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, June 29, 2011

#53: Minding Frankie

Minding Frankie, by Maeve Binchy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)

"When Noel learns that his terminally ill former flame is pregnant with his child, he agrees to take guardianship of the baby girl once she's born. But as a single father battling demons of his own, Noel can't do it alone.

"Fortunately, he has a competent, caring network of friends, family and neighbors: Lisa, his unlucky-in-love classmate, who moves in with him to help him care for little Frankie around the clock; his American cousin, Emily, always there with a pep talk; the newly retired Dr. Hat, with more time on his hands than he knows what to do with; Dr. Declan and Fiona and their baby son , Frankie's first friends; and many eager babysitters, including old friends Signora and Aidan and Frankie's doting grandparents, Josie and Charles.

"But not everyone is pleased with the unconventional arrangement, especially a nosy social worker, Moira, who is convinced that Frankie would be better off in a foster home. Now it's up to Noel to persuade her that everyone in town has something special to offer when it comes to minding Frankie."

Opening Line:
"Katie Finglas was coming to the end of a tiring day in the salon."

My Take:
I will probably regret this. Binchy used to be an easy go-to when I wanted something light and entertaining, but after reading Heart and Soul in the first few months of this blog, I'd pretty much sworn her off. (Well, I occasionally flip through my old paperback copy of Circle of Friends if I can't sleep, but that's different.) Much like an Irish Anne Rivers Siddons, the author grew formulaic and predictable, and/or I just plain had had enough. We'll see how this one plays out. It is, of course, a library book, so it won't cost me anything other than time.

(afterwards) All in all, I'd give this one somewhere between a B and B-. The story's not nearly as boring and the characters not half as wooden as the ones in Heart and Soul, but Binchy does make the same mistake again here of trying to cram as many characters from her previous novels into supporting roles in this one, and the effect is forced and confusing.

The main characters, for the most part, are fine. Noel is a recovering alcoholic, which I don't think Binchy's touched before (quirky lovable small-town drunks in some of her 1950s and '60s-era novels aside) ... and while this is hardly a serious treatment of how alcoholism affects an individual and family, she at least throws a few relapses in there to make it half-believable. Emily, the American cousin, is a bit too perfect and efficient to believe, and Lisa, the classmate who moves in on a whim after seeing her father bring a prostitute home ... a halfway-interesting character, if one that's been done before (talented but naive young woman falls for charming, utterly fake gentleman? Hello, Ella Lynch from Quentins.) I'm also fine suspending my disbelief about a social worker having any leg to stand on when it comes to putting Frankie in foster care -- the child has a father who's employed, nothing unsafe or unsuitable at home, and babysitters/ extended family galore coming out of the woodwork -- only because Binchy's Irish and I'm not, and I just plain may not get how the social services system works there.

But it's really not necessary to stuff Declan and Fiona, Aidan and Signora, Clara Casey and Frank Ennis, Maude and Simon, and probably several others I'm forgetting into the supporting roles here. A, as I've said before, coincidences like this that mostly work in a small town of 50 years ago aren't really plausible in 21st century Dublin. B, the overall effect ends up being that instead of getting to know a small number of characters pretty well, you're asked to keep track of a few names and details of a whole long list ... most of which still doesn't make sense unless you've read all Binchy's previous books and kept track of the characters from same.

So ... not as bad as I was expecting, but nothing fantabulous, either.

#52: The Uncoupling

The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer (New York: Riverhead Books, 2011).

"When the elliptical new drama teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High school in Stellar Plains, New Jersey chooses as the school play Lysistrata -- the Aristophanes comedy in which women stop having sex with men in order to end a war -- a strange spell seems to be cast over the school. Or, at least, over the women.

"One by one, throughout the high school community, women and teenaged girls suddenly turn away from their husbands and boyfriends in the bedroom, for reasons they don't really understand. Dory Lang, a happily married forty-something English teacher, is mystified when she abruptly loses the desire to have sex with Robby, her cherished spouse of nearly twenty years. One after another, her friends admit to having the same perplexing and disturbing experience. They include Bev, a fiftyish overweight guidance counselor married to an anxious hedge fund manager; Leanne, a young psychologist of South Asian background with three boyfriends and no wish to be monogamous; and Ruth, a formerly lesbian gym teacher now married to a male sculptor, with whom she has twin boys and a new baby. And not long after Dory's daughter, Willa, has fallen under a very different spell -- one of teenaged infatuation and sexual discovery -- the sixteen-year-old suddenly feels the need to put an end to her new romantic relationship.

"As all these women worry over their loss of passion, and as the men become by turns unhappy, offended, and confused, both sides are forced to look at their partners, their shared history, and their sexual selves in an entirely new light."

Opening Line:
"People like to warn you that by the time you reach the middle of your life, passion will begin to feel like a meal eaten long ago, which you remember with great tenderness."

My Take:
Now that's what I'm talking about! I honestly don't recall liking The Ten Year Nap all that much -- back when I read it, it seemed unoriginal and tedious -- but maybe I just caught it on a bad day; after The Uncoupling, I may just be willing to go dig up another copy and give it another try. This book is brilliant -- high literature, no, but at once very funny, packed with trenchant, witty observations about upper middle class suburban culture (I'm still chuckling at the teenaged characters spending hours online in a Second Life-esque cyberworld called Farrest, and the two-person Snuggy ripoff one of the deprived husband orders called -- get this -- the Cumfy) ... and at other times, surprisingly poignant and sad. OK, I did knock it off in a day and managed to get some other things done besides, but it was a very good read nonetheless, and precisely what the doctor ordered right about now.

#51: My Hollywood

My Hollywood, by Mona Simpson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)

A wonderfully provocative and appealing novel, from the much-loved author of Anywhere But Here and A Regular Guy, her first in ten years. It tells the story of two women whose lives entwine and unfold behind the glittery surface of Hollywood. Claire, a composer and a new mother, comes to LA so her husband can follow his passion for writing television comedy. Suddenly the marriage -- once a genuine 50/50 arrangement --changes, with Paul working long hours and Claire left at home with a baby, William, whom she adores but has no idea how to care for. Lola, a fifty-two-year-old mother of five who is working in America to pay for her own children's higher education back in the Philippines, becomes their nanny. Lola stabilizes the rocky household and soon other parents try to lure her away. What she sacrifices to stay with Claire and 'Williamo' remains her own closely guarded secret. In a novel at turns satirical and heartbreaking, where mothers' modern ideas are given practical overhauls by nannies, we meet Lola's vast network of fellow caregivers, each with her own story to tell. We see the upstairs competition for the best nanny and the downstairs competition for the best deal, and are forced to ask whether it is possible to buy love for our children and what that transaction costs us all. We look into two contemporary marriages -- one in America and one in the Philippines -- and witness their endangerment, despite the best of intentions. My Hollywood is a tender, witty, and resonant novel that provides the profound pleasures readers have come to expect from Mona Simpson, here writing at the height of her powers."

My Take:
Here I'd hoped for a variation on some of the same themes from The Madonnas of Echo Park -- rather a California-style Nanny Diaries with a bit more racial frisson thrown in. I didn't get it. In short, I found My Hollywood plodding and disappointing, with characters I just couldn't bring myself to care about. If this is Simpson at the height of her powers, I won't be seeking her earlier books out any time soon.

#50: The Madonnas of Echo Park

The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse (New York: Free Press, 2010).

"'We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that once was ours.' With these words, spoken by an illegal Mexican day laborer,
The Madonnas of Echo Park takes us into the unseen world of Los Angeles, following the men and women who cook the meals, clean the homes, and struggle to lose their ethnic identity in the pursuit of the American dream. When a dozen or so girls and mothers gather on an Echo Park street corner to act out a scene from a Madonna music video, they find themselves caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting. In the aftermath, Aurora Esperanza grows distant from her mother, Felicia, who as a housekeeper in the Hollywood Hills establishes a unique relationship with a detached housewife. The Esperanzas' shifting lives connect with those of various members of their neighborhood. A day laborer trolls the streets for work with men half his age and witnesses a murder that pits his morality against his illegal status; a religious hypocrite gets her comeuppance when she meets the Virgin Mary at a bus stop on Sunset Boulevard; a typical bus route turns violent when cultures and egos collide in the night, with devastating results; and Aurora goes on a journey through her gentrified childhood neighborhood in a quest to discover her own history and her place in the land that all Mexican Americans dream of, 'the land that belongs to us again.' Like the Academy Award-winning film Crash, The Madonnas of Echo Park follows the intersections of its characters and cultures in Los Angeles. In the footsteps of Junot Díaz and Sherman Alexie, Brando Skyhorse in his debut novel gives voice to one neighborhood in Los Angeles with an astonishing-- and unforgettable--lyrical power."

My Take:
A solid, intriguing book - very enjoyable, and I'll even buy the Junot Diaz parallels. Highly recommended.

#49a: Getting to Happy

OK, as I never finished What They Still Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School and have no interest in renumbering everything from there to here, we're just going to call this 49a and get the numbering back on track.

#49a (i.e., really #49 because #40 was a bust and wasn't really #40) was Getting to Happy, by Terry McMillan (New York: Viking, 2010).

"An exuberant return to the four unforgettable heroines of Waiting to Exhale -- the novel that changed African American fiction forever. Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale was more than just a bestselling novel -- its publication was a watershed moment in literary history. McMillan's sassy and vibrant story about four African American women struggling to find love and their place in the world touched a cultural nerve, inspired a blockbuster film, and generated a devoted audience. Now, McMillan revisits Savannah, Gloria, Bernadine, and Robin fifteen years later. Each is at her own midlife crossroads: Savannah has awakened to the fact that she's made too many concessions in her marriage, and decides to face life single again-at fifty-one. Bernadine has watched her megadivorce settlement dwindle, been swindled by her husband number two, and conned herself into thinking that a few pills will help distract her from her pain. Robin has an all-American case of shopaholism, while the big dream of her life-to wear a wedding dress- has gone unrealized. And for years, Gloria has taken happiness and security for granted. But being at the wrong place at the wrong time can change everything. All four are learning to heal past hurts and to reclaim their joy and their dreams; but they return to us full of spirit, sass, and faith in one another. They've exhaled: now they are learning to breathe.

My Take:

Enjoyed it. Good, light-but-not-too-cotton-candyish fun.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

#49: Good Boss, Bad Boss

Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best ... and Learn From the Worst, by Robert Sutton (New York: Business Plus, 2010).

"Inspired by the cries for help and the success stories he received in response to his previous book, The No Asshole Rule, Sutton (management science, Stanford University) describes qualities of good and bad bosses, explains how to be a good boss, and gives advice on surviving workplace jerks. Bosses will learn how their words and actions affect others, the best and worst ways to take charge and make decisions, and when to be quiet and when to speak up. The author writes in an accessible style with a sense of humor, drawing on behavioral science research as well as real-life case studies and the voices of real employees from around the world.

Table of Contents:
Preface: From Assholes to Bosses
I. Setting the Stage
  • 1. The Right Mindset
II. What the Best Bosses Do
  • 2. Take Control
  • 3. Strive to Be Wise
  • 4. Stars and Rotten Apples
  • 5. Link Talk and Action
  • 6. Serve as a Human Shield
  • 7. Don't Shirk the Dirty Work
  • 8. Squelch Your Inner Bosshole
III. The Upshot
  • 9. It's All About You
My Take:
What a pleasant surprise. Due to a strategically-placed library bar code, I didn't realize this was by the author of The No Asshole Rule until I opened the front cover. Loved that book, liked this one just about as well. This one expands on the former, which talked about how to avoid dealing with (ahem) jerks at work, and talks about how not to be a "jerk" yourself when you're promoted to the corner office ... and how, in fact, to be a good, even a great boss. For time reasons I can't elaborate more, but this was a good one -- more meat there than I usually expect from books of its kind.

#48: Who Killed Change?

Who Killed Change? Solving the Mystery of Leading People Through Change, by Ken Blanchard, John Britt, and others (New York: William Morrow/ HarperCollins, 2009)

"Every day organizations around the world launch change initiatives -- often big, expensive ones -- designed to improve the status quo. Yet 50 to 70 percent of these change efforts fail. A few perish suddenly, but many die painful, protracted deaths that drain the organization's resources, energy, and morale.

"Who or what is killing change?

"That's what you'll find out in this witty whodunit. The story features a Columbo-style detective, Agent Mike McNally, who's investigating the murder of yet another change. One by one, Agent McNally interviews thirteen prime suspects, including a myopic leader named Victoria Vision; a chronically tardy manager named Ernest Urgency; an executive name Clair Communication, whose laryngitis makes communication all but impossible; and several other dubious characters.

"The suspects are sure to sound familiar and you're bound to relate them to your own workplace. In the end, Agent McNally solves the case in a way that will inspire you to become an effective Change Agent in your own organization.

"A step-by-step guide at the back of the book shows you how to apply the story's lessons to the real world. Key questions help you evaluate the health of your organization's change initiatives, and you'll learn best practices for enabling and sustaining the desired change."

Table of Contents:
  • Scene of the Crime
  • Suspect #1: Culture
  • Suspect #2: Commitment
Reflections on Culture and Commitment
  • Suspect #3: Sponsorship
  • Suspect #4: Change Leadership Team
  • Suspect #5: Communication
Reflections on Sponsorship, Change Leadership Team, and Communication
  • Suspect #6: Urgency
  • Suspect #7: Vision
Reflections on Urgency and Vision
  • Suspect #8: Plan
  • Suspect #9: Budget
  • A Vision of Death
  • Suspect #10: Trainer
  • Suspect #11: Incentive
Reflections on Plan, Budget, Trainer, and Incentive
  • Suspect #12: Performance Management
  • Suspect #13: Accountability
  • Super Cops and Stakeholders
  • The Autopsy Report
  • Murderer Announced: Invitation Only
  • Change Lives!
  • Helping Change Thrive in Your Organization
My Take:
I knew what I was getting into, I suppose, but Who Moved My Cheese? this ain't. (Or maybe it is; I've probably read Cheese but don't have a clear memory of doing so.) It's your classic short, sweet, and grossly-oversimplified business primer -- not surprisingly, as Blanchard's a master of the genre. Are there some good points here about what's needed for organizational change to succeed? Sure, but probably only a page or two's worth when you cut through the silly whodunit mystery stuff. Oh well. As I said, I expected as much.

Monday, June 6, 2011

#47: The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, by Jacques Steinberg (New York: Viking, 2002).

"From the fall of 1999 to the spring of 2000, New York Times education reporter Jacques Steinberg was given unparalleled access to an entire admissions season at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. In that time, he discovered just how difficult it could be to winnow down a list of nearly seven thousand applicants to seven hundred freshmen for the class of 2004. Steinberg follows an admissions officer and his eight counterparts through the daunting task of recruiting students nationwide, reading through each of their applications, and meeting behind closed doors for a week in March to finalize the incoming class. He also recounts the personal experiences of a half dozen high school seniors of various ethnic and economic backgrounds as they struggle through the often byzantine selection process. Find out why:
Table of Contents:
  1. The Tortilla Test
  2. Don't Send Me Poems
  3. Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
  4. Considered Without Prejudice
  5. Read Faster, Say No
  6. Thundercats and X-Men
  7. Nothing to Do With the Dope
  8. Things Seem to Have Gone Well
  9. 420-ed
  10. Unnamed Gorgeous Small Liberal Arts School
My Take:
First, this is one of those works of non-fiction that reads like a novel. OK, maybe you won't think so if the inner workings of a highly-selective college admissions office sounds like Snoresville to you, but still. In following senior Wesleyan admissions officer Rafael (Ralph) Figueroa and his top prospects through the course of the admissions cycle, you really start to care about who gets in and who doesn't, who decides to come, and so on. Again, I do work in higher ed, so I may be biased in my interest -- but I also think it's a sign of Steinberg's skill as an author and journalist that he makes you care, and feel mostly like you're reading a story rather than being lectured to.

#46: Debt-Free U

Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents, by Zac Bissonnette (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2010).

"This book can save you over $100,000. These days, most people assume you need to pay a boatload of money for a quality college education. As a result, students and their parents are willing to go into years of debt and potentially sabotage their entire financial futures just to get a fancy name on their diploma. But Zac Bissonnette is walking proof that this assumption is not only false, but dangerous -- a class con game designed to rip you off and doom your student to a post-graduation life of near poverty . From his unique double perspective -- he's a personal finance expert (at Daily Finance) AND a current senior at the University of Massachusetts -- Zac figured out how to get an outstanding education at a public college, without bankrupting his parents or taking on massive loans. Armed with his personal knowledge, the latest data, and smart analysis, Zac takes on the sacred cows of the higher education establishment. He reveals why a lot of the conventional wisdom about choosing and financing college is not only wrong but hazardous to you and your child's financial future. You'll discover, for instance, that:
"Zac can prove every one of those bold assertions -- and more. No matter what your current financial situation, he has a simple message for parents: 'RELAX! Your kid will be able to get a champagne education on a beer budget!'"

My Take:
Grr. OK, I'll admit up front that my impression of Bissonnette's book is colored in part by his impression of me. No, we haven't met personally, but this guy really, really, REALLY doesn't like financial aid administrators -- says, in fact, that we're a far lower life form than admissions staffers, and our job is just to convince students to attend the schools for which we work by any means necessary (e.g., beaucoup loans). Not since New York's current governor made an anti-corruption name for himself on my colleagues' backs have I felt so publicly insulted. Are there rotten apples in and drawbacks to every profession? Absolutely -- but having some smarmy 20something tar an entire profession with this broad and misleading brush sticks in my craw. All right, I'm done with that rant now.

Sigh. Grudgingly, I do think Bissonnette has some valid points to make here. Prospective students and their families should think long and hard about the value of a private school education if it means borrowing big bucks (in either the parents' or student's name) to get it. The vast majority of privates don't meet students' need, and if that's the case, well ... State U. looks pretty darned good. Contrary to the author's belief, I've said as much to many families in my office. And the majority of students can and should be contributing more from their own earnings toward their educational costs -- both from summer and academic-year work. He also makes several good arguments for not borrowing more money to fund discretionary or lifestyle items while you're in school -- specifically, it may not make sense to borrow through the nose just because you've always wanted to go to school in ___ location, or to live in a luxury dorm room while you're in college, when doing so may well impact where and how you're able to live for WAY more than 4 years after you graduate.

In general, though, the book is best approached as food for thought and an interesting proposal, rather than something that can, should, and will work for everyone. Should parents and high school students question their assumptions about the importance of a college education and where/ how to get it? Absolutely. But replacing the current model with Bissonnette's for everyone, IMO, is no big improvement.

#45: Work Song

Work Song, by Ivan Doig (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010).

"An award-winning and beloved novelist of the American West spins the further adventures of a favorite character, in one of his richest historical settings yet. "If America was a melting pot, Butte would be its boiling point," observes Morrie Morgan, the itinerant teacher, walking encyclopedia, and inveterate charmer last seen leaving a one-room schoolhouse in Marias Coulee, the stage he stole in Ivan Doig's 2006 The Whistling Season. A decade later, Morrie is back in Montana, as the beguiling narrator of Work Song. Lured like so many others by "the richest hill on earth," Morrie steps off the train in Butte, copper-mining capital of the world, in its jittery heyday of 1919. But while riches elude Morrie, once again a colorful cast of local characters-and their dramas-seek him out: a look-alike, sound-alike pair of retired Welsh miners; a streak-of-lightning waif so skinny that he is dubbed Russian Famine; a pair of mining company goons; a comely landlady propitiously named Grace; and an eccentric boss at the public library, his whispered nickname a source of inexplicable terror. When Morrie crosses paths with a lively former student, now engaged to a fiery young union leader, he is caught up in the mounting clash between the iron-fisted mining company, radical "outside agitators," and the beleaguered miners. And as tensions above ground and below reach the explosion point, Morrie finds a unique way to give a voice to those who truly need one. "The most tumultous, quirky, and fascinating city in the American West of the last century has finally found a storyteller equal to its stories. ... Ivan Doig brings to life the core of humanity, and a hell of cast, amidst the shadows and sorrows of Butte, Montana -- a city that could say it never slept well before New York made a similar claim."

My Take:
Interesting setting and plot, especially as I'm a sucker for anything having to do with labor issues -- but something about this one just left me wanting more. Maybe it's that I felt like I should have read The Whistling Season first to really "get" the characters of Morrie and Rabrab, which I haven't. As a standalone novel, it's good enough but nothing exceptional.