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, February 20, 2011

#17 - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell (New York: Random House, 2010).

Summary: "The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the 'high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island' that is the Japanese Empire's single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay; the farthest outpost of the war-ravaged Dutch East Indies Company; and a de facto prison for the dozen foreigners permitted to live and work there. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, costly courtesans, earthquakes, and typhoons comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout and resourceful young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiance back in Holland.

"But Jacob's initial intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and midwife to the city's powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken. The consequences will extend beyond Jacob's worst imaginings. As one cynical colleague asks, 'Who ain't a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?'"

Opening Lines:
"'Miss Kawasemi?' Orito kneels on a stale and sticky futon. 'Can you hear me?'"

My Take:
Interesting if occasionally convoluted novel set in shogun-era Japan at the turn of the 19th century. Took me some time to get into the story -- not unusual, for a near-epic work of historical fiction with a cast of dozens, most with unfamiliar (Dutch, Japanese, and some other) names and roles that don't quite exist 200 years later -- but found it worthwhile once I did. A page-turner it isn't, at least in most places -- personally, I most enjoyed the portions of the story set in the mysterious mountain sect/ shrine which kidnaps Orito, though this is really a secondary plot line -- but it's still rewarding. For more detail, see Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

#16 - Skipping Toward Gomorrah

Skipping Toward Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness, by Dan Savage (New York: Dutton, 2002).

Summary: "Bill Bennett. Robert Bork. Pat Buchanan. Dr. Laura. Bill O'Reilly. They have written bestseller after bestseller condemning the sins and liberal views of America. It's time for someone to speak up for the sinners.

"Dan Savage is irreverent, irrepressible, opinionated, and he's had it up to here with the moral, conservative scolds who proclaim America is slouching towards Gomorrah (to use Robert Bork's phrase). Are we really that bad?

"Yes, we are! And in Skipping Toward Gomorrah, Dan Savage eviscerates those cynical screeds as he takes readers on a wickedly funny tour celebrating America's sinners. He commits each of the Seven Deadly Sins himself (or tries to) and finds those everyday Americans who take particular delight in their sinful pursuits. Among them:
  • Greed: Gamblers in Vegas, who reveal surprising secrets behind outrageous fortune.
  • Lust: 'We're swingers!' -- you won't believe who's doing it.
  • Gluttony: Dan attends a fat-acceptance conference that highlights gluttons with an attitude.
  • Sloth: Not the most difficult of sins to celebrate, but leave it to Dan to find a way that will get him in trouble with his mother.
  • Anger: Texans shoot off some rounds and then listen to Dan fire off his own about guns, gun control, and the Second Amendment.
  • Envy: Meet the rich and beautiful at an ultra-exclusive spa -- then be glad you're not one of them.
  • Pride: You'll never look at another gay pride parade the same way again.
"Come along for the ride and learn a unique history of the Seven Deadly Sins, discover a new interpretation of the biblical stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, and read enough Bork-, Bennett-, Buchanan-, et al-bashing to more than make up for their incessant carping. If America is headed for the biblical bad-boy city of Gomorrah, Dan plans on skipping all the way."

Table of Contents:
  • Well Endowed
  • Greed: The Thrill of Losing Money
  • Lust: The Erotic Rites of David and Bridget
  • Sloth: I Am Not a Pothead
  • Gluttony: Eating Out with Teresa and Tim
  • Envy: Meet the Rich
  • Pride: Jake and Kevin and the Queen of Sin
  • Anger: My Piece, My Unit
  • Welcome to Gomorrah
My Take: I'm a huge fan of Dan Savage and so far, the introduction is promising. I especially love the line on page 2 about how "[t]he virtuecrats haven't succeeded in halting the sale of rap CDs, the giving of blow jobs, or the getting of high." Should be a good read.

Well, it was. May or may not get to write more later, but this was both an interesting take on some of the hypocrisy of some of the aforementioned right-wing pundits' positions ... and, being by Dan Savage, laugh-out-loud funny in many places. Definitely one of his earlier works, and you can see how his style and some of his positions have evolved over the years, but very entertaining nonetheless.

Monday, February 14, 2011

#15 - Room

Room, by Emma Donoghue (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2010).

Summary: "To five-year-old Jack, Room is the world. It's where he was born, it's where he and his Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. There are endless wonders that let loose Jack's imagination -- the snake under Bed that he constructs out of eggshells, the imaginary world projected through the TV, the coziness of Wardrobe below Ma's clothes, where she tucks him in safely at night in case Old Nick comes.

"Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it's the prison where she has been held since she was nineteen -- for seven years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in that eleven-by-eleven-foot space. But Jack's curiosity is building alongside her own desperation -- and she knows that Room cannot contain either much longer.

"Told in the poignant and funny voice of Jack, Room is a story of unconquerable love in harrowing circumstances, and of the diamond-hard bond between a mother and her child. It is a shocking, exhilarating, and riveting novel -- but always deeply human and always moving. Room is a place you'll never forget."

Opening Lines: "Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra."

My Take: O. M. G. It's not often that I read a book that's generated so much buzz without feeling a let down, but this is most certainly one of those times. In a word, Room is brilliant. I came home from Job #2 & stayed up way later than I should have last night (well, at least it was late for me) finishing it; I couldn't wait to find out how things resolved.

The above summary provides the basic premise for those who've somehow missed the corona of reviews this book's generated over the past year or so. Old Nick has held Ma captive in Room for 7 years, ever since kidnapping her off the street when she was 19, and Jack's lived his entire 5 years within Room's four windowless walls. From some inexplicable reservoir of strength, Ma has managed to give Jack a remarkably healthy and secure childhood, considering. He exercises every day (piling all the furniture in the center of the room and running laps on Track, jumping on Bed a/k/a Trampoline), reads and writes and knows every story his mother can think of, and treasures the toys they've made from eggshells and old vitamin bottles. Ma strictly limits their TV viewing, is absolutely insistent on brushing teeth after each meal, and reads Dylan the Digger (one of a tiny handful of books in Room) Over. And. Over. Again. even when it gets on her last nerve. She tucks Jack into a cozy nest in Wardrobe each night, desperate to keep Old Nick from seeing him on those occasions when he stops by. Perhaps most remarkably, she never gives up hope; every weekday, she and Jack stand on Table to get as close to Skylight as they can, and scream as loud as possible in hopes that someone will hear. And it took me a while to realize that the light-flickering that occasionally wakes Jack at night is Ma's determined attempt to signal someone -- anyone -- who might see the light and investigate.

In short, Ma's prison is Jack's whole world. As she explains later, he knows the difference between real (what's inside Room) and TV, but not between Room and Outside; she can't bear to tell him that there's a whole world of fun that he's missing out on.

To Donoghue's credit, as compelling as the world she creates inside Room for Ma and Jack is, the latter part of the novel -- in which the two finally do escape -- is at least as intriguing and provocative. We've all heard the news stories about kidnap victims long given up for dead and then freed after years and years have gone by, but Room's exploration of what it's like for Ma to re-enter the world and Jack to experience Outside for the first time is absolutely stunning. For years, Ma has ached to see her parents and brother Paul again, to swing with Jack as she once did with Paul in the backyard hammock ... only to find that her parents' marriage didn't survive their grief at losing her (Ma's mother never gave up hope; her father believed her dead and even held a memorial service). Jack's first-ever outing without Ma -- a trip to the Museum of Natural History with Paul and his family -- is rescheduled, when he's overwhelmed by what's supposed to be just a quick pit stop at the local mall. Likewise, his newfound grandmother takes him to a playground only to find that he doesn't know how to play with other children. Trapped indoors for years, both Jack and Ma sunburn at the drop of a hat. That's probably more than enough spoilers to tease those of you (all my legions of readers), but I can't say it loudly enough: You must read this book.

#14 - Mary Ann in Autumn

#14, last week, was Mary Ann in Autumn: A Tales of the City Novel, by none other than Armistead Maupin (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

Summary: "A hilarious and touching new installment of Armistead Maupin's beloved Tales of the City series. Twenty years have passed since Mary Ann Singleton left her husband and child in San Francisco to pursue her dream of a television career in New York. Now a pair of personal calamities has driven her back to the city of her youth and into the arms of her oldest friend, Michael 'Mouse' Tolliver, a gardener happily ensconced with his much-younger husband. Mary Ann finds temporary refuge in the couple's backyard cottage, where, at the unnerving age of fifty-seven, she licks her wounds and takes stock of her mistakes. Soon, with the help of Facebook and a few old friends, she begins to reengage with live, only to confront fresh terrors when her checkered past comes back to haunt her in a way she could never have imagined. After the intimate first-person narratives of Maupin's last novel, Michael Tolliver Lives, Mary Ann in Autumn marks the author's return to the multicharacter plotlines and darkly comic themes of his earlier work. Among those caught in Mary Ann's orbit are her estranged daughter, Shawna, a popular sex blogger; Jake Greenleaf, Michael's transgendered gardening assistant; socialite DeDe Halcyon-Wilson; and the indefatigable Anna Madrigal, Mary Ann's former landlady at 28 Barbary Lane. More than three decades in the making, Armistead Maupin's legendary Tales of the City series rolls into a new age, still sassy, irreverent, and curious, and still exploring the boundaries of the human experience with insight, compassion, and mordant wit."

Opening Line: "There should be a rabbit hole was what she was thinking."

My Take: Read this one in a single sitting last week, one night when I was both bored and restless and just didn't have enough brainpower to slog through another chapter of Yellow. While not the strongest of the Tales series, this much-later sequel certainly stands solidly among them. The return of two characters from Mary Ann's checkered past was an intriguing, if not fully credible touch; I won't spoil the details save to say dead ain't dead until you've seen the body. And I really enjoyed seeing Maupin's take on the San Francisco of the early 21st century: DeDe and D'or now grandmothers, but still bickering or living and letting live over certain matters of taste; Jake and Ben's latter-day take on queer life and culture; the funky Gen X/ Gen Yer Shawna turns out to be. The one character I particularly missed seeing was Brian, who we learn is now RVing from national park to national park somewhere ... but I suppose what makes the story fairly plausible is that characters do grow, change, and move away from time to time. In short, I don't know if this book by itself would draw me into the series if I hadn't read the others ... but it was a decent evening's entertainment, and a fitting continuation of some old favorite characters' stories.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

#12: Yellow

Yellow: Race in America beyond Black and White, by Frank H. Wu (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

Jacket Summary: "The days when racial dialogue in the United States was limited to a discussion of black and white are through. As the twenty-first century dawns, the Asian-American population is growing at a faster rate than any other demographic, increasing by 48% throughout the 1990s and altering the nature of American color politics forever.

"Writing in the tradition of W.E.B. Du Bois, Cornel West, and others who confronted the 'color line' of the twentieth century, journalist, scholar, and activist Frank H. Wu offers a unique perspective on how changing ideas of racial identity will affect race relations in the new century.

"Wu's description of the alienation faced by Asian Americans tackles key milestones in history, suc as the 1940s internment camps and the 1992 L.A. riots, as well as surprising statistics about the continuing presence of anti-Asian sentiment. In May 2001, a major national survey of highly educated individuals showed that almost half of all Americans believe that Chinese Americans are likely to pass secret information to China. About a third agree that Chinese Americans are probably more loyal to China than the United States, and few distinguish between Chinese Americans and other Asians.

"Yellow looks at the problems of racial diversity with a new focus, elevating the age-old debate from its formerly static terms. Wu examines affirmative action, globalization, immigration and other controversial contemporary issues through the lens of the Asian-American experience. Mixing personal anecdotes, legal cases, and journalistic reporting, Wu confronts damaging Asian-American stereotypes such as 'the model minority' and 'the perpetual foreigner.' By offering new ways of thinking about race in American society, Wu's work dares us to make good on our great democratic experiment."

Table of Contents:
  • 1 - East Is East, West Is West: Asians as Americans
  • 2 - The Model Minority: Asian American "Success" as a Race Relations Failure
  • 3 - The Perpetual Foreigner: Yellow Peril in the Pacific Century
  • 4 - Neither Black Nor White: Affirmative Action and Asian Americans
  • 5 - True But Wrong: New Arguments Against New Discrimination
  • 6 - The Best "Chink" Food: Dog-Eating and the Dilemma of Diversity
  • 7 - The Changing Face of America: Intermarriage and the Mixed Race Movement
  • 8 - The Power of Coalitions: Why I Teach at Harvard
  • Epilogue - Deep Springs
My Take: Interesting, but in places, a bit too dense and philosophical for the layperson. Did offer a different take on race in American life, but I think I need to read about something else for a while.