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.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

RETURNED - Too Much Money

Too Much Money, by Dominick Dunne (New York: Crown Publishers, 2009).

Jacket Summary: "The last two years have been monstrously unpleasant for high-society journalist Gus Bailey. His propensity for gossip has finally gotten him into trouble -- $11 million worth. His problems begin when he falls hook, line, and sinker for a fake story from an unreliable source and repeats it on a radio program. As a result of his flip comments, Gus becomes embroiled in a nasty slander suit brought by Kyle Cramden, the powerful congressman he accuses of being involved in the mysterious disappearance of a young woman, and he fears it could mean the end of him.

"The stress of the lawsuit makes it difficult for Gus to focus on the novel he has been contracted to write, which is based upon the suspicious death of billionaire Konstantin Zacharias. It is a story that has dominated the party conversations of Manhattan's chattering classes for more than two years. The convicted murderer is behind bars, but Gus is not convinced that justice was served. There are too many unanswered questions, such as why a paranoid man who was usually accompanied by bodyguards was without protection the very night he perished in a tragic fire.

"Konstantin's hot-tempered widow, Perla, is obsessed with climbing the social ladder and, as a result, she will do anything to suppress this potentially damaging story. Gus is convinced she is the only thing standing between him and the truth."

Opening Line: "A few years ago there was a rumor that I had been murdered at my home in Prud'homme, Connecticut, bu a cross-country serial killer of older men."

My Take: Started this one but didn't get more than a few chapters in before it was due back at the library. Over the years, I've developed a set of rules for how to handle just such a situation. In short, if I haven't even started the book when the due date rolls around, back it goes. Occasionally I make exceptions, if the item's renewable, I don't have a ridiculous backlog of reading material at the moment, and I've really been looking forward to it -- but that really is an exception, and not the rule.

If a book is due back while I'm in the middle of it, it's a tougher call. [Looking over shoulder for the library police] Sometimes, if I've made good headway and am really enjoying the book, I'll throw caution to the winds -- I keep it out a few more days, finish up as quickly as possible, and just write off the overdue fine as the price of admission. Other times, though, there are books like this one, that I've barely started when that fateful day arrives. And, y'know ... I've concluded on those occasions, it just wasn't Meant to Be. This is actually a good argument for patronizing the library instead of just buying everything I want to read (I mean, even on top of the lack of money and shelf space). If I owned a book like this one, there'd be no reason not to let it drag on forever, filling my free time with just about anything else I can think of (crossword puzzles? dumb online games? rereading dog-eared old favorites? Yeah, I need to get out more) because the volume in question just isn't calling me.

Perhaps this book was a victim of my low expectations. I was half-expecting and hoping for a fun send-up of the foibles of New York's rich and famous, almost along the lines of the Olivia Goldsmith romps that used to be a guilty pleasure. It wasn't, and maybe that's to Dunne's credit. The reviews and articles I've read depict Dunne as having been more a journalist who also happened to write novels, usually about crimes committed by the wealthy and the misapplications of justice that often result. And maybe starting with Too Much Money is kind of like venturing into Tolkien by reading The Silmarillion: without knowing the extensive back story, it's hard to care much about what came before or afterwards. But that's pretty much how I felt here; I got the references to the Klaus von Bulow and Gary Condit scandals, of course, but on the whole, I felt like I was walking in on the middle of the movie, or attending a party where everyone knew the inside jokes except me. Ergo, Too Much Money was not my 89th book of the year.

(It will be a nail-biter, folks! Will she or will she not make it to 100? On the one hand, there are just over 2 weeks left; on the other, she's off from work and visiting the 'rents out of town for one of them. Stay tuned.)

#88 - Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan (New York: Scholastic Press, 2000)

Jacket Summary: "Esperanza Ortega possesses all the treasures a young girl could want: fancy dresses, a beautiful home filled with servants in the bountiful region of Aguascalientes, Mexico, and the promise of one day rising to Mama's position and presiding over all of El Rancho de las Rosas.

"But a sudden tragedy shatters that dream, forcing Esperanza and Mama to flee to California and settle in a Mexican farm labor camp. There they confront the challenges of hard work, acceptance by their own people, and economic difficulties brought on by the Great Depression. When Mama falls ill from Valley Fever, and a strike for better working conditions threatens to uproot their new life, Esperanza must relinquish her hold on the past and learn to embrace a future ripe with the riches of family and community."

Opening Line: "'Our land is alive, Esperanza,' said Papa, taking her small hand as they walked through the gentle slope of the vineyard.

My Take: I think this is a first: I read this book because my daughter recommended it. Not surprisingly, I wasn't disappointed -- not because Twig has such impeccable taste (I am, after all, her mother), but because it combines several themes I usually enjoy reading about: coming of age, poverty and inequality, immigration, and even labor issues. It's a young adult novel, and not a very long one at that; I think I polished it off in about an hour last night. Liked the story itself, liked the chat Twig and I had about it on our walk home from church this morning. (Wow, how middle American does that sound?) Some of our favorite parts, to whet your appetite:
  • The painstaking efforts made by Alfonso and Miguel (the Ortegas' most trusted servants, who decide to emigrate to California in the wake of Sr. Ortega's murder rather than remain on the ranch to work for his brother) to bring a root ball from the Rancho de las Rosas' signature roses to the labor camp that becomes their new home;
  • Esperanza's visceral terror and disgust at having to sit in the peasant car on their train journey;
  • The unexpected generosity of Carmen, an egg seller Mama and Esperanza meet on the train. Though she herself is a poor widow with many children to support, she gives Mama two hens of her own on hearing the Ortegas' story -- and goes on to give an even poorer beggar woman food and coins after they get off the train.
  • The bathing scene, in which the men folk are sent out of the house so that all the women can enjoy the luxury of an all-too-rare hot bath. Esperanza goes from standing with her arms outstretched, automatically expecting Hortensia (Alfonso's wife and Miguel's mother) to undress and bathe her as she's always done before, to enjoying the camaraderie of the steamy room and personally making sure Hortensia has the hottest water.
  • Esperanza and Mama's joy and disbelief at seeing Abuelita again after nearly a year has gone by.
If you are a young adult, have one at home, or just plain like stories like this, do read this one. You won't be disappointed, either.

#87 - Networking for People Who Hate Networking

Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts, the Overwhelmed, and the Underconnected, by Devora Zack (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2010)

Jacket Summary: "Would you rather get a root canal than schmooze with a bunch of strangers? Does the phrase 'working a room' make you want to retreat to yours? Is small talk a big problem? Devora Zack used to be just like you -- in fact, she still is. Yet she's also a successful consultant who addresses thousands of people each year, and she didn't change her personality to do it. Quite the contrary.

"Zack politely examines and then smashes to tiny fragments the 'dusty old rules' of standard networking advice. You don't have to become a backslapping extrovert or even learn how to fake it. Incredible as it seems, the very traits that make you hate networking can be harnessed to forge an approach even more effective than traditional techniques. It's a different kind of networking -- and it works.

"Networking enables you to accomplish the goals that are most important to you. But you can't adopt a style that isn't true to who you are. 'I have never met a person who did not benefit tremendously from learning how to network -- on his or her own terms,' Zack writes. 'You do not succeed by denying your natural temperament; you succeed by working with your strengths.'"

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction: This Book Is Required Reading
  • 1: Welcome to Your Field Guide
  • 2: Assess Yourself
  • 3: The Destruction of Stereotypes
  • 4: Why We Hate to Network
  • 5: Sparkling New Rules That Work
  • 6: Networking Event Survival Kit
  • 7: Good-bye Golden Rule
  • 8: Networking Without a Net
  • 9: The Job Search
  • 10: Business Travel
  • 11: Creating Events That Work for All
  • 12: Defining Outcomes, Achieving Goals
  • Conclusion: See Ya Later, Alligator
My Take: Far better than the last 2 self-helpish books I read. Admittedly, I appreciate anyone who says straight-up in print that introversion isn't a disorder, and can in fact be an asset if you learn to work with and not against it. Personally, I guess I'm what Zack calls a centrovert. Every time I take the MBTI (hey, with an undergrad degree in psychology, a grad degree in labor relations, a career in higher ed, and volunteer experience in human services that predates all 3, I've lost count by now), I land just this side of the I/E line -- but after growing up the only I in a family of diehard Es, that's enough to make it feel like home. (Hey, I copped to being a sucker for underdogs long ago.)

All right, enough about my navel. Zack, who herself identifies as a pretty strong introvert, summarizes the key distinctions between introverts and extroverts in a manner that's clearer and more succinct than I've heard in a while: Introverts think to talk; go deep; and energize alone; while extroverts talk to think; go wide; and energize with others. By harnessing their reflective, focused, and self-reliant qualities, she argues, introverts can indeed be stellar networkers -- it's just that their success looks a bit different on its face than the extrovert model to which we've become accustomed. Specifically, successful networking for denizens of Introville (I'm not a fan of the cutesie Introville and Extroland metaphors myself, but hey) entails the following steps:
  1. Pause before initiating interactions. "Introverts do well by strategizing an approach, researching options, and clarifying goals in advance of taking action."
  2. Process a situation and focus on a few individuals before diving in -- the end result being, you expend less energy, and get better results.
  3. Pace yourself. In Zack's words, "Create meaningful, real connections. Retreat to recharge. Repeat."
The majority of the book simply expands on these three rules, with interesting ideas on making the most of the "meaningful, real connections" at which the focused, reflective introvert excels (send an email or an old-fashioned snail mail note to follow up! It seems so obvious ... ); structuring networking events and your own participation to make this easier; understanding how the other half (i.e., Es if you're an I, and vice-versa) lives; and applying these techniques to job hunting and business travel. This may all be specific enough to who I am and what's on my plate right now that whether or not I'd recommend it to someone else is beside the point ... but I do know I'll be reading it again at least once before it's due back.

#86 - A Girl's Gotta Do What a Girl's Gotta Do

A Girl's Gotta Do What a Girl's Gotta Do: The Ultimate Guide to Living Safe & Smart, by Kathleen Baty (New York: Rodale, 2003)

Jacket Summary: "Sassy single gal, high-powered exec in high heels, carefree college co-ed, harried soccer mom -- no matter who you are, you deserve to feel secure doing your own thing anytime, anywhere. With a little help from the Safety Chick, it's a cinch. Sharing lesson's she's learned -- the hard way -- along with proven tips from a battery of experts in street smarts, Kathleen Baty gets specific about what to pack for a business trip, where it's safe to shop online, when to report a creepy co-worker, and how to tell that guy who's bothering you at the bar to get lost -- for good. Complete with step-by-step instructions on how to stop an assailant dead in his tracks with your words, your hands, or, if necessary, a few easy-to-use self-defense weapons, this book is a master class in personal safety for women of all ages."

Table of Contents:
  • Foreward by Gavin de Becker
  • Preface: So ... Who Is This 'Safety Chick'?
  • Introduction: Safety Savvy - Why It's Hip to Be an Empowered Chick
  • Chapter 1: Intuition - An Absolute 'Must Have' in Your Personal Safety Wardrobe
  • Chapter 2: Girl on the Go - Travel and Hotel Safety Tips for Women on the Road
  • Chapter 3: Party Girl, Watch Your Cocktail - How to Protect Yourself from Being Slipped a Mickey Out on the Town
  • Chapter 4: Beauty Night - How to Feel Safe When It's Girls' Night In
  • Chapter 5: A Girl's Gotta Shop - How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off When You're Trying to Buy
  • Chapter 6: Guys Who Won't Take No for an Answer - How to Protect Yourself from a Stalker
  • Chapter 7: Working Girl - Tips on Recognizing and Avoiding Workplace Violence
  • Chapter 8: CyberGirl - Inside Tips to Help You Minimize the Dangers of Surfing the Net
  • Chapter 9: Keep Your Hands to Yourself! Domestic Violence Is Not a Family Matter ... It's a Crime
  • Chapter 10: Hand-to-Hand Combat - Should You Stay or Should You Go?
  • Chapter 11: Pick Your Poison - Self-Defense Products to Help You Stay Safe and Feel Empowered
  • Afterword: You Go, Girl! Taking Your Safety Chick Smarts to the Streets
  • A Resource Guide: Empower Yourself - Organizations That Can Assist You in Your Time of Need
My Take: In a word (or a grunt), eh. I'm not quite sure why I picked this one up; I think it was a catchy title on a yellow spine, shelved near something else I was actively looking for. Serves me right for going on first impressions. The too-jiggly descriptions of "carefree college co-eds" and "sassy single gals" on the back cover should have been a clue that I'd find the book's tone annoying; well, I did. While you can't fully learn self-defense from a book, this one does offer some useful and important general pointers, chiefly about trusting your intuition and staying aware of your surroundings. I also found the chapter on travel safety (from hotels to airports to taxis) to be pretty good overall -- not over-the-top hysterical, and offers some pointers I might not have though of on my own. Even the "Party Girl" chapter, on safe dating and clubbing, was OK; the emphasis on date rape drugs seemed a bit excessive, but hey, this is a book on personal safety, and I was in college wwwaaayyy back in the day when we were just starting to hear sensationalist newspaper articles about something called rohypnol.

Then Baty gets to the "Beauty Night" chapter, on home safety ... and things start to get a wee bit silly. She starts out asserting that all women deserve to feel safe in their own homes, but then delves into a list of rather excessive suggestions that a) probably won't make much difference, and b) would tend to make me feel more paranoid and unsafe, rather than less. Yes, it's just common sense that one shouldn't open the door without knowing who's there, shouldn't engage with the Fuller Brush Man or other door-to-door salesperson if your hinky meter is going off, and so on ... but buying men's workboots to leave by the door? Equipping a windowless safety bunker with a flashlight, phone, and weapon? Keeping pepper spray or foam under the bed? Playing a tape recording of a barking dog? Maybe I've been living in a small town for too long, or am just naive, but in the absence of a clear, specific threat, this seems like overkill. The subsequent chapters weren't quite as bad (at least not consistently), but from that point on, I couldn't help thinking of a posting I'd read last week on Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids blog. Yes, it makes sense to pay attention to both your surroundings and your gut; sometimes, it can even take some practice to know what one or the other is telling you. But Baty's book seems to take a Homeland Security/ TSA approach: you must do something to make yourself feel safer, even if it's out of proportion to any real threat and not all that effective, anyway. Admittedly, I've never been the victim of a crime, and Baty has (she talks in the preface about a former high school classmate stalking and ultimately attempting to kidnap her before he was arrested) -- but if the alternative is a level of Constant! Vigilance! that would make Mad-Eye Moody proud, I think I'll take the risk.

#85 - Eat This, Not That!

OK, this is as far as I'll push the limits of what I define as actual reading. The DIY gardening and home decorating books I've been perusing will not be added to the official count, I promise.

But this one ... ah, hell. C'mon, you know you've seen it at the bookstores, too. If you share my fascination with bright, shiny covers, you may even have flipped through it once or twice. Well, there it was at the library, just calling me, so ... I had to do it.

Eat This, Not That! Thousands of Simple Food Swaps That Can Save You 10, 20, 30 Pounds -- or More! by David Zinczenko (New York: Rodale, Inc., 2008).

Jacket Summary: "Eat what you want, when you want -- and watch the pounds disappear! You can burn fat and build the body you want -- not by eating less, but by making smart, healthy food choices. And now, the right choices are simple!

"Whether you're in the frozen food aisle, the fast-food drive-thru, the local Olive Garden, or even your own kitchen, you're faced with dozens of food choices every single day. Which ones will help you look and feel fit and trim -- and which are loaded with hidden calories, fats, and other nasty stuff? You'll never know -- unless you have Eat This, Not That!

"Did you know:
  • An Egg McMuffin is a healthier breakfast choice than a bagel? (You'll save 210 calories!)
  • White chocolate can cause depression -- but dark chocolate can cure it?
  • A Krispy Kreme glazed doughnut has 130 fewer calories than one from Dunkin' Donuts?
  • Choosing a Subway turkey sub over the Panera version will save you 510 calories? (Make this swap once a month for a year and you'll shed nearly two pounds!
With this simple illustrated guide to thousands of foods -- along with the nutrition secrets that lead to fast and permanent weight loss -- you'll make the smartest choice every time!"

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction - Special Preview 10 > Top Swaps: The simplest ways to change your body forever
  • Chapter 1 - 8 Foods You Should Eat Every Day: Plus 20 to avoid at all costs
  • Chapter 2 - At Your Favorite Restaurants: The best and worst meals at 60 fast-food and chain restaurants
  • Chapter 3 - Eat This, Not That! Menu Decoder: Strategies for eating right at any restaurant
  • Chapter 4 - On Holidays and Special Occasions: The Eat This, Not That! holiday survival guide
  • Chapter 5 - At the Supermarket: The complete Eat This, Not That! grocery list
  • Chapter 6 - Drink This, Not That: The ultimate healthy beverage guide
  • Chapter 7 - What to Eat When ... You're Tired, Stressed, or in the Mood: The right foods for every conceivable situation
  • Chapter 8 - Eat This, Not That! for Kids

My Take:
If you can overlook the gross overstatements on the back cover, and aren't too distracted by the exploitation of all those defenseless exclamation marks, this is kinda fun to read (in an "EW! How can people eat that?" train-wreck sort of way) and, depending on what you know and how you eat right now, possibly even informative.

Truth be told, I have mixed feelings about books like this one. On the one hand, they're targeted at folks with minimal nutritional knowledge, and just might provide them with some much-needed information. Take, for example, the section in Chapter 1 on "The 20 Worst Foods in America." If you still equate "smoothie" with "healthy" or "low-calorie," you might be surprised to learn that one particular 30-ounce "chocolate power smoothie" at Jamba Juice contains 900 calories, and as much sugar as 2 pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Likewise, if you automatically think "turkey burger" = smart choice, well ... Ruby Tuesday's Bella Turkey Burger has far more fat and calories than a simple 7-ounce sirloin. And as for what the authors dub "the worst food in America" -- the 2,900 calorie, 182 grams of fat, 240 grams of carbohydrate gut bomb that is the Outback's Aussie cheese fries with ranch dressing -- what can I say but EW?

If you like to eat out (especially if you enjoy the fast food and chain places that form the bulk of the book, though there is a more generic "menu decoder" for non-chain BBQ joints, steakhouses, Japanese restaurants, etc. in Chapter 3), and are trying to maintain your weight or take off 5-10 pounds, you might get something useful out of this book. Some people, for example, might think that it's always better to choose chicken or fish entrees over red meat, or that one roast beef sandwich is just like any other. Well, t'ain't necessarily so. While it seems pretty obvious to me that deep-frying fish, or slathering your chicken breast in cheese, negates any positive health effects, trust me -- I know that's not the case for everyone.

However, and here's the long-awaited "other hand," the book's claims are grossly overstated in some areas and downright misleading in others. If you enjoy eating at Chili's or Applebee's, and would like to make lower-calorie, lower-fat choices when you do so, then sure, bring this book along. But there's the rub: just because the "eat this" item is lower in fat and calories than its "not that" counterpart doesn't make it low in fat or calories, nor is it necessarily a smart choice on which to base your diet if you want to lose weight. Sure, the Starbucks "eat this" meal is almost 400 calories less than the "not that" meal on the facing page, but it still contains half the calories and fat I need to eat in a day ... and if all I have to tide me over till dinner are a latte and upscale Egg McMuffin, it's gonna get ugly. Likewise, Jamba Juice's peach perfection smoothie may be a way better bet than the peanut butter moo'd (though honestly, what self-respecting dieter thinks it's a good idea to order something named after cow noises?), but at 320 calories, it had darned well better be my whole lunch. And while I may know this on my own, I've also been around the weight-loss block a few times. I can't help thinking someone who's new to the diet-and-weight-loss world and doesn't have much of a scientific background (and face it, that's the demographic the books are targeting) might happily hit Starbucks for breakfast, KFC for lunch, Jamba Juice for a snack, and the Olive Garden for dinner ... and then wonder why, since they're ordering all "eat this" items, the pounds aren't flying off like the authors seem to promise.

In short, this WebMD review provides a more exhaustive treatment than I'm prepared to do on my own, but Eat This, Not That! works better as a companion to a real weight loss program, rather than a diet plan in itself.

#84 - Half Broke Horses

Aah, Thanksgiving weekend. Plenty o' reading happening @ Cafe Hazelthyme this week, but precious little blogging -- you can guess the story, but in brief, I was too busy hosting the in-laws and wrangling a big ornery ole turkey. Hence, the next few updates will come like gangbusters, but be fairly brief.

Half Broke Horses
, by Jeannette Walls (New York: Scribner, 2009)

Jacket Summary: "'Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.' So begins the story of Lily Casey Smith, Jeannette Walls's no-nonsense, resourceful, and spectacularly compelling grandmother. By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town -- riding five hundred miles on her pony, alone, to get to her job. She learned to drive a car ('I loved car even more than I loved horses. They didn't need to be fed if they weren't working, and they didn't leave big piles of manure all over the place') and fly a plane. And, with her husband, Jim, she ran a vast ranch in Arizona. She raised two children, one of whom is Jeannette's memorable mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, unforgettably portrayed in The Glass Castle.

"Lily survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and the most heartbreaking personal tragedy. She bristled at prejudice of all kinds -- against women, Native Americans, and anyone else who didn't fit the mold. Rosemary Smith Walls always told Jeannette that she was like her grandmother, and in this true-life novel, Jeannette Walls channels that kindred spirit. Half Broke Horses is Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, as riveting and dramatic as Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa or Beryl Markham's West with the Night. It will transfix readers everywhere."

Opening Line: "Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did."

My Take: A danged good book, though far better approached as a novel than as an accurate biography of the author's grandmother. Walls' describes Lily a wee bit too perfectly for my tastes (on the first page, she saves herself and two younger siblings from a flash flood by ordering them up a cottonwood tree and keeping the three of them talking and awake all night), but a few of her flaws do manage to come through, and she's a sufficiently likable and compelling character that this is slightly annoying but not fatal. (Besides, who doesn't create some sort of semi-mythical story about their grandparents?) I enjoyed the supporting characters, too -- especially Lily's strong but gentle (and no, that's not the cliche I make it sound like) husband, Jim. Certainly intrigued me enough to make me want to read The Glass Castle and see how Rosemary and eventually Jeannette turn out.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

#83 - Eaarth

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben (New York: Times Books, 2010).

Jacket Summary: "The bestselling author of Deep Economy shows that we're living on a fundamentally altered planet -- and opens our eyes to the kind of change we'll need in order to make our civilization endure.

"Twenty years ago, with The End of Nature, Bill McKibben offered one of the earliest warnings about global warming. Those warnings went mostly unheeded; now, he insists, we need to acknowledge that we've waited too long, and that massive change is not only unavoidable but already under way. Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen. We've created, in very short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different. We may as well call it Eaarth.

"That new planet is filled with new binds and traps. A changing world costs large sums to defend -- think of the money that went to repair New Orleans, or the trillions of dollars it will take to transform our energy systems. But the endless economic growth that could underwrite such largesse depends on the stable planet we've managed to damage and degrade. We can't rely on old habits any longer.

"Our hope depends, McKibben argues, on scaling back -- on building the kind of societies and economies that can hunker down, concentrate on essentials, and create the type of community (in the neighborhood, but also on the Internet) that will allow us to weather trouble on an unprecedented scale. Change -- fundamental change -- is our best hope on a planet suddenly and violently out of balance."

Table of Contents:
  • Preface
  • 1. A New World
  • 2. High Tide
  • 3. Backing Off
  • 4. Lightly, Carefully, Gracefully
My Take: It's an exaggeration, but only a small one, to call Bill McKibben my hero.

Maybe I'm a poseur, because I haven't read much -- in fact, I don't recall if I've read any -- of the environmental books for which he's most famous. I haven't read The End of Nature; I didn't read Deep Economy.

I did, however, read Maybe One several years back, and it's no exaggeration to say that book changed my life. At the time, I was quietly but painfully torn between the growing suspicion that a three-person family -- Filbert, Twig, and me -- might be what we were meant to have, and the chaotic "one kid isn't a real family" houseful of my own childhood. True to form, I read just about everything on the subject I could get my hands on. Sure, there were plenty of books and articles about how to make sure your only child turned out Normal, but Maybe One ... Maybe One was an epiphany. For the first time, a single-child family seemed less like, "well, I guess maybe we can make it work OK" and more like a conscious, positive decision -- not just for the 3 of us, but for our communities large and small. (Around the same time, Twig began grade school, and we started getting to know several other close-knit, loving, and all-around-awesome one-kid families, which didn't hurt either.)

Digression aside, I can't help wanting to read Eaarth even though I know it'll be considerably more sobering than Goon Squad. In the first chapter, McKibben explains the title and his premise thus:
"For the ten thousand years that constitute human civilization, we've existed in the sweetest of sweet spots. The temperature has barely budged: globally averaged, it's swung in the narrowest of ranges, between fifty-eight and sixty degrees Fahrenheit. That's warm enough that the ice sheets retreated from the centers of our continents so we could grow grain, but cold enough that mountain glaciers provided drinking and irrigation water to those plains and valleys year-round; it was the 'correct' temperature for the marvelously diverse planet that seems right to us. And every aspect of our civilization reflects that particular world. We built our great cities next to seas that have remained tame and level, or at altitudes high enough that disease-bearing mosquitoes could not overwinter. We refined the farming that has swelled our numbers to take full advantage of that predictable heat and rainfall; our rice and corn and wheat can't imagine another earth either. ...

"But we no longer live on that planet. ... [T]he earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We're every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn't ended, but the world as we know it has -- even if we don't quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they're not. It's a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth."
McKibben's description of this new and different planet, at the end of this same chapter, stands in start contrast to the "sweet spot" depicted above:
"The planet we inhabit has a finite number of huge physical features. Virtually all of them seem to be changing rapidly: the Arctic ice cap is melting, and the great glacier above Greenland is thinning, both with disconcerting and unexpected speed. The oceans, which cover three-fourths of the earth's surface, are distinctly more acid and their levels are rising; they are also warmer, which means the greatest storms on our planet, hurricanes and cyclones, have become more powerful. The vast inland glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas, and the giant snowpack of the American West, are melting very fast, and within decades the supply of water to the billions of people living downstream may dwindle. The great rain forest of the Amazon is drying on its margins and threatened at its core. The great boreal forest of North America is dying in a matter of years. The great storehouses of oil beneath the earth's crust are now more empty than full. Every one of these things is completely unprecedented in the ten thousand years of human civilization. And some places with civilizations that date back thousands of years -- the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, Kiribati in the Pacific, and many other island nations -- are actively preparing to lower their flags and evacuate their territory. The cedars of Lebanon -- you can read about them in the Bible -- are now listed as 'heavily threatened' by climate change. We have traveled to a new planet, propelled on a burst of carbon dioxide. That new planet, as is often the case in science fiction, looks more or less like our own but clearly isn't. I know that I'm repeating myself. I'm repeating myself on purpose. This is the biggest thing that's ever happened. ... That's life on our new planet. That's where we live now."
Nothing like a little uplifting inspirational tract to get me in the mood for the holidays, eh?

(Later, after finishing the book) Interesting and worth reading, but not sure McKibben by himself has The Solution to the climate crisis, any more than Thomas Friedman single-handedly has the answer. McKibben's take is both gloomier and less exhausting than Friedman's. Gloomier, because he's pretty clear in asserting that Friedman's call for massive investment in green innovation and technology won't cut it; 30 or 40 years ago, perhaps, but it's too late for that now. Less exhausting, because McKibben believes more localized and regionalized decision-making and sustainability (and correspondingly, less centralization) are what's called for -- particularly in the area of agriculture. (I'm already a fervent if not terribly orthodox locavore, and his description of the Farmers Diner had me practically salivating.)

He also calls for increased use of the internet to promote knowledge and diversity in a more carbon-friendly way, though I found his description of exactly how this would work somewhat fuzzy, and less compelling than the local agriculture piece. This, for me, is where the book falls short. I finished Hot, Flat, and Crowded thinking Friedman's proposal might just work, but would be darned difficult to get off the ground. McKibben's, by contrast, probably requires less momentum, but probably won't be enough on its own. Maybe it's just my own resistance to change, but the implication that the majority of people can get buy without commuting, traveling long distances, or working for large, distant corporations because after all, we have the internet unconvincing -- at least as it's presented here. In short, while I'm still a McKibben fan (and have faithfully added Deep Economy to my reading list), I think the global warming solutions presented herein are helpful and perhaps necessary, but not sufficient, for combatting climate change. (The author himself would argue that he's not hoping to reverse climate change, but merely to slow it and make the fallout easier to live with ... but my position's still the same.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

#82 - A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (New York: Random House, 2010).

Jacket Summary: "Jennifer Egan's spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other's pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.

"We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist's couch in New York City, confronting her long-standing compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then as a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to avert the suicidal impulses of her best friend. We plunge into the hidden yearnings and disappointments of her uncle, an art historian stuck in a dead marriage, who travels to Naples to extract Sasha from the city's demimonde and experiences an epiphany of his own while staring at a sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Museo Nazionale. We meet Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life -- divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed-up band in the basement of a suburban house -- and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his yough, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco's punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent. We learn what became of his high school gang -- who thrived and who faltered -- and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie's catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou's far-flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall.

"A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to PowerPoint, Egan captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both -- and escape the merciless progress of time -- in the transporting realms of art and music."

Opening Lines: "It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall."

My Take: One of the precious few perks my current job offers is access to a library that, while small in size, seems to have plenty o' hot new releases in stock months before I'd find them in the big, shiny, public libe downtown. Here's hoping this will be more entertaining and less dismal than I need right now.

Well, color me impressed. I'd expected an amusing if sometimes bleak story of angsty, self-destructive urban hipsters. Instead, Goon Squad was ... well, it's hard to describe. To some extent, it's a story about Bennie and Sasha, in that we do learn about their pasts and the future directions their lives take. (No, they don't fall in love and live happily ever after, or even engage in a quick fling. Thank you, Ms. Egan.) And yeah, it's also a story about people whose connections to these two are somewhat peripheral: Lou Kline's oldest children, Charlie and Rolph, as teens years earlier, on an African safari; Bennie's old friends and bandmates, uber-freckled Rhea, her best friend Jocelyn, and reclusive musical wunderkind Scotty; Bennie's ex-wife Stephanie; Stephanie's one-time boss, publicist/ dragon lady La Doll (nee Dolly); Dolly's phenomenally charismatic daughter Lulu; Sasha's own hip college pals, Lizzie and Drew.

Beyond that, it's hard to describe a single plot, as the book is more a collection of vignettes. (And yes, as the dust jacket suggests, a later section is told from the perspective of one protagonist's pre-teen daughter ... in PowerPoint. Believe it or not, it works.) I've been saying this a lot lately, but this isn't the kind of book I usually like; I want a linear plot, darn it, and I don't normally care for short stories (which this both is and isn't). But perhaps I need to rethink my preferences -- this book really was exhilarating, and just plain fun.

#81 - NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman (New York: Twelve/ Hachette Book Group, 2010).

Jacket Summary: "The world of parenting is about to change.

"Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have written what is destined to become one of the most provocative and influential books about children of our time.

"The force and wisdom of these award-winning journalists' work have been apparent since the publication of their cover story, 'The Inverse Power of Praise,' in New York magazine. Literally overnight, parents changed how they talked to children. Schools assigned the article as homework for teachers, while business leaders discussed how it would change the way they rewarded employees. Over 1,000 bloggers typed away, while legislators and religious leaders considered how the article could transform the larger society.

"But Bronson and Merryman's insight on praise is just part of the first chapter of NurtureShock. There are nine more equally groundbreaking chapters after that. Among the topics covered:
Why the most brutal person in a child's life is often a sibling, and how a single aspect of their preschool-aged play can determine their relationship as adults.
When is it too soon -- or too late -- to teach a child about race? Children in diverse schools are less likely to have a cross-racial friendship, not more -- so is school diversity backfiring?
Millions of families are fighting to get their kids into private schools and advanced programs as early as possible. But schools are missing the best kids 73% of the time -- the new neuroscience explains why.
Why are kids -- even those from the best of homes -- still aggressive and cruel? The answer is found in a rethinking of parental conflict, discipline, television's unexpected influence, and social dominance.
Parents are desperate to jump-start infants' language skills. Recently, scientists have discovered a series of natural techniques that are astonishing in their efficacy -- it's not baby videos, sign language, or even the richness of language exposure. It's nothing you've heard before.

"NurtureShock provides a revolutionary new perspective on childhood that upends a library's worth of conventional wisdom. Nothing like a parenting manual, NurtureShock gets to the core of how we grow, learn, and live."

Table of Contents:
  • Preface: Cary Grant is at the door
  • Introduction: Why our instincts about children can be so off the mark
  • 1. The Inverse Power of Praise: Sure, he's special. But new research suggests if you tell him that, you'll ruin him. It's a neurobiological fact.
  • 2. The Lost Hour: Around the world, children get an hour less sleep than they did thirty years ago. The cost: IQ points, emotional well-being, ADHD, and obesity.
  • 3. Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race: Does teaching children about race and skin color make them better off or worse?
  • 4. Why Kids Lie: We may treasure honesty, but the research is clear. Most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars.
  • 5. The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten: Millions of kids are competing for seats in gifted programs and private schools. Admissions officers say it's an art: new science says they're wrong, 73% of the time.
  • 6. The Sibling Effect: Freud was wrong, Shakespeare was right. Why siblings really fight.
  • 7. The Science of Teen Rebellion: Why, for adolescents, arguing with adults is a sign of respect, not disrespect -- and arguing is constructive to the relationship, not destructive.
  • 8. Can Self-Control Be Taught? Developers of a new kind of preschool keep losing their grant money -- the students are so successful they're no longer 'at-risk enough' to warrant further study. What's their secret?
  • 9. Plays Well with Others: Why modern involved parenting has failed to produce a generation of angels.
  • 10. Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn't: Despite scientists' admonitions, parents still spend billions every year on gimmicks and videos, hoping to jump-start infants' language skills. What's the right way to accomplish this goal?
  • Conclusion: The Myth of the Supertrait
My Take: A good read and (extra bonus points) a nice validation of some of the parenting decisions that I've made to boot -- though much of the ground Bronson and Merryman covers (Baby Einstein videos are bunk, overpraising kids can backfire, shielding kids from conflict and deluging them with "educational" media is neither necessary nor helpful, and there's little value to IDing the "gifted" kids in preschool) isn't exactly new to anyone who's reasonably well-informed about developmental psychology. I do agree with Pamela Paul's New York Times review that the authors present an overstated, almost-mythological faith in Scientific Research, but I still enjoyed the book.

#79: Family Ties

#79: Family Ties, by Danielle Steel (New York: Delacorte Press, 2010).

Summary: "Annie Ferguson was a bright young Manhattan architect. Talented, beautiful, just starting out with her first job, new apartment and boyfriend, she had the world in the palm of her hand -- until a single phone call altered the course of her life forever. Overnight, she became the mother to her sister's three orphaned children, keeping a promise she never regretted making, even if it meant putting her own life indefinitely on hold.

"Now, at forty-two, as independent as ever, with a satisfying career and a family that means everything to her, Annie is comfortable being single and staying that way. She appears to have no time for anything else. With her nephew and nieces now young adults and confronting major challenges of their own, Annie is navigating a parent's difficult passage between lending them a hand and letting go, and suddenly facing an empty nest. The eldest, twenty-eight-year-old Liz, an overworked, struggling editor in a high-powered job at Vogue, has never allowed any man to come close enough to hurt her. Ted, at twenty-four a serious and hardworking law student, is captivated by a much older, much more experienced woman with children, who is leading him much further than he wants to go. And the youngest, twenty-one-year-old Katie -- impulsive, artistic, rebellious -- is an art student about to make a choice that will lead her to an entirely different world she is in no way prepared for but determined to embrace.

"Then, just when least expected, a chance encounter changes Annie's life yet again in the most unexpected direction of all."

Opening Lines: "Seth Adams left Annie Ferguson's West Village apartment on a sunny September afternoon. He was handsome, funny, intelligent, fun to be with, and they had been dating for two months."

My Take: We all have our guilty pleasures, and occasionally, this is one of mine. Utterly predictable, formulaic, and undemanding; I think it took me all of 2 hours to get through. All the plot lines hinted at on the dust jacket spool out pretty much as you'd expect; the one that's not totally obvious, Katie's thread, involves her falling in love with an Iranian-American classmate and tearing off, over Annie's and his parents' objections, to visit his aunt, uncle, and aging grandfather in Tehran.

I did find myself pondering, though, what it is about Steel's novels and others of the same ilk that strikes a chord with so many women. For me, it's partly a nostalgia thing; my mom went through a Steel phase in the early 1980s, and at the time, I felt horribly grown-up at being allowed to read some of the books myself. And while they'll never be great literature, they have gotten quite a bit better than the over-the-top, uber-rich-and-famous, never-felt-anything-like-this-before love stories on which Steel made her name. I guess the books serve much the same function as Hallmark made-for-TV movies; when real life has you overwhelmed or just plain bored, it's a nice distraction to spend an evening reading about someone whose troubles are vanquished in a few simple chapters.