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, December 27, 2010

#93 - The Worst Thing I've Done

The Worst Thing I've Done, by Ursula Hegi (New York: Touchstone, 2007)

Jacket Summary: "Tonight, Annie is driving alone from North Sea to Montauk and back again, as she has every night since her husband, Mason, challenged what she believed about herself and about their marriage. Eating junk food and listening to talk radio, Annie tries to shut out her rage, her pain, but Mason's voice persists within her, as urgent as the voices of the anonymous callers who confess their misery to the radio psychologists.

"Once again, Ursula Hegi writes along that border where bliss and sorrow meet. Sensuous, funny, and mysterious, her new novel takes us into an exuberant and troubled friendship. Since early childhood, Annie, Jake, and Mason have had a special bond. When Annie's parents die on the same night that she and Mason are married, the three friends decide to raise Annie's newborn sister, Opal, together.

"Annie struggles to be both a sister and a mother to Opal, a wife to Mason, and a friend to Jake. Not surprisingly, their relationships, already entangled, grow dangerous, too close, on the line. One fateful night the three friends miss the moment when they could still turn back, and the goad each other to step across the line, with shocking, unforeseen consequences.

"Set on the East End of Long Island, The Worst Thing I've Done is an incandescent story of love, friendship, and marriage; of joy and betrayal; of an artist's struggle to reconnect with her work; and of how we can choose our mothers, our families. Beautifully written and brilliantly vivid, it explores the resilience in the protagonists' lives, and their courage to move forward despite an uncertain future."

Opening Line: "Tonight, Annie is driving from North Sea to Montauk and back to North Sea as she has every night since Mason killed himself."

My Take: Enjoyed Hegi's Stones from the River when I read it several years back, and am curious to see her tackle a contemporary setting with which I'm somewhat familiar.

Well, it wasn't quite The Worst Thing I've Read in 2010 (though that would make for an amusing parallel), but it was deeply disappointing. Here I was hoping for the kind of unusual characters and compelling circumstances I enjoyed in Stones, and instead, I felt like I'd stumbled into a rehashed Anne Rivers Siddons novel in the wrong cover. What a waste. Very glad I only borrowed and didn't buy this one.

#92 - Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian (New York: Shaye Areheart Books, 2008).

Jacket Summary: "In January 1945, in the waning months of World War II, a small group of people begin the longest journey of their lives: an attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich, from the Russian front to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines.

"Among the group is eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. There is her lover, Callum Finella, a twenty-year-old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought from the stalag to her family's farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair know as Manfred -- who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a Jew from Germany who managed to escape a train bound for Auschwitz.

"As they work their way west, they encounter a countryside ravaged by war. Their flight will test both Anna's and Callum's love, as well as their friendship with Manfred -- assuming any of them even survive."

Opening Line: "The girl -- a young woman, really, eighteen, hair the color of corn silk -- had been hearing the murmur of artillery fire for two days now."

My Take: Among World War II novels, Skeletons at the Feast is no The Invisible Bridge. Among Bohjalian's work, it's not quite Midwives. That said, it's not as disappointing as The Law of Similars, either, and remains a solid, intriguing take on the World War II novel.

I've said here before that I both enjoy stories set during World War II and have become a bit picky about them. Perhaps that's inevitable; read enough of a particular sub-genre, and it becomes difficult to find characters and plot elements you don't feel like you've seen dozens of times before. Skeletons is reasonably successful in this regard; it's set on the Russian front, in a swath of Poland and Germany just south of Danzig and the Baltic Sea. When the novel opens, its main characters are still relatively untouched by the war. Although the Emmerichs' estate, on the banks of the Vistula River, is technically part of Poland, the family themselves are Prussian. They've always felt more German than Slavic anyway, and from their perspective, the Third Reich takeover of Poland just undid the wrong that happened when their home was deemed to be part of Poland and not East Prussia. Anna's mother, Mutti, even has a portrait of Hitler displayed proudly in their home, and speaks of the fuhrer with something that's half religious reference, half schoolgirl crush (although her husband admits privately that he's not all that sure the Nazis have the right idea). Besides, aristocrats or not, they're basically just a farm family. The rumors they've heard about the concentration camps can't possibly true, and are chalked up to BBC propaganda -- particularly as the stories of Russian atrocities in nearby East Prussian villages are closer to home and far more plausible.

And so their exodus begins. Anna, convinced her parents and brothers know nothing of her affair with Callum, is initially surprised that her father brings the POW with them. Just across the Vistula, though, this makes sense; her father Rolf and twin brother Helmut leave the family to help defend their homeland from the barbaric Russians, and the large red-headed Scot offers some measure of protection for the two women and ten-year-old Theo. (It's also possible that Rolf is more knowing than he seems; he knows the Reich is done for, and hopes that when his family meet the Allies, Callum's presence will convince them that the Emmerichs aren't just your ordinary run-of-the-mill Nazis.)

Their story is intercut, initially, with two others. The first of these is Manfred's (nee Uri's). Having been separated from his family just before their deportation to Auschwitz, he is driven by two things: his mother's injunction to survive and tell the world what the Nazis have done to the Jews, and his drive to find out what happened to his sister Rebekah. It's the former that prompts a cinematic leap from a moving Auschwitz-bound train, and kick-starts his determination to do whatever it takes to survive (including posing as a series of German officers, and killing any stray Nazi soldiers that happen across his path). Eventually, he meets the Emmerich party as they struggle to mend a broken wagon, and joins them despite considerable suspicions as to the depths of their Nazi sympathies (though he doesn't reveal his true identity until much later).

The third and, to me, less compelling story follows Cecile, a French Jewish prisoner on a forced march to an unspecified work camp (probably Auschwitz). Here's where I found my pickiness about WWII stories kicking in. Yes, the camps were brutal beyond imagining, and including at least a taste of their atrocities seems de rigeur for the genre. Unfortunately, it also makes it darned hard for a given author to bring much new to the genre. On this point, Bohjalian doesn't quite seem up to the task. The story is mostly the Emmerichs' and Uri/ Manfred's, and we just don't see enough of Cecile to understand how her narrative fits in with the primary one. The threads do cross eventually, but not until near the end of the book, and not in a way that significantly alters any of the characters' trajectories. I suppose the point is to convince Anna and Mutti that yes, the rumors they'd heard about the camps were true ... but it's not well-executed here, and seems a bit forced.

My other gripe is with the book's epilogue. Sure, it's nice to see that those characters who survive have a mostly-happy outcome in the end, but it almost seemed a bit too pat and perfect. The story would have been stronger, in my opinion, had it ended in 1945, rather than giving us a quick glimpse of the principals' lives three years later. Some ambiguity is a good thing, and we could still have imagined a happy outcome if we so desired ... but the last, brief chapter had a tacked-on, Hollywood-style feel to it that didn't quite mesh with the bulk of the story.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

#91 - Shadow Tag

Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich (New York: Harper, 2010).

Summary: "When Irene America discovers that her husband, Gil, has been reading her diary, she begins a secret Blue Notebook, stashed securely in a safe-deposit box. There she records the truth about her life and her marriage, while turning her Red Diary -- hidden where Gil will find it -- into a manipulative farce. Alternating between these two records, complemented by unflinching third-person narration, Shadow Tag is an eerily gripping read.

"When the novel opens, Irene is resuming work on her doctoral thesis about George Catlin, the nineteenth-century painter whose Native American subjects often regarded his portraits with suspicious wonder. Gil, who gained notoriety as an artist through his emotionally revealing portraits of his wife -- work that is adoring, sensual, and humiliating, even shocking -- realizes that his fear of losing Irene may force him to create the defining work of his career.

"Meanwhile, Irene and Gil fight to keep up appearances for their three children: fourteen-year-old genius Florian, who escapes his family's unraveling with joints and a stolen bottle of wine; Riel, their only daughter, an eleven-year-old feverishly planning to preserve her family, no matter what disaster strikes; and sweet kindergartener Stoney, who was born, his parents come to realize, at the beginning of the end.

"As her home increasingly becomes a place of violence and secrets, and she drifts into alcoholism, Irene moves to end her marriage. But her attachment to Gil is filled with shadowy need and delicious ironies. In brilliantly controlled prose,
Shadow Tag fearlessly explores the complex nature of love, the fluid boundaries of identity, and one family's struggle for survival and redemption."

Opening Line: "I have two diaries now."

My Take: A dark but beautiful story about the slow crumbling of a marriage, the complex coexistence of love and loathing,
and the devastating depths to which people can sink to wound those they once loved. The dual diaries are but one weapon (albeit an especially cruel one) in Irene's and Gil's arsenals. You'd think, from the jacket summary and what I've written so far, that Shadow Tag is another melodramatic, Oprah's Book Club-style selection, but it isn't. In Erdrich's hands, what could be maudlin and formulaic is intricately nuanced ... and hence, very, very believable. Most of the stories I've read where one character's alcoholism is an important plot point hit you over the head with it; here, you see both the celebratory and seductive facets of Irene's wine as well. Likewise, there are scenes where the reader clearly sees and feels both Irene's and Gil's perspectives and pain: Gil's being distracted by the TV news during Stoney's birth on 9/11/01, and later, the elaborate surprise birthday party he plans for Irene in hopes of regaining her love come to mind. Even the couple's three children are understated, flawed, and tremendously real. If you have the stomach for an absolutely heartbreaking ending, read this book -- it's richer and more resonant than you might realize at first.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

#90 - Bright-Sided

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Pursuit of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009).

Summary: "Americans are a 'positive' people -- cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: this is our reputation as well as our self-image. But more than a temperament, being positive is the key to getting success and prosperity. Or so we are told.

"In this utterly original debunking, Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the false promises of positive thinking, tracing it from its origins as a marginal nineteenth-century healing technique to its enshrinement as a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude. Evangelical megachurches preach the good news that you only have to want something to get it because God wants to 'prosper' you. The medical profession prescribes positive thinking for its presumed health benefits. Academia has made room for new departments of 'positive psychology' and the 'science of happiness.' Nowhere, though, has bright-siding taken firmer root than within the business community, where, as Ehrenreich reveals, the refusal even to consider negative outcomes -- like mortgage defaults -- contributed directly to the current economic disaster.

"With the myth-busting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downsides of positive thinking: personal self-blame and national denial. This is Ehrenreich at her provocative best -- poking holes in conventional wisdom and faux science and ending with a call for existential clarity and courage."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction
  • 1. Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer
  • 2. The Years of Magical Thinking
  • 3. The Dark Roots of American Optimism
  • 4. Motivating Business and the Business of Motivation
  • 5. God Wants You to Be Rich
  • 6. Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness
  • 7. How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy
  • 8. Postscript on Post-Positive Thinking
My Take: Barbara Ehrenreich is my hero -- who else could make a chapter on breast cancer funny? She manages, though, as illustrated by the following account of the mammogram that would ultimately reveal her cancer:
"I began to lose my nerve in the changing room, and not only because of the kinky necessity of baring my breasts and affixing tiny X-ray opaque stars to the tip of each nipple. The changing room ... contained something far worse, I noticed for the first time -- an assumption about who I am, where I am going, and what I will need when I get there. Almost all of the eye-level space had been filled with photocopied bits of cuteness and sentimentality: pink ribbons, a cartoon about a woman with iatrogenically flattened breasts, an 'Ode to a Mammogram,' a list of the 'Top Ten Things Only Women Understand' ('Fat Clothes' and 'Eyelash Curlers,' among them), and, inescapably, right next to the door, the poem 'I Said a Prayer for You Today,' illustrated with pink roses.

"It went on and on, this mother of all mammograms, cutting into gym time, dinnertime, and lifetime generally. ... I read the New York Times right down to the personally irrelevant sections like theater and real estate, eschewing the stack of women's magazines provided for me, much as I ordinarily enjoyed a quick read about sweatproof eyeliners and 'fabulous sex tonight,' because I had picked up this warning vibe in the changing room, which, in my increasingly anxious state, translated into: femininity is death. Finally there was nothing left to read but one of the free local weekly newspapers, where I found, buried deep in the classifieds, something even more unsettling than the growing prospect of major disease -- a classified ad for a 'breast cancer teddy bear' with a pink ribbon stitched to its chest.

"Yes, atheists pray in their foxholes -- in this case, with a yearning new to me and sharp as lust, for a clean and honorable death by shark bite, lightning strike, sniper fire, car crash. Let me be hacked to death by a madman, was my silent supplication -- anything but suffocation by the pink sticky sentiment embodied in that bear and oozing from the walls of the changing room. I didn't mind dying, but the idea that I should do so while clutching a teddy bear and with a sweet little smile on my face -- well, no amount of philosophy had prepared me for that."
The remainder of this chapter tackles what Ehrenreich calls "the sugar-coating of cancer," and breast cancer in particular: the all-but-universal belief that positive thinking is a must for anyone who wants to get better, and any other sentiments -- anger, fear -- just aren't acceptable. Trouble is, she argues, it doesn't work; there is no research which clearly demonstrates any real health benefits from approaching one's cancer with a positive attitude, and "without question there is a problem when positive thinking 'fails' and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not being positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place."

Subsequent chapters explore the prevalence of positive-thinking books, motivational speakers, and "life coaches" in contemporary U.S. culture; Ehrenreich seems to take special pleasure in picking apart the saccharine best-selling The Secret, which was more than OK by me. She argues that this trend had its roots in the early 1800s, when the "hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men" west of Puritan-dominated New England became instead, thanks to roads and eventually railroads, something that offered possibility and prosperity. The bulk of the book, though, is devoted to skewering the prosperity gospel megachurches and optimistic, non-rational, instinct-driven CEOs which have become so popular in recent decades, and blaming them in large part for the recent economic collapse.

Bright-Sided was certainly an original book, and an entertaining read to boot. I'm not sure, though, that I fully agree with all Ehrenreich's conclusions. I'm absolutely with her on the prosperity gospel (ridiculous church-lite) and richer-than-rich prima donna business leaders. I do, however, wish she'd been clearer about the distinction between critical thinking and pessimism. She also completely overlooks the distinction between the personal and broader societal impacts of positive thinking, which would have been valuable to at least touch upon. (On one hand, I think constructive anger is underrated; on the other, we all need to pick our battles, and sometimes, that means trying your damnedest to make lemons out of lemonade, if only to preserve your own sanity.)

#89 - Innocent

Innocent, by Scott Turow (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010).

Summary: "More than twenty years after Rusty Sabich and Tommy Molto went head-to-head in the shattering murder trial of Presumed Innocent, the men are pitted against each other once again in a riveting psychological match. When Sabich, now over sixty years old and the chief judge of an appellate court, finds his wife, Barbara, dead under mysterious circumstances, Molto accuses him of murder for the second time, setting into motion a trial that is vintage Turow—the courtroom at its most taut and explosive.

"With his characteristic insight into both the dark truths of the human psyche and the dense intricacies of the criminal justice system, Scott Turow proves once again that some books simply compel us to read late into the night, desperate to know who did it."

Opening Lines: "A man is sitting on a bed. He is my father.

"The body of a woman is beneath the covers. She was my mother."

My Take: Not surprisingly, this one was about what I'd expected. Yes, it entertained; no, it didn't disappoint.

The latter's always a risk in a situation like this. It seems almost everyone's read Presumed Innocent, or at least seen the Harrison Ford movie. The ending there was surprising enough, and the characters sufficiently compelling, that you can't help wondering what happened to Sabich and Molto and all their other pals after all those years; heck, I don't think I've been as excited about a much-delayed sequel since Michael Tolliver Lives came out. But for all that readers are curious, we're also an oddly proprietary lot. Even for an accomplished author like Turow, it's a fine line to walk: the next installment needs to seem logical and plausible given what we know of the characters, but not so logical that it seems obvious or unsurprising.

Fortunately, Innocent seems to pull it off. Many of the characters we remember from Presumed Innocent are back, and one of the things that makes this book work so well both as a sequel and a stand-alone is that they've both changed ... and they haven't. Time has passed, and their lives have taken unexpected turns, but nothing we see here is out of character with the folks we've gotten to know. At 60, Tommy Molto has recently married a much-younger woman and is the proud father of a small son. After a brief separation following Rusty's first trial, he and Barbara reconciled, but Barbara struggles with bipolar disorder and their relationship is a rocky one. Their son, Nate, is 22, a newly-minted lawyer himself, and still wrestling to carve out an adult identity and relationships apart from his parents.

And that's where we come in. When we pick up the story, Barbara has just turned up dead one morning, apparently of natural causes ... or is it? If so, why did Rusty sit beside her body for a full day before notifying the police, or even his son? And what's the significance of Rusty's recent affair with a young law clerk (which we learn about in the first few chapters) -- his first since the ill-fated tryst recalled in Presumed Innocent? I formed a few theories early on about how the story would ultimately end, and for once, I'm glad to say I was wrong. Great literature it's not, but an enjoyable legal suspense novel -- absolutely.