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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

#26 - The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery (trans. Alison Anderson) (New York: Europa Editions, 2008), has been on my list for a while; I was excited to stumble across it in the library without looking too hard.

Summary: "The enthralling international bestseller. We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renee, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly, she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet unbeknownst to her employers, Renee is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence, she scrutinizes the lives of the building's tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence. Then there's Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parlimentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter. Paloma and Renee hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma's trust and to see through Renee's timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us."

Opening Line: "'Marx has completely changed the way I view the world,' declared the Pallieres boy this morning, although ordinarily he says nary a word to me."

My take: A bit slow in the beginning, but ultimately a beautiful, rewarding story that's well worth the initial chapters.

The slow start may be partially me; in most cases, I have a hard time getting into stories whose narrators are so certain of their own superiority. What won me over here, though, is that both Renee's and Paloma's intelligence comes at a high price: namely, alienation. Renee's ongoing efforts to convince the residents of her building that she's a typically dull concierge are pretty funny, though I wasn't quite sure why it was so imperative that they be kept in the dark. Paloma's secret is more compelling, and often left me feeling like I wanted her to get more page time (the majority of which is Renee's). She's convinced that life is absurd and meaningless, and thus plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday -- swallowing the pills she's already begun stockpiling, and then burning the building down around her for good measure.

The other thing that makes Renee and Paloma seem sympathetic rather than just arrogant is that those around them are really impossibly thick. Paloma's mother blathers endlessly about Freud, her father about politics, and her sister Colombe (herself an outstanding, if not very creative, student) scarcely talks to Paloma at all. With a family like this, I might think the future looked pretty bleak, too. Renee has at least one friend in Manuela, a Portuguese woman who works as a housekeeper in her building ... but it's not she unthinkingly quotes Anna Karenina that Ozu (also a Tolstoy aficionado) begins to think she's not quite what she seems.

Oddly, not much actually happens in the novel. In its latter portions, Renee and Paloma's growing friendships with Ozu and one another do manage to crack their worldviews open, with life-changing repercussions for both ... but I'd be hard-pressed to describe the plot, other than offering the old trope about "a stranger comes to town." For the most part, the story is a vehicle for the protagonists' reflections on life, beauty, friendship, and love -- not usually the kind of thing I enjoy (I want a real plot and characters, darn it!), but it works here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

#25 - The Girls from Ames

This time, I needed something a little more substantial than Johnny Bunko, but less bleak than Knockemstiff. Enter The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship, by Jeffrey Zaslow (New York: Gotham Books, 2009).

Summary: "Meet the Ames Girls: eleven childhood friends who formed a special bond growing up in Ames, Iowa. As young women, they moved to eight different states, yet managed to maintain an enduring friendship that would carry them through college and careers, marriage and motherhood, dating and divorce, a child's illness, and the mysterious death of one member of their group. Capturing their remarkable story, The Girls from Ames is a testament to the deep bonds of women as they experience life's joys and challenges -- and the power of friendship to triumph over heartbreak and unexpected tragedy.

"The girls, now in their forties, have a lifetime of memories in common, some evocative of their generation and some that will resonate with any woman who has ever had a friend. Photography by photograph, recollection by recollection, occasionally with tears and often with great laughter, their sweeping and moving story is shared by Jeffrey Zaslow, Wall Street Journal columnist, as he attempts to define the matchless bonds of female friendship. It demonstrates how close female relationships can shape every aspect of women's lives -- their sense of themselves, their choice of men, their need for validation, their relationships with their mothers, their dreams for their daughters -- and reveals how such friendships thrive, rewarding those who have committed to them."

Opening line: "At first, they were just names to me. Karla, Kelly, Marilyn, Jane, Jenny. Karen, Cathy, Angela, Sally, Diana. Sheila."

My take: Worth reading from a human-interest perspective, but I'm not sure what (if anything) the take-away message is. The Girls from Ames follows eleven women, now forty-something, who met as children in Ames, Iowa (some literally as infants, none later than middle school) and have remained friends until this day. One of their number died a somewhat mysterious death in her early 20s; among the 10 survivors, they've grappled with divorce, cancer, and the death of a child.

This tries to be a feel-good book, and mostly it succeeds. For the entire group to maintain this friendship for so many years, despite living in far-flung locales, is indeed impressive. On the other hand, if Zaslow's contention that women really need to forge these friendships by the time they finish high school is accurate, it's not so hopeful for those who don't have a similar network in place by the time they graduate. Not altogether convincing, either (unless that's just my own wishful thinking -- to this day, my own closest friends are those I met during my college days).

In short, if the jacket flap sounds interesting, you'll probably like the book; if it doesn't, you probably won't. WYSIWYG.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

#24 - The Adventures of Johnny Bunko

And now, for something completely different: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need, a graphic (read: manga) book by Daniel H. Pink (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008).

Summary: "Meet Johnny Bunko. He's probably a lot like you. He did what everybody -- parents, teachers, counselors -- told him to do. But now, stuck at a dead-end job, he's begun to suspect that what he thought he knew is just plain wrong. One bizarre night, Johnny meets Diana, the unlikeliest career advisor he's ever seen. Part Cameron Diaz, part Barbara Eden, she reveals to Johnny the six essential lessons for thriving in the world of work."

My take: A quick, entertaining read -- I think I knocked it off in half an hour -- and a good conversation-starter, but calling it "the last career guide you'll ever need" is overreaching a bit.

When we first meet Johnny, he's a stressed-out, not particularly talented accounting drone at the Boggs Corporation. Imagine his surprise when, after picking up take-out from a nearby noodle stand for yet another late night at work, he snaps his chopsticks apart and BLAM! Suddenly, there's a mysterious sprite who calls herself Diana hovering before his eyes. She promises to tell him the secrets of succeeding in the world of work, but there's a catch: he only has six pairs of chopsticks, and once he's used them up, she's done. For each set of chopsticks and each apparition, she reveals one lesson:
  1. There is no plan. As Diana explains,

    1. "You can't sit there at age 21 -- or even 31 or 41 or 51 -- and map it all out. You may think that X will lead to Y, and Y will lead to Z ... but it never works that way. ... Life isn't an algebra problem. Well, actually, it's like an algebra problem painted by Salvador Dali. X might lead to W and W might lead to the color blue. And the color blue might lead to a chicken quesadilla. ... It's nice to believe that you can map out every step ahead of time and end up where you want. But that's a fantasy. The world changes. Ten years from now, your job might be in India. Your industry might not even exist. And you'll change, too. You might discover a hidden talent. You might fall in love and move to Tahiti. ... You need to make smart choices. But you can make career decisions for two different types of reasons. You can do something for instrumental reasons -- because you think it's going to lead to something else, regardless of whether you enjoy it or it's worthwhile ... or you can do something for fundamental reasons -- because you think it's inherently valuable, regardless of what it may or may not lead to. The dirty little secret is that instrumental reasons usually don't work. Things are too complicated, too unpredictable. You never know what's going to happen. So you end up stuck. The most successful people -- not all of the time, but most of the time -- make decisions for fundamental reasons. ... They're not fools. They're enlightened pragmatists."

  2. Think strengths, not weaknesses. "The key to success is to steer around your weaknesses and focus on your strengths. Successful people don't try too hard to improve what they're bad at. They capitalize on what they're good at."
  3. It's not about you. "It's about your customer. It's about your client. Use your strengths, yes, but remember ... you're here to serve -- not to self-actualize. ... Of course you matter. But the most successful people improve their own lives by improving others' lives. They help their customer solve its problem. They give their client something it didn't know it was missing. That's where they focus their energy, talent, and brainpower. Outward, not inward."
  4. Persistence trumps talent. "What's the most powerful force in the universe? ... Compound interest. ... It builds on itself. Over time, a small amount of money becomes a large amount of money. Persistence is similar. A little bit improves performance, which encourages greater persistence, which improves performance even more. And on and on it goes. Lack of persistence works the same way -- only in the opposite direction. ... The world is littered with talented people who didn't persist, who didn't put in the hours, who gave up too early, who thought they could ride on talent alone. Meanwhile, people who might have less talent pass them by. ... That's why intrinsic motivation is so important. ... The more intrinsic motivation you have, the more likely you are to persist. The more you persist, the more likely you are to succeed."
  5. Make excellent mistakes. "Too many people spend their time avoiding mistakes. They're so concerned about being wrong, about messing up, that they never try anything -- which means they never do anything. Their focus is avoiding failure, but that's actually a crummy way to achieve success. The most successful people make spectacular mistakes -- huge, honking screwups. Why? They're trying to do something big. But each time they make a little mistake, they get a little better and move a little closer to excellence."
  6. Leave an imprint. "Those other five lessons are crucial. But truly successful people deploy them in the service of something larger than themselves. They leave their companies, their communities, their families a little better than before. This isn't just career advice, buys. In some ways, this is what it means to be alive."
Over the next few weeks, as Johnny heeds Diana's advice, he finds himself on special assignment to the marketing department, and then tasked with coming up with a fundamentally new concept for Bogg's newest client, a shoe company.

Though I didn't exactly find it life-changing, I did enjoy the book -- and to its credit, the manga format does make it considerably quicker and less pretentious than many of the "how to succeed in business" fad books du jour that I've encountered. I'll be interested to see if this one takes off in a big way.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

#23 - Knockemstiff

#23 - Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock (New York: Doubleday, 2008).

Opening line: "My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old."

Summary: "Spanning a period from the mid-sixties to the late nineties, the linked stories that compose Knockemstiff feature a cast of recurring characters who are woebegone, baffled, and depraved -- but irresistably, undeniably real. Rendered in the American vernacular with vivid imagery and a wry, dark sense of humor, these thwarted and sometimes violent lives jump off the page at the reader with inexorable force. A father pumps his son full of steroids so he can vicariously relive his days as a perpetual runner-up bodybuilder. A psychotic rural recluse comes upon two siblings committing incest and feels compelled to take action. Donald Ray Pollock presents his characters and the sordid goings-on with a stern intelligence, a bracing absence of value judgments, and a refreshingly dark sense of bottom-dog humor."

My take: Whew. The blurb on the jacket says Pollock grew up in the real Knockemstiff, Ohio, and in his afterword, he describes his neighbors as the kindest, most caring people he's ever met (or some such). Well, it didn't show in the book. By about the fifth story, I'd lost track of how many people were assaulted, drunk, strung out on Oxycontin, engaged in coercive sexual activity, and so on. The writing is brilliant, and with a relatively short book of even shorter stories, it should be a quick read -- except that I found it so damned depressing I couldn't take more than a chapter or two at a time. Pollock's vision of rural, Midwestern Americana is one of almost-unrelieved bleakness. Without exception, every character is hopeless, strung out on drugs and/or alcohol, and just plain trapped. This New York Times review gives a more detailed overview, but for the moment, I'm off to read something a little less dismal.

#22 - The Boy Next Door

My 21st book of the year was The Boy Next Door, by Irene Sabatini (New York: Little, Brown, & Co., 2009).

Opening sentence: "Two days after I turned fourteen the son of our neighbor set his stepmother alight."

Summary: "In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the son of Lindiwe Bishop's white neighbor, seventeen-year-old Ian McKenzie, is arrested for a terrible crime. A year later Ian returns home, the charges against him dropped. He is brash and boisterous, full of charm and swagger, and fascinating to fifteen-year-old Lindiwe. She accepts a ride from him one day, despite her mother's warnings, and something grows between then -- becoming stronger and stronger in a world that wants nothing more than to divide them. A secret that Lindiwe keeps hidden, and which Ian discovers years later, ensures that their lives will be irrevocably entwined as their country crumbles around them."

My take: Similar to Commencement, my last read, in two respects: first, both were the first novels of female authors; and second, both have vivid, interesting settings that are at least as important as the characters and plot. The novel opens in early 1980 in newly-independent Zimbabwe, shortly before the election of Robert Mugabe as president. Lindiwe, a sheltered, bookish 14 year old, has just moved with her parents to the formerly whites-only Baysview neighborhood of Bulawayo when something awful happens next door. Although Lindiwe hears only snippets of conversation between her father and the new chief constable, it's enough to make the crime haunt her for years:
"'This is a very sad business we have come about. We ... We are looking for evidence ... We have thoroughly investigated the McKenzie property, and now we are checking all the neighboring land. We would like to take a look by the perimeters. ... He was smelling heavily of smoke, Mr. Bishop, shaking nonstop, you could think he was suffering from heavy-duty malaria. We have never had any problems from that place before. It seems the boy has only just come from South Africa for his father's funeral. ... It was very bad, very bad over there ... The youngster, only seventeen, came into the station, gave himself up. And you are quite sure you have never seen this boy before? ... We found the remains at the back of the house by the boy's kaya. Eighty or so percent of the body burnt, just bone left in some parts. ... But, madoda, this is a strange case. There is another woman also; the young man brought her first to the hospital before he came to us. ... It is not at all sure she will survive ... And we do not know the precise identity of this woman. We are not sure of her age, if she is even local. ... He will not talk about her, nothing. Tsh, he will have enough time to think about all this in the stocks.'"
A month later, as Lindiwe settles into her new, former whites-only, Group A school, and is befriended by British-born newcomer Bridgette, Ian is convicted of his stepmother's murder, and sent to jail. However, a year later, his conviction is overturned, and he returns to Bulawayo. Defying her mother's explicit prohibitions, Lindiwe begins allowing Ian to drive her to and from school, and a closeness grows between the two:
"The fourth time was when it really began. ... This time I noticed things about him: how his hair was cut so short it looked as if he had meant to shave it and then changed his mind at the very last minute, how his hands were bruised. ... It was only later, lying on my bed, that it came to me -- not once sitting there with him did I think of him as the boy who might have done that terrible thing. Not once."
Months later, she confesses,
"Day after day, I keep opening my diary; the pages all flick past, empty. I try to write things, like how I started off in March, when I was so excited about finally having my own diary. Things about what had happened in school or at youth group. But I've stopped writing because what I want to write now is too big to be safe in there, even if I do have a lock and key. So I just put X's, my secret secret."
Fast-forward ten years, to the early 1990s. Lindiwe, a university student in Harare, has taken up with an older crowd of French expats, her 45-year-old lover Jean among them. Ian, a photographer, is back from an extended stint living and working in South Africa. The pair take off on a spontaneous trip to Nyanga National Park, during which Ian inadvertently stumbles across Lindiwe's secret. Their relationship, to put it bluntly, is forever changed.

We follow Lindiwe and Ian through the end of the 2oth century, as they struggle with challenges great (Zimbabwe crumbles under the increasingly mismanaged and repressive Mugabe regime; Ian's photos garner the mixed blessing of presidential attention) and small (living as a mixed-race couple in a polarized society; Lindiwe's father withers away in the wake of a stroke and his wife's condemnation; Bridgette contracts AIDS).

The story is an interesting one, if a bit confusing at times. It can't quite decide whether it's primarily an historical novel or a tale of love and friendship, which isn't altogether bad -- but I did sometimes find myself wanting more of one or the other. The larger political and social events are pretty much always there in the background, but are mostly alluded to rather than explained outright. This makes sense, given that the narrator is a native Zimbabwean, and I have seen many a story weakened by too much background ... but was still occasionally perplexing for those of us less familiar with the subject matter. On the other hand, although Lindiwe is our narrator, she doesn't tell us everything about her experiences and motivations. The effect is similar to how a real-life friendship develops; you learn bits and pieces of who the person is and what their life has been over time, but sometimes, even after you think you know each other, your friend still surprises you.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

#21 - Commencement

Got my groove back, in terms of quantity if not quality. Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) is just the kind of touchy-feely, girl book I enjoy, even if I feel vaguely guilty about it sometimes. (Once a Catholic....)

Summary (from Library Journal Review): "Graduating from college and moving into the 'real world' is a rite of passage for many people. For Celia, Bree, April, and Sally, it's bittersweet to leave the confines of Smith College, where they all met. As first years, they bonded not only because they were new but because they lived together in the worst rooms in King House, third-floor maids' quarters. Celia's a Catholic schoolgirl, April an angry young feminist, and Bree the Southern belle who is already engaged, while Sally has just lost her mother to cancer. Despite these differences, they become best friends, and what they share at Smith carries them into their later lives-even as they go on to very different realities. Sullivan's first novel is a coming-of-age tale of young women in contemporary society where some of the battles of the women's movement have been won-but not all. The characters still face issues about sexuality, equality, and cultural expectations, and Sullivan's intriguing treatment partly refreshes the novel's familiar concept. For fans of contemporary women's fiction."

Fans of contemporary women's fiction. A dressed-up translation of "chick lit," perhaps, but yeah, I guess that's me. The story opens a few years after graduation, as the four former dorm-mates reconvene at Smith for Sally's wedding. As we'd expect, we then move backward in each character's memory to their freshman-year meeting and their college years together, and eventually forward, to how their lives continue to unfold after the wedding. Celia comes to Smith from a large, close-knit Massachusetts Irish-Catholic family, and finds herself gun-shy around men after a blind date with a Dartmouth guy goes horribly wrong. Homecoming queen Bree, despite a long-distance fiance, finds herself falling suddenly, passionately in love with Lara, who she can never bring home to her traditional Southern family. Sally is the consummate poor little rich girl, with a dead mother and remote father, whose impeccable study habits lead (albeit indirectly) to an affair with a brooding-but-romantic poetry professor. And then there's April, penniless daughter of a neo-hippie/ radical single mom, who's never really had friends or even a childhood before now.

Commencement isn't perfect. Of the four main characters' story lines, only Bree's really seemed gripping. Celia's and Sally's were both familiar and believable, but underdeveloped, and April's just seemed a bit preposterous. Sullivan also drops a few references to Celia's heavy drinking, but never goes anywhere with it, which left me wishing she'd either followed the thread through or just not shown us the gun in the first place.

To its credit, though, the novel does do a first-rate job at capturing the intense, intoxicating nature of college friendships. Says New York Times reviewer Maria Russo,
"[T]he real power of a women’s college has little to do with what goes on in the classroom. This affable first novel about four friends who bond during their first week at Smith unfolds mainly in dorm rooms, dining halls, the Quad — anywhere the girls can freely inhabit the passion that is the central fact of their college years and that stays charged-up into their 20s. At Smith, the days and nights are filled with lounging, eating, crying and getting drunk, all while the women constantly analyze one another’s families and romantic partners. Studying is occasionally in the mix. ...

"Sullivan’s characters are often motivated by urges that are taboo to admit in certain quarters: getting love and nurture from men, or staying protected in a cocoon of female friendship rather than confronting the larger world. She’s brave to characterize the modern female condition as equally bewildering and empowering: 'They were the first generation of women,' one character notes, 'whose struggle with choice had nothing to do with getting it and everything to do with having too much of it — there were so many options that it felt impossible and exhausting to pick the right ones.' The novel’s remedy for that predicament — friendships forged at a college that’s 'entirely and unabashedly feminine' — is as ambiguity-free as an issue of an alumni magazine. The girls’ bond occasionally turns claustrophobic and judgmental, and at one point it bursts apart altogether, but it endures. 'In each of her friends, her Smith College self would always live on,' Sullivan has a character reflect toward the end, when the girls are in their late 20s. 'Maybe that was why they were all still so important to one another, even though so much had changed.'
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I enjoyed Commencement, particularly as a debut novel. It's not brilliant or life-changing, but it was a good story.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

#20 - House Rules

More pure entertainment here. Can you tell I needed some lighter diversionary stuff while I worked my way through Pygmy? House Rules is pretty much vintage Picoult, complete with twist ending (not quite up to her usual standards here; I had this one figured out about a quarter of the way through), plucky single mom, multiple narrators, and love interest who initially gets to know the family professionally.

Jacket summary: "The astonishing new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult about a family torn apart by an accusation of murder. 'They tell me I'm lucky to have a son who's so verbal, who is blisteringly intelligent, who can take apart the broken microwave and have it working again an hour later. They think there is no greater hell than having a son who is locked in his own world, unaware that there's a wider one to explore. But try having a son who is locked in his own world, and still wants to make a connection. A son who tries to be like everyone else, but truly doesn't know how.' Jacob Hunt is a teenage boy with Asperger's syndrome. He's hopeless at reading social cues or expressing himself well to others, and like many kids with AS, Jacob has a special focus on one subject -- in his case, forensic analysis. He's always showing up at crime scenes, thanks to the police scanner he keeps in his room, and telling the cops what they need to do...and he's usually right. But then his town is rocked by a terrible murder and, for a change, the police come to Jacob with questions. All of the hallmark behaviors of Asperger's -- not looking someone in the eye, stimulatory tics and twitches, flat affect -- can look a lot like guilt to law enforcement personnel. Suddenly, Jacob and his family, who only want to fit in, feel the spotlight shining directly on them. For his mother, Emma, it's a brutal reminder of the intolerance and misunderstanding that always threaten her family. For his brother, Theo, it's another indication of why nothing is normal because of Jacob. And over this small family the soul-searing question looms: Did Jacob commit murder? Emotionally powerful from beginning to end, House Rules looks at what it means to be different in our society, how autism affects a family, and how our legal system works well for people who communicate a certain way -- and fails those who don't."

In short, not much was surprising about this book, but that was OK. Picoult's one of those authors I pick up not because I expect great literature, but because I want to be entertained for an evening or a weekend. She's got a solid formula for this, and it mostly works. If you like her other books, you'll probably like this one, though most reader reviews agree that it's not her best effort, and has more than a few plot holes. Narrators include the obvious (Jacob; his mother, Emma; neglected younger brother, Theo) and the usual secondaries (Oliver, the well-meaning but inexperienced attorney; Detective Matson, a good-guy detective who's convinced Jacob did the crime). Picoult offers several interesting metaphors about living with Asperger's, both first-hand and as a family member, though I do wish she hadn't harped so much on the whole caused-by-vaccines controversy, and her portrayal of the growing "Aspie" community was downright insulting. Worth a read, but probably not a hardcover (or even new paperback) purchase.

#19 - Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife

OK, folks -- lest you think I'm getting too full of myself with these highfalutin literary pretensions, I (ahem) almost forgot to mention another book I slipped onto a recent library stack: Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, by Linda Berdoll (Naperville, IL: 2004). Yes, it's another continuation of Pride and Prejudice, which I swore I was done with; yes, it's more than a little on the steamy side; yes, the Amazon reviews were pretty darned dreadful.

Jacket summary: "This sexy, epic, hilarious, poignant and romantic sequel to Pride and Prejudice goes far beyond being a Jane Austen sequel. It's Tom Jones meets Jane Austen meets Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, with essence of Scarlett O'Hara and the Wife of Bath thrown in.

Every woman wants to be Elizabeth Bennet Darcy -- beautiful, gracious, universally admired, strong, daring and outspoken -- a thoroughly modern woman in crinolines. And every woman will fall madly in love with Mr. Darcy -- tall, dark and handsome, a nobleman and a heartthrob whose virility is matched only by his utter devotion to his wife.

Their passion is consuming and idyllic-essentially, they can't keep their hands off each other-through a sweeping tale of adventure and misadventure, human folly and numerous mysteries of parentage.

The book was self-published in 1999, with more than 10,000 copies sold. Here is what some readers are saying about Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: 'Pure pleasure...this book is so much fun I recommend it heartily.' 'Wow, Darcy! I could not put it down.' 'Tremendous-I didn't want it to end!'"

My own take: Poignant and hilarious may be stretching it a bit, but the book was most certainly sexy, and had enough funny moments to make me laugh at least as much as it made me blush. And I knew what I was getting into with the R-rated pieces; an old friend who adores P&P recommended this one, with the warning/ advertisement, "Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth have a lot of good sex." While I'll agree that the commentary on both parties' intimate endowments got a bit silly, they were almost made up with by one scene in which Elizabeth and Darcy are engaging in some pillow talk on the subject. In response to Darcy's remarking that his, er, estate is a bit larger than average, Elizabeth teases him, noting that she has no frame of reference, "Are you large enough to be put on display in Piccadilly?" OK, I've forgotten half the quote, and maybe you had to be there, but it was amusing.

In short, no, this isn't a book for Austen purists; if that's you, reading the back cover should clue you in straightaway. And the beginning is a lot stronger than the end, which tends to drag a bit. If you enjoy reinterpretations/ continuations of classic stories, and aren't a stickler for 100% accuracy, this will entertain you for a weekend or so.

Friday, March 12, 2010

#18 - Pygmy

Now this was a surprise. A chapter or 2 into Chuck Palahniuk's Pygmy (New York, 2009), I almost gave up. This was my first of Palahniuk's books -- I've never even seen the movie based on Fight Club -- so all I'm going on here is a vague sense from reviews and such that his work is dark, disturbing, gritty, et al. And initially, the disjointed language and brutal violence (in the second chapter, the protagonist sodomizes a bully in a public restroom) put me off.

Jacket summary: "'Begins here first account of operative me, agent number 67 on arrival Midwestern American airport greater ______ area. Flight ______. Date ______. Priority mission top success to complete. Code name: Operation Havoc.'

"Thus speaks Pygmy, one of a handful of young adults from a totalitarian state sent to the United States, disguised as exchange students, to live with typical American families and bldnc in, all the while planning an unspecified act of massive terrorism. Palahniuk depicts Midwestern life through the eyes of this thoroughly indoctrinated littlekiller, who hates us with a passion, in this cunning double-edged satire of an American xenophobia that might, in fact, be completely justified. For Pygmy and his fellow operatives are cooking up something big, something truly awful, that will bring this big dumb country and its fat dumb inhabitants to their knees.

"It's a comedy. And a romance."

I'm glad I stuck with it. It is violent, disorienting, and disturbing, but it's also scathing and funny. With the exception of the aforementioned "clear-yellow" bully (and later, school shooter), Trevor Stonefield, few of the characters merit a proper name. He describes his host family thus:
"For official record, host father present as vast breathing cow, blowing out putrid stink diet heavy with dead slaughterhouse flesh, bellowing stench of Viagra breath during cow father reach to clasp hand of operative me. From tissue compress rate of father fist, bone-to-cow ratio, host father contain 31.2 percent body fat."

"Host mother present as blinking chicken, chin of face bony sharp as beak, chin tucking and swivel to turn, never still, chicken mother say, 'Look at you!' Face exploded in silent screaming of wide-open lips and teeth, pointy tongue, eyebrows jumped into chicken forehead. Bony claws of chicken mother, gripping each this agent's hands, mother lifts to spread arms too high on top this agent head."

"Host brother only pig dog, cradled on both hands, apparatus of black plastic with pig dog dancing thumbs making buttons beep. ... On pig dog breath, the stink of Ritalin. The pollution stench of model airplane adhesive and frequent masturbations. Underneath ... reek of secret blood, latex rubber, and fear sweat."

"For official record, only host sister look rewarding opponent. Host sister, stealth cat. Cat of night, silent but eyeing all happen."
While we do learn, from his corporate ID badge, that the patriarch's name is Donald Cedar, Pygmy refers to them from here on only as "breathing cow father," "twitching chicken mother," "pig dog brother," and "cat sister."

I've read other books whose narrators are about as vile and contemptuous, and usually, I don't like them much. To some extent, I didn't really enjoy Pygmy either -- it's not that sort of a book -- but I did appreciate it. The plot itself (what is this cataclysmic Operation Havoc Pygmy and his fellow operatives are planning, and will they be successful?) is interesting enough, but what makes the book worth reading is Palahniuk's acerbic skewering of so many rituals of American culture, particularly those common to middle and high schools. As he describes a "student mating ritual located darkened sports arena of education facility,"
"During mating ritual cloaked dim interior arena atop floor of basketball wood, against din of music encourage premature random sexual reproduction, pig dog brother make finger straight to indicate females ranked along opposite wall. Across distance, give introduce. Assembled females of middle school, could be rowed for execution firing squad, eyeballed by youth males."
Pig dog brother then regales Pygmy with a long list of crude adolescent terms for breasts that's both thoroughly obnoxious and completely in line with what I remember of middle school: "hooters ... knockers ... balloon bombs ... butter bags ... Rib cushions ... party pillows ... chesticles ... Blouse bunnies ... fun bags ... lactoids ... speed bumps ... Milk makers ... devil dumplings ... flotation devices."

The silly, superficial, and hedonistic nature of U.S. culture seen through Pygmy's eyes is the book's central theme. Blinking chicken mother is obsessed with vibrators, to the extent that no other battery-powered applicance in the house is safe, and she comes to Thanksgiving dinner with one, er, secreted on her person. Following in her mother's footsteps, Cat sister's prize-winning science project is the Bliss 2.0, which she introduces as "the next generation in complete happiness." Pygmy, on the way home from a school function, muses that he "encounter frequent memorial honoring American battle warrior, great officer similar Lenin. Many vast mural depicting most savvy United States war hero. Rotating statue. Looming visage noble American colonel. Courageous, renown of history. Colonel Sanders, image forever accompanied odor of sacrificial meat. Eternal flame offering wind savory perfume roasted flesh." And his translation of the "idiot nonsense [songs]" and "insane garbage lyrics" performed by the middle school's compulsory Junior Swing Choir had me in stitches (especially after the half-second pause it took me to translate each tune's title):
  • "precipitate remain pummel head of operative me. Complain how both feet too large size for sleeping mattress."
  • "past visited arid landscape aboard equine of no title"
  • "yearning for location on top arched spectrum of light wavelengths created by precipitate"
  • "dangle in side-to-side motion from distant solar body, next convey illuminations of lunar body to domicile contained in glass vessel"
  • "Stalk cereal corn grown height comparable eyeball of pachyderm."
Nowhere is Pygmy's contempt for U.S. culture clearer or funnier than in the Model U.N. chapter, where he sees through an outsider's eyes just how shallow and insulting is his hosts' understanding of world cultures and international relations.

This bright-sided, hypersexed picture of public education contrasts sharply with Pygmy's of his own upbringing, which is as extreme in its collectivism as the U.S. seems to be in its individualism. Two scenes in particular stand out here, though both were so over the top that what should have been chilling and gruesome just seemed overdone. In one, a teacher drowns and grinds up a lab rat to underscore the inevitability of death; in another, Pygmy and his classmates' progress in a parade is briefly interrupted when comrade Oleg is forced to kill his hysterical parents (who can't help leaping from the sidelines to embrace their long-lost son, thus interfering with the solemnity of the occasion).

Pygmy skewers the hypocrisy of American religion, too, though I had mixed feelings about how this was executed. On one hand, I loved Palahniuk's description of a contemporary Midwestern megachurch, and enjoyed Pygmy's possibly-deliberate mistranslation of Reverend Tony's title as "Devil Tony." On the other, for a book whose strength lies chiefly in making us see the familiar with new eyes, a lecherous minister seemed a little trite.

My other quibble with the book -- this feels almost obligatory, but I have to say it -- is that a significant chunk of the plot turns on Trevor falling in love with Pygmy after the aforementioned brutal rape. Yes, I know this is supposed to be over-the-top, satirical. Yes, I know scenarios where rape leads to love have a long literary history, even including one of my own favorite guilty pleasures (GWTW, natch) among them. I still didn't like it. Moreover, I thought the whole idea of Trevor's unrequited love was unnecessary; he could just as easily have shot up the Model U.N. for some other reason. Interjecting this ridiculous, almost-slapstick note into the story detracts from a piece I found far more intriguing: the money Pygmy stole from Trevor, mentioned throughout the book, as an unsavory metaphor for the roots of American wealth and power: "thick layer of paper bills smear stained blood, fecal, seed, sweat, stinking saliva, a fortune typical American cash money."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

#17 - Songs for the Missing

And this one pretty much lived up to expectations. Songs for the Missing, by Stewart O'Nan (New York, 2008) isn't the first families-of-missing-teens book I've read (see The Local News, for one), but it's definitely one of the best -- probably because it neither wraps things up neatly, nor does the usual tug-at-the-tear-ducts stuff you might expect.

Summary: "An enthralling portrait of one family in the aftermath of a daughter's disappearance. 'It was the summer of her Chevette, of J.P. and letting her hair grow.' It was also the summer when, without warning, popular high school student Kim Larsen disappeared from her small midwestern town. Her loving parents, her introverted sister, her friends and boyfriend must now do everything they can to find her. As desperate search parties give way to pleading television appearances, and private investigations yield to personal revelations, we see one town’s intimate struggle to maintain hope and, finally, to live with the unknown. Stewart O'Nan's new novel begins with the suspense and pacing of a thriller and soon deepens into an affecting family drama of loss. On the heels of his critically acclaimed and nationally bestselling Last Night at the Lobster, Songs for the Missing is an honest, heartfelt account of one family's attempt to find their child. With a soulful empathy for these ordinary heroes, O'Nan draws us into the world of this small American town and allows us to feel a part of this family."

A good, solid read. In addition to Kim's parents and sister, Lindsey, we also see how her disappearance reverberates in the lives of her boyfriend, J.P., and her best friend, Nina. Certain small details are handled especially well: J.P. and Nina's guilt, first at not telling and then at telling the police about Kim's connection to a skanky, 30-year-old drug dealer (no, he didn't do it); the Larsens' inclination to both overprotect Lindsey in the wake of her sister's disappearance, and shelter her from too much direct involvement with the search; their struggle to visit and explain things to Roger's elderly, nursing home-bound mother; the over-the-top cheesy memorial buttons and songs that flow from the community; the local crazy lady (doesn't every town have one?) whose obsession with the case ultimately leads to an important discovery. If I had a book club, this would be a good book club book.

#16 - All the Sad Young Literary Men

This one was better. Not perfect, but better. All the Sad Young Literary Men, by Keith Gessen (New York, 2008).

Summary: "A charming yet scathing portrait of young adulthood at the opening of the twenty-first century, All the Sad Young Literary Men charts the lives of Sam, Mark, and Keith as they overthink their college years, underthink their love lives, and struggle through the encouragement of the women who love and despise them to find a semblance of maturity, responsibility, and even literary fame. Heartbroken in his university town, Mark tries to focus his attention on his graduate work on the Russian Revolution, only to be lured again and again to the free pornography on the library computers. Sam binds himself to the task of crafting 'the first great Zionist epic' even though he speaks no Hebrew, has never visited Israel, and is not a practicing Jew. Keith, more earnest and easily upset than the other two, is haunted by catastrophes both public and private -- and his inability to tell the difference. At every turn, at each character's misstep, All the Sad Young Literary Men radiates with comedic warmth and biting honesty and signals the arrival of a brave and trenchant new writer."

My take (really, a pretty quick one this time): Annoying characters, but I still mostly liked it -- chiefly because I think Gessen knows they're annoying, and wants us to laugh and roll our eyes at them. (Actually, Keith, from what we see of him, is fairly sympathetic; Sam and Mark, not so much.) Beautiful downtown Syracuse, NY makes a less-than-flattering cameo, as Mark's temporary Elba for most of his graduate hears (he's in a doctoral program at SU), and while it's not my favorite city, either, I initially got my feathers riled about yet another Downstater thinking there's nothing north of Westchester save depressed downtowns and toothless rednecks ... but, um, Gessen was a student at Syracuse himself at one point, so I guess he's got cred.

Anyway, digression aside, it was sometimes hard to keep Mark's and Sam's plot lines (and occasionally, love interests) separate, but again ... I'm going to assume that was deliberate. I don't know that it's a great book, or that it'll be worth reading in 10 or 20 years, but if you're familiar with the "obscure humanities scholar" type or even academic/ intellectual pretensions in general, you'll probably get a few chuckles out of AtSYLM. Best to read it once you're well past, and not still in the thick of, your angst-ridden early 20s, though.

#15 - Brideshead Revisited

All right, true confession time. The (for me) slower-than-usual pace of book bloggage this year probably has something to do with my being gainfully re-employed, true -- but only something. A large part, I fear, is this quixotic goal I ran up the flagpole, once upon early January, about using my speed-reading prowess for good and reading The Classics this year.

Well, gentle friends, it ain't gonna happen. Not as I'd imagined it, anyway. There's still plenty of literature that's, er, stood the test of time, and I do still plan to spend at least some of my time seeking it out in the library's wayback stacks, instead of just being led astray by all the new fiction I have to pass to get there (and yes, these are the bibliophile's equivalent of candy in the checkout line at the supermarket). But sometimes, you read a classic, and you aren't sure what to think: Was it significant in its time and place, but far less so now? Is it just plain the-emperor-has-no-clothes boring? Or do you Just Not Get It? Well, that's about what I thought of Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, by Evelyn Waugh (Boston, 1999).

Summary: "Captain Charles Ryder, stationed at Brideshead, recalls his boyhood associations with the odd but charming members of an English noble family." That's all. Even the venerable library site couldn't find much more to say about it, I guess.

My slightly longer summary: We open with a fairly anemic frame story, set in the English countryside during WWII, in which the now-adult Captain Ryder is stationed in an army camp he recognizes as being near to or perhaps even on the grounds of Brideshead -- an old friend's family estate, which has since gone to seed. This leads him to remember his first visit to Brideshead years earlier. Back then, he was a college student recently befriended by Sebastian Flyte, a hard-drinking, teddy-bear-carrying, eccentric younger son of an upper-class family that, frankly, had seen better days. Somehow, even though it's not clear Ryder likes Sebastian or the others of their set all that much, he becomes a frequent guest at Brideshead, where he meets the rest of the Marchmain family: reclusive Bridey, the eldest son; earnest if plain youngest daughter Cordelia; and the lovely Julia. The Marchmains are Catholic, which is apparently a big deal for them, even though none save Mrs. Flyte attend Mass regularly, and Mr. Flyte has been living in Italy with a mistress for years.

Somehow, mostly off-camera, Sebastian descends into full-fledged alcoholism, which leads to his expulsion from university and (when they try to keep him from drink, though the rest of the family indulge in moderation) on-and-off estrangement from his family. Ryder carries a torch for the inscrutable Julia, which seems (ahem) interesting in light of her physical resemblance to brother Sebastian. However, she is promised and ultimately married to an aspiring politician, so he contents himself by marrying another classmate's sister, and building a fairly successful career producing architectural paintings of old British manor houses -- usually, because their owners are about to tear them down or sell them, and want some memento to hang on to. An unexpected shipboard reunion, coupled with nasty weather and an epidemic of seasickness, sees Ryder and Julia literally thrown together, consummating their attraction even though Ryder's seasick wife is in the cabin next door. Despite apparently being one another's true love, family pressures and good old-fashioned Catholic guilt make Julia decide at the last minute to remain with her less-than-appealing husband, although Ryder has no such qualms about leaving his own wife, Celia.

So, um, yeah -- I think I just didn't get it. I think this may fall into the "doesn't stand the test of time" camp, or at least, doesn't resonate with someone like me who's neither of that time and place nor particularly familiar with it. The reported closeness of Ryder and Sebastian's friendship (mostly evidenced by Ryder or Sebastian telling us what great friends they are, and by the frequency of Ryder's visits to Brideshead), coupled with Sebastian's flamboyance, initially seemed homoerotic to me, but I ultimately dismissed the thought; nothing ever comes of it, so perhaps this was just how you behaved as an upper-class Brit in the '20s and '30s. What I couldn't overlook, however, was that Sebastian was so darned unlikeable. Sure, I guess if you like that sort of thing, he might be one of those people who's great fun to party with, but I just couldn't get past wondering why on earth Ryder seemed so spellbound by him (or by Julia, for that matter). And Ryder, while not as actively obnoxious, wasn't particularly compelling or interesting, either.

In short, not a favorite of mine, and not something that will inspire me to seek out more of Waugh's work. Rent the DVD, to see if Jeremy Irons and John Gielgud can make it more interesting? Perhaps.

#14 - Jim the Boy

My 14th book of the year was Jim the Boy, by Tony Earley (Boston, 2000).

Summary: "Tony Earley made his debut with Here We Are in Paradise, a superbly understated collection of (mostly) small-town vignettes. He returns to the same terrain in his first novel, Jim the Boy, setting this coming-of-age story in a remote North Carolina hamlet. The year is 1934, and like the rest of the country, Aliceville is feeling the pinch of the Great Depression. Yet neither Jim nor his mother nor his three uncles -- who have split the paternal role neatly among themselves since the death of Jim's father a decade earlier -- are feeling much in the way of economic pain. Indeed, if you stuck a satellite dish on the front lawn, the story might be taking place in the New South rather than the older, bucolic one.This isn't to suggest that Earley is deaf to social detail. Indeed, there are all sorts of wonderful touches, like the decor in Jim's classroom,with its 'large, colorful maps of the United States, the Confederacy, and the Holy Land during the time of Jesus.' But Jim the Boy is very much the tale of a 10-year-old's expanding consciousness, which at first barely extends beyond the family property. Earley has a real gift for conveying childhood epiphanies, like Jim's sudden apprehension of the wider world during a trip in Uncle Al's truck: 'Two thoughts came to Jim at once, joined by a thread of amazement: he thought, People live here, and he thought, They don't know who I am. At that moment the world opened up around Jim like hands that, until that moment, had been cupped around him; he felt very small, almost invisible, in the open air of their center, but knew that the hands would not let him go. It was almost like flying.' The simple lyricism and anti-ironic sweetness work mostly to the book's advantage. There are times, it's true, when Earley sands his prose down to an unnatural smoothness, and we seem to be edging toward the sentimental precincts of a young-adult novel. But on the whole, Jim the Boy is a lovely, meticulous work--a song of innocence and (eventually) experience, delivered with just a hint of a North Carolina accent."

My reaction, in a nutshell: Appreciated it on a literary level, in that it was well-written with (cough) luminous prose and what have you, and much of the description, both of landscape and emotional states, was understated and lovely. Not enough of a plot for me to really love it, though.

Catching up, again

It's been 6 weeks now, and I just may be smoothly back in the 9-to-5 groove again. The job's pretty good, the commute is unbeatable ... but after 6 months of being able to smell the roses, even if I couldn't afford to buy them, it takes time to change the routine. In other words, I've still been reading quite a bit these last few weeks, but not blogging about it.

In what's more or less the correct order, the books I've read since you saw me last have been ...
#13 - Roots: The Saga of an American Family (30th anniversary ed.), by Alex Haley (New York, 2007).

Summary (from my favorite public library's web site, as I returned the book weeks ago): "One of the most important books and television series ever to appear, Roots galvanized the nation, and created an extraordinary political, racial, social and cultural dialogue that hadn't been seen since the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book sold over 1,000,000 copies in the first year, and the miniseries was watched by an astonishing 130,000,000 people. Roots opened up the minds of Americans of all colors and faiths to one of the darkest and most painful parts of America's past. Roots also fostered a remarkable dialogue about not just the past, but the then present day 1970's and how America had fared since the days of slavery. Roots: The 30th Anniversary Edition will remind the generation that originally read it (and watched the miniseries) that there are issues that still need to be discussed, and to introduce to a new and younger generation, a book that will help them understand, perhaps for the first time, the drama and reality of what took place during the time period."

My reaction: I liked it. Yes, I'm aware of the controversy about how much of the story was true and how much was (ahem) "inspired by actual events," and tagged it as nonfiction with some qualms. Frankly, though, the book works well even as just a novel, and its impact on public sentiment and popular culture are undeniable.

Just in case there's anyone out there who's even tardier than I am about reading the book, and isn't familiar with the story, it begins in the late 1700s in the Gambia with the birth of a "man-child" called Kunta Kinte. Proportionally, Kunta's boyhood and coming of age get a tremendous amount of air time here, compared to how quickly entire generations seem to pass later in the story, but I think I understand this. If you'll forgive the analogy, it reminds me of what Margaret Mitchell did at the beginning of Gone With the Wind: thorough, painstaking description of a way of life that, once the events of the story get underway, can't possibly be the same again. In Kunta Kinte's case, this transition comes when, while a teenaged man-boy, he is kidnapped by toubob slave traders and, after a horrific trans-Atlantic voyage that kills almost half the human cargo, sold to a Virginia plantation owner.

Some years later, Kunta comes to respect and eventually marry Bell, the cook on "his" plantation. The couple have a daughter, who Kunta names Kizzy (which means "stay put" in his native tongue) in hopes that she'll grow up with them and not be sold away. Heartbreakingly, when their otherwise as-good-as-they-get master discovers that a) Kizzy, now 15, can read and write; and b) more importantly, she's used this knowledge to help another young slave escape, these hopes are thwarted. Kizzy is sold south to a far-away plantation in the Carolinas, where she learns in brutal fashion just what her new owner, Tom Lea, bought her for. The product of her rape is a son, George, who, in time, rises to a favored position in his own master's household as an unparalleled breeder and trainer of fighting cocks (hence, his nickname, "Chicken George.")

George is rather a ladies' man, and (of course) ultimately falls for and marries the one woman he can't get any other way: the devout, beautiful Matilda. Together, the two raise a large family of their own (or rather, Matilda raises them, as George seems to be either traveling to cock fights or preoccupied with who knows what else more often than not), including one son, Tom, whose training and skill as a plantation blacksmith serves him well in the uncertain post-Emancipation South. Tom, his wife Irene, their 8 children, Chicken George, and a handful of neighbors strike out for new territory, opting to try their luck at real freedom, rather than simply hiring on as sharecroppers somewhere. According to Haley, it's Tom and Irene's granddaughter, Bertha -- daughter of their youngest child, Cynthia -- who ultimately marries Simon Alexander Haley, and becomes his mother.

The book's almost 900 pages long as is, but I guess my only real complaint is that later generations of Kinte's descendants and Haley's forbears, after Kizzy and George, seem to get short shrift. George and Matilda, and then Tom and Irene, both have such large families that, with decades passing by in only a page or 2, it's hard to keep track of who's who. I would have liked to know more about Tom and Irene, Cynthia, and even Bertha, and how their lives were affected by the lessons and stories Kunta had passed on to Kizzy and then (presumably, through George and Tom) down to them.