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.

Friday, July 30, 2010

#60 - Beverly Hills Adjacent

Beverly Hills Adjacent, by Jennifer Steinhauer and Jessica Hendra (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009).

Jacket summary: "During TV pilot season, June Dietz's husband, Mitch Gold, becomes another man -- a distracted man who doesn't notice her delicious Farmer's Market homemade dinners, who mumbles responses around the tooth-whitening trays in his mouth, who is consumed with envy for his fellow television actors, who pants for a return phone call from his agent. Does June want to be married to an abject, paranoid, oblivious mess? Possibly not. June's job as a poetry professor at UCLA makes her in but not of Los Angeles, with its illogical pecking order and relentless tribal customs. Even their daughter Nora's allegedly innocent world isn't immune from oneupmanship: While Mitch is bested for acting jobs by the casually confident (and so very L.A.) Willie Dermott, June is tormented by Willie's insufferably uptight wife, Larissa, and the other stay-at-home exercisers in the preschool.

"Could Rich Friend be the answer? Smart, age-appropriate, bookish -- and a wildly successful television producer -- Rich focuses on June the way nobody has since she moved to Los Angeles, and there's nothing for June to do but wallow in what she's been missing. But what's the next step? How does a regular person decide between husband and lover, family and fantasy?

"Set in a Los Angeles you haven't read about before, Beverly Hills Adjacent is that rare thing: a laugh-out-loud novel with heart."

Opening line: "The trouble with starring in a network television show about a bipolar dentist who is looking for love on the internet is that no matter how deft the flossing puns, or how diverting the high jinks with your Puerto Rican hygenist, it all comes down to the time slot."

My take: High literature it ain't, but BHA has a lot more substance and is a lot more entertaining than it had any right to be.

Probably the most surprising thing about this book for me is that it's not the West Coast-style Danielle Steele, lifestyles-of-the-rich and famous cupcake I expected. And this is a good thing. While rich and famous secondary characters abound, principals Mitch and June are transplants to Tinseltown who really do seem to have lives, neuroses, and crises more or less like anyone else. OK, the authors had me at the scene where Mitch, a sweet-if-preoccupied, moderately successful character actor, tries to brag on his academic wife at a show biz party:
"'Hey, did June tell you that she won the William Parker Riley Prize? It's a huge honor in the academic community. And she's up for a big grant this year, too.' Mitch was immensely proud of June's professional accomplishments, which were many, though she rarely spoke about them. Two years ago, her students had nominated her for a teaching award at UCLA -- something she never mentioned, even though she had come in second.

"Larissa clucked. 'Oh, I could never have time to fill out papers for stuff like that. I have so much to do at home. You know, that's why I left the business when Chloe was born. It's just so hard to work and be the kind of mom I want to be. And now I'm busy looking at schools, which is a major execution, because, as you know, Chloe's very gifted.'

"June nodded, remembering that the last time she saw very-gifted Chloe she was chowing down on a dollop of past. 'Yes, that must be quite an execution.'

"June thought about trying to activate that feature which makes your own cell phone ring and reached inside her bag to grab it, and a soggy wooden stirrer fell out onto the table. Larissa looked repulsed and June quickly stowed the stick back in her purse."
In short, this is fluff, but it's satisfying fluff -- probably because it's in a slightly different setting than I'm used to. We tend to expect that stories set in Beverly Hills and/or about professional actors will be in the lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous vein, and, well ... like everyone else everywhere else, sometimes they're just people trying to make a living. Whether or not you think you'll like this book, you're probably right.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

#59 - Idiot America

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, by Charles P. Pierce (New York: Doubleday, 2009).

Jacket summary: "It was the saddle on the dinosaur that did it. In a legendary journalism career, Charles P. Pierce has interviewed vacuous movie stars, disingenuous politicians, cretinous sports heroes, and all manner of charlatans, demagogues, and fanatics. But it wasn't until his visit to the Creation Museum in Hebron, Kentucky, that he realized just how far gone America is. At the center of this popular tourist spot are models of dinosaurs, one of which is wearing a saddle. 'We are taking the dinosaurs back from the evolutionists!' cries the proprietor, who runs something called Answers in Genesis, an organization dedicated to the proposition that the biblical story of creation is inerrant in every word. Since the Bible says the world was created 6,000 years ago, then dinosaurs must have been around at the same time as humans, who were given mastery by God over all the creatures on earth ... ergo, the saddled dinosaur.

"This kind of thinking is not the exception in America, not the province of a few cranks who used to be viewed as eccentrics outside the mainstream. Idiocy is the mainstream. More people vote for the American Idol winner than vote in presidential primaries. Dire warnings from scientists about global warming and from engineers about our crumbling infrastructure are ignored, but gay marriage and flag-burning bans dominate political debate. Mass media divides its coverage between the latest arrests of Britney and Paris and demagogic scream fests led by populist multimillionaires. The Internet, far from 'letting information be free,' has devolved into a chaotic forum where ignorance spreads like a virus.

"The culture wars are over. The idiots have won.

"This pisses Pierce off immensely. Like all cynics, he's secretly a romantic at heart, and his disbelieving anger is fueled by the knowledge that America doesn't have to be this way. Like an Old Testament prophet (albeit an agnostic, funny one), Pierce lets loose on the foibles of society in the secret hope that, somehow, being smart will stop being a stigma and idiots will once again be pitied and not celebrated. But don't get your hopes up."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction: Dinosaurs with Saddles (August 2005)
Part I: The American Way of Idiocy
  • Chapter 1: The Prince of Cranks
  • Chapter 2: The War on Expertise
  • Chapter 3: Beyond Atlantis
  • Chapter 4: The Templars in Town
Part II: Truth
  • Chapter 5: Radio Nowhere
  • Chapter 6: God and Judge Jones
Part III: Consequences
  • Chapter 7: A Woman Dies on Beech Street
  • Chapter 8: How We Look at the Sea
  • Chapter 9: The Principles of Automatic Pilot
Part IV: Mr. Madison's Library
  • Chapter 10: Torture in New Hampshire
  • Chapter 11: Mr. Madison's Library
My take: Extremely entertaining, if almost as extremely partisan, and I say this even tho' I mostly agree with Pierce's stance. Red staters, if you have blood pressure issues, you may want to pass this one by.

Pierce starts off with what seems like an extreme example: the saddled dinosaur, which you already know about if you read the jacket flap. Ayup, creationism gone wild. The same museum sports a eunuch-ized statue of Adam, and an Eve with strategically-arranged long hair that Pierce compares to an old Swedish art film. He makes it easy to laugh at this stuff, but at the same time, draws you into the half-perplexed, half-angry question at the heart of the book: How the heck did we get here? Why are we in this place where we're "drowning in information and thirsty for knowledge," and where it seems our whole country is "entertained but not engaged"?

Parts I and II, where Pierce explores this question, are the strongest and most intriguing parts of the book. He argues that wild and crazy ideas which nonetheless garner a respectable following are nothing new in the U.S.; in fact, the country was founded on them. Pierce calls this "the best country ever in which to peddle complete public lunacy. In fact, it's the only country to enshrine that right in its founding documents." Sure, this right has led to some wacky detours (Pierce is fond of citing Ignatius Donnelly, a 19th-century crank who believed the lost City of Atlantis provided the foundation of western civilization), but sometimes, cranks who initially seemed just as, er, unhinged provided the conflict by which the national consensus ultimately changed.

In short, it's not the eccentrics with the loopy ideas that are the problem. No, the problem comes when "the crank is devalued [and] his ideas are accepted untested and unchallenged into the mainstream." Pierce attributes this in large part to television, where anyone can look like an expert if they appeal to our emotions rather than our intellect. Ergo, you have what he calls the war on expertise, which is based on 3 premises:
  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books or soaks up ratings. This is the mechanism by which Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven -- a cute if somewhat treacly novel about one fictional man's after-death experience -- gets turned into someone's idea of inspirational theology. C'mon, people. I read the book and thought it was an interesting little story, but I thought The Lord of the Rings was interesting, too -- I'm still not looking for hobbit-holes beneath the nearest oak tree.
  2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly or often enough. Did you know Al Gore never really claimed to have invented the internet? Again, here's where TV becomes a big part of the problem; before multiple screens in every home were commonplace, the cranks had to work much harder to get their ideas out to the public. Now, however, well -- "idiocy is almost always good television."
  3. Fact is that which enough people believe; truth is determined how fervently they believe it.
Pierce provides plenty of intriguing and entertaining examples of these premises in action, ranging from the transformation of a planned Texas superhighway into a trans-continental NAFTA superhighway (completely false, and managed to overshadow many legitimate concerns about the consequences of North American free trade) to the age-old belief that just about everything is a conspiracy controlled by the Masons. (Here again, shades of the same Mitch Albom Five People problem resurface with a vengeance, as a Mason-orchestrated conspiracy is central to Dan Brown's DaVinci Code. Brown, Pierce argues, probably never intended this. "To his credit, Brown wrote an intriguing thriller. It's hardly his fault that people read it and integrated into the personal views of the hidden world." He also includes an amusing interview with a long-term Mason from the Boston area, who invites Mason conspiracy theorists to attend his local lodge's annual dinner for a reality check. "Just plan that dinner and see if you think we're capable of pulling off some major conspiracy. You can barely get that dinner done."

Unfortunately, the more contemporary section -- from the Kennedy administration forward -- seems both less clear and harder to believe. While I enjoyed pondering Pierce's contrast of all the wacky conspiracy theories that still about (especially in Dallas) about the Kennedy assassination with our near-blindness to the real conspiracies that have dotted our political landscape since (i.e., the Iran Contra affair), this section of the book reads too much like a rough draft. Likewise, while I'm certainly no fan of the second Bush administration, I'm not sure all Pierce's assertions about their actions are true, or at least, fairly presented. It may very well have been, as Pierce suggests, that he focuses on right-wing idiocy and pandering because "it was the modern American right that consciously adopted irrationality as a tactic and succeeded very well," but I find it hard to believe there haven't been at least some similar examples on the other side of the aisle. Part of what makes this book a good read is that it doesn't try to be impartial, and I'm not suggesting that Pierce should have lost that -- but some acknowledgment that both sides have been known to pander and dissemble at least occasionally would have made for a much stronger argument.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

#58 - Lime Tree Can't Bear Orange

Lime Tree Can't Bear Orange, by Amanda Smyth (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009)

Jacket Summary: "'Men will want you like they want a glass of rum. ... One man will love you. But you won't love him. You will destroy his life. The one you love will break your heart in two.'

"So says the soothsayer, when predicting young Celia's future. Raised in the tropics of Tobago by an aunt she loves and an uncle she fears, Celia has never felt that she belonged. When her uncle -- a man the neighbors call Allah because he thinks himself higher than God -- does something unforgivable, Celia escapes to the bustling capital city.

"There she quickly embraces her burgeoning independence, but her search for a place to call home is soon complicated by an affectionate friendship with William, a thoughtful gardener, and a strong sexual tension with her employer. All too quickly, Celia finds herself fulfilling the soothsayer's predictions and living a life of tangled desperation -- trapped between the man who offers her passion and the one who offers his heart."

Opening line: "I knew about my parents from the things I was told."

My take: An entertaining, if mostly lightweight, debut novel, saved from pure, beach reading, chick-lit-dom by an interesting setting (Trinidad and Tobago) and a likable if misguided heroine.

Then again, "lightweight" and "entertaining" don't quite tell the full story. We know from the first sentence that Celia has never known her parents; her mother, Trini native Grace, died when she was born, and her white British father decamped to Southampton before she was born. Even so, Aunt Tassi's home in a small Tobagan village would be a safe, loving one were it not for Tassi's second husband, the lecherous Roman. Tassi, herself a single mother of twin daughters, seems to think any husband is better than none, and turns a blind eye to Roman's brutality and philanderings. Celia is barely sixteen when Roman rapes her, and makes it clear that Tassi will never believe her over him. Convinced that he is right, Celia flees to Port of Spain with the clothes on her back and what little money she finds in the house.

Two chance happenings on the inter-island ferry shape her destiny. First, she meets William, a homely but kind gardener who works for a wealthy doctor and his British wife in Port of Spain. Second, she falls ill on the crossing, getting steadily sicker and weaker with fever until, once they reach Trinidad, William takes her home to his mother's and eventually summons his employer, Dr. Rodriguez, for help.

Having read the book jacket, I wasn't surprised when my initial suspicions were confirmed: William is indeed the man who comes to love Celia in vain, and it's Dr. Rodriguez who breaks Celia's heart. Unfortunately, this love triangle is probably the weakest part of the book. While Celia's friendship with the gentle William, and his mother's wary mistrust, is believable, the Celia-Rodriguez pairing is far less so. To me, it just seemed too coercive. I could easily understand how the young, isolated Celia could end up becoming lovers with her wealthy, powerful employer, but Smyth doesn't do a sufficiently convincing job explaining what makes Celia fall in love with him. Likewise, I'd have liked more insight into Celia's burgeoning relationship with her Aunt Sula, her mother and Tassi's other sister, who lives in semi-retirement on the country estate estate outside Port of Spain where she worked for decades.

Glad I read this one once, but don't know if it's something I'll come back to.

Monday, July 19, 2010

#57 - The Good Thief

The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti (New York: Dial Press, 2008)

Jacket summary: "Richly imagined, gothically spooky, and replete with the ingenious storytelling ability of a born novelist, The Good Thief introduces one of the most appealing young heroes in contemporary fiction and ratifies Hannah Tinti as one of our most exciting new talents.

"Twelve-year-old Ren is missing his left hand. How it was lost is a mystery that Ren has been trying to solve for his entire life, as well as who his parents are, and why he was abandoned as an infant at Saint Anthony's Orphanage for boys. He longs for a family to call his own and is terrified of the day he will be sent alone into the world.

"But then a young man named Benjamin Nab appears, claiming to be Ren's long-lost brother, and his convincing tale of how Ren lost his hand and his parents persuades the monks at the orphanage to release the boy and to give Ren some hope. But is Benjamin really who he says he is? Journeying through a New England of whaling towns and meadowed farmlands, Ren is introduced to a vibrant world of hardscrabble adventure filled with outrageous scam artists, grave robbers, and petty thieves. If he stays, Ren becomes one of them. If he goes, he's lost once again. As Ren begins to find clues to his hidden parentage he comes to suspect that Benjamin not only holds the key to his future, but to his past as well."

Opening line: "The man arrived after morning prayers."

My take: Pretty darned good for a picaresque, and this is saying a lot, as this isn't usually my favorite genre. Cliche though it may be, I can't help rooting for an orphans hard-luck story -- even when the orphan, like Ren, is a petty thief from the get-go. As an infant, the one-handed Ren was pushed through a hole in a Boston monastery wall by an anonymous stranger on a miserable, rainy night. Now, twelve years later, he's too old for those couples who occasionally come to the monastery seeking a child to raise on their own, and his missing hand renders him unsuitable for those who want an older lad to help with the farm work. Consequently, he's pretty much resigned to being sold off/ conscripted into the army once he's of age, and when Benjamin Nab suddenly appears, claiming to be his long-lost brother and planning to take Ren away, neither Ren nor Father Joseph ask too many questions.

And that's where the real adventure begins. While Ren may be an incorrigible thief (he even swipes Father John's Lives of the Saints on his way out the door, just because), he's downright saintly compared to Benjamin and his ex-schoolteacher crony, Tom. While the term may not have been widely used 200 years ago, take my word for it -- these guys defined the word "sleazeballs." They hop from town to town, running minor variations on the con du jour until the locals wise up; in one chapter, they sell a magical bottled elixir that's guaranteed to cure naughty children's misbehavior (which it does, seeing as it's laced heavily with opium). When they need a big score, they rob graves. This horrifies the Catholic-raised Ren, especially on his first excursion; as he stands guard in the getaway wagon, he sees one of the first corpses harvested that night start to sit up. Mr. Buried-Alive turns out to be Dolly, a tattered but unrepentant murderer. Inexplicably, Ren repeatedly convinces Benjamin and Tom to let Dolly live and not abandon them, and an odd friendship of sorts forms between the two.

Several factors kept me reading in spite of the grotesquerie, the foremost of which is that I was just plain curious about Ren's identity and past. The one clue he has is a scrap of collar, hand-embroidered with the letters "R E N," which he's carried on his person since it was found in his bassinet with him. We learn almost immediately that Benjamin's long-lost brother story is a ruse, and we don't know what to make of his next tale (he tells Tom that Ren is his son), but we know he's important somehow, and must have had some reason for picking Ren out of the orphans' lineup. Then, too, I couldn't decide whether to prepare myself for yet another "rogues with hearts of gold deep-down" ending, or just plain wonder what it would mean for this pair of old-school bad-asses to saddle themselves, over the course of the novel, with more and more human baggage: Ren, Dolly, a half-deaf landlady with a mysterious nighttime visitor, and a brace of inseparable orphan twins whose back story (their mother committed suicide) is at least as pathetic as Ren's own.

The Good Thief is a quick and entertaining read. Give it a try, even if you're not sure it's your cup of tea.

#56 - That Old Cape Magic

That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Jacket summary: "Following Bridge of Sighs -- a best seller hailed by The Boston Globe as 'an astounding achievement' and 'a masterpiece' -- Richard Russo gives us the story of a marriage, and of all the other ties that bind, from parents and in-laws to children and the promises of youth.

"Griffin has been tooling around for nearly a year with his father's ashes in the trunk, but his mother is very much alive and not shy about calling on his cell phone. She does so as he drives down to Cape Cod, where he and his wife, Joy, will celebrate the marriage of their daughter Laura's best friend. For Griffin this is akin to driving into the past, since he took his childhood summer vacations here, his parents' respite from the hated Midwest. And the Cape is where he and Joy honeymooned, in the course of which they drafted the Great Truro Accord, a plan for their lives together that's now thirty years old and has largely come true. He'd left screenwriting and Los Angeles behind for the sort of New England college his snobby academic parents had always aspired to in vain; they'd moved into an old house full of character, and they'd started a family. Check, check and check.

"But be careful what you pray for, especially if you manage to achieve it. By the end of this perfectly lovely weekend, the past has so thoroughly swamped the present that the future suddenly hangs in the balance. And when, a year later, a far more important wedding takes place, their beloved Laura's, on the coast of Maine, Griffin's chauffeuring two urns of ashes as he contends once more with Joy and her large, unruly family, and both he and she have brought dates along. How in the world could this have happened?

"That Old Cape Magic is a novel of deep introspection and every family feeling imaginable, with a middle-aged man confronting his parents and their failed marriage, his own troubled one, his daughter's new life, and, finally, what it was he thought he wanted and what in fact he has. The storytelling is flawless throughout, moments of great comedy and even hilarity alternating with others of rueful understanding and heart-stopping sadness, and its ending is at once surprising, uplifting, and unlike anything this Pulitzer Prize winner has ever written."

Opening line: "Though the digital clock on the bedside table in his hotel room read 5:17, Jack Griffin, suddenly wide awake, knew he wouldn't be able to get back to sleep."

My take: I think Russo's quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary American authors. I loved Empire Falls, appreciated Bridge of Sighs ... yet That Old Cape Magic, a wholly different story than either of the others, doesn't disappoint. While shorter and more straightforward than the earlier 2 books, it's not quite the fluffy beach read the jacket suggests, either. Griffin's parents, especially his mother, are too over-the-top awful to be believed. Joy's aforementioned large, unruly family was way too real, almost a West Coast version of my own. And Laura and Kelsey's ugly duckling turned rich, successful swan, Sunny Kim, is both appealing and a cypher; I wanted to see more of him. Russo strikes the perfect balance between realistic characters and scenarios, but then spinning them out just a little too far so we can see them for how ridiculous they are and maybe even laugh at them (and ourselves) in the bargain. A keeper, this one is.

Monday, July 12, 2010

#55 - The Death & Life of the Great American School System.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch (New York: Basic Books, 2010)

Summary: "As an education historian and former assistant secretary of education, Ravitch has witnessed the trends in public education over the past 40 years and has herself swung from public-school advocate to market-driven accountability and choice supporter back to public-school advocate. With passion and insight, she analyzes research and draws on interviews with educators, philanthropists, and business executives to question the current direction of reform of public education. In the mid-1990s, the movement to boost educational standards failed on political concerns; next came the emphasis on accountability with its reliance on standardized testing. Now educators are worried that the No Child Left Behind mandate that all students meet proficiency standards by 2014 will result in the dismantling of public schools across the nation. Ravitch analyzes the impact of choice on public schools, attempts to quantify quality teaching, and describes the data wars with advocates for charter and traditional public schools. Ravitch also critiques the continued reliance on a corporate model for school reform and the continued failure of such efforts to emphasize curriculum. Conceding that there is no single solution, Ravitch concludes by advocating for strong educational values and revival of strong neighborhood public schools. For readers on all sides of the school reform debate, this is a very important book." (-Vanessa Bush, Booklist)

Table of Contents:
  1. What I Learned About School Reform
  2. Hijacked! How the Standards Movement Turned Into the Testing Movement
  3. The Transformation of District 2
  4. Lessons from San Diego
  5. The Business Model in New York City
  6. NCLB: Measure and Punish
  7. Choice: The Story of an Idea
  8. The Trouble with Accountability
  9. What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?
  10. The Billionaire Boys' Club
  11. Lessons Learned
My take: Fascinating read, especially coming from someone with Ravitch's background. In short, she argues that current fads in school reform (specifically, high-stakes testing, teacher accountability, and charter schools) ain't all they're cracked up to be. Testing, she argues, tends to mean emphasizing those subjects on which students are tested (specifically, elementary math and reading), and neglecting the many others on which they aren't (social studies, arts, science, languages, et al.) Even within math and reading, the emphasis is on multiple choice drills, rather than real in-depth critical thinking and problem-solving. Similarly, teacher accountability (i.e., basing teachers' pay or continued employment on students' test scores) rewards those who teach to the test, is difficult to track anyway, and just plain leaves out anyone who teaches subjects or levels that aren't subject to standardized testing. And charter schools, according to Ravitch, are the very antithesis of accountable, spending public money with little public oversight; skimming off the choicest students and thus leaving the public schools poorer; and producing results (i.e., test scores) that, at best, are about equal to the public schools'. Real reform, she suggests, concerns itself less with the method by which students are taught, and more with the content. While Death and Life ... is more a critique than a prescription, she calls for national or at least strong statewide curricula, similar to those currently in place in Massachusetts.

Again, definitely worthwhile for those interested in public education issues.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

#54 - Finn

Finn, by John Clinch (New York: Random House, 2007).

Summary: "In this masterful debut by a major new voice in fiction, Jon Clinch takes us on a journey into the history and heart of one of American literature's most brutal and mysterious figures: Huckleberry Finn's father. The result is a deeply original tour de force that springs from Twain's classic novel but takes on a fully realized life of its own. Finn sets a tragic figure loose in a landscape at once familiar and mythic. It begins and ends with a lifeless body -- flayed and stripped of all identifying marks -- drifting down the Mississippi. The circumstances of the murder, and the secret of the victim's identity, shape Finn's story as they will shape his life and his death. Along the way Clinch introduces a cast of unforgettable characters: Finn's terrifying father, known only as the Judge; his sickly, sycophantic brother, Will; blind Bliss, a secretive moonshiner; the strong and quick-witted Mary, a stolen slave who becomes Finn's mistress; and of course young Huck himself. In daring to recreate Huck for a new generation, Clinch gives us a living boy in all his human complexity -- not an icon, not a myth, but a real child facing vast possibilities in a world alternately dangerous and bright. Finn is a novel about race; about paternity in its many guises; about the shame of a nation recapitulated by the shame of one absolutely unforgettable family. Above all, Finn reaches back into the darkest waters of America's past to fashion something compelling, fearless, and new."

Opening line: "Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean."

My take: I usually enjoy books that offer a different take on a familiar story, but this one was just so-so. Maybe it's because Twain was never one of my favorites; too many bad "required reading" associations from high school, I s'pose. Maybe it's because the story jumped all over the place temporally, which made it a bit confusing. Maybe it's because the title character was so over-the-top awful (in short, he's a mean, violent drunk and a thief, with a guilty passion for women of color) that it was hard to care much about or believe in what he did. Or maybe it's just because the book's Big Shocking Reveal (Clinch envisions Huck as biracial) just wasn't that big a surprise to me. The writing itself was first-rate, but that alone wasn't enough to get me past not caring much one way or the other about Clinch's subject.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

#53 - Food, Inc.

Food, Inc.: How Industrial Food Is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer -- and What You Can Do About It, edited by Karl Weber (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009).

Jacket summary: "The movie Food, Inc. is shaking up our perceptions of what we eat. This powerful documentary deconstructing the corporate food industry in America has been hailed by Entertainment Weekly as 'more than a terrific movie -- it's an important movie.'

"Now, this unique companion book explores the challenges raised by the movie in fascinating depth through thirteen essays, most of them written especially for this book, and many by experts featured in the film. Highlights include:
  • Eric Schlosser on the industrialization of our food supply
  • Michael Pollan on the benefits of locally-sourced, organic eating
  • Robert Kenner, director, on the making of Food, Inc.
  • Marion Nestle on sorting out food facts from fictions
  • Anna Lappe on how the U.S. food system promotes global warming
  • Muhammad Yunus on the global impact of food industrialization
  • Joel Salatin on how to declare your independence from industrial food
  • Gary Hirshberg on how organic food is going mainstream
"If daily headlines about food poisoning, pollution, labor abuse, and rampant hunger have left you worried or confused about the foods you eat, Food, Inc. provides the facts behind the problems -- and shows you what you can do to make a difference."

Table of Contents:

Part I: Food, Inc.: The Film
  • 1. Reforming Fast Food Nation: A Conversation with Eric Schlosser
  • 2. Exploring the Corporate Powers Behind the Way We Eat: The Making of Food, Inc.
Part II: Inside the Food Wars
  • 3. Organics -- Healthy Food, and So Much More
  • 4. Food, Science, and the Challenge of World Hunger -- Who Will Control the Future?
  • 5. The Ethanol Scam: Burning Food to Make Motor Fuel
  • 6. The Climate Crisis at the End of Our Fork
  • 7. Cheap Food: Workers Pay the Price
  • 8. The Financial Crisis and World Hunger
Part III: What You Can Do About It
  • 9. Why Bother?
  • 10. Declare Your Independence
  • 11. Eating Made Simple
  • 12. Improving Kids' Nutrition: An Action Tool Kit for Parents and Citizens
  • 13. Produce to the People: A Prescription for Health
My take: This book is exactly what it says it is: a companion volume to the movie. It's also well worth reading whether or not you've seen the movie, as it neither presupposes knowledge from the film or rehashes all the same ground that's visited there. Rather, it does a nice job of going into more detail about some of the points not really elaborated on in the movie -- specifically, the degree to which the "always low prices" in our industrial food system rest on the backs of exploited farm workers, and the role our food system plays in exacerbating climate change. On one hand, this is hardly a balanced perspective; on the other, I do believe Kenner's claim in the second chapter that he tried to present the big food companies' perspectives, but they simply refused to talk to him.

If you're wondering whether the movie is worth it, are interested in the subject without the visuals, or have seen the movie and want to know more, read Food, Inc. It just may put you off a lot of food items for good, though.

#52 - Day After Night

Day After Night, by Anita Diamant (New York: Scribner, 2009).

Jacket summary: "Just as she gave voice to the silent women of the Old Testament in The Red Tent, Anita Diamant creates a cast of breathtakingly vivid characters -- young women who escaped to Israel from Nazi Europe -- in this intensely dramatic novel.

"Day After Night is based on the extraordinary true story of the October 1945 rescue of more than two hundred prisoners from the Atlit internment camp, a prison for 'illegal' immigrants run by the British military near the Mediterranean coast south of Haifa. The story is told through the eyes of four young women at the camp with profoundly different stories. All of them survived the Holocaust: Shayndel, a Polish Zionist; Leonie, a Parisian beauty; Tedi, a hidden Dutch Jew; and Zorah, a concentration camp survivor. Haunted by unspeakable memories and losses, afraid to begin to hope, Shayndel, Leonie, Tedi, and Zorah find salvation in the bonds of friendship and shared experience even as they confront the challenge of re-creating themselves in a strange new country.

"This is an unforgettable story of tragedy and redemption, a novel that reimagines a moment in history with such stunning eloquence that we are haunted and moved by every devastating detail. Day After Night is a triumphant work of fiction."

Opening lines: "The nightmares made their rounds hours ago. The tossing and whimpering are over."

My take: There will never be another Red Tent, but Diamant is still a darned fine writer, and I give her credit for taking a new approach to Holocaust fiction. There are many books out there that look at victims' and survivors' experiences during the war, but far fewer that ask what it meant to have survived, and what happened next.

Here, the characters are alive, but not yet free. Rather, they're stuck for who knows how long in the Atlit internment camp, technically in Israel but not really -- at least, not yet. Technically, they're in the British mandate of Palestine, almost 3 years before Israel proclaimed its independence, and have already learned before the story opens that despite all they've survived up until this point, the Brits still consider them illegal immigrants -- hence, the camp. If that's not enough, each woman struggles quietly with her own demons. Shayndel, hailed as a war hero for her role in the Polish Zionist movement, can't accept others' praise when she's convinced it's her slowness that got her two best friends killed. Her dearest friend Leonie is terrified that someone will learn the truth about her life in Paris, and that she'll be shunned if this happens. Blonde, blue-eyed Tedi, raised by an uncle who never mentioned her religion except to disparage it, struggles to learn the language and practices of Judaism for the first time. And Zorah, who survived the camps by walling herself off from everyone else, finds her stoic isolation put to the test by two unlikely intruders: camp guard Meyer, whose conversation proves almost as stimulating as his cigarettes, and Esther and Jacob, a newly-arrived mother and child with a secret of their own and a desperate need for Zorah's gift with languages.

As the jacket suggests, the women (and many others) do ultimately leave Atlit, and begin in earnest their post-war lives. I closed the back cover wishing I knew more than the brief epilogue tells us, which I guess is a sign of a good novel.

Friday, July 2, 2010

#51 - The Tyranny of E-Mail

The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, by John Freeman (New York: Scribner, 2009).

Jacket summary: "The first e-mail was sent less than forty years ago; by 2011, there will be 3.2 billion e-mail users. The average corporate worker now receives upwards of two hundred e-mails per day. The flood of messages is ceaseless and follows us everywhere. We check e-mail in transit; we check it in the bath. We check it before bed and upon waking up. We check it even midconversation, blithely assuming no one will notice. We no longer make our own to-do list. E-mail does.

"It's time for a break. In The Tyranny of E-Mail, John Freeman takes an entertaining look at the nature of correspondence through the ages. From love poems delivered on clay tablets through the art of the letter to the first era of information overload (via the telegraph) to the vast network brought on by the Internet, Freeman answers the difficult question, Where is this taking us?

"Put down your BlackBerry and consider the consequences. As the toll of e-mail mounts by reducing our time for leisure and contemplation and by separating us from one another in an unending and lonely battle with the overfull inbox, John Freeman -- one of American's preeminent literary critics -- enters a plea for communication that is more selective and nuanced and, above all, more sociable."

Table of Contents:
  1. Introduction
  2. Words in Motion
  3. The Invention of Now
  4. All Together Now
  5. This Is Your Brain on E-Mail
  6. Dawn of the Machines
  7. Manifesto for a Slow Communication Movement
  8. Don't Send
My take: This was an interesting read, but didn't quite live up to the promise suggested by its strong start. The first chapters offer a whirlwind overview of communication technology, from the world's oldest love poem, carved in cuneiform some 4,000 years ago, to the speed-of-light pace of today's email and chat offerings. In the Introduction, Freeman presents the contrast in a gorgeous and provocative manner, describing first the love poem:
"Love may not be forever, but this expression of it has outlasted swords forged by fire, cities designed by the finest architects, the largest machine ever to fly, and the most titanic boat ever to sail. To write his verse, the poet would have had to compose the lines in his head or recite them to a friend. Then he would have molded the clay tablet and slowly, but deliberately, carved his verse into it with a reed staff before the clay hardened. Finally, he would have dried the poem in the sun and waited another day for it to cool, when it could be delivered by his beloved by hand."
and then, a page or so later, the quantity-over-quality attitude exemplified by Google's unlimited storage:
"Thanks to a group of 450,000 machines scattered across the United States like underground missle bunkers, I could store more e-mails than there are blades of grass in Kansas. This is beyond unprecedented -- it is superhuman. Is God's inbox this big? ... What busy individual needs this industrial-strength capacity for his correspondence tool? What buzzing, humming megalopolis tunes in to this techno-rave of send and receive, send and receive? Is the human brain wired to receive this much stimuli? Can our eyes scan this many separate pieces of information? Is anyone listening?"
He goes on to argue that contemporary American worker bees are swamped by what he deems an email tsunami, sending and receiving an average of 200 emails per day, expected to be constantly on-call to a degree formerly reserved for doctors, plumbers, and heads of state.

Since I've long looked with skepticism on any claims that the world's going to hell in a handbasket, and that things were much better in the good old days, I got a chuckle or 3 out of Freeman's communication history, reading about how once upon a time, folks were shocked by the introduction of the postal service and the typewriter. I also found myself agreeing with some of what he suggests are the negative consequences of our constant connection to email, such as fractured attention spans and little or no uninterrupted time for complex, creative thinking. And I certainly don't think, for the majority of workers, being constantly tethered to our jobs by electronic leashes is a good thing (which is why I'm able to resist it for myself).

That said, though, I'm not sure Freeman's prescription -- essentially, calling for us to think before we send still more email, and train ourselves to check and respond to email only a few times a day -- is all that revolutionary (heck, almost any time management book will offer similar suggestions), or that email has been quite as bad for our social and familial lives as he'd have us believe. Could most of us stand to spend more time with our friends IRL, and less commenting on our Facebook friends' statuses? Sure. But in a world where many of us are like me -- relatives a good day's drive away, and dear friends on the other side of the globe -- there's also a lot to be said for having other options. And while I do indeed see plenty of people using their laptops in my local cafes, I also see plenty chatting with friends or reading low-tech books.

I don't want to suggest that The Tyranny of E-Mail is a bad book; I just think I may already be in the choir to which Freeman's preaching. If you're an early adopter and never really thought much about whether contemporary communication technologies are an unqualified good thing, give this one a read ... if you've pondered this some on your own, though, the book may not do much for you.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

#50 - The Lake Shore Limited

The Lake Shore Limited, by Sue Miller (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)

Jacket summary: "Four unforgettable characters beckon you into this spellbinding new novel from Sue Miller, the author of 2008's heralded best seller The Senator's Wife. First among them is Wilhelmina -- Billy -- Gertz, small as a child, fiercely independent, powerfully committed to her work as a playwright. The story itself centers on The Lake Shore Limited -- a play Billy has written about an imagined terrorist bombing of that train as it pulls into Union Station in Chicago, and about a man waiting to hear the fate of his estranged wife, who is traveling on it. Billy had waited in just such a way on 9/11 to hear whether her lover, Gus, was on one of the planes used in the attack.

"The novel moves from the snow-filled woods of Vermont to the rainy brick sidewalks of Boston as the lives of the other characters intersect and interweave with Billy's: Leslie, Gus's sister, still driven by grief years after her brother's death; Rafe, the actor who rises to greatness in a performance inspired by a night of incandescent lovemaking; and Sam, a man so irresistibly drawn to Billy after he sees the play that so clearly displays the terrible conflicts and ambivalence of her situation.

"How Billy has come to create the play out of these emotions, how it is then created anew on the stage, how the performance itself touches and changes the other characters' lives -- these form the thread that binds them all together and drives the novel compulsively forward."

Opening line: "Because it was still afternoon, because she was in a strange room, because she was napping rather than sleeping ('I'll just lie down for a bit and see what happens,' she'd told Pierce) -- because of all this, she was aware of herself as she dreamed, at some level conscious of working to subvert the dream she was having, to make it come out another way, different from the way it seemed to be headed."

My take: Clearly, I liked this one; it's been a while since I've read a novel in one sitting, though it has happened and I do enjoy me some Sue Miller (and apparently some bad grammar, too).

As noted on the jacket, the novel centers on the play from which it takes its title, and how it resonates with each of the main characters. In an early chapter, we "see" the play open in previews, and learn the story firsthand. Protagonist Gabriel, an aloof, middle-aged college professor type, is enjoying his solitude at home (pointedly ignoring the phone, where a mysterious woman's voice tells him they have to talk) when his grown son Alex arrives in a panicked rage, banging on the door, outraged that his father hasn't yet heard about the terrorist bombing of the train that's carrying Gabriel's wife and Alex's mother, Elizabeth, back home. Alex and his wife grow frustrated and then furious at Gabriel's taking the news so calmly, but the truth is, he's not sure how to react. Their marriage, at least lately, has been a rocky one, and we learn that Gabriel's been having an affair. Though he admits it only reluctantly, he does think for the briefest moment that Elizabeth's death would relieve him of the painful decisions before him, and free him to pursue happiness with his mistress, Anita, if indeed that's what he wants. Hours later, when a badly bruised but very much alive Elizabeth walks in the front door, Gabriel speaks her name with an excruciating mix of joy and regret.

Perhaps no one understands Gabriel's complicated feelings better than his creator, playwright Billy, who lost her lover Gus in the 9/11 attacks several years earlier. Leslie, Gus's heartbroken sister, seeks solace and companionship with someone who shares her grief, and insists on Billy's playing a starring role in several memorial events, introducing her as Gus's fiancee and demanding that she accept a share of the victim's compensation money she ultimately receives. Leslie's generous grief, though, coupled with the public nature of Gus's death, makes Billy loath to admit the truth: she'd known for weeks, possibly months, that she wasn't in love with Gus, and had planned to leave him once he returned from the trip that ended so abruptly.

Leslie, although she's come to Boston and the play partly to give Billy permission to "move on" and begin dating again (despite Pierce's gentle suggestions that Billy may have given herself said permission years earlier), and even to introduce a suitable prospect (her old friend and one-time crush, Sam), is stunned to see this played out on the stage. Did Billy really not love Gus at all? Did she feel just a flicker of relief at his death? While Leslie adores Billy and seems almost desperate to maintain their connection, she begins to wonder exactly what this connection means for both of them.

Despite their initial bemusement and mild irritation at being so obviously "set up" by Leslie, Sam and Billy do find themselves drawn to one another. For Sam, the response comes almost immediately after seeing the play, and then meeting the unexpectedly warm and welcoming playwright. He himself is no stranger to complex relationships, having lost his first wife to cancer while their three sons were still children; his second, the lovely but snobbish Claire, to divorce scarce months after their "dream home" was completed; and his grown children, well ... they're all alive, but let's just say it's complicated. For Billy, the attraction begins later, when an innocuous walk-in-the-park date leads to a fall, a broken wrist, and a trip to the emergency room that show her what Sam is made of.

Of course, the play's impact hinges on Gabriel's reaction to Elizabeth's homecoming in the final scene. So, as it turns out, does the actor, Rafe's, career. After solid but not-quite-perfect performances in the previews, Rafe nails the closing scene on opening night. He finds himself digging deep into his own reservoir of experience with love, intimacy, and regret; after an on-again, off-again relationship that stretches back to college, his own wife, Lauren, is dying of ALS. His feelings for Lauren are about as convoluted as Billy's for Gus and Leslie, and the night before opening, the two share a single, perfect night that lends the final je ne sais quoi to his performance.

I almost called this book "chick lit at its finest," before I remembered that I was banning that term from my literary vocabulary. Yes, the primary audience for this book will probably be women, and yes, it's primarily about love and relationships. It's still a good book, with believable characters and intriguing questions. An excellent summer read.