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, May 26, 2010

#42 - Sag Harbor

My 42nd book of the year was Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead (New York: Doubleday, 2009)

Summary: "Fifteen-year-old Benji has spend every summer since he can remember in Sag Harbor, NY. The rest of the year, he's a black preppie from Manhattan, with a doctor father and a lawyer mother and a younger brother, Reggie. It is 1985, and Reggie gets a job at Burger King, leaving Benji (who would prefer to be called Ben) to hang with his summer friends (the term posse wasn't invented yet), other black prep school refugees. Not a lot happens during those three months. Or does everything happen, all that matters to an insecure, nerdy teen just beginning to realize the man he might become? Scooping ice cream at Jonni Waffle, riding to the 'white beach' with the one guy who's got a car, trying to crash a Lisa Lisa concert at the hip club, and kissing a girl and copping a feel are significant events in a life that encompasses generations of folks who call Sag Harbor home."

Opening lines: "First you had to settle the question of out. When did you get out? Asking this was showing off, even though anyone you could brag to had the same gift and had come by it the same way you did."

My take: Well-written and oh-so-perfectly evocative of both summer vacations and growing up in the 1980s. I'll have to agree with Donna Seaman's Booklist review, though: "Whitehead sticks to the frothy shoreline and avoids the deep." Funny and nicely detailed, but not very substantial.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

#41 - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Decided after the poignant and literary but somewhat slow-paced Independence Day that I needed a book where something actually happened, darn it. Well, for anyone who's missed the hype around the books and/or the movie, Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) more than fit the bill.

Summary: "The disappearance forty years ago of Harriet Vanger, a young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden, gnaws at her octogenarian uncle, Henrik Vanger. He is determined to know the truth about what he believes was her murder. He hires crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, recently at the wrong end of a libel case, to get to the bottom of Harriet's disappearance. Lisbeth Salander, a twenty-four-year-old, pierced, tattooed genius hacker, possessed of the hard-earned wisdom of someone twice her age -- and a terrifying capacity for ruthlesness -- assists Blomkvist with the investigation. This unlikely team discovers a vein of nearly unfathomable iniquity running through the Vanger family, an astonishing corruption at the highest echelon of Swedish industrialism -- and a surprising connection between themselves."

Opening lines: "It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday."

My take: Hold on to your hat, folks. It's not often that a book surrounded by this much hype manages to impress and entertain me, but Dragon Tattoo certainly did. Lots of interesting characters, all worthy of varying levels of suspicion. There's the 82-year-old Henrik Vanger of the opening line; principals Blomkvist and Salander ... but also a host of supporting characters, ranging from Blomkvist's publisher and occasional lover, Erika Barger; Harriet's brother Martin, who took over as CEO of Vanger when Henrik retired; Henrik's seemingly devoted attorney; Salander's own boss; Harriet's inscrutably nasty mother; and many other curious members of the Vanger tribe. True to form, you wonder early on how all these threads -- Blomkvist's libel conviction; Harriet's disappearance and presumed murder; Salander's questionably-ethical sleuthing skills -- will tie together, and the answer mostly works. Without spoiling it, there is a particular romantic pairing I don't approve of -- and more importantly, that doesn't seem to add much to the story -- but otherwise, you can bet I'll be lining up for The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, stat.

Monday, May 24, 2010

#40 - Independence Day

Also just finished Richard Ford's Independence Day (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

Summary: "Frank Bascombe is no longer a sportswriter, yet he's still living in Haddam, New Jersey, where he now sells real estate. He's still divorced, though his ex-wife, to his dismay, has remarried and moved along with their children to Connecticut. But Frank is happy enough in his work and pursuing various civic and entrepreneurial sidelines. He has high hopes for this 4th of July weekend: a search for a house for deeply hapless clients relocating to Vermont; a rendezvous on the Jersey shore with his girlfriend; then up to Connecticut to pick up his larcenous and emotionally troubled teenage son and visit as many sports halls of fame as they can fit into two days. Frank's Independence Day, however, turns out not as he'd planned, and this decent, appealingly bewildered, profoundly observant man is wrenched, gradually and inevitably, out of his private refuge. Independence Day captures the mystery of life — in all its conflicted glory — with grand humour, intense compassion and transfixing power."

Opening line: "In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems."

My take: Not exactly what I was expecting, and maybe not quite what I was in the mood for, but still an interesting meditation on suburbia in the late 1980s, life and parenthood after divorce, autonomy vs. interdependence, and aging in America. Can't really complain that there's no plot here, as this is essentially a road novel with a twist: Our hero, Frank Bascombe, travels (by way of his girlfriend's beach house at the Jersey Shore) to Connecticut to pick up the aforementioned teenage son Paul, and from there to the Basketball and Baseball Halls of Fame in Worcester, Mass., and Cooperstown, NY. The pacing is fairly languorous itself, and much of the book seems a bit dated, but Frank is indeed a likeable, interesting character ... which was what moved me to see the novel through to the end. (I wish I could say the same for his irritating son, or his ladyfriend Sally, who I Just Didn't Get.) Well-written, provocative in places ... but not one I'll return to again, I don't expect.

Monday, May 17, 2010

#39 - Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage

Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law, by Nancy D. Polikoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008) was excellent -- illuminating, clearly-written, and provocative.

Summary: "Polikoff (law, American U. Washington College of Law) takes issue with the concept of marriage and argues that it makes unmarried couples of any sexual orientation, single-parent households, extended family units, and others unable to reap the benefits of the law. She asserts that marriage is not the cure for the disadvantages faced by same-sex couples, but that married couples should not have rights that other family forms do not. She argues that the law should not give marriage more value, as it is not a family form that is more important than others. Topics addressed include feminism and gay rights, the marriage-equality movement, countries where marriage matters less than in the US, domestic partner benefits, medical care and family and medical leave, distribution of assets and providing for children, wrongful death, worker's compensation, and Social Security."

Table of Contents:
  1. The Changing Meaning of Marriage
  2. Gay Rights and the Conservative Backlash
  3. Redefining Family
  4. The Right and the Marriage Movement
  5. LGBT Families and the Marriage-Equality Movement
  6. Countries Where Marriage Matters Less
  7. Valuing All Families
  8. Domestic Partner Benefits for All Families
  9. Coping with Illness: Medical Care and Family and Medical Leave
  10. When a Relationship Ends through Dissolution or Death: Distributing Assets and Providing for Children
  11. Losing an Economic Provider: Wrongful Death, Workers' Compensation, and Social Security
My take: As suggested above, an excellent book. While Polikoff supports same-sex couples' right to marry, her chief argument here is that marriage should be beside the point. Rather, all family units -- gay couples, unmarried male-female couples, single parents, adults caring for elderly or disabled relatives -- should receive the same support we (the U.S.) currently reserve exclusively for marriage. She suggests that the caretaking dyad -- the relationship between those who can't help being dependent on someone else for their care and well-being, i.e., children and those with disabilities, and their caregivers -- rather than the marital relationship be the focus of our social safety net, whether that's survivors' benefits when a wage-earner dies or providing medical leave and insurance for whoever one has an interdependent relationship with. Good stuff -- the kind of thing that's so well-articulated that it seems like it should have been obvious a long time ago.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

#38 - The Master Bedroom

Tessa Hadley's The Master Bedroom (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2007) was aptly named; it did an excellent job of putting me to sleep.

Summary: "A single woman at loose ends becomes the object of two men's affections -- a father and his teenage son -- in this sly, richly drawn novel. After more than twenty years in London, Kate Flynn has returned to her family home in Wales to care for her aging mother. Having cast off her academic career, she is unmoored, and when she runs into a childhood friend, David Roberts, at a concert, she finds herself falling for him. For his part, David's marriage isn't as solid as it looks -- his wife, Suzie, has begun acting strangely, moving out of their bedroom, neglecting their children, and disappearing for days at a time -- and he begins to seek refuge with Kate from the newfound chaos of his life. David's seventeen-year-old son, Jamie, is also drawn to Kate's eccentricity and her strange, glamorous old house full of books and music and history. As both father and son set about their parallel courtships, Tessa Hadley's intricate, graceful novel explores the tangled web of connections between parents and children, revealing how each generation replays the stories of the one that came before, in new and sometimes startling patterns."

Opening lines: "It was not a sign. Kate refused to let it be a sign."

My take: I read this New York Times review, I read the jacket flap (basically what's written above) ... then I read the book itself, and came away wondering if the reviewers read the same thing I had. What can I say except that the book was boring? OK, I'll grant Times reviewer Liesl Schillinger one thing: Hadley's novel does raise some interesting ideas:
"What if it had been Mrs. Robinson who was the pursued, and Benjamin the pursuer? What if, when the young man came knocking, the grown woman hid, locked her bedroom door, and 'stayed motionless on her bed, not answering, hugging her knees tightly?' What if, when he refused to believe she couldn't love him, she didn't run to him, but from him?"
Set aside, for a moment, the implication that the answers to these "What ifs" are "erotic" and "tantalizing" rather than stalkerish and scary. Forget that The Graduate, while a brilliant movie that expertly captured the zeitgeist of its time, was first a real ho-hummer of a book. Those things aside, Master Bedroom may suggest some interesting questions, but it doesn't come close to answering them in a satisfactory manner. The above review notwithstanding, I'm inclined to agree with Joanna Briscoe's Guardian review:
"'[T]he author refuses to let dramatic action, an escalation of tension, or any other conventional narrative lubricant dictate the rhythms of everyday life. ... [T]he 'clever and sceptical and difficult' Kate cares for her mother, Billie, immerses herself in classical music and nurtures at best ambivalent feelings towards David Roberts, a dependable, married doctor involved in public health, then continues to oscillate between indifference and essentially invented interest.

"Kate, 43, then meets Jamie, David's 17-year-old son, and finds herself shunted into a Mrs. Robinson role as the teenager turns up at her house panting for sex and adult enlightenment. Kate's affair with Jamie is, like her emotional relationship with his father, essentially devoid of intensity. As David observes, 'even passion seemed to have reduced itself to drudgery,' while Kate has 'a chilly vision of herself on the slope down from summits that had hardly happened. Suzie falls under hippie-dippie influences; Kate visits London; everyone has holidays, reads books, and discusses the larger issues of life. Moral inquiry is lightly won."
Yawn. Books that hint at being juicy entertainment but then don't follow through annoy me. On to some non-fiction for a change.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

#37 - The Shadow Year

The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford (New York: William Morrow, 2008) is an ordinary book, set in an ordinary time. What makes it almost magical, though, is Ford's ability to capture that place and time absolutely perfectly.

Jacket blurb: "In New York's Long Island, in the unpredictable decade of the 1960s, a young boy laments the approaching close of summer and the advent of sixth grade. Growing up in a household with an overworked father whom he rarely sees, an alcoholic mother who paints wonderful canvases that are never displayed, an older brother who serves as both tormentor and protector, and a younger sister who inhabits her own secret world, the boy takes his amusements where he can find them. Some of his free time is spent in the basement of the family's modest home, where he and his brother, Jim, have created Botch Town, a detailed cardboard replica of their community, complete with clay figurines representing family and neighbors. And so the time passes with a not-always reassuring sameness -- until the night a prowler is reported stalking the neighborhood.

"Appointing themselves ad hoc investigators, the brothers set out to aid the police -- while their little sister, Mary, smokes cigarettes, speaks in other voices, inhabits alternate personas ... and unbeknownst to her older siblings, moves around the inanimate residents of Botch Town. But ensuing events add a shadowy cast to the boys' night games: disappearances, deaths, and spectral sightings capped off by the arrival of a sinister man in a long white car trawling the neighborhood after dark. Strangest of all is the inescapable fact that every one of these troubling occurrences seems to correspond directly to the changes little Mary has made to the miniature town in the basement."

Opening line: "It began in the last days of August, when the leaves of the elm in the front yard had curled into crisp brown tubes and fallen away to litter the lawn."

My take: It's hard for me to be objective about this one, but not for the usual reasons. No, this time it's because Ford has captured perfectly the unremarkable, minute details of a middle-class Long Island neighborhood from the 1960s or '70s. This is the South Shore of my childhood, complete with Nair bombs and middle-schoolers dressed as bums on Hallowe'en, elderly Italian widowers with fig trees in their yards, Bazooka gum for a nickel, and spooky neighborhood rumors of bad guys in white cars. For the uninitiated, The Shadow Year reminded me of Stand By Me: there's a somewhat scary frame story, but this is first and foremost a story about growing up in a time and place that doesn't really exist any more. From the narrator's description of his first day of fifth grade at the neighborhood elementary school (dubbed, in distinctly un-P.C. fashion, "the Retard Factory" by the narrator and his brother), I could practically feel and smell the everyday details of his world:
"School started on a day so hot it seemed stolen from the heart of summer. The tradition was that if you got new clothes for school, you wore them the first day. My mother had made Mary a couple of dresses on the sewing machine. Because he'd outgrown what he had, Jim got shirts and pants from Gertz department store. I got his hand-me-downs, but I did also get a new pair of dungarees. They were as stiff as concrete and, after months of my wearing nothing but cutoffs, seemed to weigh fifty pounds. I sweated like the Easter pig, shuffling through school zombie style, to the library, the lunchroom, on the playground, and all day long that burlap scent of new denim smelled like the spirit of work."
Likewise, Jim's advice to Mary before she heads out for her first Hallowe'en night without the parents could have come from my own oh-so-wise teenaged next-door neighbor:
"'The idea ... is to get as much candy as possible. You want candy, wrapped candy. If you get a candy bar, that's the best -- a Hershey bar or a Milky Way. Mary Janes are okay if you don't mind losing a few fillings, little boxes of Good & plenty, Dots, Chocolate Babies, packs of gum, all good. Then you've got your cheapskate single-wrapped candy -- root-beer barrels, butterscotches, licorice drops -- not bad, usually given out by people who are broke, but what can they do? They're trying.

"'You don't eat anything that's not wrapped, except for Mr. Barzita's figs. Some people drop an apple in your bag. You can't eat it, but you can throw it at someone, so that's okay. Once in a while, someone will bake stuff to give out. Don't eat it -- you don't know what they put in it. It could be the best-looking cupcake you ever saw, with chocolate icing and a candy corn on top, but who knows, they might have crapped in the batter. I've seen where people will throw a penny in your sack. Hey, a penny's a penny.

"'You always stay where we can see you. If someone invites you into their house, don't go. when we tell you to run, run, 'cause kids could be coming to throw eggs at us. If you hear someoen should 'Nair bomb,' run like hell.'"
Oh, yeah; the plot behind it all. Solid enough, if none too exciting: a prowler, a sinister guy lurking around the neighborhood, a vanished classmate. Ultimately, though, we don't get most of the gory details; the story is but a backdrop for a gorgeous, subtly rendered portrait of scenes from a childhood. I was sad to see it end.

Friday, May 7, 2010

#36 - Self-Made Man

While Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again, by Norah Vincent (New York: Viking, 2006) was a decent read, the concept was definitely stronger than the execution.

Jacket blurb: "Norah Vincent wanted to know what life was really like for men. Many women have long been convinced that men have always had it better, in every way. To find out for herself if this was actually true, and to see where the common perception fell short, Norah did it: for eighteen months she became a guy.

"Following in the tradition of John Howard Griffin (Black Like Me) and Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed), Norah Vincent absorbed a cultural experience and reported back on what she observed incognito. With the help of a makeup artist, a trainer, and a Juilliard voice coach, she infiltrated spaces and situations women never see. For more than a year and a half she ventured into the world as her alter ego, Ned, with an ever-present five o'clock shadow, a crew cut, wire-rimmed glasses, and her own size 11 1/2 shoes -- a perfect disguise that allowed her to observe and participate in the world of men as an insider. ...

"With her buddies in the bowling league Norah enjoyed the rough and rewarding embrace of male camaraderie undetectable to an outsider. A stint in a high-octane sales job taught her the gut-wrenching pressures endured by men who would do anything to succeed. She went to strip clubs, dated women hungry for love but disappointed by men, and was welcomed into all-male communities as hermetically sealed as a men's therapy group, and even a monastery. Narrating her journey with exquisite insight, empathy, and humor, Norah uses her intimate firsthand experience to explore the many mysteries of gender identity as well as who men are when women aren't around."

Table of Contents:
  1. Getting Started
  2. Friendship
  3. Sex
  4. Love
  5. Life
  6. Work
  7. Self
  8. Journey's End
My take: Perhaps the shortcomings of Self-Made Man are intrinsic to the material. The idea is intriguing: Can a woman pass as a man? For how long? In what settings? Where it falls short, though, is in Vincent's failure to break much new ground, to reveal anything shocking about male enclaves that wasn't accessible to the public before. This makes sense, when you think about it. The parallels to Black Like Me (which I haven't read) and Nickel and Dimed (which I have) overlook an important distinction: while most white people don't know what it's like to walk around in dark skin, and few middle- to upper-middle-class readers have had to support themselves on the jobs and wages of the working poor, most women, through their fathers, brothers, or male partners, have at least some intimate knowledge of men.

Probably my favorite part of the book was Vincent's first real undercover chapter, "Friendship," which chronicles her experience in a men's bowling league. I was particularly impressed here with her observations on class (again, a favorite soapbox of mine, and often an elephant in the room in discussions of gender roles). Recalling a night when the entire bowling alley grew silent as one bowler closed in on a perfect 300 score, she notes,
"So much of what happens emotionally between men isn't spoken aloud, and so the outsider, especially the female outsider who is used to emotional life being overt and spoken (often overspoken), tends to assume that what isn't said isn't there. But it is there, and when you're inside it, it's as if you're suddenly hearing sounds that only dogs can hear."
Later, after Ned comes clean with his teammates about his true identity, and finds them surprisingly nonplussed, she fesses up about her own less-than-generous initial expectations:
"I had condescended to them all along, even in my gracious surprise that they were somehow human. They had made that leap on my behalf without the benefit of suppressed snobbery. I have condescended to them still in these pages throughout, congratulating myself for stooping to receive their affections and dispense my own, for presuming to understand them. Class is inescapable in tone, and even a pseudointellectual will always sound like she thinks she's earning points in liberal heaven for shaking hands with the caveman or, worse, the noble savage. The most I can say is that they were far better men than I in that, and undoubtedly far worse or just as bad in ways that I would never and could never know. They made me welcome in their midst, and by so doing, they made me feel like a bit of a shithead, like an arrogant prick know-it-all. In a sense, they made me the subject of my own report. They bowled with irony after all.

"They made me look ridiculous to myself and they made me laugh about it. And for that I will always be grateful to them, because anybody who does that for you is a true and great friend."
Sadly, the following chapters don't quite live up to this one. "Sex," about Ned's foray into strip clubs, is depressing, sure, but not quite ground-breaking; Ivy League Stripper or (if you prefer fiction) Garden of Last Days are more compelling on this front. Likewise for the dating ("Love") chapter; as a gay woman, going undercover as a man to date (presumably) straight women, Vincent does have a unique perspective on the fluidity of gender and sexual orientation, but the subjects of male vs. female communication styles and bad dates from hell have already been covered extensively elsewhere.

All in all, an interesting collection of vignettes, and worth reading if you happen across it, but it's more entertaining than illuminating.

Monday, May 3, 2010

#35 - Little Bee

Wow. Little Bee (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), by Chris Cleave, was awesome. Not in the flip, synonym-for-"cool" way the word's come to be used since, oh, the 1980s, but in the classic, "stunning, sobering, worthy of awe" sense.

Summary (from Booklist Review): "Little Bee, smart and stoic, knows two people in England, Andrew and Sarah, journalists she chanced upon on a Nigerian beach after fleeing a massacre in her village, one grisly outbreak in an off-the-radar oil war. After sneaking into England and escaping a rural immigration removal center, she arrives at Andrew and Sarah's London suburb home only to find that the violence that haunts her has also poisoned them. In an unnerving blend of dread, wit, and beauty, Cleave slowly and arrestingly excavates the full extent of the horror that binds Little Bee and Sarah together. A columnist for the Guardian, Cleave earned fame and notoriety when his first book, Incendiary, a tale about a terrorist attack on London, was published on the very day London was bombed in July 2005. His second ensnaring, eviscerating novel charms the reader with ravishing descriptions, sly humor, and the poignant improvisations of Sarah's Batman-costumed young son, then launches devastating attacks in the form of Little Bee's elegantly phrased insights into the massive failure of compassion in the world of refugees. Cleave is a nerves-of-steel storyteller of stealthy power, and this is a novel as resplendent and menacing as life itself." -Donna Seaman

Opening line: "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl."

My take: A beautiful, moving, and tremendously original story. As the less-than-descriptive jacket blurb suggests, "the magic is in how the story unfolds," so I'll try not to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that at some point before the story opens, the English Sarah and the Nigerian Little Bee met on a Nigerian beach. Between that meeting and their unexpected reunion in London two years later, Sarah has lost a finger and her husband, the depressed and inscrutable Andrew, and Little Bee has lost her beloved big sister Nkiruka. How this all happens, and how Little Bee comes to ring Sarah's doorbell on the morning of Andrew's funeral, makes for a breathtaking and horrifying read. Don't miss this one.

#34 - The Two-Income Trap

And sometimes, things just come together. I check out The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke (New York: Basic Books, 2003), which has been on my "must read" list for a while, and suddenly, co-author Elizabeth Warren is all over the place. She's a guest on one of the podcasts I listen to; she chairs the Congressional Oversight Panel for the banking bailout program; and she may even be on President Obama's short list for the Supreme Court. Who knew?

Jacket summary: "More than two decades ago, the women's movement flung open the doors of the workplace. Although this social revolution created a firestorm of controversy, no one questioned the idea that women's involvement in the workforce was certain to improve families' financial lot. Until now.In this brilliantly argued book, Harvard Law School bankruptcy expert Elizabeth Warren and business consultant Amelia Tyagi show that today's middle-class parents are suffering from an unprecedented and totally unexpected economic meltdown. Astonishingly, sending mothers to work has made families more vulnerable than ever before. Today's two-income family earns 75% more money than its single-income counterpart of a generation ago, but actually has less discretionary income once their fixed monthly bills are paid. How did this happen? Warren and Tyagi provide convincing evidence that the culprit is not 'overconsumption,' as many critics have charged. Instead, they point to the ferocious bidding war for housing and education that has quietly engulfed America's suburbs. Stay-at-home mothers once provided a financial safety net if disaster struck; their move into the workforce has left today's families chillingly at risk. The authors show why the usual remedies -- child-support enforcement, subsidized daycare, and higher salaries for women -- won't solve the problem, and propose a set of innovative solutions, from rate caps on credit cards to open-access public schools, to restore security to the middle class."

Table of Contents:
  1. Just the Way She Planned
  2. The Over-Consumption Myth
  3. Mom: The All-Purpose Safety Net
  4. The Myth of the Immoral Debtor
  5. Going It Alone in a Two-Income World
  6. The Cement Life Raft
  7. The Financial Fire Drill
My take: No doubt about it, Warren knows her stuff. In brief, her thesis in Two-Income Trap is that the mass influx of married women with kids into the work force that began in the 1970s has actually left many women and families worse off financially. Specifically, she argues that with more women working, more families have been willing and able to spend ever-increasing amounts on homes in safe neighborhoods and good school districts -- thus leading to a bidding war that drives up the price of houses for everyone. The end result is that even though families may have higher incomes, they're spending a much larger fraction of these incomes on their homes.

More to the point, they're leveraged to the max. Whereas single-income families of yore had what Warren calls "the all-purpose safety net" -- a stay-at-home mother/wife who could go out to work if Dad lost his job or some other financial hardship struck -- the same isn't true of families in which both adults are already working, and using both incomes to make ends meet. In the latter case, families are much more likely to file bankruptcy and/or have their homes foreclosed on when times get tough.

Warren rails without hesitation at what she dubs "the myth of the immoral debtor," or the notion that bankruptcies have increased in the last generation chiefly because more and more people are running up more and more debt for luxury items, and then -- surprise, surprise -- glibly skipping off to the bankruptcy court once they inevitably can't pay the bills. On the contrary, she argues that while we're spending more on some things (i.e., technology) than we used to, we're also spending less on others (i.e., food and clothing) -- which in the end makes for a wash. She notes that about 90% of all bankruptcies and foreclosures are the result of factors beyond families' immediate control: job loss, divorce, or catastrophic medical events. The problem is compounded by an increasingly volatile labor market, even for once-safe white collar jobs, and an expanding credit industry that's transformed from offering credit as a means to sell goods and services to credit -- specifically, high-risk, high-interest-and-fees credit -- as a profit-making end in itself.

I found it fascinating to read this book and contemplate Warren's prescience knowing that it was published in 2003, at or near the effervescent peak of the housing bubble, and several years before the current recession. And the immoral debtor chapter is important food for thought; I've blogged about Affluenza and the more recent Cheap here not too long ago, and I do think there's some element of mass hyper-consumerism to blame, even if Warren would disagree. However, that's not to say this wasn't made possible by the predatory lending behaviors she describes, and I have to (pardon the pun) give her credit for both presenting this information clearly, but also offering enough detail for those of us whose interest in such things goes beyond the usual, Sunday Parade magazine sound bite level.

The one piece I'm not sure of, though, is the whole "mom as all-purpose safety net" argument. I'll agree that having an adult at home can lessen the financial impact of hardships other than job loss; for example, it's a lot easier to deal with the needs of a sick child or frail grandparent under these circumstances. But I think Warren overstates the ease with which someone who's been outside the labor force for several years can just jump right back in when Dad loses his job, and save the family from ruin. Chances are, the same conditions that caused Dad to be let go (and/or that make it tough for him to find a new job quickly) are also going to make it hard for Mom to find work. And unless Mom has a particularly rare, specialized skill set, and has managed to keep it current during her time away from work, she may not be an employer's top candidate -- especially in times of high unemployment, when they'll have plenty of resumes to choose from.

Warren does, in the final chapter, make a point I've long agreed with along these lines; I just wish she'd made it more clearly and earlier. The point is, despite what we might have told ourselves during the early 2000's housing boom, stretching yourself paper-thin to buy as much house as you can afford Just Isn't a Good Idea. The unexpected can and does happen, even in boom times: people lose their jobs, marriages break up, children or adults acquire chronic illnesses or disabilities. While I personally lean towards saving the second income, and/or investing it in non-housing assets (e.g., the college fund), rather than spending it on easy-to-curtail discretionary expenses as Warren suggests, I think we're in agreement that you're better off not fully committing 2 adults' peak earnings to a mortgage that may prove impossible to maintain if the tide turns.

#33 - A Fair Maiden

For me, Joyce Carol Oates' books are the reader's equivalent of a train wreck. Almost, but not quite; the writing is superb, so it's not as though the stories have no redeeming value. It's more that they always leave me feeling, well, more than a little icky. And yet I'm always quick to snap each new one up when I come across it. I can't seem to look away.

A Fair Maiden (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) is no exception.

Summary (from Library Journal Review): "A summer nanny in an upscale New Jersey Shore community, 15-year-old Katya Spivak is approached by wealthy 68-year-old author and artist Marcus Kidder -- and one immediately wonders where this is leading. Oates (Dear Husband) creates a growing sense of evil as Katya becomes more involved with Kidder. First she visits him innocently enough with her charges for tea, then comes over alone when she needs money to help her mother out of a jam; finally, after one unreasonable demand, she rebels. In exploring Katya's life and relations, including her gambling, man-chasing mother, jealous sisters, and criminal boyfriend Ray, Oates makes it clear why a wealthy, sophisticated man would become irresistible to Katya. The answer to the question whether Kidder's intentions are good or evil and whether Katya will eventually be saved or ruined lead to the climax of this short but satisfying novel."

Opening Lines: "Innocently it began. When Katya Spivak was sixteen years old and Marcus Kidder was sixty-eight."

My take:
A good book, especially if you enjoy Oates' work and/or have a taste for the contemporary gothic and vaguely grotesque. I did, however, come away feeling like the ending, while unsettling, wasn't nearly as horrific as the jacket blurb had made it out to be. Yes, Kidder is a lech, and when you finally realize what his ultimate plan for Katya is, your (or at least my) reaction is somewhere between a shudder and an "Ew!"

What's interesting, though, is the nuanced way in which Oates manage to make your basic (albeit rich) dirty old man appear almost sympathetic. By comparison, the blurred snapshots of Katya's other romantic/ sexual encounters, unremarkable though they may be, seem far more perverse and ultimately damaging. What's worse for an impressionable, not-as-worldly-as-she-thinks young working-class girl: a brief liaison with a much-older man who asks about her dreams and tells her repeatedly that she's talented and beautiful, or a blatantly coercive on-and-off affair with an only-slightly-older cousin who also happens to be an ex-con? How will each one affect the woman Katya ultimately grows into? Without giving too much away, there's a violent encounter between the two towards the end of the book that didn't hit me till after the fact as, "Wow. This says something about what's in store for Katya, from here on out."

I do, of course, need to jump on my socioeconomic soapbox for a minute, and argue that Oates' depiction of Katya's home town of Vineland may be unfairly bleak. OK, it's not quite Knockemstiff, but still ... no matter how blue-collar the town, I find it hard to believe that no one of Katya's acquaintance has ever done anything except get pregnant or join the military out of high school. Surely there'd be a cousin or neighbor at community college somewhere? Believe me, I totally get the "working-class kid goes to upper middle/ upper-class summer resort" culture shock thing (been there, done that), but a bit more subtlety on this point might have made the point more effectively.

#32 - Noah's Compass

It's been a busy weekend, both book- and otherwise. Stay tuned for a blogolanche, starting with Noah's Compass, by Anne Tyler (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Jacket summary: "Liam Pennywell, who set out to be a philosopher and ended up teaching fifth grade, never much liked the job at that run-down private school, so early retirement doesn't bother him. But he is troubled by his inability to remember anything about the first night that he moved into his new, spare, and efficient condominium on the outskirts of Baltimore. All he knows when he wakes up the next day in the hospital is that his head is sore and bandaged.

"His effort to recover the moments of his life that have been stolen from him leads him on an unexpected detour. What he needs is someone who can do the remembering for him. What he gets is -- well, something quite different."

Opening line: "In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job."

My take: A gentle book, rather than a life-changing one, but I enjoyed it all the same. Something about it evokes Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, though I haven't read that one in years; perhaps it's that Liam's personality has shades of AT's Macon Leary, or that the quirky and vaguely pathetic Eunice reminds me of AT's dog trainer/ love interest Muriel Pritchett. If you can't get this from the text itself, the title suggests what it is Tyler's asking us to consider: How do we navigate through our lives when all the familiar landmarks are gone?

For Liam, the answers are none too quick in coming. Even before he is injured, the beginning of the story finds himself "interested" in the prospect of downsizing and economizing, but it's a muted enthusiasm at best. As he settles into bed on his first night in his new condo, he muses:
"Most probably ... this would be the final dwelling place of his life. What reason would he have to move again? No new prospects were likely for him. He had accomplished all the conventional tasks -- grown up, found work, gotten married, had children -- and now he was winding down.

"This is it, he thought. The very end of the line. And he felt a mild stirring of curiosity."
Once he awakes in the hospital, though, with a concussed head and a bitten, bandaged hand, he becomes desperate to reconstruct what happened. His family, such as it is, offers little help. Ex-wife Barbara is too busy ranting about Liam's choice of apartment, and eldest daughter Xanthe is convinced the culprit is Damian, her younger sister's boyfriend, who helped Liam move. Middle daughter Louise, a fundamentalist Christian stay-at-home mom pregnant with her second child, seems wrapped up in other things, while youngest daughter Kitty sees this mainly as an opportunity to move in with Liam and away from her constant squabbles with Barbara.

Undeterred, Liam seeks the help of Dr. Morrow, an acclaimed neurologist whose son he'd tutored many years back. While the doctor himself offers little practical assistance for Liam's condition, Liam encounters Ishmael Cope, a venerable and wealthy local businessman, in Morrow's office. Upon learning that Cope has a "professional rememberer" -- a hired staffer whose job is to attend him, take notes, and do whatever else she can to supplement Cope's failing memory -- Liam is intrigued. His curiosity and confusion lead him to track down Cope's rememberer (or "social facilitator," as she calls herself), Eunice, and an odd, almost-but-not-quite romance develops between the two.

Noah's Compass, however, is not primarily a love story, at least not the way the phrase is usually meant. Liam's relationship with Eunice never progresses beyond kisses, and frankly, always just seems Off (as it's probably meant to). No, the book is primarily about connectedness and isolation (no surprise for Tyler fans); we see Liam's tentative but growing relationships with the typically self-centered Kitty, his young grandson Joshua, and even his no-nonsense sister Julia. The conclusion is satisfying, and passes my "not too tidy" test. Definitely a good one to come back to and chew over.