About Me

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

Sunday, August 30, 2009

#77 - The House on Fortune Street

Hooray. This is not a novel set in the 1950s; it's set in contemporary London. It's also a darned good read, and manages to make the whole idea of telling one story from multiple perspectives seem fresh.

The House on Fortune Street, by Margot Livesey (Harper, 2008) is the story of a tragic watershed moment in the lives of three young adults sharing a house on, well, Fortune Street. It's also novel about the role of luck in our lives. The bare facts are laid out fairly early on. Abigail, the driven theatre manager who seems to be in perpetual motion, owns the house; her boyfriend Sean, an impoverished ABD Oxford grad student, has recently moved in; and the fragile Dara, a counselor and Abigail's college best friend, rents the downstairs flat. We know from the dust jacket that tragedy will strike one of the three, and sure enough, it does. The book opens with Sean's story. Already struggling to balance writing his long-overdue dissertation and his other gig, helping select promising new plays for Abigail's upstart theatre, he takes on yet a third job, co-writing a mass-market book on assisted suicide with his friend Valentine, to help pay the rent Abigail suddenly insists on charging. Since Abigail is already perpetually busy with her theatre work, an anonymous letter accusing her of being unfaithful strikes a nerve with Sean. He becomes suspicious, and starts questioning the decision to abandon his less passionate but more companionable marriage to Judy, his ex-wife, for this tempestuous but shaky affair with Abigail.

The second survivor of fortune we get to know intimately is Dara's father, Cameron, who left the family under mysterious circumstances when Dara was a child, and who's only recently re-entered her life. He recalls his childhood, and the devastating death of his younger brother Lionel, never mentioned since, at 14. Fast-forward to his courtship and marriage to Fiona, Dara's mother; the birth of Dara and her younger brother; his largely innocent fascination with Dara's young friend Ingrid; and the sudden collapse of their family when a weekend camping trip with Ingrid's family goes awry.

From here, we meet Dara, and learn of her intense but sporadic relationship with violinist Robert; her shock and seeming resilience on learning that he still lives with an ex-girlfriend and their daughter; her immersion in colleagues' Halley and Joyce's are-they-or-aren't-they relationship; and her increasing resentment at Abigail's treating her like a poor relation. Lastly, of course, we focus on the ambitious Abigail -- her vagabond childhood at the hands of self-absorbed, follow-your-bliss parents; her de facto adoption by Dara's family during their college years; and her determination to control her own life and make her own luck, unencumbered by love or other unplanned interruptions.

As I said, this was a pretty good book. The characters are well fleshed-out and believable, and Livesey's way of revealing new details and interpretations with each person's story keeps you interested even though you know, at the end of the first, what happens at the end. The conclusion is fitting without being too neat and tidy. If you like this kind of story, this one's a solid good read.

#78 - The Lolita Effect

Just took a foray into non-fiction again with The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, by M. Gigi Durham (Overlook Press, 2008). Having read more than a few hysterical and/or oversimplified books on this topic, I was a bit skeptical at first, but ended up being pleasantly surprised. Not only is The Lolita Effect far more balanced and nuanced than So Sexy So Soon, but it also scores high on readability.

The nuance begins with the title. Durham argues that while we (popular culture) have come to use "Lolita" to describe a young girl who deliberately behaves in a seductive manner, Dolores Haze, the original Lolita in that book by Nabokov, is not an intentional nymphet, but an innocent victim of her predatory, pedophile stepfather, Humbert Humbert. (True confessions time: shamefully, I haven't actually read Lolita, so I'm taking Durham's word for this.) She is also emphatic about not being anti-sex or advocating censorship. On the contrary, she suggests that previous works and authors on this topic (hel-LO, Mary Pipher!) have often tended toward an overly dualistic, "moral panic" approach that makes for some strange bedfellows (i.e., traditional, mostly Christian conservatives and progressive, usually sex-positive parents and teachers). Explains Durham,
"[I]t is not girls' sexuality in and of itself that is a problem; the problem is that the expression of girls' sexuality seems to be possible only within an extremely restrictive framework. Girls' sexuality, it seems, has to comply with the markers of sexuality that we recognize, and it cannot be manifested, recognized, or mobilized in other, potentially more empowering and supportive, ways."
Most of the book is devoted to defining the five myths that constitute the Lolita effect. These are as follows:
  1. Sexuality equals looking sexy, or, in Durham's words, "if you've got it, flaunt it."
  2. Exactly what looks (and therefore, is) sexy ("hot," in common parlance) is very narrowly defined. In short, the perfect girl/ woman looks like Barbie. Not only is this an unrealistic, unhealthy ideal for girls to aspire to, but it's racist and classist (after all, who has the money to buy The Look?) to boot.
  3. Younger is better -- not just as in, society thinks women in their 20s are more attractive than those in their mothers' generation, but as in, very young, still a girl. Hearken back to the days of Britney Spears' Catholic school miniskirt-wearing, pigtail-sporting, lollipop-sucking debut, among other examples.
  4. Violence is sexy. Here, Durham cites slasher films, music videos and lyrics, and violent video games a la Grand Theft Auto as examples.
  5. Sexy is defined for and by the male gaze. Boys choose girls, girls are sex objects, and alternate pairings -- male-male, female-female, or even non-traditional male-female -- Just Don't Exist.
Durham is a professor of journalism and communication, so it's not surprising that the remedies she proposes tend heavily toward increased media literacy and consumer education. Again, she's very clear about not advocating censorship, partly because that's a slippery slope that might lead us to censor Lolita and Romeo and Juliet, and partly because she takes the matter-of-fact position that yes, children and adolescents are sexual, and we need to respect and acknowledge that ... it's just that we should be doing so in "more empowering and supportive ways" than we've tended to see of late. Her list of internet and print resources is impressive and useful, as well. It's been a while since I've said this of a book on parenting and/or sexuality, but I recommend this one highly.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

#76 - The Outcast

Yet another book set (mostly) during the 1950s; I'll have to shake things up with my next read. The Outcast, by Sadie Jones (Harper, 2008), was excellent: gripping, painful, and heartbreakingly sad. It opens in a small village outside London in 1957, where Lewis Aldridge is returning home to his father's and stepmother's home after a 2-year stint in prison. He doesn't know quite how to behave with his neighbors or even his family, nor do they with him ... but for now, that's all we learn.

Almost immediately, we rewind 10 years to another homecoming: that of Lewis' father, Gilbert, who has just been demobilized after World War II. Both Lewis and his mother, Elizabeth, have grown accustomed to more closeness and less formality than life with Gilbert seems to demands, and continue to quietly enjoy some of their own rituals, like picnics by the river, while Gilbert's away at work.

Their otherwise-ordinary suburban routine, however, is shattered after one riverside picnic, when Elizabeth drowns. Both father and son withdraw into their own private grief, seemingly unaware of or unable to comfort one another. Within a few months, Gilbert finds comfort elsewhere, remarrying the young, naive, and malleable Alice. Lewis, however, has fewer reserves to draw upon, and in his silence, becomes a local curiosity of sorts. His nearest neighbors, the Carmichael girls, continue to seek him out; Tamsin, slightly older, from a combination of pity and craving admiration; Kit, 5 years younger, because she's learned from her own family's dark secrets that people aren't always what they seem, and she has faith that beneath Lewis' numb exterior lies someone kind and good.

Sadly for Lewis, others don't share Kit's conviction, and treat him only with a distant tolerance. This, coupled with his tense relationships with Gilbert and Alice at home, lead him to cut his arms in order to feel something, and ultimately to commit the crime for which he is imprisoned. After his release, he tries desparately to fit in at last, but is thwarted by a complicated relationship with his stepmother, and by the lingering resentment and suspicion of Dicky Carmichael, Gilbert's boss and Tamsin and Kit's father. Ultimately, his efforts to find love and human connectedness expose long-buried skeletons in both the Carmichael and Albright closets.

The story is gripping, and all the characters (with the possible exception of Dicky) are admirably human; Lewis in particular seems an unlikely hero, and he's really not one ... but the book works. Read it.

#75 - Indignation

I'll have you know I broke a personal vow for this one. While I loved American Pastoral and, um, had tremendous respect and appreciation for Sabbath's Theater (translation: the main character was disgusting, but the book so compelling and alive that I couldn't help turning page after page and finding it brilliant), the last few of Philip Roth's books I've read -- The Human Stain, Exit Ghost, The Dying Animal -- have seemed so repetitious, and I'm not a fan of the hackneyed old older-man-rediscovers-passion-with-beautiful-young-thing story line to begin with, that I promised myself I was done with Roth for a while.

Well, then came Indignation (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). The narrator's in his early 20s, so I knew from that alone that Roth would have had to find a new subject to write about. He did, and while Indignation is no American Pastoral, I was favorably impressed. The protagonist, Marcus Messner, is the 19 year old son of a Kosher butcher in Newark in the early 1950s. After learning the business inside-out from his father, and graduating at the top of his high school class, he enrolls at the tiny local Robert Treat College, and is utterly in his element, among working-class strivers of all ethnic stripes, and studying under fiery, radical professors from across the river in NYC. Unfortunately, his father becomes increasingly obsessed with the possibility that some grevious harm will come to Marcus, and that a single false step or careless choice will be his downfall. Nathan's need to monitor and question Marcus' every move leads the latter to transfer to the conservative, ultra-traditional Winesburg College in Ohio ... where his determination to maintain straight As and avoid being drafted and sent to Korea buts up against roommates from hell, a maddening chapel requirement, an overly solicitous Jewish fraternity leader and BMOC, and a beautiful, insatiable young rich girl with a dark secret of her own.

The book's deceptively short, but a good read nonetheless, alternately funny and excruciating. The ending packs a wallop along the lines of Chris Bohjalian's The Double Bind; honestly, I gasped when I read it. A fascinating if sobering coming-of-age novel, which drives home the notion that simple, seemingly inconsequential decisions can have grave repercussions.

#74 - Telex from Cuba

This book is one of the reasons I've gotten so behind in my blogging. It took me over a week to slog through Rachel Kushner's Telex from Cuba (Scribner, 2008), and once I finished, I cranked through two others in rapid succession. Granted, part of the delay was due to my having discovered and then overdosed on playing Bejeweled 2 to the exclusion of everything else for a few days ... but part of it was that Telex just didn't really draw me in enough to make me want to read more than a chapter or 2 at a time. The book was fairly well-reviewed in the New York Times, but frankly, a little disappointing.

Don't get me wrong; Kushner's writing is superb. Her descriptions make you feel like you're right there in pre-Castro 1950s Cuba, with all your senses; the book gives you a phenomenal sense of a time and place that few others (at least in the English language) touch upon. The only trouble is that nothing much seems to happen there. The story, if one can call it that, focuses on the American expats who work for the United Fruit company and their families, living lives of privilege amidst servants and tropical flora. It's told primarily from the vantage points of two children: K.C. Stites, rich and privileged even among the American elite, whose white-jacketed, uber-formal Southern father manages United Fruit's Cuban operation; and Everly Lederer, a bookish, upper-middle-class outsider who develops a crush on Haitian houseboy Willy Blousse rather than returning the affections of the far more suitable K.C. Ultimately, the Stiteses, Lederers, and all their neighbors flee to the continental U.S. by way of Guantanamo (no surprise here; we all know which way the Castro revolution ended up at this point).

Until then, though, the book is little but a sketch of the American enclaves in the Cuba of the day. There are a handful of side storylines that I found interesting: Charmaine Mackey's affair with a wealthy Cuban Lothario; Del Stites' typical adolescent rejection of the family he grew up in, and less-than-typical reaction (running away to join Raul Castro's band of rebels in the mountains). Neither of these are sufficiently well-developed to stand as primary plots, though, nor are any of the characters depicted with near as much depth and nuance as the setting. There's also a side storyline about an opportunistic World War II vet and a nightclub dancer that didn't quite seem to fit with the rest of the story, and which I found distracting. All in all, the book probably has some literary merit, and may well be a fitting tribute to the author's family (according to the blurb on the dust jacket, Kushner's mother grew up in one of the American enclaves in Cuba in the 1950s). And I didn't find it awful; the setting was novel and vivid enough to hold my interest, at least enough to make me finish the book. Not one I'll reread or recommend, though.

#73 - Affluenza

Behind on blogging again. How is it that I have less time to write since I've been unemployed, rather than more? (Actually, I know how it is, but that's another topic.)

Anyway, #73 was Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, by John DeGraff (Berrett-Koehler, 2001). In short, this one was a bit dated after 8 years, but nonetheless offers some interesting ideas, and is far more substantive than co-author David Wann's more recent Simple Prosperity. Based on a 1997 TV documentary of the same name, Affluenza posits that the U.S. is suffering from an epidemic of overconsumption, which the authors dub "affluenza" -- defined specifically as "a painful, contagious, virally transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more." The book uses the metaphor of a disease to describe the symptoms by which this condition manifests: swollen expectations, chronic congestion (e.g., traffic and storage spaces), fractured families, shopping fever, a rash of bankruptcies, and an ache for meaning. It then goes on to discuss the negative impact on our economy and environment, offer a self-diagnosis test so readers can see how badly they suffer from the alleged disease, and some treatment recommendations.

As suggested above, the concept doesn't seem quite as new anymore, in our post-9/11, post-simplicity movement world ... but then again, the current recession makes the ideas just as relevant, and perhaps it's books and programs like this one that helped bring the concepts of overconsumption and simplicity into the mainstream. (The book's recently been revised and a second edition reprinted, and I'd be mildly curious to see how this one differs from the original.) It's also a thought-provoking, if slightly corny, introduction to the topic for folks who haven't really questioned our cultural norms around affluence and conspicuous consumption before.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

#72 - The Secret Speech

Today, I finished The Secret Speech, by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central Publishing, 2009). This book is a sequel to Child 44, which I read earlier this year, and it does indeed meet my first sequel test: it stands perfectly well on its own, TYVM, whether or not you've read the earlier one.

The story is set about 4 years after Child 44 ends, though like its predecessor, it opens with a 1949 prologue that sets the stage for the action to come (though here, the relationship between this prologue and the main story is much clearer from the get-go). Lazar, a pragmatic priest who's more or less cooperated with the Stalinist regime, is standing in the crowd, waiting to watch the destruction of his Moscow church. When the demolition is botched, he rushes to save the handful of documents and icons that remain hidden in the building, aided by his wife Anisya and young seminarian Maxim. Alas, he is caught by the authorities -- and shocked to learn that his protege, Maxim, is none other than secret police officer Leo Demidyev. Both Lazar and Anisya are hauled off, presumably to the gulag, as the curtain falls.

Fast forward seven years. After his success tracking down the serial killer in Child 44, Leo's now working in the legitimate (if not well-publicized) homicide division of the Moscow police department. This entails none of the secret arrests and coerced confessions of his old job, and in the intervening years, he and his wife Raisa have, belatedly and tentatively, built an honest, even loving relationship. However, at 14, Zoya, the elder of the two daughters they adopted at the end of Child 44, still hasn't forgiven Leo for his role in her parents' murder. As the story begins, Leo receives a middle-of-the-night phone call from a distraught former colleague. Thinking him merely drunk, Leo advises the man to go back to sleep, and promises they'll talk in the morning.

And then all hell breaks loose. Rising party leader Krushchev's secret speech denouncing Stalin's purges and cult of personality has just been made public, with tremendous consequences. Leo's panicked colleague, terrified that his wife and children will learn of his role in Stalin's brutalities, murders them in their sleep before killing himself. Zoya is inspired to stand up in school and denounce Stalin
herself; not surprisingly, she and Raisa (a teacher) are soon looking for a new school. She then offers Raisa a startling ultimatum: if Raisa wants Zoya to live with her and behave as her daughter, she must leave Leo. (Did I mention that, in all the confusion, Leo puts two and two together and realizes that someone in the doorway the night of the phonecall + a mysterious knife on his floor = Zoya plotting to kill him in his sleep?)

However, before Zoya can make good on her threat, she is kidnapped. The culprit, not surprisingly, is a specter from Leo's past: Anisya, now d/b/a Fraera and leading a cell of an increasingly powerful underground gang, the vory. Fraera has an ultimatum of her own for Leo: either he must free Lazar from the gulag where he's spent the last seven years, or Zoya will be executed. While restrictions have loosened in the wake of Krushchev's speech, there are still limits ... and in order to save Zoya, Leo must pose as a prisoner himself, and come face to face with the fate to which he consigned so many others. Moreover, even when he completes his mission, he learns that Fraera has only begun to extract her revenge.

The Secret Speech takes us from Moscow to the wasteland of the Gulags to the doomed Budapest uprising of 1956, and has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as did Child 44. Great literature this isn't; none of the characters are especially well-developed, and (yes, I know this is a frequent complaint of mine with novels of a certain style) many of the scenes have a slightly-implausible, Hollywood action movie feel to them. Nonetheless, it is exciting (mostly; the pacing was a little off in places), and it raises some intriguing questions about how cruelty affects the perpetrators, and what's left when a brutal, repressive system is suddenly discredited. If you like spy novels and/or James Bond-style action, you'll probably enjoy this one.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

#71 - Eat, Pray, Love

Finally got around to reading Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, by Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking Penguin, 2006). Truthfully, I was prepared not to like it. The title seemed a little arrogant, which mirrored the opinion of a co-worker who got to it months ago. And hey, you know I'm a little jumpy about classism, so the idea of a Perils-of-Pauline style travelogue by someone who's privileged enough to spend an entire year traveling around the world just didn't appeal. But I'd bought it some time ago (partly on the advice of a dear friend, herself an expat in Bali, who proclaims Gilbert's description of that piece of her journey dead on), and here it is.

As you've probably guessed after all that, I did enjoy the book tremendously, which was a pleasant surprise. For the 3 people out there who haven't heard the buzz, Gilbert had pretty much everything she'd ever wanted by the time she hit her mid-30s -- a successful writing career, a lovely suburban New York home and a Manhattan pied-a-terre, and a husband -- but still wasn't happy. After a bitter divorce and a passionate but troubled rebound affair, she took off in search of the meaning of life -- specifically, spending four months each studying and living pleasure (chiefly food) in Italy, prayer and devotion in a remote Indian ashram, and balance in Bali. Each locale gets its own section, which is further divided into 36 short (2-5 page) chapters or stories. The writing is superb, and made me wish I could transport myself into the midst of any one of her experiences, from being consumed with mosquitos during a twilight meditation to waxing rhapsodic about the best pizza in the world in Naples to trading bawdy jokes that transcend culture with a Balinese folk healer. I sound like a broken record (I rarely meet a book I don't like) but really -- read this one, or just a chapter or 2, if you haven't yet.

#70 - The Family Tree

Somewhat appropriately, I read Carole Cadwalladr's The Family Tree (Plume, 2005) on a slightly-overwhelming vacation with my own extended family. This will be a quickie review (again, I'm trying to catch up on my blogging backlog), but I enjoyed it very much. Set in Britain in the late 20th century, it's the story of three generations of one family, and how our relationships as mother, daughter, sister, wife, and grandchild shape who we are. The narrator, Rebecca Monroe, is in her early 30s as the turn of the millenium approaches, happily married to geneticist Alistair, and childless by mutual agreement (though Alistair seems to agree a bit more emphatically than does Rebecca). The novel tells her story, from childhood on up through the present ... but it's also the story of her mother, Doreen, and her grandmother, Alicia.

We know from the get-go (it's printed on the back cover) that "on the day Lady Diana married Prince Charles, Rebecca's mother locked herself in the bathroom of 24 Beech Drive and never came out" -- but we don't know for quite some time exactly what happened or what led up to that point. Signs of Doreen's voilatility are evident from the outset, though, as is the seeming unlikelihood of two marriages: Doreen's to James, Rebecca's father; and her sister Suzanne's to Kenneth, Doreen's old beau. As the novel unfolds, Rebecca also learns more of her grandmother Alicia's life story (Alicia has Alzheimer's, and is terrified of losing her memories before she can pass them on) -- grandfather Herbert's patient and (frankly) creepy stalking of his young cousin Alicia, Alicia's own secret heartbreak as a young woman, and how she eventually succumbed to Herb's persistence. The story is a bit jumpy and disjointed in places, but honestly, that's how family stories often play out. A good vacation read.