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, January 21, 2010

#9 - The Penny Pinchers Club

Hey, I guess I shouldn't feel too bad about taking 6 months to find a new job. After all, when even the chick lit puts on a recession theme, you know times have been hard. Such is The Penny Pinchers Club, by Sarah Strohmeyer (New York: Dutton, 2009). In a nutshell, this one has its share of plot holes, but still made for an entertaining afternoon.

From the dust jacket: "Living in New Jersey -- the state that boasts the most malls per capita -- Kat's favorite recreational activity is a no-brainer: shopping. But when she discovers that her husband, Griff, has been hiding a secret bank account and exchanging dubious e-mails with his attractive young assistant, her joyful consumerism suddenly loses its appeal. Are their fights about money more serious than she understood? Is he, as her friends suggest, preparing for a divorce? Just in case, Kat decides it's time to start saving. Unfortunately, having racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt (of course she needed those tiki torches from Pier 1!), Kat finds herself in way over her head.

"Drastic times call for drastic measures. Kat starts by canceling cable and kicking her $240 monthly Starbucks habit. But what starts out as a simple effort to cut costs soon becomes an over-the-top obsession when she joins an eclectic but lovable group of savers called the Penny Pinchers Club. Soon she is pumping her gas at dawn (when it is thicker) and serving dinner made from food she retrieved at the grocery store Dumpster. Kat is saving money, to be sure, but what she's really saving is time -- time she spends with Griff, their daughter ... and an old flame, who resurfaces at precisely the wrong moment, offering Kat a life where money is no object."

The premise is pretty entertaining, and much like Prospect Park West, has "screenplay" written all over it. The trouble starts when Kat, on the eve of their twentieth wedding anniversary, finds two wrappers from Trojan Mint Tingle condoms in husband Griff's suitcase as she's unpacking from his latest business trip ... and then an expensive restaurant receipt from a night when he'd allegedly turned in early at his hotel. Turns out, the latter was paid for with a MasterCard that (as far as Kat knows) they've never owned. With some encouragement and help from big sister Viv and Viv's accountant friend Adele, Kat does some digging, finds the aforementioned secret bank account, and consults infamous divorce lawyer Toni Feinzig -- all the while saying nothing to Griff, on the advice of her new lawyer:
"'[I]f you confront your husband now with virtually no assets to your name besides the ones you two hold mutually, you will only be hurting yourself in the long run since there is a very strong possibility that he'll call your bluff and declare immediately that he's leaving you, at which point you will be on your own."
Of course, ferocious lawyers don't come cheap, so there's the rub: Kat has 8 months (till June, when daughter Laura graduates high school and, she expects, Griff will leave her for his PYT assistant, Bree) in which to save $15,000 for Toni's retainer. Desparate situations, desparate measures, so she finally succumbs to cleaning lady Libby's invitations to join the Penny Pinchers Club. She's clearly over her head here, and on hearing about her baby steps -- switching to take-out instead of sit-down service at the sushi bar, finding gas for ten cents less a gallon, cutting out Starbucks -- the Pinchers are about to show her the door ... until she spills about Griff's infidelity. At this point, they take pity on her, and stage a massive audit and intervention: cancel cable, the landline, and Netflix; share a wireless connection with the neighbors; even trade in the Lexus -- all with the goal of saving (ulp!) $500 a week.

Kat digs in with gusto, which is one of the weaker points in the plot. Sure, her good intentions make sense, especially given the magnitude of the threat she's facing ... but as someone who's taken many trips down the frugal highway, I have a hard time believing that not just Kat, but her family, just blithely accept all these sudden, drastic changes in their lifestyle with nary a backward glance. To change any habit takes time, and rarely goes quite as smoothly as it's presented here.

Likewise, I don't fully buy Kat's decision to finally, after 20+ years, start taking steps to break free from her unreasonably demanding boss and start her own interior design business at precisely the same time she's expecting her marriage to collapse. OK, she is presented as not being terribly financially savvy, and the new business provides the vehicle for bringing ex-boyfriend Liam -- now hugely successful, and the owner of a historic estate in desparate need of remodeling -- back into the picture, but c'mon -- why now? Wouldn't you think someone in deep financial doo-doo, and expecting it to get worse, would want to hold onto a steady job just a wee bit longer?

Surprisingly, I mostly liked the ending. It didn't happen exactly as I'd expected, which is always a relief. While I did take issue with how the author resolves the question of Griff's infidelity, I can't see a better way to do it without a major rewrite -- and who knows where that might have led.

And right now, my watch is leading me to wrap it up -- I've got one of my last ladies-who-lunch dates downtown in half an hour -- so that's it for now. I'll likely hit the library on the way home, and I'm due for a major return and restock, so stay tuned.

#8 - Prospect Park West

Another brace of light, entertaining "Chick Lit" books in this, my last week of penurious leisure. And, y'know, I'm starting to feel a little bloated, as if I'd eaten a whole bag of Milanos in one sitting.

Even so, Prospect Park West, by Amy Sohn (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), was pretty much what I expected: a lives-of-the-upper-middle-class satire that neither demands nor surprises too much. As the jacket blurb suggests, the book follows the stories of four restless young mothers in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood:

"Brooklyn's famed Park Slope neighborhood has it all: sprawling, majestic Prospect Park; acclaimed public schools; historic brownstones; and progressive values. Among bohemian bourgeois breeders, claiming a stake in Park Slope has become a competitive sport.

"In the park, at the coffee shops, and on the playgrounds of the neighborhood, four women's lives come together during one long, hot Brooklyn summer. Melora Leigh, a two-time Oscar-winning actress, frustrated with her career and the pressures of raising her adopted toddler, feels the seductive pull of kleptomania; Rebecca Rose, missing the robust sex life of her pre-motherhood days, begins a dangerous flirtation with a handsome neighborhood celebrity; Lizzie O'Donnell, a former lesbian (or 'hasbian'), wonders why she is still drawn to women in spite of her sexy husband and adorable baby; and Karen Bryan Shapiro finds herself consumed by two powerful obsessions: her four-year-old son's well-being and snagging the ultimate three-bedroom apartmentin a well-maintained, P.S. 321-zoned co-op building. As the women's paths intertwine (and sometimes collide), each must struggle to keep her man, her sanity ... and her playdates."

Some reviews (warning: the title of the second isn't family- or work-friendly) suggest that PPW is funny only if you know the neighborhood. I don't think that's true; personally, the closest I come is occasionally visiting friends in Prospect Heights, which Sohn dubs "ToPoSlo" -- Too Poor for the Slope -- but I was still entertained. Sure, there are local variations, but competitive mothering is still competitive mothering. (Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that Sohn includes a shout-out to my own adopted home town, calling it "Park Slope outside of the city" and "a community ... with cool, smart artistic people who weren't boring or at all suburban.")

The first review I read calls the book mean-spirited, and I guess to some extent, that's true. The four principals are somewhat one-dimensional. Rebecca and Karen are the most interesting, but not particularly likeable; Lizzie is the only likeable one, but not terribly compelling; and Melora (reportedly based loosely on Brooklyn-born actress Jennifer Connelly) is just plain annoying. Nonetheless, it has some funny moments. The Park Slope Food Coop (here, the "Prospect Park Food Coop") features prominently, and will ring true for anyone with a co-op background: the leftover hippies, the all-too-earnest member-worker responsibilities, the obligatory protest. Karen's overprotective mothering makes her neighbors wonder if her son, the ridiculously-named Darby, is disabled somehow, what with the knee pads and all. A post from a local couple "into soft swinging" on the Park Slope Parents web site piques the lonely Lizze's interest, but draws an avalanche of outrage from most of her neighbors: "'My parents were swingers in the '70s and as a result I have been in psychotherapy my entire adult life.' 'This is not the forum for such inquiries. Why don't you post this on an AOL chat room instead of polluting our parenting board with your sick desires?' And the predictable 'I'm definitely interested in swinging but usually it's at the playground with my son Jasper.'" And Rebecca's encounters with "the sanctimommies," who chide her for leaving daughter Abbie with a sitter two afternoons a week and practice elimination communication with their six-month olds (albeit with mixed results), are hilarious.

Again, this wasn't a life-altering book, but I did appreciate the somewhat ambiguous ending. I don't do full-on spoilers, but will say Karen learns too late that her coveted Carroll Street co-op isn't quite what she expected, and Rebecca's sex-starved fling with Melora's hunky Aussie husband Stuart is, er, both briefer and longer-lasting than she'd anticipated. There was one plot line involving Melora's light-fingeredness and Karen's social climbing that wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly for my tastes, but hey -- you can't have everything.

Monday, January 18, 2010

How to Buy a Love of Reading

This one was underwhelming. As I said in an earlier post, I gave a former colleague a copy of Tanya Egan Gibson's How to Buy a Love of Reading (New York: Dutton, 2009) as a going-away gift earlier this year. Then and now, I picked it out for a few reasons: the title intrigued me, and how could I not be drawn to a book that satirizes the uber-rich of Long Island's North Shore?

Jacket blurb: "To Carley Wells, words are the enemy. Her tutor's innumerable SAT flashcards. Her personal trainer's 'fifty-seven pounds overweight' assessment. And the endless assignments from her English teacher, Mr. Nagel. When Nagel reports to her parents that she has answered the question 'What is your favorite book?' with 'Never met one I liked,' they decide to fix what he calls her 'intellectual impoverishment.' They will commission a book to be written just for her -- one she'll have to love -- that will impress her teacher and the whole town of Fox Glen with their family's devotion to the arts. They will be patrons -- the Medicis of Long Island. They will buy their daughter the love of reading.

"Impossible though it is for Carley to imagine loving books, she is in love with a young bibliophile who cares about them more than anything. Anything, that is, but a good bottle of scotch. Hunter Cay, Carley's best friend and Fox Glen's resident golden boy, is becoming a stranger to her lately as he drowns himself in F. Scott Fitzgerald, booze, and Vicodin.

"When the Wellses move writer Bree McEnroy -- author of a failed meta-novel about Odysseus's journey home through the Internet -- into their mansion to write Carley's book, Carley's sole interest in the project is to distract Hunter from drinking and give them something to share. But as Hunter's behavior becomes erratic and dangerous, she finds herself increasingly drawn into the fictional world Bree has created, and begins to understand for the first time the power of
stories -- those we read, those we want to believe in, and most of all, those we tell ourselves about ourselves. Stories powerful enough to destroy a person. Or save her."

Sounds like it could be good, but didn't quite live up to its potential. Carley has all the makings of a compelling, make-you-root-for-the-underdog heroine -- love for a boy she can't have and who, frankly, doesn't deserve it; shallow mom from hell -- but not enough substance to make you get past your pity and truly like her. And Bree, the working-class writer with literary pretensions and her own bad-rich-boy skeleton in the closet, might have the substance, but we don't see enough of it to know. It gets a bit better as it goes on, but frankly, much of the book is as muddied and meta- as Gibson pokes fun at Bree's failed novel for being.

More quickies

Also recently finished 2 young adult books of note.

I read Cynthia Voight's Homecoming (New York: Athenium, 1981) with Littlehazel; finished it a week ago. Wow. Homecoming is the first book in Voight's seven-volume Tillerman cycle, and I can't believe I never came across the books before. It tells the story of four siblings, ranging in age from 13 to 6, who are abandoned in the parking lot of a shopping mall on the Rhode Island-Connecticut border by their poor and emotionally fragile mother. Their father walked out of their lives before the youngest child's birth, and they know no other friends or relatives to turn to, so Dicey, the eldest (with some input from brainy, 10 year old James), decides their only option is to walk to Bridgeport, where their mother had been taking them, in search of an elderly aunt they've never met. Book One follows their journey; Book Two chronicles what happens after they arrive, only to find Aunt Cilla dead, and her daughter, cousin Eunice, not quite what they'd expected.

Interesting to read this while Littlehazel's class was doing a project on survival stories. We've read Island of the Blue Dolphins and Julie of the Wolves, but a tale of survival in a mostly contemporary setting (cheaper food and fewer restrictions on unaccompanied kids notwithstanding) is a whole 'nother kettle of fish. We're partway through the sequel, Dicey's Song, as I speak. An excellent parent-and-child or teacher-and-student read-aloud (or read-together).

The second YA book was Here's to You, Rachel Robinson, by Judy Blume (New York: Orchard Books, 1993) -- and OK, I can't blame this on my daughter; this one was just me. Like most girls of a certain age, I loved Judy Blume's books as a grade-schooler, and can't resist picking 'em up when I stumble on them now -- especially ones like this that were published long after I'd outgrown the genre. This is a sequel to Just as Long as We're Together, which Littlehazel owns, and which both of us have read. Here, though, the protagonist isn't Stephanie, but her gifted best friend Rachel, who, in seventh grade, has more than enough on her plate. Older brother Charles has been kicked out of boarding school and seems to delight in making the family's life hell. And frankly, between mom's pending judicial appointment, big sister Jessica's cystic-acne-and-prom troubles, and cousin Tarren's single parenthood, there's not much room for Rachel to be anything less than perfect. Stephanie and Allison, the new girl from Just as Long, seem to spend more time together and have more in common than Rachel does with either of them. And if that's not enough, her teachers and friends are pushing her to join yet more school activities, from natural helpers to class president to ... argh! It's enough to make you want to scream. In short, Blume does indeed still have it, writing for grade schoolers and tweens in a way that's realistic without being preachy.

No Impact Man

I think this one wins the "longest title yet" prize, and of course, is yet another addition to a growing list of books that aren't the classics. Oh well.

Also read No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process, by Colin Beavan (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2009). For those of you who somehow missed all the press, check Beavan's blog or this review. Liked this one more than I thought I would, probably because I was prepared for Beavan to come off as far more arrogant and self-righteous than he did.


OK, folks, welcome to Book Blog Lite. I've gotten more than a little behind in this not-so-noble endeavor, returned several of these books to the library already, and am madly trying to wrap things up before (whoohooh!) I start a new job next week. Sooo, these will be quick.

I read Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays, by Joel Waldfogel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) last week. Naturally, I love books like this that apply economic concepts to everyday, stuff-real-people-care-about behavior. Do I buy every last bit of Waldfogel's thesis? No. Do I think he's really a grinch who, given half the chance, would steal Christmas? Not really. Still an entertaining read, though, and a quick one to boot. Check Amazon or this review for more details, but I liked it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

When resolutions go south

It's always around this time in January that New Year's resolutions start to crumble, at least for me. And yes, I know it's only been two weeks. But they've been two VERY cold weeks, and ... well, enough with the excuses. Point is, despite all my lofty intentions of reading Good Literature this year (weellll, I never said I was going to be exclusive), what do I pick up? South of Broad, by Pat Conroy (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2009).

Jacket blurb: Against the sumptuous backdrop of Charleston, South Carolina, South of Broad gathers a unique cast of sinners and saints. Leopold Bloom King, our narrator, is the son of an amiable, loving father who teaches science at the local high school. His mother, an ex-nun, is the high school principal and a respected Joyce scholar. After Leo's older brother commits suicide at the age of ten, the family struggles with the shattering effects of his death, and Leo, lonely and isolated, searches for something to sustain him. Eventually, he finds his answer when he becomes part of a tightly knit group of high school seniors that includes friends Sheba and Trevor Poe, glamorous twins with an alcoholic mother and a prison-escapee father; hardscrabble mountain runaways Niles and Starla Whitehead; socialite Molly Huger and her boyfriend, Chadworth Rutledge X -- and an ever-widening circle whose liaisons will ripple across two decades, from 1960s counterculture through the dawn of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

The ties among them endure for years, surviving marriages happy and troubled, unrequited loves and unspoken longings, hard-won successes and devastating breakdowns, as well as Charleston's dark legacy of racism and class divisions. But the final test of friendship that brings them to San Francisco is something no one is prepared for."

End result? Conroy's another decent author I've enjoyed in the past (The Lords of Discipline, loosely based on the author's own years at The Citadel, is a favorite re-read of mine), this is his first new novel in more than a decade ... and while I wouldn't go so far as to say I was disappointed, I also wasn't overly impressed. The novel tells the story of a young Charleston boy/ man, from the start of his senior year in high school in 1969 up through Hurricane Hugo and its aftermath in 1989 (albeit not in linear fashion). Our narrator is named after the protagonist in James Joyce's Ulysses by his formidable mother, high school principal Lindsay King. We learn two things almost immediately: first, Leo (and quite probably Pat Conroy) is absolutely besotted with Charleston. OK, I've never been, so perhaps this is normal, but it seemed a bit over the top (though admittedly, after Lords of Discipline, not completely unfamiliar).

Second, and more significant to the novel's plot, is that Leo and his family have been, as the jacket indicates, utterly shattered by his brother's suicide. And understandably so; Steve (Stephen Dedalus King, of course) was a golden boy, a perfect brother and son, and only ten years old ... and it was Leo who found him, dead in the bathtub after somehow slitting his wrists and his throat. The "why" doesn't come out till the very end, though astute readers may have a good suspicion early on. When the story opens, it's been 9 years, and Leo's just now rebuilding some sort of life for himself, after several years in a mental hospital, followed by an arrest and probation (a star football player planted cocaine on him at a party, and Leo refused to name the guy). His principal-mother makes it abundantly clear he'll never make up for his crimes, though this may really just mean he'll never be Stephen. Nonetheless, she instructs him to take several newcomers to school under his wing: the aforementioned Poe twins, ethereal, non-Charlestonian creatures who've just moved in across the street; the Whiteheads, carted in each day from their orphanage; Chad and Molly, who transfer to Peninsula High after being kicked out of a ritzy private school for cocaine; and (curiously unmentioned on the dust jacket) Ike Jefferson, son of Peninsula's first black football coach and Leo's co-captain on the team.

With the jacket blurb and the above lead-in, it's not too surprising that this motley crew of (mostly) outsiders become fast friends, and remain so twenty years later. Not surprising, but also not especially believable -- and too overly dramatic. I've been putting off finishing this review for a while, so without further delay: worth a read on a slow day, but not especially memorable.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Last night, I finished my first book of 2010: Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. As I mentioned earlier, it took years to pull it down from the bookshelf, blow the dust off, and pack it away for my last sojourn in NH ... and now I know what the fuss was about.

Jacket blurb: "Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of 1967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret, and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic."

There are multi-generational family sagas, and immigrant sagas, stacked three-deep in every bookstore, but nonetheless, Middlesex stands alone. In large part, the credit goes to its narrator: Cal/ Calliope, born and raised as a girl by Greek-American parents in Detroit, but now, as the story begins, living as Cal, a 41-year-old male diplomat living in Berlin. Many reviews have quoted the memorable opening line: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974." We know from the first paragraph that Cal is a hermaphrodite, specifically, a "5-alpha-reductase pseudohermaphrodite."

What we don't know, and can't help being frantically curious to learn, is how Cal/ Calliope got from the first birth to the second to the 41-year-old self we meet on the first page. This odyssey is a long one, beginning on the slopes of Mt. Olympus almost 40 years before Calliope's birth. Here, siblings Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides find themselves with neither past nor future; their parents were killed in a recent war with the Turks, Desdemona's efforts to find Lefty a wife from the slim pickings in their village are unsuccessful, and the Greek army is in retreat from the Turks yet again. Posing as French nationals, they flee to Smyrna and board a ship to Detroit to join a married cousin. Once on board, they pretend they've never met, and are ultimately married by the ship's captain.

In the New World, no one save cousin Sourmelina knows they are brother and sister, and she has enough secrets of her own that Desdemona easily swears her to secrecy. Desdemona's famed silkworms don't make it past Ellis Island, so the pair enter the States with nothing, moving in with Lina and her American husband, bootlegger Jimmy Zizmo. Lefty works briefly on Ford's assembly line and in Jimmy's smuggling operation before opening his own speakeasy and later, with the end of Prohibition, legitimate, above-ground bar. Some years later, both couples conceive on the same night, and bear their children (Lina and Jimmy's daughter, Tessie, and Desdemona and Lefty's son, Milton) within weeks of each other.

Tessie and Milton, along with Milton's younger sister Zoe, grow up in the shadow of the Depression and World War II. Desdemona, sensing the growing attraction between Milton and Tessie, and afraid a cousin marriage will reveal her own secret, tries to find a suitable girl for Milton in Greektown, but is no more successful than she had been with Lefty back in Asia Minor. Despite Milton's stint in the Navy and Tessie's brief engagement to a promising young priest, the two fall in love and eventually marry, producing two children -- an older son, who our narrator calls only Chapter Eleven (in honor of his eventual effect on Lefty's chain of hot dog stands); and (so they think) a daughter, Calliope Helen.

The changes in the Stephanides family mirror those taking place around them in Detroit over the decades: some gradual, others seismic; some constructive, others foreboding. In the mid-1950s, as Chapter Eleven is born, Milton's Zebra Room and its neighborhood reflect the early signs of Detroit's decline. The success of the diner that takes its place allows Milt and Tessie to move to Indian Village, where the houses "had big yards, important walkways, picturesquely oxidizing cupolas, lawn jockeys (whose days were numbered), and burglar alarms (whose popularity was only just beginning). Fortunately, it's impressively large; unfortunately, Lefty, who's been pushed out of the restaurant biz, spends his days playing the numbers, until his savings are exhausted, and he and Desdemona forced to move into Tessie and Milton's attic. Later, Calliope's birth and the turn of the decade coincide with Lefty's first stroke, which leaves him still sharp, but speechless save a chalkboard. Seven years later, the diner goes up in smoke in the 1967 riots, and the insurance money allows the family to move again, this time, to the prestigious suburbs and private schools of Grosse Point.

Here, Callie finds herself isolated in more ways than one. Grosse Pointe, after all, is supposed to be a refuge for those white families fleeing Detroit and the spectre of busing; the Greek-American Stephanideses are far more ethnic than their average neighbors, and obtain their house only by paying cash. And in time, as her classmates begin to menstruate and develop breasts, Callie, too, grows ... different. As she explains,
"Beauty may always be a little bit freakish, but the year I turned thirteen I was becoming freakier than ever. Consider the yearbook. In the field hockey team photo, taken in the fall, I am on one knee in the front row. With my homeroom in the spring, I am stooping in the back. My face is shadowed with self-consciousness. (Over the years my perpetually perplexed expression would drive photographers to distraction. It ruined class photos and Christmas cards until, in the most widely published pictures of me, the problem was finally solved by blocking out my face altogether.)"
Gradually, but not altogether surprisingly, she embarks on a love affair ("wordless, blinkered, a nighttime thing, a dream thing") with her female best friend. However, even then, neither "the Object" nor Callie herself suspect anything unusual:
"Whatever it was that I was was best revealed slowly, in flattering light. Which meant not much light at all. Besides, that's the way it goes in adolescence. You try things out in the dark. You get drunk or stoned and extemporize. ...

"Through all this I made no lasting conclusions about myself. I know it's hard to believe, but that's the way it works. The mind self-edits. The mind airbrushes. It's a different thing to be inside a body than outside. From outside, you can look, inspect, compare. From inside there is no comparison. ...

"Why should I have thought I was anything other than a girl? Because I was attracted to a girl? That happened all the time. It was happening more than ever in 1974. It was becoming a national pastime. My ecstatic intuition about myself was now deeply suppressed. How long I would have managed to keep it down is anybody's guess. But in the end it wasn't up to me. The big things never are. Birth, I mean, and death. And love. And what love bequeaths to us before we're born."
Ultimately, of course, Calliope/ Cal's bequest is revealed, with startling implications for the remainder of her/ his journey into and through adulthood.

In addition to being eminently readable, with a compelling, unusual storyline and fascinating, multi-layered characters, Middlesex also offers considerable literary merit (just in case the Pulitzer doesn't convince you, but my own amateur bibliophile's $0.02 will). Eugenides' descriptions of the Stephanides' physical and emotional landscapes are at once subtle and vivid. Witness his description of Lefty's stint at Ford's River Rouge plant, which evokes not just an auto assembly line, but the the vast intricacy of Cal's genetic code:
"Every fourteen seconds Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O'Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. This camshaft travels away on a conveyor, curling around the factory, through its clouds of metal dust, its acid fogs, until another worker fifty yards on reaches up and removes the camshaft, fitting it onto the engine block (twenty seconds). Simultaneously, other men are unhooking parts from adjacent conveyors -- the carbuerator, the distributor, the intake manifold -- and connecting them to the engine block. Above their bent heads, hige spindles pound steam-powered fists. No one says a word. ... Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O'Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. While other workers screw in the air filter (seventeen seconds) and attach the starter motor (twenty-six seconds) and put on the flywheel. At which point the engine is fnished and the last man sends it soaring away ...

"Except that he isn't the last man. There are other men below hauling the engine in, as a chassis rolls out to meet it. ... My grandfather sees only the bearing in front of him, his hands removing it, grinding it, and putting it back as another appears. The conveyor over his head extends back to the men who stamp out the bearings and load ingots into the furnaces; it goes back to the Foundry where the Negroes work, goggled against the infernal light and heat. ... The Foundry is the deepest recess of the Rouge, but the Line goes back farther than that. It extends outside to the hills of coal and cokel it goes to the river where the freighters dock to unload the ore, at which point the Line becomes the river itself, snaking up to the north woods until it reaches its source, which is the earth itself, the limestone and sandstone therein; and then the line leads back again, out of substrata to river to freighters and finally to the cranes, shovels, and furnaces where it is turned into molten steel and poured into molds, cooling and hardening into car parts -- the gears, drive shafts, and fuel tanks of 1922 Model T's. Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O'Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. ... The Line isn't a single line but many, diverging and intersecting."
The novel is replete with unanswered questions, not just about gender, but about the very notion of dichotomy. Among these is whether it's our genes or our environments that shape our family histories and our selves. As Cal offers, reflecting on the night of his parents' conception, "Parents are supposed to pass down physical traits to their children, but it's my belief that all sorts of other things get passed down, too: motifs, scenarios, even fates." Later, he returns to this theme in more detail, describing the rare events of his own beginnings:
"The bedroom grows still. Inside my mother, a billion sperm swim upstream, males in the lead. They carry not only instructions about eye color, height, nose shape, enzyme production, microphage resistance, but a story, too. Against a black background they swim, a long white silken thread spinning itself out. The thread begins on a day two hundred and fifty years ago, when the biology gods, for their own amusement, monkeyed with a gene on a baby's fifth chromosome. That baby passed the mutation on to her son, who passed it on to his two daughters, who passed it on to three of their children (my great-great-greats, etc.), until it finally ended up in the bodies of my grandparents. Hitching a ride, the gene descended a mountain and left a village behind. It got trapped in a burning city and escaped, speaking bad French. Crossing the ocean, it faked a romance, circled a ship's deck, and made love in a lifeboat. It had its braids cut off. It took a train to Detroit and moved into a house on Hurlbut; it consulted dream books and opened and underground speakeasy; it got a job at Temple No. 1 ... And then the gene moved on again, into new bodies ... It joined the Boy Scouts and painted its toenails red; it played 'Begin the Beguine' out the back window; it went off to war and stayed at home, watching newsreels; it took an entrance exam; posed like the movie magazines; received a death sentence and made a deal with St. Christopher; it dated a future priest and broke off an engagement; it was saved by a bosun's chair ... always moving ahead, rushing along, only a few more curves left in the track now, Annapolis and a submarine chaser ... until the biology gods knew this was their time, this was what they'd been waiting for, and as a spoon swung and a yia yia worried, my destiny fell into place ... On March 20, 1954, Chapter Eleven arrived and the biology gods shook their heads, nope, sorry ... But there was still time, everything was in place, the roller coaster was in free fall and there was no stopping it now, my father was seeing visions of little girls and my mother was praying to a Christ Pantocrator she didn't entirely believe in until finally -- right this minute! -- on Greek Easter, 1959, it's about to happen. The gene is about to meet its twin."
Cal also grapples with questions of agency; are we shaped entirely by our genes and our histories, or can we write our own stories? At first glance, the book leans toward the former. Cal remembers, as the adolescent Calliope, dreaming "the most futile human dream of all, the dream of writing a book worthy of joining their number, a one hundred and sixteenth Great Book with another long Greek name on the cover: Stephanides. That was when I was young and full of grand dreams. Now I've given up any hope of lasting fame or literary perfection. I don't care if I write a great book anymore, but just one which, whatever its flaws, will leave a record of my impossible life." Earlier in the text, we've already seen Desdemona's world shifting out of focus during World War II, and Milton's character forged by his early 1950s naval service. However, Cal does acknowledge that, beginning with Calliope's birth, she (later, he) does indeed play some part in shaping the world:
"I've never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I've entered my story, I need them more than ever. I can't just sit back and watch from a distance anymore. From here on in, everything I'll tell you is colored by the subjective experience of being part of events. Here's where my story splits, divides, undergoes meiosis. Already the world feels heavier, now I'm a part of it. I'm talking about bandages and sopped cotton, the smell of mildew in movie theaters, and of all the lousy cats and their stinking litter boxes, of rain on city streets when the dust comes up and the old Italian men take their folding chairs inside. Up until now it hasn't been my world. Not my America. But here we are, at last."
In the second-to-last chapter, Cal describes an other-worldly, unsettling, yet lovely phenomenon allegedly common to 1970s Detroit -- pink nights:
"They happened every so often, depending on temperature and the level of chemicals in the air. When particulate matter in the atmosphere was sufficient, light from the ground got trapped and reflected back, and the entire Detroit sky would become the soft pink of cotton candy. It never got dark on pink nights, but the light was nothing like daytime. Our pink nights glowed with the raw luminescence of the night shift, of factories running around the clock. Sometimes the sky would become as bright as Pepto-Bismol, but more often it was a muted, a fabric-softener color. Nobody thought it was strange. Nobody said anything about it. We had all grown up with pink nights. They were not a natural phenomenon, but they were natural to us."
Unnatural, even disturbing, but also utterly compelling, a rare gem. Much like our narrator, or Middlesex itself.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Of Booklists and Resolutions

For all my (ahem) legions of followers out there in cyberland, I've reached a milestone. Cafe Hazelthyme is now a year old.

I started this blog last January, in an attempt to track the books I read over the course of the year. Yes, partly I wanted to see just how many I did read (hence, the 100-book challenge), but I also wanted to see if I could break the speed reader's curse: yes, I read pretty darned quickly, but sometimes at the price of not really having time to digest or reflect on what I've read. Now, I read most of my books with a little notebook beside me, jotting down quotes and questions and page numbers. It may go a little slower, but it's also more satisfying -- almost like the literary equivalent of a carefully home-cooked meal vs. fast food on the Mass Pike.

That's not to say I don't still crave the latter now and then. OK, I'm not a McD's fan, but the Thyme Family treated ourselves to some Chinese take-out last night (a rare thing, since I've been job hunting), and man, did that hit the spot. Likewise, while I'm finally getting around to Middlesex, and regretting that I waited so long (I've owned a secondhand copy for sheesh, who knows how many years), my predilection for french fries is reflected in my current stack o' library books waiting in the wings:
  • The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon (1989). I was underwhelmed by The Yiddish Policeman's Union despite all the rave reviews, and want to give the author a second chance.
  • When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson (2008). Seem to recall hearing about this one or reading a review somewhere, sometime, but really, it's just a plain old mystery that caught my eye.
  • Homer and Langley, by E.L. Doctorow (2009). One of my usual, highly-acclaimed, by-a-respected-author, guess-I'll-check-it-out picks.
  • South of Broad, by Pat Conroy (2009). OK, you caught me. Some people have a weakness for chocolate ... oh, wait; I do that, too.
  • The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss (2005). Again, caught my eye for some reason (pretty cover? tasty title? who knows?). I seem to recall checking this one out and not reading it before; perhaps this time will be different.
  • How to Buy a Love of Reading, by Tanya Egan Gibson (2006). How can I not read a book with this title whose protagonist is a priviledged but lonely Long Island teenager? Plus, I gave it to a favorite former boss and colleague who retired last year, and would like to find out eventually if it's any good.
  • Quiet Mind: A Beginner's Guide to Meditation, edited by Susan Piver (2008). Expanding and deepening my spiritual knowledge is a perpetual New Year's resolution of mine.
  • Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, by Henri J.M. Nouwen (2009). See above, progressive Christian edition.
  • The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure, by Catherine Blyth (2009). Self-help, or cultural study? Hmm ...
  • No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life, by Colin Beavan (2009). While I'm not willing to forego toilet paper, at least I borrowed this from the libe rather than buying my own copy and killing another tree. I read the Times articles online, too.
  • Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, by Ayelet Waldman (2009). Ever since Littlehazel really was little, I've been a sucker for books that deconstruct the uber-mom, opt-out, hardest-job-in-the-world phenomenon. Besides, I liked the husband-and-wife symmetry here (Waldman is married to Michael Chabon).
These are all due back in 2 weeks and most can't be renewed, so will I get through 'em all? Probably not (and yes, recommendations are welcome).

But enough of that. Even though none of 'em are in the bull pen as of yet, my goal this year isn't quantity, but quality. How often do you come across a classic novel (in something else you're reading, in conversation) and said to yourself, "Oh, I always wanted to read that," or "I always thought I should read that"? For me, it happens a lot, so I did a little research and found the following lists of (in someone's estimation) great books online:
  • The Modern Library/ Random House list of the 100 greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, originally published in 1998. The link actually contains 3 separate lists: the MLA board's picks, the MLA readers'/ voters' picks, and the Radcliffe Publishing Company's rival 100-best list.
  • The online Great Books Guide's list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. Subjective, yes, but includes many reasonable picks that didn't make the MLA list due to their elder-statesman status ... and gave me more things to chew on, too.
Thus armed, I indulged my inner geek and (blushing) made a spreadsheet to try and make some sense out of all the recommendations. I'll spare you the super-nerdy details, but ended up with the following list of books that appeared on all 4 lists, and which I want to read this year. (The purple titles are ones I remember reading at some point, but it's been a while.)
  • Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
  • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
  • As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
  • Light in August, by William Faulkner
  • The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Ulysses, by James Joyce
  • On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
  • 1984, by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm, by George Orwell
  • The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
  • The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
  • Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
  • To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
And then there were the following, which made 3 of the 4:
  • A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather
  • Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad
  • Absalom, Absalom, by William Faulkner
  • The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles
  • The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
  • Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, Joseph
  • A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
  • The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
  • Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
  • Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
  • Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Lastly, there were these authors who may not have had any one novel on 3 or 4 lists, but either had multiple works mentioned, or one work mentioned at least twice. In some cases, I've read at least one of their books, but it's been a while; in some cases, I haven't read them at all. Even though I suspect the first 2 and a handful of others, which appeared multiple times on the voter's choice list but nowhere else, were the result of some serious ballot-stuffing, I'm still curious:
  • Charles de Lint
  • Robert Heinlein
  • E.M. Forster
  • D.H. Lawrence
  • Ayn Rand
  • Charles Dickens
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Sinclair Lewis
  • Toni Morrison
  • Leo Tolstoy
  • Edith Wharton
  • Saul Bellow
  • Theodore Dreiser
  • Thomas Hardy
  • L. Ron Hubbard
  • John Irving
  • V.S. Naipaul
  • Thomas Pynchon
  • Nathaniel West
  • Jane Austen
  • James Baldwin
  • Douglas Adams
  • Paul Bowles
  • Ray Bradbury
  • William S. Burroughs
  • Truman Capote
  • Robertson Davies
  • George Eliot
  • Ford Madox Ford
  • Robert Graves
  • Graham Greene
  • Dashiell Hammett
  • Herbert, Frank
  • Stephen King
  • Harper Lee
  • Malcolm Lowry
  • Norman Mailer
  • Thomas Mann
  • W. Somerset Maugham
  • Flannery O'Connor
  • Walker Percy
  • Jean Rhys
  • Stendahl
  • William Styron
  • J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Robert Penn Warren
  • Richard Wright
Given that I know these won't be the only things I read ('cause now and then, I just plain like my trash), I think I've got my work cut out for me.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

128 - The Help

Let the mighty trumpets sound. My grand total of books read in 2009 was ... 128.

I capped off the year with Kathryn Stockett's The Help (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009). For those who've missed the hype, this debut novel set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s tackles the complicated, often contradictory relationships between upper middle class white women and their black maids. Explains the dust jacket:

"Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step. ...

"Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

"Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

"Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

"Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed."

The clandestine project, Skeeter's brainchild, is a book of interviews with black women, reflecting on their experiences as white women's maids in their own words. Sure, it sounds like a great way to establish herself as a writer, and it certainly has more "punch" than the "flat, passionless subjects [such] as drunk driving and illiteracy" she initially considers. The trouble is, this is Mississippi in 1962, and her proposed subjects aren't exactly lining up at the door to be interviewed. As New York editor and one-time Atlantan Elaine Stein advises Skeeter,
"'It's certainly ... original, but it won't work. What maid in her right mind would ever tell you the truth? ... [T]his Negro actually agreed to talk to you candidly? About working for a white family? Because that seems like a hell of a risk in a place like Jackson, Mississippi. ... I watched them try to integrate your bus station on the news,' Missus Stein continued. 'They jammed fifty-three Negroes in a jail cell built for four. ... [Y]ou reall think other maids will talk to you? What if the employers find out? ... A little dangerous?' She laughed. 'The marches in Birmingham, Martin Luther King. Dogs attacking colored children. Darling, it's the hottest topic in the nation. But, I'm sorry, this will never work.'"
Naturally, Skeeter decides to give it a go anyway. After all, the only other vaguely journalistic gig she can get is ghost-writing Miss Myrna's Hints from Heloise-like column in her local newspaper. (The irony isn't lost on Skeeter's mother, who despairs of Skeeter ever finding a husband and home of her own, or on Skeeter herself, who's never cleaned house and has to not-so-secretly ask her friend Elizabeth's maid Aibileen to help her with most of the questions.) Not surprisingly, especially if you've read the dust jacket, Aibileen and, ultimately, Minny, eventually throw caution to the winds and get on board.

The book is narrated alternately by these three women, and frankly, Skeeter's story struck me as the least compelling of the lot. The first chapter is Aibileen's, and she establishes herself from the start as both a wise, verging-on-stereotypical, old family retainer and someone who's got far more going on beneath the surface than she lets on:
"Taking care a white babies, that's what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.

"But I ain't never seen a baby yell like Mae Mobley Leefolt. First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic, fighting that bottle like it's a rotten turnip. Miss Leefolt, she look terrified a her own child. 'What am I doing wrong? Why can't I stop it?'

"It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation.

"So I took that pink, screaming baby in my arms. Bounced her on my hip to get the gas moving and it didn't take two minutes fore Baby Girl stopped her crying, got to smiling up at me like she do. But Miss Leefolt, she don't pick up her own baby for the rest a the day. I seen plenty a womens get the baby blues after they done birthing. I reckon I thought that's what it was."
Just what's beneath the surface comes out gradually, in this and subsequent chapters. As the dust jacket indicates, her only child, Treelore, was killed in a work accident -- and it's suggested, though never stated outright, that if he'd been white, he might have received better care and lived. Aibileen also writes, rather than speaks, her prayers every night, and has somewhat of a reputation for prayers that work. As Minny tells it,
"'Rumor is you got some kind a power prayer, gets better results than just the regular variety. ... Eudora Green, when she broke her hip, went on your list, up walking in a week. Isaiah fell off the cotton truck, on your prayer list that night, back to work the next day. ... Lolly Jackson -- heck, Lolly go on your list and two days later she pop up from her wheelchair like she touched Jesus. Everybody in Hinds County know about that one. ... Bertrina, she good friends with Cocoa. She know your prayer works. ... They just think you got a better connection than most. We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear.'"
And then there's Minny, who, as the book begins, gets fired yet again by her employer's daughter (and one of Skeeter's best friends), Hilly. OK, technically, she's "let go" because Hilly is moving her mother into a nursing home, with only a week's notice ... but after a farewell incident involving a "Terrible Awful Thing" and a pie (we don't get the details till the very end, but my initial suspicions were confirmed), Hilly tells everyone in town that Minny is a thief (she isn't), and -- surprise, surprise -- no one will hire her. No one, that is, except Miss Celia Rae Foote, fresh off the turnip truck from Sugar Ditch (which Minny describes as "as low as you can go in Mississippi, maybe the whole United States"), married to Hilly's one-time boyfriend Johnny, and now shunned by everyone in the Jackson Ladies' League. Celia's never hired a maid before, and doesn't quite know How It's Done. She insists on paying twice Missus Walter's wages, has to be prompted to set Minny's hours ... and oddest of all, doesn't want to tell Johnny that she's hired a maid. Minny takes the job anyway, but she can't help wondering just what's up with her new employer:
"Every day, Miss Celia looks like she just can't believe I've come back to work. I'm the only thing that interrupts all that quiet around her. ... Miss Celia never does any entertaining, so we just fix whatever she and Mister Johnny are having for supper ... When the lesson's over, she rushes back to laying down. In fact, the only time Miss Celia walks ten feet is to come in the kitchen for her lesson or to sneak upstairs every two or three days, up in the creepy rooms.

"I don't know what she does for five minutes on the second floor. I don't like it up there though. Those bedrooms should be stacked full of kids laughing and hollering and pooping up the place. But it's none of my business what Miss Celia does with her day, and ask me, I'm glad she's staying out of my way. I've followed ladies around with a broom in one hand and a trash can in the other trying to keep up with their mess. As long as she stays in that bed, then I've got a job. Even though she has zero kids and nothing to do all day, she is the laziest woman I've ever seen. ...

"And it's not just the bed. Miss Celia won't leave the house except to get her hair frosted and her ends trimmed. So far, that's only happened once in the three weeks I've been working. Thirty-six years old and I can still hear my mama telling me, It ain't nobody's business. But I want to know what that lady's so scared of outside this place."
Against this backdrop, Hilly (who, frankly, is Evil ... if a better mother than the hapless, easily suggestible Elizabeth) puts forth her Home Help Sanitation Initiative, a proposed law to require every white home to have a separate bathroom for it's domestic employees. A member of Aibileen and Minny's church is badly beaten for mistakenly using the white folks' restroom. Yes, this is a world where white people think nothing of letting black maids raise their children, but wouldn't dream of sharing their bathrooms. Explains Hilly, "'It's just plain dangerous. Everybody knows they carry different kinds of diseases than we do.'"

Most of the plot lines are ones you'd see coming quite a ways off: Will Skeeter's book be a success? What will become of her romance with Stuart Whitworth, cousin to Hilly's husband, and son of a pro-segregation senator? Why on earth is she still keeping company with Hilly and Elizabeth, anyway? Will Minny (or anyone else) ever find out what Celia's deep, dark secret is? And what sort of disaster waits if the secret book project ever leaks out? All in all, though, it's an entertaining (if somewhat predictable) vacation read.