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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

#94 - The Learners

Hmm. It's been a few days since I finished The Learners, by Chip Kidd (Scribner, 2008), and I can't decide what I think. My first reaction was, I enjoyed it more than its predecessor, The Cheese Monkeys; there's less of Himillsy, for one thing, and as a former psych major, I have a soft spot for any novel in which the Milgram experiments play a central role. The folks at the Onion AV Club would beg to differ, calling Learners "frustratingly opaque." I don't know that I'd go that for, but with some time and distance, I think it falls in the "squarely OK" camp. Like Kidd's earlier novel, it's funny in places and has some interesting ideas, but wasn't really all that memorable.

The story opens in New Haven in 1961, three years after the conclusion of The Cheese Monkeys. Our narrator (who, three years after Winter Sorbeck coined the sobriquet, still goes by Happy) has graduated from State U., and moved to Yale's backyard in hopes of beginning his graphic design career at Spear, Rakoff, and Ware, as his old professor and mentor Sorbeck did his own so many years ago. Thanks to his determination and his ears, he succeeds, becoming the assistant to talented but underutilized partner Sketchy Spear. His comrades in arms are caricatures, sure, but they're quirky and entertaining ones: Tip, the affable and probably gay copywriter; Preston, the perpetually drunk and disengaged old-timer; Mimi, the somewhat-kooky matriarch who seems to love her Great Dane more than she ever loved her late husband; Nicky, Mimi's useless dilettante of a son; and the unfortunately-named Dick Stankey, the portly but jovial rep of Krinkle Kutt potato chips. One of the first assignments tossed Happy's way is to design a newspaper ad for a Yale psychology professor, who's recruiting subjects for an experiment on (cough, cough) learning and memory.

Not surprisingly, before too long, Himillsy Dodd rears her adorable pixie head again, although Happy hasn't seen her since just before the end of The Cheese Monkeys. Alas, after their brief reunion, she disappears again. After the fact, Happy receives a strange clue that leads him to suspect Himillsy had volunteered for the Yale experiment; curious, he himself signs up. His assignment comes as no great shock to us, but Happy is devastated -- even after it's revealed that the "learner" he was allegedly shocking was in cahoots with the experimenter, and the shocks were all fake. While Himillsy's participation is never confirmed, he blames himself for her fate, and torments himself obsessively with both his obedience and his complicity in designing the ad.

Happy's (and possibly Himillsy's) reaction to the experiments could be an interesting story, except that it's not particularly well-executed here. As in Cheese Monkeys, Kidd's character development is exaggerated rather than subtle, and his descriptions of Happy's nightmares have an almost comic-book feel to them (not surprising, for a graphic artist). In a nutshell, the New York Times review called The Learners "witty and well observed as an office comedy, as a meditation on art and as a story of self-discovery. But it rings false when Kidd aims for themes of greater tragedy; when Happy comes to a dark self-realization after participating in the Milgram experiment (in which most subjects gave the “learners” the maximum jolt), his reaction often plays more like an adolescent funk than the genuine crisis of the soul Kidd seems to aim for." I think I have to agree.

#93 - The Cheese Monkeys

I'm a sucker for college novels. Chip Kidd's The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters (Scribner, 2001) is not typical, nor is it perfect, but it is pretty darned funny in places. The anonymous narrator is, as the book begins, en route to an unnamed State U. to major in art, although he's none too enthusiastic about either one:
Majoring in Art at the state university appealed to me because I have always hated Art, and I had a hunch if any school would treat the subject with the proper disdain, it would be one that was run by the government.
While his first-term art teacher, the is-she-senile-or-just-plain-ditzy Dottie Spang, doesn't do much to dispel his ennui, we can't say the same for classmate Himillsy Dodd, creator of the emperor-has-no-clothes inspired title sculpture. Sure, she drinks too much and too early in the day, has so much artistic talent that she can't bear her peers' sophomoric efforts (and consequently sneaks into the studio and modifies them after hours), and frankly, seems a bit full of herself ... but at least she's interesting and unusual, and the narrator becomes more than a little enthralled with her. While he's quietly frustrated at her romantic unavailability (Himillsy, of course, has a steady boyfriend, the incredibly pompous architect Garnett), an odd friendship develops.

Together with a third classmate, excruciatingly earnest fish-out-of-water Maybelle Lee, the pair find only one art class still open when spring registration rolls around: the newly-renamed Introduction to Graphic Design, taught by Winter Sorbeck. This, my friends, is where the novel really picks up steam. As the Complete Review's review notes, the plot itself is only so-so, partly because Himillsy's character is so annoyingly self-righteous. (Perhaps it's just that I've been out of college long enough to have forgotten somethings, and on a campus long enough that I know its cliches. Alternately, perhaps the iconoclast really was a rarity in the '50s and early '60s, which would explain why (usually) she shows up and holds such fascination for other characters in novels set on college campuses during that period; Indignation and The Secret History come to mind, and that's just off the top of my head. But I digress.)

But the graphic design assignments and critiques are both biting and hilarious. Sorbeck is merciless, and more than a little crazy. The first class assignment has the students driven out into the middle of nowhere (yes, the same landscape does surround every college town) and expected to find rides home, armed only with a large sheet of posterboard and a permanent marker; later, a faculty art exhibition sees and smells Sorbeck exhibiting a load of crap -- literally. And the hapless Maybelle and kindred spirit Mike -- a non-traditional student with excellent technical skills, but next to no soul -- are positively shredded. Kidd himself is a designer, and apparently a well-known one (I believe this was one of his book covers ), and he clearly knows that of which he speaks. I'm usually a stickler for plot and character, but the art school/ design principles bits here were enough to overcome my usual preferences. Probably won't make my top 10 list for the year, but still an enjoyable read.

#92 - Sing Them Home

Wrapping up September with another backlog of fiction books. #92 was Sing Them Home, by Stephanie Kallos (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009). The short verdict here was, definitely a girl book, and a bit of a slow starter, but engaging and worthwhile once I got there.

I picked this one up at the library based solely on the author's name; I absolutely loved Kallos's Broken for You. (Then again, I did read that one on a long bus ride, so I may have gotten past any slow starting because, well, there was nothing else to do but keep reading.) At 542 pages, Sing Them Home is on the hefty side, and as I said before, it took a little while to draw me in. Without giving too much away, there's an extended magical/ whimsical piece at the beginning which wasn't really what I was looking for ... but fortunately, this does wrap up within a few pages and is only referred to occasionally throughout the rest of the novel. Essentially, this is a story of family, love, and loss set in the fictional Nebraska small town of Emlyn Springs. For those not up on their geography, Nebraska is in Tornado Alley, and in a sense, the novel is bracketed by tornadoes: one 30-odd years before the story begins, and the other ... well, I won't spoil that piece for you. Anyhow, the earlier cyclone still looms large in the town's collective memory, and larger still for the Jones family; it was this tornado that swept up Hope Jones, the young wife and mother who'd fallen in love with then-fiance Llewellyn's home town and insisted on settling there some years earlier. To this day, people talk not about Hope's death, but about when she "went up," and in the cemetery where most of the departed townspeople are buried, there is only a memorial marker.

But all of this is mere context. As the book opens, Hope's widower, Dr. Llewellyn Jones, ignores the nagging of his long-time companion (and Hope's one-time best friend) Viney to play golf in a thunderstorm. The results are tragic, if predictable; lightning strikes, and Llewellyn is killed instantly. Viney quickly summons the 3 adult Jones children, who must come home not only to mourn and bury their father, but to confront the demons that still linger around their mother's death 30 years earlier. Larken, the eldest, is an art history professor in Lincoln who seems poised to be the next department chair. However, her personal life seems painfully empty; she takes comfort and joy only from near-constant, furtive snacking and her weekly babysitting date with Esme, cherubic daughter of Larken's on-again, off-again neighbors John and Mira. Gaelen, the middle child and only son, is a semi-famous local weather reporter who comes off as the proverbial talking head. With no meteorological training, but a telegenic face and (thanks to countless hours at the gym) buff bod extraordinaire, Gaelen never lacks for (ahem) dates, but doesn't seem to have truly loved a woman since dumping his high school and college sweetheart Bethan. And then there's Bonnie, a/k/a Flying Girl, the baby sister who remained in Emlyn Springs and who Larken and Gaelen fear is fast on her way to eccentric spinsterhood. While the local children adore her, Bonnie's means of support have always been marginal at best (as the book opens, she runs a juice and smoothie bar which is open except when it isn't), and she's long had an odd hobby of combing the local landscape for artifacts and tending local graves, convinced she'll eventually find the clue that unlocks the mystery of Hope's disappearance.

Much of the book takes place against the backdrop of a (purportedly) traditional Welsh funeral celebration, which lasts a full week. For the first 4 days, the immediate family members don't speak at all, and are attended more or less constantly by neighbors. This is followed by 3 days of nonstop (24/7, or perhaps 24/3) hymn singing, with all the townspeople and family taking shifts to honor the dead ... to sing them home, if you will; hence, the title. I have no idea if the Welsh or Welsh-Americans really do mourn their dead in this manner, but the idea does make for an interesting metaphor: how do we behave in that in-between time, after the death and before the burial? How can we truly grieve when there's no body to view and bury -- no "closure," in pop psych-speak? And what does it mean, after a life-altering loss, to go on with our lives, to get back to normal?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

#91 - The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

From the moment you pick it up, you know The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen (Penguin Press, 2009) is an unusual book. It's shaped differently, for one thing, taller and wider than the average novel. And throughout the entire book, beginning with the back of the title page that contains the LoC data, are notes and sketches in the margins; a kinder, gentler footnote, if you will, explaining some tangent or other of the narrator's reverie.

In the wake of the vaguely disturbing Fault Lines, it's nice to read about a far less creepy and more likeable childhood prodigy. Here, it's the title character, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, of the Coppertop Ranch near Divide, Montana. Named for a long line of Tecumsehs (most recently, his father) and the bird that flew into the kitchen window the day of his birth, T.S. is a brilliant cartographer who maps everything from older sister Gracie's corn-shucking movements to his bedroom to the Continental Divide to the mysterious tiger monk beetle (and that's just in the first 10 pages). As he explains it, "[a] map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between dispaeate ideas that we did not know were previously connected. To do this right is very difficult."

T.S. is also 12 years old, which presents some logistical problems when he receives a phone call from the Smithsonian Institution, congratulating him on receiving the prestigious Baird Award and inviting him to come to Washington, D.C. to accept in person. Chief among these is, he can't tell his parents. His father is a taciturn rancher who's never understood his map-obsessed son; his mother, Dr. Clair, is herself a scientist whose lifelong search for the elusive tiger monk beetle seems to have stalled her career indefinitely. The whole family, T.S. included, is still grieving the loss of his younger brother Layton, who shot himself while playing in the barn. His mentor, Dr. Yorn, knows (he submitted T.S.'s porfolio for the award, after all), but is a little too emphatic in encouraging T.S. to come clean with Dr. Clair about the work they've done for the Smithsonian and how it's now come to fruition.

So T.S. does what any normal 12 year old would do, or at least what they'd imagine doing: he packs a suitcase and hops aboard a freight train, determined to hobo it across the country. Thus begins an adventure that lead Stephen King to claim the book "combines Mark Twain, Thomas Pynchon, and Little Miss Sunshine." I've never read Pynchon, but the Twain and LMS analogies only partly capture the core of T.S. Spivet -- yes, there's travel involved, and yes, some of T.S.'s observations are fascinating and funny. However, there's also an underlying sadness here, as we see when the monotony of T.S.'s train trip leads him to wonder if going out into the world to claim his prize is really all it's cracked up to be:
"And yet, I still could not shake the feeling of dull melancholy that had been lurking since my departure, a kind of persistent hollowness, similar to the feeling I got when eating cotton candy: initially there was so much associated nostalgia, so much promise emanating from those luscious pink threads, but when I got down to the act of licking it or biting it or whatever one did to cotton candy, there was just not a lot there -- in the end, you were just eating a sugar wig."
Likewise, for all his sense of being out of place as a rancher's boy (read: not being Layton), he begins to wonder upon waking up in Chicago whether even his map-making skills have their limits:
"I fell under the city's spell of multiplicity and transience. One could not possibly process an urban landscape like this through the sum of its details. All of my usual abilities of observation, measurement, and visual synthesis began to shut down one after anoter. Fighting a rising panic, I tried to retreat to the familiar territory of pattern recognition, but with thousands of minute observations to choose from, there were either too many patterns or none at all."
Not surprisingly, many of his musings involve family: the idiosyncracies of his parents, the seeming mismatch of Dr. Clair and Tecumseh Elijah, and the relative importance of choice, predetermination, and love in who and what we become.
"Perhaps the family tree was not the best natural metaphor for tracing your genealogy back in time from the single quivering stalk of your existence to the many roots of your ancestors. Trees grow upward, and thus they would be growing back in time. ... It seemed better to picture the forking and joining of the Spivets and Ostervilles as the forks and splits of a river. And yet such an image raised parallel questions of choice: were the bends of a river guided only by chance -- by wind, by erosion, by the fitful heave and sigh of their granulated shores? Or was there a prefixed destination dictated by the sequence of bedrock beneath the riverbed?"
These ideas are fueled by a notebook of his mother's that T.S. inadvertently packed, which (surprisingly) contains not her field notes, but the story of his paternal grandmother, Emma Osterville, a one-time geologist. When the young Emma wavers in her determination to enroll in Vassar's inaugural class, her mother Elizabeth's exhortations highlight T.S.'s growing ambivalence about not telling his parents of his trip:
"If you do not pack all of your garments and drawings and notebooks and pens by week's end and you do not take that train, I will never forgive you. You mustn't throw this away. To close yourself off to what is possible is to kill part of yourself, and that part will never grow again. You can marry and you can bear many beautiful children, but a part of you will be dead and you will feel that coldness every time you wake in the morning. You are on the cusp of opening up the world -- who knows what great and glorious things lie in store for you at that college? This is a world that has never been tested before, never been dreamed of."
Despite a close call in the Windy City, T.S. eventually does make it to D.C. and the Smithsonian's Emerald City, where he makes the most of his chance to explain his craft to the capital's finest scientific minds:
"Many people have asked me why I spend all my time drawing maps instead of playing outside with other boys my age. My father, who is a rancher from Montana, does not really understand me. I try to show him how maps can be useful in his line of work, but he doesn't listen. My mother is a scientist like you people ... . But you know what is strange? Even though she is a scientist, she still doesn't understand me. She doesn't really see the purpose of mapping all the people I meet, all the places I see, everything that I have ever witnessed or read about. But I don't want to die without having taken a crack at figuring out how the whole thing fits together."
However, he soon begins to wonder if these patrons, and even their science, are all they're cracked up to be. At one point, we see a sidebar excerpt from one of his notebooks about what marks the transition from child to adult, where he observes, "You were an adult if you: 1. Took naps for no reason. 2. Didn't get excited about Christmas. ... 9. Were suspicious of children and their motives. 10. Didn't get excited about anything." Later, his enthusiastic and heart-tugging Smithsonian speech notwithstanding, he confesses privately to his notebook that he isn't quite as firm a believer in his maps as he lets on:
"When you drew a map of something, this something then became true, at least in the world of the map. But wasn't the world of the map never the same as the world of the world? So no map-truths were ever truth-truths. I was in a dead-end profession. I think I knew I was in a dead-end profession, and the dead-endedness was what made it so attractive. In my heart of hearts, there was a certain comfort in knowing that I was doomed to failure."

For the most part, this is a (pardon the pun) novel and fascinating story, with a lot to say about family, growing up, scholarship, and loneliness. Without giving too much away, I do take issue with some of the goings-on in the Washington, D.C. segment of the book; there's a whole subplot that turns up here that frankly, just seemed tacked-on and silly ... a disappointing wrinkle in an otherwise-exceptional story. This hardly spoils the effect, though; this is a gorgeous book.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

#90 - Mr. & Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy

OK, so ... I do enjoy my non-fiction, but it's definitely slower going than a novel, and sometimes, I want something a little quicker and lighter. Ergo, I read Mr. & Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Two Shall Become One, by Sharon Lathan (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2009) one afternoon last week, when I wasn't quite up for Built to Last.

In a word, yawn. I'm usually a fan of new spins on old stories; two of my all-time favorites are The Red Tent and The Mists of Avalon, and I still want to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But Mr. & Mrs. was little more than vaguely naughty fan fiction -- very disappointing. Naughty is fine now and again; naughty and romantic is even more so, as it's a rare and underappreciated combination. But if you're gonna write a romantic naughty story, either write your own from scratch or, if you're starting with someone else's characters, at least bring something new to the party (and no, a smidgen of smut alone doesn't cut it).

The plot, such as it is, in a nutshell: The story begins immediately after Elizabeth's wedding to Mr. Darcy. The wedding night vastly exceeds either party's wildest imaginings, and most of the rest of the novel is devoted to how much Darcy and Lizzie love each other, how attracted they are to one another, and how tender and mutually satisfying all their many amorous encounters are. That's pretty much it; not much in the way of conflict or surprise here. Really, all the book has to recommend it are the steamy scenes -- which are OK, but not particularly compelling as the basis for an entire book.

#89 - Built to Last

Can you tell I've been on a business and leadership kick lately? Next up in the non-fiction zone will be child development and parenting. Yeah, I have some weird ideas about what's a good time, but we knew that already.

Anyhoo, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras (HarperBusiness, 1994) is unusual in the genre for two reasons: one, it's pretty old (considering) and still on the shelf; and two, it's got a fair bit of substance. The book is the result of an extensive study the authors, both Stanford professors, conducted on 18 visionary companies: companies which had been in business at least 50 years, premeir institutions in their industries, and widely respected by businesspeople In The Know. Their intent was to determine what set these companies apart from others in the same industries with similar longevity, but without quite the same stature or financial returns.

The companies selected are all household names, and they're a pretty varied lot, including 3M, Merck, Citicorp, Walt Disney, Marriott, Wal-Mart, and Hewlett-Packard. Borrowing from my last review of Never Eat Alone (partly because I find it darned hard to really review books on topics outside my area of expertise, and partly because this one, too, was interesting enough for me to want to take notes), I'm going to do less of a review here and more a summary of the key characteristics Collins and Porras found which were common to the companies they studied.
  1. Clock building, not time telling. In short, a "visionary company" doesn't need to have its genesis in a single, brilliant idea -- Hewlett and Packard went into business together knowing only that they wanted to start a company that had something to do with electrical engineering -- or a charismatic leader. Rather, it's the company itself and what it stands for that is and isn't visionary. This theme of "clock building," which recurs throughout the book, is explained as follows:
  2. "Imagine you met a remarkable person who could look at the sun or stars at any time of day or night and state the exact time and date: 'It's April 23, 1401, 2:36 A.M., and 12 seconds.' This person would be an amazing time teller, and we'd probably revere that person for the ability to tell time. But wouldn't that person be even more amazing if, instead of telling the time, he or she built a clock that could tell the time forever, even after he or she was dead and gone? Having a great idea or being a charismatic visionary leader is 'time telling'; building a company that can prosper far beyond the presence of any single leader and through multiple produce life cycles is 'clock building.'"
  3. More than profits: While profits are important and necessary to all the visionary companies studied, they're not the end in and of themselves. Rather, these companies tended to focus on earning a good profit or a fair profit in a manner consistent with their core ideologies, rather than on making the maximum profit possible, regardless of how they got there
  4. Preserve the core/ stimulate progress: While having a core, unchanging ideology is important, that doesn't mean these companies refuse to change. On the contrary, "[a] visionary company carefully preserves and protects its core ideology, yet all the specific manifestations of its core ideology must be open for change and evolution."
  5. Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs -- pronounced "Bee-Hags" -- for short) -- clear, daunting goals that everyone can remember and understand -- are a great way to focus effort and stimulate team spirit.
  6. Along with the fervently-held core ideology, visionary companies tend to have cult-like corporate cultures. Those who fit with the ideology and enjoy working somewhere where everyone's expected to be gung-ho about their work tend to love it and stay a while; those who don't tend to leave or be fired quickly.
  7. Try a lot of stuff and keep what works. Sure, BHAGs are important, but evolutionary progress is equally so. Since you never know exactly where the next big thing is going to come from (witness the accidental invention of Post-It Notes at 3M, and, much earlier, of talcum powder and Band-Aids at Johnson & Johnson), it's best to give employees and departments a fair degree of freedom -- a/k/a "let a thousand flowers bloom" -- and, when you find something that works well, spread it around and/or run with it.
  8. Home-grown management. This was a surprise to me, but actually, only 2 of the 18 companies ever brought in a new CEO from the outside. Rather, part of how these companies preserved their core ideologies and stimulated progress was through extensive succession planning and a long-standing practice of promoting from within. Lest you think this means big, revolutionary changes are all but impossible, note that Jack Welch at GE was a home-grown CEO.
  9. Good enough never is. True visionary companies don't rest on their laurels; instead, they build in mechanisms to keep them from getting too comfortable, and seek constant improvement.
Another good book, and an interesting companion to Never Eat Alone (which espouses many similar principles on an individual level). I'm ready for some good fiction now, though.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

#88 - Never Eat Alone

OK, time to whittle down the non-fiction stack a bit. I'm currently reading Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time, by Keith Ferrazzi (Currency, 2005). It's been on my list so long I've forgotten how it got there; for all I know, it's something I saw in an airport and found intriguing. Interesting, as it's essentially a book on networking, that it percolated up just as I'm kicking off my job search in earnest. Sometimes karma works in mysterious ways.

Ferrazzi's premise, drawing from his own experience as a working-class but ambitious kid from a small Pennsylvania town who nonetheless attended elite schools, graduated from Yale and then Harvard, and achieved impressive success in the corporate sector, can be summed up as follows:
"[I]n some very specific ways life, like golf, is a game, and that the people who know the rules, and know them well, play it best and succeed. And the rule in life that has unprecedented power is that the individual who knows the right people, for the right reasons, and utilizes the power of these relationships, can become a member of the 'club,' whether he started out as a caddie or not."
From there, he goes on to outline principles for building strong professional relationships (a/k/a your network) and (presumably) therefore achieving whatever goals you've set for yourself. Specifically, these principles are as follows:
  1. Don't keep score. Ferrazzi argues that if he had to sum up the key to success in a single word, it would be "generosity." You need to both accept it and ask for it. You also need to be willing to introduce your contacts to each other. Here, he cites a former prep school headmaster who, in his words, "build an entire institution on his asking people not 'How can you help me?' but 'How can I help you?'"
  2. What's your mission? According to the book, the folks most likely to succeed are those who not only have goals, but write them down and build a concrete action plan that will get them there. He further breaks this down into the following steps: finding your passion (both by looking inside yourself and seeking friends' and colleagues' advice); putting your goals down on paper (ideally, both a three-year goal, and then three-month and one-year mini-goals that will help you get there); and identifying people who can help you on your way to each of these goals.
  3. Build it before you need it. In Ferrazzi's words, "people who have the largest circle of contacts, mentors, and friends know that you must reach out to others long before you need anything at all." The piece that really spoke to me in this chapter was the following:
  4. "Too often, we get caught up efficiently doing ineffective things, focusing solely on the work that will get us through the day. The idea isn't to find oneself another environment tomorrow -- be it a new job or a new economy -- but to be constantly creating the environment and community you want for yourself, no matter what may occur.

    "Creating such a community, however, is not a short-term solution or one-off activity only to be used when necessary. The dynamics of building a relationship is necessary incremental. You can only truly gain someone's trust and commitment little by little over time."
  5. The genius of audacity. Frankly, networking (oops, sorry, relationship building) doesn't come naturally to anyone ... but on the other hand, "nothing in [your] life has created opportunity like a willingness to ask." In other words, you need to introduce yourself to new people, even if it's uncomfortable and you'll probably get rejected sometimes.
  6. The networking jerk. Don't be That Guy (or Gal) who loves to schmooze and gossip, but treats underlings poorly and/or is only in it for what they can get.
  7. Do your homework. Pretty self-explanatory; essentially, find out as much as you can about people before you meet them, and find some common ground ASAP afterwards.
There's much more -- the above notes only take me about halfway through the book -- but all in all, it's an excellent reference and provides some good food for thought and action, whether you're on a job-hunt like I am or just interested in such stuff.

#87 - Fault Lines

I'm really on a roll here, both in terms of how many books I've cranked through these last few weeks and how good they've ended up being. (The two are not unrelated; the more interesting the story, the more likely I am to sit down and read and neglect everything else until I finish.) Last night's notch in the literary belt was Nancy Huston's Fault Lines (Black Cat, 2006).

Nazi Germany isn't exactly a novel setting for historical fiction, even when it's a multi-generational novel like this one. It's difficult for a book to offer a new spin on this theme, but Huston succeeds, with a tale narrated in the first person by four successive generations of one family. The book opens in California in 2004 with 6 year old Sol, who the jacket aptly describes as "a gifted, terrifying child whose mother believes he is destined for greatness."
"I'm awake.
Like flicking on a switch and flooding a room with light.
Snapping out of sleep, clicking into wakefulness, a perfectly functioning mind and body, six years old and a genius, first thought every morning when I wake up. ...
A sunny Sunday sun sun sun sun king Sol Solly Solomon
I'm like sunlight, all-powerful, instantaneous and invisible, flowing effortlessly into the darkest corners of the universe

capable at six of seeing illuminating understanding everything"
Make no mistake, though; little Sol is not one of those cute, bright little tykes. Nor is he just a spoiled, arrogant little prince of a boy (though he is that, too). This is a kid with a horrifying fascination with the Iraq war -- specifically, with the photos of mutilated corpses and Abu Ghraib prisoners he Googles compulsively, and finds precociously arousing. (Interesting that his stay-at-home mom Tessa, who prides herself on how well childproofed their home is -- "all the electrical outlets are covered ... There are soft plastic rounded covers added to every right-angle table and counter ... Also the burners to the stove have a special blocking mechanism ... Even the toilet is childproofed" -- has failed to notice this interest.) Father Randall occasionally makes a half-hearted effort to tone down Tessa's coddling, but has a two-hour commute to his job building warrior robots for the military-industrial complex, and seems disengaged even when he's technically present. Over his objections, Tessa schedules a surgery to remove the birthmark Randall, his grandmother, and Sol all share; in Sol's case, it's on his left temple.

Even Sol's omniscience, however, has its limits, which emerge when Randall's work takes him to Munich. By sheer force of will, his mother Sadie turns the trip into a four-generation odyssey -- Sol, Randall and Tessa, Sadie herself, and Sadie's mother G.G., nee Erra (or is she?) -- to visit G.G.'s sister Greta, who is reportedly dying.

His portion of the story ends on an ambiguous note in Munich, and we rewind to Randall's boyhood in New York City in the early 1980s. His home life is very different from Sol's; father Aron is a not-very-successful playwright and his primary caregiver, while it's Sadie who's the driven breadwinner, a teacher and historian specializing in the Aryanization of Europe during WWII. Her research takes the family from Manhattan to Haifa, where Randall becomes a whiz at Hebrew (at least, until an innocent language question prompts his tutor to quit in disgust), and gains a different perspective on Israel's history through a friendship of sorts with a Palestinian classmate.

From here, we go back still further to Toronto, circa 1962, where the lumpen young Sadie is fostered with her grandparents while single mother G.G./ Erra/ Kristina (as she is called here) leads the marginal, bohemian life of a not-yet-successful singer. The elder Kriswatys are cold and Spartan, and Sadie longs for the day when her mother will spirit her off to New York for good. The day eventually comes, but not without its share of surprises and questions.

Finally, we arrive in 1944 Munich, where 6 year old Kristina lives a mostly-unremarkable life with her parents and older siblings, Lothar and Greta, until, in a squabble over a favorite doll, Greta blurts out a shocking accusation. She apologizes and takes it back the next day, but still Kristina wonders -- especially when, a few months after Lothar is killed on the Russian front, their parents bring 10 year old Johann home, claiming that he's a war orphan in need of a new home. Johann, however, tells a different story.

All in all, this is a fascinating book. I loved the metaphor of the birthmark all four of the narrators share (though Sadie's is hidden and, she's always thought, hugely shameful). The ideas about how our families and our history shape who we are are excellent fodder for rumination (one of my favorite pastimes, in case that's not yet obvious). Huston also introduced an aspect of the war I wasn't previously familiar with, though this is an integral part of the story, and I don't want to spoil the surprise by mentioning it. Definitely one to read; if you can force yourself to keep going even when Sol's portion makes you squirm, it will be worth your while.

Friday, September 11, 2009

#86 - True Colors

Sigh. I do think I've found a new guilty pleasure.

One thing I owe to this blog is that I've stopped apologizing for what I read. Sometimes it's Literature, sometimes it's scholarly non-fiction, sometimes it's just fun. This is entertainment, darn it. Y'know, a hobby. Something I do for recreation. Sometimes I want to be challenged or provoked or informed, and others, I just want to be amused.

Sadly, chick lit isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Just when I think I've found an author who can reliably deliver the goods (i.e., escapist reading), either she goes and dies on me (R.I.P., Olivia Goldsmith) or (worse, 'cause I keep reading it even when I know I'll wish I hadn't later; the bibliophile's potato chips) she churns out one repetitive, bland bestseller after another, none of which ever taste as good as they used to.

Fortunately, it seems that Kristin Hannah can hook me up, at least for a while. True Colors (St. Martin's, 2009) is as girly as they come -- it's got a pink sunset and seashells on the cover, a friendly girl-next-door author pic on the back, and plotwise, it's about 3 steps above Danielle Steele -- but it's an engaging story about 3 sisters in a small Washington State town, has plausible, non-ridiculous characters, and is just plain fun to read. So here we are.

The three principals, Winona, Aurora, and Vivi Ann, have always been the closest of friends and soulmates; Pea, Bean, and Sprout in their mother's beloved garden. All three have also remained in their tiny hometown of Oyster Shores, despite their mother's death and their father's blunt, stoic emotionlessness. Winona is a successful small-town attorney, although she remains single and childless, and continues to struggle with her weight; Aurora is married to the kind if boring Richard; and glamorous Vivi, always their father's favorite, remains with him on the Grey family ranch and continues to ride their mother's beloved mare Clem.

Their comfortable routine of Friday "girls' night" at the local bar and Sunday walks to church en famile becomes strained when a stranger, one Dallas Raintree, comes to town. While even the girls' father grudgingly admits Dallas is a hard worker and knows his horses, he's also biracial, tattooed, and seems more than a little unsavory; nonetheless, there's an undeniable chemistry between him and Vivi. Unaccustomed to her father's anger and disappointment, Vivi quickly deflects attention from her and Dallas by agreeing to marry Luke Connelly, an old classmate of Winona's who's recently returned to town. This presents two problems, however. One, for all her efforts, Vivi just doesn't love Luke; two, Winona does, and has since she was 15, but fears it's too late to 'fess up. Things come to a head when Winona inadvertently catches Vivi and Dallas in mid-tryst, and then betrays her sister by rushing to tell Luke and their father.

When the dust settles, Vivi and Dallas have eloped, and the sisters forge a grudging forgiveness (more than their father, who's never trusted Dallas, is able to do). An occasionally-tense peace stands for several years, and after a fragile beginning, Dallas and Vivi's son Noah grows to a young boy.

Until the Christmas eve Cat Morgan, latter-day local Belle Watling and Old Friend (smug eyebrow wiggle) of Dallas', is found dead in her saloon. Vivi is steadfast in her belief in Dallas' innocence, but their neighbors have mistrusted him from the get-go, and he does have a criminal record. Winona, likewise, is unconvinced, and refuses to take Dallas' case. Without funds for a skilled lawyer or a thorough defense, Dallas is convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Vivi blames Winona for doubting him and for failing to help, and the sisters' relationship is shattered, with peacemaker Aurora taking Vivi's side, and father Henry (for once) on Winona's.

The story continues from there, and to Hannah's credit, kept me guessing about many of the points right up till the end. Is Dallas indeed innocent, and will he ever be freed? Can Winona truly forgive Vivi for winning Luke's love, and will she ever find love of her own? Is there some crumb of passion somewhere in Aurora's marriage that's worth saving? How will Noah be affected by growing up not knowing or knowing about his dad? Yes, the ending's a bit tidy, but given the overall strength of the book as a fun, light read, I'll allow that.

#85 - Predictably Irrational

OK, most people wouldn't think a book on behavioral economics was a hoot and a half ... but I'm not most people. If you need proof, look no farther than my decision to study economics rather than HR in my master's program, so that I could come out making less money than my classmates. Yeppers, that's me.

Nonetheless, if you, too, have an odd sense of what's a good time, well ... then you, too, might enjoy Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely (HarperCollins, 2008). And honestly, you might enjoy it even if you're not a weird economist wannabe like me. This is not a dense, put-you-to-sleep economics tome. It's a different way of looking at different social and psychological phenomena that we've probably all noticed, but never really thought about -- and it's a lot of fun to read. I don't know that I'd actually heard the phrase "behavioral economics" before I picked up this book, though I had read The Economic Naturalist and was familiar with the idea. In a nutshell, this is a field of study and a book that contrast the classic concept of homo economicus -- perfectly rational, consistently making decisions that are in our own best interests -- with the ways and reasons in which we're blatantly and even systematically irrational. Predictably irrational, if you will; hence, the title. Among the biases Ariely and his colleagues at (mostly) MIT examined are:
  • We tend to make choices, whether we're shopping for a new TV, buying a house, selecting an item from a restaurant menu, or looking for a date, based on an option's looking good relative to something else. Quoting Gregg Rapp, a NYC restaurant consultant, he argues that high-priced menu items make restaurants a lot of money not because so many people tend to order the costliest thing on the menu, but because they do tend to order the next-costliest item.
  • Again, all those Econ 101 lessons about prices being driven by supply and demand notwithstanding, how much we'll pay for something is very much influenced by an anchor price that's presented in conjunction with that something -- even if the anchor price clearly has nothing to do with the object. One experiment on this subject use the last 2 digits of subjects' SSNs as the anchors ... sure enough, those with higher numbers paid more for the same bottle of wine than those with lower numbers.
  • We love free stuff. (No surprise here, especially if you've met my mother-in-law ... but I digress.) I won't spoil the details of the experiments here -- they, and the others that follow, are about as kooky and entertaining as the SSN-related prices -- but the book explains the "FREE!" phenomenon thus:
"What is it about zero cost that we find so irresistable? Why does FREE! make us so happy? After all, FREE! can lead us into trouble: things that we would never consider purchasing become incredibly appealing as soon as they are FREE! For instance, have you ever gathered up free pencils, key chains, and notepads at a conference, even though you'd have to carry them home and would only throw most of them away? Have you ever stodd in line for a very long time (too long) just to get a free cone of Ben and Jerry's ice cream? Or have you bought two of a product that you wouldn't have chose in the first place, just to get the third one for free? ... [T]here are many times when getting FREE! items can make perfect sense. ... The critical issue arises when FREE! becomes a struggle between a free item and another item -- a struggle in which the presence of FREE! leads us to make a bad decision. ... This is a case in which you gave up a better deal and settled for something that was not what you wanted, just because you were lured by FREE!
Subsequent chapters look at why being paid for doing some things reduces our intrinsic motivation to do them, how physiological arousal affects the rationality (or lack thereof) of our decision making -- and trust me, you'll love the experiments they did for this one, and the all-too-well-known phenomenon of procrastination.

I'm not sure I buy all of Ariely's conclusions as the full explanation for any of the patterns he observes, but for that matter, the book doesn't ask us to. It's fun to read and interesting to think about, and the format (each chapter tackles a different "gee, why do we do this?" quirk) makes it easy to pick up and put down, or just skim around. Definitely one I'll recommend and pass along.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A gentle madness, indeed

No, this isn't my 85th book (yet), but a reflection on the Hazel's Bookshelf link off to the right. For the one person who occasionally reads this and doesn't live in my house, this is a real bookshelf. Full of library books. Make that overfull; for the first time I can remember, they're overflowing onto the shelf below (which is double-stacked as it is). I just checked my account online and I have, um, 33 items currently checked out. (Technically, a handful of those have been returned and just not checked in yet, but still.) My 10 year old has more restraint than I do (and yes, she shows every sign of following in her mom's book geek footsteps). When we went to the library Tuesday ('cause that's how any normal person spends the last day of summer vaca, right?), I almost had more books than I could carry. Not more than I could carry home ... more than I could carry around the library as I peeled Littlehazel out of the comic section and slogged over to the self-checkout. (I carried 'em home fine -- uphill, even -- but I do pack a ginormous old backpack and walk so hunched over from the weight that my knuckles practically drag the ground.)

Is there a support group for this?

#84 - I See You Everywhere

Oops. Gave this one to Sisterhazel as a gift a year or so ago, based on the jacket flap alone (story of two sisters who live different lives and have their issues, but nonetheless share a strong bond, yadda yadda), without realizing how it ends. Ulp. Remind me not to do that again.

Julia Glass' I See You Everywhere (Pantheon, 2008) is the story of Louisa and Clem (Clement) Jardine. Louisa, four years older, has always half-envied, half-resented Clem's adventurous, peripatetic life, never quite understanding that Clem has her own demons to grapple with. The story jumps around from one time period to another, which was a bit confusing for me, and is told alternately from the two sisters' points of view. We see Clem's summer adventure with their 99 year old maiden Aunt Lucy in Vermont, Louisa's discovery (she's an art editor) of promising young artist Roberto, Louisa's misdirected attempt to seduce Clem's (gay) best friend, ecologist Clem's quest to save an ailing young bear cub in Montana, and Louisa's battles with her marriage and then breast cancer. Again, I don't want to spoil it for you and this isn't so much a book about plot as a story about a relationship, but it's worth a read -- even if I'm still not sure about that ending.

#83 - My Little Red Book

Also read My Little Red Book (Twelve, 2009) Monday, just before it was due back. Felt like I was a bit behind the curve on this one; a dear friend gave it as a gift to her daughter on the occasion of the daughter's first period, and heck, even Littlehazel devoured it before I'd even cracked the cover open.

The book, edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, is an anthology of stories about girls'/ women's first periods. It's both a quick read and a fascinating one. The settings range from 1919 to WWII Europe to a contemporary text message, and the contributors include such well-known authors as Meg Cabot, Megan McCafferty, Tamora Pierce, and Gloria Steinem (who revised her famous "If Men Could Menstruate" essay for the occasion). Simply put, a must read for anyone with strong feelings about this occasion in their own lives (whether it's decades past or still somewhere ahead of you) or strong feelings for a young woman they're close to.

Monday, September 7, 2009

#82 - The Believers

OK, good -- it's been a while, so I was about due for one of these. The Believers, by Zoe Heller (Harper Collins, 2008), was awesome! I picked this one out based on a New York Times review, which works out better some times than others ... this book was one of the betters. It's a well-written, believable, moving story about a family, yes -- but it's also a novel about what we believe in, and what happens when those beliefs are shaken.

Most of the novel is set in contemporary New York City, although it opens with a brief trip back to London in the early 1960s. Here, Audrey Howard, 19 year old daughter of an utterly dismal working-class family, meets Joel Litvinoff, a fiery leftist American lawyer some 12 years her senior, at a party. On a whim, they take the long train trek to her parents' home the next day, and such begins an odd courtship we're never really privy to.

However, it must have been successful, as 40 years later, the pair are still married (more or less happily, we presume), with three grown children. Consequently, when Joel suffers a sudden stroke in the courtroom, and is left in a coma, five lives are thrown into disarray. Rosa, who's shared her father's socialist and atheist sentiments for most of her life, has recently begun testing the waters of Orthodox Judaism, and struggles to reconcile not just a lifelong skepticism with the comforts of faith, but the many restrictions of that faith with her intellectual heritage. Karla, an overweight social worker who's forever apologizing and trying not to ask too much, is embarking on adopting a child with husband Mike (she feels she owes him that much, even if she's fairly indifferent about the whole thing) when she forges a tentative friendship (or is it?) that leads her to question everything she's settled for over the years. And Lenny, himself adopted at 7 after his birth mother was jailed for Weatherman-type activities, has been pretty disorganized all along, struggling with his drug addiction and the suffocating results of Audrey's one vein of maternal instinct.

Audrey herself, frankly, is awful ... so much so that you don't know whether to laugh or cringe. When a former lover of Joel's shows up on the doorstep after his stroke, wanting her young son to get to know his half-siblings, you find yourself feeling like Audrey had it coming (not my usual reaction in stories where adultery suddenly comes to the surface). To say too much more would spoil much of the pleasure the book offers, but it's both a page-turner and a thinking person's novel. Enjoy.

#81 - The Not So Big Life

Last night, I finished Sarah Susanka's The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters (Random House, 2007). I considered all sorts of plays on the title for this review -- the not so good book, the not so big seller -- but ultimately, decided the jury's still out for me. I really enjoyed Susanka's The Not So Big House, and will probably pick up Not So Big Remodeling if and when we finally get around to that remodel we've been chewing over for almost a decade now. (Hmm, I guess I should get busy with 1000 Best Job Hunting Secrets first.) I'm not sure, though, if this book -- in which, according to the dust jacket, "Susanka takes her revolutionary philosophy to another dimension by showing us a new way to inhabit our lives" -- really works.

Part of the problem may be with the dust jacket, actually. An excerpt:
"Tthe bigger-is-better idea that triggered the explosion of McMansions has spilled over to give us McLives. ... Our schedules are chaotic and overcommitted, leaving us so stressed that we are numb, yet we wonder why we cannot fall asleep at night. In The Not So Big Life, Susanka shows us that it is possible to take our finger off the fast-forward button, and to our surprise we find how effortless and rewarding this change can be."
Based on this, I was expecting something along the same lines as Affluenza and Simple Prosperity. Well, I was wrong. I guess it's A Good Thing (thanks, Martha) that this isn't yet another book about voluntarily simplicity; the topic has pretty much been done to death by now, and I think it's hard to bring much new to the discussion. However, while Susanka's concept -- applying architectural principles to the construction of our own lives -- is interesting, it doesn't seem particularly well-executed, and feels forced or New Age-y (granted, at least she recognizes the potential for skepticism here) as often as not.

Most of the first part of the book is fairly abstract in nature, which is usually a turn-off for me; I'm no architect, but when it comes to reading, I like my concrete. Some of the architecture: life parallels are interesting ("There's a perfect parallel between our attempts to find home by building bigger and our attempts to find satisfaction by buying stuff and staying busy. These obsessions have hidden from view what matters to us and what brings a sense of meaning to our lives."), but others seem strained at best ("Our lives could benefit from [sliding door or screen] flexibility, but most of us have only standard-size swinging doors between the various compartments of our lifes, giving us a limited sense of flow.") The written exercises which appear throughout the text also seem uneven, though I didn't actually attempt any of them.

I was intrigued by the latter part of the book, in which Susanka talks more about mindfulness and meditation ... enough so that despite everything I've said above, I've considered picking up a secondhand copy of the book to own (this one's a library copy), and working through some of the exercises in my journal (yeah, I'm a college town-livin', long hair-wearin', tofu and bean-cookin' neo-hippie wannabe, and your point is??). I'm not sure, though, if Susanka's training as an architect or even her own experience with meditation makes her the most qualified person to write or teach others about these topics. In short, some good ideas, but only so-so execution.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

#80 - Queen Takes King

Likewise for Gigi Levangie Grazer's Queen Takes King (Simon & Schuster, 2009), a fairly stupid and somewhat disappointing beach read about a nasty divorce among Manhattan's rich and famous. I managed to finish it, but Olivia Goldsmith Grazer ain't.

The principals: Jackson "Jacks" Power, a Manhattan real estate mogul, tabloid darling, and all-around legend in his own mind, and his wife Cynthia, former prima ballerina and Missouri gal turned social X-ray and NY Ballet Theater board member. The morning after the couple's perfectly-executed 25th anniversary gala, the New York Post runs a photo of him with his mistress, beautiful young news anchor Lara Sizemore, and Cynthia immediately files for divorce. All sorts of nasty, underhanded hijinks (changing the locks, sending one another crude gifts and prescriptions, and setting Barry Manilow on auto-repeat) ensue, and are compounded by the fact that, on their lawyers' advice, neither is willing to move out of their Park Avenue home. Along the way, we also meet Goldie, Cynthia's unorthodox long-time therapist; the couple's dilettante guerilla daughter, Vivienne; and Adrian, a writer/ bartender Jacks hires to seduce Cynthia in hopes that she'll agree to a speedier divorce. No, they don't get back together, and yes, there are a handful of reasonably chuckle-worthy scenes in here; Jacks is such an ass that you really do want to see him get his, and feel a flicker of satisfaction when your wish is granted. But frankly, The First Wives' Club did it all way earlier, and way better.

#79 - The Triple Bind

I finished The Triple Bind: Saving our Teenage Girls from Today's Pressures, by Steven Hinshaw (Ballantine, 2009), last Tuesday. As you may have guessed from my last few reviews of books about the perils facing adolescent girls in contemporary U.S. culture, it's rare for a book on this topic to impress me -- but The Triple Bind did. In my partially-informed layperson's opinion, it's of interest not just to parents and teachers, but to social scientists interested in female adolescence. If I actually had a reader base, I'd encourage you/ them to correct me if I'm wrong, but c'mon now ... let's get real.

All right, self-deprecating humor aside, Hinshaw's main thesis is that today's teenage girls are caught in what he calls a triple bind: the expectation that they excel at 1) all the traditional "girl" stuff, i.e., being pretty and nice; 2) most of the traditional "guy" stuff, including sports and Ivy League-level academics; and 3) at the same time, conform to a narrow, unrealistic set of standards and make the whole package look effortless. As the title of the first chapter ("Impossible Expectations") suggests, that's no mean feat -- and the book is generously laced with accounts of accomplished young women who crumble in the attempt, sometimes with devastating results. This isn't to say that the book's alarmist or overly sensational; it's not. Yes, Hinshaw includes the occasional extreme example (the chapter on cyberculture begins with the well-known story of Megan Meier's suicide), but the majority of case studies portray girls whose injuries are far less extreme. His point (and this is where he differs from other similar books like So Sexy So Soon and The Lolita Effect, which pretty much stop at illustrating a disturbing trend and tossing off a few obligatory recommendations for countering it in the last chapter) is that the triple bind has specific, measurable negative consequences for girls: specifically, high rates of depression, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and increasingly, aggressive behavior.

As a one-time economics student, I was intrigued by Hinshaw's linking the triple bind to the global and uncertain nature of today's economy. Citing Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat (one of many, many items on my ever-expanding Wanna Read list), he suggests:
"[W]e're in the process of moving toward a global economy, one in which work is almost infinitely transferable to anyplace on the planet. ... Reading between the lines, however, you get a much more disturbing story, one in which no American, no matter how well qualified or well trained, is safe from the prospect of losing not only a job but the very possibility of having a job."
He also cites Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch, which I have read, toward a similar end: For a whole host of complicated reasons, the insecurity that poor and working-class workers have long known has crept upward, and is now part of the middle-class reality as well. In short, there's more pressure on everyone to do whatever it takes to succees in today's workplace -- girls, boys, whoever.

The book then goes on to define depression, and handles the nature-nurture question (do people really still debate this anymore?) quite adroitly (in brief, you can inherit vulnerability to depression, but your life experiences still play a big part in whether you ever develop the illness and how bad it gets. Um, no kidding.) Interestingly, too, Hinshaw also talks about the particular dangers depression poses for teenage girls, stating that even one bout of major depression in adolescence dramatically increases both the odds of another such episode later in life, and the severity of any subsequent episodes that do occur. (Um, no kidding, again. Can you tell this book struck a nerve or 3 with me?) He argues that the risk is compounded by the typical busy, sleep-deprived life of the average teenage overachiever, the loss of intrinsic meaning of the many activities cramming their schedules, and the belief that girls are not only supposed to excel at all this stuff, but they're supposed to make it look easy. Other chapters talk about "the popular culture of 'self-erasing identities,'", i.e., "the very images that seem to offer a girl alternatives for discovering her identity in fact demand that she erase herself so as to better blend in with the crowd;" the hidden dangers of empathy; the objectification of female sexuality; cyberculture; and female agression. I could go on, but in short -- this is an interesting and compelling book, and one I'll recommend to others interested in the subject matter.