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.

Monday, September 27, 2010

#70 - Ophelia's Mom

Ophelia's Mom: Women Speak Out About Loving and Letting Go of Their Adolescent Daughters, bu Nina Shandler (New York: Crown Publishers, 2001).

Summary: "'Why do I hurt so much when she pulls away?' 'What did I do wrong?' 'Are we ever going to be friends again?' 'Why is she friends with that sleaze and dating that fungus?' 'I know I'm supposed to let her go, but I don't know how and I'm terrified.' From the mother of the author of the bestselling Ophelia Speaks, this is the first book in which mothers of adolescent girls speak out about how the changes in their daughters' lives are prompting cataclysms in their own.

Reviving Ophelia and Ophelia Speaks explored the painful challenges faced by teen girls. But where's the support for the mothers of those teen girls? In Ophelia's Mom, Nina Shandler, Ed.D., gives the mothers the chance to speak out about feelings and uncertainties too often considered taboo.

"Culled from written submissions and interviews with hundreds of women from all walks of life and from every part of the country, the concerns voiced in these pages reflect the universal experience of mothers facing one set of life changes while their daughters are facing another. With humor, pathos, insight, rage, sadness, joy, and ultimately, optimism, these mothers talk candidly about rejection and separation, feminism versus Girl Power, love and sex, friends, school, drugs and alcohol, divorce, menstruation and menopause, the mother-daughter bond, and much more.

"As these mothers reveal how this life passage has reshaped them as well as their children, you'll realize that you're not crazy, and you're certainly not alone in your frustration, confusion, and exhilaration over raising an adolescent daughter."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction
Backstage Moms
  • A Supporting Role
  • In the Wings
Part One: Into Adolescent Territory
  • Blood and Tears
  • Mirror Images: Hormones, Body Shapes, and Skin Conditions
  • Frozen Affections
  • Passing Storms
  • Limits of Power
Part Two: Disarmed Bodyguards
  • The Culture of School
  • The Influence of Friends
  • The Quest for Love
  • Sex: The Carnal Consequences
  • The Lure of Intoxication: Alcohol and Drugs
  • The Edges of Emotion: Depression and Eating Disorders
  • Minding the Body: Illness and Disease
Part Three: Tied in Family Knots
  • Fathers and Husbands
  • Daughters and Sisters
  • Broken Homes
  • Legacies: From Generation to Generation
Part Four: Transitions and Transformations
  • Holding On to Values
  • Pushed into Self-Discovery
Into the Limelight
  • On to a New Stage
My take: Interesting in small doses, but on the whole -- somewhat depressing and more than a little tedious.

Granted, some of this may be the result of selection bias. Shandler collected the interviews and essays that form the backbone of her book via the following invitation:
"An Invitation to Mothers of Adolescent Girls

"When adolescence takes possession of our daughters, we, their mothers, find ourselves in alien territory. Our familiar mother/ daughter bond is banished. Daily life swerves in unpredictable directions. We careen from emotion to emotion: confusion, laughter, hurt, relief, despair, hope. Still, the mothers' side of the Ophelia saga is seldom told.

"An unspoken heritage pressures mothers to remain silent. In Hamlet, Ophelia's mother has no part. In our youth-obsessed culture, a bittersweet limelight focuses on our daughters, while we fade in their shadow. Ophelia's Mom is an opportunity for mothers to emerge from backstage, to dispel a silence that keeps us feeling alone.

"I'd love to receive your thoughts, stories, or interview requests.

"Written Contributions: Please
see Ophelia's Mom as an opportunity to talk to other mothers about your own journey through your daughter's adolescence. ... Just dive into your experience and write honestly. Feel free to be funny or sad, angry or ashamed, worried or relieved, uplifted or grief-stricken. ... Focus on any topic that sheds light on your daughter-driven challenges."
Even if we assume the invitations were distributed to a fairly representative sample of mothers, I'd wager there were significant differences between those who took the time to reply and those who didn't. I'd even go so far as to suggest that the moms who'd found their daughters' adolescence particularly rough might have been more likely to respond, while those who shrugged and said, "Yeah, we've done some screaming and slammed some doors, but no big deal," usually didn't bother. Right?

At least that's what I keep telling myself. With my own daughter just on the threshold of adolescence, I'm well aware of the karmic dangers of smugly proclaiming "I would NEVER" or "My daughter just COULDN'T ... " To quote Vivianne in The Mists of Avalon, "Never name that well from which you will not drink." But even so, I'm amazed at the number of women featured in this book who were utterly gobsmacked when their teenage daughters dyed their hair blue; were embarrassed to be seen in Mom's presence; or became secretive around alcohol, drugs, and sex. (Shocked, I tell you, simply shocked.) And while I know there's often a big difference between knowing something in theory and putting that theory into practice, it seems obvious (at least on an intellectual level) that bad-mouthing your ex-spouse or his new wife in front of your kids is a Bad Idea, and that criticizing your child's friends/ boyfriends/ girlfriends is a surefire way to make your child cling to said friends all the more.

Perhaps I'm not being fair to Shandler or Ophelia's Mom. I've read some pretty over-the-top hysterical (as in overly emotional, not laugh-riot funny) parenting books, and this certainly isn't in that camp. Honestly, I'm probably reacting like my friend's then-preadolescent daughter did a few years ago when my hipMama friend bought lots of books and initiated conversations aplenty about puberty and all its ch-ch-ch-changes. I'm just too close to a somewhat-scary topic, and may as well throw my hands over my ears and sing loudly, "LA LA LA LA LA LA, I'M NOT LISTENING!"

I think this book is best appreciated, at least for me, by stepping back and putting my anthropologist's hat on. For the mothers of adolescents or near-adolescents, there are lessons or at least reminders to be gleaned herein: let go slowly, incrementally; don't take separation personally; get a life apart from your kids; and remember that eventually, this too shall pass. Beyond that, well ... ask me again in 7 or 8 years.

Friday, September 24, 2010

#69 - A Fierce Radiance

A Fierce Radiance, by Lauren Belfer (New York: Harper, 2010).

Jacket summary: "Claire Shipley is a single mother haunted by the death of her young daughter and by her divorce years ago. She is also an ambitious photojournalist, and in the anxious days after Pearl Harbor, the talented Life magazine reporter finds herself on top of one of the nation's most important stories. In the bustling labs of New York City's renowned Rockefeller Institute, some of the country's brightest doctors are racing to find a cure that will save the lives of thousands of wounded American soldiers and countless others -- a miraculous new drug they call penicillin. Little does Claire suspect how much the story will change her own life when the work leads to an intriguing romance.

"Though Claire has always managed to keep herself separate from the subjects she covers, this story touches her deeply, stirring memories of her daughter's sudden illness and death -- a loss that might have been prevented by this new 'miracle drug.' And there is James Stanton, the shy and brilliant physician who coordinates the institute's top secret research for the military. Drawn to this dedicated, attractive man and his work, Claire unexpectedly finds herself falling in love. But Claire isn't the only one interested in the secret development of this medicine. Her long-estranged father, Edward Rutherford, a self-made millionaire, understands just how profitable a new drug like penicillin could be. When a researcher at the institute dies under suspicious circumstances, the stakes become starkly clear: a murder has been committed to obtain these lucrative new drugs. With lives and a new love hanging in the balance, Claire will put herself at the center of danger to find a killer -- no matter what price she may have to pay."

Opening line: "Claire Shipley was no doctor, but even she could see that the man on the stretcher was dying."

My take: What do you say about a book that's part historical fiction, part mystery/ suspense, and part medical drama, with the obligatory bit of romance mixed in? Well, in the case of A Fierce Radiance, I'd say it's surprisingly good. You'd think, from the jacket flap, that the plot would either get impossibly complicated or implausibly cheesy, but it actually doesn't. A hard-core mystery or medical thriller it's not, but Belfer does an admirable job of blending the varied elements of the story without making the reader want to skip over one section or the other. No mean task, that.

It's not spoiling too much to say that yes, the man on the stretcher in Act I does, indeed, die. After a minor scrape on the tennis court gets infected, he arrives at the Rockefeller Institute in grave condition. Claire, a Life photojournalist who excels in blending into her surroundings to capture the story, has been sent to document penicillin's emergence as a miracle drug -- just in time to treat the countless injuries our soldiers will incur in World War II, which the U.S. has just entered the week the novel opens. With no other avenues left to treat Mr. Reese, his wife agrees to subject him to the first human penicillin trials. His recovery is nothing short of miraculous.

There's a catch, of course. While scientists have known about penicillin since the 1920s, its mass production continues to elude them. The Institute has only what they can grow in milk bottles and bedpans, and supplies are limited. Having never tried penicillin on humans before, dosage levels and frequency take some guesswork. A short few days later, Reese relapses, and dies before more penicillin is available.

His story and those of the researchers involved set the stage for the bulk of the novel. The military is sure to need as much penicillin as they can produce; civilians are bound to want it when word gets out; and yet there's no viable way to produce it on a large, commercial scale -- even though a Navy-led team of scientists from all the major pharmaceutical companies is throwing everything they have at the problem. Or are they? While the government's pre-emptively barred them from patenting anything to do with penicillin, there are sure to be other mold-based medicines out there, and all the drug companies have already realized that identifying and patenting them is where the real money lies. Needless to say, they're none too eager to share their progress in this area; patriotic duty, after all, only goes so far.

Furious when Life kills her penicillin story (Reese's death makes it too depressing for wartime), increasingly drawn to chief Rockefeller penicillin researcher James Stanton, and desperate not to be sent overseas on assignment, Claire pitches a new project to publisher Henry Luce: let her document the nascent penicillin production process, and don't publish it until the magazine and the country are ready. The formidable Luce agrees. Things get complicated in a hurry, however, when Claire is assigned a second job, working for the federal government: use the knowledge she gains to keep tabs on the pharmaceutical companies, and make sure they aren't holding anything back. A researcher who's just started to see promising results from a penicillin alternative ends up dead; was it suicide, accident, or murder? And Claire's father, the inventor/ tycoon she's just recently begun to know after a decades-long estrangement, has just bought a pharmaceutical company, and is turning up in the oddest places.

While A Fierce Radiance is certainly a page turner, it's the supporting details that really set it apart. Belfer succeeds brilliantly in capturing the texture of everyday Americans' lives in the early days of WWII: the constant fear that the nightly bombings of London would come to New York and Washington, the potentially devastating consequences of illness and injury in the pre-antibiotic age, the lingering aftermath of the Great Depression. While Claire herself has a bit of Mary Sue about her, the bulk of the characters are complex and believable; I especially appreciated how the author portrayed Rutherford, Claire's father, in this regard.

If anything, the romance is the weakest part of the story. It's not that I object to a love story that starts out with an intense physical attraction; heck, it happens all the time. But because it is so common, it's hard to write about it in a way that feels fresh or non-cliched. Fortunately, the somewhat-trite beginning is largely redeemed as the story progresses, Claire and Jamie are kept apart by their respective wartime assignments, and ... well, life happens.

All in all, an engaging read, and an interesting twist on the World War II novel. If you like historical fiction and/or medical thrillers, you'll probably like this one.

#68 - Drum roll, please

So, after 2 false starts, my 68th book of the year ended up being ...

The Lazy Husband: How To Get Men To Do More Parenting and Housework, by Joshua Coleman (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005)

Summary: "'My job is more stressful thank yours.' 'I'm just not very good at domestic stuff.' 'Your standards are too high.' 'I never learned how to do this chore.' Have you heard one or more of the above excuses in the past month? Are you sick of your husband's avoidance tactics regarding housework and parenting? If you answered yes to either of these questions, you need this book. The Lazy Husband is a hands-on guide to changing men's attitudes towards domestic work and child care. Dr. Joshua Coleman, author and clinical psychologist, understands that a happy marriage is a balanced marriage. And now, in his refreshingly honest and straightforward style, Coleman reveals exactly how women can motivate their husbands to become better partners and better fathers. By outlining and defining the various types of lazy husbands, Dr. Joshua Coleman teaches women how to understand where their husbands are coming from and enact change. Some Lazy Husband types include: * The Boy-Husband: This husband wants to be taken care of, and pretends to be incompetent around the house. * The Perfectionist Husband: This husband wants the house and the kids to look perfect, but doesn't want to do the work himself. * The Angry Husband: This husband keeps his wife at bay with his irritability, anger, or intimidation. From here, Coleman develops type-specific plans for change. By following these proactive plans, you, too, can achieve a happy, well-balanced marriage. Just remember, you can do less by getting your husband to do more."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction
  • 1 - The Perfect Mother
  • 2 - Creating Change
  • 3 - Once Children Arrive
  • 4 - Foundations: What Kind of Marriage Do I Have?
  • 5 - Childhood Revisited
  • 6 - It's a Personality Thing
  • 7 - What's with Men, Anyway?
  • 8 - For the Husband
  • 9 - The Lazy Husband Campaign
My take: First of all, it's time for a disclaimer and a confession. I'll start with the latter: I have an embarrassing weakness for self-help books. No, they're not Harlequin romances or Star Trek novels, but I'm the woman who goes to tax school in her free time; it's not like my inner dorkiness has ever been a big secret.

That brings me to the disclaimer: My reading this book is not in any way a reflection on my own marriage! In fact, Mr. Hazelthyme is presently doing an admirable job of pulling his weight and my own at home, as I've been out on the town 3 nights a week (see the preceding paragraph) and taken on another part-time job besides. Can you see why I've been hiding this book amidst a big stack of others from the library, and always making sure it's face down on the nightstand? (Hey, some people hide candy wrappers or liquor bottles in the trash -- so what if some of our secrets are lamer than others?) But I'm always interested to see how the popular press treats topics I'm interested in -- gender roles, intimate relationships, parenting -- and what's Out There in the zeitgeist. I read this stuff for much the same reason I waste the occasional evening playing Plants vs. Zombies: even if it's not going to make my life any better in the long run, it's still pretty entertaining.

Now that that's out of the way, let's move on to the review. In short, Lazy Husband was imperfect, but better than much I've read in the same genre (and we've already established that that's a lot). Coleman's chief argument won't surprise anyone who's ever been in a committed long-term relationship: Marriage is a complicated dance, and every action has its reaction. Over time, both parties' behavior contributes to the patterns that emerge, and some of them can be frustrating at best. Provocative/ inflammatory title and cover photo aside, Coleman's treatment of husbands' vs. wives' role in this dynamic is actually fairly even-handed. His book is primarily addressed to women because that's where the perceived need is greatest; you rarely hear men grousing about how much easier life would be if only they were more involved in parenting and domestic chores. He does, however, spend some time talking about why it is that men and women's expectations seem to differ so widely in this area, and even includes a brief mention of why men should care (the short answer: happier, healthier kids, and more, better sex).

My main criticism isn't one I usually make: I think Coleman's a bit biased in favor of what he calls egalitarian marriages, which colors an otherwise-interesting section of the book. He presents 3 different models for how heterosexual couples divide paid and unpaid work: traditional, transitional, and egalitarian. So far, so good, except that he seems to imply that only traditional relationships have their down sides, and that all marriages ultimately should be egalitarian. Perhaps I'm mellowing in my old age, but I'm not sure I agree. Should couples negotiate their division of labor together, and address the inevitable snags with affection and respect? Absolutely. But I do think healthy, respectful families are possible in all configurations, even traditional ones, and I know that egalitarianism itself is no guarantee of a strong, sustainable relationship.

Monday, September 13, 2010

#68 (take 2) - Private Life

So I don't usually admit to reading multiple books at once. Actually, I don't do it all that often. But sometimes, like now, I get enmeshed in a non-fiction volume that's interesting, but a bit ... dry, especially for times when I'm otherwise busy and have precious little time to read.

Hence, I've also started Jane Smiley's Private Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). I've enjoyed several of Smiley's other books -- living in a college town, Moo is a perpetual favorite -- and figured this would be a nice contrast to the sometimes-dense Skeptical Economist that's been untouched on my dresser for a few days.

Summary: "A riveting new novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winner that traverses the intimate landscape of one woman's life, from the1880s to World War II. Margaret Mayfield is nearly an old maid at twenty-seven in post-Civil War Missouri when she marries Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. He's the most famous man their small town has ever produced: a naval officer and a brilliant astronomer -- a genius who, according to the local paper, has changed the universe. Margaret's mother calls the match 'a piece of luck.' Margaret is a good girl who has been raised to marry, yet Andrew confounds her expectations from the moment their train leaves for his naval base in faraway California. Soon she comes to understand that his devotion to science leaves precious little room for anything, or anyone, else. When personal tragedies strike and when national crises envelop the country, Margaret stands by her husband. But as World War II approaches, Andrew's obsessions take a different, darker turn, and Margaret is forced to reconsider the life she has so carefully constructed. Private Life is a beautiful evocation of a woman's inner world: of the little girl within the hopeful bride, of the young woman filled with yearning, and of the faithful wife who comes to harbor a dangerous secret. But it is also a heartbreaking portrait of marriage and the mysteries that endure even in lives lived side by side; a wonderously evocative historical panorama; and above all, a masterly, unforgettable novel from one of our finest storytellers."

Opening line: "Stella, who had been sleeping in her basket in the corner, leapt up barking and then slipped out the bedroom door."

My take: Didn't end up finishing this one, either -- partly as I've been crazy busy, what with trying to work 2.5 jobs and all, and partly just because it didn't quite grab and hold me the way I'd hoped. The historical aspects are interesting -- a young woman growing up in a small Missouri town in the 1880s, who by the story's end is an elderly woman visiting long-time Japanese-American friends in northern California internment camps during WWII -- but the plot just seemed, well, plodding. Too bad, as the characters had potential -- but it was due back before I cared enough to hang on to it. Oh well. Perhaps the third time will be the charm.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

#68 (take 1) - The Skeptical Economist

And then, for a late summer read of a different stripe, I started The Skeptical Economist: Revealing the Ethics Inside Economics, by Jonathan Aldred (Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2009).

Summary: "Within the field of economics, observes Aldred (economics, U. of Cambridge, UK), there are many who peddle a narrow or simplistic view of economics to serve vested interests and political ends. In addition to this group, there is a more naive set of economists who seek to avoid ethical judgments in the practice of their discipline. Both groups practice a form of 'black box economics,' in which basic assumed principles (e.g., 'The value of life can be measured in monetary terms' and "Economic growth increases happiness') are obscured and rarely discussed. Insisting that ethics cannot be so neatly separated from economics and that these hidden principles should be matter of explicit debate, Aldred aims to uncover these hidden ethical assumptions and present them to the general reader in a manner free of mathematics and jargon. His discussion consists of stand-alone chapters examining issues of consumption, the nature of economic growth, the politics of pay, the economics of happiness, the valuation of life and nature, and issues of public services." (-Book News, Inc.)

Table of Contents:
  1. Introduction: Ethical Economics?
  2. The Sovereign Consumer
  3. Two Myths about Economic Growth
  4. The Politics of Pay
  5. Happiness
  6. Pricing Life and Nature
  7. New Worlds of Money: Public Services and Beyond
  8. Conclusion
My take: What I read was a mixed bag. Liked the first few chapters, but the "Politics of Pay" and "Happiness" ones got a bit too philosophical and dry for my tastes. Sadly, the fact that I'm trying to work 2.5 jobs at the moment meant the book had to go back before I got all the way through. Oh well.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

#67 - A Reliable Wife

Just finished A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009).

Summary: "Rural Wisconsin, 1909. In the bitter cold, Ralph Truitt, a successful businessman, stands alone on a train platform waiting for the woman who answered his newspaper advertisement for 'a reliable wife.' But when Catherine Land steps off the train from Chicago, she's not the 'simple, honest woman' that Ralph is expecting. She is both complex and devious, haunted by a terrible past and motivated by greed. Her plan is simple: she will win this man's devotion, and then, ever so slowly, she will poison him and leave Wisconsin a wealthy widow. What she has not counted on, though, is that Truitt -- a passionate man with his own dark secrets -- has plans of his own for his new wife. Isolated on a remote estate and imprisoned by relentless snow, the story of Ralph and Catherine unfolds in unimaginable ways. With echoes of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, Robert Goolrick's intoxicating debut novel delivers a classic tale of suspenseful seduction, set in a world that seems to have gone temporarily off its axis."

Opening line: "It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet."

My take: A fresh and enjoyable, vaguely Gothic take on the classic mail-order bride tale -- an excellent last book of summer.

As the summary suggests, both Catherine and Truitt come to their marriage with darker, more complex motives than their brief correspondence suggests. We know what Catherine wants from the get-go, though we don't yet know why -- without spoiling what may be a surprise to some readers (though I had my suspicions), it's fair to say she didn't quite pick Truitt's ad at random. Ralph Truitt takes a bit longer to figure out. One thing is clear, though: He may be the richest man in his small Wisconsin town, but this status has left him desperately lonely for both physical and emotional contact, ever since the untimely death of his faithless Italian wife and their lovely but simple young daughter, and the disappearance of the young son he blamed, many years earlier. Despite knowing his now-grown son was probably fathered by his late wife's lover, he's inexplicably driven to bring him home and reopen the long-abandoned grand home his first family shared.

The marriage gets off to an inauspicious start on several fronts. For one thing, Catherine turns out to be far more beautiful than the picture she'd sent Truitt earlier -- so much so that he realizes the photo wasn't really her, and she confesses to sending a plain cousin's photo instead. For another, a dramatic October snowstorm on their way home leads to an accident that leaves Truitt gravely injured, and requires Catherine to spend weeks alongside the devoted Mrs. Larsen, stitching his wounds and aiding in his care. At first, the stark stillness is nearly enough to drive her mad, but she comes to appreciate both Truitt's reserved dignity and that of his home ... so much so that she questions her devotion to her original mission not once, but many times.

An excellent book -- well worth a read.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

#66 - Searching for Whitopia

So far, this is a welcome change of pace from some of the books I've been slogging through of late: Rich Benjamin's Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America (New York: Hyperion, 2009).

Summary: "Widely reported demographic shifts in contemporary America include the increase and diffusion of Latino populations and the relative population decline of Caucasians. Alongside these is a perhaps more subtle corollary, a phenomenon journalist Benjamin calls Whitopia ('white'opia'): disproportionately (generally over 90 percent) white communities that have grown rapidly in recent years, with most of the population growth also white. To learn about such communities, Benjamin here immerses himself in the life, culture, and politics of St. George, UT; Cour d'Alene, ID; Forsyth County, GA; and Manhattan's Upper East Side Carnegie Hill area. A well-traveled black writer from a multiracial family, Benjamin hardly undertakes this venture incognito. But with his tact, genuine interest in people, and zest for golf, real estate, and socializing, Benjamin ingratiates himself nearly everywhere he goes and gains significant insights from residents, businesspeople, and civic leaders. Benjamin's timely journey is surprising and provocative. He critically examines racial and economic segregation, structural racism, hostility to immigration, the rising political power of exurbs, and other sociopolitical realities that bespeak, in his assessment, a growing failure in commitment to the common good -- yet he also demonstrates respect for his interviewees and offers his pointed assessments only after a thoughtful, open-minded exploration. Verdict: Written at the lay reader's level and in highly anecdotal narrative fashion, this is for all readers interested in the sociopolitics of America today. It will also be valued by policymakers and social scientists." (-Janet Ingham Dwyer, Library Journal Review).

My take: An excellent and provocative book, and far more nuanced than I might have expected. Rich does for the lily-white neighborhoods he studies what Self-Made Man tries to do, with far less success, for selected all-male enclaves; namely, without (much) subterfuge, penetrates well enough to give us a balanced, complex portrait of both their appeal and their shortcomings.

Gated communities are an easy target for ridicule in some circles, and I'll admit that I'm not above taking the occasional (metaphorical) swing myself. Rich doesn't do that; he says up front and more importantly, shows us throughout the book that most of the individuals he met were kind, thoughtful people; very welcoming to him individually; and settled where they did because they wanted a safe community in which to raise their kids. And those who know me know I can't not appreciate a writer who pays careful attention to the class factor in the U.S. His distinctions between small towns, boom towns, and dream towns are definitely worth chewing over, and his observations on the tensions between longer-term, working- to middle-class residents and more recently arrived, wealthier transplants were fascinating.

Aside from a sprinkling of eye-rolling at some of the more-moneyed-than-tasteful architectural and design elements he encounters in his real estate searches, Rich is almost religious about not poking fun at or even condescending to the exurban residents he gets to know -- which makes the book far stronger and more compelling. He also avoids the obvious East Coast/ West Coast and Northern/ Southern states finger-pointing by visiting Carnegie Hill, Manhattan and Warren County, New Jersey, as well as Forsyth County, Georgia and St. George, Utah. I do wish he'd devoted more time and space to the final section on why we should care, as it seemed a bit cursory -- but that's a fairly minor complaint overall.

#65 - Summertime

Moving right along, #65 was Summertime, by J. M. Coetzee (New York: Viking, 2009).

Summary: "In the Nobel Laureate's latest novel, a young English writer is in pursuit of first-person testimony to write a biography of an esteemed novelist named J. M. Coetzee. The Englishman wants to focus on the years 1971-77, a period just before Coetzee's importance was recognized, a time the hopeful biographer finds oddly neglected by other biographers; he sees it as seminal because the novelist was finding his feet. From Coetzee's lover, his cousin, the mother of a pupil to whom Coetzee gave English lessons, a cohort who co-taught a college course with him, and another professional affiliate, the biographer elicits details about the man's relationships, amorous and otherwise. These personal accounts are the material from which readers draw a picture of Coetzee and upon which the writer will draw for his future composition. The Coetzee emerging here is an emotionally dessicated man never easy with intercourse of any shade, sexual or social. Assumptions on the reader's part of a parallel between the fictitious Coetzee and the actual one are best left alone, because the result can only be confusion and distraction. It is best, then, to simply see the character as just that and then to recognize the author of the admirable builder of character that he is." (-Brad Hooper, Booklist)

My take: Probably would have been more compelling if I were familiar either with Coetzee's other work or with the Afrikaans experience in South Africa, but this is nonetheless an interesting format for a story and, gradually, one through with a fascinating if less-than-likable portrait of a character emerges.

#64 - Choke

#64 was Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk (New York: Anchor, 2001).

Summary: "Victor Mancini, a medical-school dropout, is an antihero for our deranged times. Needing to pay elder care for his mother, Victor has devised an ingenious scam: he pretends to choke on pieces of food while dining in upscale restaurants. He then allows himself to be 'saved' by fellow patrons who, feeling responsible for Victor's life, go on to send checks to support him. When he's not pulling this stunt, Victor cruises sexual addiction recovery workshops for action, visits his addled mom, and spends his days working at a colonial theme park. His creator, Chuck Palahniuk, is the visionary we need and the satirist we deserve."

Opening line: "If you're going to read this, don't bother."

My take: This is only my second Palahniuk book, but I think I should have taken the narrator's advice above. Pygmy, at least, had some places where I could see and appreciate the humor, but Choke -- meh. At least some reviewers seem to love Palahniuk, brilliant satirist, blah blah blah, so maybe it's just me that Doesn't Get It.

But hey, it's just me reading these books and writing this blog, and Choke was a week of my life I won't get back. (It's a slim book, too, but it didn't call to me the way some others do.) Funny parts, yes, but overall, the characters are thoroughly repulsive, and the book left me feeling like I needed a shower afterwards. I don't mind books that unsettle, but don't feel the need to be disgusted for no reason.