About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, December 16, 2011

#110: Summer Rental

Summer Rental, by Mary Kay Andrews (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011)

"Ellis, Julia, and Dorie. Best friends since Catholic grade school, they now find themselves in their mid-thirties, at the crossroads of life and love. Ellis, recently fired from a job she gave everything to, is beginning to question the choices she's made over the past decade of her life. Julia -- whose caustic wit covers up her wounds -- has a man who loves her and is offering her the world, but she can't hide how deeply insecure she feels about her looks, her brains, and her life. And Dorie has just been shockingly betrayed by the man she loved and trusted most in the world ... though this is just the tip of the iceberg of her problems and secrets. A month in North Carolina's Outer Banks is just what each of them needs.

"Ty Bazemore is their landlord, though he's hanging on to the rambling old beach house by a thin thread. After an inauspicious first meeting with Ellis, the two find themselves disturbingly attracted to each other, even as Ty is about to lose everything he's ever cared about.

"Maryn Shackleford is a stranger, and a woman on the run. Maryn just needs a few things in life: no questions, a good hiding place, and a new identity. Ellis, Julia, and Dorie can provide what Maryn wants, but can they also provide what she needs?

"Five people questioning everything they ever thought they knew about life. Five people on a journey that will uncover their secrets and point them on the path to forgiveness. Five people who need a sea change, and one month in a summer rental that might just give it to them."

Opening Line:
"It was not an auspicious beginning for a vacation, let alone for a new life."

My Take:
Halfway entertaining, but forgettable.

#109: Damned

Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk (New York: Doubleday, 2011)

Opening Lines and Summary:
"Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison. I'm just now arrived here, in Hell, but it's not my fault except for maybe dying from an overdose of marijuana."

"'Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison,' declares the whip-tongued thirteen-year-old narrator of Damned, Chuck Palahniuk's subversive new work of fiction. The daughter of a narcissistic film star and a billionaire, Madison is abandoned at her Swiss boarding school over Christmas while her parents are off touting their new projects and adopting more orphans. She dies over the holiday of a marijuana overdose -- and the next thing she knows, she's in Hell. Madison shares her cell with a motley crew of young sinners that is almost too good to be true: a cheerleader, a jock, a nerd, and a punk rocker, united by fate to form the six-feet-under version of everyone's favorite detention movie. Madison and her pals must trek across the Dandruff Desert and cross the Valley of Used Disposable Diapers to confront Satan in his citadel, and all the popcorn balls and wax lips that serve as the currency of Hell won't buy them off.

"This is the afterlife as only Chuck Palahniuk could imagine it: a twisted inferno where The English Patient plays on endless repeat, roaming demons devour sinners limb by limb, and the damned interrupt your dinner from their sweltering call center to hard-sell you Hell ... He makes eternal torment, well, simply divine."

My Take:
What a pleasant surprise. I picked this one up despite knowing Palahniuk's books leave me feeling in desperate need of a shower, because the premise just seemed too damned funny (excuse the pun) to pass up. It was, and grody as the descriptions of the underworld were, Damned made me laugh more than it left me with that visceral ickiness I had after Pygmy and Choke. It's hilarious.

#108: Falling Together

Falling Together, by Marisa de los Santos (New York: William Morrow, 2011)

Following Love Walked In and Belong to Me, de los Santos's third novel embraces the draw of college friendships. Catalina, Will, and Pen (short for Penelope) meet on a drama-filled night their freshman year and from that moment are completely inseparable, a solid trio whose bonds seem unbreakable. But something serious does come between them, and after college the friends stop speaking to one another. Yet each one feels the others' absence deeply. Until one day when Pen and Will receive a curt email from Cat: 'Please come to the ten-year reunion, I need you.' It's a mystery that neither Pen nor Will can ignore. What they find at the reunion is unexpected. This novel is partly a deep look into a friendship and what strengthened it as well as what ruined it, and partly a mystery that sends Pen and Will halfway around the world to the Philippines. The story unfolds in pieces-why the friendships fell apart and what reunites the friends in ways they would not have thought possible are slowly unveiled. While the characters are lovely and the writing is heartfelt, the pacing can be slow. VERDICT: The author's fans will enjoy this nostalgic mystery with romantic elements." -Beth Gibbs, from Library Journals

Opening Line:
"Pen would not use the word summoned when she told Jamie about the e-mail later that night."

My Take:
A solid B to B-minus. Not awful but not especially original or memorable either. Either it was never made convincingly clear why such epically wonderful friends just plain stopped speaking, or I'd half lost interest by then and missed something important. Wanted to like it and care about the characters more than I did, but didn't quite get there.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

#107: An Object of Beauty

An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010)

Opening Line
and Summary:

"I am tired, so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yeager, yet I worry that unless I write her story down, and see it bound and tidy on my bookshelf, I will be unable to ever write about anything else."

"So writes Daniel Franks, the narrator of a story about the woman he's been unable to let go of for years in the latest novel by bestselling author and acclaimed entertainer Steve Martin.

"Lacey Yeager is young, captivating, and ambitious enough to take on the notoriously demanding art world of New York City. Groomed at Sotheby's and hungry to keep climbing the social and career ladders put before her, Lacey charms men and women, old and young, rich and even richer with her charisma and liveliness. Her career sends her zipping all over Manhattan, the east coast, and even St. Petersburg, and her self-manufactured allure makes the reader wonder if it is not she who is the object of beauty. Her ascension to the highest tiers of New York parallels the soaring heights -- and, at times, the darkest lows -- of the art world and the country from the late 1990s through today.

"With twenty-two lush, four-color art reproductions throughout,
An Object of Beauty is both a primer on the business of fine art collecting and a close study of the personalities that make it run. With his latest novel Steve Martin once again displays his compassion and keen skills of observation and understanding."

My Take:
OK -- certainly better than most of the tripe I've been filling my head and my time with of late -- but didn't quite live up to its promise. Perhaps if I had more experience in the art sales and collecting world, but as it was, parts of the book seemed to get bogged down in just so much name dropping. It was also tough to really get to know or care about Lacey (who reminded me a lot of much contemporary pop music -- all glossy auto-tunes, with no substance beneath it) or our narrator, Daniel. Was there really never a crack in Lacey's veneer? No glimpse of what it was that made Daniel so fascinated with her (as it's established early on that they'd slept together only once, some time before the story began, and that this interest isn't primarily sexual)? Or who Daniel is, other than a shadowy art writer without much of a personal life? And I may have missed clues, but if indeed Lacey's success was largely ill-gotten, it would have been nice to see a bit more directly how that unfolded. Even Janet Maslin's New York Times review, which is mostly positive and praises Object of Beauty's "moral complexity," "ambiguity," and "heart," notes that the book lacks "a living, breathing Lacey," that the protagonist "serves this book more as a convenient abstraction, a way of illustrating its tutorial lessons, than a flesh-and-blood heroine," and that narrator Daniel Franks is "only minimally necessary ... watchful but bland."

While both Martin and Maslin may be familiar with the art collecting world, I'm not ... and I do prefer a bit more familiarity and intimacy with my characters. Not sorry I read it, but won't be too quick to recommend or reread it, either.

#106: Call Me Irresistible

Call Me Irresistible, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (New York: William Morrow, 2011)

"Lucy Jorik is the daughter of a former president of the United States.

"Meg Koranda is the offspring of legends.

"One of them is about to marry Mr. Irresistible -- Ted Beaudine -- the favorite son of Wynette, Texas. The other is not happy about it and is determined to save her friend from a mess of heartache.

"But even though Meg knows that breaking up her best friend's wedding is the right thing to do, no one else seems to agree. Faster than Lucy can say "I don't," Meg becomes the most hated woman in town -- a town she's stuck in with a dead car, an empty wallet, and a very angry bridegroom. Broke, stranded, and without her famous parents at her back, Meg is sure she can survive on her own wits. What's the worst that can happen? Lose her heart to the one and only Mr. Irresistible? Not likely. Not likely at all.

"Call Me Irresistible is the book Susan Elizabeth Phillips's readers have long awaited. Ted, better known as 'little Teddy,' the nine-year-old heartbreak kid from Phillips's first bestseller, Fancy Pants, and as 'young Teddy,' the hunky new college graduate in Lady Be Good, is all grown up now -- along with Lucy from First Lady and Meg from What I Did for Love. They're ready to take center stage in a saucy, funny, and highly addictive tale fans will love."

Opening Line:
"More than a few residents of Wynette, Texas, thought Ted Beaudine was marrying beneath himself."

My Take:

Maybe long-time faithful fans of the author would love and anticipate this book, but I'm not among them. My cardinal rule of sequels, or any books set in a universe the author's previously established, is that they need to work just as well as stand-alones for those who haven't read the others in the series. This one fails. Lots of stock, two-dimensional cardboard characters and ridiculous plot contrivances. Perhaps I've just read one chick lit book too many of late, but I feel a little like I just ate a full not-quite-half-gallon carton of ice cream by myself. The kind with rich but heavy little mix-ins in it.

#105: Wife-in-Law

Wife-in-Law, by Haywood Smith (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011)

"Neighbors Betsy Callison and Kat Ellis were oil and water when they met thirty-five years ago. Betsy was a prim, neat-freak, Republican wife, and Kat was a wild, irreverent hippie liberal. But they soon discovered common ground that created a bond that has lasted for decades. Until Betsy's husband, Greg, leaves her for his secretary, then comes back sniffing around two years later and convinces newly widowed Kat to marry him!

"Not that Betsy wants him back, but it's hard to move on when the newlyweds are flaunting their love right across the street. But there's trouble brewing in paradise, and no one knows philandering Greg better than his ex-wife, Betsy. Can Betsy get involved in her best friend's marriage -- even if it means helping her wife-in-law figure out the same man she shared a bed with for thirty years?"

Opening Line:
"Somebody once asked me how I pick my friends, and I just laughed, because God usually does the picking for me, and believe me, He has a wicked sense of humor."

My Take:
Fluffy, corn-battered and Southern-fried fun, if not especially literary or memorable.

#104: Joy for Beginners

Joy for Beginners, by Erica Bauermeister (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011)

an intimate, festive dinner party in Seattle, six women gather to celebrate their friend Kate's recovery from cancer. Wineglass in hand, Kate strikes a bargain with them: to celebrate her new lease on life, she'll do the one thing that's always terrified her: whitewater rafting down the Grand Canyon. But if she goes, each of them must promise to do one thing in the next year that is new, or difficult, or scary -- and Kate gets to choose their challenges.

"Shimmering with warmth, wit, and insight, Joy for Beginners is a celebration of life: unexpected, lyrical, and deeply satisfying."

Opening Line:

"Life came back slowly, Kate realized."

My Take:
Decent but not awesome. Not really enough time to get to know the characters well, or to understand the challenges Kate chose for them: best friend Ava's training for a three-day cancer walk (her own mother's death when she was ten left her absolutely paralyzed around death, to the extent of not being able to be around Kate during her illness) makes sense, but why demand that free spirited potter Dalia learn to bake bread?

Well written, though not quite to the extent oversold by the jacket blurb. What else is new?

#103: Take It Like a Mom

Take It Like a Mom, by Stephanie Stiles (New York: New American Library, 2011).

One thing sets her apart from other modern-day superheroes: mom genes. Annie Fingardt Forster used to be a lawyer who wore dry-clean only and shaved both legs. But things have changed. Now a stay-at-home mom, she wears cargo pants and ponytails and harbors a nearly pathological hatred towards hipster parents. With a three-year-old and a baby on the way, Annie knows what to expect...at least, she thought she did. Faced with her husband's job loss, pre-school politics, and a playground throwdown with her arch nemesis, Annie realizes that even with her husband and friends by her side, what she really needs is to learn to suck it up-and take it like a mom."

Opening Line:
"Since it's always kind of awkward getting started -- like a blind date, or a first date with a guy you only saw late one night in a bar -- I guess I should tell you right away that my name is Annie."

My Take:
More a sitcom than a real novel. A series of fairly entertaining chapters, but there's no real central conflict here. Ah well, it was a vacation read.

#102: Black and Blue

After wading through about a third of Emotional Intelligence and finally giving up, I read this and the next one while away for Thanksgiving.

Black and Blue, by Anna Quindlen (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010)

"For eighteen years, Fran Benedetto kept her secret. And hid her bruises. And stayed with Bobby because she wanted her son to have a father. And because, in spite of everything, she loved him. Then one night, when she saw the look on her ten-year-old son's face, Fran finally made a choice -- and ran for both their lives ...

"Now she is starting over in a city far from home, far from Bobby. And in this place she uses a name that isn't hers, and cradles her son in her arms, and tries to forget. For the woman who now calls herself Beth, every day is a chance to heal, to put together the pieces of her shattered self. And every day she waits for Bobby to catch up to her. Because Bobby always said he would never let her go. And despite the flawlessness of her escape, Fran Benedetto is certain of one thing: it is only a matter of time ..."

Opening Line:
"The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old."

My Take:
Pretty good, and bonus points for a not-so-tidy, vaguely unsatisfying ending. Never really thought to wonder before about what life must be like for those battered women who do escape.

#101: Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later

And speaking of not being ashamed of who you are ...

Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later, by Francine Pascal (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011)

"Anyone who grew up reading the Sweet Valley High series (that would be basically every girl born in the late 70s/early 80s) has been waiting for this -- Sweet Valley Confidential: 10 Years Later came out on Friday.

Make any mention of SVH to a 20 or 30-something woman and you’re likely to be bombarded with stories of childhood obsession, followed by a ranking of said woman’s favorite characters–for some reason most people liked goody-two-shoes Elizabeth, which is mystifying; c’mon, without saucy Jessica there never would have been any action! So really it’s no surprise that people have been eagerly waiting for this book. But how does it stack up to the originals?

Well, let’s just say this book wasn’t written to attract new fans. Even before the book was released it was apparent that it wasn’t meant for young readers the way the series was, but was instead written for fans of the original books. Readers who are now, like Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, adults. Readers who are thrilled by the fact that Sweet Valley-ites now drink! And use Facebook! And have sex!

Which is lucky, because honestly, without the emotional attachment to the characters (I’m emotionally attached to the Wakefields–that doesn’t sound weird, right? Right?) there isn’t much draw to Sweet Valley Confidential.

The story reads like a bad romance novel (and not the so-bad-it’s-good kind), starting with the plot: Jessica, who now works in public relations, has broken the cardinal rule of friendship and shattered her relationship with her beloved twin sister, who is now a writer in New York. The book centers on what Jessica’s offense was (I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s quite obvious) and whether or not Elizabeth will forgive her (I won’t spoil that one either). Then there’s the dialogue and first person narration, which is pretty laughable–especially Jessica’s habit of adding “so” and “like” to every sentence. In fact, even the third-person narration (the book swings between both) is questionable at times, as it’s occasionally peppered with profanity that comes out of nowhere.

The thing is, it doesn’t really matter how bad the book is. If you were a fan back then, you’re going to appreciate it. How can you not? It’s Sweet Valley! It’s the Wakefields and Lila Fowler and Bruce Patman and Caroline Pierce all grown up! It’s almost like going to your own high school reunion and being able to judge everyone’s life choices (Seriously, girl? You married that guy?) without having to worry about anyone questioning your own decisions.

Maybe that’s a stretch, but still — this book is a good time, as long as you can tap into your girlhood fandom." -Megan Gibson, from Time Magazine

Opening Line:

"Elizabeth had turned the key in the Fox lock, releasing a heavy metal bar that scraped across the inside of the front door with an impressive prison-gate sound, and was about to attack the Segal lock when the phone in the apartment started to ring."

My Take:

Yes, it was as dopey as you'd expect. Next.

#100: Introvert Power

I've fallen way behind in keeping track of the books I've read lately, so this barrage of posts will be even more cursory than usual.

Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, by Laurie A. Helgoe (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2008)

This book describes the power of introversion and how to take advantage of it. Helgoe addresses common beliefs about introversion, such as connections to mental illness, and societal taboos against solitude; the importance of private space, thinking, and observation; and how to bring aspects of introversion to the extroverted world. Helgoe, an introvert herself, is a writer and psychologist."

Table of Contents:
Part I: Antisocial, Weird, or Displaced?
  • Chapter 1: The Mistaken Identity
  • Chapter 2: Alone Is Not a Four-Letter Word
  • Chapter 3: Becoming an Alien
  • Chapter 4: "Anyone Else IN?"
  • Chapter 5: Meditating with the Majority: The Introverted Society
Part II: The Introvert's Wish List
  • Chapter 6: A Room of Your Own
  • Chapter 7: The Time to Think
  • Chapter 8: The Right to Retreat
  • Chapter 9: The Freedom of a Flaneur
  • Chapter 10: Inroads to Intimacy
Part III: Standing Still in a Loud World
  • Chapter 11: The Conversation Conundrum
  • Chapter 12: The Anti-Party Guide
  • Chapter 13: Why Did I Want to Work with People?
  • Chapter 14: The Downside to Self-Containment
  • Chapter 15: Showing Up for Relationships
Part IV: Outing the Introvert
  • Chapter 16: From Apology to Acceptance -- and Beyond
  • Chapter 17: Celebrating Introversion
  • Chapter 18: Expressing What's in There
  • Chapter 19: Moshing on Your Own Terms
  • Chapter 20: Introvert Power

My Take:

A bit extreme, though maybe that's because I always test out just this side of the E/I continuum, and the book may be written for folks further in the "I" direction than I am. Appreciated Helgoe's pointing out that introverts are slightly over 50% of the population; I'd always heard a much smaller figure myself. I also enjoyed the recommendations about not apologizing for one's introversion -- just plain up and admitting that you don't care for big, loud cocktail parties if that's the case, rather than making up some excuse and claiming that you really wish you could go. I do think she spends a bit too much time disparaging the extroverts, and paints them with a brush just about as broad as she claims they've pigeonholed introverts in the past. Another book called The Introvert Advantage (I think) which I recall reading a few years back was better, IMO.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

#99: Heads You Lose

Heads You Lose, by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2011)

"From New York Times-bestselling author Lisa Lutz and David Hayward, a hilarious and original tag-team novel that reads like Weeds crossed with Adaptation.

"Meet Paul and Lacey Hansen: orphaned, pot-growing, twentysomething siblings eking out a living in rural Northern California. When a headless corpse appears on their property, they can't exactly dial 911, so they move the body and wait for the police to find it. Instead, the corpse reappears, a few days riper ... and an amateur sleuth is born. Make that two.

"But that's only half the story. When collaborators Lutz and Hayward -- former romantic partners -- start to disagree about how the story should unfold, the body count rises, victims and suspects alike develop surprising characteristics (meet Brandy Chester, the stripper with the Mensa IQ) and sibling rivalry reaches homicidal intensity. Will the authors solve the mystery without killing each other first?"

Opening Line:
"Dave, I just finished the first chapter of a new novel -- a real crime novel with a dead body and all -- and I thought of you."

My Take:
Maybe I've just fallen for the gimmick, but this was an OK (slightly muddled, as you'd expect) novel made much funnier and more interesting because of the meta-story. As noted above, the authors took turns writing alternating chapters -- without having agreed on a plot line or details in the beginning. Neither knew till they saw each chapter what his/ her cowriter would have done, and as you'd expect with exes, they don't always see eye to eye. They did establish a rule that neither could undo plot development established by the other, but they also have a good bit of fun seeing just how far they can push this rule. (Without spoiling too much, I had "He's really most sincerely dead" running through my head more than once.)

Other than that, the less said about the plot, the better ... but if it sounds funny, give it a read.

#98: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010)

"Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I., becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy after a fateful morning on a Chicago rooftop.

"Forced to move to a new and strange city, with her strict African American grandmother as her new guardian, Rachel is thrust for the first time into a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, startling blue eyes, and beauty bring a constant stream of attention her way. It's there, as she grows up and tries to swallow her grief, that she comes to understand how the mystery and tragedy of her mother might be connected to her own uncertain identity. Raised by her mother to think of herself as white, Rachel is now expected to 'act black.' And all the while, she keeps asking herself why she has to be defined by her skin, and whether labels say more about who she is, or more about a world that attempts to brand her as black or white."

Opening Line:
"You my lucky piece," Grandma says.

My Take:
Not quite as clear and gripping all the way through as the first few chapters start out, but nonetheless an outstanding book. It opens in 1982, at which point the not-quite-teenaged Rachel has recently moved to Portland with her grandmother and much younger and warmer Aunt Loretta, and is still stung with fresh grief compounded by her new guardians' refusal to even mention her mother's name. We learn, in fairly short order, that Nella (Rachel's mother) had left not just her abusive husband, but the unique insularity of military base life ... only to find that Chicago @ 1980 couldn't quite wrap its brain around a white mother with three seemingly black children. Eventually, her inability to raise and guide them properly under the circumstances led her to jump (or perhaps be pushed) off a rooftop; only Rachel survived.

While the story centers primarily on Rachel, we do get to know other characters to some degree, including Brick, the young man who was fascinated with birds as a child until he saw Rachel's brother Robbie fall to his death, and Drew, Aunt Loretta's mover-and-shaker boyfriend whose influence in Rachel's life far outlasts his relationship with her aunt.

This may be one I'll want to buy and reread; I think there are probably layers of meaning I didn't quite get the first time around. Even so, I still enjoyed it.

#97: Authentic Happiness

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, by Martin E. P. Seligman (New York: Free Press, 2002)

"Over a decade ago, Martin Seligman charted a new approach to living with 'flexible optimism.' Now, in his most stimulating and persuasive book to date, the bestselling author of Learned Optimism introduces the revolutionary, scientifically-based idea of 'Positive Psychology.' Positive Psychology focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses, asserting that happiness is not the result of good genes or luck. Seligman teaches readers that happiness can be cultivated by identifying and using many of the strengths and traits that they already possess -- including kindness, originality, humor, optimism, and generosity. By frequently calling upon their 'signature strengths' in all the crucial realms of life, readers will not only develop natural buffers against misfortune and the experience of negative emotion, they will move their lives up to a new, more positive plane.

"Drawing on groundbreaking psychological research, Seligman shows how Positive Psychology is shifting the profession's paradigm away from its narrow-minded focus on pathology, victimology, and mental illness to positive emotion, virtue, and strength, and positive institutions. Our signature strengths can be nurtured throughout our lives, with benefits to our health, relationships, and careers.

"Seligman provides the Signature Strengths Survey along with a variety of brief tests that can be used to measure how much positive emotion readers experience, in order to help determine what their highest strengths are. The life-changing lesson of Authentic Happiness is that by identifying the very best in ourselves, we can improve the world around us and achieve new and sustainable levels of authentic contentment, gratification, and meaning."

Table of Contents:

I: Positive Emotion
  • 1. Positive Feeling and Positive Character
  • 2. How Psychology Lost Its Way and I Found Mine
  • 3. Why Bother to Be Happy?
  • 4. Can You Make Yourself Lastingly Happier?
  • 5. Satisfaction about the Past
  • 6. Optimism about the Future
  • 7. Happiness in the Present
Part II: Strength and Virtue
  • 8. Renewing Strength and Virtue
  • 9. Your Signature Strengths
Part III: In the Mansions of Life
  • 10. Work and Personal Satisfaction
  • 11. Love
  • 12. Raising Children
  • 13. Reprise and Summary
  • 14. Meaning and Purpose
My Take:
Another book that can't quite decide what it wants to be. The overview of positive psychology -- what it is, what the underlying research shows, and so on -- was interesting and informative, even if I find Seligman's dismissal of that branch of psychology that deals with the causes and treatment of mental illness glib and offensive. (Is there a role for psychology in bettering so-called normal, healthy individuals' lives and productivity? Sure. But does that mean it's not important to study or treat, say, schizophrenia, or depression, or alcoholism? Certainly not, though it almost sounds like this is what he's suggesting in places.) And I'll capitalize positive psychology about the time I start capitalizing realtor. Is that really a way to get yourself taken seriously? Why doesn't it seem necessary for, say, doctors and teachers and ministers -- or for molecular biology and child development and economics?

But Seligman's also given to excessive musings about his career and his family (second, presumably much younger wife, four perfectly cherubic home-schooled kids), which comes off as more smug and self-congratulatory than as illustrating important points. Additionally, he can't seem to decide if he wants the book to be an overview of positive psychology or a self-help book ... and the many self-tests and checklists tend to distract from the flow. Perhaps he should have taken a lesson from his one-time mentor, Aaron Beck, in this regard.

#96: The Night Strangers

The Night Strangers, by Chris Bohjalian (New York: Crown Publishing, 2011)

"From the bestselling author of
The Double Bind, Skeletons at the Feast, and Secrets of Eden, comes a riveting and dramatic ghost story.

"In a dusty corner of a basement in a rambling Victorian house in northern New Hampshire, a door has long been sealed shut with 39 six-inch-long carriage bolts.

"The home's new owners are Chip and Emily Linton and their twin ten-year-old daughters. Together they hope to rebuild their lives there after Chip, an airline pilot, has to ditch his 70-seat regional jet in Lake Champlain after double engine failure. Unlike the Miracle on the Hudson, however, most of the passengers aboard Flight 1611 die on impact or drown. The body count? Thirty-nine – a coincidence not lost on Chip when he discovers the number of bolts in that basement door. Meanwhile, Emily finds herself wondering about the women in this sparsely populated White Mountain village –- self-proclaimed herbalists –- and their interest in her fifth-grade daughters. Are the women mad? Or is it her husband, in the wake of the tragedy, whose grip on sanity has become desperately tenuous?

"The result is a poignant and powerful ghost story with all the hallmarks readers have come to expect from bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian: a palpable sense of place, an unerring sense of the demons that drive us, and characters we care about deeply.

"The difference this time? Some of those characters are dead."

Opening Line:
"You see the long, wide, perfectly straight strip of asphalt before you, the hangar to your right with the words GREEN MOUNTAIN BOYS painted in billboard-size letters along the side."

My Take:

I've had pretty mixed reactions to the last few Bohjalian books I've read. The Double Bind, my first, was a tremendous punch in the gut (yes, in a good way); Midwives was awesome. Skeletons at the Feast and Secrets of Eden, not so much.

Night Strangers was somewhere in between -- probably because Bohjalian tries to weave two stories together here, and one's a lot more compelling than the other. The real ghost story -- Chip struggling with his visions of those of his dead passengers who haven't yet been able to let go of their lives on earth -- is fascinating, poignant, sad, and sweet. The whole herbalists thing, though? Not very interesting. First of all, the ladies of Bethel -- who seem to have a WAY higher number of greenhouses per capita than the national average, and who all have odd floral names like Anise, Reseda, and Clary -- just come off as too weird and even nasty from the get-go, which makes it hard to get drawn into their story line. More importantly, even Emily notices this ... and it's just plain too much to believe that this lawyer/ mother, already torn up over uprooting her daughters' lives for the sake of her husband's recovery, would ignore every initial suspicious/ hinky feeling she has about the plant ladies and move so quickly from, "Hmm, why are these old biddies so unnaturally interested in my tween girls?" to "Oh, well, let's just have the girls stay with them after school every day." And I really didn't like the ending -- not because it was particularly upsetting (which was probably the effect the author was going for), but just because it's not well set-up and not very believable.

Oh well.

Friday, November 4, 2011

#95: Drive

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel H. Pink (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009)

"Most of us believe that the best way to motivate ourselves and others is with external rewards like money -- the carrot-and-stick approach. That's a mistake, Daniel H. Pink says in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, his provocative and persuasive new book. The secret to high performance and satisfaction -- at work, at school, and at home -- is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

"Drawing on four decades of scientific research on human motivation, Pink exposes the mismatch between what science knows and what business does -- and how that affects every aspect of life. He demonstrates that while carrots and sticks worked successfully in the twentieth century, that's precisely the wrong way to motivate people for today's challenges. In Drive, he examines the three elements of true motivation -- autonomy, mastery, and purpose -- and offers smart and surprising techniques for putting these into action. Along the way, he takes us to companies that are enlisting new approaches to motivation and introduces us to the scientists and entrepreneurs who are pointing a bold way forward.

"Drive is bursting with big ideas -- the rare book that will change how you look and transform how you live."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction: The Puzzling Puzzles of Harry Harlow and Edward Deci
Part I: A New Operating System
  • Chapter 1: The Rise and Fall of Motivation 2.0
  • Chapter 2: Seven Reasons Carrots and Sticks (Often) Don't Work ...
  • Chapter 2A: ... and the Special Circumstances When They Do
  • Chapter 3: Type I and Type X
Part II: The Three Elements
  • Chapter 4: Autonomy
  • Chapter 5: Mastery
  • Chapter 6: Purpose
Part III: The Type I Toolkit
  • Type I for Individuals: Nine Strategies for Awakening Your Motivation
  • Type I for Organizations: Nine Ways to Improve Your Company, Office, or Group
  • The Zen of Compensation: Paying People the Type I Way
  • Type I for Parents and Educators: Nine Ideas for Helping Our Kids
  • The Type I Reading List: Fifteen Essential Books
  • Listen to the Gurus: Six Business Thinkers Who Get It
  • The Type I Fitness Plan: Four Tips for Getting (and Staying) Motivated to Exercise
  • Drive: The Recap
  • Drive: The Glossary
  • The Drive Discussion Guide: Twenty Conversation Starters to Keep You Thinking and Talking
  • Find Out More -- About Yourself and This Topic
My Take:
Will this be more akin to Who Killed Change? or to Employees First, Customers Second? We shall see.

OK, a few weeks later and I've fallen dreadfully behind in my book blogging, so these next few entries will be short. Drive made sense and definitely had some ideas I'll plan to use once I'm reemployed, but got a bit repetitive midway through. Next.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

#94: The Weekend

The Weekend, by Bernhard Schlink, translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside (New York: Pantheon, 2010)

"Old friends and lovers reunite for a weekend in a secluded country home after spending decades apart. They excavate old memories and pass clandestine judgments on the wildly divergent paths they've taken since their youth. But this isn't just any reunion, and their conversations about the old days aren't your typical reminiscences: After twenty-four years, Jorg, a convicted murderer and terrorist, has been released from prison. The announcement of his pardon will send shock waves through the country, but before the announcement, his friends -- some of whom were Baader-Meinhof sympathizers or those who clung to them -- gather for his first weekend of freedom. They have been summoned by Jorg's devoted sister, Christiane, whose concern for her brother's safety is matched only by the unrelenting zeal of Marko, a young man intent on having Jorg continue to fight for the cause.

"Bernhard Schlink is at his finest as The Weekend unfolds. Passions are pitted against pragmatism, ideas against actions, and hopes against heartbreaking realities."

Opening Lines:
"She got there just before seven. She'd expected to make more headway and arrive sooner by traveling in the early morning."

My Take:
No pithy or snarky comments to offer here, but this was a pretty good book. Compact, good use of language (even in translation). Interesting characters, all of whom clearly have way more going on in their stories than we get to see, but this makes sense for a story that takes place pretty much in the course of a single weekend (though with lots of discussion and memories of past events, obviously). Almost has the feel of a stage play, which wasn't a bad thing -- just an interesting one. Characters include Christiane, who questions the degree to which she's put Jorg at the center of her life (too much? not enough) and whether she's done right by him; Ulrich, who seems intent on drawing some explanation from Jorg about just how it felt to kill someone; Ulrich's daughter Dorle, who's intent on seducing someone important this weekend if it kills her; Karin, the vicar whose constant peacemaking attempts belie her own secret doubts; Ilsa, the single teacher suddenly compelled to spend her time chronicling the adventures of terrorists/ freedom fighters like Jorg; Christiane's housemate Margarete, who helps keep the weekend flowing smoothly despite not having met the other guests before; and Henner, who may or may not have been the one who tipped the police off as to Jorg's whereabouts all those years ago. This is not a warm, fuzzy, chick-lit sort of reunion story, where everything's neatly wrapped up by the last page; rather, it's an intriguing meditation on what becomes of our dreams and ideals as we grow older.

#93: Committed

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, by Elizabeth Gilbert (New York: Viking, 2010)

"At the end of her bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love with Felipe, a Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship who had been living in Indonesia when they met. Resettling in America, the couple swore eternal fidelity to each other, but they also swore to never, ever, under any circumstances, get married. (Both were survivors of previous bad divorces. Enough said.) But providence intervened one day in the form of the U.S. government, which -- after detaining Felipe at an American border crossing -- gave the couple a choice: they could either get married, or Felipe would never be allowed to enter the country again.

"Having been effectively 'sentenced to wed,' Gilbert decided to tackle her fears of matrimony by becoming a student of the institution. Over the next ten months, as she and Felipe wandered haphazardly across Southeast Asia, waiting for the U.S. government to permit them to return to America and get married, the only thing she talked about, read about, or thought about was this perplexing subject.

Committed tells the story of one woman's efforts -- through contemplation, historical study, and extensive conversation with every soul she encountered along the way -- to make peace with marriage before she entered its estate once more. Told with Gilbert's trademark wit, intelligence, and compassion, the book attempts to 'turn on all the lights' when it comes to matrimony, frankly examining questions of compatibility, infatuation, fidelity, family tradition, social expectations, divorce risks, and humbling responsibilities. Myths are debunked; fears are unthreaded; historical perspective is sought; and romantic fantasies are ultimately exchanged for vital emotional compromises. In the end, the book becomes a kind of celebration of love -- with all the complexity and consequence that real love, in the real world, will always entail."

Table of Contents:
  1. Marriage and Surprises
  2. Marriage and Expectation
  3. Marriage and History
  4. Marriage and Infatuation
  5. Marriage and Women
  6. Marriage and Autonomy
  7. Marriage and Subversion
  8. Marriage and Ceremony
My Take:
Well-written and reasonably enjoyable, but not nearly so much so as Eat, Pray, Love. With that book, I was in a somewhat-skeptical camp; on one hand, it's hard to feel sympathy for someone so devastated by a bad divorce that she has to travel around the world for a year to find herself again, but on the other, Gilbert does write well, and as I'm not likely to have an extended sojourn in Bali or Italy any time in my own foreseeable future, reading someone else's travel memoir seemed like the next best thing.

Here, again, I enjoy the subject matter, as well as Gilbert's narrative style. Early on in the book, she visits with a houseful of Hmong women in rural Vietnam, and while she does a pretty good job of not romanticizing their poverty and isolation, she does capture something about the prevailing Western view of marriage that Pamela Haag, in Marriage Confidential, tries but never quite manages to nail down:
"But surely something has been lost, as well, in our modern and intensely private, closed-off homes. Watching the Hmong women interact with each other, I got to wondering whether the evolution of the ever smaller and ever more nuclear Western family has put a particular strain on modern marriages. In Hmong society, for instance, men and women don't spend all that much time together. Yes, you have a spouse. Yes, you have sex with that spouse. Yes, your fortunes are tied together. Yes, there might well be love. But aside from that, men's and women's lives are quite firmly separated into the divided realms of their gender-specific tasks. Men work and socialize with other men; women work and socialize with other women. ...

"If you are a Hmong woman, then, you don't necessarily expect your husband to be your best friend, your most intimate confidant, your emotional advisor, your intellectual equal, your comfort in times of sorrow. Hmong women, instead, get a lot of that emotional nourishment and support from other women -- from sisters, aunties, mothers, grandmothers. A Hmong woman has many voices in her life, many opinions and emotional buttresses surrounding her at all times. Kinship is to be found within arm's reach in any direction, and many female hands make light work, or at least lighter work, of the serious burdens of living."
I also found myself nodding in agreement at the clarity with which Gilbert describes the delicate dance of negotiation and compromise that happens in a marriage. Contemplating a solo trip to Cambodia, she muses,
"[H]e belongs to me now. And I belong to him, in exactly the same measure. Which does not mean that I cannot go to Cambodia by myself. It does mean, however, that I need to discuss my plans with Felipe before I leave -- as he would do with me were our situations reversed. If he objects to my desire to travel alone, I can argue my point with him, but I am obliged to at least listen to his objections. If he strenuously objects, I can just as strenuously overrule him, but I must select my battles -- as must he. If he protests my wishes too often, our marriage will surely break apart. On the other hand, if I constantly demand to live my life away from him, our marriage will just as surely break apart. It's delicate, then, this operation of mutual, quiet, almost velvety oppression, Out of respect, we must learn how to release and confine each other with the most exquisite care, but we should never -- not even for a moment -- pretend that we are not confined."
Well-turned phrases and personal anecdotes aside, though, there's really not a lot of new material here for anyone who's read some of Stephanie Coontz's work on the history of marriage (which Gilbert cites and acknowledges heavily). Decent narrative non-fiction, but not life-changing.

Friday, October 28, 2011

#92: Absurdistan

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart (New York: Random House, 2006)

"From the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook comes the uproarious and poignant story of one very fat man and one very small country.

"Open Absurdistan and meet outsize Misha Vainberg, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, lover of large portions of food and drink, lover and inept performer of rap music, and lover of a South Bronx Latina whom he longs to rejoin in New York City, if only the American INS will grant him a visa. But it won't, because Misha's late Beloved Papa whacked an Oklahoma businessman of some prominence. Misha is paying the price of exile from his adopted American homeland. He's stuck in Russia, dreaming of his beloved Rouenna and the Oz of NYC.

"Salvation may lie in the tiny, oil-rich nation of Absurdistan, where a crooked consular officer will sell Misha a Belgian passport. But after a civil war breaks out between two competing ethnic groups and a local warlord installs hapless Misha as Minister of Multicultural Affairs, our hero soon finds himself covered in oil, fighting for his life, falling in love, and trying to figure out if a normal life is still possible in the twenty-first century.

"Populated by curvaceous brown-eyed beauties, circumcision-happy Hasidic Jews, a loyal manservant who never stops serving, and scheming oil execs from a certain American company whose name rhymes with Maliburton, Absurdistan is a strange, oddly true-to-life look at how we live now, from a writer who should know.

"With the enormous success of The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart established himself as a central figure in today's literary world -- 'one of the most talented and entertaining writers of his generation,' according to The New York Observer. In Absurdistan, he gives an even funnier and wiser literary performance. In Misha Vainberg, he has invented a hero for the new century, a glimmer of humanity in a world of lost hope."

Opening Lines:
"This is a book about love. The next 338 pages are dedicated with that cloying Russian affection that passes for real warmth to my Beloved Papa, to the city of New York, to my sweet impoverished girlfriend in the South Bronx, and to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)."

My Take:
Very funny, but drags a bit in the middle once Vainberg gets stuck in the title republic.

I can't really overstate the first part. Absurdistan is crammed with wry, sometimes irreverent, usually hilarious observations about the United States, Russia, the former Soviet republics, and contemporary western culture. The reader gets an early taste of what she's in for in the first chapter, as Misha and college roommate Alyosha-Bob dine out in St. Petersburg with Misha's girlfriend Rouenna (visiting all too briefly from the South Bronx) and his very young stepmother, Lyuba. Observes Rouenna, on learning that Lyuba, too, was poor before marrying Misha's infamous, soon-to-be-murdered father Boris:
"[A]s far as I can tell, all of you Russians are just a bunch of n----z. ... All I'm saying is, you know ... your men don't got no jobs, everyone's always doing drive-bys whenever they got beefs, the childrens got asthma, and y'all live in public housing."
After this dinner is interrupted by police who've come to tell Misha of his father's assassination, Misha reflects on his first trip to New York and how he met Rouenna (after an unfortunate encounter with the circumcision-happy Hasidic Jews mentioned on the dust jacket, which leaves the otherwise-unapologetic Misha with at least one thing to feel self-conscious about).

Rouenna remains in St. Petersburg for Boris's funeral, but returns to New York and Hunter College soon thereafter ... where Misha fears that she's getting a little too close with her writing professor (and his own former college classmate) Jerry Shteynfarb, a lothario of a "perfectly Americanized Russian emigre (he came to the States as a seven-year-old) who managed to use his dubious Russian credentials to rise through the ranks of the Accidental creative writing department and to sleep with half the campus in the process" and who's still enjoying some degree of fame from his novel, The Russian Arriviste's Hand Job. (I never stopped chuckling at Shteyngart's dig at himself here.) His fears do indeed prove founded, though the rich and perhaps overly big-hearted Misha continues to pay Rouenna's tuition anyway.

Eventually, Misha comes to realize there's no way in heck he's going to get a U.S. travel visa through legitimate means. Even with his father dead, the whole murder thing's apparently still on his records, and the authorities aren't going to let Boris's son into the country, no way, no how. The only solution is to visit Absurdistan, where a crooked official at the Belgian consulate is reportedly selling Belgian passports for the asking (well, that and a goodly sum of cash).

Unfortunately, his timing couldn't be worse. Misha arrives in Svani City, and bribes his way through just about every airport and customs official he can find (in an eventually-tedious ritual where the Absurdi welcomes him with a speech like this:
"The Jewish people have a long and peaceful history in our land. They are our brothers, and whoever is their enemy is our enemy also. When you are in Absurdisvani, my mother will be your mother, my wife your sister, and you will always find water in my well to drink."
... only to inform him, moments later, that "our mother is in the hospital with a collapsed liver and a keloid scar on the left ear" and a few generous U.S. dollars would be much appreciated, and by the way, let me now introduce you to my colleague in the visa application line. Shortly after he settles into the penthouse suite at the Park Hyatt and gets his shiny new Belgian passport in hand, the Absurdi leader's plane is shot down, and the national borders sealed. Aside from seeing a decent young activist shot to death before his eyes, this doesn't make much difference in Misha's day-to-day life; the high-end food and drink seem to keep flowing at the Park Hyatt (and pretty much anywhere there are Haliburton staff), and his new (ahem) friendship with Nana Nanabragovna, daughter of a local warlord-cum-businessman ensures that he'll always have the best of whatever there is for the taking ... but, well, he still can't leave.

From here on, as noted above, the book seems to drag a bit. There are still plenty of apt and humorous observations, which keeps it readable, but not much happens, either in terms of visible action or in Misha's state of mind. Sure, I chuckled at the apparent feud between the two
ethnic groups in Absurdistan, the Sevo and the Svani, which seems to center on which direction the footrest should tilt on their version of the cross, and at the ridiculous but spot-on rap lyrics Misha's so fond of quoting, but that only takes you so far. I'll probably still read The Russian Debutante's Handbook if I can get my hands on it, but would have liked a stronger wrap-up to the story line here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

#90: The Heights

The Heights, by Peter Hedges (New York: Dutton, 2010)

"Tim Welch is a popular history teacher at the Montague Academy, an exclusive private school in Brooklyn Heights, New York: 'I was an odd-looking, gawky kid, but I like to think my rocky start forced me to develop empathy, kindness, and a tendency to be enthusiastic. All of this, I'm now convinced, helped me in my quest to be worth of Kate Oliver.' Kate is not ordinary, but she aspires to be. She stays at home with their two young sons in a modest apartment, trying desperately to become the parent she never had. Tim and Kate are seemingly the last middle-class family in the Heights, happily getting by, until one day their neat and tidy world is turned upside down by Anna Brody, the new neighbor who moves into the most expensive brownstone in Brooklyn.

"Anna is not only beautiful and wealthy; she's also impulsive. And for reasons Kate doesn't quite understand, even as all of the Range Rover-driving moms jockey for access into Anna's circle, Anna sets her sights on Kate and Tim and brings them into her world. It's fun -- dizzyingly fun, in fact -- to pretend for a while that they belong to her life of privilege and excess. Then a secret invitation comes in a plain white envelope from an unlikely messenger, and the games Tim and Kate have been playing become a lot more complicated."

Opening Line:
"That morning we woke to find our street buried in snow."

My Take:
Yawn. An OK book as these things go, but I really think I'm over this upper-middle-class chick lit phase for a while. Kate gets an offer she can't refuse to go back to work for an old boss, and Tim decides to take a sabbatical from teaching to care for the boys and finally finish his long-overdue dissertation. In the course of the year, both become besotted with Anna in different ways. An erotic frisson builds between Tim and Anna, under the guise of play dates between Tim and Kate's boys, Teddy and Sam, and Anna's cherubic daughter Sophie. Meanwhile, Kate becomes star-struck as Anna seems to choose her as her new best friend, going so far as to give Kate an evening gown with a 5-figure price tag that later turns out to have been Anna's wedding dress.

Again, decent story, but the climax and resolution seem pretty half-hearted. Glad today is librart day.

#89: Marriage Confidential

Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses & Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules, by Pamela Haag (New York: Harper, 2011)

"Pamela Haag has written the generational 'big book' on modern marriage, a mesmerizing, sometimes salacious look at the semi-happy ambivalence lurking just below the surface of many marriages today. The spouses may rarely fight -- they may maintain a sincere affection for each other -- but one or both may harbor a melancholy sense that something important is missing.

"Remarkably, this side of the marriage story hasn't been told or analyzed -- until now.

"Meticulously researched and injected with insightful firsthand accounts and welcome doses of humor, Marriage Confidential articulates for a generation that grew up believing they would 'have it all' why they have ended up disenchanted. Haag introduces us to contemporary marriages where spouses act more like life partners than lovers; children occupy an uncontested position at the center of the marital relationship; and even the romantic staples of sexual fidelity and passion are assailed from all sides -- so much so that spouses can end up having affairs online almost by accident.

"Blending tales from the front lines of matrimony with cultural history, surveys, and research covert-ops (such as joining an online affair-finding site and posting a personal ad in the New York Review of Books), Haag paints a detailed picture of the state of marriage today. And to show what's possible as well as what's melancholy in our post-romantic age, Haag seeks out marriages with a twist -- rebels who are quietly brainstorming and evolving the scripts around career, money, social life, child rearing, and sex.

"Provocative but sympathetic, forward-thinking and bold, here, at last, is a manifesto for living large in marriage."

Table of Contents:

- Marriage on the Edge
  • Chapter 1 - The Dilemmas of a Semi-Happy Marriage: Why We Settle for Ambivalence
Part I: The New Normals of Career and Marriage
  • Chapter 2 - 'Life Partners': How Too Much Intimacy Killed Intimacy
  • Chapter 3 - 'I Can Bring Home the Bacon': How Having It All Became Sort of Having Two Things Halfway
  • Chapter 4 - The Tom Sawyer Marriage: The Plight of the New Workhorse Wife
  • Chapter 5 - The Joy of Falling: Downwardly Mobile and Mutually Liberated
Part II: Parenting Marriages
  • Chapter 6 - The Have Children - Will Divorce Paradox: How Parenthood Inspires Marriage and Then Steals It
  • Chapter 7 - Children: The New Spouses: How the Strength of Family Values Became the Weakness of Family
  • Chapter 8 - Man-Cave in the Promised Land: How Spouses Reclaim Their Adulthood by Acting Like Children
  • Chapter 9 - Marital Habitats: Being Married with Children in Public Again
Part III: New Twists on Old Infidelities, or the Way We Stray Today
  • Chapter 10 - Stories of the 'AFFAIRS' Folder: The Underwhelming Crisis of Infidelity
  • Chapter 11 - 'I Call It Married Dating': The Accidental Cheater in the Age of Facebook and Google
  • Chapter 12 - ISO (In Search Of): A Bubble: The Philanderer's Defense
Part IV: The New Monogamy
  • Chapter 13 - 'The Fifty-Mile Rule': Affair Tolerators, Then and Now, or the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Marriage
  • Chapter 14 - 'We're Making It Up as We Go Along': Sexual Libertarianism and the Case Against Marital Monogamy
  • Chapter 15 - 'A Place Where a Sick Marriage Goes to Die?': The Hidden World of 'Ethical Nonmonogamy'
  • Chapter 16 - 'Free Love 2.0': The New Open Marriage
Epilogue - 'Why Can't We Have Our Cake and Eat It, Too?'

My Take:
Interesting, but a bit heavy on the anecdotes and light on actual data in some places. The author's basic premise is that a large number of Americans (I don't think she ever offers exact numbers or fractions) today are in what she calls low-conflict, low-stress marriages:
"[S]ecretly they are troubled by a feeling that there is something in their marriage that doesn't work, possibly cannot be made to work, and that it is not going to get any better. As far as their marriages are concerned, they fear that this is, indeed, it. These spouses are sad more than miserable, disappointed rather than chronically unhappy. As psychiatrists would say, their marriages are 'melancholy': They have a brooding sadness about them that often lacks an obvious, tangible cause.
"These melancholy spouses may not remember the dream they once had for marriage, but the dream remembers them. It tugs at them hauntingly. They know it's not their spouse's fault, per se, or even their own. After several years, a Marriage is more like a third character, with its own personality and life. It's not reducible to the sum of its all-too-human creators, any more than a child would be.

"... You shadowbox with yourself. In quiet moments when you ask yourself, 'Is this all it is?,' you simultaneously beat up on yourself for asking the question at all. You accuse yourself of being selfish to want more than you already have. You feel guilty thinking about lost or deferred dreams, and you wonder whether it is noble or useful to demand more from a marriage than the good things you have. You might even question your desires. Perhaps the longing for more out of marriage is just the vestige of a callow, self-defeating romantic ideal that you don't even entirely trust anymore, but can't entirely purge from your mind."
While I don't disagree, and think Haag offers some intriguing examples of marriages that seem to get around this problem by making some of their own rules, she largely ignores the explanation I believe Stephanie Coontz offered some years ago: now that we marry primarily for love and most women don't really need a husband to support them financially, our expectations of marriage and our spouse -- as best friend, lover, co-parent, etc. -- have become such a tall order that reality is bound to fall short. Haag argues that more and more people marry spouses not just with similar levels of education, but from the same or similar schools, and that this coupled with the Internet-era ability to pre-screen potential dates' hobbies, backgrounds, etc. to a degree unthinkable a generation ago means we're marrying people who are essentially just like us, rather than who complement us. At the same time, we're developing collegial, affectionate relationships at work that are increasingly indistinguishable from those we have with our spouses. I'm not sure I buy this latter point, nor do I get quite what the two trends have in common.

My biggest critique, though, is with Haag's "workhorse wife" chapter, where I think she makes far too big a leap. The hard facts are comparable to others I've encountered before: the percentage of men out of the labor force has increase from 5% in the 1960s to 13% today, and the percentage of married women who out-earn their husbands has increase from 24% in 1987 to 33% today. OK, fair enough. However, I'm not sure it automatically follows from this that the anecdote Haag offers -- a woman who's worked for years in lucrative but exhausting and soul-sucking jobs while her husband pursues a series of exciting but low-paying "big dream" careers, but still shoulders the bulk of the housework and child care -- is really a trend. I don't dispute the second shift (women do most of the housework and child care even when both partners work full time), but again, this isn't new news; Arlie Hochschild identified the issue more than 20 years ago. And I don't doubt that there are some couples in situations similar to Beth and Rich's (wife makes the big bucks, husband follows his dream) -- but I can think of plenty where the roles are reversed, and mom/ wife works an interesting/ flexible but poorly paid job while dad/ husband does the bulk of the earning. Also, thinking back to my grad school days, I believe the increased percentage of men not in the labor force is a function of a) increased availability of disability benefits and b) people living longer in retirement, and makes itself felt (especially at the lower end of the economic spectrum, which isn't very well-represented among Haag's anecdotes) less in wives supporting their selfish, underemployed husbands than in more men with lower levels of education and grimmer occupational prospects just not getting married at all.

Likewise, the section about how children impact a marriage has some interesting points (I'm all for anyone who points out that the over-the-top extremes to which some families take attachment parenting isn't good for either children or parents), but it's not exactly news that having children is stressful, and (particularly when the kids are young and demand a seemingly endless supply of parental time and energy) can weaken or even destroy a marriage.

Probably the most ground-breaking section of Marriage Confidential is its last, where Haag dares to question the assumption that marriage must equal monogamy, and anyone who thinks or practices otherwise is immoral/ a perv. Once again, she's not the first to voice the idea; sex columnist Dan Savage has been a proponent of what he calls "monogamish" relationships for years, i.e., provided you're honest with your partner and agree on parameters for what is and isn't OK (Are certain sex acts off-limits? Any not in our house/ not in our circle of friends rules? How much do you tell each other before and afterwards?), then hey -- some extra-marital recreation can be A Good Thing. However, as with the attachment parenting issue, questioning the monogamy assumption is still pretty bold, and in my book, any intimate arrangement that reduces the frequency of sordid revelations on the Spitzer/ John Edwards/ Ah-nuld continuum is a) fine by me, and b) unless it's my marriage, none of my beeswax anyway.

Overall, Haag has some interesting ideas, but the overall book reads more like a somewhat-disjointed outline or rough draft, rather than advancing a single cohesive thesis. Would make for some interesting discussions if you were to read it with friends, but definitely more of a starting point than a definitive treatment of the issues.