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, August 25, 2011

#63: When the Killing's Done

When the Killing's Done, by T. Coraghessan Boyle (New York: Viking, 2011)

"Principally set on the wild and sparsely inhabited Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara -- the Galapagos of North America -- T. C. Boyle's powerful new novel combines action-packed adventure with a socially conscious, richly humane tale regarding the dominion we attempt to exert, for better or worse, over the natural world."

Alma Boyd Takesue is a National Park Service biologist who is spearheading the efforts to save the islands' endangered native creatures from invasive species such as rats and feral pigs, which, in her view, must be eliminated. Her antagonist, Dave LaJoy, is a muscular, dredlocked local businessman who, along with his inamorata, the folk singer Anise Reed, is fiercely opposed to the killing of any species whatsoever, and will go to any lengths to subvert the plans of Alma and her colleagues.

"Their confrontation plays out in a series of escalating scenes in which these characters violently confront one another, contemplate acts of sabotage, court danger and tempt the awesome destructive power of nature itself. Boyle deepens his story by going back in time to relate the harrowing tale of Alma's grandmother, Beverly, who was the sole survivor of a 1946 shipwreck in the channel, as well as the tragic story of Anise's mother, Rita, who in the late 1970s lived and worked on a sheep ranch on Santa Cruz Island.

"In dramatizing this collision between protectors of the environment and animal rights activists, Boyle is, in his characteristic fashion, examining one of the essential questions of our time: who has the right of possession of the land, the waters, the very lives and breath and souls of all the creatures who share this planet with us? When the Killing's Done offers no transparent answers, but like The Tortilla Curtain, Boyle's classic take on illegal immigration, it will touch you deeply and put you in the position to decide."

Opening Line:
"Picture her there in the pinched little galley where you could barely stand up without cracking your head, her right hand raw and stinging still from the scald of the coffee she'd dutifully -- and foolishly -- tried to make so they could have something to keep them going, a good sport, always a good sport, though she'd woken up vomiting in her berth not half an hour ago."

My Take:
Liked it a lot -- I'm usually a big Boyle fan, ever since The Tortilla Curtain, and this one didn't disappoint. Complex, interesting characters; decent story line; no pretty red bow to wrap everything up at the end.

My main critique (and perhaps this is with the dust jacket writer and not with Boyle himself) is that there wasn't quite as much conflict or tension in the plot as I might have hoped for. As this Onion A.V. Club review suggests, the author's portrayal of animal rights activist Dave LaJoy isn't exactly balanced or sympathetic; he owns a chain of high-end electronics stores he's never seen actually managing or working in, holds everyone except maybe his trophy girlfriend Anise in open contempt, and (in a recalled scene of his one and only long-ago date with Alma) has no qualms about ordering bottle after bottle of a restaurant's priciest wine, only to proclaim each one unacceptable after it's opened and send it back. Nice guy. He is fun to roll your eyes at, though, and does indeed eventually get a suitably dramatic comeuppance. (As Barbara Kingsolver's New York Times review reminds us, "Boyle has elsewhere dispatched characters by the likes of meteor strike and bear consumption.")

Alma's character is far more subtly rendered, though I still might have preferred to hear a bit more about how she herself thinks and feels rather than just who her parents and grandmother were. And while it's not really a tidy red bow, or even close, her own resolution seems a wee bit too clean -- perfunctory, perhaps.

Still, an excellent book, and one I'd highly recommend to others.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

#62: Sisterhood Everlasting

Sisterhood Everlasting, by Ann Brashares (New York: Random House, 2011)

"Return to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants ... ten years later.

"From #1 New York Times bestselling author Ann Brashares comes the welcome return of the characters whose friendship became a touchstone for a generation. Now Tibby, Lena, Carmen, and Bridget have grown up, starting their lives on their own. And though the jeans they shared are long gone, the sisterhood is everlasting.

"Despite having jobs and men that they love, each knows that something is missing: the closeness that once sustained them. Carmen is a successful actress in New York, engaged to be married, but misses her friends. Lena finds solace in her art, teaching in Rhode Island, but still thinks of Kostos and the road she didn't take. Bridget lives with her longtime boyfriend, Eric, in San Francisco, and though a part of her wants to settle down, a bigger part can't seem to shed her old restlessness.

"Then Tibby reaches out to bridge the distance, sending the others plane tickets for a reunion that they all breathlessly await. And indeed, it will change their lives forever -- but in ways that none of them could ever have expected.

"As moving and live-changing as an encounter with long-lost best friends, Sisterhood Everlasting is a powerful story about growing up, losing your way, and finding the courage to create a new one."

Opening Line:
"Once upon a time, there were four pregnant women who met in an aerobics gym."

My Take:
Again, hope to write a bit more later -- it is what it is, with apologies to those of you who hate that phrase. Entertaining, better than I'd expected/ feared -- but great literature it's not. I do give the author bonus points, though, for letting her characters change in less-than-perfect or -predictable ways in a series that spans many years.

The novel opens with the four principals almost-but-not-quite having gone their separate ways. They're all still committed to the idea of the sisterhood, of course, but in terms of actually feeling the same close connection to their three besties, even though they've now headed down different paths in different places? Not so much. Carmen, as the jacket blurb indicates, has become a successful actress, a regular minor character on a Law and Order-style crime drama, with a loft apartment to die for, engaged to the somewhat-insufferable Jones, more than 10 years her senior and a (pretentious, controlling) VIP in the TV biz. Lena's barely squeaking by as an adjunct/ private art instructor, maintaining a tepid relationship with some dude who works at a sandwich shop nearby and with a social/ emotional life just this side of hermetic/ agoraphobic. Bridget's a latter-day hippie whose SF neighbors know her as That Girl Who Rides Her Bike Everywhere, who seems to have a different job every few weeks, and randomly gives this or the other of her few possessions away to a familiar homeless person in a nearby park. (It's never explicitly specified, but we presume she's being kept afloat financially by Eric, her soccer-playing almost-boyfriend from the original Sisterhood, who's now dropped the almost- and grown up to be a successful lawyer and all-around mensch.) And Tibby? Well, Tibby up and moved to Australia with her boyfriend some time ago, and the gals have heard precious little from her since.

That is, until the story's beginning, where each of the other 3 mysteriously gets a letter and plane ticket from Tibby, inviting/ summoning them to meet for a reunion at Lena's grandparents' place in Santorini. (Lena's grandparents have since passed away, although her parents haven't yet sold the house, and it's never quite clear how Tibby manages to gain access to a house in Greece when she's Down Under and the home's current owner is somewhere in the States.) Everyone accepts, or at least plans to go, each thinking maybe this is the answer to her current restlessness and loneliness. They arrive at the airport, eager as can be for Tibby to meet them ... but wait and wait as they may, she doesn't.

To tell you much more of the story beyond this point would spoil it, which I try not to do ... but I will say that for the rest of the book, each character grapples with her own, newly-launched adult dilemma and the question of how to stay connected with her old friends as their lives diverge. Is that elusive sense of purpose Bridget seeks Somewhere Out There, or is she looking in all the wrong places? Is Lena really as down with the quiet, making-do, good-enough life she's cobbed together in Rhode Island, or should she maybe go back and find that road not taken after all? Carmen's star is rising, but is it really shining where and how she wants it to? And what unimagined chain of events made Tibby up and disappear on them?

Of these four questions, only the last answer was at all surprising -- at least to me. I did, however, appreciate the book's acknowledgement that at some point, any "lifelong" friendships you've made up till, say, your early 20s will be tested by physical and experiential distance ... and while they may or may not last, it's highly unlikely they'll end with all your BFFs living next door/ across the street from you on Wisteria Lane.

#61: The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett (New York: New American Library, 1989).

"Set in the turbulent times of twelfth-century England when civil war, famine, religious strife and battles over royal succession tore lives and families apart, The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of the building of a magnificent cathedral.

"Against this richly imagined backdrop, filled with intrigue and treachery, Ken Follett draws the reader irresistibly into a wonderful epic of family drama, violent conflict, and unswerving ambition. From humble stonemason to imperious monarch, the dreams, labours and loves of his characters come vividly to life. The Pillars of the Earth is, without a doubt, a masterpiece -- and has proved to be one of the most popular books of our time." -from the back cover of my paperback copy

"Set during the reign of King Stephen and the Anarchy, The Pillars of the Earth hangs a rich and intricately woven tapestry of intrigue and conspiracy over a solid foundation of historical events to explore topics as diverse as medieval architecture, civil war, secular/ religious conflicts, and shifting political loyalties.

"Principal characters include Tom Builder, a stonemason; Philip, Prior of Kingsbridge; and Archdeadon Waleran Bigod. The historical King Stephen is variously abetted and attacked by characters both real and fictional, including his cousin and rival Empress Maud; Sir Percy Hamleigh and his son William Hamleigh; the prior Earl of Shiring Bartholomew's daughter Aliena and son Richard; and Ellen with her son Jack." -from Wikipedia

Opening Line:
"The small boys came early to the hanging."

My Take:
This was the second of three books I took with me on vacation, and the last one I actually read. (Anna Karenina will just have to wait, which seems to be its fate; it still has a bookmark in it from a White Mountains resort, so this clearly isn't the first trip from which it's come home unread.)

Wow. Another sweeping, engaging saga that I got way more into than I'd expected to. I mean, really -- who expects to get totally absorbed in a story about the building of a cathedral in medieval England? Darn it, though, if Follett doesn't make the characters just complicated enough to both compel you on to find out what happens to them next, and keep you guessing. Prior Philip, head of the Kingsbridge monastery where the cathedral is to be built, was a pleasant surprise, character-wise -- probably the most interesting literary cleric I've come across. (Sorry, Father Ralph de Bricassart.) In the introduction, Follett calls him his only cheerfully celibate character, but he's a long way from being saintly; while he may not mind the whole lack of sex thing, he does tend toward both rigidity (who, me? Punny?) and pride. Tom Builder is likewise a good character (fascinating how the author makes a twelfth-century mason seem accessible to twenty-first-century readers by establishing, in the first chapter, that his first wife, Agnes, is his soul mate, and that he truly cherishes not just her but their children), and deposed earl's daughter cum wool merchant Aliena (it's a long road, but hey, it's a long book), forgive the anachronism, Rocks. Out.

Follett's even gone and created one of the most despicable, love-to-hate-him villains I've seen in a while: William Hamleigh, son of the nobleman who insinuates himself into the earldom after King Stephen takes it away from Aliena's father, Bartholomew. A brutish, violent bully who's secretly terrified of the priests and his hideous mother (apparently the miniseries, which I haven't yet seen, hints at some incest here -- ew!), and can get aroused only when he's beating the woman unlucky enough to be in his company, William's definitely an exception to the nuanced-character comment above, but it's still so much fun to despise him and to wait for his inevitable comeuppance.

Full disclosure: I'm neither a builder nor an architect, and some of these details didn't really interest me much. I was happy enough to read about the revelations that come to Jack when he travels through France and Spain in search of a) his mysterious, dead father's past, and/or b) peace from his tortured, seemingly impossible love for Aliena, and sees how differently these places have approached cathedral architecture. And the build-a-defensive-wall-in-a-hurry scenes, well, those were as much adventures (with a hint of the Redwall series I used to read with Twig when she was younger) as they were about building. But some of the more nitty-gritty, how this part gets done passages read, well, like a homebuilders' manual, and I found myself skimming over them to see what happened next. Fortunately, I managed not to miss any important plot developments this way (I think).

All right, an overdue post meets an overdue bedtime. More soon.

#60: Trinity

If I haven't forgotten anything (and if I have, it was probably meant to be forgotten), my 60th book of the year was Leon Uris's classic, Trinity (New York: Bantam, 1977).

I've forgotten many things in the last-minute, pre-vacation packing flurry, but I can't remember the last time I went away without a few good books. This time, the selection was a challenge; it was an unprecedented 2-week trip and we needed to take all our camping gear, so I knew space would be at a premium. Ergo, I was looking for a) really long paperbacks, so that I could cram the maximum possible number of pages/hours into each precious inch of suitcase, and b) books I already owned, as the likelihood of leaving at least something behind when you spend 14 nights in 7 different places is pretty darned high.

At 815 pages, my 50-cent non-trade paperback copy of Trinity qualified just about perfectly. I ended up finishing it in an inexpensive Louisville chain hotel on our last night away, and found it one of those books you're sorry to finish. While I went ahead and started Pillars of the Earth the same night (the rest of my family was watching a movie in our one hotel room, and it was too early to go to bed), doing so almost felt wrong ... and I know in my memory, Leon Uris's epic account of the troubles in Northern Ireland will always be linked to campfires in southern Appalachia.

"The 'terrible beauty' that is Ireland comes alive in this mighty epic that re-creates the Emerald Isle's fierce struggle for independence. Trinity is a saga of glories and defeats, triumphs and tragedies, lived by a young Catholic rebel and the beautiful and valiant Protestant girl who defied her heritage to join him. Leon Uris has painted a masterful portrait of a beleaguered people divided by religion and wealth -- impoverished Catholic peasants pitted against a Protestant aristocracy wielding power over life and death."

Opening Line:
"I recall with utter clarity the first great shock of my life."

My Take:
I hate to call something "epic," because it feels like I'm jumping on the bandwagon. Every publisher of a book that spans more than a year wants to slap the label on, and my 12-year-old freely applies it to, oh, particularly exciting and memorable (in a good way) highlights of our recent vacation. (Whitewater rafting was epic; so were zip-lining and Mammoth Cave. For that matter, the same may have been said of horseback riding or the larger-than-life burrito she had for dinner in Kentucky one night, but I eventually lost track.)

But Trinity really is. I wasn't sure at first how well I'd like the somewhat-odd blend of plot with historical/ instructional passages woven in, but it mostly worked. The first chapter, where sometime-narrator Seamus's shock turns out to be the death of neighbor/ friend/ protagonist Conor Larkin's grandfather Kilty, is brilliant; Uris manages not only to give the reader a taste of day-to-day village life in the Catholic section of Ballyutogue, Ulster, but to really make you care about the characters and the Irish struggle for independence. I've heard off and on about the Irish potato famine ever since I can remember, but this is the first time I've felt like I had some idea what it may have been to live through it; the main story begins decades later, in 1885, but we experience the famine vividly through the memories of Conor and Seamus's fathers and those of village elder/shaman Daddo Friel.

I still can't decide whether to quibble with Conor's being too perfect a hero, but I don't think I will -- even if he is, it didn't spoil the book for me or diminish my enjoyment appreciably. Uris is definitely on my "seek out for long trips" reading list after this one.

#59: The Pact

The Pact: A Love Story, by Jodi Picoult (New York: HarperCollins, 1998)

"From Jodi Picoult, one of the most powerful writers in contemporary fiction, comes a riveting, timely, heartbreaking, and terrifying novel of families in anguish -- and friendships ripped apart by inconceivable violence. Until the phone calls came at 3:00 A.M. on a November morning, the Golds and their neighbors, the Hartes, had been inseparable. It was no surprise to anyone when their teenage children, Chris and Emily, began showing signs that their relationship was moving beyond that of lifelong friends. But now seventeen-year-old Emily has been shot to death by her beloved and devoted Chris as part of an apparent suicide pact -- leaving two devastated families stranded in the dark and dense predawn, desperate for answers about an unthinkable act and the children they never really knew."

Opening Line:
"There was nothing left to say."

My Take:
Powerful? Heartbreaking? Devastating? More than a little hyperbolic, but I knew what I was getting into. I bought the book in a "buy 2, get 1 free" sale at one of the local book chains (back when we had more than one) a while back, and kept it in the bull pen till I needed it.

That time came a few weeks ago, before our long vacation -- I won't go into the gory details but it was a rough week emotionally, and I just plain needed some reasonably-absorbing escapist fiction. (Plus, maybe it's just me, but when I'm feeling like my own life's a mess, some melodramatic fiction is often just what the doctor ordered -- even at my worst, I can look at plot lines like this and reassure myself that at least I don't have it that bad.)

So The Pact fit the bill. It's obviously one of Picoult's earlier books, which is a mixed bag. On the minus side, it lacks some of the gentle ethical-dilemma-probing I've come to expect from House Rules, Handle With Care, and Vanishing Acts. However, a strong plus in my book is that she hadn't yet stumbled on her now-predictable twist ending formula (which some article I read a while back called "just kill a kid and get it over with") -- which, frankly, gets a bit tiresome after the 3rd or 4th book.

Not high literature, definitely a WYSIWYG book -- whether you think you'll enjoy it or not, you're probably right. Speaking only for myself, I'm in the "enjoy it, but in pretty small doses" camp.

#58: Lighten Up

Lighten Up: Love What You Have, Have What You Need, Be Happier With Less, by Peter Walsh (New York: Free Press, 2011).
"It seems as though not a day goes by that we don't think about money. We cut back on spending. We chase a bargain. We try to save more. We strive to use less credit. We worry about funding our retirement and our children's education. Yet we continue to spend money on things that don't matter. The author knows that money and debt can overwhelm your life even faster than clutter, and he has a plan to help deal with that emotional and financial chaos. His previous bestselling books inspired us to successfully evict the clutter in our homes, on our bodies, and in six key areas of our lives. But for many people, clearing the clutter suddenly exposes deeper issues, financial, physical, and emotional. Sometimes our problems are not really about the physical stuff but about the emotional fabric of our lives, from our relationships with money to our relationships with people and even how we define and find happiness. In this work, the author demonstrates that this reassessment of priorities is a great opportunity to examine our lives and circumstances and to make the changes necessary to focus on the things that really matter. Exploring the real source of happiness, he offers a clear strategy for finding the delicate balance between what we have, what we need, and what we want or feel entitled to. With three unique audits that cover every aspect of our well-being, he takes us step by step through sizing up not just our possessions and financial statements but also our thoughts, goals, use of time and energy, and even our innermost sources of tension. He then shows us how to embrace the changes we've experienced, set a new path for the future, and come to accept that living on less can feel and be so much richer. This book instructs how to:

  • Change the way you and your family measure happiness
  • Face your financial situation and set realistic priorities
  • Create space for what really matters
  • Plan realistically for financial and emotional security
  • Be happier with less
His plan will help you achieve personal balance that brings happiness and the courage to choose a rewarding life over the mindless pursuit of more stuff."

Table of Contents:

Part I: From Living on Less to Living with More
  • 1. The Life You Imagine for Yourself
  • 2. What Makes You Happy?
Part II: From Audit to Action
  • 3. The Personal Audit: Your Life
  • 4. Create Space for What Really Matters
  • 5. The Financial Audit: Your Money
  • 6. Face the Financials
  • 7. The Home Audit: Your Stuff
  • 8. Change the Way You and Your Family Measure Happiness
Part III: From Today to Tomorrow and Beyond
  • 9. Checkup and Maintenance
  • Epilogue: New Beginnings
My Take:
Yes, it's a self-help book. Yes, the above review makes it sound pretty darned cheesy. But y'know, I actually enjoyed/ got something out of this one. Maybe it's my own predilection for grand, holistic theories; maybe it's just that I stumbled across it in a rough week of trying to figure out whether I'm in a period of transition or whether this really is the new normal, and how to navigate it in either case ... but Walsh put a lot of things together that make sense and aren't too oversimplified (a little bit, sure, but that's to be expected), but which I hadn't really thought about before. Again, details are fuzzy when a month has gone by, but if I want to reread Butterfly's Child -- I think (wait for it) I may actually want to own this one, and maybe a few of Walsh's other books, too.

#57: Butterfly's Child

Butterfly's Child, by Angela Davis-Gardner (New York: Dial Press, 2011).

When three-year-old Benji is plucked from the security of his home in Nagasaki to live with his American father, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, and stepmother, Kate, on their farm in Illinois, the family conceals Benji's true identity as a child born from a liaison between an officer and a geisha. But when the truth about Benji surfaces, it will splinter this family's fragile dynamic, sending repercussions spiraling through their close-knit rural community and sending Benji on the journey of a lifetime."

Opening Line:
"It is spring in Nagasaki, and the strands of silk she has set out for the mating birds are gone from the maple tree in the garden, and the mother birds are nestled in silk, but still he has not come."

My Take:
Really enjoyed this one; I'm always a sucker for new takes on old classics (how many times have I said this before?), and was actually just thinking about this book last night, as I listened to Miss Saigon while I prepped dinner. I only wish I hadn't let a full month go by before writing about it -- some of the details have since blurred a little, plus I'm in a trying-to-catch-up-and-reinvigorate-the-book-blog hurry -- but I liked that it gave voice and agency to some of the characters who weren't really endowed with much in the original. Pinkerton himself is important, of course, but almost a secondary character in this book; far more compelling are Benji himself, the well-meaning if inconsistent Kate, and the kindly widower neighbor (whose name escapes me now) who becomes probably Benji's truest friend. Ultimately, even Cio Cio/ Butterfly herself becomes something a bit more than, well, a victim and/or a stereotype, but to say much more here would give too much away. I may even have to go back and read this one again at some point, and that's high praise.