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, April 28, 2010

#31 - When Will There Be Good News?

When Will There Be Good News, by Kate Atkinson (New York: Little, Brown, & Co., 2008) certainly wasn't perfect, but it definitely had more going for it than the last few books I've read.

Jacket summary: "On a hot summer day, Joanna Mason's family slowly wanders home along a country lane. A moment later, Joanna's life is changed forever. ... On a dark night thirty years later, ex-detective Jackson Brodie finds himself on a train that is both crowded and late. Lost in his thoughts, he suddenly hears a shocking sound. ... At the end of a long day, 16-year-old Reggie is looking forward to watching a little TV. Then a terrifying noise shatters her peaceful evening. Luckily, Reggie makes it a point to be prepared for an emergency. ... These three lives come together in unexpected and deeply thrilling ways in the latest novel from Kate Atkinson, the critically acclaimed author who Harlan Coben calls 'an absolute must-read.'"

My take: Interesting, likeable characters and an intriguing storyline make this book worth a read, though the plot occasionally crosses the line from mysterious to muddled and confusing. It's hard not to feel drawn to Joanna, the former child survivor of a horrendous crime, now grown into a successful, happily married doctor and mother in spite of it all, or to Reggie, her orphaned 16 year old mother's helper who's both a lost, innocent soul and wise beyond her years. Jackson Brodie, whose honest got-on-the-wrong train mistake is compounded exponentially by a freak accident, is a somewhat harder read, but perhaps he's supposed to be. The same, frankly, could be said for Louise, Jackson's "one that got away," who becomes entangled in all 3 of their lives when she volunteers to notify Joanna personally that her family's murderer has been released from prison. The resolution's a little neater than I usually like, but not nearly as bad as I've seen elsewhere, and certainly not veering off into "oh, come on, now" territory. Not one for the permanent shelves, but a good weekend read.

#30 - A Gate at the Stairs

A Gate at the Stairs (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) was my first of Lorrie Moore's books, and frankly, was more than a little disappointing.

Jacket summary: "As the United States begins gearing up for war in the Middle East, twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the Midwestern daughter of a gentleman hill farmer -- his 'Keltjin potatoes' are justifiably famous -- has come to a university town as a college student, her brain on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Between semesters, she takes a job as a part-time nanny. The family she works for seems both mysterious and glamorous to her, and although Tassie had once found children boring, she comes to care for, and to protect, their newly adopted little girl as her own. As the year unfolds and she is drawn deeper into each of these lives, her own life back home becomes ever more alien to her: her parents are frailer; her brother, aimless and lost in high school, contemplates joining the military. Tassie finds herself becoming more and more the stranger she felt herself to be, and as life and love unravel dramatically, even shockingly, she is forever changed."

My take: Hard to articulate exactly what I didn't like about this book, except that I expected it to really grab me by the throat and reel me in, and instead, while the writing was solid, the plot was fairly slow-paced and plodding, and the characters not particularly deep or compelling. Even when what should be major, game-changing events happen, it was hard to care too much. Moore tends, in my experience, to be well-reviewed, which further increases my annoyance; is the proverbial emperor really naked, or do I just not get it? At any rate, I may give another of her books a try if the opportunity presents itself, but I won't be spending much time to seek them out.

#29 - The End of Overeating

Yep -- more "got behind, so just a few quickie updates" book posts from Hazel again.

#29 was The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by David A. Kessler (New York: Rodale, 2009).

Jacket summary: "Most of us know what it feels like to fall under the spell of food -- when one slice of pizza turns into half a pie, or a handful of chips leads to an empty bag. But it's harder to understand why we can't seem to stop eating even when we know better. When we want so badly to say "no," why do we continue to reach for food? Dr. David Kessler, the dynamic former FDA commissioner who reinvented the food label and tackled the tobacco industry, now reveals how the food industry has hijacked the brains of millions of Americans. The result? America's number-one public health issue. Dr. Kessler cracks the code of overeating by explaining how our bodies and minds are changed when we consume foods that contain sugar, fat, and salt. Food manufacturers create products by manipulating these ingredients to stimulate our appetites, setting in motion a cycle of desire and consumption that ends with a nation of overeaters. The End of Overeating explains for the first time why it is exceptionally difficult to resist certain foods and why it's so easy to overindulge. Dr. Kessler met with top scientists, physicians, and food industry insiders. The End of Overeating uncovers the shocking facts about how we lost control over our eating habits and how we can get it back. Dr. Kessler presents groundbreaking research, along with what is sure to be a controversial view inside the industry that continues to feed a nation of overeaters from popular brand manufacturers to advertisers, chain restaurants, and fast food franchises. For the millions of people struggling with weight as well as for those of us who simply don't understand why we can't seem to stop eating our favorite foods, Dr. Kessler's cutting-edge investigation offers new insights and helpful tools to help us find a solution. There has never been a more thorough, compelling, or in-depth analysis of why we eat the way we do."

My take: Interesting, but didn't quite live up to expectations. The whole idea of overeating as biologically conditioned, rather than just reflecting a widespread lack of individual willpower, is interesting, but a lot of the exposes of just how the food industry targets our taste buds seemed like a rehash of Fast Food Nation, Supersize Me, and The Omnivore's Dilemma. It also wasn't clear whether Kessler intended this to be a public health book or a self-help guide. It ends up with a foot in both camps, but not quite swimming proficiently in either. Still a worthwhile contribution to the literature on food, nutrition, and culture, though.

Monday, April 5, 2010

#28 - So Much for That

Definitely on a roll here. At least if I check out so many books that the library cuts me off, most of them turn out to be good ones.

So Much for That, by Lionel Shriver (New York: Harper, 2010) isn't perfect, but it's a darned good read.

Summary: "Shep Knacker has long saved for 'The Afterlife': an idyllic retreat to the Third World where his nest egg can last forever. Traffic jams on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway will be replaced with 'talking, thinking, seeing, and being' -- and enough sleep. When he sells his home repair business for a cool million dollars, his dream finally seems within reach. Yet Glynis, his wife of twenty-six years, has concocted endless excuses why it's never the right time to go. Weary of working as a peon for the jerk who bought his company, Shep announces he's leaving for a Tanzanian island, with or without her.

"Just returned from a doctor's appointment, Glynis has some news of her own: Shep can't go anywhere because she desperately needs his health insurance. But their policy only partially covers the staggering bills for her treatments, and Shep's nest egg for The Afterlife soon cracks under the strain.

"Enriched with three medical subplots that also explore the human costs of American health care, So Much for That follows the profound transformation of a marriage, for which grave illness provides an unexpected opportunity for tenderness, renewed intimacy, and dry humor. In defiance of her dark subject matter, Shriver writes a page-turner that presses the question: How much is one life worth?"

Opening line: "What do you pack for the rest of your life?"

My take: A bit polemic at times, but still an excellent novel. One review compared Shriver to Jodi Picoult in terms of having her finger on the zeitgeist, but I don't think I agree. Yes, the cost and structure of the U.S. health care system is looming large in the public's mind right now, and occasionally, it seems like Shriver's a bit too heavy-handed in working her opinions into the text. (For the most part, though, she manages convincingly by making Shep's best friend and colleague, Jackson, One of Those Guys who likes to rant, especially about things medical and insurance-related.) But her plot and characters are far more nuanced and believable. Perhaps there's no better example than Glynis, who's pretty much the antithesis of every other couldn't-have-happened-to-a-nicer-person, critically ill character I've come across. We get the sense that even before her diagnosis, Glynis, a less-than-productive metalsmith, was never big on warm and fuzzy. In the throes of mesothelioma, she's sarcastic, angry, and often downright nasty, unsettling her visitors by her refusal to be a good patient or indulge in banal homilies. She's also in extreme denial as to the gravity of her illness, refusing to hear updates from Shep or her doctor about her odds, and always hoping each new treatment will turn things around, even as she grows steadily weaker. Likewise, the couple's children are a few steps away from your standard-issue big-eyed cherubs. Despite her Dartmouth degree, twenty-something Amelia continues to accept Mom & Dad's financial support, working at a low-paid publishing job, and being generally self-absorbed. Younger brother Zach, who's in high school, seems to live his entire life online, leaving his well-wired bedroom only long enough to microwave frozen foods he then carries back to the screen.

If the immediate Knacker household weren't enough, medical complications abound outside its walls as well. Jackson's elder daughter, 17-year-old Flicka, was born with familial dysautonomia; she can't cry, eats and swallows only with difficulty, and otherwise confronts one medical crisis after another. Like Glynis, to say she's not your typical plucky, sweet sick kid is putting it mildly. Meanwhile, younger sister Heather feels so overshadowed by Flicka's illness and her classmates' prescriptions for Ritalin and Prozac that her doctor and parents collude to feed her sugar pills under a made-up name. Jackson feels perpetually unworthy of Carol, his accomplished and beautiful wife -- so much so that he undergoes cosmetic surgery of the most intimate kind to surprise her, with devastating results. And then there's Shep's father, Gabe -- a retired New Hampshire pastor, who lands in a nursing home with a broken leg, and contracts an antibiotic-resistant C. diff infection that threatens to kill him slowly and shamefully.

As I said, there are problems with the book. While the characters are interesting, so many of the ones closest to Shep are, frankly, so unpleasant that it's hard to see what's in the relationships for him. Are they, somehow, reacting to Shep's behavior? Has their personality changed over time? Likewise, some of the background So Much for That asks us to accept has what New York Times reviewer Leah Hager Cohen calls dubious implications: "the paradox of a 'freedom' wholly dependent on the exchange rate between the Tanzanian shilling and the United States dollar — laying aside, too, the dubious implications of a white American seeking to shed his 'slave' status by purchasing land on the cheap and building a home in Africa." And I can't help but agree with Cohen's observation that in places, Shriver's dialogue "[seems] more suited to an editorial on the health care debate than to an intimate exchange between mournful son and ailing paterfamilias," and "at times these prodigiously researched and exhaustively argued critiques read more like excerpts from a position paper." Finally, while the ending was reasonably satisfying (and far less devastating than that of We Need to Talk About Kevin), it was also a bit too tidy and implausible.

That didn't stop me from staying up late last night to finish the book, though.

#27 - Shanghai Girls

Lisa See's Shanghai Girls (New York: Random House, 2009) was another pleasant surprise. I'd read Peony in Love, by the same author, and was pretty underwhelmed; maybe it's that I just can't get excited about a story where the main character is a ghost.

Summary: "In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, full of great wealth and glamour, home to millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister May are having the time of their lives, thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father’s prosperous rickshaw business. Though both wave off authority and traditions, they couldn’t be more different. Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and living the carefree life ... until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth, and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides.

As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the villages of south China, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the foreign shores of America. In Los Angeles, they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with their stranger husbands, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life, even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown’s old ways and rules.

At its heart, Shanghai Girls is a story of sisters: Pearl and May are inseparable best friends, who share hopes, dreams, and a deep connection. But like sisters everywhere, they also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. They love each other but they also know exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other sister the most. Along the way there are terrible sacrifices, impossible choices and one devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel by Lisa See hold fast to who they are – Shanghai girls."

Opening line: "'Our daughter looks like a South China peasant with those red cheeks,' my father complains, pointedly ignoring the soup before him."

My take: Yes, Shanghai Girls is both a sweeping family story and an immigrant's tale ... but these descriptions alone don't do it justice. The characters are complex and believable; the plot compelling with just the right amount of surprise (neither predictable nor preposterous). As the above summary suggests, the story opens in 1937 Shanghai, where narrator Pearl and her less clever, more charming younger sister May are livin' la vida loca, garnering just the right amount of fame and fortune by modeling for the "beautiful girls" calendars that are ubiquitous to Shanghai advertising.

No sooner, however, have we gotten a taste of the girls' world than it starts to crumble, and ultimately shatters. Initially, Pearl and May defy their father's order to settle his debts by marrying the sons of a wealthy businessman, but then the full story emerges: Baba's creditor is a notoriously brutal gangster, and until he is paid, no one in the family is safe. The sisters have no other choice but to go through with the wedding, spending but a single night with their new husbands before the brothers depart for L.A. To their grave embarrassment, their new father-in-law publicly inspects their bedding in the morning, revealing that while Pearl and Sam have consummated their marriage, May and the childlike Vern have not.

As Sam, Vern, and their parents depart, Pearl and May promise to sail for America in 2 weeks to join them, but have no real plans to do so. That is, until the Japanese army invades Shanghai. Unable to find Baba, the girls and their mother try to trade in their tickets and flee to Hong Kong, but by now, they are but three among countless refugees. They end up hiring a wheelbarrow puller to carry their foot-bound mother as far as he can, stopping at the odd farmhouse along the way for food and rest, until ultimately, the soldiers catch up with them. Mama's attempt to protect her daughters, and later, Pearl's effort to save both Mama and May, have grave, life-altering consequences for all three of them.

All in all, an outstanding story, with a not-too-tidy ending (a plus, in my book). Highly recommended.