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, October 29, 2009

113 - Hotel on the Corner ...

Odd. I just blogged about Home Safe, wanted to say, "Well, it's not a moving, stay-with-you kind of novel like ___" ... and couldn't find a novel I'd read recently to fill in the blank. Well, now I've found one.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford (Ballantine, 2009) was excellent, memorable, and gently moving. Set in Seattle, it's actually two stories: one set in 1986, and one in during World War II. They're connected by the main character, Henry Lee, who's a pre-teen boy in the 1940s, and a widower in his 50s in the more recent chapters. Like Helen Ames in Home Safe, Henry has just lost his spouse of many years, but unlike Helen's, his loss was a long time coming.
"He missed his wife, Ethel. She'd been gone six months now. But he didn't miss her as much as you'd think, as bad as that might sound. It was more like quiet relief really. Her health had been bad -- no, worse than bad. The cancer in her bones had been downright crippling, to both of us, he thought.

"For the last seven years Henry had fed her, bathed her, helped her to the bathroom when she needed to go, and back again when she was all through. He took care of her night and day, 24/7 as they say these days. Marty, his son, thought his mother should have been put in a home, but Henry would have none of it. 'Not in my lifetime,' Henry said, resisting. ... He'd been raised to care for loved ones, personally, and to put someone in a home was unacceptable. What his son, Marty, never fully understood was that deep down there was an Ethel-shaped hold in Henry's life, and without her, all he felt was the draft of loneliness, cold and sharp, the years slipping away like blood from a wound that never heals."
In his bereaved first-chapter wanderings, he encounters a to-do at the Panama Hotel, a long-defunct local landmark. It seems a new owner has just purchased the hotel, and as she explains to news crews and onlookers, "in the basement she had discovered the belongings of thirty-seven Japanese families who she presumed had been persecuted and taken away. Their belongings had been hidden and never recovered -- a time capsule from the war years."

This discovery, and the bamboo parasol the new owner opens to illustrate her find, takes Henry back to his own childhood, when the Panama Hotel stood on the boundary between Chinatown and the Japanese neighborhood of Nihonmachi. His vehemently nationalist father, eager to distinguish his son from China's and the U.S.'s shared Japanese enemies, makes him wear a pin on his school shirt that proclaims "I Am Chinese," but the distinction is lost on his peers. The neighborhood kids call him baak gwai ("white devil") because he attends an all-white school, while his schoolmates call him Tojo, Jap, and yellow.

Henry is further set apart by having to work in the cafeteria at lunchtime -- a requirement for his scholarship. This isn't all bad, though, as it's how he meets his two closest friends: Sheldon, a black streetcorner sax player who happily accepts Henry's brown-bagged lunch (Mrs. Beatty, the lunch lady, lets him eat cafeteria leftovers), and Keiko, a sansei Japanese-American whose insistence that she's American first goes over about as well with the Rainier Elementary bullies as does Henry's "I Am Chinese" button. Henry and Keiko gradually become friends, although he's careful to keep this fact from his father. "His father wouldn't allow it. He was a Chinese nationalist and had been quite a firebrand in his day. ... Henry's father kept busy raising thousands of dollars to fight the Japanese back home."

Henry and Keiko also discover a shared love of jazz, and over a trip to the Black Elks Club to hear Sheldon play with local jazz legend Oscar Holden, they begin to fall in love, in that poignant, familiar way of early adolescence. The evening takes a frightening turn, however, when the club is raided by the FBI, and a handful of Japanese patrons handcuffed and taken away. "'Collaborators, kid. Secretary of the Navy says there were Jap scouts working in Hawaii -- all of them locals. That ain't happening around here. ... They can get the death penalty if they're found guilty of treason, but they'll probably just spend a few years in a nice safe jail cell.'" (Never mind that at least one of those captured is an innocent schoolteacher.)

In the coming months, the situation grows still more dire for the residents of Nihonmachi. Panicked neighbors burn wedding dresses, photos, and other family heirlooms, eager to destroy any evidence that might connect them to Japan. Henry stands up to not only his local schoolyard bully, but his own father in his determination to protect Keiko's family's things. It's not enough, though; ultimately, the Okabes are rounded up along with all the other Japanese-Americans, and sent off to interment at the ill-named Camp Harmony. Heartbroken but determined, Henry manages to visit (with some unexpected help from Mrs. Beatty), and even gets Mr. Okabe's permission to court Keiko.

Parallel to Henry and Keiko's story is the more subtle, but nonetheless touching, account of the middle-aged Henry's life: his efforts to find Keiko's things among the basement stash at the Panama Hotel, his tentative relationship with Marty, and how that relationship evolves when Marty comes clean about his own forbidden love: his Caucasian fiancee, Samantha.

I've read plenty of World War II novels, and some of my favorites are set mostly on the home front; Marge Piercy's Gone to Soldiers is a prime example. I haven't come across many that tackle the Japanese interment camps in the U.S., though -- and as I'm always a sucker for immigrant stories about what it means to be of two different cultures (and not belong fully to either), this made for a good backdrop. Hotel on the Corner just may make my faves of the year list.

#112 - Home Safe

I love Elizabeth Berg. She's pretty prolific, and I haven't read all her books -- but I've read a few (I'm looking at the "Also By" listing now, and The Art of Mending, Open House, and Range of Motion are all familiar), and they're just what I want in a fun read: short chapters, not too taxing, but plausible and non-formulaic enough that I don't feel like I'm reading utter trash (yeah, I have weird Issues with this, I know).

So when I saw Home Safe (Random House, 2009) on the library's new acquisitions shelf, well, it just jumped right onto the stack in my arms. Uh huh. And I wasn't disappointed. It's certainly not haunting the way Columbine or even a particularly intense novel would be, but then again, that's not always what I'm looking for. If a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, well, sometimes a good story is just a good story.

And Home Safe is a good story. The protagonist is the recently-widowed Helen Ames, a middle-aged Midwestern author who's been unmoored since her late husband Dan succumbed to a heart attack at the breakfast table. As she muses in the first chapter,
"She believes the last thing Dan felt was surprise, and to her way of thinking, it wasn't a bad way to go. The bad part is he left her here without him, ignorant of ... everything.

"People used to accuse her of being overly dependent on Dan, and it was true. 'You give away your power,' one friend told Helen. 'You infantilize yourself.' On that occasion, Helen looked down at her salad plate as though acknowledging culpability and feeling bad about it, but what she was thinking was, Oh, shut up. It feels good to infantilize myself. You ought to try it. Might take an edge off. ...

"In addition to her greatest love, Helen has lost the person who handled the practical side of their life together. All this time later, Helen is still shaky on managing the simplest aspects of her finances, despite the fact that she has an accountant to ask questions of. She trusted Dan to take care of his own income and hers; she didn't want to know anything about what he was doing."
For the moment, aside from annoying her daughter Tessa with requests for mechanical repairs, this isn't a problem. "Financially, she is fine: she and Dan created for themselves a nice nest egg. It is in other ways that she is not." Most poignant of these "other ways" is a paralyzing writer's block:
"[S]he can no longer write. Bad enough that writing was the way she made her living; it was also her anchor, her lens, her abiding consolation. Next to Dan, it was her greatest love. Without her husband or the practice of laying out words on a page, she feels that she spends her days rattling around inside herself; that whereas she used to be a whole and happy woman, now she is many pieces of battered self, slung together in a sack of skin. ...

"These days Helen looks around the places she goes to, and nothing seems worth noting, or even quite there. These days, she comes into her study, sits at the desk, starts up the computer, and drinks coffee while she tries to avoid looking at the blinking cursor, that electronic tapping foot. Sometimes she moves to her little white sofa to read from volumes of poetry she used to find inspiring, and sometimes she reads from her own previously published novels. Irrespective of what she reads, though, when she goes back to sit before the computer, there is the same stubborn emptiness, the same locked door. So she shuts the computer down and leaves the room, pulling the door firmly closed behind her."
Good thing, then, that the money's not a problem. Or so Helen thinks, until (after weeks of unreturned phone calls) her accountant finally sits her down and gives her the news: instead of nearly a million dollars, she has only $50,000 of her nest egg left.

No, this is neither a reaction to the recent financial meltdown or another story in which the absent husband turns out to have had another family and another life all along. It turns out that unbeknownst to her, Dan was building Helen's dream house in San Francisco, intending for them both to retire there. Convinced by architect Tom Ellis (himself a 9/11 almost-widower), she flies to the west coast to visit, and the house is indeed breathtaking ... but how on earth can Helen imagine living there without Dan? For that matter, how can she leave Illinois? And what about Tessa?

The unexpected depletion of her savings, however, forces Helen to let the house question take a back seat to more pressing matters: earning a living. After a whimsical attempt to get a job at Anthropologie ends in disaster, she accepts a gig she dreads: teaching a creative writing class. To make matters worse, the class is so popular that a second section is added, and Helen's nemesis, Saundra Weller, is invited to teach that one. "But Saundra Weller! Helen can't stand her, with her endless self-promotion and her snotty attitude toward ... well, toward Helen, for one thing. They were on a panel together at a book festival, and Saundra made no secret of the fact that she found Helen to be a vastly inferior writer."

As you might expect (OK, the book's not really formulaic), the writing class turns out to be a fascinating exercise, both for Helen and her students. Never mind that Saundra's star pupil, Margot Langley, recently wrote Helen an anti-fan letter, proclaiming her writing mawkish, clumsy, and insipid -- Helen's, er, unusual cast of students surprise her with their insights and their enthusiasm. Foremost among these is the inscrutable Claudia, a painfully introverted young woman whose shyness conceals the talent of a real artist.

Another theme which runs throughout the story is the tension between Helen and the 27-year-old Tessa. Helen seems to know she's leaning too heavily on her daughter, yet can't seem to help herself, whether it's dropping off leftovers or buying expressly unwanted clothes or attempting clumsy fix-ups with an eligible young man from her writing class. Tessa is kind but firm with her mother, and begins to think she herself might just want to move to the house in San Francisco.

None of the characters or story lines are exceptionally memorable, but Home Safe is nonetheless an absorbing and believable story of grief, loss, family, and the writing process. (I can't help wondering how much of Helen's character is autobiographical, but then again, how Helen describes her inspiration makes me wonder: Does it matter? Isn't all writing based on our own experience to some degree?) The weaving together of the plot lines is realistic and well-done, and concludes with just the right balance of resolution and uncertainty. (I don't like sloppy, unduly tangled plots, but I'm not a fan of overly tidy endings, either.) Not one I'd necessarily buy for myself, but well worth the read if it's a loaner or secondhand.

#111 - Columbine

No pat words to describe this one, folks. My 111th book of the year was Dave Cullen's Columbine (Twelve, 2009) -- a Denver-based journalist's account of the Columbine High School shootings of 1999, the repercussions (and more than occasional mistakes) that followed on the part of law enforcement and the media, and the many, unfathomable steps that led Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to commit the deadliest U.S. high school shooting in history.

Simply put, the book is devastating. It's not especially graphic until the last chapter, when Cullen takes the reader through the minute-by-minute unfolding of the nightmarish events of April 20, but nonetheless leaves images that haunt you: the first two victims' bodies lying outside the school uncovered for hours; teacher Dave Sanders bleeding to death in a science lab while waiting in vain for help; the already-depressed mother of an injured survivor committing suicide. Cullen's primary thesis seems twofold: First, much of what's become common knowledge about the Columbine tragedy is patently false. Second, related to the mythologizing of Columbine, there was no trigger. Harris and Klebold weren't goths or members of a Trench Coat Mafia, and weren't targeting jocks or African-Americans or any other identifiable group; rather, their initial intent was to blow up the entire high school, and shoot only those survivors who ran from the blast. As New York reviewer Will Leitch summarizes in this review:
"Ten years later, the Columbine High School massacre is still about nothing. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not go on a killing spree because they were picked on, or because they were pagans, or because Colorado had lax gun laws. Eric was a cunning, calculating psychopath who wanted to kill as many people as possible, and Dylan was a depressive who wanted to kill himself. That is it.

"Such information vacuums are dangerous, which is why the incident, memorialized in Dave Cullen’s new book, Columbine, continues to fascinate, horrify, and confuse. Confronted with the lack of recognizable human logic, we have provided our own, to make us feel better, to profit, to justify the way we see the world. If we are Christian, the shooting showed the imperative of others sharing our faith. If we were unpopular in high school, it cast a light on the dangerous petri dish of public schooling. If we believe in gun control, it reflected the recklessness of the gun lobby and our country’s frightening obsession with firearms.

"But none of these things had anything to do with Columbine. It was just about two boys, stupid and vain, one dangerously charismatic, the other painfully awkward and tragically impressionable. Together, they decided that murdering as many people as possible was the only logical action; the book argues convincingly that the shock of their attack does not come from the fact that they killed thirteen people but that they didn’t kill more"

The book proceeds forwards and backwards in alternating chapters. It begins with the principal addressing the student body a few days before the prom, reminding his students to celebrate safely and come back healthy and alive on Monday morning. (The irony, of course, is that they did, only to have 12 of them and a teacher be killed the next day by 2 of their classmates.) From here, we move forward through the media coverage and legal investigations that followed the massacre, exploring the chaos and confusion of that day and the apparent police maneuvering, jurisdictional wrangling, and covering-up that unfolded in subsequent years in often-excruciating detail. Cullen devotes extensive time and space to debunking some of the more persistent Columbine-related myths, particularly those concerning the killers' motives and Harris' supposed conversation with Cassie Bernall (who, according to an eyewitness, didn't have time to speak to Harris in the library before he shot her). Simultaneously, there are chapters addressing Harris's and Klebold's histories up until the shooting: Harris's likely psychopathy, Klebold's suicidal depression, and the long trail of plans and clues that went overlooked in the year or more before the attack.

New York Times reviewer Jennifer Senior alleges that "Cullen’s storytelling doesn’t approach the novelistic beauty of In Cold Blood," but as she herself admits, that may not be a fair standard of comparison. I can't speak to Truman Capote's motives, but Cullen is first and foremost a journalist, and it's in this capacity that he offers this book. Notes Senior:
"It’s to his credit that Cullen, a Denver journalist who covered the story for Salon and Slate, makes the reader care about getting it right. Columbine is an excellent work of media criticism, showing how legends become truths through continual citation; a sensitive guide to the patterns of public grief, foreshadowing many of the same reactions to Sept. 11 (lawsuits, arguments about the memorial, voyeuristic bus tours); and, at the end of the day, a fine example of old-fashioned journalism. While Cullen’s storytelling doesn’t approach the novelistic beauty of In Cold Blood (an unfair standard, perhaps, but an unavoidable comparison for a murder story this detailed), he writes well enough, moving things along with agility and grace. He leaves us with some unforgettable images — like the pizza slices floating aimlessly about the school commons, which was flooded with three inches of water because the sprinkler system had gone off — and he has a knack for the thumbnail sketch."

If you're at all interested in this grim chapter of contemporary U.S. history, I highly recommend this book. Be prepared, though, for it to stay with you in somewhat unexpected ways. I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking I can't look at adolescent rage or arrogance quite the same way again.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

#110 - A Mercy

This is why I started the book blog in the first place. A Mercy, by Toni Morrison (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), just has too much to it for me to read it once, by myself, not have anyone to discuss it with, and not be able to reflect on or process it in any way. Obligatory Times review is here, and I promise (myself, mostly ... it's not as though I have readers by the hundreds or dozens out there) that after my interview Wednesday, I'll treat myself to some serious blogging.

#109 - Outliers

Ratcheting up more books and still behind. 109 was Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown, & Co., 2008). Another book in the Blink and The Tipping Point mode; a novel way of looking at and provocative theories about phenomena you may or may not have considered before, but certainly won't look at the same way again. You don't have to buy it all, but it's still a neat read.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

#108 - Best Friends Forever

And then polished off Best Friends Forever, by Jennifer Weiner (Atria Books, 2009) in the course of one, post-interview-high evening. Hic. Vintage Weiner; if you've read and enjoyed Little Earthquakes or Good in Bed, you'll probably like this one. Again, review soon, methinks.

#107 - Cutting for Stone

Finished Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) last night. Interesting story, but very long and a bit slow-paced at times. Obligatory Times review that inspired me here; longer original review to follow soon.

#106 - Anna In-Between

Yet again, a backlog o' blogging. I really enjoyed Anna In-Between, by Elizabeth Nunoz (Akashic Books, 2009), but finished it nearly a week ago and, well, y'know. The story is set mostly on the unspecified Caribbean island where the title character grew up, though she now makes her home in New York and has for almost 2 decades. Anna has returned to her parents' home for what's supposed to be an extended, "quality time" sort of visit ... only to discover that her mother, Beatrice, has very advanced breast cancer, and has been praying the rosary in solitude rather than seeking medical treatment. To make matters worse, Anna's father, John, insists on respecting Beatrice's privacy and decisions, and Will. Not. Force. Her. to see a doctor. Anna's efforts to bring Beatrice back to the States for the best care available don't go well; knowing mostly what they've seen on American TV, they are convinced that good hospitals and quality care aren't for people of color, like them.

I picked up the book on the advice of Amy Finnerty's New York Times review, which I'll cite for those so inclined. Read it; it's a keeper.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

#105 - The Last Secret

Ah, now that's more like it. My 105th book of the year (wow, this really is some sort of compulsive disorder) was The Last Secret, by Mary McGarry Morris (Shaye Areheart Books, 2009) ... and for once, it was just plain enjoyable. Ever compelled to legitimize my book selections with the imprimateur of good taste, I'll quote Sophie Gee's New York Times review:

"In these days of smart, knowing literary fiction, with its ironic debunking of manners and morals, there’s something refreshing about reviewing a book that inspires phrases like 'desperate longing,' 'cruel rejection,' 'deadly truth' and 'lonely passion' to describe its characters and their lives. When most 'serious' novelists write about 'regular' people, they surround them with ­packing-foam irony peanuts so there’s no confusion about the writer’s personal take on the world that’s being recreated with such precision. But this isn’t the case with Morris. ... The Last Secret appeals to the longing readers feel to inhabit, at least for a change, a zone free of such condescension — to be engaged by the lonely passion of Nora’s husband and his lover, the cruel rejection that drives Nora to desperate acts of anger and revenge, the devastating realization that the children have guessed their parents’ crimes of the heart. What a change it is to sink into a book where big, elemental feelings are coming at you all the time, and you don’t have to ponder the author’s debt to French modernism or postcolonial theory."

So yeah, that's about the sum of it. Nora Hammond appears, to the outside world, to have it all: a loving husband from an influential family in their small New England town (Massachusetts this time), two wonderful children, both a paid career and a charitable cause that both reward and challenger. Yet the very first chapter suggests that something darker and more complex may lurk beneath the surface; in it, a then-17 Nora Trimble runs away from home with her older boyfriend, Eddie Haskins, on a cross-country odyssey that ends with another traveler mistaking Nora for a prostitute, Eddie beating the man senseless, and Nora fleeing both, never to see Eddie again. 20-odd years later, though, the misadventure hardly seems a blip on the radar.

Until two revelations split everything open, that is. First, Nora's husband Ken confesses to not a one-time fling or a brief, tawdry affair, but a relationship (in his words) with their closest friend, Robin. As he explains it,
"'Nora, I'm not talking about a few ... a few times,' he says, gasping out times. 'I'm talking about a relationship we ... I had.'

"'A relationship?'

"'For four years.'"
Gradually, Nora discovers that many of their friends and relatives have known of said relationship, but kept it from her. Secondly, Eddie Haskins blows into town and tracks Nora down, reeking of menace and clearly wanting something, but what? His answer is both vague, and more than vaguely threatening:
"Nora leans over the table. 'What is it? Why you're here? What do you want?'

"'Help.' He smiles. 'A helping hand, that's all. To make up for lost time. Chances I never had. Opportunity.'

"'So this is about money, then, isn't it?' She is almost relieved.

"'It's been a long time. How do you put a price on that? On time? I don't know,' he sighs. 'You tell me.'

"'So how much? How much do you want?'

"His laughter is sad, regretful. 'You don't get it, do you? But then, why should you? Nice family. Nice town. Nice life. Hey! Maybe if I hadn't been so worried, driving back and forth tryna find you, maybe I'd'a gotten away, too.'"

As Eddie continues to stalk Nora, her family crumbles. She finds herself unable to forgive Ken and Robin, or to stop asking for still more sordid details. Their two teenage children begin to crack under the strain, especially son Drew, who had been close to Robin's son Clay. The couple try, albeit inconsistently, to patch things up, if only for the kids' sake, but mounting problems at the newspaper Ken co-owns with brother Oliver and Eddie's odd appearances add to the strain. The end result, as the jacket synopsis tells us, is "a shattering conclusion" (though it doesn't mention the faintly cheesy epilogue).

That's pretty much what there is to say; this was a good book that doesn't pretend to be anything more than, well, a good buck. On an interesting side note, though ... I read most of it this morning, while Mr. Hazelthyme and Littlehazel were up with the birds, waiting in line for (wait for it) a book sale. Yes, I abstained; lead me not into temptation. Perhaps it's just me, but I can't help seeing the humor there.

Friday, October 9, 2009

#104 - Lydia Bennet's Story

I knew it was good to last. Had me a good run of sorts with entertaining, best-seller type fiction (see The Pilot's Wife, Handle with Care, and Sing Them Home). Even got to feeling a bit less guilty about my sometime predilection for fluff when, after explaining my dilemma to a dear friend, she called me a book snob (really, it was a good thing).

And then I had to do it to myself. Much as I still find myself checking out Maeve Binchy and Ann Rivers Siddons books, even though I know either I've outgrown them or the author's become too repetitious even for me, I Can't. Seem. To. Resist. the Jane Austen fan fiction. The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet wasn't half-bad, but Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and now Lydia Bennet's Story, by Jane Odiwe (Sourcebooks, 2008) ... meh. Let's just say I wonder if these authors chose to riff on Pride and Prejudice simply because they hadn't enough gumption to invent worlds and characters of their own.

Obviously, this book purports to tell the tale of the youngest and probably least sympathetic Bennet sister, Lydia. You'd think, as such, that she'd be more likeable or at least more complex here than in Austen's original, but no such luck. Nope, Lydia's still a PITA, and not even a particularly funny or interesting one. For the first half of the book, she flirts, gossips, goes on about clothes and fashion, and seems concerned above all with showing off and impressing others. She accompanies a married (= respectable) friend, Harriet, to the seaside resort of Brighton for the sole purpose of ogling the soldiers who are encamped there. She quickly catches the eye of the oh-so-dandy Captain Trayton-Camfield of the prince's regiment, but soon finds that his kisses leave her cold and, um, he wants more than just kisses. Of course, who should swoop to her rescue but her old friend (and sister Lizzy's old beau) George Wickham. His kisses do not leave her cold, and he soon convinces her to run away with him to Scotland, where they'll be married. Mistaking good old garden variety lust for love, Lydia overlooks a few glaring red flags: Wickham's unseemly preoccupation with her money, their hasty departure from Brighton, the sudden change of their travel plans (ix-nay on Otland-scay; enter instead a cheap flat in an unfashionable London neighborhood), and the distinctly non-sudden wedding.

As P & P fans will no doubt recall, Mr. Darcy ultimately convinces Wickham to listen to reason (read: bribery) and marry Lydia, if only to preserve her parents' and sisters' reputations, but they don't exactly live happily ever after. Rumors about Wickham's extramarital activities seem to come from all corners, culminating in his "sister" (or so he told the loathesome Caroline Bingley) arriving at Netherfield (home of Mr. and Mrs. Bingley, the latter nee Jane Bennet) during a family party and making a scene straight out of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, demanding that those present produce Wickham.

Yes, Wickham is ultimately disposed of, and Lydia does find a happy ending -- but in such a contrived manner that it really felt tacked on. Mr. & Mrs. Darcy was no great shakes, either, but at least that had some titillating moments to offer. This one, though -- kinda like bad shellfish. I think I'm off the Austen fanfic for a while.

#103 - Management Challenges for the 21st Century

Doesn't that title just sound like a page turner? There's a story behind it, of course, albeit not a very exciting one: I keep stumbling across Peter Drucker's name in the various tangentially-related-to-business-and-management stuff I read now and again, and thought I ought to just read something of his, in the interest of informing myself about his work. Having been less than inspired by some of the classics of various non-fiction genres which haven't aged well, I took a different approach to selecting exactly what to read: I picked the newest of his books the public library had on the shelf.

The result was, of course, Management Challenges for the 21st Century, by Peter Drucker (HarperBusiness, 1999). In the end, it had some novel, interesting observations that made it worth my time, though there were some style and formatting issues that made it tough to get there without undue distraction. Drucker's purpose is to identify and discuss the "hot" issues and challenges which (he expects) will confront tomorrow's managers, challenges which "[i]n most cases ... are at odds and incompatible with what is accepted and successful today."

He begins with a chapter on "Management's New Paradigms," which frankly, I found a bit wordy and confusing. It doesn't help that the approach -- setting out 7 basic assumptions about what he calls the discipline and practice of management, explaining why each is wrong, and replacing them with new paradigms -- relies on strawman arguments. For example, the first assumption is "Management is Business Management," as opposed to nonprofit management and so on. I don't know that anyone really thought that's all there was to management even in 1999. Nor do I think the paradigm which replaces said assumption -- "Management is the specific and distinguishing organ of any and all organizations" -- is especially useful or informative. To be fair, though, the discussion in between the two does make a valid point:
"There are, of course, differences in management between different organizations -- Mission defines Strategy, after all, and Strategy defines Structure. There surely are differences between managing a chain of retail stores and managing a Catholic diocese (though amazingly fewer than either chain stores or bishops believe); between managing an air base, a hospital and a software company. But the greatest differences are the terms individual organizations use. Otherwise the differences are mainly in application rather than in principles. There are not even tremendous differences in tasks and challenges. The executives of all these organizations spend, for instance, about the same amount of their time on people problems -- and the people problems are almost always the same. Ninety percent or so of what each of these organizations is concerned with is generic. ... In every organization -- business or nonbusiness alike -- only the last 10 percent of management has to be fitted to the organization's specific mission, its specific culture, its specific history, and its specific vocabulary."
That seems to be Drucker in a nutshell: brilliant observations, but often well-padded in terms of verbiage. (Yeah, I guess if you're 90 and have written 30 books over the course of your 65-year career, you're allowed to ramble a little.)

It's in the strategy chapter where the book overcomes the worst of the rambling, and really nails down the author's key points in words even a mere layperson like me can understand. Here, he outlines 5 key political and social "phenomena that can be considered certainties" which management strategists will need to grapple with: the collapsing birth rate in the developed world (and, equally important, the increased percentage of older people in the age distribution); the concentration of growth in economic sectors -- government, health care, education, and leisure -- which don't behave according to typical free market/ supply and demand rules; evolving definitions of "performance" (shareholder return? commitment from knowledge workers?); the need for all industries to be globally competitive (in Drucker's words, "'Protection' no longer protects, no matter how high the custom duties or how low the import quotas"); and the growing incongruity between economic and political realities.

I also particularly enjoyed (OK, maybe "enjoyed" isn't quite the right word here -- would you believe "found valuable"?) the "Change Leader" and "Information Challenges" chapters. Similar in format to those which precede it, both offer a handful of deceptively simple maxims. The former starts off discussing when and how products, services, markets, etc. should rightfully be abandoned -- something I know my own late employer could stand to look at more closely, but I digress. There's also a valuable section on how to create and support change, but also, how and what not to change: specifically, pursuing "an innovation opportunity that is not in tune with the strategic realities," "[confusing] 'novelty' with 'innovation,' and "confusing motion with action." The latter veers off a bit too far into the historical, but nonetheless offers solid points about how to approach communications, and on what Drucker sees as an emerging shift in information technology:
"[F]or fifty years, Information Technology has centered on DATA -- their collection, storage, transmission, presentation. It has focused on the 'T' in 'IT.' The new information revolutions focus on the 'I.' They ask, 'What is the MEANING of information and its PURPOSE?' And this is leading rapidly to redefining the tasks to be done with the help of information and, with it, to redefining the institutions that do these tasks."
Subsequent chapters talk about how to think about productivity with reference to knowledge (vs. manual) workers, and managing oneself. The above quote, though, illustrates my chief quibble with the book: the editing and formatting are distracting. Lots of words CAPITALIZED for EMPHASIS; lots of indented paragraphs that look like they should be quotes or citations but aren't. I can forgive the occasionally muddied writing because the content itself is pretty darned good, but the weird formatting really seemed out of place. I found myself wondering if Drucker had become such a venerated figure in his field that others shied away from editing his work, or if he just plain forbade it. His right, I guess, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

A decent introduction to Drucker? Probably, though I'm not enough of a management scholar to say for sure. Good ideas applicable in pretty much any line of work or organization, even if the writing seemed technically uneven.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

#102 - Flower Children

I hate books like this.

Perhaps that's not quite accurate; I hate the books less than the pickle they land me in. Maxine Swann's Flower Children (Riverhead Books, 2007) was lauded in The New York Times; the short story it initially began as won all sorts of literary accolades. This should have been a brilliant, mesmerizing book. I'd describe the prose as "luminous," had it not been for a recent NPR interview I heard with an author who claimed any writing described thus simply had too many adjectives for its own good.

Yet that's not what's happening. Flower Children is a short book (211 pages, and about the size of a large index card), and I polished it off in a few hours ... but frankly, I'm still hungry. Hence the aforementioned pickle; on one shoulder is the cynical literary angel with coveralls and dirty fingernails, snickering about how the emperor has no clothes, and on the other is the bespectacled, iron-haired, definitely non-sexy academic librarian, wagging her finger about how I've so gorged myself on Anita Shreve and Jodi Picoult novels that I wouldn't know Quality Fiction if I tripped over it. (Immediately, I race to look up a relevant passage from The Overspent American: "Almost everyone who has interacted with persons rich in cultural capital has had at least one distressing experience that revealed their own deficiencies in taste: serving the wrong foods, dressing improperly, not knowing an artist or an author, expressing a poor opinion.")

So much for the meta-commentary. In case you haven't guessed, I really didn't care for this book. It started out promising -- really, it did, and not just for all the press I'd read. The premise is an intriguing one: What's it like to be the child of hippies? What happens when the children of the flower children eventually must make their way in the larger world? (While the story seems to begin at some unspecified time in the 1960s, for those of us in certain bucolic, left-leaning college towns, these days are not so long gone as you might think.) The opening chapter gives us a brilliant glimpse of these children's lives:
"They're free to run anywhere they like whenever they like, so they do. ... They aren't sure where their own land stops and someone else's begins, but it doesn't matter, they're told: It doesn't matter! Go where you please! ...

"Their parents don't care what they do. They're the luckiest children alive! They run out naked in storms. They take baths with their father, five bodies in one tub. In the pasture, they stretch out flat on their backs and wait for the buzzards to come. When the buzzards start circling, they lie very still, breathless with fear, and imagine what it would be like to be eaten alive. That one's diving! they say, and they leap to their feet: No, we're alive! We're alive!"
And therein lies the paradox. The description is indeed, well, luminous, even crystalline. Unfortunately, that's all there is. While the story takes place over a number of years, and the four children -- Lu, Maeve, Tuck, and Clyde -- grow up over its course, not much else happens. They go to school, they visit grandparents, their parents separate, Dad goes through a succession of bizarre girlfriends. There's a mere suggestion of the challenges the kids face when they go to school and other less hippified corners of the big wide world, but only a suggestion; there is, to be blunt, no plot here. Some beautiful descriptions, but otherwise -- dandelion fluff. If that makes me a philistine, so be it.

Sorry, I'm back!

Nope, not stopping at 100 -- sorry. I am, however, taking suggestions for next year's challenge. One of the many 100 best novels lists? If so, which one? A year of books only from my own library? The mind boggles.

Anyway, my 101st book of the year was The Overspent American: Why We Want What What We Don't Need, by Juliet B. Schor (HarperPerennial, 1998). And y'know, I'm really starting to feel like I'm repeating myself here. Schor's book is definitely more scholarly than Affluenza or Simple Prosperity, but since I'd already read both of the latter, I don't feel like I learned much new or different from this one.

The book seems to be an outgrowth of Schor's earlier work, The Overworked American, in which she argues that Americans are working more and more hours in search of higher and higher incomes because they're trapped in what she calls "the cycle of work and spend." Here, she tackles the "spend" side of that cycle, addressing the following questions:
"Was cutting back feasible for middle-class American consumers? What was driving their spending? How does spending affect the quality of life for people who are materially comfortable? ... What were the difficulties of living more simply in our high consumerist culture?"
Schor argues that in recent decades, the all-American culture of spending -- keeping up with the Joneses, defining your identity by what you own and consume -- has intensified. We base our expectations on what we want and need less on friends and neighbors, and more on the upper-middle-class lifestyles we see on TV. The end result is increased consumer debt, less national saving, and less willingness to fund such public goods as education, parks, and libraries. Most of the book is devoted to unpacking this phenomenon: what are its dimensions, how does it manifest itself, and why do we buy into it?

There is a slightly out-of-place chapter on "downshifting" -- making a voluntary lifestyle change that entails earning less money -- which seemed like something out of Affluenza et al.. This was interesting, I guess, for those new to the subject who wonder what the alternatives to hyperconsumption might be, and to Schor's credit, she doesn't sugar-coat the difficulties of living on a dramatically reduced income, particularly in high cost-of-living northeastern cities. It seemed to me, though, that to do this subject justice really requires an entire book of its own, and a single chapter (read years after the simple living movement went semi-mainstream) only scratches the surface.

I was most intrigued by the penultimate chapter, in which Schor outlines nine principles for "[getting] off the consumer escalator." These include becoming aware of and reining in one's desire to spend (read: don't hang out with shopaholics and/or at the mall); redefining conspicuous consumption as uncool; making a habit of deconstructing ads; and decommercializing some of our favorite holiday rituals. I've read a number of books which address something that's lacking or has gone awry in contemporary culture, and usually, the "what can you do about it?" chapter feels like an afterthought; this is a nice exception.

All righty-o, then. On to yet another entry (home with a sick kid today and not accomplishing much), and to put Overworked American back on my still-not-diminished wanna read list.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Not with a bang, but with a whisper

Well, I did it. I started this blog back in January to keep track of the books I read during the year, wondering if I'd make 100. Not quite a week into October, I got there. Yesterday, I finished my 100th book of the year: Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson, by Mitch Albom (Doubleday, 1997).

That explains the title of this post: In a word, eh. Just in case you've been on Mars for the last 12 years, this is the author's account of his weekly visits to an old college professor, Morrie Schwartz, during the last few months of Schwartz's life, while he was dying from ALS. It's a short book, with most chapters only a few pages; I read through it in the course of one Sunday afternoon. Yes, it's uplifting and heartwarming, and all the things you wouldn't expect of a book about dying. Yes, some of the aphorisms Morrie offers during what he deems his last class, or Mitch's last thesis, make for nice sound bites: "Love is the only rational act." "Learn how to die, and you learn how to live." You get the idea.

Perhaps if this was the first of Albom's books I'd read, I'd have found it more moving. This wasn't the case, however. After having read The Five People You Meet In Heaven and For One More Day, though ... this one seemed rather predictable. Tugs the heartstrings, makes you think about what really matters in life, not too taxing intellectually, sells like hotcakes. While Albom is a skilled writer, and his devotion to Schwartz was certainly admirable, I'm starting to think that having read three of his books, I've seen what he has to say. I'd probably read his latest, Have a Little Faith, if I stumbled across it, but won't go out of my way for it.

#99 - The Secure Child

2001 was a frightening year. There was September 11, of course, followed by anthrax and shoe bomb scares, and the unrelated crash of another plane in New York City 2 months later. Don't forget the collapse of Enron, and the unraveling of the Catholic priest child molestation scandal.

It was in this context that Stanley L. Greenspan wrote The Secure Child: Helping Our Children Feel Safe and Confident in an Insecure World (Perseus Publishing, 2002). Depending on your level of cynicism, you might say this was an attempt to cash in on a nation's paranoia by repackaging the same old stuff in slightly different wrapping, or perhaps Greenspan was genuinely trying to use his knowledge of psychology and child development to benefit the public good. Either way, this book has a few interesting points, but is mostly a rehash of the different stages of development, rather than offering anything truly new about security, per se.

Greenspan's main premise is reasonable enough: there are actions parents can take to help their children feel more secure despite the frightening events taking place in the world around us. Specifically, he argues that spending time together as a family, giving children the time and empathy to express their feelings (even the scary ones), reassuring them in an age-appropriate way about what you and others are doing to keep them safe, and finding a way to help others in need can help inoculate children against becoming unduly burdened by stress. Latter chapters -- one each for infancy and early childhood, grade school, and adolescence -- each follow the same format, beginning with an overview of the developmental tasks paramount at each stage (even though Greenspan calls them "foundations of security"), followed by signs of distress and recommendations for what parents can do to help.

Chief among his recommendations is that children of all ages benefit from what he calls floor time. As he defines it in the infancy chapter,
"'Floor time' is when you interact with your child on his terms, following his lead and helping him learn to engage with others, communicate, and begin to think logically. ... The main principle of floor time is a simple one: A parent gets down on a child's level, and the child is encouraged to be the boss of all the drama that unfolds. The parent follows. A small child's world is largely on the floor, where he feels most comfortable and where his toys and playthings are located. When you get down there with your child, you generate a sense of equality that encourages him to engage with you, take initiative, and act more assertively."
While floor time is first defined in and draws its moniker from the infancy chapter, Greenspan is emphatic about the importance of analagous activities for older children. Of the grade-school child, he says:
"Obviously, with an older child, you might not literally be on the floor. You may be sprawled on a couch or sitting side by side on the back steps, taking a walk, or sweating it out on the basketball court. But the goal, no matter where you are or what you are doing, is to follow your child's lead and tune in to whatever interests your child."
Likewise, even teenagers benefit from unstructured time where they're the boss:
"Hanging out with one's adolescent child (that is, 'floor time' for adolescents) is just as important as with a grade-school child. Creating access for the adolescent is much more challenging, however. ... One of the best ways of creating access is to get interested in things that your adolescent is interested in. He may go with you to that concert because you got the tickets or to watch Michael Jordan basketball because you have the seats or to his favorite restaurant because you are paying the bill (and his allowance already got spent this week).

This all makes sense to me, though I do wish the adolescent piece didn't sound so much like encouraging parents to buy their kids' time and affection -- but it's also nothing new. Most of the meat in the book comes from Piaget's developmental stages, and John Bowlby's theory of attachment. I guess it's a decent enough book for what it's designed to be -- I'll be charitable and assume the altruistic explanation for the moment -- but is limited to self-help, rather than real scholarship. A series of articles in a general-interest weekly or parenting mag probably would've served the purpose just as well.

#98 - Handle with Care

Back again to the same small-town New Hampshire of The Pilot's Wife for my 98th book of the year: Handle with Care, by Jodi Picoult (Atria Books, 2009). As Sean, one of the principals, reminds us, and as Picoult's earlier novels have illustrated, "every sleepy picture-postcard New England town [has] a split personality." This time, what's lurking beneath the surface is a severely disabled child; six-year-old Willow O'Keefe has osteogenesis imperfecta (OI, for short), or brittle bone disease. By the time the story begins, she's suffered 52 broken bones -- the first 7 in utero. As her mother, Charlotte, recounts:
"Your first seven breaks happened before you entered this world. The next four happened minutes after you were born, as a nurse lifted you out of me. Another nine, when you were being resuscitated in the hospital, after you coded. The tenth: when you were lying across my lap and suddenly I heard a pop. Eleven was when you rolled over and your arm hit the edge of the crib. Twelve and thirteen were femur fractures; fourteen a tibia; fifteen a compression fracture of the spine. Sixteen was jumping down from a stoop; seventeen was a kid crashing into you on a playground; eighteen was when you slipped on a DVD jacket lying on the carpet. We still don't know what caused number nineteen. Twenty was when Amelia was jumping on a bed where you were sitting; twenty-one was a soccer ball that hit your left leg too hard; twenty-two was when I discovered waterproof casting materials and bought enough to supply an entire hospital, now stocked in my garage. Twenty-three happened in your sleep; twenty-four and twenty-five were a fall forward in the snow that snapped both forearms at once. Twenty-six and twenty-seven were nasty fractures, fibula and tibia tenting through the skin at a nursery school Halloween party, where, ironically, you were wearing a mummy's costume whose bandages I used to splint the breaks. Twenty-eight happened during a sneeze; twenty-nine and thirty were ribs you broke on the edge of the kitchen table. Thirty-one was a hip fracture that required a metal plate and six screws. I stopped keeping track after that, until the ones from Disney World, which we had not numbered but instead named Mickey, Donald, and Goofy."
Clearly, not an ordinary childhood. Nonetheless, Willow is a smart, funny, engaging child, albeit a diminutive one; her parents, Charlotte and Sean, adore her; and her sister Amelia ... well, what are siblings for?

Things begin to change in the second chapter, when the O'Keefes depart New Hampshire for an almost-unheard of trip to Disney World. Minutes after entering the Magic Kingdom, Willow slips in an ice cream shop and suffers yet another three fractures, which land her in the nearest emergency room. Since the all-important letter from her doctor explaining her condition was left at home, the numerous prior breaks revealed by her X-ray raise some eyebrows -- enough so that Sean and Charlotte are held and questioned by the police, and Amelia is whisked away to a temporary foster home. While their ordeal lasts only a night, Sean is enraged, and returns home determined to sue everyone he can -- WDW, the hospital, the local social services agency -- for how the family was treated.

Their first attorney's visit starts the family down a long, tortured road. While they don't appear to have a strong case against Disney World or the hospital, their lawyer suggests a different, potentially lucrative avenue: a wrongful birth suit. Simply put, this would blame the doctor for failing to diagnose Willow's illness earlier, before she was born, and thus giving the O'Keefes the option of an abortion. Never mind that Sean and Charlotte desparately wanted this child they took so long to conceive; that they're devout Catholics who oppose abortion in general; that the doctor in question is Charlotte's best friend, Piper; or that this means standing before a court saying their daughter should never have been born. Charlotte, seeing only the opportunity to secure enough money to ensure a lifetime of comfort for Willow -- well-sized wheelchairs, adapted vehicles, OI camps -- signs on. Sean does not, and in fact, after the first article about the case hits the press, signs on as a witness for the defense.

And so begins a harrowing journey. In typical Picoult fashion, the tale is told from several different characters' perspectives, each represented by a different font: Charlotte, Sean, Amelia, Piper, and Marin Gates, the attorney who represents the O'Keefes in their suit. Unsurprisingly, the strain and publicity around a lawsuit that pits Charlotte and Sean against each other takes its toll on their marriage; by the midpoint of the book, Sean has moved from bedroom to couch to local motel, and ultimately files for divorce.

Piper, likewise, is devastated, both personally and professionally. While her initial reaction is relatively sanguine ("On some level, I'd known that my lack of lawsuits was sheer luck -- that it would happen sooner or later.), this changes once she realizes exactly who is suing her:
"Which disaster had precipitated this? My eyes scanned to the top of the page again, reading the plaintiffs' names, which I'd somehow missed the first time around.


"Suddenly I couldn't see. The space between my eyes and the paper was washed red, like the blood that was pounding so loudly in my ears that I did not hear a nurse ask if I was all right. I staggered down the hall to the first door I could find -- into a supply closet filled with gauze and linens.

"My best friend was suing me for medical malpractice.

"For wrongful birth.

"For not telling her earlier about your disease, so that she would have had the chance to abort the child she'd begged me to help her conceive."
For Marin, the case comes at a personal crossroads. In the midst of a search for the birth mother who gave her up for adoption as a newborn, she struggles to reconcile her professional obligations with her personal knowledge if what it's like to grow up knowing your parents didn't want you.

Perhaps most poignant is Amelia's story. From the get-go, it's clear that she's lived most of her twelve years in the shadow of Willow's illness. As she explains in her first chapter,
"Pick ten strangers and stick them in a room, and ask them which one of us they feel sorrier for -- you or me -- and we all know who they'll choose. It's kind of hard to look past your casts, and the fact that you're the size of a two-year-old, even though you're five; and the funny twitch of your hips when you're healthy enough to walk. I'm not saying that you've had it easy. It's just that I have it worse, because every time I think my life sucks, I look at you and hate myself even more for thinking that my life sucks in the first place.

"Here's a snapshot of what it's like to be me:

"Amelia, don't jump on the bed, you'll hurt Willow.

"Amelia, how many times have I told you not to leave your socks on the floor, because Willow could trip over them?

"Amelia, turn off the TV
(although I've only watched a half-hour, and you've been staring at it like a zombie for five hours straight).

"I know how selfish this makes me sound, but then again, knowing something's true doesn't keep you from feeling it. And I may only be twelve, but believe me, that's long enough to know that our family isn't the same as other families, and never will be. Case in point: What family packs a whole extra suitcase full of Ace bandages and waterproof casts, just in case? What mom spends days researching the hospitals in Orlando?"
For her, the lawsuit means not only the breakup of her family, but the loss of her best friend (Piper's daughter Emma), and a painful ostracism at school. She responds with numbness and self-loathing, turning to bulimia, cutting, and shoplifting in an effort to at least feel something.

Charlotte is also a professional baker, and the novel is interspersed with her recipes -- each of which, in some way, relates back to what's currently going on in the story. For example, a recipe for divinity precedes one of Sean and Charlotte's earlier arguments about whether to proceed with the lawsuit, and includes the following notes:
"Hardball: one of the stages of sugar syrup in the preparation of candy, which occurs at 250 to 266 degrees Farenheit. ... It's ready if it forms a hard ball that doesn't flatten when fished out but whose shape can still be changed with significant pressure. Which, of course, leads to the more colloquial definition of hardball: ruthless, aggressive, competitive behavior; the kind that's designed to mold someone else's thinking to match your own."
I always think that I should look down on an author as prolific and popular as Picoult, but I just can't bring myself to do it; yeah, her books regularly make the bestseller list, but she tells a good story. She has a knack of drawing you into both (or all) sides of complicated, painful questions and convincing you that there really is no easy answer. Her usual ending-with-a-twist is in evidence here, too, and while I'm not particularly thrilled with this one, I enjoyed the rest of the book enough that I'm willing to pretend that last, short chapter just wasn't there.

Friday, October 2, 2009

#97 - The Undercover Economist

Add another one to the list of books that ended up impressing me more than I initially thought they would. My first impression of The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor -- and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car! by Tim Harford (Oxford University Press, 2006) was that it was a halfway decent primer on economics for those who'd never studied it but thought they should, but didn't have much to offer someone like me who has had a few courses in the subject. I was initially expecting something along the lines of Robert Frank's The Economic Naturalist and Steven Levitt's Freakonomics -- economics-based explanations for everyday oddities we notice and wonder about, or not (why are there Braille buttons on drive-up ATMs? why is soda sold in round bottles, but orange juice in square cartons) -- and that's not what this book offers.

No, Undercover Economist sticks more closely to traditional economic subject matter -- but as the subtitle suggests, does so in a humorous and accessible manner that's got something for both the beginner and, well, at least for the intermediate student of econ. Harford uses real-world, if slightly unorthodox, examples to make key economic principles accessible to the layperson; the first chapter, for example, entitled "Who Pays for Your Coffee?," uses an example we can all relate to -- the seeming killing made by the Starbucks shops closest to the train station -- to illustrate the concepts of marginal cost, economic rents, and monopoly/ oligopoly power ... and then somehow, within 25 pages, manages to connect these same concepts to organized crime, immigration, and trade unions. Subsequent chapters offer similar romps through the concepts of price-sensitivity and elasticity, perfect competition, and externalities. And, as a long-time resident of a city where I'm the centrist one, even though I'd be considered a flaming pinko leftist almost anywhere else, I personally enjoyed the following good-natured jab at some of the more myopic environmental advocates among us:
"Why would an environmental charity organize a carbon-neutral meeting? The obvious answer is 'so that it can engage in debate without contributing to climate change.' And that is true, but misleading.

"The Undercover Economist in me was looking at things from the point of view of efficiency. If planting a tree is a good way to deal with climate change, why not forget about the meetings and plant as many as possible? (In which case, everybody should say they came by steamship.) If the awareness-raising debate is the important thing, why not forget about the trees and organize extra debates?

"In other words, why be 'carbon-neutral' when you can be 'carbon-optimal,' especially since the meeting was not benzene-neutral, lead-neutral, particulate-neutral, ozone-neutral, sulfur-neutral, congestion-neutral, noise-neutral, or accident-neutral? Instead of working out whether to improve the environment directly (by planting trees), or indirectly (by promoting discussion), the charity was spending considerable energy keeping itself precisely 'neutral' -- and not even precisely neutral on all externalities, nor even a modest range of environmental toxins, but preserving its neutrality on a single, high-profile pollutant: carbon dioxide. And it was doing so in a very public way.

"A kind view would be that the charity was setting a 'good example,' if acting nonsensically can ever be a good example. An unkind view would be that it was engaging in moral posturing."
Of particular relevance today, though the book was published three years ago, is the "The Inside Story" chapter, which addresses issues of asymmetric information and market failure in the context of health insurance. (In fairness, insurance is the classic example used to teach econ students about incomplete information and moral hazard, at least in the classes I've taken -- but given the current political context, it seems especially pertinent.)

Personally, I found the book got really interesting beginning in Chapter 6 ("Rational Insanity"), which introduces the random walk theory in the context of the 1990s dot-com stock bubble. Later chapters talk about the persistent difficulties of alleviating poverty in developing-world kleptocracies, using Cameroon as an example; the overall benefits of globalization (which you may or may not buy); and why China has had so much more success than, say, India. Some of this did remind me of something I'd observed in grad school, which is that economics is not apolitical at all (gee, who knew?), and again -- you may or may not agree with Harford's conclusions. You can't argue, though, with the fact that he gives you some interesting ideas to chew on.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

#96 - The Pilot's Wife

Whew. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. This was a big backlog even for me. Consequently, I probably won't do The Pilot's Wife, by Anita Shreve (Back Bay Books, 1998), justice. Even so, it seems I've got another trusty source of quick, entertaining reads in my pocket. I started this one while marooned at the garage this morning, and finished it late this afternoon after knocking off a kick-@$$ cover letter and resume. Yeah, it's an Oprah book, candy for the brain, but I still liked it.

The tale begins with Kathryn Lyons awakened in the middle of the night by a knock at the door that will change her life irrevocably: her husband Jack's plane has gone down off the coast of Ireland. Along with the usual burdens of losing a loved one -- telling their 15 year old daughter, Mattie; making funeral arrangements -- come a hefty dose of the extraordinary. Given the public nature of the crash, the Lyons' home is quickly surrounded by a media maelstrom. Speculation about what caused the crash and whether Jack was responsible only fuel the reporters' curiosity, and compound Kathryn and Mattie's isolation. As evidence surfaces piece by piece, Kathryn can't help but question how well she knew her husband, and what she can be certain of.

Interspersed with the post-crash scenes are Kathryn's recollections of her life with Jack, beginning with their meeting at her grandmother's antique shop some 16 years earlier, and leading up to his departure for London that last morning. Certainly, this isn't a new technique, but Shreve manages it with far more nuance than some. These flashbacks aren't heavy-handed clues to Jack's death or the facets Kathryn didn't see; they're merely the fabric of a marriage, seen in retrospect.

Similarly, one plot development I'd feared almost from the beginning doesn't actually happen, which is a good thing. I'm not fond of spoilers, so I'll just say that an obvious cliche was nicely sidestepped.

Great literature this isn't, but a good vacation or rainy-day read? You betcha.

#95 - The Hurried Child

This one's a classic of sorts. The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, by David Elkind (Addison-Wesley, 1981), is almost 30 years old -- laughably ancient, by pop psych or child development standards. Yes, there was a 25th anniversary edition published recently, but that's not the one I checked out; I've got the original golden oldie. Frankly, I was curious. The book is somewhat of a classic in the parenting/ childhood in pop culture genre; if nothing else, it has historical significance.

And for the most part, it was worth reading. Elkind's basic premise, to quote the Amazon review above, is that "by blurring the boundaries of what is age appropriate, by expecting -- or imposing -- too much too soon, we force our kids to grow up too fast, to mimic adult sophistication while secretly yearning for innocence." While his explanation of causes seems pretty dated -- he lays a lot of blame on divorced parents and working mothers -- the effects he cites are spot-on, and remain relevant even now.

Admittedly, I was pretty skeptical throughout the first chapter. Yes, after reading So Sexy So Soon, The Lolita Effect, and The Shelter of Each Other, I got a chuckle reading about 30 year old movies and songs -- Little Darlings, "Take Your Time (Do It Right)," and "Do That to Me One More Time" -- "[portraying] young people as precocious and [presenting] them in more or less explicit sexual or manipulative situations." But some of Elkind's claims here seem misinformed or just silly. John Hinckley, Jr. did not become a failed assassin because his older siblings' successes "preempted all the personal identities held out as valuable by his parents." And I'm not sure I buy that there was a trend toward "obscuring the divisions between children and adults" in the late '70s and early '80s, or that it was common for children to call parents by their first names during this time. (Not in my sorely non-representative, but not particularly conservative, either, home town, anyway.)

As the text goes on, though, Elkind offers some interesting points to ponder. Among them:
  • "Introducing preschool children to sports like skiing is in part symbolic. ... The statement is not only of conspicuous consumption but also of conspicuous concern: 'How concerned we are that our child get a head start, that he be the best.'" (He applies similar logic to those who push kids to read or play Little League ball before they're ready, too, just in case you're about to get your class- or education-conscious knickers in an "I would never" twist.)
  • Post-feminist mothers tend to suffer from role conflict: if you opt to stay home with young children, you might be looked down upon, sooo ... you take up hyperparenting as a competitive sport. (Hazel's side note: The more things change ... )
  • An educational system that's narrowly focused on standardized testing tends to make kids more interested in grades than in actually learning something. Increased cheating is likely here, too.
Not sure if I'll bother seeking it out for a while, but I'm curious as to what and how much has changed in the rerelease. In all, despite some of the late '70s/ early '80s silliness (yes, I've heard the hysteria about "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Puff the Magic Dragon" being drug allegories, but "Hey Jude"? Paul McCartney wrote that one for Julian Lennon when his parents split up, fer cryin' out loud!), The Hurried Child began an important discussion.