Colleen McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 2008) picks up almost 20 years after Pride and Prejudice ends, with somewhat disappointing fates for our favorite characters. Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage is strained to the point that, as their son puts it, their five children can skate upon the ice between them. They scarcely talk save to argue, and Darcy, now an MP, pours all his ardor into his quest to become Prime Minister; their intimacy has dwindled to the point that Elizabeth is certain Fitz must have a mistress. Moreover, he's sorely disappointed in the gentle, effeminate character and scholarly bent of their sole son, 17-year-old Charlie. Meanwhile, as Jane's near-constant pregnancies attest, her marriage to Bingley remains strong in at least one respect (so much so that title character Mary, suggests he should "plug it with a cork" for the sake of her sister's health), but that doesn't stop her large brood of sons from running wild, or Bingley from taking a mistress and maintaining a second family in Jamaica.

In contrast, sister Mary's prospects have improved over the years -- though her family doesn't necessarily see it that way at first. Now 39 and quite beautiful, she is finally released from long, dull years as her mother's caregiver by Mrs. Bennet's death. Lizzie and Jane assume she'll come to live with one of them, and Darcy and Bingley provide her with an ungenerous settlement that allows little else ... but Mary has other plans. Not inclined either to stay on with her sisters as maiden aunt, or to find herself a husband as many advise, she takes all her funds at once and sets off to tour the slums and factories of northern England, determined to write and publish a book about the plight of the nation's poor. However, for all she's read over the years, her existence has been a sheltered one, and she's dangerously lacking in street smarts; not surprisingly, she's derailed by one mishap after another before she gets too far.

In their efforts to stop and then to rescue Mary, Darcy and Charlie are forced to work together, albeit stiffly at first. They are aided by newspaper publisher Angus Sinclair, family friend and ghostwriter of the muckraking "Argus" letters that inspired Mary's quest in the first place; Charlie's tutor Owen, who becomes a rare male friend to the cloistered Darcy sisters, especially tomboyish Georgie; and Ned Skinner, a behemoth of a man whose mysterious devotion to Fitz begets more than a few dark acts.

All in all, this was a decent vacation read (sheesh, have I been saying that a lot lately?) ... and I'll even look forward to watching the miniseries I know must be in the works. (Theatrical pacing + old favorite story + author of The Thorn Birds = what else would you expect?)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

#59 - Half of a Yellow Sun

After enjoying Purple Hibiscus so much, I wasn't sure Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's sophomore effort, Half of a Yellow Sun (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006) would live up to expectations. Did it ever. In a word, wow. Tells the story of the secession of the short-lived Republic of Biafra from Nigeria in 1967, and the civil war that followed, through the eyes of three characters: Ugwu, who grows from a naive peasant teenaged houseboy to college professor Odenigbo into a cynical young man and soldier over the course of the novel; Olanna, Odenigbo's beautiful mistress, whose independent streak leads her to reject the privileged life of her wealthy parents; and Richard, the British expat and aspiring journalist with perpetual writer's block who falls in love with Odenigbo's twin sister Kainene. Beautiful and sad.

#58 - The Other Side of You

Cape Cod reads, part 2: The Other Side of You, by Salley Vickers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). Another decent vacation read, but a bit slower-paced than I'd hoped. The story of London psychiatrist David McBride, whose entire life has been haunted by the childhood death of his older brother, killed while helping David cross the street. Enter Elizabeth Cruikshank, a new patient who recently attempted suicide. As David attempts to probe beneath Elizabeth's remarkable reserve, he uncovers a tale of star-crossed lovers and betrayal that leads him to question his own shaky marriage and career. Recommended, but not if you're looking for something totally brainless.

#57 - For One More Day

Cape Cod vacation reads, part 1: For One More Day by Mitch Alborn (Hyperion, 2006). If you've read The Five People You Meet in Heaven by the same author, you pretty much know what to expect. A sweet if slightly melodramatic, not-too-taxing book about Chick Benedetto, a depressed alcoholic in his 50s who attempts suicide and instead, stumbles into an experience most of us only wish for: another day with a relative who's died (in this case, his late mother). Not too long, and a good beach read if you like a break from all those romances now and then.