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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

#25: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson (New York: Random House, 2010).

"You are about to travel to Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the English countryside filled with rolling hills, thatched cottages, and a cast of characters both hilariously original and as familiar as the members of your own family. Among them is Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson's wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, Major Pettigrew is one of the most indelible characters in contemporary fiction, and from the very first page of this remarkable novel, he will steal your heart.

"The Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother's death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their respective spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and regarding her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?"

Opening Line:
"Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother's wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking."

My Take:
A lovely, gentle love story that also happens to have a lot to say about friendship, integrity, family, and culture. Part of me wants to see a movie made out of this one; part of me thinks the big studios would just ruin it. Very satisfying story that I think I'll be buying several gift copies of.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

#24: Cost

Cost, by Roxana Robinson (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).

"When Julia Lambert, an art professor, settles into her idyllic Maine house for the summer, she plans to spend the time tending her fragile relationships with her father, a repressive neurosurgeon, and her gentle mother, who is descending into Alzheimer's. But a shattering revelation intrudes: Julia's son Jack has spiraled into heroin addiction. In an attempt to save him, Julia marshals help from her looseknit clan: elderly parents; remarried ex-husband; removed sister; and combative eldest son. Ultimately, heroin courses through the characters' lives with an impersonal and devastating energy, sweeping the family into a world in which deceit, crime, and fear are part of daily life. ... In Cost, Robinson tackles addiction and explores its effects on the bonds of family, dazzling us with her hallmark subtlety and precision in evoking the emotional interiors of her characters. The result is a work in which the reader's sense of discovery and compassion for every character remains unflagging to the end, even as the reader, like the characters, is caught up in Cost's breathtaking pace."

Opening Lines:
"Her memory was gone. It came to Katharine like a soft shock, like a blow inside the head."

My Take:

Aaahh. After working a few late nights, I took last night off, got into bed at 9, and stayed up till I finished Cost. (Admittedly, I was about 2/3 of the way through when I went to bed.) Compelling, beautifully-written story with a fitting, not-too-tidy ending. I particularly appreciated Robinson's skill with both intensity and depth. On one hand, she really takes you inside the seamy, devastating details of Jack's addiction ... on the other, you also feel like you understand and appreciate the other characters' more subtle inner lives. I was especially moved by Julia's parents' struggle with their advancing frailty. If you're looking for a compelling read that's fast-paced enough to hold your interest, but substantial enough that you don't feel like you've wasted the time it took to read it. this one's a keeper.

Monday, March 28, 2011

#23: The Lost Books of the Odyssey

The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason (New York: Picador, 2011).

"Zachary Mason's brilliant and beguiling debut novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, reimagines Homer's classic story of the hero Odysseus and his long journey home after the fall of Troy. With brilliant prose, terrific imagination, and dazzling literary skill, Mason creates alternative episodes, fragments, and revisions of Homer's original that taken together open up this classic Greek myth to endless reverberating interpretations. The Lost Books of the Odyssey is punctuated with great wit, beauty, and playfulness; it is a daring literary page-turner that marks the emergence of an extraordinary new talent."

Opening Line:

"Odysseus comes back to Ithaca in a little boat on a clear day."

My Take:
You know I'm always a sucker for re-interpretations of old stories, and the language here was beautiful. Essentially, this is a collection of chapters ranging from short to very short; some of them fill in gaps in the original Odyssey, while others look at the familiar tales in a new light. One of my favorites depicts Odysseus as a bard who fights briefly in the Trojan War, manages through guile rather than bravery to avoid getting killed, and then travels the known world singing war ballads that cast himself in a starring, though mostly imaginary, role. Another has the Cyclops spreading tall and taller tales about the drunken band of sailors who put his eye out in an effort to preserve his own rep. And some, especially those that deal with what becomes of Odysseus once he arrives home in Ithaca, are heartbreakingly sad.

The one thing that kept me from enjoying the book as much as I otherwise might have is that it's been a long time since I read any of The Odyssey -- and frankly, I was probably too young and distracted at the time to really Get It.
On the other hand, I got to read The Lost Books while Twig was studying ancient Greece in school, and the chapters lent themselves well to being read aloud, which was a plus. A book you continue to enjoy pondering even after you've finished it.

#22: Wesley the Owl

Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Story of an Owl and His Girl, by Stacey O'Brien (New York: Free Press, 2008).

"On Valentine's Day 1985, biologist Stacey O'Brien first met a four-day-old baby barn owl -- a fateful encounter that would turn into an astonishing 19-year saga. With nerve damage in one wing, the owlet's ability to fly was forever compromised, and he had no hope of surviving on his own in the wild. O'Brien, a young assistant in the owl laboratory at Caltech, was immediately smitten, promising to care for the helpless owlet and give him a permanent home. Wesley the Owl is the funny, poignant story of their dramatic two decades together. With both a tender heart and a scientist's eye, O'Brien studied Wesley's strange habits intensively and first-hand -- and provided a mice-only diet that required her to buy the rodents in bulk (28,000 over the owl's lifetime). As Wesley grew, she snapped photos of him at every stage like any proud parent, recording his life from a helpless ball of fuzz to a playful, clumsy adolescent to a gorgeous, gold-and-white macho adult owl with a heart-shaped face and an outsize personality that belied his 18-inch stature. Stacey and Wesley's bond deepened as she discovered Wesley's individual personality, subtle emotions, and playful nature that could also turn fiercely loyal and protective -- though she could have done without Wesley's driving away her would-be human suitors! O'Brien also brings us inside the prestigious research community, a kind of scientific Hogwarts where resident owls sometimes fly freely from office to office and eccentric, brilliant scientists were extraordinarily committed to studying and helping animals; all of them were changed by the animal they loved. As O'Brien gets close to Wesley, she makes important discoveries about owl behavior, intelligence, and communication, coining the term 'The Way of the Owl' to describe his inclinations: he did not tolerate lies, held her to her promises, and provided unconditional love, though he was not beyond an occasional sulk. When O'Brien develops her own life-threatening illness, the biologist who saved the life of a helpless baby bird is herself rescued from death by the insistent love and courage of this wild animal. Enhanced by wonderful photos, Wesley the Owl is a thoroughly engaging, heartwarming, often funny story of a complex, emotional, non-human being capable of reason, play, and most important, love and loyalty. It is sure to be cherished by animal lovers everywhere."

Table of Contents:
  1. The Way of the Owl
  2. To That Which You Tame, You Owe Your Life
  3. Owl Infancy
  4. Barn Owl Toddler: Love Me, Love My Owl
  5. Flying Lessons
  6. Attack Kitten on Wings
  7. Love to Eat Them Mousies
  8. Understanding Each Other: Sound and Body Language
  9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  10. A Day in the Life of a Biologist
  11. Owls Are Not Waterbirds
  12. Deep Bonds
  13. The Sex Tapes
  14. Fifteen Years of Trust
  15. Twilight: He Whom I Tamed Saves My Life
  16. The End
  17. After
My Take: A sweet, funny, and sad in unexpected places book. Bonus points for its actually including some interesting information about owl behavior, and for being a book Twig and I could enjoy together (well, serially, but still).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

RETURNED: Working with Emotional Intelligence

Working with Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman (New York: Bantam Books, 1998).

"Daniel Goleman's bestselling Emotional Intelligence revolutionized the way we think about personal excellence. Now he brings his insight into the workplace, a book sure to change the shape of business for decades to come. In Working with Emotional Intelligence, Goleman reveals the skills that distinguish star performers in every field, from entry-level jobs to top executive positions. He shows that the single most important factor is not IQ, advanced degrees, or technical expertise, but the quality Goleman calls emotional intelligence. Self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-control; commitment and integrity; the ability to communicate and influence, to initiate and accept change -- these competencies are at a premium in today's job market. The higher up the leadership ladder you go, the more vital these skills become, often influencing who is hired or fired, passed over or promoted. As Goleman shows, we all possess the potential to improve our emotional intelligence -- at any stage in our career. He provides guidelines for cultivating these capabilities -- and also explains why corporate training must change if it is to be effective."

Table of Contents:

I. Beyond Expertise

  • 1. The New Yardstick
  • 2. Competencies of the Stars
  • 3. The Hard Case for Soft Skills
II. Self-Mastery
  • 4. The Inner Rudder
  • 5. Self-Control
  • 6. What Moves Us
III. People Skills
  • 7. Social Radar
  • 8. The Arts of Influence
  • 9. Collaboration, Teams, and the Group IQ
IV. A New Model of Learning
  • 10. The Billion-Dollar Mistake
  • 11. Best Practices
V. The Emotionally Intelligent Organization
  • 12. Taking the Organizational Pulse
  • 13. The Heart of Performance
Some Final Thoughts

Appendix 1 - Emotional Intelligence
Appendix 2 - Calculating the Competencies of Stars
Appendix 3 - Gender and Empathy
Appendix 4 - Strategies for Leveraging Diversity
Appendix 5 - Further Issues in Training

My Take:

Not a page-turner like my last few weeks, but one I probably need to read as I'm back on the job market again. Let's see if it proves useful.

OK, folks, this one's on hold for a while. It's wprthwhile reading and all, but with the 3 jobs I'm juggling at present I want to actually be entertained when I can steal a few minutes to read for fun. Let's see if I can get back to it before the library calls it home.

Monday, March 7, 2011

#21: With the Light, Vol. 2

With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child, Vol. 2, by Keiko Tobe (New York: Yen Press, 2008)

"Sachiko and Masato Azuma have overcome numerous obstacles in dealing with their firstborn son Hikaru's autism. Having saved their marriage from ending in ruins, the young couple has welcomed a healthy baby girl, Kanon, into their tight-knit family. But with the obvious differences between Hikaru's and Kanon's developmental abilities, it becomes apparent that social prejudices against Hikaru's disability are never far away. As Hikaru moves into fourth grade, Sachiko encounters a new student, Miyu, whose mother has completely given up on her daughter's life, and her own. With the help of Hikaru's beloved teacher, Aoki-sensei, Sachiko aims to bring hope back to Miyu's family. But when Aoki-sensei transfers to a different school and Hikaru's special education class is thrown into upheaval by yet another tragedy, can Sachiko continue to hold onto her own hope for her son's future?"

Opening Line:
"In a corner of the room filled with the orange light of the sunset, Hikaru is looking at a Hina doll."

My Take:
Vol. 2 picks up where Vol. 1 left off, and remains about as compelling. Here, the Azumas delight in seeing their healthy baby daughter, Kanon, grow alongside big brother Hikaru ... squabbling, of course, as siblings will, but for the most part, loving and learning together. Change is inevitable, though, and (if you didn't know it before, you'll remember from Vol. 1) is always really tough on folks with autism. Here, if the marriage and resulting transfer of Hikaru's beloved teacher, Aoki-sensei, wasn't bad enough, the school's stellar principal suddenly disappears, and the special ed class is assigned to the badly burned-out, near-to-retirement Gunji-sensei. Despite the protests of the Azumas, Miyu's mother, and several others, their cherished school becomes nearly unrecognizable. Add in the inevitable missing-kid and bullying problems that all parents must confront, colored by the challenges unique to Hikaru's autism, and we've got ourselves another fine story.

#20: With the Light, Vol. 1

With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child, Vol. 1, by Keiko Tobe (New York: Yen Press, 2007).

"Born during the sunrise -- an auspicious beginning -- the Azumas' newborn son is named Hikaru, which means 'light.' But during one play date, his mother notices that her son is slightly different from the other children. In this alternately heartwarming and bittersweet tale, a young mother tries to cope with both the overwhelming discovery of her child's autism and the trials of raising him while keeping her family together. This is a story that resonates not only for those whose families have been affected by autism, but also for all past, present, and future parents."

Opening Line:

My Take:
Usually, we in the House of Hazel follow a flexible but predictable division of labor ... or at least, of recreation. And typically, Filbert (formerly dba Mr. Hazel) and Sprig have the graphic novels covered. I've got my own genres to read up on; manga, in a word, is NotMyJob.

And then things happen. Like, ferinstance, a family trip to the library in the middle of this weekend's snowstorm (yeah, we really do know how to live it up). Having already maxed out my 20-book quota, I decided while waiting for Sprig to finish her own wanderings to sneak up on Filbert in the (ahem) comic book section. Real mature, I know. Well, these books caught my eye. At first I was sure they were mis-shelved; Raising an Autistic Child certainly didn't belong in the manga section. Shows what I and my linear, 20th-century brain know. Turns out With the Light is a sweet, touching, and surprisingly compelling portrait of autism from a mother's view. The books are set in Tokyo and some of the details definitely reflect Japanese culture, but I was amazed at how universal most of the story line and characters were.

Volume 1 opens with Hikaru's birth, and follows his growth and family up through his year in third grade. While I've certainly crossed paths with autistic kids before, With the Light makes their own and especially their parents' experiences seem realer and easier to understand in some ways. We see Sachiko and Masato's marriage strained almost to the breaking point during Hikaru's infancy. Before Sachiko receives and then comes to accept Hikaru's diagnosis, friends and family blame her for his odd behavior, convinced he's slow or naughty because she lets him watch TV or doesn't make all his food from scratch. (Like I said, some aspects of competitive parenting are universal.) Masato, torn between wanting to provide for his family and resenting the long hours required to stay on the fast track for promotion, seems to need more time and energy than he has just to get ahead at work, let alone provide Sachiko with the help and respite she so desperately needs.

Ultimately, they emerge from their struggles as better parents and partners alike, but many more struggles lie ahead. While the classes and helpful staff at the local welfare facility help the Azumas cope with and care for Hikaru, they eventually realize he needs more ... specifically, he needs to learn to interact with other children. After pounding the pavement, they select a day care facility, and Sachiko is able to return to work as an accountant. Time passes, and the family embarks on a similar quest to find the right elementary school -- ultimately landing Hikaru in the special ed classroom of a truly inspired young teacher, Aoki-sensei. Despite regular hiccups, including resentment and misunderstanding on the part of several classmates and their parents, he thrives there ... even as Sachiko becomes pregnant again, and works valiantly to juggle her job, her son's needs, and her changing body. This volume ends shortly after she gives birth to a daughter, Kanon ... during a typhoon, while Masato is out of town, and with some unexpected assistance from the Filipina nightclub girls in the apartment downstairs.

Highly recommended, both to fans of manga and to anyone interested in learning or helping others learn more about autism and its impact on families.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

#19: Fly Away Home

Fly Away Home, by Jennifer Weiner (New York: Atria Books, 2010).

"When Sylvie Serfer met Richard Woodruff in law school, she had wild curls, wide hips, and lots of opinions. Decades later, Sylvie has remade herself as the ideal politician's wife -- her hair dyed and straightened, her hippie-chick wardrobe replaced by tailored knit suits. At fifty-seven, she ruefully acknowledges that her job is staying twenty pounds thinner than when she was in her twenties and tending to her husband, the senator.

"Lizzie, the Woodruff's younger daughter, is at twenty-four a recovering addict, whose mantra HALT (Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired?) helps her keep her life under control. Still, trouble always seems to find her. Her older sister, Diana, an emergency room physician, has everything Lizzie failed to achieve -- a husband, young son, the perfect home -- and yet she's trapped in a loveless marriage. With temptation waiting in one of the ER's exam rooms, she finds herself craving more.

"After Richard's extramarital affair makes headlines, the three women are drawn into the painful glare of the national spotlight. Once the press conference is over, each is forced to reconsider her life, who she is and who she is meant to be.

"Written with an irresistible blend of heartbreak and hilarity, Fly Away Home is an unforgettable story of a mother and two daughters who after a lifetime of distance finally learn to find refuge in one another."

Opening Line:
"Breakfast in five-star hotels was always the same."

My Take:

I forget what movie prompted it, but years ago, I remember some reviewer or other calling Reese Witherspoon "the thinking man's cupcake." While I don't care for cupcakes personally, the phrase stuck with me; sometimes, we all just want to be entertained. And sometimes, my taste in books is downright girly. Case in point: the works of Jennifer Weiner. Literary they ain't, but they're not Harlequin romance novels, either; for the most part, the characters are multifaceted and the story lines plausible (even if they tend not to appeal to those with a Y chromosome). While the title comes from a way overused nursery rhyme (didn't Marge Piercy do that years ago? And I'm sure she's not the only one), Fly Away Home was an evening's worth of good, clean, simple, escapist fun.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

#18: The No Asshole Rule

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, by Robert I. Sutton (New York: Warner Business Books, 2007).

Coming soon

Table of Contents:

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: What Workplace Assholes Do and Why You Know So Many
  • Chapter 2: The Damage Done: Why Every Workplace Needs the Rule
  • Chapter 3: How to Implement the Rule, Enforce It, and Keep It Alive
  • Chapter 4: How to Stop Your "Inner Jerk" from Getting Out
  • Chapter 5: When Assholes Reign: Tips for Surviving Nasty People and Workplaces
  • Chapter 6: The Virtues of Assholes
  • Chapter 7: The No Asshole Rule as a Way of Life
  • Epilogue
My Take:
Books like this are why I love the library. The cover caught my eye, the content had a few interesting points to ponder ... but there wasn't THAT much substance there even for a first read, and certainly not enough that I'll want to refer to it again, recommend it, store it, or dust it.

The author's argument? Jerks (I try to keep my own writing PG, though direct quotes that get a bit saltier are OK) at work are bad news. You know the type; the guy or gal who you always walk away from feeling belittled and humiliated, and who seems to take special delight in heaping abuse on those lower down on the food chain. Well, they're bad for workplace morale, bad for productivity, bad for employees' health, bad for client relations, and even a danger to themselves. If you can, don't hire them; if they sneak in anyway, make 'em shape up or ship out; if you're stuck working with a bumper crop, detach as best as you can till you can polish off the old resume and find a new job. Obviously, beating them by joining them should be out of the question.

Probably the most interesting piece of this thesis is Sutton's assertion that, in his words, "assholes breed like rabbits." If nasty, vile behavior is tolerated, even rewarded, well ... people who don't act like that will leave or be corrupted; people who do and are in positions of power will hire others just like themselves, and, well, you get the idea. I've been in a sufficient variety of workplaces to know that our behavior is very much shaped by our environment, so this piece resonated with my own experience. (Vague, yes, but this is nominally a public forum.)

Th-th-th-th-that's all, f-f-f-f-folks.