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, April 29, 2011

#30: The Good Son

The Good Son, by Michael Gruber (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2010).

"Special Operations soldier Theo Bailey is right to be concerned when his mother, a controversial Muslim writer, announces that she will be traveling to Pakistan to attend a symposium on peace. His worst fears are realized when the conference participants are taken hostage by a group of terrorists who resolve to execute the captives one at a time for every new Muslim war casualty. Fortunately, Sonia Bailey Laghari is prepared with a few tricks of her own: an astounding facility with languages, the mysterious insights of Jungian psychotherapy, and an unshakeable, at times brutal, sense of faith. While Theo masterminds a high-stakes military operation to save the hostages, his mother discovers in her gift for dream interpretation a psychological tool of great power and subtlety. For her fellow prisoners -- including an eccentric American billionaire, a Jesuit priest, and a married Quaker activist couple -- Sonia's uncanny influence over the captors is their only hope of survival. But life is not all that's at stake: the mounting tumult of their terrifying adventure leads Sonia and Theo ultimately to face the far-reaching questions of culture, morality, religion, and family."

Opening Line:
"The phone rang at a little before one in the morning and I knew it was my mother."

My Take:
Interesting that it was this book, set largely in Pakistan and full of admittedly fictional insights on the differences between the US and the Muslim world, that I was reading when Osama bin Laden was killed. It was a decent read anyhow, but that coincidence made it seem that much more relevant and real.

That aside, it's nice after my last few efforts to actually read something with characters who are sufficiently complex that I was able to care about what they did and what became of them. The Good Son has its flaws, of course -- who and what doesn't? -- but all in all was an enjoyable, intriguing combination of a political thriller and a meaty family saga. In addition to Theo, the self-described "half-breed" offspring of a U.S.-educated Pakistani lawyer and a Polish-American cum good Muslim wife who seems to care far more for soldiering than for which side he's fighting on, and Sonia, his infinitely resourceful chameleon of a mother, the book also spends a good chunk of time with Cynthia Lam, the ambitious NSA language expert who feels bound to call shenanigans on the intelligence that suggests Islamic jihadists have gotten hold of The Bomb even though she doesn't know whether doing so will send her career skyrocketing or just crashing down in flames. (Hint: It's not the former.) As the novel unfolds, so do the secrets of all three characters' pasts, and the often-circuitous routes that led them up to the present day.

While it seems an odd thing to complain about, I couldn't help noticing that Sonia was almost too strong a character. It's established very early on that she's the novel's moral center, which isn't a bad thing -- but she eventually goes from complex and likable to seeming almost too perfect and unflappable. This may be deliberate on Gruber's part, but her role relative to Theo's is almost like Reese Witherspoon's to Joaquin Phoenix's in Walk the Line: he'd be a perfectly solid if not especially memorable leading man, had she not stolen the show out from under him.

I've gotten pretty picky about endings lately, and this one is better than most. I'm not 100% thrilled about how Sonia's piece of the story wraps up -- I won't spoil it for you, but it just seemed a bit too perfect (Jean Auel's Ayla, anyone) for my tastes. While I didn't love what became of Theo or Cynthia, either, I have to admit that both resolutions make sense given what we'd learned of the characters up until that point. Long story short, The Good Son was certainly one of my favorites of the month, if not the year to date, and was strong enough to make me want to check out other books by Michael Gruber when I have the chance.

#29: The Reserve

The Reserve, by Russell Banks (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

"Twenty-nine-year-old Vanessa Cole is a wild, stunningly beautiful heiress, the adopted only child of a highly regarded New York brain surgeon and his socialite wife. Twice married, Vanessa has been scandalously linked to any number of rich and famous men. But on the night of July 4, 1936, at her parents' country home in a remote Adirondack Mountain enclave known as The Reserve, two events coincide to permanently alter the course of Vanessa's callow life: her father dies suddenly of a heart attach, and a mysterious seductive local artist, Jordan Groves, blithely lands his Waco biplane in the pristine waters of the forbidden Upper Lake. ... [Jordan] falls easy prey to her electrifying personality, but it is not long before he discovers that the heiress carries a dark, deeply scarring family secret. Emotionally unstable from the start, and further unhinged by her father's unexpected death, Vanessa begins to spin wildly out of control, manipulating and destroying the lives of all who cross her path."

Opening Line:
"When finally no one was watching her anymore, the beautiful young woman extracted herself from her parents and their friends and left the living room."

My Take:
Yawn. Based on the reviews I'd read (which, admittedly, were a while back), I expected more from this book. The concept was intriguing -- a rich, somewhat spoiled "wild child" who has some deep dark secrets hidden in her silk-lined mahogany closets -- but the execution "meh" at best. For one thing, the description of Vanessa's physical beauty and the sex appeal of another character's love interest evoked shades of Danielle Steel. You might get away with describing one character as luminous, if you do so convincingly enough that the reader forgets it's a cliche, but two? Within 100 pages of each other? Gag me.

For another, the unanswered questions about how much of what Vanessa believes is real vs. how much is a product of her mental instability (Dr. Cole invented the lobotomy? She was sexually abused as a child?) -- a technique that can be very unsettling and compelling when it's done well -- just doesn't seem to work here. Maybe it's because neither side is really fleshed out well; all we have is Vanessa hinting at events on one hand, and her mother and Jordan saying, "No, that didn't happen" on the other. Ditto the ambiguous ending. It's not clear exactly what becomes of Jordan and Vanessa, which could be interesting in other contexts ... except that I didn't feel like I had enough evidence to even speculate convincingly for one argument or another.

All in all, a fairly quick book and not absolutely horrible, but also not entertaining or provocative enough for me to bother recommend it. Moving along here.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Heck, No: 2666

2666, by Roberto Bolano (translated by Natasha Wimmer) (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

"The title of
2666 is typical of the book's mysterious qualities. This was the title of the manuscript rescued from Bolano's desk after his death, the book having been the primary effort of the last five years of his life. There is no reference in the novel to this number, although it makes appearances in more than one of the author's other works. Henry Hitchings has noted, 'The novel's cryptic title is one of its many grim jokes; there is no reference to this figure in its 900 pages. However, in another of his novels, Amulet, a road in Mexico City is identified as looking like "a cemetery in the year 2666." Why this particular date? Perhaps it's because the biblical exodus from Egypt, a vital moment of spiritual redemption, was supposed to have taken place 2,666 years after the creation.'

"The novel's five 'parts' are as follows: The Part about the Critics, The Part about Amalfitano, The Part about Fate, The Part about the Crimes, and The Part about Archimboldi -- all linked by varying degrees of concern with unsolved murders of upwards of 300 young, poor, mostly uneducated Mexican women in Ciudad Juarez (Santa Teresa in the novel).

"'The Part about the Critics' describes a group of four European literary critics who have forged their careers around the elusive German novelist Benno von Archimboldi. Their search for Archimboldi ultimately leads them to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa in Sonora.

"'The Part about Amalfitano' concentrates on Oscar Amalfitano, a mentally unstable professor of philosophy at the University of Santa Teresa, who fears his daughter will be caught up in the violence of the city.

"'The Part about Fate' follows Oscar Fate, an American journalist for an African-American interest magazine, who is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match (despite knowing very little about boxing) but becomes interested in the murders.

"'The Part about the Crimes" chronicles the murders of dozens of women in Santa Teresa from 1993 to 1997. It also depicts the police force in their fruitless attempts to solve the crimes.

"The Part about Archimboldi' reveals that the mysterious writer is Hans Reiter, born in 1920 in Prussia. This section explains how a provincial German soldier on the Eastern Front becomes an author in contention for the Nobel Prize."

Opening Line:
"The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German literature."

My Take:

I don't think the above is one of the world's great opening lines (perhaps it works a bit better in Spanish, but I doubt it). but the small section I read last night did show some improvement. I'll give it a section or so to see if it's worth reading.

(4/29 update) I should have gone with my gut after the opening line. The older I get, the less willing I am to spend time on books that just plain don't interest me, no matter how well-reviewed or literary they may be. Usually I try to give books 50 pages or so to see if they reel me in; here, I gave up on around page 20, halfway through a 4-page sentence.

#28: Ape House

Ape House, by Sara Gruen (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010).

"Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena are no ordinary apes. These bonobos, like others of their species, are capable of reason and carrying on deep relationships -- but unlike most bonobos, they also know American Sign Language.

"Isabel Duncan, a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, doesn't understand people, but animals she gets -- especially the bonobos. Isabel feels more comfortable in their world than she's ever felt among humans ... until she meets John Thigpen, a very married reporter who braves the ever-present animal rights protesters outside the lab to see what's really going on inside.

"When an explosion rocks the lab, severely injuring Isabel and 'liberating' the apes, John's human interest piece turns into the story of a lifetime, one he'll risk his career and his marriage to follow. Then a reality TV show featuring the missing apes debuts under mysterious circumstances, and it immediately becoms the biggest -- and unlikeliest -- phenomenon in the history of modern media. Millions of fans are glued to their screens watching the apes order greasy take-out, have generous amounts of sex, and sign for Isabel to come get them. Now, to save her family of apes from this parody of human life, Isabel must connect with her own kind, including John, a green-haired vegan, and a retired porn star with her own agenda.

"Ape House delivers great entertainment, but it also opens the animal world to us in ways few novels have done, securing Sara Gruen's place as a master storyteller who allows us to see ourselves as we never have before."

Opening Line:
"The plane had yet to take off, but Osgood, the photographer, was already snoring softly."

My Take:
A solid all-around read. Neither as good as I'd hoped, nor as bad as I'd feared it might be.

Like just about everyone else I've asked, I loved Water for Elephants. That's a mixed blessing; on one hand, it certainly got me to read Ape House without thinking too much about whether it was worth carrying home, but on the other, it's a lot to live up to.

For the most part, it succeeds. The above summary, and a few early chapters in the same vein, had me fearing this would be yet another cheesy and inevitable love story, with the bonobos serving only as a fairly novel backdrop. I was quite pleased that it wasn't, and they didn't. Yes, Isabel's fiance ultimately proves to be a pretty over-the-top Jerky Bad Guy, but she and John don't end up riding off into the sunset together despite some heavy hints in that direction.

As far as what actually does happen, that's somewhat more of a mixed bag. There's a lot going on here, which isn't a bad thing ... but it's also not a terribly long novel, which made certain elements of the plot seem a bit rushed (including the conclusion). I would have liked more page space devoted to fleshing out the events in the second half of the book, and probably wouldn't have complained about more of the very entertaining bonobo scenes, either.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

#27: The Irresistible Henry House

The Irresistible Henry House, by Lisa Grunwald (New York: Random House, 2010).

"It is the middle of the twentieth century, and in a home economics program at a prominent university, real babies are being used to teach mothering skills to young women. For a young man raised in these unlikely circumstances, finding real love and learning to trust will prove to be the work of a lifetime. In this captivating novel, bestselling author Lisa Grunwald gives us the sweeping tale of an irresistible hero and the many women who love him.

"From his earliest days as a 'practice baby' through his adult adventures in 1960s New York City, Disney's Burbank studios, and the delirious world of the Beatles' London, Henry remains handsome, charming, universally adored -- and never entirely accessible to the many women he conquers but can never entirely trust.

"Filled with unforgettable characters, settings, and action, The Irresistible Henry House portrays the cultural tumult of the mid-twentieth century even as it explores the inner tumult of a young many trying to transcend a damaged childhood. For it is not until Henry House comes face-to-face with the truths of his past that he finds a chance for real love."

Opening Line:
"By the time Henry House was four months old, a copy of his picture was being carried in the pocketbooks of seven different women, each of whom called him her son."

My Take:
Now THAT's more like it!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

NO THANKS: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2009).

"In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII's court, only one man dares gamble his life to win the king's favor and ascend to the heights of political power.

"England is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and Catholic Europe oppose him. The king's quest for freedom destroys his advisor, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and creates a year-long power struggle between the Church and the Crown.

"Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell, a wholly original man, both a charmer and a bully, an idealist and an opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy. Cromwell is a consummate politician, hardened by years abroad and his personal losses. Implacable in his ambition and self-taught -- it is said that he can recite the entire New Testament from memory, knows Europe's major languages, and speaks poetry freely -- Cromwell will soon become the country's most powerful figure after Henry. When Henry pursues his desire to marry Anne Boleyn, it is Cromwell who breaks the deadlock and allows the king his heart's desire. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition -- Thomas More, 'the man for all seasons'; Katherine the queen; his daughter the princess Mary -- but what will be the price of his triumph?"

Opening Lines:
"'So now get up.'
"Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard."

My Take:

Gave up somewhere between a third and halfway through this book, when I realized I'd been plodding through it for almost 2 weeks because I Just. Wasn't. Interested. in reading it when I had free time in the evenings. I didn't hate it or want to chuck it across the room or anything -- it just wasn't particularly gripping. Slow-moving and sometimes confusing, the latter compounded by the author's tendency to shift from the first to the third person out of nowhere and have lots of musings and conversations go on just referring to "he" when that could be any one of several characters. Oh well.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

#26: I'm Okay ... You're a Brat!

I'm Okay ... You're a Brat! Setting the Priorities Straight and Freeing You from the Guilt and Mad Myths of Parenthood, by Susan Jeffers (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999).

"At last! A welcome declaration of independence for parents of all ages, a call to arms for would-be parents and those who want to remain child-free.

"In this refreshingly honest book, best-selling author Dr. Susan Jeffers breaks the conspiracy of silence, pulling no punches when she details just how difficult parenting can be. With humor and compassion she uncovers the guilt traps set for parents by many child-care experts. She questions the myths and half-truths that make parents feel inadequate and offers valuable survival tools for those whose kids are driving them crazy.

"I'm Okay ... You're a Brat! explains:
  • why parenthood is a joy for some and a nightmare for others
  • why 'what you put in doesn't necessarily come out'
  • why your relationship with your spouse suffers when children enter the picture
  • why parents' lives change so drastically when a child is born
  • how you can love you kids yet hate parenthood
  • how you can have great fulfillment in life with or without children
"Sure, raising a family can be joyful. But for all of us who have been awoken at 3 A.M. by a crying baby and screamed silently, 'I want my life back,' it is reassuring to know that we are not alone.

"Is parenthood always fulfilling? Is everything that goes wrong with a child really the parents' fault? Is breast always best? Is it always better for Mom to be at home instead of at work? You may be shocked at this book's answers. In challenging the basic values of our child-centered culture, Dr. Jeffers liberates parents and non-parents alike from guilt. She encourages all of us to think for ourselves when making vital decisions about our lives and our families.

"Drawing on her own experiences building a family and interviews with other parents, Dr. Jeffers lets us know that it's okay to be frustrated with childrearing -- that it isn't always the blissful experience we've been led to expect. She also shows us why contrary to popular opinion, choosing a life free of children is not selfish."

Table of Contents:

Introduction: It's About Time

Part I: Another Side of the Picture
  • Chapter 1: Why Didn't Anyone Tell Me?
  • Chapter 2: I Want My Life Back!
  • Chapter 3: Oil and Water: Sex and Diapers
  • Chapter 4: The Unspeakable Truth About Kids
Part II: Send the "Experts" Back to School
  • Chapter 5: What You Put In Doesn't Necessarily Come Out
  • Chapter 6: Down with the Guilt-Peddlers!
  • Chapter 7: The Top Ten Mad, Mad Myths
  • Chapter 8: The Dangers of Full-Time Parenting
  • Chapter 9: There's No Place Like Work
Part III: Should We ... Shouldn't We ... Why Did We?
  • Chapter 10: So Why Do We Do It?
  • Chapter 11: So Why Don't We Do It?
  • Chapter 12: If One Could Do It Over Again ...
Conclusion: And When All Is Said and Done

My Take:

A definite breath of fresh air and sanity in the crowded field of parenting literature. I only wish I'd read this book back when it first came out, when Twig was a wee one and I was deep in the grip of the mad myths and the guilt peddlers. I'm Okay is well-researched and end-noted, but very much accessible; the effect is more like Erma Bombeck with a grad degree than a serious scholarly tome. And that's just fine. I love, love, love that Jeffers acknowledges that yes, you can love your kids without loving every or most moments of The Parenting Process. It's rare indeed to find a book or article about the trials of parenting that doesn't end by wrapping everything up in a tidy little "But it's all worth it!" bow. If anything, I think the author overstates the difficulty and unpleasantness of parenting, but what do I know; maybe I have more of the LPB (Love Being a Parent) gene than I'd realized, or maybe I got off easy/ had the foresight to realize we'd all be happier at the House of Hazelthyme with a single-child family. Jeffers claims to have written the book in part for the fence-sitters -- those twenty- or thirtysomething adults who don't quite know whether they want kids -- to tell them it's OK to remain childfree, and if anything, that's the way the book's likely to push someone who's really undecided. Which, again is fine by me; heaven knows there's no shortage of books and individuals extolling the joys and ignoring or soft-pedaling the difficulties of parenthood.

Highly recommended for anyone with or about to have a baby -- not so you'll change your mind, but so you'll know that if it's not quite what you'd expected (OK, if you're miserable for a while postpartum), you'll know you're not alone.