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.

Monday, December 27, 2010

#93 - The Worst Thing I've Done

The Worst Thing I've Done, by Ursula Hegi (New York: Touchstone, 2007)

Jacket Summary: "Tonight, Annie is driving alone from North Sea to Montauk and back again, as she has every night since her husband, Mason, challenged what she believed about herself and about their marriage. Eating junk food and listening to talk radio, Annie tries to shut out her rage, her pain, but Mason's voice persists within her, as urgent as the voices of the anonymous callers who confess their misery to the radio psychologists.

"Once again, Ursula Hegi writes along that border where bliss and sorrow meet. Sensuous, funny, and mysterious, her new novel takes us into an exuberant and troubled friendship. Since early childhood, Annie, Jake, and Mason have had a special bond. When Annie's parents die on the same night that she and Mason are married, the three friends decide to raise Annie's newborn sister, Opal, together.

"Annie struggles to be both a sister and a mother to Opal, a wife to Mason, and a friend to Jake. Not surprisingly, their relationships, already entangled, grow dangerous, too close, on the line. One fateful night the three friends miss the moment when they could still turn back, and the goad each other to step across the line, with shocking, unforeseen consequences.

"Set on the East End of Long Island, The Worst Thing I've Done is an incandescent story of love, friendship, and marriage; of joy and betrayal; of an artist's struggle to reconnect with her work; and of how we can choose our mothers, our families. Beautifully written and brilliantly vivid, it explores the resilience in the protagonists' lives, and their courage to move forward despite an uncertain future."

Opening Line: "Tonight, Annie is driving from North Sea to Montauk and back to North Sea as she has every night since Mason killed himself."

My Take: Enjoyed Hegi's Stones from the River when I read it several years back, and am curious to see her tackle a contemporary setting with which I'm somewhat familiar.

Well, it wasn't quite The Worst Thing I've Read in 2010 (though that would make for an amusing parallel), but it was deeply disappointing. Here I was hoping for the kind of unusual characters and compelling circumstances I enjoyed in Stones, and instead, I felt like I'd stumbled into a rehashed Anne Rivers Siddons novel in the wrong cover. What a waste. Very glad I only borrowed and didn't buy this one.

#92 - Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian (New York: Shaye Areheart Books, 2008).

Jacket Summary: "In January 1945, in the waning months of World War II, a small group of people begin the longest journey of their lives: an attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich, from the Russian front to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines.

"Among the group is eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. There is her lover, Callum Finella, a twenty-year-old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought from the stalag to her family's farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair know as Manfred -- who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a Jew from Germany who managed to escape a train bound for Auschwitz.

"As they work their way west, they encounter a countryside ravaged by war. Their flight will test both Anna's and Callum's love, as well as their friendship with Manfred -- assuming any of them even survive."

Opening Line: "The girl -- a young woman, really, eighteen, hair the color of corn silk -- had been hearing the murmur of artillery fire for two days now."

My Take: Among World War II novels, Skeletons at the Feast is no The Invisible Bridge. Among Bohjalian's work, it's not quite Midwives. That said, it's not as disappointing as The Law of Similars, either, and remains a solid, intriguing take on the World War II novel.

I've said here before that I both enjoy stories set during World War II and have become a bit picky about them. Perhaps that's inevitable; read enough of a particular sub-genre, and it becomes difficult to find characters and plot elements you don't feel like you've seen dozens of times before. Skeletons is reasonably successful in this regard; it's set on the Russian front, in a swath of Poland and Germany just south of Danzig and the Baltic Sea. When the novel opens, its main characters are still relatively untouched by the war. Although the Emmerichs' estate, on the banks of the Vistula River, is technically part of Poland, the family themselves are Prussian. They've always felt more German than Slavic anyway, and from their perspective, the Third Reich takeover of Poland just undid the wrong that happened when their home was deemed to be part of Poland and not East Prussia. Anna's mother, Mutti, even has a portrait of Hitler displayed proudly in their home, and speaks of the fuhrer with something that's half religious reference, half schoolgirl crush (although her husband admits privately that he's not all that sure the Nazis have the right idea). Besides, aristocrats or not, they're basically just a farm family. The rumors they've heard about the concentration camps can't possibly true, and are chalked up to BBC propaganda -- particularly as the stories of Russian atrocities in nearby East Prussian villages are closer to home and far more plausible.

And so their exodus begins. Anna, convinced her parents and brothers know nothing of her affair with Callum, is initially surprised that her father brings the POW with them. Just across the Vistula, though, this makes sense; her father Rolf and twin brother Helmut leave the family to help defend their homeland from the barbaric Russians, and the large red-headed Scot offers some measure of protection for the two women and ten-year-old Theo. (It's also possible that Rolf is more knowing than he seems; he knows the Reich is done for, and hopes that when his family meet the Allies, Callum's presence will convince them that the Emmerichs aren't just your ordinary run-of-the-mill Nazis.)

Their story is intercut, initially, with two others. The first of these is Manfred's (nee Uri's). Having been separated from his family just before their deportation to Auschwitz, he is driven by two things: his mother's injunction to survive and tell the world what the Nazis have done to the Jews, and his drive to find out what happened to his sister Rebekah. It's the former that prompts a cinematic leap from a moving Auschwitz-bound train, and kick-starts his determination to do whatever it takes to survive (including posing as a series of German officers, and killing any stray Nazi soldiers that happen across his path). Eventually, he meets the Emmerich party as they struggle to mend a broken wagon, and joins them despite considerable suspicions as to the depths of their Nazi sympathies (though he doesn't reveal his true identity until much later).

The third and, to me, less compelling story follows Cecile, a French Jewish prisoner on a forced march to an unspecified work camp (probably Auschwitz). Here's where I found my pickiness about WWII stories kicking in. Yes, the camps were brutal beyond imagining, and including at least a taste of their atrocities seems de rigeur for the genre. Unfortunately, it also makes it darned hard for a given author to bring much new to the genre. On this point, Bohjalian doesn't quite seem up to the task. The story is mostly the Emmerichs' and Uri/ Manfred's, and we just don't see enough of Cecile to understand how her narrative fits in with the primary one. The threads do cross eventually, but not until near the end of the book, and not in a way that significantly alters any of the characters' trajectories. I suppose the point is to convince Anna and Mutti that yes, the rumors they'd heard about the camps were true ... but it's not well-executed here, and seems a bit forced.

My other gripe is with the book's epilogue. Sure, it's nice to see that those characters who survive have a mostly-happy outcome in the end, but it almost seemed a bit too pat and perfect. The story would have been stronger, in my opinion, had it ended in 1945, rather than giving us a quick glimpse of the principals' lives three years later. Some ambiguity is a good thing, and we could still have imagined a happy outcome if we so desired ... but the last, brief chapter had a tacked-on, Hollywood-style feel to it that didn't quite mesh with the bulk of the story.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

#91 - Shadow Tag

Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich (New York: Harper, 2010).

Summary: "When Irene America discovers that her husband, Gil, has been reading her diary, she begins a secret Blue Notebook, stashed securely in a safe-deposit box. There she records the truth about her life and her marriage, while turning her Red Diary -- hidden where Gil will find it -- into a manipulative farce. Alternating between these two records, complemented by unflinching third-person narration, Shadow Tag is an eerily gripping read.

"When the novel opens, Irene is resuming work on her doctoral thesis about George Catlin, the nineteenth-century painter whose Native American subjects often regarded his portraits with suspicious wonder. Gil, who gained notoriety as an artist through his emotionally revealing portraits of his wife -- work that is adoring, sensual, and humiliating, even shocking -- realizes that his fear of losing Irene may force him to create the defining work of his career.

"Meanwhile, Irene and Gil fight to keep up appearances for their three children: fourteen-year-old genius Florian, who escapes his family's unraveling with joints and a stolen bottle of wine; Riel, their only daughter, an eleven-year-old feverishly planning to preserve her family, no matter what disaster strikes; and sweet kindergartener Stoney, who was born, his parents come to realize, at the beginning of the end.

"As her home increasingly becomes a place of violence and secrets, and she drifts into alcoholism, Irene moves to end her marriage. But her attachment to Gil is filled with shadowy need and delicious ironies. In brilliantly controlled prose,
Shadow Tag fearlessly explores the complex nature of love, the fluid boundaries of identity, and one family's struggle for survival and redemption."

Opening Line: "I have two diaries now."

My Take: A dark but beautiful story about the slow crumbling of a marriage, the complex coexistence of love and loathing,
and the devastating depths to which people can sink to wound those they once loved. The dual diaries are but one weapon (albeit an especially cruel one) in Irene's and Gil's arsenals. You'd think, from the jacket summary and what I've written so far, that Shadow Tag is another melodramatic, Oprah's Book Club-style selection, but it isn't. In Erdrich's hands, what could be maudlin and formulaic is intricately nuanced ... and hence, very, very believable. Most of the stories I've read where one character's alcoholism is an important plot point hit you over the head with it; here, you see both the celebratory and seductive facets of Irene's wine as well. Likewise, there are scenes where the reader clearly sees and feels both Irene's and Gil's perspectives and pain: Gil's being distracted by the TV news during Stoney's birth on 9/11/01, and later, the elaborate surprise birthday party he plans for Irene in hopes of regaining her love come to mind. Even the couple's three children are understated, flawed, and tremendously real. If you have the stomach for an absolutely heartbreaking ending, read this book -- it's richer and more resonant than you might realize at first.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

#90 - Bright-Sided

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Pursuit of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009).

Summary: "Americans are a 'positive' people -- cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: this is our reputation as well as our self-image. But more than a temperament, being positive is the key to getting success and prosperity. Or so we are told.

"In this utterly original debunking, Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the false promises of positive thinking, tracing it from its origins as a marginal nineteenth-century healing technique to its enshrinement as a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude. Evangelical megachurches preach the good news that you only have to want something to get it because God wants to 'prosper' you. The medical profession prescribes positive thinking for its presumed health benefits. Academia has made room for new departments of 'positive psychology' and the 'science of happiness.' Nowhere, though, has bright-siding taken firmer root than within the business community, where, as Ehrenreich reveals, the refusal even to consider negative outcomes -- like mortgage defaults -- contributed directly to the current economic disaster.

"With the myth-busting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downsides of positive thinking: personal self-blame and national denial. This is Ehrenreich at her provocative best -- poking holes in conventional wisdom and faux science and ending with a call for existential clarity and courage."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction
  • 1. Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer
  • 2. The Years of Magical Thinking
  • 3. The Dark Roots of American Optimism
  • 4. Motivating Business and the Business of Motivation
  • 5. God Wants You to Be Rich
  • 6. Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness
  • 7. How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy
  • 8. Postscript on Post-Positive Thinking
My Take: Barbara Ehrenreich is my hero -- who else could make a chapter on breast cancer funny? She manages, though, as illustrated by the following account of the mammogram that would ultimately reveal her cancer:
"I began to lose my nerve in the changing room, and not only because of the kinky necessity of baring my breasts and affixing tiny X-ray opaque stars to the tip of each nipple. The changing room ... contained something far worse, I noticed for the first time -- an assumption about who I am, where I am going, and what I will need when I get there. Almost all of the eye-level space had been filled with photocopied bits of cuteness and sentimentality: pink ribbons, a cartoon about a woman with iatrogenically flattened breasts, an 'Ode to a Mammogram,' a list of the 'Top Ten Things Only Women Understand' ('Fat Clothes' and 'Eyelash Curlers,' among them), and, inescapably, right next to the door, the poem 'I Said a Prayer for You Today,' illustrated with pink roses.

"It went on and on, this mother of all mammograms, cutting into gym time, dinnertime, and lifetime generally. ... I read the New York Times right down to the personally irrelevant sections like theater and real estate, eschewing the stack of women's magazines provided for me, much as I ordinarily enjoyed a quick read about sweatproof eyeliners and 'fabulous sex tonight,' because I had picked up this warning vibe in the changing room, which, in my increasingly anxious state, translated into: femininity is death. Finally there was nothing left to read but one of the free local weekly newspapers, where I found, buried deep in the classifieds, something even more unsettling than the growing prospect of major disease -- a classified ad for a 'breast cancer teddy bear' with a pink ribbon stitched to its chest.

"Yes, atheists pray in their foxholes -- in this case, with a yearning new to me and sharp as lust, for a clean and honorable death by shark bite, lightning strike, sniper fire, car crash. Let me be hacked to death by a madman, was my silent supplication -- anything but suffocation by the pink sticky sentiment embodied in that bear and oozing from the walls of the changing room. I didn't mind dying, but the idea that I should do so while clutching a teddy bear and with a sweet little smile on my face -- well, no amount of philosophy had prepared me for that."
The remainder of this chapter tackles what Ehrenreich calls "the sugar-coating of cancer," and breast cancer in particular: the all-but-universal belief that positive thinking is a must for anyone who wants to get better, and any other sentiments -- anger, fear -- just aren't acceptable. Trouble is, she argues, it doesn't work; there is no research which clearly demonstrates any real health benefits from approaching one's cancer with a positive attitude, and "without question there is a problem when positive thinking 'fails' and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not being positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place."

Subsequent chapters explore the prevalence of positive-thinking books, motivational speakers, and "life coaches" in contemporary U.S. culture; Ehrenreich seems to take special pleasure in picking apart the saccharine best-selling The Secret, which was more than OK by me. She argues that this trend had its roots in the early 1800s, when the "hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men" west of Puritan-dominated New England became instead, thanks to roads and eventually railroads, something that offered possibility and prosperity. The bulk of the book, though, is devoted to skewering the prosperity gospel megachurches and optimistic, non-rational, instinct-driven CEOs which have become so popular in recent decades, and blaming them in large part for the recent economic collapse.

Bright-Sided was certainly an original book, and an entertaining read to boot. I'm not sure, though, that I fully agree with all Ehrenreich's conclusions. I'm absolutely with her on the prosperity gospel (ridiculous church-lite) and richer-than-rich prima donna business leaders. I do, however, wish she'd been clearer about the distinction between critical thinking and pessimism. She also completely overlooks the distinction between the personal and broader societal impacts of positive thinking, which would have been valuable to at least touch upon. (On one hand, I think constructive anger is underrated; on the other, we all need to pick our battles, and sometimes, that means trying your damnedest to make lemons out of lemonade, if only to preserve your own sanity.)

#89 - Innocent

Innocent, by Scott Turow (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010).

Summary: "More than twenty years after Rusty Sabich and Tommy Molto went head-to-head in the shattering murder trial of Presumed Innocent, the men are pitted against each other once again in a riveting psychological match. When Sabich, now over sixty years old and the chief judge of an appellate court, finds his wife, Barbara, dead under mysterious circumstances, Molto accuses him of murder for the second time, setting into motion a trial that is vintage Turow—the courtroom at its most taut and explosive.

"With his characteristic insight into both the dark truths of the human psyche and the dense intricacies of the criminal justice system, Scott Turow proves once again that some books simply compel us to read late into the night, desperate to know who did it."

Opening Lines: "A man is sitting on a bed. He is my father.

"The body of a woman is beneath the covers. She was my mother."

My Take: Not surprisingly, this one was about what I'd expected. Yes, it entertained; no, it didn't disappoint.

The latter's always a risk in a situation like this. It seems almost everyone's read Presumed Innocent, or at least seen the Harrison Ford movie. The ending there was surprising enough, and the characters sufficiently compelling, that you can't help wondering what happened to Sabich and Molto and all their other pals after all those years; heck, I don't think I've been as excited about a much-delayed sequel since Michael Tolliver Lives came out. But for all that readers are curious, we're also an oddly proprietary lot. Even for an accomplished author like Turow, it's a fine line to walk: the next installment needs to seem logical and plausible given what we know of the characters, but not so logical that it seems obvious or unsurprising.

Fortunately, Innocent seems to pull it off. Many of the characters we remember from Presumed Innocent are back, and one of the things that makes this book work so well both as a sequel and a stand-alone is that they've both changed ... and they haven't. Time has passed, and their lives have taken unexpected turns, but nothing we see here is out of character with the folks we've gotten to know. At 60, Tommy Molto has recently married a much-younger woman and is the proud father of a small son. After a brief separation following Rusty's first trial, he and Barbara reconciled, but Barbara struggles with bipolar disorder and their relationship is a rocky one. Their son, Nate, is 22, a newly-minted lawyer himself, and still wrestling to carve out an adult identity and relationships apart from his parents.

And that's where we come in. When we pick up the story, Barbara has just turned up dead one morning, apparently of natural causes ... or is it? If so, why did Rusty sit beside her body for a full day before notifying the police, or even his son? And what's the significance of Rusty's recent affair with a young law clerk (which we learn about in the first few chapters) -- his first since the ill-fated tryst recalled in Presumed Innocent? I formed a few theories early on about how the story would ultimately end, and for once, I'm glad to say I was wrong. Great literature it's not, but an enjoyable legal suspense novel -- absolutely.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

RETURNED - Too Much Money

Too Much Money, by Dominick Dunne (New York: Crown Publishers, 2009).

Jacket Summary: "The last two years have been monstrously unpleasant for high-society journalist Gus Bailey. His propensity for gossip has finally gotten him into trouble -- $11 million worth. His problems begin when he falls hook, line, and sinker for a fake story from an unreliable source and repeats it on a radio program. As a result of his flip comments, Gus becomes embroiled in a nasty slander suit brought by Kyle Cramden, the powerful congressman he accuses of being involved in the mysterious disappearance of a young woman, and he fears it could mean the end of him.

"The stress of the lawsuit makes it difficult for Gus to focus on the novel he has been contracted to write, which is based upon the suspicious death of billionaire Konstantin Zacharias. It is a story that has dominated the party conversations of Manhattan's chattering classes for more than two years. The convicted murderer is behind bars, but Gus is not convinced that justice was served. There are too many unanswered questions, such as why a paranoid man who was usually accompanied by bodyguards was without protection the very night he perished in a tragic fire.

"Konstantin's hot-tempered widow, Perla, is obsessed with climbing the social ladder and, as a result, she will do anything to suppress this potentially damaging story. Gus is convinced she is the only thing standing between him and the truth."

Opening Line: "A few years ago there was a rumor that I had been murdered at my home in Prud'homme, Connecticut, bu a cross-country serial killer of older men."

My Take: Started this one but didn't get more than a few chapters in before it was due back at the library. Over the years, I've developed a set of rules for how to handle just such a situation. In short, if I haven't even started the book when the due date rolls around, back it goes. Occasionally I make exceptions, if the item's renewable, I don't have a ridiculous backlog of reading material at the moment, and I've really been looking forward to it -- but that really is an exception, and not the rule.

If a book is due back while I'm in the middle of it, it's a tougher call. [Looking over shoulder for the library police] Sometimes, if I've made good headway and am really enjoying the book, I'll throw caution to the winds -- I keep it out a few more days, finish up as quickly as possible, and just write off the overdue fine as the price of admission. Other times, though, there are books like this one, that I've barely started when that fateful day arrives. And, y'know ... I've concluded on those occasions, it just wasn't Meant to Be. This is actually a good argument for patronizing the library instead of just buying everything I want to read (I mean, even on top of the lack of money and shelf space). If I owned a book like this one, there'd be no reason not to let it drag on forever, filling my free time with just about anything else I can think of (crossword puzzles? dumb online games? rereading dog-eared old favorites? Yeah, I need to get out more) because the volume in question just isn't calling me.

Perhaps this book was a victim of my low expectations. I was half-expecting and hoping for a fun send-up of the foibles of New York's rich and famous, almost along the lines of the Olivia Goldsmith romps that used to be a guilty pleasure. It wasn't, and maybe that's to Dunne's credit. The reviews and articles I've read depict Dunne as having been more a journalist who also happened to write novels, usually about crimes committed by the wealthy and the misapplications of justice that often result. And maybe starting with Too Much Money is kind of like venturing into Tolkien by reading The Silmarillion: without knowing the extensive back story, it's hard to care much about what came before or afterwards. But that's pretty much how I felt here; I got the references to the Klaus von Bulow and Gary Condit scandals, of course, but on the whole, I felt like I was walking in on the middle of the movie, or attending a party where everyone knew the inside jokes except me. Ergo, Too Much Money was not my 89th book of the year.

(It will be a nail-biter, folks! Will she or will she not make it to 100? On the one hand, there are just over 2 weeks left; on the other, she's off from work and visiting the 'rents out of town for one of them. Stay tuned.)

#88 - Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan (New York: Scholastic Press, 2000)

Jacket Summary: "Esperanza Ortega possesses all the treasures a young girl could want: fancy dresses, a beautiful home filled with servants in the bountiful region of Aguascalientes, Mexico, and the promise of one day rising to Mama's position and presiding over all of El Rancho de las Rosas.

"But a sudden tragedy shatters that dream, forcing Esperanza and Mama to flee to California and settle in a Mexican farm labor camp. There they confront the challenges of hard work, acceptance by their own people, and economic difficulties brought on by the Great Depression. When Mama falls ill from Valley Fever, and a strike for better working conditions threatens to uproot their new life, Esperanza must relinquish her hold on the past and learn to embrace a future ripe with the riches of family and community."

Opening Line: "'Our land is alive, Esperanza,' said Papa, taking her small hand as they walked through the gentle slope of the vineyard.

My Take: I think this is a first: I read this book because my daughter recommended it. Not surprisingly, I wasn't disappointed -- not because Twig has such impeccable taste (I am, after all, her mother), but because it combines several themes I usually enjoy reading about: coming of age, poverty and inequality, immigration, and even labor issues. It's a young adult novel, and not a very long one at that; I think I polished it off in about an hour last night. Liked the story itself, liked the chat Twig and I had about it on our walk home from church this morning. (Wow, how middle American does that sound?) Some of our favorite parts, to whet your appetite:
  • The painstaking efforts made by Alfonso and Miguel (the Ortegas' most trusted servants, who decide to emigrate to California in the wake of Sr. Ortega's murder rather than remain on the ranch to work for his brother) to bring a root ball from the Rancho de las Rosas' signature roses to the labor camp that becomes their new home;
  • Esperanza's visceral terror and disgust at having to sit in the peasant car on their train journey;
  • The unexpected generosity of Carmen, an egg seller Mama and Esperanza meet on the train. Though she herself is a poor widow with many children to support, she gives Mama two hens of her own on hearing the Ortegas' story -- and goes on to give an even poorer beggar woman food and coins after they get off the train.
  • The bathing scene, in which the men folk are sent out of the house so that all the women can enjoy the luxury of an all-too-rare hot bath. Esperanza goes from standing with her arms outstretched, automatically expecting Hortensia (Alfonso's wife and Miguel's mother) to undress and bathe her as she's always done before, to enjoying the camaraderie of the steamy room and personally making sure Hortensia has the hottest water.
  • Esperanza and Mama's joy and disbelief at seeing Abuelita again after nearly a year has gone by.
If you are a young adult, have one at home, or just plain like stories like this, do read this one. You won't be disappointed, either.

#87 - Networking for People Who Hate Networking

Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts, the Overwhelmed, and the Underconnected, by Devora Zack (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2010)

Jacket Summary: "Would you rather get a root canal than schmooze with a bunch of strangers? Does the phrase 'working a room' make you want to retreat to yours? Is small talk a big problem? Devora Zack used to be just like you -- in fact, she still is. Yet she's also a successful consultant who addresses thousands of people each year, and she didn't change her personality to do it. Quite the contrary.

"Zack politely examines and then smashes to tiny fragments the 'dusty old rules' of standard networking advice. You don't have to become a backslapping extrovert or even learn how to fake it. Incredible as it seems, the very traits that make you hate networking can be harnessed to forge an approach even more effective than traditional techniques. It's a different kind of networking -- and it works.

"Networking enables you to accomplish the goals that are most important to you. But you can't adopt a style that isn't true to who you are. 'I have never met a person who did not benefit tremendously from learning how to network -- on his or her own terms,' Zack writes. 'You do not succeed by denying your natural temperament; you succeed by working with your strengths.'"

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction: This Book Is Required Reading
  • 1: Welcome to Your Field Guide
  • 2: Assess Yourself
  • 3: The Destruction of Stereotypes
  • 4: Why We Hate to Network
  • 5: Sparkling New Rules That Work
  • 6: Networking Event Survival Kit
  • 7: Good-bye Golden Rule
  • 8: Networking Without a Net
  • 9: The Job Search
  • 10: Business Travel
  • 11: Creating Events That Work for All
  • 12: Defining Outcomes, Achieving Goals
  • Conclusion: See Ya Later, Alligator
My Take: Far better than the last 2 self-helpish books I read. Admittedly, I appreciate anyone who says straight-up in print that introversion isn't a disorder, and can in fact be an asset if you learn to work with and not against it. Personally, I guess I'm what Zack calls a centrovert. Every time I take the MBTI (hey, with an undergrad degree in psychology, a grad degree in labor relations, a career in higher ed, and volunteer experience in human services that predates all 3, I've lost count by now), I land just this side of the I/E line -- but after growing up the only I in a family of diehard Es, that's enough to make it feel like home. (Hey, I copped to being a sucker for underdogs long ago.)

All right, enough about my navel. Zack, who herself identifies as a pretty strong introvert, summarizes the key distinctions between introverts and extroverts in a manner that's clearer and more succinct than I've heard in a while: Introverts think to talk; go deep; and energize alone; while extroverts talk to think; go wide; and energize with others. By harnessing their reflective, focused, and self-reliant qualities, she argues, introverts can indeed be stellar networkers -- it's just that their success looks a bit different on its face than the extrovert model to which we've become accustomed. Specifically, successful networking for denizens of Introville (I'm not a fan of the cutesie Introville and Extroland metaphors myself, but hey) entails the following steps:
  1. Pause before initiating interactions. "Introverts do well by strategizing an approach, researching options, and clarifying goals in advance of taking action."
  2. Process a situation and focus on a few individuals before diving in -- the end result being, you expend less energy, and get better results.
  3. Pace yourself. In Zack's words, "Create meaningful, real connections. Retreat to recharge. Repeat."
The majority of the book simply expands on these three rules, with interesting ideas on making the most of the "meaningful, real connections" at which the focused, reflective introvert excels (send an email or an old-fashioned snail mail note to follow up! It seems so obvious ... ); structuring networking events and your own participation to make this easier; understanding how the other half (i.e., Es if you're an I, and vice-versa) lives; and applying these techniques to job hunting and business travel. This may all be specific enough to who I am and what's on my plate right now that whether or not I'd recommend it to someone else is beside the point ... but I do know I'll be reading it again at least once before it's due back.

#86 - A Girl's Gotta Do What a Girl's Gotta Do

A Girl's Gotta Do What a Girl's Gotta Do: The Ultimate Guide to Living Safe & Smart, by Kathleen Baty (New York: Rodale, 2003)

Jacket Summary: "Sassy single gal, high-powered exec in high heels, carefree college co-ed, harried soccer mom -- no matter who you are, you deserve to feel secure doing your own thing anytime, anywhere. With a little help from the Safety Chick, it's a cinch. Sharing lesson's she's learned -- the hard way -- along with proven tips from a battery of experts in street smarts, Kathleen Baty gets specific about what to pack for a business trip, where it's safe to shop online, when to report a creepy co-worker, and how to tell that guy who's bothering you at the bar to get lost -- for good. Complete with step-by-step instructions on how to stop an assailant dead in his tracks with your words, your hands, or, if necessary, a few easy-to-use self-defense weapons, this book is a master class in personal safety for women of all ages."

Table of Contents:
  • Foreward by Gavin de Becker
  • Preface: So ... Who Is This 'Safety Chick'?
  • Introduction: Safety Savvy - Why It's Hip to Be an Empowered Chick
  • Chapter 1: Intuition - An Absolute 'Must Have' in Your Personal Safety Wardrobe
  • Chapter 2: Girl on the Go - Travel and Hotel Safety Tips for Women on the Road
  • Chapter 3: Party Girl, Watch Your Cocktail - How to Protect Yourself from Being Slipped a Mickey Out on the Town
  • Chapter 4: Beauty Night - How to Feel Safe When It's Girls' Night In
  • Chapter 5: A Girl's Gotta Shop - How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off When You're Trying to Buy
  • Chapter 6: Guys Who Won't Take No for an Answer - How to Protect Yourself from a Stalker
  • Chapter 7: Working Girl - Tips on Recognizing and Avoiding Workplace Violence
  • Chapter 8: CyberGirl - Inside Tips to Help You Minimize the Dangers of Surfing the Net
  • Chapter 9: Keep Your Hands to Yourself! Domestic Violence Is Not a Family Matter ... It's a Crime
  • Chapter 10: Hand-to-Hand Combat - Should You Stay or Should You Go?
  • Chapter 11: Pick Your Poison - Self-Defense Products to Help You Stay Safe and Feel Empowered
  • Afterword: You Go, Girl! Taking Your Safety Chick Smarts to the Streets
  • A Resource Guide: Empower Yourself - Organizations That Can Assist You in Your Time of Need
My Take: In a word (or a grunt), eh. I'm not quite sure why I picked this one up; I think it was a catchy title on a yellow spine, shelved near something else I was actively looking for. Serves me right for going on first impressions. The too-jiggly descriptions of "carefree college co-eds" and "sassy single gals" on the back cover should have been a clue that I'd find the book's tone annoying; well, I did. While you can't fully learn self-defense from a book, this one does offer some useful and important general pointers, chiefly about trusting your intuition and staying aware of your surroundings. I also found the chapter on travel safety (from hotels to airports to taxis) to be pretty good overall -- not over-the-top hysterical, and offers some pointers I might not have though of on my own. Even the "Party Girl" chapter, on safe dating and clubbing, was OK; the emphasis on date rape drugs seemed a bit excessive, but hey, this is a book on personal safety, and I was in college wwwaaayyy back in the day when we were just starting to hear sensationalist newspaper articles about something called rohypnol.

Then Baty gets to the "Beauty Night" chapter, on home safety ... and things start to get a wee bit silly. She starts out asserting that all women deserve to feel safe in their own homes, but then delves into a list of rather excessive suggestions that a) probably won't make much difference, and b) would tend to make me feel more paranoid and unsafe, rather than less. Yes, it's just common sense that one shouldn't open the door without knowing who's there, shouldn't engage with the Fuller Brush Man or other door-to-door salesperson if your hinky meter is going off, and so on ... but buying men's workboots to leave by the door? Equipping a windowless safety bunker with a flashlight, phone, and weapon? Keeping pepper spray or foam under the bed? Playing a tape recording of a barking dog? Maybe I've been living in a small town for too long, or am just naive, but in the absence of a clear, specific threat, this seems like overkill. The subsequent chapters weren't quite as bad (at least not consistently), but from that point on, I couldn't help thinking of a posting I'd read last week on Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids blog. Yes, it makes sense to pay attention to both your surroundings and your gut; sometimes, it can even take some practice to know what one or the other is telling you. But Baty's book seems to take a Homeland Security/ TSA approach: you must do something to make yourself feel safer, even if it's out of proportion to any real threat and not all that effective, anyway. Admittedly, I've never been the victim of a crime, and Baty has (she talks in the preface about a former high school classmate stalking and ultimately attempting to kidnap her before he was arrested) -- but if the alternative is a level of Constant! Vigilance! that would make Mad-Eye Moody proud, I think I'll take the risk.

#85 - Eat This, Not That!

OK, this is as far as I'll push the limits of what I define as actual reading. The DIY gardening and home decorating books I've been perusing will not be added to the official count, I promise.

But this one ... ah, hell. C'mon, you know you've seen it at the bookstores, too. If you share my fascination with bright, shiny covers, you may even have flipped through it once or twice. Well, there it was at the library, just calling me, so ... I had to do it.

Eat This, Not That! Thousands of Simple Food Swaps That Can Save You 10, 20, 30 Pounds -- or More! by David Zinczenko (New York: Rodale, Inc., 2008).

Jacket Summary: "Eat what you want, when you want -- and watch the pounds disappear! You can burn fat and build the body you want -- not by eating less, but by making smart, healthy food choices. And now, the right choices are simple!

"Whether you're in the frozen food aisle, the fast-food drive-thru, the local Olive Garden, or even your own kitchen, you're faced with dozens of food choices every single day. Which ones will help you look and feel fit and trim -- and which are loaded with hidden calories, fats, and other nasty stuff? You'll never know -- unless you have Eat This, Not That!

"Did you know:
  • An Egg McMuffin is a healthier breakfast choice than a bagel? (You'll save 210 calories!)
  • White chocolate can cause depression -- but dark chocolate can cure it?
  • A Krispy Kreme glazed doughnut has 130 fewer calories than one from Dunkin' Donuts?
  • Choosing a Subway turkey sub over the Panera version will save you 510 calories? (Make this swap once a month for a year and you'll shed nearly two pounds!
With this simple illustrated guide to thousands of foods -- along with the nutrition secrets that lead to fast and permanent weight loss -- you'll make the smartest choice every time!"

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction - Special Preview 10 > Top Swaps: The simplest ways to change your body forever
  • Chapter 1 - 8 Foods You Should Eat Every Day: Plus 20 to avoid at all costs
  • Chapter 2 - At Your Favorite Restaurants: The best and worst meals at 60 fast-food and chain restaurants
  • Chapter 3 - Eat This, Not That! Menu Decoder: Strategies for eating right at any restaurant
  • Chapter 4 - On Holidays and Special Occasions: The Eat This, Not That! holiday survival guide
  • Chapter 5 - At the Supermarket: The complete Eat This, Not That! grocery list
  • Chapter 6 - Drink This, Not That: The ultimate healthy beverage guide
  • Chapter 7 - What to Eat When ... You're Tired, Stressed, or in the Mood: The right foods for every conceivable situation
  • Chapter 8 - Eat This, Not That! for Kids

My Take:
If you can overlook the gross overstatements on the back cover, and aren't too distracted by the exploitation of all those defenseless exclamation marks, this is kinda fun to read (in an "EW! How can people eat that?" train-wreck sort of way) and, depending on what you know and how you eat right now, possibly even informative.

Truth be told, I have mixed feelings about books like this one. On the one hand, they're targeted at folks with minimal nutritional knowledge, and just might provide them with some much-needed information. Take, for example, the section in Chapter 1 on "The 20 Worst Foods in America." If you still equate "smoothie" with "healthy" or "low-calorie," you might be surprised to learn that one particular 30-ounce "chocolate power smoothie" at Jamba Juice contains 900 calories, and as much sugar as 2 pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Likewise, if you automatically think "turkey burger" = smart choice, well ... Ruby Tuesday's Bella Turkey Burger has far more fat and calories than a simple 7-ounce sirloin. And as for what the authors dub "the worst food in America" -- the 2,900 calorie, 182 grams of fat, 240 grams of carbohydrate gut bomb that is the Outback's Aussie cheese fries with ranch dressing -- what can I say but EW?

If you like to eat out (especially if you enjoy the fast food and chain places that form the bulk of the book, though there is a more generic "menu decoder" for non-chain BBQ joints, steakhouses, Japanese restaurants, etc. in Chapter 3), and are trying to maintain your weight or take off 5-10 pounds, you might get something useful out of this book. Some people, for example, might think that it's always better to choose chicken or fish entrees over red meat, or that one roast beef sandwich is just like any other. Well, t'ain't necessarily so. While it seems pretty obvious to me that deep-frying fish, or slathering your chicken breast in cheese, negates any positive health effects, trust me -- I know that's not the case for everyone.

However, and here's the long-awaited "other hand," the book's claims are grossly overstated in some areas and downright misleading in others. If you enjoy eating at Chili's or Applebee's, and would like to make lower-calorie, lower-fat choices when you do so, then sure, bring this book along. But there's the rub: just because the "eat this" item is lower in fat and calories than its "not that" counterpart doesn't make it low in fat or calories, nor is it necessarily a smart choice on which to base your diet if you want to lose weight. Sure, the Starbucks "eat this" meal is almost 400 calories less than the "not that" meal on the facing page, but it still contains half the calories and fat I need to eat in a day ... and if all I have to tide me over till dinner are a latte and upscale Egg McMuffin, it's gonna get ugly. Likewise, Jamba Juice's peach perfection smoothie may be a way better bet than the peanut butter moo'd (though honestly, what self-respecting dieter thinks it's a good idea to order something named after cow noises?), but at 320 calories, it had darned well better be my whole lunch. And while I may know this on my own, I've also been around the weight-loss block a few times. I can't help thinking someone who's new to the diet-and-weight-loss world and doesn't have much of a scientific background (and face it, that's the demographic the books are targeting) might happily hit Starbucks for breakfast, KFC for lunch, Jamba Juice for a snack, and the Olive Garden for dinner ... and then wonder why, since they're ordering all "eat this" items, the pounds aren't flying off like the authors seem to promise.

In short, this WebMD review provides a more exhaustive treatment than I'm prepared to do on my own, but Eat This, Not That! works better as a companion to a real weight loss program, rather than a diet plan in itself.

#84 - Half Broke Horses

Aah, Thanksgiving weekend. Plenty o' reading happening @ Cafe Hazelthyme this week, but precious little blogging -- you can guess the story, but in brief, I was too busy hosting the in-laws and wrangling a big ornery ole turkey. Hence, the next few updates will come like gangbusters, but be fairly brief.

Half Broke Horses
, by Jeannette Walls (New York: Scribner, 2009)

Jacket Summary: "'Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.' So begins the story of Lily Casey Smith, Jeannette Walls's no-nonsense, resourceful, and spectacularly compelling grandmother. By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town -- riding five hundred miles on her pony, alone, to get to her job. She learned to drive a car ('I loved car even more than I loved horses. They didn't need to be fed if they weren't working, and they didn't leave big piles of manure all over the place') and fly a plane. And, with her husband, Jim, she ran a vast ranch in Arizona. She raised two children, one of whom is Jeannette's memorable mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, unforgettably portrayed in The Glass Castle.

"Lily survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and the most heartbreaking personal tragedy. She bristled at prejudice of all kinds -- against women, Native Americans, and anyone else who didn't fit the mold. Rosemary Smith Walls always told Jeannette that she was like her grandmother, and in this true-life novel, Jeannette Walls channels that kindred spirit. Half Broke Horses is Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, as riveting and dramatic as Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa or Beryl Markham's West with the Night. It will transfix readers everywhere."

Opening Line: "Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did."

My Take: A danged good book, though far better approached as a novel than as an accurate biography of the author's grandmother. Walls' describes Lily a wee bit too perfectly for my tastes (on the first page, she saves herself and two younger siblings from a flash flood by ordering them up a cottonwood tree and keeping the three of them talking and awake all night), but a few of her flaws do manage to come through, and she's a sufficiently likable and compelling character that this is slightly annoying but not fatal. (Besides, who doesn't create some sort of semi-mythical story about their grandparents?) I enjoyed the supporting characters, too -- especially Lily's strong but gentle (and no, that's not the cliche I make it sound like) husband, Jim. Certainly intrigued me enough to make me want to read The Glass Castle and see how Rosemary and eventually Jeannette turn out.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

#83 - Eaarth

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben (New York: Times Books, 2010).

Jacket Summary: "The bestselling author of Deep Economy shows that we're living on a fundamentally altered planet -- and opens our eyes to the kind of change we'll need in order to make our civilization endure.

"Twenty years ago, with The End of Nature, Bill McKibben offered one of the earliest warnings about global warming. Those warnings went mostly unheeded; now, he insists, we need to acknowledge that we've waited too long, and that massive change is not only unavoidable but already under way. Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen. We've created, in very short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different. We may as well call it Eaarth.

"That new planet is filled with new binds and traps. A changing world costs large sums to defend -- think of the money that went to repair New Orleans, or the trillions of dollars it will take to transform our energy systems. But the endless economic growth that could underwrite such largesse depends on the stable planet we've managed to damage and degrade. We can't rely on old habits any longer.

"Our hope depends, McKibben argues, on scaling back -- on building the kind of societies and economies that can hunker down, concentrate on essentials, and create the type of community (in the neighborhood, but also on the Internet) that will allow us to weather trouble on an unprecedented scale. Change -- fundamental change -- is our best hope on a planet suddenly and violently out of balance."

Table of Contents:
  • Preface
  • 1. A New World
  • 2. High Tide
  • 3. Backing Off
  • 4. Lightly, Carefully, Gracefully
My Take: It's an exaggeration, but only a small one, to call Bill McKibben my hero.

Maybe I'm a poseur, because I haven't read much -- in fact, I don't recall if I've read any -- of the environmental books for which he's most famous. I haven't read The End of Nature; I didn't read Deep Economy.

I did, however, read Maybe One several years back, and it's no exaggeration to say that book changed my life. At the time, I was quietly but painfully torn between the growing suspicion that a three-person family -- Filbert, Twig, and me -- might be what we were meant to have, and the chaotic "one kid isn't a real family" houseful of my own childhood. True to form, I read just about everything on the subject I could get my hands on. Sure, there were plenty of books and articles about how to make sure your only child turned out Normal, but Maybe One ... Maybe One was an epiphany. For the first time, a single-child family seemed less like, "well, I guess maybe we can make it work OK" and more like a conscious, positive decision -- not just for the 3 of us, but for our communities large and small. (Around the same time, Twig began grade school, and we started getting to know several other close-knit, loving, and all-around-awesome one-kid families, which didn't hurt either.)

Digression aside, I can't help wanting to read Eaarth even though I know it'll be considerably more sobering than Goon Squad. In the first chapter, McKibben explains the title and his premise thus:
"For the ten thousand years that constitute human civilization, we've existed in the sweetest of sweet spots. The temperature has barely budged: globally averaged, it's swung in the narrowest of ranges, between fifty-eight and sixty degrees Fahrenheit. That's warm enough that the ice sheets retreated from the centers of our continents so we could grow grain, but cold enough that mountain glaciers provided drinking and irrigation water to those plains and valleys year-round; it was the 'correct' temperature for the marvelously diverse planet that seems right to us. And every aspect of our civilization reflects that particular world. We built our great cities next to seas that have remained tame and level, or at altitudes high enough that disease-bearing mosquitoes could not overwinter. We refined the farming that has swelled our numbers to take full advantage of that predictable heat and rainfall; our rice and corn and wheat can't imagine another earth either. ...

"But we no longer live on that planet. ... [T]he earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We're every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn't ended, but the world as we know it has -- even if we don't quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they're not. It's a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth."
McKibben's description of this new and different planet, at the end of this same chapter, stands in start contrast to the "sweet spot" depicted above:
"The planet we inhabit has a finite number of huge physical features. Virtually all of them seem to be changing rapidly: the Arctic ice cap is melting, and the great glacier above Greenland is thinning, both with disconcerting and unexpected speed. The oceans, which cover three-fourths of the earth's surface, are distinctly more acid and their levels are rising; they are also warmer, which means the greatest storms on our planet, hurricanes and cyclones, have become more powerful. The vast inland glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas, and the giant snowpack of the American West, are melting very fast, and within decades the supply of water to the billions of people living downstream may dwindle. The great rain forest of the Amazon is drying on its margins and threatened at its core. The great boreal forest of North America is dying in a matter of years. The great storehouses of oil beneath the earth's crust are now more empty than full. Every one of these things is completely unprecedented in the ten thousand years of human civilization. And some places with civilizations that date back thousands of years -- the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, Kiribati in the Pacific, and many other island nations -- are actively preparing to lower their flags and evacuate their territory. The cedars of Lebanon -- you can read about them in the Bible -- are now listed as 'heavily threatened' by climate change. We have traveled to a new planet, propelled on a burst of carbon dioxide. That new planet, as is often the case in science fiction, looks more or less like our own but clearly isn't. I know that I'm repeating myself. I'm repeating myself on purpose. This is the biggest thing that's ever happened. ... That's life on our new planet. That's where we live now."
Nothing like a little uplifting inspirational tract to get me in the mood for the holidays, eh?

(Later, after finishing the book) Interesting and worth reading, but not sure McKibben by himself has The Solution to the climate crisis, any more than Thomas Friedman single-handedly has the answer. McKibben's take is both gloomier and less exhausting than Friedman's. Gloomier, because he's pretty clear in asserting that Friedman's call for massive investment in green innovation and technology won't cut it; 30 or 40 years ago, perhaps, but it's too late for that now. Less exhausting, because McKibben believes more localized and regionalized decision-making and sustainability (and correspondingly, less centralization) are what's called for -- particularly in the area of agriculture. (I'm already a fervent if not terribly orthodox locavore, and his description of the Farmers Diner had me practically salivating.)

He also calls for increased use of the internet to promote knowledge and diversity in a more carbon-friendly way, though I found his description of exactly how this would work somewhat fuzzy, and less compelling than the local agriculture piece. This, for me, is where the book falls short. I finished Hot, Flat, and Crowded thinking Friedman's proposal might just work, but would be darned difficult to get off the ground. McKibben's, by contrast, probably requires less momentum, but probably won't be enough on its own. Maybe it's just my own resistance to change, but the implication that the majority of people can get buy without commuting, traveling long distances, or working for large, distant corporations because after all, we have the internet unconvincing -- at least as it's presented here. In short, while I'm still a McKibben fan (and have faithfully added Deep Economy to my reading list), I think the global warming solutions presented herein are helpful and perhaps necessary, but not sufficient, for combatting climate change. (The author himself would argue that he's not hoping to reverse climate change, but merely to slow it and make the fallout easier to live with ... but my position's still the same.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

#82 - A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (New York: Random House, 2010).

Jacket Summary: "Jennifer Egan's spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other's pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.

"We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist's couch in New York City, confronting her long-standing compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then as a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to avert the suicidal impulses of her best friend. We plunge into the hidden yearnings and disappointments of her uncle, an art historian stuck in a dead marriage, who travels to Naples to extract Sasha from the city's demimonde and experiences an epiphany of his own while staring at a sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Museo Nazionale. We meet Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life -- divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed-up band in the basement of a suburban house -- and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his yough, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco's punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent. We learn what became of his high school gang -- who thrived and who faltered -- and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie's catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou's far-flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall.

"A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to PowerPoint, Egan captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both -- and escape the merciless progress of time -- in the transporting realms of art and music."

Opening Lines: "It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall."

My Take: One of the precious few perks my current job offers is access to a library that, while small in size, seems to have plenty o' hot new releases in stock months before I'd find them in the big, shiny, public libe downtown. Here's hoping this will be more entertaining and less dismal than I need right now.

Well, color me impressed. I'd expected an amusing if sometimes bleak story of angsty, self-destructive urban hipsters. Instead, Goon Squad was ... well, it's hard to describe. To some extent, it's a story about Bennie and Sasha, in that we do learn about their pasts and the future directions their lives take. (No, they don't fall in love and live happily ever after, or even engage in a quick fling. Thank you, Ms. Egan.) And yeah, it's also a story about people whose connections to these two are somewhat peripheral: Lou Kline's oldest children, Charlie and Rolph, as teens years earlier, on an African safari; Bennie's old friends and bandmates, uber-freckled Rhea, her best friend Jocelyn, and reclusive musical wunderkind Scotty; Bennie's ex-wife Stephanie; Stephanie's one-time boss, publicist/ dragon lady La Doll (nee Dolly); Dolly's phenomenally charismatic daughter Lulu; Sasha's own hip college pals, Lizzie and Drew.

Beyond that, it's hard to describe a single plot, as the book is more a collection of vignettes. (And yes, as the dust jacket suggests, a later section is told from the perspective of one protagonist's pre-teen daughter ... in PowerPoint. Believe it or not, it works.) I've been saying this a lot lately, but this isn't the kind of book I usually like; I want a linear plot, darn it, and I don't normally care for short stories (which this both is and isn't). But perhaps I need to rethink my preferences -- this book really was exhilarating, and just plain fun.

#81 - NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman (New York: Twelve/ Hachette Book Group, 2010).

Jacket Summary: "The world of parenting is about to change.

"Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have written what is destined to become one of the most provocative and influential books about children of our time.

"The force and wisdom of these award-winning journalists' work have been apparent since the publication of their cover story, 'The Inverse Power of Praise,' in New York magazine. Literally overnight, parents changed how they talked to children. Schools assigned the article as homework for teachers, while business leaders discussed how it would change the way they rewarded employees. Over 1,000 bloggers typed away, while legislators and religious leaders considered how the article could transform the larger society.

"But Bronson and Merryman's insight on praise is just part of the first chapter of NurtureShock. There are nine more equally groundbreaking chapters after that. Among the topics covered:
Why the most brutal person in a child's life is often a sibling, and how a single aspect of their preschool-aged play can determine their relationship as adults.
When is it too soon -- or too late -- to teach a child about race? Children in diverse schools are less likely to have a cross-racial friendship, not more -- so is school diversity backfiring?
Millions of families are fighting to get their kids into private schools and advanced programs as early as possible. But schools are missing the best kids 73% of the time -- the new neuroscience explains why.
Why are kids -- even those from the best of homes -- still aggressive and cruel? The answer is found in a rethinking of parental conflict, discipline, television's unexpected influence, and social dominance.
Parents are desperate to jump-start infants' language skills. Recently, scientists have discovered a series of natural techniques that are astonishing in their efficacy -- it's not baby videos, sign language, or even the richness of language exposure. It's nothing you've heard before.

"NurtureShock provides a revolutionary new perspective on childhood that upends a library's worth of conventional wisdom. Nothing like a parenting manual, NurtureShock gets to the core of how we grow, learn, and live."

Table of Contents:
  • Preface: Cary Grant is at the door
  • Introduction: Why our instincts about children can be so off the mark
  • 1. The Inverse Power of Praise: Sure, he's special. But new research suggests if you tell him that, you'll ruin him. It's a neurobiological fact.
  • 2. The Lost Hour: Around the world, children get an hour less sleep than they did thirty years ago. The cost: IQ points, emotional well-being, ADHD, and obesity.
  • 3. Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race: Does teaching children about race and skin color make them better off or worse?
  • 4. Why Kids Lie: We may treasure honesty, but the research is clear. Most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars.
  • 5. The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten: Millions of kids are competing for seats in gifted programs and private schools. Admissions officers say it's an art: new science says they're wrong, 73% of the time.
  • 6. The Sibling Effect: Freud was wrong, Shakespeare was right. Why siblings really fight.
  • 7. The Science of Teen Rebellion: Why, for adolescents, arguing with adults is a sign of respect, not disrespect -- and arguing is constructive to the relationship, not destructive.
  • 8. Can Self-Control Be Taught? Developers of a new kind of preschool keep losing their grant money -- the students are so successful they're no longer 'at-risk enough' to warrant further study. What's their secret?
  • 9. Plays Well with Others: Why modern involved parenting has failed to produce a generation of angels.
  • 10. Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn't: Despite scientists' admonitions, parents still spend billions every year on gimmicks and videos, hoping to jump-start infants' language skills. What's the right way to accomplish this goal?
  • Conclusion: The Myth of the Supertrait
My Take: A good read and (extra bonus points) a nice validation of some of the parenting decisions that I've made to boot -- though much of the ground Bronson and Merryman covers (Baby Einstein videos are bunk, overpraising kids can backfire, shielding kids from conflict and deluging them with "educational" media is neither necessary nor helpful, and there's little value to IDing the "gifted" kids in preschool) isn't exactly new to anyone who's reasonably well-informed about developmental psychology. I do agree with Pamela Paul's New York Times review that the authors present an overstated, almost-mythological faith in Scientific Research, but I still enjoyed the book.

#79: Family Ties

#79: Family Ties, by Danielle Steel (New York: Delacorte Press, 2010).

Summary: "Annie Ferguson was a bright young Manhattan architect. Talented, beautiful, just starting out with her first job, new apartment and boyfriend, she had the world in the palm of her hand -- until a single phone call altered the course of her life forever. Overnight, she became the mother to her sister's three orphaned children, keeping a promise she never regretted making, even if it meant putting her own life indefinitely on hold.

"Now, at forty-two, as independent as ever, with a satisfying career and a family that means everything to her, Annie is comfortable being single and staying that way. She appears to have no time for anything else. With her nephew and nieces now young adults and confronting major challenges of their own, Annie is navigating a parent's difficult passage between lending them a hand and letting go, and suddenly facing an empty nest. The eldest, twenty-eight-year-old Liz, an overworked, struggling editor in a high-powered job at Vogue, has never allowed any man to come close enough to hurt her. Ted, at twenty-four a serious and hardworking law student, is captivated by a much older, much more experienced woman with children, who is leading him much further than he wants to go. And the youngest, twenty-one-year-old Katie -- impulsive, artistic, rebellious -- is an art student about to make a choice that will lead her to an entirely different world she is in no way prepared for but determined to embrace.

"Then, just when least expected, a chance encounter changes Annie's life yet again in the most unexpected direction of all."

Opening Lines: "Seth Adams left Annie Ferguson's West Village apartment on a sunny September afternoon. He was handsome, funny, intelligent, fun to be with, and they had been dating for two months."

My Take: We all have our guilty pleasures, and occasionally, this is one of mine. Utterly predictable, formulaic, and undemanding; I think it took me all of 2 hours to get through. All the plot lines hinted at on the dust jacket spool out pretty much as you'd expect; the one that's not totally obvious, Katie's thread, involves her falling in love with an Iranian-American classmate and tearing off, over Annie's and his parents' objections, to visit his aunt, uncle, and aging grandfather in Tehran.

I did find myself pondering, though, what it is about Steel's novels and others of the same ilk that strikes a chord with so many women. For me, it's partly a nostalgia thing; my mom went through a Steel phase in the early 1980s, and at the time, I felt horribly grown-up at being allowed to read some of the books myself. And while they'll never be great literature, they have gotten quite a bit better than the over-the-top, uber-rich-and-famous, never-felt-anything-like-this-before love stories on which Steel made her name. I guess the books serve much the same function as Hallmark made-for-TV movies; when real life has you overwhelmed or just plain bored, it's a nice distraction to spend an evening reading about someone whose troubles are vanquished in a few simple chapters.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

#80: Beijing Coma

Beijing Coma, by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2008)

Summary: "Dai Wei has been unconscious for almost a decade. A PhD student at Beijing University and a pro-democracy protester at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, he was caught by a soldier's bullet and fell into a deep coma. As soon as the hospital authorities discovered that he had been an activist, his mother was forced to take him home. Dodging constant police surveillance, she took him to quack doctors in the remote countryside, hoping they might help bring him out of his coma. When her money ran out, she sold his left kidney and befriended Master Yao, a member of the outlawed Falun Gong sect, who was prepared to treat Dai Wei for free.

"Dai Wei lives on his iron bed and relives the past -- returning to his childhood in the Cultural Revolution, his three troubled love affairs, and the heady days of the democracy movement -- while all around him China continues to change. As the millenium draws near, a sparrow flies through the window and lands on Dai Wei's naked chest, a sign that he must emerge from his coma. But China has also undergone a massive transformation while Dai Wei lay unconscious. As he prepares to take leave of his bed, Dai Wei realizes that the rich, imaginative world afforded to him as a coma patient is in startling contrast with the death-in-life of the world outside.

"At once a powerful allegory of a rising China, racked by contradictions, and a seminal examination of the Tiananmen Square protests, Beijing Coma is Ma Jian's masterpiece. Spiked with dark wit, poetic beauty, and deep rage, this extraordinary novel confirms his place as one of the world's most significant living writers."

Opening Lines: "Through the gaping hole where the covered balcony used to be, you see the bulldozed locust tree slowly begin to rise again. This is a clear sign that from now on you're going to have to take your life seriously."

My Take: I've lost track of how many times I've checked this book out and then returned it to the library spine unbent (at least by me). The first ten pages or so look promising. Let's see how it plays out.

Finally finished this one last night. Glad I finally did, but all in all, it was a bit disappointing. The novel alternates between two narrative streams: one takes place in 1989, when Dai Wei is in graduate school, in the months leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre. The second is set ten years later, on the eve of the millenium, as Beijing puts its best foot forward for its Olympic bid and fully cognizant Dai Wei lies, still comatose, in his mother's filthy flat. Surprisingly, it's the second that's far more compelling. The 1989 narrative, while interesting at the start and harrowing at the end, grows almost unbearably tedious in the middle. There may have been an intentional, meta-level component to this; if you've been in a coma for 10 years, completely aware of what's going on around you but totally incapable of communicating that fact, and have nothing to do but remember your past in excruciatingly minute detail, I suppose that would be pretty tedious -- but it still didn't make me eager to pick up the book and read about it for much of the past week. The Tiananmen Square student protests, naturally, featured a cast of thousands, and I had difficulty keeping most of the players straight. While some of this may be my own unfamiliarity with Chinese names, I don't think that's the bulk of it; rather, I think it's that Ma doesn't successfully portray more than 2 or 3 as having distinctive identities that set them apart from their classmates and comrades. Tian Yi is Dai Wei's histrionic and not very likable girlfriend; Nuwa is the stunning art student every man in the square is in love (or at least in lust) with; Ke Xi is the passionate but intemperate early leader of the student movement who regularly faints from the intensity of his own exertions; and Dai Wei seems to have a more-info-than-I-needed-thanks fascination with ladies' feet. After 400+ pages in the Square, I wanted to know more about these characters (and some of the others around them) than that. And while it seems almost inevitable that a burgeoning political movement + college students = a certain amount of internecine squabbling and jockeying for position, I wasn't sufficiently convinced of the characters' passion to see why they bothered to stick it out. (By contrast, when I read Les Miserables, I both appreciated the students' ideals and felt a certain sad sympathy for their doomed naivete -- though admittedly, not every novelist can be Victor Hugo.)

On the other hand, hearing the comatose Dai Wei's perspective on all that's happening around him as he lies abed motionless is by turns hair-raising and fascinating. While his mother's not a very sympathetic character, and you're shocked the first few times she urges her son to hurry up and die (assuming, of course, that he can't hear or understand her), you also can't help but muse on the toll serving as his caregiver almost single-handedly for a decade must take. Throughout most of the novel, she remains convinced that Dai Wei himself is to blame for his position -- just as she'd blamed his late father years before for being branded a rightist during the Cultural Revolution. Yet she continues for years to seek unorthodox treatments, desperately hoping that one day, something will finally wake him up. And I was both repulsed and curious to read about the increasingly filthy and cluttered state of her apartment; is this because she's simply exhausted from the burden of caring for her son, or is is a deliberate (and largely successful) attempt to keep the police (at first suspicious of Dai Wei's Tiananmen Square connections and later of her involvement in Falun Gong) at bay? It's also intriguing to see how much detail Dai Wei is able to discern from his bed, as he becomes more and more attuned to infinitesimal variations in sounds, movements, and smells ... and to follow the divergent paths of his fellow demonstrators over the years, as China's economy explodes.

I don't know that I'm sorry I read this book, but I also don't know that I'll be quick to recommend it to others. This is very likely one that's better to read with a book group than completely solo.