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.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

#44: Jane Austen's Guide to Dating

Jane Austen's Guide to Dating, by Lauren Henderson (New York: Hyperion, 2005).

"For two hundred years Jane Austen's witty, perceptive, and romantic books have delighted millions of readers. Inspired by Austen's acute observations of the hits and near-misses of love, Lauren Henderson has created Jane Austen's Guide to Dating to bring Austen's Regency wisdom into a twenty-first century perspective, complete with very modern lists of do's and don'ts.

"Jane Austen's Guide to Dating is a pithy book of concrete advice and strategies that show how honesty, self-awareness, and forthrightness do win the right man and weed out the losers, playboys, and toxic flirts. Offering an approach to dating that will never make you act against your own best instincts, Jane Austen's Guide to Dating includes insightful personality quizzes that reveal which Jane Austen character you -- and your love interest -- most resemble, and will help you find answers to your most pressing dating questions.

"The only dating guide based on stories that have truly stood the test of time, Jane Austen's Guide to Dating uses both wit and charm to help readers overcome the nonsense and find the sense (and sensibility) to succeed in a lasting relationship. No need to have read Jane Austen, either -- Jane Austen's Guide to Dating summarizes all the love stories in the books so you can dive right into the benefits of her great advice. Fans of Jane Austen and newcomers to her novels alike will delight in this fun, fresh, and audacious guide."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction
  • About the Structure of This Book and How to Use It
  1. If You Like Someone, Make It Clear That You Do
  2. Don't Put Your Feelings on Public Display, Unless They're Fully Reciprocated
  3. Don't Play Games or Lead People On
  4. Have Faith in Your Own Instincts
  5. Don't Fall for Superficial Qualities
  6. Look for Someone Who Can Bring Out Your Best Qualities
  7. Don't Settle -- Don't Marry for Money, or Convenience, or Out of Loneliness
  8. Be Witty If You Can, but Not Cynical, Indiscreet, or Cruel
  9. Be Prepared to Wait for the Right Person to Come Along
  10. If Your Lover Needs a Reprimand, Let Him Have It
  • Which Jane Austen Character Are You?
  • Which Jane Austen Character Is the Man You Like?
  • Compatibility Chart
  • Book Summaries
  • Characters
My Take:
Was looking for something else in the same general shelving area, and this one caught my eye on the title alone. So far it's pretty darned funny; I've only read Pride & Prejudice (and seen movie versions of Emma and Sense and Sensibility), but I can still enjoy a self-help book that doesn't take itself too seriously.

(Afterwards) As I suspected, entertaining with a few grains of truth in there. Not that I expect to be on the dating market again any time soon (i.e., ever), but still fun.

#43: Freedom

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010)

"Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul -- the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter's dreams. Together with Walter -- environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man -- she was doing her small part to build a better world.

"But now, in the new millenium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenaged son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz -- outre rocker and Walter's college best friend and rival -- still doing in the picture? Most of all, what happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become 'a very different kind of neighbor,' an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street's attentive eyes?

"In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom's characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time."

Opening Line:
"The news about Walter Berglund wasn't picked up locally -- he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now -- but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read The New York Times."

My Take:
Cautiously optimistic after the first 150 pages, though I was underwhelmed by The Corrections and often end up disappointed by any book that gets half the hype this one did when it came out last year.

OK, after the fact -- probably not one of my all-time favorites, but a solid book and, dare I say, worthy of at least most of the acclaim it received. Complex, interesting characters, PLUS had a lot to say about the world and culture of the US over the last 30 years or so. A bit too much back story on our principal characters, Walter and Patty, for my tastes, which made it drag a bit up front. Sure, I guess we needed to know something of their childhoods and adolescences to understand the people they'd become by the time the novel opens, but a little bit of this goes a long way. Also, given that we learned as much about the Berglunds' son Joey as we did about his parents (sure, he gets less screen time, but he is younger with less back story to reveal), and almost as much about Walter's best friend and Patty's one-that-got-away Richard, the absence of any real detail about their daughter Jessica seems conspicuous. Fairly minor quibbles, though -- still a good read.

#42: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, by Helen Fielding (New York: Penguin, 1999).

"In the phenomenally popular Bridget Jones's Diary, which spent 17 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, Helen Fielding created the voice of an unforgettable young woman. Bridget's hilarious candor captured the hearts of readers around the world.

"Taking up where the Diary left off, The Edge of Reason follows the next year in Bridget's life. Over the months, she juggles her love for Mark Darcy, advice from her friends and rivalry with the willowy Rebecca, who is slyly pursuing Mark. Bridget's arsenal of self-help books reminds her to be an 'assured, receptive, responsive woman of substance.' But Chardonnay and chocolate are much more accessible.

"Although Bridget Jones has been widely imitated no other's work can match her off-beat charm. Veteran narrator Barbara Rosenblat, who won an Audie Award for her performance of Bridget Jones's Diary, adds a special zest to the whirlwind year."

Opening Line:
"7:15 a.m. Hurrah! The wilderness years are over."

My Take:
To quote our intrepid narrator, GAH! I checked the audiobook version of this one out over the weekend, as I had a long-ish solo road trip to make and wanted something light to enjoy on the way. I've found through experience that just as not all films lend themselves equally well to the drive-in, not all books lend themselves well to being enjoyed on CD, especially if you're in the car. I wanted something engaging enough to a) pass the time, and b) keep me from getting too stressed out about the interview I was driving to, but not so complex that I'd be irreparably lost if a big, noisy truck passed by at an inopportune time.

Let's just say that the original Bridget Jones's Diary, which I read several years back and really enjoyed, would have fit the bill perfectly. While Edge of Reason did make a good road trip book, that's only because it kept me from indulging my strong desire to chuck the book across the room in disgust. I just read an Amazon review suggesting that this book parallels Persuasion the way BJD did Pride and Prejudice, and perhaps if I'd read Persuasion, I'd have enjoyed this one more. Somehow, though, I kinda doubt it.

Admittedly, sequels are tricky. The author needs to keep the characters true enough to what she created in the first book to be recognizable, yet make them grow or change enough to give the reader something new to enjoy and wonder about. Fielding manages the first here, but not the second. The constant obsessing over weight (which, Bridget's oh-so-slimming sojourn in a Thai prison notwithstanding, fluctuates between 129 and 131 pounds -- boo bleeping hoo), counting of cigarettes and alcoholic drinks, and -- gaah! -- self-interruptions may have been endearing in the first book, but wears really thin here. There are funny moments and characters, sure; I think everyone's known a boyfriend-poaching Rebecca or Worst. Boss. Ever. Richard Finch type, and Fielding's versions are so over-the-top as to make our own problems look pretty darned manageable by comparison. And yes, I laughed/groaned at the Thai holiday gone horribly wrong, the not-what-it-looks-like naked Filipino boy Bridget finds in Mark's bed on her first visit to his home, and the results of her CWI (card-writing while intoxicated) ordeal. Bottom line, though, this isn't enough to make up for the irritating light in which Bridget and her two BFFs come off. Sure, I finished the last disc even after I'd arrived home; I knew from the get-go Bridget and Mark would get back together, and had to find out how ... I just wasn't quite sure why.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

#41: Higher Education?

Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids -- and What We Can Do About It, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus (New York: Times Books, 2010)

"A quarter of a million dollars. It's the going tab for four years at most top-tier colleges. Why does it cost so much and is it worth it?

"In this provocative investigation of what really happens on campus today, the renowned sociologist Andrew Hacker and the New York Times writer Claudia Dreifus make an incisive case that the American way of higher education -- now a $420 billion per year business -- has lost sight of its primary mission: the education of our young people. Going behind the myths and mantras, they probe the true performance of the Ivy League, the baleful influence of tenure, an unhealthy reliance on part-time teachers, and supersized bureaucracies that now have lives of their own.

"As Hacker and Dreifus call for a thorough overhaul of a self-indulgent system, they take readers on a road trip from Princeton and Harvard to Evergreen State and Florida Gulf Coast University, revealing those faculties and institutions that need to adjust their priorities and others that are getting it right, proving that teaching and learning can be achieved -- and at a much more reasonable price.

"For parents wondering if they're getting fair value for their tuition dollars, for students who sense that they are an afterthought to professors and administrators, and for citizens concerned about America's ability to foster innovation and compete in an ever more challenging world, Higher Education? is a wake-up call and a call to arms."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction: Higher Education?
Part 1: What Went Wrong?
  • The World of the Professoriate
  • Administrative Overload
  • Contingent Education
Part 2: Ideals and Illusions
  • The Golden Dozen
  • Teaching: Good, Great, Abysmal
  • The Triumph of Training
Part 3: Some Immodest Proposals
  • Why College Costs So Much
  • Fireproof: The Tangled Issue of Tenure
  • The Athletics Incubus
  • Student Bodies
Part 4: Facing the Future
  • Visiting the Future in Florida
  • The College Crucible: Add Students and Stir
  • Schools We Like -- Our Top Ten List
My Take:
Not expecting to like this one, maybe 'cause I've been one of the bloated administrators the book's going to rail about for most of my career and expect it will hit too close to home. We shall see.

End verdict: Flawed, yes, but much better and less polemic than I was expecting. While there is indeed a chapter on the bloating of college administrative staff in recent decades which questions the necessity of many of the newest additions (registrar, yes; "assistant student success coordinator" and the like, not so much), this isn't the authors' main point. What is is a fairly controversial one: The tenure system, as it currently stands, drives the cost of college education way up without doing much to directly benefit the undergrads whose tuition (at least in part) pays faculty salaries. Lifetime tenure + profs who (in some cases) teach only 2-3 classes per year + generous sabbaticals = the bulk of student course-hours, and nearly all large intro-level classes at many schools, end up taught by adjuncts or grad students anyway. Moreover, Hacker and Dreifus argue that most faculty research contributes little to undergrad education; rather, it tends to be so arcane and specialized that you need to be a grad student (or perhaps a bright upper-level undergrad) to understand it anyway.

I'm not sure I buy all the authors' arguments about the sorry state of modern undergrad education; at least not to the extent that they're advanced here. The too many entitled profs teaching too few courses, too many indentured adjuncts teaching for poverty-level wages argument is interesting, as is the chapter on college athletics (too costly, with too little benefit for either the students or institution) and the one on the "Golden Dozen" (the Ivy League, Stanford, Duke, Amherst, and Williams) and why these schools are neither the only nor a surefire ticket to a successful, lucrative future. But their attack on "training," i.e., colleges offering and students electing anything more than a classical liberal arts education, seems over the top. I'll concede that some specialized schools and majors may be overly narrow, and not worth shelling out $50,000 per year for. But to lump all non-liberal arts majors in this camp seems a bit much. Engineering and architecture, for example, aren't quite the same as (say) fashion merchandising or resort management. Sure, it's possible in any of these cases that a student who choses a specialized major at 18 will decide a year or 2 later that it's not really for her ... but I'm not sure more philosophy and English majors are really the answer here. A generation or 2, 18 or 19 was considered plenty old enough to choose either college or a job, and start trying to make a living. Yes, changes in the economy have made the straight-to-work route far less viable, but I don't know that this justifies postponing the selection of a profession or academic interest still further. Besides, the anti-training bias seems to directly contradict the authors' argument against many of the frills that drive up the price tag of college (moving away from home to live in the dorms, fancy food courts and fitness centers, et al.) If one way to keep college costs manageable is to axe those frills that don't contribute directly to an undergrad's degree, is it unreasonable to want that degree to be worth something and help you get a decent, non-dead-end job when your four years are done?

Also, the authors' closing Top Ten list of schools they like seems random at best, and disingenuous at worst. Arizona State University makes the list even though it's guilty of some pretty egregious adjunct exploitation, and their undergrad education doesn't seem to be all that remarkable ... because they make a positive economic contribution to an otherwise-depressed region of the country, even though the authors have complained in multiple other places about colleges offering institutes for the study of this, that, or the other thing but not actually instructing students. MIT also makes the list because it pays its adjuncts particularly well, with the explicit suggestion that other colleges should be able to do the same ... even though MIT has a tremendous endowment and far more resources than the vast majority of colleges.

For a more detailed review I mostly agree with, check out Richard Kahlenberg's piece in The New Republic. Worth a read, but best to borrow and not buy this one -- especially as I don't think it'll stand the test of time.

REALITY CHECK #000: What They Still Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School

Ended up never finishing this one and returning it half-read after renewing it once. Oh well.

What They Still Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School
, by Mark H. McCormack (New York: Bantam Books, 1989).

"The key to executive success is innovation, and if you want to keep up with the times in today's fast-paced global economy, you'd better keep up with Mark McCormack. One of America's hottest entrepreneurs and the author of the million-copy bestseller What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School, Mark McCormack is back with an advanced course in street-smart business tactics for the executive headed for the top. What They Still Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School is a book of powerful new strategies designed to help you write your own success story for the 1990s.

"Mark McCormack didn't tell readers everything he knew in What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School. In part, that's because the best executives stay open to innovation, constantly seeking out systems and strategies that work better and people who have something new to teach them. Using his proven method of applied people sense, McCormack explodes conventional wisdom and teaches the skills that have contributed to his own stunning success and that of the many senior executives with whom he's worked. The result is a straight-talking practical guide to getting organized, getting ahead, and gaining and keeping the competitive edge. Here are all the winning strategies of buying, selling, managing, and negotiating that will give you the advantage no matter what the situation -- in even the toughest business environments.

"McCormack takes you inside the top corporations to reveal the secrets of supersalesmanchip and match-tough negotiating: how to handle questions you don't want to answer, get more information than you give, and make the kind of offer no one can refuse. Learn how to evaluate a client so that you know what he wants before he asks for it, direct a meeting and set the agenda, write a persuasive memo, and time phone calls for maximum effect -- even how to make business travel easier ... and more productive. What They Still Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School offers telling new insights into:
  • How to land your first great job and make a big impact with limited opportunities
  • How to get the job done in the office or on the road
  • The five attributes of a winner
  • Ten ways careers get stalled -- and how to get them started again
  • Four ways to prove you're worth a higher salary
  • The seven most dangerous people in your company
  • The Ten Commandments of Street Smarts
  • And much, much more
"Written in hard-hitting, no-nonsense language that echoes Mark McCormack's uniquely successful management style, here is savvy advice for executives and executives-to-be on every rung of the corporate ladder. Now you no longer have to struggle to keep up with the competition -- they'll be fighting to keep up with you!"

Table of Contents:
(OK, this is an abridged ToC. The real one is about 6 pages long and I Just Wasn't Gonna Do It.)
Introduction: The Ten Commandments of Street Smarts
1: Selling
2: Negotiating
3: Managing
4: Getting Ahead
5: Getting Organized
6: Communicating
7: Getting the Job Done on the Road
8: Entrepreneuring
Epilogue: Do I Follow My Own Advice?

My Take:

It's always interesting to read books of leadership and management advice, most of which are aimed primarily at those who work in the corporate sector, and see which pieces of the author's wisdom do and don't apply to colleges and universities (and possibly to other non-profits, too). In this case, it'll be interesting to see which pieces of McCormack's advice seem to have stood the test of time, 22 years on, and which haven't. Clearly, I'm not expecting any discussion of e-mail, the internet, or smart phones, which is likely to make the chapters on organization and business travel rather quaint. I'll admit, though, that the introductory chapter, at least, seems plain-spoken and fairly apropos even today. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 16, 2011

#39: To the End of the Land

To the End of the Land, by David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen) (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)

"From one of Israel's most acclaimed writers comes a novel of extraordinary power about family life -- the greatest human drama -- and the cost of war.

"Ora, a middle-aged Israeli mother, is on the verge of celebrating her son Ofer's release from army service when he returns to the front for a major offensive. In a fit of preemptive grief and magical thinking, she sets out for a hike in the Galilee, leaving no forwarding information for the 'notifiers' who might darken her doorstep with the worst possible news. Recently estranged from her husband, Ilan, she drags along an unlikely companion: their former best friend and her former lover Avram, once a brilliant artistic spirit. Avram served in the army alongside Ilan when they were young, but their lives were forever changed one weekend when the two jokingly had Ora draw lots to see which of them would get the few days' leave being offered by their commander -- a chance act that sent Avram into Egypt and the Yom Kippur War, where he was brutally tortured as a POW. In the aftermath, a virtual hermit, he refused to keep in touch with the family and has never met the boy. Now, as Ora and Avram sleep out in the hills, ford rivers, and cross valleys, avoiding all news from the front, she gives him the gift of Ofer, word by word: she supplies the whole story of her motherhood, a retelling that keeps Ofer very much alive for Ora and for the reader, and opens Avram to human bonds undreamed of in his broken world. Their walk has a 'war and peace' rhythm, as their conversation places the most hideous trials of war next to the joys and anguish of raising children. Never have we seen so clearly the reality and surreality of daily life in Israel, the currents of ambivalence about war within one household, and the burdens that fall on each generation anew.

"Grossman's rich imagining of a family in love and crisis makes for one of the great antiwar novels of our time."

Opening Lines:
"Hey, girl, quiet!
"Who is that?
"Be quiet! You woke everyone up!
"But I was holding her
"On the rock, we were sitting together
"What rock are you talking about? Let us sleep
"Then she just fell
"All this shouting and singing
"But I was asleep
"And you were shouting!
"She just let go of my hand and fell
"Stop it, go to sleep
"Turn on a light
"Are you crazy? They'll kill us if we do that"

My Take:
Still a bit confused, which usually means cranky about not understanding exactly what's going on -- but I'm hanging in there, hoping there's some meta-intentionality to this on Grossman's part and that all will be revealed in time. The opening sequence above is an extreme example, though it does go on for four pages ... hard to figure out, but as it's a conversation whispered in the dark between 2 fever-stricken patients/ prisoners in an Israeli military hospital/ prison, circa 1967, its disorienting nature can be forgiven.

I'm almost 200 pages into the book now, though, and while subsequent parts are a bit more lucid, there's still a lot I don't know. I do know some of what's been explained on the dust jacket: Ora's still reeling from the collapse of her marriage and the defection of her older son, Adam, so Ofer's being recalled to the army at the eleventh hour really is the last straw. Avram was the victim of horrific torture at Egyptian hands some 33 years earlier, and has lived a marginal, hermit's existence since. It's not fully clear how Ora ended up marrying Ilan rather than Avram, whether this happened before or after Avram was sent to war, and whether Avram is indeed Ofer's father. I guess I'll find out eventually, or discover that it doesn't really matter.

(Later, Thurs., 5/19). Just finished. Yes, you do find out pretty much everything you need to know if you stick with it. I just described the story to Mr. Hazelthyme and from the back story, it sounds rather soap operatic ("You see, Ora, Ilan, and Avram all met as teenagers, and were inseparable. Both of the men were in love with Ora and she with them, though in slightly different ways, and she actually dated both at the same time for a while ... but then by chance, ended up marrying one will the other ended up a POW on the wrong side of the Six Day War and survived, but came back Different.") It's not, though. Mostly, the book follows Ora and Avram on their long hike through the Galilee, during which the two fill each other in on all that's happened in their lives these past 20 years. The pacing is much like many long hikes I've been on -- slow-going at once, but ultimately rewarding for the effort. The short afterward from the author is eerily devastating, as well. If you're interested in an Israeli anti-war voice and in literary fiction, check this one out.

#38: Little Girls Can Be Mean

Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps To Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades, by Michelle Anthony and Reyna Lindert (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2010).

today's world, girls are facing myriad friendship issues, including bullying and cliques. As a parent, you are likely wondering how to guide your daughter through these situations effectively. Little Girls Can Be Mean is the first book to tackle the unique social struggles of elementary-aged girls, giving you the tools to help your child become stronger, happier, and better able to enjoy friendships and handle social cruelty.

"Michelle Anthony and Reyna Lindert's simple, four-step plan will help you become a problem-solving partner with your daughter. They also offer tips for educators and insights that girls can use to confront social difficulties in an empowered way. Whether your daughter is just starting kindergarten or is on her way to middle school, you'll learn how to:
  • observe the social situation with new eyes
  • connect with your child in a new way
  • guide your child with simple, compassionate strategies
  • support your daughter to act more independently to face the social issue.
"By focusing squarely on the issues and needs of girls in the years before adolescence, Little Girls Can Be Mean is the essential go-to guide for any parent, counselor, or educator of girls in grades K-6."

Table of Contents:

I. Laying the Foundation: The Four-Step Approach

1. The Rise of Social Cruelty

2. How Can I Help My Daughter or Student?

  • What Is Bullying?
  • Building the Foundation
  • Facing Tough Situations
  • Following the Four-Step Plan
  • Step 1: Observe
  • Step 2: Connect
  • Step 3: Guide
  • Step 4: Support to Act
  • Integrating the Four Steps
  • How Long Will This All Take?
3. Think, Share, Do ... Activity Bank for Part I

II. The Heart of the Matter: Applying the Four Steps to Real Situations Faced by Real Girls

4. Side by Side: Best Friends, Worst Enemies
  • Dealing with a Turf War
  • When Best Friends Pull Away
  • Yo-Yo Friendships
5. Going Along with the Gang
  • When Girls Struggle to Fit In
  • When Girls Struggle with Feeling "Different"
  • When Girls Struggle with Going Along with the Group
  • When the Group Turns Against Your Child
6. All Girls Can Be Mean: When Your Daughter Is Acting Like a Mean Girl
  • There Are Two Sides to Every Story
  • The Power Rush of Popularity
  • When Girls Struggle with Following the Group
7. Think, Share, Do ... Activity Bank for Part II

III. Wrapping Up: Using the Four Steps in Your Home, School, or Office
  • The Difference Between "Younger" and "Older" Girls
  • Facing All Kinds of Issues, Together
  • She Is Not Alone
My Take:
Meh. Is my guilty love of self-help manuals finally drawing to a close? I guess this one's a useful reminder, or introduction to the principles involved if you're not familiar with the subject, but there didn't seem to be a lot of meat (or non-animal protein, for my vegetarian friends) here. In brief, pay attention to what's going on with your kid even before she explicitly tells you about it; use active listening to draw out both the facts and her feelings; and help her brainstorm about what to do without going all Mama Bear and taking over. Next.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

#37: The Lonely Polygamist

The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).

"Golden Richards, husband to four wives, father to twenty-eight children, is having the mother of all midlife crises. His construction business is failing; his family has grown into an overpopulated mini-dukedom beset with insurrection and rivalry; and he is done in with grief: due to the accidental death of a daughter and the stillbirth of a son, he has come to doubt the capacity of his own heart. Brady Udall, one of our finest fiction writers, tells a tragicomic story of a deeply faithful man who, crippled by grief and the demands of work and family, becomes entangled in an affair that threatens to destroy his family's future. Udall's characters engage us to the fullest as they grapple with the nature of need, love, and belonging. Beautifully written, keenly observed, and ultimately redemptive, The Lonely Polygamist is an unforgettable story of an American family -- with its inevitable dysfunctionality, heartbreak, and comedy -- pushed to its outer limits."

Opening Line:
"To put it as simply as possible: This is the story of a polygamist who has an affair."

My Take:
The Big Love comparisons are inevitable: Our hero, a decent and surprisingly gentle guy who just happens to have four wives, is down to his last nerve, what with his wives always at him for something and all those darned kids running around underfoot. Even his name evokes Bill Richardson's.

And so far, that's about where the similarities end. I don't know enough about FLDS polygamists to know if this story is an accurate portrayal, but it definitely makes the HBO series seem like the Disney-fied (well, plus the sex) version. Here, the kids are constantly clamoring for a scrap of Dad's attention, ever vigilant lest someone else get a stick of gum they miss out on. Wife #1, Beverly, gets a new couch, and a mutiny almost results when the old one is passed on to Big House for #2 and #3 to enjoy. There's never a bathroom free when you need one, and Beverly is appalled when an 11 year old boy (not her own son) is caught trying on his older sisters' underwear -- not because he finds it exciting, but because he himself has never had any underthings that are brand new and not stretched out. And Golden's construction business? This is no HomePlus where he owns a successful mega-store or 3 and gets to go home for dinner with the fam every night; you see, business has been poor these last few years, and he's been forced to work 250 miles away to make ends meet, living in a Spartan trailer, coming home only on weekends ... and building, of all things, an expansion for a brothel (which his wives don't know about, though everyone else in his circle seems to have figured it out).

(later, 5/16/11) I don't often say this any more, but I'm glad I stuck this one out. The characters and plot lines manage to at once be so over-the-top that they're simultaneously funny and repellent (um, 4 wives and 28 kids?) ... and yet very real, as if the Richardsons' trials are just like everyone else's, but more so. I couldn't decide till fairly late in the game whether I liked Golden's character or not, but I managed to feel a bit sorry for him anyway. And my heart just broke for both Rusty, the aforementioned 11-year-old coveter of his sister's new underwear, and Trish, the pretty but isolated and grief-stricken fourth wife. It takes a while for the story line to really get going, but once it did, I couldn't put the book down. Satisfying conclusion, if just a wee bit too neatly wrapped up. Definitely worth a read.

#36: Night Road

Night Road, by Kristin Hannah (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011).

"For eighteen years, Jude Farraday has put her children's needs above her own, and it shows -- her twins, Mia and Zach, are bright and happy teenagers. When Lexi Baill moves into their small, close-knit community, no one is more welcoming than Jude. Lexi, a former foster child with a dark past, quickly becomes Mia's best friend. Then Zach falls in love with Lexi and the three become inseparable.

"Jude does everything to keep her kids on track for college and out of harm's way. It has always been easy -- until senior year of high school. Suddenly she is at a loss. Nothing feels safe anymore; every time Mia and Zach leave the house, she worries about them.

"On a hot summer's night her worst fears are realized. One decision will change the course of their lives. In the blink of an eye, the Farraday family will be torn apart and Lexi will lose everything. In the years that follow, each must face the consequences of that single night and find a way to forget ... or the courage to forgive."

Opening Line:
"She stands at the hairpin turn on Night Road."

My Take:

I do love me some chick lit now and again. Light, quick, enough twists to keep it interesting, but predictable enough that you feel like you accomplished something in guessing what was next. I'd read one or two of Hannah's other books before, knew what I was getting into, and wasn't really disappointed. She hasn't yet written as much and/or I haven't yet read enough of her books for them to become as predictable as, say, a Jodi Picoult or Maeve Binchy; either way, I only read a given author in this genre once every 6 months, if that, so it takes a while to get so old as to cease being fun anymore.

So I got about what I expected. Jude as the just-about-perfect, if a tad overprotective, mom is just over-the-top enough to be both funny and oddly sympathetic (at least, until the pivotal event alluded to in the jacket summary above). Lexi really does turn out to be a good kid, rather than the bad apple you might expect, and her aunt Eva, who works at Wal-Mart and lives in a clean if shabby trailer, never had kids ... yet seems to know exactly how to talk to Lexi and what she needs, is a perfect contemporary version of the noble peasant cliche. Zach, even if he's the most popular and best looking boy at school, turns out to just be The World's Nicest Guy, and is apparently never mean to his shyer, somewhat awkward twin sister or her trailer-park new best friend. Yeah, it strains credibility in places, but like I said -- that and the can't-possibly-imagine tragedies are what make our own everyday lives seem manageable and decent by comparison. Not worth owning, but a decent evening's entertainment for those who, like me, prefer lightweight novels to bad TV.

#35: I'm Going to College -- Not You!

I'm Going to College -- Not You! Surviving the College Search with Your Child, edited by Jennifer Delahunty (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2010).

"Acceptance by a top college is more than a gold star on a high school graduate's forehead today. It has morphed into the ultimate 'good parenting' stamp of approval -- the better the bumper sticker, the better the parent, right? Parents of juniors and seniors in high school fret over SAT scores and essays, obsessed with getting their kids into the right college, while their children push for independence.

"I'm Going to College -- Not You! is a godsend for parents, written by parents who've been in their shoes. Kenyon College dean Jennifer Delahunty shares her unique perspective (and her daughter's) on one of the toughest periods of parenting, and has assembled a top-notch group of writers that includes bestselling authors, college professors and admissions directors, and journalists. Their experience with the difficult balancing act between control freak and resource answer questions such as:
  • How can a parent be less of a 'helicopter' (hovering) and more of a 'booster rocket' uplifting?
  • What do you do when your child wants to put off college to become a rock star?
  • How will you keep from wanting to kill each other?"
Table of Contents:
Part 1 - Where It All Begins
  • An Unsentimental Education, by Neal Pollack
  • A Cautionary Tale, by Christine VanDeVelde
  • Personal Statement, by Wendy MacLeod
Part 2 - From the Outsiders
  • How to Get Into College Without Really Trying, by Gail Hudson
  • The Age of Reasons, by Joe Queenan
  • Application Madness, by Anne C. Roark
  • A Piece of Cake, by Jan Brogan
Part 3 - From the Insiders
  • Impersonating Wallpaper: The Dean's Daughter Speaks, by Jennifer Delahunty and Emma Britz
  • A Life of Too Much, by Lisa Gates
  • The Kids Are Alright (With Apologies to The Who), by Debra Shaver
  • Let It/Them Be (With or Without Apologies to the Beatles), or How Not to Spend Your Child's Summer Vacation, by Katherine Sillin
Part 4 - From a Mother's Perspective
  • The Deep Pool, by Anna Quindlen
  • When Love Gets in the Way, by June Hamilton
  • Hooked, by Laurie Kutchins
  • Our Quixotic Quests for Utopia U, by Anna Duke Reach
Part 5 - From a Father's Perspective
  • Market Lambs and Chaos Warriors, by Dan Laskin
  • Flowers Will Grow, by Sean Callaway
  • The Worst of Times, the Best of Times: The Scholar-Athlete Applies to College, by David Latt
  • From the Belly of the Whale, by David H. Lynn
  • Where the Chips Fall, by Scott Sadil
Part 6 - Road Trippin'
  • The Most Difficult Year to Get into College in the History of the World: Excerpts from 'The Neurotic Parent' Blog, by The Neurotic Parent
  • Laundry, Lost Luggage, and Lord of the Rings, by Lisa K. Winkler
  • Sound Tracks, by Joy Horowitz
Part 7 - A User's Guide for Parents
  • Love in the Time of College Angst, by S. X. Rosenfeld
  • Wait Outside, by Sarah Kahrl
  • Sophie, Real and Imagined, by Ellen Waterston
  • T-minus Thirteen Minutes and Forty-one Seconds, by Steve Thomas
My Take:
OK, but not exactly what I was expecting. Sure, we're still a few years from this particular milestone in Hazel House, but hey -- sending a sweet, funny girl off to school one morning and getting a moody tween home is sorta the same kind of strange country experience, and I spend enough professional time in the freshman-admissions hothouse to be curious about how it feels from the other side.

In short, this is an anthology of essays. Like all anthologies, it's a mixed bag; I enjoyed some of the pieces more than others, and given the subject matter, it's not surprising that at least a few come off as being a wee bit self-congratulatory. You all know my tolerance for what I recently heard called "first-world annoyances," i.e., upper-middle-class, mostly white people kvetching about problems most folks would give their eyeteeth to have. Yeah, there's some of that here, but it's not all like that. There were two essays by the parents of scholar-athletes, which provided a window on a part of the college selection process I didn't really know much about. I also enjoyed the one by the editor and her daughter, which essentially describes the former's efforts (at the latter's insistence) to remain as invisible as possible while her daughter made a decision that would ultimately surprise them both.

Don't read it seeking advice or coping tips, really -- but if you're in this position and want to feel like someone else understands, or have other reasons to hear what the process is like from a panel of parents who've been there fairly recently, it's worth a read-through.

#34: The Cheapskate Next Door

The Cheapskate Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of Americans Living Happily Below Their Means, by Jeff Yeager (New York: Broadway Books, 2010).

"He's at it again, but this time he's not alone. America's Ultimate Cheapskate is back with all-new secrets for how to live happily below your means, a la cheapskate. For The Cheapskate Next Door, Jeff Yeager hit the road to interview and survey hundreds of fellow cheapskates, getting them to divulge their secrets for living the good life on less.

"Jeff reveals the sixteen key attitudes about money -- and life -- that allow cheapskates to live happy, comfortable, debt-free lives while spending only a fraction of what most Americans spend. Their strategies will change your way of thinking about money and debunk some of life's biggest money myths: learn how to cut your food bill in half; get a college education without ever borrowing a dime; save serious money by negotiating and bartering; and -- find free stuff and free fun all around you.

"The Cheapskate Next Door also features dozens of original 'Cheap Shots' -- quick tips that could save you more than $25,000 in a single year! Cheap Shots tell you:
  • how to save hundreds of dollars on kids' toys
  • how you can travel the world without ever having to pay for lodging
  • what single driving tip can save you $30,000 during your lifetime
  • even how to save up to 40 percent on fine wines (and we're not talking about the kind that comes in a box)
"From simple money-saving tips to truly life-changing financial strategies, the cheapskates next door know that the key to financial freedom and enjoying life more is not how much you earn but how much you spend."

Table of Contents:
  • Preface -The Dawning of the Age of the Cheapskate
  • Introduction - Cheapskates: They're Everywhere and They're Loving Life
  • Chapter 1 - The Phrenology of Frugality: 16 Idiosyncrasies of the Cheapskate Mind
  • Chapter 2 - Good Habits Are Hard to Break
  • Chapter 3 - Money Management, Cheapskate Style
  • Chapter 4 - The Oxygen Mask Approach to Raising Kids
  • Chapter 5 - Thrift: The Greenest Shade of Green
  • Chapter 6 - Clean Your Plate ... and Save $1,500 a Year
  • Chapter 7 - Come on and Take a FREE Ride
  • Chapter 8 - We Can't Retire. We Went out to Dinner Instead.
  • Chapter 9 - The Joys of Horse Trading
  • Chapter 10 - Break the Mortgage Chains that Bind Thee
  • Chapter 11 - Bon Appe-cheap! Come on into the Cheapskate's Kitchen
  • Chapter 12 - Don't Laugh. It Gets Me There ... and It's Paid For.
  • Chapter 13 - Cheapskates Come out of the Closet
  • Chapter 14 - Insurance: Betting on Yourself
  • Chapter 15 - Cheapskates Just Wanna Have Fun
  • Chapter 16 - Back to the Future?
My Take:
I should really know better by now. Perhaps I'm just the proverbial choir to whom pro-frugality books like this are preaching, but I don't tend to get much out of them and frankly, they don't even make me feel all that superior anymore.

Let's look, then, at Yeager's much-hyped 16 idiosyncrasies. If this were a joke or a movie, and if anyone were actually reading this, I'd be spoiling the punchline, but oh well. So, the question is: Do I think the following tips/ attitudes are helpful to someone who's looking to live more frugally, even if I personally already knew them and already choose to follow them (or not)? Let's see:
  1. The Joneses Can Kiss Our Assets, i.e., live in the home and have the stuff you need and which pleases you, rather than that which impresses your neighbors. Agreed, though this is a long, hard mindset to cultivate if you're not already there.
  2. A Cheapskate Values Time More than Money. Yes, one should consider not just the cost of a new item but what that translates to in terms of hours worked. I don't think Yeager does this principle justice, though. As he acknowledges, Robin and Dominguez tackled this issue first in Your Money or Your Life years ago, and Amy Dacyzyn of 1990s Tightwad Gazette fame offered a surprisingly balanced treatment of the fact that even for an avowed cheapskate (nee tightwad), it's not always just about the money. Some activities that cost less but take more time might offer other benefits, such as extra family time or personal enjoyment (e.g., making homemade jam or Hallowe'en costumes), while others may offer little of either (e.g., changing your own oil, combining errands, stocking up on sale items): "If you have some financial flexibility you can choose an enjoyable task with a small financial yield. If both time and money are in short supply you might have to stick with tasks with the highest hourly yields, even if they provide little enjoyment. But there are so many ways to save money you should no have to do tasks that provide a small hourly yield, offer little enjoyment, and satisfy no other values. Because we all possess different abilities, resources, likes, and values, no two tightwads would fill out this chart the same way. There is no 'right way' to be a tightwad."
  3. A Cheapskate Values Value, i.e., durability and cost-per-use rather than just sticker price, are the issue here. Agreed.
  4. Shopping Isn't a Cheapskate Sport. No argument here, except that this seems to contradict an argument made in favor of item 2) above. On one hand, we're supposed to be "premeditated shoppers," because spending 2 days yard-saling to find a decent pair of used kids' boots negates the money you'd save over buying them new ... but on the other, we're not supposed to shop for fun? Yes, I get the difference between trawling the yard sales and hangin' at the mall, but still.
  5. A Cheapskate Regrets Nothing, i.e., no buyer's remorse for all those items you purchased on a whim, brought home, and immediately asked yourself, "WTF?" Not sure I completely buy this one. I'd allow that on balance, people who don't make a habit of impulse buying have less regret over stuff they didn't buy than impulse buyers have over things they did ... but I'm sure I'm not the only cheapskate who's ever taken a chance on a good deal that really wasn't in the end. (I'm looking at you, Target socks.)
  6. A Cheapskate Appreciates Appreciation (and Depreciation, Too): Pardon the pun, but I will buy this one. "When the cheapskates next door shop for things like furniture, homes, automobiles, and even clothing, they tend to approach it as an exercise in acquiring assets rather than buying disposable commodities. ... When cheapskates shop for things they need, they're ideally looking to buy things that will increase in value. Second best is buying something that will retain its value. ... If it's not possible to buy something that will increase or retain its value, then the last resort is to buy something that will depreciate in value the least amount and as slowly as possible."
  7. A Cheapskate Differentiates Between Needs and Wants: Um, yeah. Like I said, I think there's some preaching to the choir going on here.
  8. A Cheapskate Is a Premeditated Shopper: OK, here's where the book distinguishes between "premeditated shopping" and "bargain hunting" (i.e., my mother-in-law's version of retail therapy): If you go armed with a list, you're doing the former. Somewhat of an artifical distinction, but I see the point.
  9. A Cheapskate Knows the Best Things in Life Aren't Things: This one's definitely a keeper. In short, we cherish and remember experiences more than we do stuff.
  10. A Cheapskate Does What He Loves for a Living: Wouldn't that be nice? Sure, in an ideal world, we'd all have the option of choosing rewarding-but-not-lucrative work, but in reality ... I don't think we all do, and there's probably a significant correlation between those who have the social/ educational capital to be frugal by choice vs. just plain poor and those for whom this is a legit option,
  11. A Cheapskate Has Spending Anxiety Disorder ("SAD" -- But It Really Isn't): In other words, you/ we/ they hyperventilate at the thought of wasteful, unnecessary spending. Guilty as charged.
  12. A Cheapskate is Brand Blind and Advertising Averse: Seems to mostly be a restatement of 1). I do agree that brands don't and mostly shouldn't matter (see Cheap for a detailed explanation of why they don't), but I'll also go out on a limb and say that while I don't care so much about the snob appeal, I will go out of my way to buy brands with which I've had consistently good luck in the past, and avoid brands I've found to be of poor quality.
  13. A Cheapskate Understands Change vs. Progress: Here's where Mr. Hazel and I often butt heads. I'm a bit of a Luddite; he's, well ... to be fair, he is an IT guy and is on the low end of the curve there as far as gadget-headedness is concerned.
  14. A Cheapskate Abhors Debtor Dementia: Basically a frilly way of saying debt is bad and should be avoided as much as possible, though Yeager and most of the cheapskates he interviewed make an exception for mortgage debt. I'd personally add a modest amount of debt for a college education to this list, though he'd disagree.
  15. Cheapskates, Know and Trust Thyself: In other words, why hire someone to do your yard work, taxes, etc. when you can just as easily do it yourself? Agreed, with the caveat that you need to be realistic about your abilities and not take on bone-headed DIY projects that endanger people's safety for the sake of saving a few bucks. Do your own basic taxes, replace a light switch, mow your lawn? Absolutely. Rewire your house or chop down a 3-story dead tree? Not so much.
  16. A Cheapskate Answers to a Higher Authority: I myself am a person of faith, but don't think this is essential -- at least, not the way the book defines it. I agree that it's hard to resist the greater consumer culture when you don't have some other, deeper sense of right and meaning to fall back on, but I think that could just as easily be family or self-sufficiency or environmental stewardship as it can be the deity of one's choosing.
That's probably enough for this book -- if the above sounds intriguing, check the book out of your library or borrow a copy from a friend. If it seems stupid or obvious, don't bother.

#33: Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters 2.0

Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters 2.0: 1,001 Unconventional Tips, Tricks, and Tactics for Landing Your Dream Job, by Jay Conrad Levinson and David E. Perry (Hoboken, NJ: Jay Wiley & Sons, 2009)

"Do you know why Jay Conrad Levinson and David Pery use the word guerrilla in the titles of all their books and talks? The answer is that guerrillas pursue conventional goals in unconventional ways. Guerrillas ... have a better perspective on reality that their conventional opponents who tend to pursue their dreams by the book.

"Never before have guerrillas had such a competitive advantage. In the job market, doing things 'by the book' is a fairly certain path to disaster and frustration -- unless you operate according to the principles and insights in this book. This book ushers you into the land of conventional goals attained, to reality as it is, rather than as it was. It guides you to a new world that remains unknown to other job hunters -- a world in which guerrillas reign supreme. It has been said that in a dog-eat-dog economy, the Doberman is king. We're in that kind of economy right now -- and the guerrilla is king.

"It takes a lot to b a true guerrilla, and this book provides a lot to accomplish that goal. Wanting to be a guerrilla is part of the job, but the heavy lifting of becoming a guerrilla is is being a master of details. Where do you learn those details? The answer is in the pages ahead. It's not necessarily an easy answer, but it's a correct answer.

"You absolutely must be aware of how the job market has changed dramatically just in the last decade. This is not your father's generation; it is yours. But it only belongs to you if you have the wisdom and awareness of the guerrilla. You'll gain those invaluable attributes if you soak up that wisdom and become aware of today's realities. This book was written both to help you open doors to jobs others dream about and to show you how to get one.

"To many, getting the job of their dreams is close to impossible. But guerrillas are experts at learning the art of the impossible. Their knowledge of what is really happening in the job market transforms the impossible into the probable. Lightning has been captured in these pages. Minds will be changed. Lives will be changed. Light will illuminate the way.

"Can all that really happen with just a book? It's a beginning. If you're not a guerrilla job hunter, we wish you success, but if you are a guerrilla job hunter, we predict success." -from the Forward by Darren Hardy

Table of Contents:
  • Chapter 1 - Why You Need to Become a Guerrilla Job Hunter: The New Global America
Part I - Your Guerrilla Mind
  • Chapter 2 - Personal Branding Guerrilla Style: Shape Up Your Brand with Attitude
  • Chapter 3 - Your Guerrilla Job-Hunting Strategy: Think Like a General -- Work Like a Sergeant
  • Chapter 4 - Your Research Plan: Research -- The Guerrilla's Competitive Edge
Part II - Weapons That Make You a Guerrilla
  • Chapter 5 - Resume Writing and Cover Letter Boot Camp: How to Overhaul Your Personal Marketing Materials
  • Chapter 6 - Twenty-First Century Digital Weapons: If You Build It, They Will Come for You ...
  • Chapter 7 - Recruiternomics 2.0: How to Work Your Job Search Commandos
Part III - Tactics That Make You a Guerrilla
  • Chapter 8 - Guerrilla Networking: A Radical Approach
  • Chapter 9 - Fearless Warm Calling: A Fresh Alternative
  • Chapter 10 - Creative Ways to Find a Job: Breakthrough Strategies
Part IV - Your Guerrilla Job-Hunting Campaign
  • Chapter 11 - 3 Sample Campaigns: The Force Multiplier Effect in Action
  • Chapter 12 - Hand-to-Hand Combat: Winning the Face-to-Face Interview
  • Chapter 13 - Negotiating the Deal: How to Bargain with Confidence
  • Chapter 14 - Ready Aye Ready
My Take:
So, as you may have gathered from the above, if you're offended by a surfeit of either military analogies or plain old over-the-top gung-ho marketing stuff, this ain't the job search book for you. OTOH, if you can set that aside, there's actually quite a lot of good advice in this book -- enough that I've now borrowed it twice from the library, and just may end up breaking down and buying my own copy.

Believe me -- even before this, my latest appearance in the job search Olympics (cripes, Levinson & Perry have me doing it now!), I've read a ton of job search and car. At the moment, I've also got two of the Knock 'Em Dead guides out, which are OK, but ... frankly, I can only look at so many different resume formats and sample cover letters before my eyes glass over. Read enough of this stuff while you're what yesterday's interviewer tactfully called "unencumbered," and it's like reading a steady diet of What to Expect books while you're pregnant: try to follow everyone's advice to the letter, and you'll only make yourself crazy. But this book's different. Yes, the analogies and some of the advice is a bit out there, especially for some fields (like, um, higher ed administration?) So you take it with a grain of salt. The book still contains some excellent, in-depth information about how to successfully, effectively use the internet in your job search (in brief, Google is your friend when it comes to research, but don't rely too heavily on the job boards). There's also some outstanding advice on negotiating an offer, and some good points on questions to ask your interviewer about the company that will help increase the chances of an offer's being put forth. As for some of the other, harder-sell techniques recommended, many don't quite seem like they'd fit in the companies/ industry I'm most familiar with, but hey -- they may indeed be well-suited for marketing or sales positions, and there's no reason the skeptical-but-creative among us can't take and adapt what works, and leave the rest.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

#32: City of Thieves

City of Thieves, by David Benioff (New York: Penguin Group, 2008)

"Stumped by a magazine assignment to write about his own uneventful life, a man visits his retired grandparents in Florida to document their experience during the infamous siege of Leningrad. Reluctantly, his grandfather commences a story that will take him almost a week to tell: an odyssey of two young men determined to survive, against desperate odds, a mission in which cold, hunger, and the Russian authorities prove as dangerous as the invading Wehrmacht.

"Two young men meeting for the first time in a jail cell await summary execution for crimes of dubious legitimacy. At seventeen, Lev Beniov considers himself 'built for deprivation.' Small, smart, insecure about his virginity, he's terrified about the sentence that awaits him and his cellmate, the charismatic and grandiose Kolya, a handsome young soldier charged with desertion. However, instead of a bullet in the back of the head, the pair is given an outrageous assignment: In a besieged city cut off from all supplies, secure a dozen eggs for a powerful colonel to use in his daughter's wedding cake. Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt to find the impossible in five days' time, a quest that propels the from the lawless streets of Leningrad to the devastated countryside behind German lines. As they encounter murderous city dwellers, guerrilla partisans, and finally the German army itself, an unlikely bond forms between this earnest teenager and his unpredictable companion, a lothario whose maddening, and endearing, bravura will either advance their cause or get them killed.

"Hailed for his brilliantly drawn characters and incisive ability to capture the pulse of urban life, David Benioff rises to new heights in this portrait of two unforgettable young men and Soviet Russia under siege. By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves takes us on a breathtaking journey into the twentieth century's darkest hour even as it celebrates the power of friendship to transform a life."

Opening Line:
"My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen."

My Take:
Don't think there are many authors out there who can successfully combine a buddy movie and the seige of Leningrad between two covers, but somehow, Benioff manages. City of Thieves is an engrossing, entertaining book that manages to capture some of the humor and absurdity of war without trivializing it.

The main story opens in the Crosses, as Lev, an achingly young seventeen-year-old whose mom and sister fled the city long ago, awaits an unknown but dire fate in the dark, forebidding prison that's long been the stuff of every Leningrad child's nightmares. Enter Kolya, a handsome-and-knows-it Cossack deserter who claims he can write in the pitch dark and quotes from a great Russian novel that Lev (son of a famed poet) has never heard of. Kolya is arrogant but kind, Lev is impressed but annoyed, and whether or not they admit it, both are terrified. Not usually the stuff of lifelong friendships ... that is, until the next day, when the local colonel offers to redeem their lives if they can bring back a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake within a week's time. Yes, in a city whose very name still defines the word siege.

Since both young men value their lives, they have no choice but to try. Their search begins in Leningrad proper, where they assume someone, somewhere must have eggs, and they need only the money, barter, and/or guile to get them. They crash with an old friend-with-benefits of Kolya's, narrowly escape a tribe of cannibals who do indeed have food to sell, and learn the truth behind the rumors of a crazy but armed old man who still keeps a flock of chickens on a rooftop somewhere ... but alas, no luck, and no eggs. They make a daring escape from the city, thinking the Germans must have left a farm or 2 intact somewhere, if only for their own provisions. Their instincts are correct, though it's not only the soldiers' culinary appetites the lovely young residents are satisfying -- a fact which incenses Kolya until his hosts describe, in harrowing detail, what the alternative would be and exactly how they know. Together, the young men and their hosts hatch a plan to catch the Germans with their pants down ... which is interrupted by the arrival of a band of pro-Allied guerrillas who have had some success plaguing both the German soldiers and the not-so-popular-around-here Soviet army. The guerrillas are led by Vika, a crack sniper barely Lev's age who seems to have a secret up his sleeve (among other places).

As you might expect, the young ex-cons join forces with the partisans, additional hair-raising adventures ensue, and not everyone survives till the last chapter ... though you know all along that Lev will, as he's still alive and now a grandfather in the frame story. A bit formulaic, I suppose, if I'm being honest -- but captivating and (har, har) novel enough that I didn't mind. Recommended if you enjoy World War II stories and/or tales of young men's adventures.

#31: Ordinary Thunderstorms

Ordinary Thunderstorms, by William Boyd (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

"One May evening in London, Adam Kindred, a young climatologist in town for a job interview, is feeling good about the future as he sits down for a meal at a little Italian bistro. He strikes up a conversation with a solitary diner at the next table, who leaves soon afterward. With horrifying speed, this chance encounter leads to a series of malign accidents, through which Adam loses everything -- home, family, friends, job, reputation, passport, credit cards, cell phone -- never to get them back.

"The police are searching for him. There is a reward for his capture. A hired killer is stalking him. He is alone and anonymous in a huge, pitiless, modern city. Adam has nowhere to go but down -- underground. He decides to join that vast array of the disappeared and the missing who throng London's lowest levels as he tries to figure out what to do with his life and struggles to understand the forces that have made it unravel so spectacularly. Adam's quest will take him all along the river Thames, from affluent Chelsea to the gritty East End, and on the way he will encounter all manner of London's denizens -- aristocrats, prostitutes, evangelists, and policewomen -- and version after new version of himself.

"Ordinary Thunderstorms, William Boyd's electric follow-up to his award-winning Restless, is a profound and gripping novel about the fragility of social identity, the corruption at the heart of big business, and the secrets that lie hidden in the filthy underbelly of every city."

Opening Line:
"Let us start with the river -- all things begin with the river and we shall probably end there, no doubt -- but let's wait and see how we go."

My Take:
Wow! For some reason, I had a hard time getting around to starting this one, even though it's been on my reading list for nearly a year and on my library loaners shelf more than once before. Then yesterday I had a bad day (ah, the ups and downs of unemployment), polished it off in a few hours ... and man, Boyd really knocks this one out of the park.

As the jacket blurb above suggests, Ordinary Thunderstorms is most certainly a page turner. There's mystery, espionage, corporate malfeasance, a halfway-decent riches-to-rags story, and even a glimmer of a romance that manages to neither seem forced nor dominate the novel from the time it's introduced (both big peeves of mine, if that wasn't already obvious). Adam is compelling and makes you want to root for him largely because he's not perfect; he makes a few colossally stupid blunders early on in the novel (granted, if he hadn't, there wouldn't be much of a story here), and we learn that a spontaneous, unthinking fling with a grad student cost him both his last job and his marriage.

The supporting cast is likewise fun to watch and follow, even if it's more often than not in a can't look away, train wreck sort of way. With the exception of Rita, the marine police officer who unknowingly comes this close to Adam more than once before becoming obsessed with why the higher-ups suddenly released one of her highly-armed collars; and Philip Wang, the doctor/ pharmaceutical researcher whose murder Adam stumbles on in Chapter 1; they range from unsettling to sketchy to downright scary. There's Ingram, head of the company for which Wang had worked, who seems to have it made ... except for the growing realization that it's not he who's really calling the shots, and the suspicion that his mysterious ailments may be more than stress. There's Mhouse, the illiterate prostitute who laces her young son's meals with rum and Diazepam so he'll stay asleep when she goes out to work. Most ickily, there's Jonjo, the highly-trained ex-soldier who makes quite a comfortable living freelancing at what he does best, and whose sole redeeming quality seems to be that at least he loves his dog.

On top of being a darned good story, Ordinary Thunderstorms also has a lot going on between the lines. It's no accident that Adam is (or was) a climatologist by training: a man who made a living seeding clouds, demonstrating man's power to alter even the most elemental of forces. Throughout the novel, he goes from being someone who controls the weather (as his grad student, the aptly-named Fairfield Springer, observes just before their assignation, "It's like you're playing god,") to someone who struggles to control even the most basic aspects of his own life. The reader comes to realize, as the story unfolds, that the seemingly-random events that make Adam's life fall apart are, in fact, like the clouds he once seeded in his lab: the result of innumerable, interrelated human actions. Though hungry, penniless, and in fear for his life, Adam rejects the idea of turning himself into the police because he knows in doing so, he'd give up what little control he still has. Likewise, in their own ways, Ingram, Rita, Mhouse, and Jonjo all struggle (with varying degrees of success) to carve out patches of autonomy and dignity in a world where storms and uncertainties far beyond their control seem constantly at work.

Yeah, I guess I kinda liked this book -- that, and maybe I'm vicarously expounding on behalf of my daughter, who finished the ELA tests at school today. (Good thing no one's grading my blog, eh? I'd settle for someone reading it.)