About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, October 28, 2011

#92: Absurdistan

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart (New York: Random House, 2006)

"From the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook comes the uproarious and poignant story of one very fat man and one very small country.

"Open Absurdistan and meet outsize Misha Vainberg, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, lover of large portions of food and drink, lover and inept performer of rap music, and lover of a South Bronx Latina whom he longs to rejoin in New York City, if only the American INS will grant him a visa. But it won't, because Misha's late Beloved Papa whacked an Oklahoma businessman of some prominence. Misha is paying the price of exile from his adopted American homeland. He's stuck in Russia, dreaming of his beloved Rouenna and the Oz of NYC.

"Salvation may lie in the tiny, oil-rich nation of Absurdistan, where a crooked consular officer will sell Misha a Belgian passport. But after a civil war breaks out between two competing ethnic groups and a local warlord installs hapless Misha as Minister of Multicultural Affairs, our hero soon finds himself covered in oil, fighting for his life, falling in love, and trying to figure out if a normal life is still possible in the twenty-first century.

"Populated by curvaceous brown-eyed beauties, circumcision-happy Hasidic Jews, a loyal manservant who never stops serving, and scheming oil execs from a certain American company whose name rhymes with Maliburton, Absurdistan is a strange, oddly true-to-life look at how we live now, from a writer who should know.

"With the enormous success of The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart established himself as a central figure in today's literary world -- 'one of the most talented and entertaining writers of his generation,' according to The New York Observer. In Absurdistan, he gives an even funnier and wiser literary performance. In Misha Vainberg, he has invented a hero for the new century, a glimmer of humanity in a world of lost hope."

Opening Lines:
"This is a book about love. The next 338 pages are dedicated with that cloying Russian affection that passes for real warmth to my Beloved Papa, to the city of New York, to my sweet impoverished girlfriend in the South Bronx, and to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)."

My Take:
Very funny, but drags a bit in the middle once Vainberg gets stuck in the title republic.

I can't really overstate the first part. Absurdistan is crammed with wry, sometimes irreverent, usually hilarious observations about the United States, Russia, the former Soviet republics, and contemporary western culture. The reader gets an early taste of what she's in for in the first chapter, as Misha and college roommate Alyosha-Bob dine out in St. Petersburg with Misha's girlfriend Rouenna (visiting all too briefly from the South Bronx) and his very young stepmother, Lyuba. Observes Rouenna, on learning that Lyuba, too, was poor before marrying Misha's infamous, soon-to-be-murdered father Boris:
"[A]s far as I can tell, all of you Russians are just a bunch of n----z. ... All I'm saying is, you know ... your men don't got no jobs, everyone's always doing drive-bys whenever they got beefs, the childrens got asthma, and y'all live in public housing."
After this dinner is interrupted by police who've come to tell Misha of his father's assassination, Misha reflects on his first trip to New York and how he met Rouenna (after an unfortunate encounter with the circumcision-happy Hasidic Jews mentioned on the dust jacket, which leaves the otherwise-unapologetic Misha with at least one thing to feel self-conscious about).

Rouenna remains in St. Petersburg for Boris's funeral, but returns to New York and Hunter College soon thereafter ... where Misha fears that she's getting a little too close with her writing professor (and his own former college classmate) Jerry Shteynfarb, a lothario of a "perfectly Americanized Russian emigre (he came to the States as a seven-year-old) who managed to use his dubious Russian credentials to rise through the ranks of the Accidental creative writing department and to sleep with half the campus in the process" and who's still enjoying some degree of fame from his novel, The Russian Arriviste's Hand Job. (I never stopped chuckling at Shteyngart's dig at himself here.) His fears do indeed prove founded, though the rich and perhaps overly big-hearted Misha continues to pay Rouenna's tuition anyway.

Eventually, Misha comes to realize there's no way in heck he's going to get a U.S. travel visa through legitimate means. Even with his father dead, the whole murder thing's apparently still on his records, and the authorities aren't going to let Boris's son into the country, no way, no how. The only solution is to visit Absurdistan, where a crooked official at the Belgian consulate is reportedly selling Belgian passports for the asking (well, that and a goodly sum of cash).

Unfortunately, his timing couldn't be worse. Misha arrives in Svani City, and bribes his way through just about every airport and customs official he can find (in an eventually-tedious ritual where the Absurdi welcomes him with a speech like this:
"The Jewish people have a long and peaceful history in our land. They are our brothers, and whoever is their enemy is our enemy also. When you are in Absurdisvani, my mother will be your mother, my wife your sister, and you will always find water in my well to drink."
... only to inform him, moments later, that "our mother is in the hospital with a collapsed liver and a keloid scar on the left ear" and a few generous U.S. dollars would be much appreciated, and by the way, let me now introduce you to my colleague in the visa application line. Shortly after he settles into the penthouse suite at the Park Hyatt and gets his shiny new Belgian passport in hand, the Absurdi leader's plane is shot down, and the national borders sealed. Aside from seeing a decent young activist shot to death before his eyes, this doesn't make much difference in Misha's day-to-day life; the high-end food and drink seem to keep flowing at the Park Hyatt (and pretty much anywhere there are Haliburton staff), and his new (ahem) friendship with Nana Nanabragovna, daughter of a local warlord-cum-businessman ensures that he'll always have the best of whatever there is for the taking ... but, well, he still can't leave.

From here on, as noted above, the book seems to drag a bit. There are still plenty of apt and humorous observations, which keeps it readable, but not much happens, either in terms of visible action or in Misha's state of mind. Sure, I chuckled at the apparent feud between the two
ethnic groups in Absurdistan, the Sevo and the Svani, which seems to center on which direction the footrest should tilt on their version of the cross, and at the ridiculous but spot-on rap lyrics Misha's so fond of quoting, but that only takes you so far. I'll probably still read The Russian Debutante's Handbook if I can get my hands on it, but would have liked a stronger wrap-up to the story line here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

#90: The Heights

The Heights, by Peter Hedges (New York: Dutton, 2010)

"Tim Welch is a popular history teacher at the Montague Academy, an exclusive private school in Brooklyn Heights, New York: 'I was an odd-looking, gawky kid, but I like to think my rocky start forced me to develop empathy, kindness, and a tendency to be enthusiastic. All of this, I'm now convinced, helped me in my quest to be worth of Kate Oliver.' Kate is not ordinary, but she aspires to be. She stays at home with their two young sons in a modest apartment, trying desperately to become the parent she never had. Tim and Kate are seemingly the last middle-class family in the Heights, happily getting by, until one day their neat and tidy world is turned upside down by Anna Brody, the new neighbor who moves into the most expensive brownstone in Brooklyn.

"Anna is not only beautiful and wealthy; she's also impulsive. And for reasons Kate doesn't quite understand, even as all of the Range Rover-driving moms jockey for access into Anna's circle, Anna sets her sights on Kate and Tim and brings them into her world. It's fun -- dizzyingly fun, in fact -- to pretend for a while that they belong to her life of privilege and excess. Then a secret invitation comes in a plain white envelope from an unlikely messenger, and the games Tim and Kate have been playing become a lot more complicated."

Opening Line:
"That morning we woke to find our street buried in snow."

My Take:
Yawn. An OK book as these things go, but I really think I'm over this upper-middle-class chick lit phase for a while. Kate gets an offer she can't refuse to go back to work for an old boss, and Tim decides to take a sabbatical from teaching to care for the boys and finally finish his long-overdue dissertation. In the course of the year, both become besotted with Anna in different ways. An erotic frisson builds between Tim and Anna, under the guise of play dates between Tim and Kate's boys, Teddy and Sam, and Anna's cherubic daughter Sophie. Meanwhile, Kate becomes star-struck as Anna seems to choose her as her new best friend, going so far as to give Kate an evening gown with a 5-figure price tag that later turns out to have been Anna's wedding dress.

Again, decent story, but the climax and resolution seem pretty half-hearted. Glad today is librart day.

#89: Marriage Confidential

Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses & Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules, by Pamela Haag (New York: Harper, 2011)

"Pamela Haag has written the generational 'big book' on modern marriage, a mesmerizing, sometimes salacious look at the semi-happy ambivalence lurking just below the surface of many marriages today. The spouses may rarely fight -- they may maintain a sincere affection for each other -- but one or both may harbor a melancholy sense that something important is missing.

"Remarkably, this side of the marriage story hasn't been told or analyzed -- until now.

"Meticulously researched and injected with insightful firsthand accounts and welcome doses of humor, Marriage Confidential articulates for a generation that grew up believing they would 'have it all' why they have ended up disenchanted. Haag introduces us to contemporary marriages where spouses act more like life partners than lovers; children occupy an uncontested position at the center of the marital relationship; and even the romantic staples of sexual fidelity and passion are assailed from all sides -- so much so that spouses can end up having affairs online almost by accident.

"Blending tales from the front lines of matrimony with cultural history, surveys, and research covert-ops (such as joining an online affair-finding site and posting a personal ad in the New York Review of Books), Haag paints a detailed picture of the state of marriage today. And to show what's possible as well as what's melancholy in our post-romantic age, Haag seeks out marriages with a twist -- rebels who are quietly brainstorming and evolving the scripts around career, money, social life, child rearing, and sex.

"Provocative but sympathetic, forward-thinking and bold, here, at last, is a manifesto for living large in marriage."

Table of Contents:

- Marriage on the Edge
  • Chapter 1 - The Dilemmas of a Semi-Happy Marriage: Why We Settle for Ambivalence
Part I: The New Normals of Career and Marriage
  • Chapter 2 - 'Life Partners': How Too Much Intimacy Killed Intimacy
  • Chapter 3 - 'I Can Bring Home the Bacon': How Having It All Became Sort of Having Two Things Halfway
  • Chapter 4 - The Tom Sawyer Marriage: The Plight of the New Workhorse Wife
  • Chapter 5 - The Joy of Falling: Downwardly Mobile and Mutually Liberated
Part II: Parenting Marriages
  • Chapter 6 - The Have Children - Will Divorce Paradox: How Parenthood Inspires Marriage and Then Steals It
  • Chapter 7 - Children: The New Spouses: How the Strength of Family Values Became the Weakness of Family
  • Chapter 8 - Man-Cave in the Promised Land: How Spouses Reclaim Their Adulthood by Acting Like Children
  • Chapter 9 - Marital Habitats: Being Married with Children in Public Again
Part III: New Twists on Old Infidelities, or the Way We Stray Today
  • Chapter 10 - Stories of the 'AFFAIRS' Folder: The Underwhelming Crisis of Infidelity
  • Chapter 11 - 'I Call It Married Dating': The Accidental Cheater in the Age of Facebook and Google
  • Chapter 12 - ISO (In Search Of): A Bubble: The Philanderer's Defense
Part IV: The New Monogamy
  • Chapter 13 - 'The Fifty-Mile Rule': Affair Tolerators, Then and Now, or the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Marriage
  • Chapter 14 - 'We're Making It Up as We Go Along': Sexual Libertarianism and the Case Against Marital Monogamy
  • Chapter 15 - 'A Place Where a Sick Marriage Goes to Die?': The Hidden World of 'Ethical Nonmonogamy'
  • Chapter 16 - 'Free Love 2.0': The New Open Marriage
Epilogue - 'Why Can't We Have Our Cake and Eat It, Too?'

My Take:
Interesting, but a bit heavy on the anecdotes and light on actual data in some places. The author's basic premise is that a large number of Americans (I don't think she ever offers exact numbers or fractions) today are in what she calls low-conflict, low-stress marriages:
"[S]ecretly they are troubled by a feeling that there is something in their marriage that doesn't work, possibly cannot be made to work, and that it is not going to get any better. As far as their marriages are concerned, they fear that this is, indeed, it. These spouses are sad more than miserable, disappointed rather than chronically unhappy. As psychiatrists would say, their marriages are 'melancholy': They have a brooding sadness about them that often lacks an obvious, tangible cause.
"These melancholy spouses may not remember the dream they once had for marriage, but the dream remembers them. It tugs at them hauntingly. They know it's not their spouse's fault, per se, or even their own. After several years, a Marriage is more like a third character, with its own personality and life. It's not reducible to the sum of its all-too-human creators, any more than a child would be.

"... You shadowbox with yourself. In quiet moments when you ask yourself, 'Is this all it is?,' you simultaneously beat up on yourself for asking the question at all. You accuse yourself of being selfish to want more than you already have. You feel guilty thinking about lost or deferred dreams, and you wonder whether it is noble or useful to demand more from a marriage than the good things you have. You might even question your desires. Perhaps the longing for more out of marriage is just the vestige of a callow, self-defeating romantic ideal that you don't even entirely trust anymore, but can't entirely purge from your mind."
While I don't disagree, and think Haag offers some intriguing examples of marriages that seem to get around this problem by making some of their own rules, she largely ignores the explanation I believe Stephanie Coontz offered some years ago: now that we marry primarily for love and most women don't really need a husband to support them financially, our expectations of marriage and our spouse -- as best friend, lover, co-parent, etc. -- have become such a tall order that reality is bound to fall short. Haag argues that more and more people marry spouses not just with similar levels of education, but from the same or similar schools, and that this coupled with the Internet-era ability to pre-screen potential dates' hobbies, backgrounds, etc. to a degree unthinkable a generation ago means we're marrying people who are essentially just like us, rather than who complement us. At the same time, we're developing collegial, affectionate relationships at work that are increasingly indistinguishable from those we have with our spouses. I'm not sure I buy this latter point, nor do I get quite what the two trends have in common.

My biggest critique, though, is with Haag's "workhorse wife" chapter, where I think she makes far too big a leap. The hard facts are comparable to others I've encountered before: the percentage of men out of the labor force has increase from 5% in the 1960s to 13% today, and the percentage of married women who out-earn their husbands has increase from 24% in 1987 to 33% today. OK, fair enough. However, I'm not sure it automatically follows from this that the anecdote Haag offers -- a woman who's worked for years in lucrative but exhausting and soul-sucking jobs while her husband pursues a series of exciting but low-paying "big dream" careers, but still shoulders the bulk of the housework and child care -- is really a trend. I don't dispute the second shift (women do most of the housework and child care even when both partners work full time), but again, this isn't new news; Arlie Hochschild identified the issue more than 20 years ago. And I don't doubt that there are some couples in situations similar to Beth and Rich's (wife makes the big bucks, husband follows his dream) -- but I can think of plenty where the roles are reversed, and mom/ wife works an interesting/ flexible but poorly paid job while dad/ husband does the bulk of the earning. Also, thinking back to my grad school days, I believe the increased percentage of men not in the labor force is a function of a) increased availability of disability benefits and b) people living longer in retirement, and makes itself felt (especially at the lower end of the economic spectrum, which isn't very well-represented among Haag's anecdotes) less in wives supporting their selfish, underemployed husbands than in more men with lower levels of education and grimmer occupational prospects just not getting married at all.

Likewise, the section about how children impact a marriage has some interesting points (I'm all for anyone who points out that the over-the-top extremes to which some families take attachment parenting isn't good for either children or parents), but it's not exactly news that having children is stressful, and (particularly when the kids are young and demand a seemingly endless supply of parental time and energy) can weaken or even destroy a marriage.

Probably the most ground-breaking section of Marriage Confidential is its last, where Haag dares to question the assumption that marriage must equal monogamy, and anyone who thinks or practices otherwise is immoral/ a perv. Once again, she's not the first to voice the idea; sex columnist Dan Savage has been a proponent of what he calls "monogamish" relationships for years, i.e., provided you're honest with your partner and agree on parameters for what is and isn't OK (Are certain sex acts off-limits? Any not in our house/ not in our circle of friends rules? How much do you tell each other before and afterwards?), then hey -- some extra-marital recreation can be A Good Thing. However, as with the attachment parenting issue, questioning the monogamy assumption is still pretty bold, and in my book, any intimate arrangement that reduces the frequency of sordid revelations on the Spitzer/ John Edwards/ Ah-nuld continuum is a) fine by me, and b) unless it's my marriage, none of my beeswax anyway.

Overall, Haag has some interesting ideas, but the overall book reads more like a somewhat-disjointed outline or rough draft, rather than advancing a single cohesive thesis. Would make for some interesting discussions if you were to read it with friends, but definitely more of a starting point than a definitive treatment of the issues.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

#88: Dune Road

Dune Road, by Jane Green (New York: Viking, 2009)

"Set in Connecticut's tony Gold Coast town of Highfield, Dune Road tells the story of Kit Hargrove, whose divorce has granted her a new lease on life. No longer a Wall Street widow with the requisite diamond studs and Persian rugs, Kit revels in her clapboard Cape with the sea green shutters and sprawling impatiens. Her kids are content, her ex cooperative, her friends steadfast, and each morning she wakes up unable to believe how lucky she is to have landed the job of her dreams: assisting the blockbuster novelist Robert McClore.

"A mysterious tragedy drove this famous writer into seclusion decades ago, and few besides Kit are granted access to his house at the top of Dune Road, with its breathtaking views of Long Island Sound. But that is all about to change. At a rare appearance at the local bookstore, McClore meets Kit's new friends Tracy, whose weakness for older men rivals her powers of self-reinvention. Are the secret visits of her boss's new muse as innocent as Kit would like to believe? When a figure from her mother's past emerges with equally cryptic intentions just as the bear financial market is upending her best friend's life, Kit discovers that her blissfully constructed idyll -- and the gorgeous man who has walked into it with creamy white roses -- isn't as perfect as she'd thought. Ties to friends and family are further reaching than she had realized -- and more crucial than ever before."

Opening Line:
"One of the unexpected bonuses of divorce, Kit Hargrove realizes, as she settles onto the porch swing, curling her feet up under her and placing a glass of chilled wine on the wicker table, is having weekends without the children, weekends when she gets to enjoy this extraordinary peace and quiet, remembers who she was before she became defined by motherhood, by the constant noise and motion that come with having a thirteen-year-old and an eight-year-old."

My Take:
First off, it's been fun, but I really need to take a break from the chick lit, summer beach read genre for a while. The last few story lines are all starting to blend together.

Another solid read that may not be great literature but was engaging enough for the day or so it took to read it. Dune Road is another Great Recession-themed novel in the tradition of Hedge Fund Wives, though the richest character here (Kit's best friend Charlie) still wouldn't qualify to socialize or even shop with the obscenely wealthy HFWs in that book. While Kit herself isn't really affected by the recession (rock star writers actually do better when times are tough, the book suggests, as books and movies are one of the few luxuries people can still afford), Charlie is in a big way; husband Kevin loses his big Wall Street job with nearly everyone else in the company, and the family's long-standing habit of living way beyond their means catches up with them with a vengeance (i.e., losing the house and moving in with the in-laws).

That's not, however, the main plot of the book, which centers first and foremost around Kit. While she gets on unusually well with ex-husband Adam, who still lives in town, the divorce still feels like the right decision; Adam's a Wall St. whiz himself and was rarely around anyway, and if it weren't for the divorce and move, she'd never have met Edie, the 80-something neighbor who's become the mom she always wanted and even ended up getting Kit her job. To top it off, things are looking up on the romantic front, since new gal pal/ yoga instructor Tracy managed to set her up with the hunky, new-in-town Steve. Edie's suspicious, but Kit is utterly charmed by the roses and perfume.

Unfortunately, their first big dinner date is postponed when Steve arrives at Kit's and finds a mysterious letter on her doorstep ... which turns out to be an introduction from Annabel, the English half-sister she never knew she had, who's conveniently visiting in Highfield in hopes of finally meeting her. Annabel, too, manages to charm not only Kit but her whole family -- particularly ex-husband Adam. The only skepticism comes from Kit's mother, Ginny -- who's never been much the maternal sort anyway, and hasn't even seen Annabel since her birth (all her info comes from Annabel's father, John).

The big questions: Why is Tracy being so secretive lately, both about her budding relationship with Robert and her big business expansion/ investment plan? Is Steve really as good as he seems, or is Edie on to something? What's going to happen to Charlie and her family if they lose everything? And, of course, will Kit and Adam get back together in the end? Some of the answers are predictable, and others less so. If you're at all intrigued, this one's worth a read.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

#87: Secrets to Happiness

Secrets to Happiness, by Sarah Dunn (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009)

"Holly Frick has just endured the worst kind of breakup: the kind where you're still in love with the person leaving you. While Holly's wounds are still dangerously close to the surface, her happily married best friend confesses over a bottle of wine that she is this close to having an affair. And another woman asks Holly for advice about her love life -- with one of Holly's exes!

"Holly decides that if everyone around her can take pleasure wherever they find it, so will she. As any self-respecting thirtyish New York woman would do, she brings two males into her life: a flawed but endearing dog and a good-natured, much younger lover. She's soon entangled in a web of emails, chance meetings, and misguided good intentions and must forge an entirely new path to Nirvana."

Opening Lines:
"Do you want to know the secret to a happy marriage?"
"Tell me."
"Put your wife on Paxil."

My Take:
Reasonably entertaining and well-written, but as the story line doesn't really go anywhere, it reads more like someone's journal or a sitcom script than like a proper plot-driven novel. The jacket summary above pretty much summarizes everything that happens, except that Holly's BFF Amanda does eventually do the deed and have an affair with Jack, regrets it and sets him up with Holly to put an extra roadblock between her and temptation ... only to have her realize she loves Jack more than husband Mark after all, and oh well, sorry we dragged Holly into the middle of our embarrassing little affair. Did I mention that Chester, the dog Holly adopts after the original owners couldn't deal with his brain tumor and grim prognosis, makes a full recovery ... only to have their young son recognize the dog in the park, and Holly eventually decide to do the right thing and give him back? Well, that's pretty much all there is here. Fun for an afternoon or so, but not outstanding or particularly memorable.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

#86: The Gap Year

The Gap Year, by Sarah Bird (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)

"From the widely-praised author of The Yokota Officers Club and The Flamenco Academy, a novel as hilarious as it is heartbreaking about a single mom and her seventeen-year-old daughter learning how to let go in that precious moment before college empties the nest.

"In The Gap Year, told with perfect pitch from both points of view, we meet Cam Lightsey, lactation consultant extraordinaire, a divorcee still secretly carrying a torch for the ex who dumped her, a suburban misfit who's given up her rebel dreams so her only child can get a good education.

"We also learn the secrets of Aubrey Lightsey, tired of being the dutiful, grade-grubbing band geek, ready to explode from wanting her 'real' life to begin, trying to figure out love with boys weaned on Internet porn.

"When Aubrey meets Tyler Moldenhauer, football idol-sex god with a dangerous past, the fuse is lit. Late bloomer Aubrey metastasizes into Cam's worst silent, sullen teen nightmare, a girl with zero interest in college. Worse, on the sly Aubrey's in touch with her father, who left when she was two to join a celebrity-ridden nutball cult.

"As the novel unfolds -- with humor, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and penetrating insights about love in the twenty-first century -- the dreams of daughter, mother, and father chart an inevitable, but perhaps not fatal, collision ... "

Opening Line:
"I once believed that I was physiologically incapable of being unhappy while submerged in water."

My Take:
This one was pretty darned good. As the jacket indicates, the story alternates between Cam's and Aubrey's perspectives, but also between different times; Cam's story begins in August 2010, on the eve of Aubrey's scheduled departure for far-away Peninsula College, while Aubrey's starts a year earlier, on the cusp of her senior year when heat exhaustion at band practice leads her to puke on local football star Tyler Moldenhauer.

Both characters are very well-rendered, with a realistic dose of faults. On one hand, Aubrey's so dazzled by the initial scraps of attention Tyler offers that she thinks little about what she herself wants, both in terms of friendships/ Relationships and life in general. On the other, she's seventeen, so this is probably understandable thanks to youth and hormones. It's the little touches here that make the story: Aubrey's being surprised by Tyler's "country teeth" (anyone else in Parkhaven would've had that remedied by orthodontia years ago) and touched by his calling an interviewer for the in-school TV show "son" even though they're presumably only 2 or 3 years apart.

Cam, on the other hand, is both sympathetic and infuriating, in that half-nervous, too-close-for-comfort way. She's always prided herself on the close, open relationship she has with Aubrey -- at least, till a year ago -- but now finds herself agonizing regretfully over all the things they haven't done, from reading The Secret Garden together to staying in the hipper but educationally dodgier Sycamore Heights instead of moving to well-off, uber-conformist Parkhaven where neither of them really fits in. I'm with her here, but on the other hand, her contempt for Tyler is way excessive and off-putting. She can't seem to mention or even think of him without affixing "redneck" or "hillbilly" before his name, and appears to have spent the whole summer disparaging a job that seems pretty darned enterprising for a barely-literate high school grad; Tyler and Aubrey have been raking in the bucks operating a mobile food service van, which Cam can't stop calling a "roach coach."

Put the two together, add in Aubrey's unexpected Facebook friendship and regular online chats with her father, Martin ... and it's clear that something, somewhere is eventually gonna blow. When her part of the story opens, Cam's spent the whole summer laying in enough towels, sheets, and other dorm supplies for a whole floor of freshmen, but Aubrey won't even say two words about her college plans. Cam nags incessantly about how the two of them need to go to the bank together to withdraw her first year's tuition from her trust, but Aubrey constantly insists she's too busy with customers. Did I mention that Cam still carries a torch for Martin, even though he left her for the Next! cult and cut off all contact 16 years ago? Or that her own best friend, bad-a$$, rebel-without-a-cause Dori, serves as both comfort and warning (since Twyla, her own daughter and Aubrey's former best friend, ran off to live with her dad a year ago and hasn't been in touch since)?

A balanced, highly readable novel.

#85: 7 Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You

7 Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You and How to Talk About Them Anyway, by Jennifer Marshall Lippincott and Robin M. Deutsch, Ph.D. (New York: Ballantine, 2005)

"Every teenager keeps secrets. If you're like most parents, you worry about what your kids don't tell you. In this guide to keeping pace -- and peace -- with teens, authors Jennifer Lippincott and Robin Deutsch offer a deceptively simple plan for talking to your kids that's based on a simple set of rules: Teens need to stay safe, show respect, and keep in touch."

Table of Contents:

Part I: Our Jobs Redefined

  • Job Description
The Rules of Play
  • Our Own Adolescence -- A Look Back
  • Today's Adolescents -- What's Changed?
  • The Case for the Rules of Play
  • Selling the Rules of Play to Our Adolescents
  • Rule #1: Stay Safe
  • Rule #2: Show Respect
  • Rule #3: Keep in Touch
Part II: The Seven Things

1. Their Brains Are To Blame
  • The New News About the Adolescent Brain
  • The Adolescent Brain's Control Mechanisms
  • What We Need to Know About the Limbic System
  • What We Need to Know About the Prefrontal Cortex
  • The Great Brain Drain
  • Substance Abuse and the Adolescent Brain
  • Sleep and the Adolescent Brain
  • How to Deal
2. Truth Is As Malleable As Their Friday Night Plans
  • The Anatomy of an Adolescent Lie
  • Categories of Lies
  • Getting at the Truth
  • How to Deal
3. Controlling Them Is Not the Point
  • The Control Conundrum
  • A New Regime
  • Taking Their Tempraments
  • Playing with Our Adolescents
  • Games It's Okay to Play
  • How to Deal
  • Command of Control
4. The Adolescent Mirror Distorts
  • What We See Is Not What We Get
  • What They See Is Not What We See
  • The Only Adolescent Perspective -- Their Own
  • Time Is on Their Side
  • The Art of the Adolescent Conversation
  • How to Deal
5. Friends Don't Matter As Much As We May Think
  • Friends Versus Companions
  • Their Reality Shows
  • Is a Friend of Our Adolescent's a Friend of Our?
  • The Seven Myths of Peer Influence
  • Friendship Formations
  • How to Deal
6. When We Say No, They Hear Maybe
  • Reality Bytes
  • Values Clarification
  • The Great Adolescent (Parenting) Inhibitors
  • Our Moral Addresses
  • Gender Balancing
  • How to Deal
7. Taking Risks Gives Them Power
  • The Nature of Risk
  • The Power of Risk
  • Balancing the Power Scales
  • Risks Past and Present
  • Degrees of Risk
  • How to Deal
My Take:
The very short jacket blurb above (it's a paperback and most of the back cover is excerpts from reviews) seems appropriate, as there didn't really seem to be all that much to this book. Yes, the point the authors make about the adolescent brain not being fully developed bears repeating (and may well have still fallen into the category of hot this-just-in news when the book as published in 2005). And truth be told, I'll admit to reading about the first half pretty closely and then, well, doing a lot of skimming from there on.

But that aside, unless I missed something major, there just isn't enough substance there for a full book. Most of the communication tips seem pretty self-evident, and certainly have been published elsewhere before this, i.e., you get more info from your teen if you ask non-judgmental, impersonal questions (i.e., "Do many kids drink at parties?" "Hey, I read this article about ... ") than if you start right out accusing and blaming. And the authors' much-touted Rules of Play (stay safe, show respect, keep in touch) are good ideas in theory, but so vague ad to cover pretty much everything and nothing at once. They're also a bit light on the consequences part of parenting.

All in all -- meh. Not awful but not particularly impressive or memorable, either.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

#91: Employees First, Customers Second

Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down, by Vineet Nayar (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2010)

"When Vineet Nayar took the helm of HCL Technologies (HCLT) in 2005, the company's legacy of success was threatened by global shifts in the IT services market that left HCLT struggling to keep up with its bigger rivals. Five years later, the company had become one of the fastest growing IT services partners on the planet, world renowned for its radical management practices.

"What did HCLT do to effect such a transformation? As Nayar describes it in this refreshing first-person narrative, the secret to the company's success was to put employees first -- especially those working in the 'value zone,' described as the interface between the customer and HCLT. To do so, the company did not institute any employee-satisfaction programs, undertake any massive restructurings, or pursue any major technology initiatives. Instead, it employed a number of relatively simple catalysts that produced big (and often unexpected) results. The transformation advanced through four phases:
  • Mirror Mirror: Nayar traveled around the world, bluntly speaking the truth about the company's situation and turning employees' eyes away from the past and toward a better future.
  • Trust Through Transparency: A culture of trust was created by opening the books, sharing information that would make other companies cringe, and enabling employees and managers (including the CEO) to ask questions of each other.
  • Inverting the Pyramid: The company redefined processes to make the supporting functions and the management accountable to the employees -- who, as a result, both improved their effectiveness and built new passion for their work.
  • Recasting the Role of the CEO: Nayar sought to transform the company into a self-governing organization by transferring the responsibility for change from the office of the CEO to the employees in the value zone.
Nayar candidly admits that he did not have a grand plan when he started out, and that these phases became clear to him only after the transformation, but argues that any of these ideas and practices -- 'the world's most modern management,' according to Fortune -- may be successfully adopted by any company in any industry anywhere in the world, with similar results."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction
  • 1. Mirror Mirror: Creating the Need for Change
  • 2. Trust Through Transparency: Creating a Culture of Change
  • 3. Inverting the Organizational Pyramid: Building a Structure for Change
  • 4. Recasting the Role of the CEO: Transferring the Responsibility for Change
  • 5. Find Understanding in Misunderstanding: Renewing the Cycle of Change
My Take:
Wow. While this isn't my favorite genre, I've certainly read enough in the leadership and management section to have a sense of what to expect, and honestly, my expectations aren't usually all that high. A valuable reminder or two, perhaps even some point I hadn't thought of before, but usually nothing earth-shattering.

Employees First, Customers Second was different, probably in large part because its author isn't some ill-defined management guru but an actual CEO who (if the book can be believed) transformed his company by implementing four simple but revolutionary steps, all of which flow from the premise that a business's true value in the 21st century derives not from the R&D or manufacturing divisions, but from the front-line employees who interact most directly with the customers:
"The conventional wisdom, of course, says that companies must always put the customer first. In any service business, however, the true value is created in the interface between the customer and the employee. So, by putting employees first, you can bring about fundamental change in the way a company creates and delivers unique value for its customers and differentiates itself from its competitors. Through a combination of engaged employees and accountable management, a company can create extraordinary value for itself, its customer, and the individuals involved in both companies."
The Mirror, Mirror section is pretty straightforward and, while it may not be common among new CEOs, it's certainly not unheard of. Remember the old MBWA (Management By Walking Around) fad from 20-some-odd years ago? Well, essentially, this is what Nayar did on becoming CEO: traveled around the world, met with employees at most or all of HCLT's many locations, and told them the truth as he saw it about where the company currently stood. In his case, this meant admitting that the firm that had previously been an industry leader in India had fallen in the early 2000s to the middle of the pack, and continued to lose market share by resting on its laurels. This chapter concludes with an insightful and humorous observation on what it really means to be a great leader:
"I thought about my three heroes -- Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. -- and how they had created transformation in their societies. ... These great leaders did not formulate strategy by retreating with their top people to a private place and then emerging to make a pronouncement to the masses. No, they walked the roads of their countries, met their people, and talked with them ceaselessly. During that process, they held up the mirror to their societies and helped their people see and articulate what was wrong. The leaders were able to make people intrinsically unhappy with the current state of affairs without demeaning their accomplishments or dishonoring their past in anyway. ... They also worked with their people to create an idea of the future, the point B that made people aspire to change. The resulting combination of dissatisfaction, continued pride, and excitement was a very, very heady potion and difficult to reject."
It's in the next section where things start to really get radical, though. Believing that in order to successfully implement major changes and innovations, all ideas, no matter where they come from within the company, need to be aired and debated, he opened up HCLT's financial information to everyone in the organization. (Exactly what was and wasn't made public wasn't specified, but I'm enough of a privacy-mad American to assume individual salaries weren't published. Hey, who knows?) He also initiated an online Q & A forum different from many others in that questions weren't censored; all questions were visible to everyone, along with all the responses. Interestingly, while the deluge of questions and comments initially made Nayar feel like the company must be in serious trouble, his direct reports indicated that they were seeing a very different picture; now that the company seemed to be acknowledging and addressing its problems, employees were spending much less time gossiping and more time talking about what was being posted, offering one another different ways of looking at situations, working on potential solutions, etc.

From here, he went on to do what the book calls inverting the pyramid: making such "enabling functions" as HR and finance, and even the CEO's office, accountable to the front-line employees. Specifically, they instituted an internal service ticket function that works like this:
"An employee can open a ticket for one of three categories of issues -- a problem, a query, or a work request -- and the ticket can be directed to any one of the enabling functions, including HR, finance, administration, training and development, IT/IS teams, transport, and others. Employees can also open a ticket on most members of senior management, including me.

"Once the employee has filled out the ticket, the system automatically assigns it to a support executive in the appropriate department. He or she will investigate the issue and take any action necessary to resolve it. The support executive commits to a set of accountability measures for each ticket, including how long it should take to complete. The metrics are based on a number of factors, including the complexity and urgency of the request. If the support executive does not resolve the issue within the specified time, the ticket is automatically sent to the executive's manager, and so on up the line.

"The entire SSD process is transparent so that an employee can check the status of his or her ticket at any time. Once the issue is resolved, the support executive closes the ticket. If, however, the employee is not satisfied with the resolution, he or she can refuse the closed status of the ticket. It will remain open and the clock will keep ticking. The employee can also rate the quality of service provided by the support executive."
In addition, the company extended the 360-degree feedback process many companies use to allow not just a manager's direct reports, but anyone whose job might be influenced by a manager's actions, to offer feedback on that manager.

The final action step -- recasting the role of the CEO -- was a bit unclear to me, but essentially, Nayar envisioned HCLT as a leaderless organization, as described in Brafman and Beckstrom's The Starfish and the Spider:
"Cut off the leg of a spider, and you have a seven-legged creature on your hands; cut off its head and you have a dead spider. But cut off the arm of a starfish and it will grow a new one. Not only that, but the severed arm can grow an entirely new body."
Perhaps the best summary of the leadership model for which Nayar strives is this one, from the end of Chapter 5:
"The CEO can no longer be the one who scribbles strategy on a paper napkin over dinner. He or she cannot be the one who stands in front of a crowd to motivate it with fabulous oratory. The CEO will not be the one who thinks of the best and the brightest ideas. The role of the CEO is to enable people to excel, help them discover their own wisdom, engage themselves entirely in their work, and accept responsibility for making change."
The book's final chapter addresses some of the more common objections one might have to the EFCS philosophy; namely, that it won't work when times are hard and isn't necessary when times are good; that customers won't see any value as a result; that large-scale changes are needed; or that EFCS has no impact on the company's bottom line. (Needless to say, he suggests that all 5 comments are untrue.)

If it's not already obvious, I really enjoyed this book; it was a quick, easy read with a lot to chew on for a manager or aspiring manager of pretty much any organization.

#84: Hedge Fund Wives

Hedge Fund Wives, by Tatiana Boncompagni (New York: Avon, 2009)

"When her husband, John, is recruited to be a big-time hedge fund manager, Marcy Emerson gives up her job, uproots her life, and moves from Chicago to New York City. But try as she might, March is never going to fit into one of the supposed seven categories of Hedge Fund Wives -- the Accidental, the Westminster, the Stephanie Seymour, the Former Secretary, the Socialite, the Workaholic, or the Breeder -- especially when behind every smile may lurk a stab in the back.

"In a perfect world John would have been there to help her navigate the waters, but in this volatile financial market, relationships have a way of nosediving faster than the Dow, and March quickly finds herself tossed aside for a thinner, blonder model. But while living out of suitcases and drowning her sorrows in cocktails, Marcy realizes it's time to get back up on her own two feet again ... and fight for those things in life that are far more important than money."

Opening Line:
"When I first opened the invitation to Caroline Reinhardt's baby shower, I thought I'd received it by mistake."

My Take:
Polished this off in half a day, and I feel as though I just had a big bowl of popcorn for supper. It's fun and tasty in the short term, partly because you feel like you're getting away with something, but doesn't do much to nourish or sustain you over the long haul.

The back-of-the-jacket blurb pretty much sums up the story line. Marcy, our heroine and narrator, is established as a fish out of water from the get-go, starting with the first-chapter sequence in which her pink parka stands out like a sore thumb amid a coat closet full of furs, and Caroline Reinhardt decides she's not worth talking to because she doesn't hire an interior decorator. At John's insistence, she'd given up her own banking career in anticipation of one day staying at home with their children, but after a recent miscarriage and the move to Manhattan, she's still reeling. It doesn't help that the other hedge fund wives, whether employed in their own right or not, seem interested primarily in extreme competitive shopping.

She does meet the glamorous but warm, if a little high-strung, Jill at the aforementioned baby shower, and through her, eventually meets Gigi, a caterer and cookbook author who (despite her marriage to yet another Wall St. VIP) becomes her closest friend and confidante. She and John also begin to socialize with Ainsley and Peter, despite that couple's precarious finances. As is telegraphed early on, this is where the trouble begins; Ainsley, panicked at Peter's fortune and aware of John's rising-star status, decides to trade up, and when Marcy spontaneously flies to Miami to visit John at a conference, she catches the pair in flagrante. With the help of a tough divorce lawyer Gina recommends, Marcy resists John's early settlement offers and ultimately walks away with a cool $15 million ... just in time to see Ainsley's pregnancy in the society pages, and realize how long her affair with John had been going on.

Marcy eventually comes out on top, and John does get a comeuppance of sorts, but this is no First Wives Club. It's far shorter on humor, and rather excessive in the descriptions of conspicuous consumption. (The excess is the point, I know, but it still makes for tedious reading after yet another over-the-top baby shower or dinner party.) All in all, an OK read, but I'd have liked a bit less of the bling, and more exploration of the edge-of-recession era in which the story is set.

Monday, October 17, 2011

#83: Original Sins

Original Sins, by Peg Kingman (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010)

"Why would a runaway Virginia slave -- having built a rewarding life in the East Indies as a silk merchant -- risk her own freedom and that of her two sons by returning to America in 1840, eighteen years after taking her freedom? Annie -- now Anibaddh Lyngdoh -- claims that she intends to introduce a new kind of silk to the floundering American silk industry. But her true reason, as discovered by her old friend Grace MacDonald Pollocke, is far more personal -- to find the child she abandoned when she ran away.

"Grace, orphaned in early childhood, has grown up in India and China with her stepmother. She is now married, has a young son of her own, and is a portrait painter living in Philadelphia. Anibaddh cannot safely travel south, and so Grace goes in her place. The investigation leads her to the Virginia plantation where Annie was raised in slavery and where Grace's own cousins live. There old sins are discovered, and new ones committed. What crimes may be justified, Grace wonders, in the service of a higher justice? Deceit, forgery, fraud, perjury ... even murder?

"This novel thrillingly evokes a nineteenth-century America not so different from the present_ a time of stunning new technologies and financial collapse, and when religious and racial views collide with avowed principles of morality and law."

Opening Line:
"Grace had imagined Daniel's homecoming hundreds of times; repeatedly she had painted the scene in her mind's eye."

My Take:
A bit of a slow starter, but surprisingly engaging once it got going.

As the opening line above suggests, the story opens with Grace eagerly awaiting her husband's arrival from Canton, where they met and married. A few chapters in, he arrives, with a surprise guest: Anibaddh Lyngdoh, who hasn't set foot on American soil since escaping from slavery and preventing eight-year-old Grace from being kidnapped by her mother's relatives in Scotland 18 years earlier. While Anibaddh claims to be here only briefly, to introduce her silks to the American market before delivering her sons to school in Europe, the astute Grace quickly notices that she seems to be making plans for a much longer stay ... and deduces, based on Anibaddh's hints and her own devotion to her baby son Jamie, that she's really come back to find and free Diana, the daughter she left behind in Virginia almost two decades ago.

The plot thickens considerably when Anibaddh recognizes one of Grace's "sitters" (portrait-painting customers), Mrs. Ambler, and the sister who accompanies her, Mrs. MacFarlane, as none other than the Grants, her own former owners and Grace's cousins. This revelation leads Grace to accept the sisters' invitation to come home to Virginia with them; under the guise of painting portraits of the whole family and attending a much-anticipated religious camp meeting, Grace will try to find Diana and send word back to Anibaddh. She keeps her maiden name a secret, and for the most part, finds the sisters and their mutual aunt, Bella Johnstone, to be insufferable pieces of work -- though she does find an unexpected ally in the youngest, unmarried Grant sister, aspiring chemist Julia, and is surprised to find herself coming to love their father (and her uncle), Judge Grant, an old man suffering from severe kidney stones. More surprising still, she discovers at the camp meeting that the elder Mr. MacFarlane, father of Mrs. MacFarlane's abusive husband, is also a kindred spirit ... at least when it comes to religious views, or lack thereof.

Then all hell breaks loose. On the same night, Diana runs away, and Judge Grant dies. The family is in an uproar when it's revealed that the Judge had been trustee for his late sister's estate, of which that ungrateful Scottish niece who refused to come to Virgina all those years ago is the sole beneficiary. Some debate ensures as to whether it's worth trying to find her or not, though the question is of little practical consequences; over the last few years, it seems the trust just happened to be invested in the horses that died and the slaves who'd run away or become too old to work, so what should have been worth $2,000 is only about $25. Enraged by the direction the conversation has taken, Grace fesses up and admits that she herself is the former Grace MacDonald, and the beneficiary of the trust. Not surprisingly, this does not go over well, and she ends up walking the 20-odd miles to Alexandria to catch a train home. The story doesn't end here, however, and the legal maneuvers that ensue have enormous repercussions not just for Grace, but for Anibaddh and her family.

At first, I had some reservations about telling a story about slavery from the point of view of a white, Scottish woman. I eventually got over them; by the end of the book, it seems that Kingman may have done this to make Grace (and through her, the average white reader) question our own complicity in maintaining slavery for so long, even if we might believe we're innocent. I also give the author props for setting the story not during the Civil War, which seems more typical for this subject, but 20 years earlier, when there wasn't really any question of ending slavery throughout the whole country.

Probably my biggest complaint about the book is twofold: too many unnecessary details, and too many red herrings. Kingman spends way too much time on Anibaddh's silkworms, describing their appearance and how they're raised for pages on end sometimes. Brief background and texture I understand, but it's taken to an extent that makes you think it will end up significant to the plot (which it never really does). Likewise, there are a handful of clues dropped early on that never amount to anything. Have the disgruntled slaves actually been poisoning their employers with castor oil beans? Is the senior MacFarlane really playing bagpipes in his moonlit field just for the heck of it, or is he secretly signaling to someone on the Underground Railroad? The story would still work perfectly well without either plot line, but to have them introduced and then inexplicably abandoned is perplexing.

Still a book I'd recommend, if you enjoy historical fiction set in the 19th century US.

#82: Dead or Alive

Dead or Alive, by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2010)

"After almost a decade, Tom Clancy -- the acknowledged master of international intrigue and nonstop military action -- returns to the world he knows better than anyone: a world of chaos, caught in the crossfire of politics and power, placed on the edge of annihilation by evil men.

"But there are other men who are honor-bound to stop the bloodshed and protect their homeland-- by any means necessary ...

"It is called the Campus. It was secretly created under the administration of President Jack Ryan, its sole purpose to hunt down, locate, and eliminate terrorists and those who protect them, at will, without sanction or oversight. A self-sufficient entity, it has no official connection to the American government -- a necessity in a time when those in power consider themselves above such arcane concepts as loyalty, justice, and right or wrong.

"Covert intelligence expert Jack Ryan Jr. and his compatriots at the campus have waged this silent war in every corner of the world. Now joined by two of his father's closest allies, black ops warriors John Clark and 'Ding' Chavez, as well as Brian and Dominic Caruso and Mary Pat Foley, the campus has come up against its greatest foe: a sadistic killer known as the Emir.

"The mastermind of countless horrific attacks, the Emir has eluded capture by every law enforcement agency in the world -- a fact that the Campus is determined to change. But his greatest devastation is yet to be unleashed, as he plans a monumental single strike that will destroy the heart of America, unless the Campus can take him, dead or alive.

"On the trail of the emir, Jack Ryan Jr. will find himself following in his legendary father's footsteps on a deadly manhunt that will take him and his allies around the globe, into the shadowy arenas of political gamesmanship, and back onto U.S. soil -- in a battle to prevent the fall of the West ...

"Together for the first time, an all-star cast of Tom Clancy's characters races to ensure the nation's survival and to complete their mission, the desperate search for a madman who may be hiding in plain sight."

Opening Line:
"Light troops -- an Eleven-Bravo light infantryman, according to the United States Army's MOS (military occupational specialty) system -- are supposed to be 'pretty' spit-and-polish troops with spotless uniforms and clean-shaven faces, but First Sergeant Sam Driscoll wasn't one of those anymore, and hadn't been for some time."

My Take:
See, not all my light, entertaining reading is gender-specific!

Sigh. Yeah, it's a Clancy novel ... much like the Danielle Steel fluff I read a few weeks back, you pretty much know what you're getting into when you pick it up (though the specifics are quite a bit different). I could never get that into Jack Ryan's character, and his son doesn't interest me all that much, either, but I have had a big old book-character crush on John Clark ever since I read Without Remorse and Clear and Present Danger way back in the day, and couldn't resist the chance to read about how he and colleague/ son-in-law Domingo Chavez captured Osama bin Laden. (OK, Clancy calls his uber-bad guy Saif Rahman Yasin, dba the Emir, but he's obviously based on bin Laden -- right down to the responsibility for 9/11 and the ties to the Saudi royal family.)

As I'd expected, the complaints I've had about previous Clancy novels still hold for this one. I can never tell if Clancy himself doesn't like women or he's just giving his predominantly male readers what they want, but his stories take place in an almost exclusively masculine universe. With the exception of the no-nonsense, CIA veteran Mary Pat Foley, who plays a bit part here that would land her name just above the stunt doubles if this were made into a movie, only three female characters grace Dead or Alive's 950 pages -- two call girls, and one teenaged Indonesian terrorist. (Clark and Chavez's wives and the way-in-over-her-head National Security Advisor, none of whom actually say anything, don't count.) I'm not looking for a 50/50 split, but come on, now.

Clancy's more recent books also seem to suffer from what I think of as the J.K. Rowling problem: a tendency of famous, successful authors to decide that they don't need no stinkin' editors and will bloat their texts as much as they darned well please, TYVM. Usually, half the fun of a Clancy novel is seeing how the umpteen seemingly disconnected threads are going to come together at the end, but here the author's given us way too much of a good thing. There's the poorly-secured, former Soviet nuclear stockpile; good soldier Driscoll's being railroaded for murder by some Washington desk jockey who has the President's ear; the Indonesia as terrorist petri dish angle; the plot to blow up a Midwestern church ... ugh, I get tired and confused just trying to remember what all the ancillary story lines are. I don't mind so much if and when I can guess at an author's politics from reading his novels, but having it simultaneously flash a neon sign in my face, club me over the head, and stuff itself down my throat is a bit much.

Meh. As with several other authors, I may well read other Clancy books I haven't yet bothered with, if they present themselves ... but I think the author's Clear and Present Danger days are behind him.

#81: Chosen

Chosen, by Chandra Hoffman (New York: Harper, 2010)

"It all begins with a fantasy: the caseworker in her 'signing paperwork' charcoal suit standing alongside beaming parents cradling their adopted newborn, set against a fluorescent-lit delivery-room backdrop. It's this blissful picture that keeps Chloe Pinter, director of the Chosen Child's domestic-adoption program, happy while juggling the high demands of her boss and the incessant needs of both adoptive and biological parents.

"But the very job that offers her refuge from her turbulent personal life and Portland's winter rains soon becomes a battleground involving three very different couples: the Novas, well-off college sweethearts who suffered fertility problems but are now expecting their own baby; the McAdoos, a wealthy husband and desperate wife for whom adoption is a last chance; and Jason and Penny, an impoverished couple who have nothing -- except the baby everyone wants. When a child goes missing, dreams dissolve into nightmares, and everyone is forced to examine what he or she really wants and where it all went wrong."

Opening Line:
"Chloe Pinter is trying to develop a taste for coffee."

My Take:
A not-too-silly fun read; no more, no less. What makes it more compelling than it might otherwise be is its subject matter; I've read plenty of chick lit about pregnancy and new parenthood, but don't remember any other fiction about the domestic adoption scene. The details here are interesting; sometimes funny, sometimes a bit sketchy if they're legit, which I suspect they are -- Hoffman's bio includes a stint as the director of a U.S. adoption program.

For the most part, the picture Chosen paints of birth parents isn't a flattering one. Jason and Penny, whose newborn son Francie and John McAdoo adopt, are not only poor, but ex-cons, and while we might forgive Penny (herself the victim of a heinous rape and assault long before the book opens) her single conviction for check fraud, Jason is a career criminal and sociopath. Most of the other birth parents Chloe and her clients reflect upon aren't quite this bad, but are nonetheless out to milk the system for all it's worth. Not long after Eva Nova gives birth to her own son, she muses about what might have become of Amber, the birth mother whose daughter she and husband Paul had hoped to adopt before Eva became pregnant:
"[A] year earlier, Amber, a pudgy thirteen-year-old birth mother, her own mother only twenty-eight, had chosen the Novas as the adoptive parents for her own baby. Chloe Pinter had arranged their first meeting at a Red Lobster, an obese pair of slow-blinking, loud-chewing women. Paul's tounge-tied comment, 'You could be sisters,' had offended them equally. They had strung the agency along for six months, huge expensive meals, dragging Chloe through the grocery store for hours. Chloe told Eva and Paul that Amber and her mother had each pushed a cart filled with Doritos, jumbo boxes of Froot Loops, doughnuts, crumb cakes."
At the same time, Paul muses silently that they're way better off without Amber's baby:
"It had surprised him how quickly he had gotten on board with the concept of adoption. ... But when adoption was presented in the specific, in the form of the gum-smacking Amber, Paul can admit to himself that he was shaken. He had felt such relief when it was over, no longer worried about their half-wit, sleepy-eyed Baby Huey of a daughter who would be knocked up at age twelve herself, nature's triumph over nurture."
Later, Chloe has an excruciating lunch meeting with Debra, a pregnant exotic dancer who boasts "two kids at home, two adopted out, and a couple I knew early enough about to take care of," admits to not just drinking alcohol but taking crystal meth during her pregnancy, and insists that she be paid enough to take her kids to Disneyland after the baby is born. If it weren't for Heather, the Good Birth Mom who happens to live near Penny and Jason, this would seem a little classist; as it is, it just kinda makes you wonder.

The adoptive parents fare a bit better in Hoffman's hands, but their portrayal isn't exactly glowing, either. The Novas are mostly decent people (sure, Eva struggles with postpartum depression after Wyeth's birth, and Paul comes this close to an affair), but the McAdoos, not so much; Francie seems way more interested in maintaining her online friendships and picking out the perfect nursery furniture than actually spending time with her new son, and John's frequent business trips to Singapore eventually prove to be a cover for other, less family-friendly hobbies.

Oddly, probably the one character who seemed least real or interesting to me was the main character, Chloe. I do appreciate that her relationship with boyfriend Dan is a complicated one, neither perfect nor across-the-board awful. Sure, they met cute/ slutty and moved in together way too soon; yes, Dan's dream of starting his own surfing business in Hawaii seems a little impulsive ... but Hoffman avoids presenting him as a complete ass, too. I'm not 100% thrilled with how their story line wraps up -- let's just say it involves some abrupt changes in personalities and priorities that didn't quite ring true to me -- but this didn't prevent me from mostly enjoying the book.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

#80: The White Devil

The White Devil, by Justin Evans (New York: Harper, 2011)

"The Harrow School is home to privileged adolescents known as much for their distinctive dress and traditions as for their arrogance and schoolboy cruelty. Seventeen-year-old Andrew Taylor is enrolled in the esteemed British institution by his father, who hopes that the school's discipline will put some distance between his son and his troubled past in the States.

"But trouble -- and danger -- seem to follow Andrew. When one of his schoolmates and friends dies mysteriously of a severe pulmonary illness, Andrew is blamed and is soon an outcast, spurned by nearly all his peers. And there is the pale, strange boy who begins to visit him at night. Either Andrew is losing his mind, or the house legend about his dormitory being haunted is true.

"When the school's poet-in-residence, Piers Fawkes, is commissioned to write a play about Byron, one of Harrow's most famous alumni, he casts Andrew in the title role. Andrew begins to discover uncanny links between himself and the renowned poet. In his loneliness and isolation, Andrew becomes obsessed with Lord Byron's story and the poet's status not only as a literary genius and infamous seducer but as a student at the very different Harrow of two centuries prior -- a place rife with violence, squalor, incurable diseases, and tormented love affairs.

"When frightening and tragic events from that long-ago past start to recur in Harrow's present, and when the dark and deadly specter by whom Andrew's been haunted seems to be all too real, Andrew is forced to solve a two-hundred-year-old literary mystery that threatens the lives of his friends and his teachers -- and, most terrifyingly, his own."

Opening Lines:
"Outside a cool evening awaited. The perspiration on his back and neck turned icy."

My Take:

Halfway through and still trying to decide. Got off to a slow start -- Gothic fiction isn't usually my thing -- but I do like stories set in school settings and it is picking up a bit. TBA.

Decent as those things go, but as I said, Gothic fiction isn't really my bag, and I don't know that this book was enough to win me over to the genre. Oh well; nothing wrong with expanding one's literary horizons.

As noted above, the book's opening is fairly unremarkable, with Andrew arriving at Harrow as a brand-new sixth-former (senior) feeling like he's stepped into a wholly alien world. The sole American at a British boarding school, and a rare transfer where most students begin as shells (seventh graders), Andrew does not make friends quickly -- not to mention that the rumors about his expulsion from his last school for drug use have crossed the pond with impressive speed. Only dorm-mate Theo Ryder is at all friendly or welcoming to Andrew, and within a few days, Theo is found dead. Contrary to the jacket blurb above, Andrew isn't blamed for Theo's death at this point, and the remaining residents of the Lot (Andrew's and formerly, Theo's house, or dorm) continue their studies, shaken but not really permanently changed.

Or so they think. What Andrew can't tell anyone at first, for fear of being deemed crazy and sent home, is that he not only found Theo's body ... he saw him die, strangled by a mysterious, white-haired boy who was there one moment and (without running away) simply gone the next. When the autopsy attributes Theo's death to a rare but non-contagious lung disease, he tries to put the vision from his mind. At the same time, Harrow's poet-in-residence and Lot's housemaster, Piers Fawkes, has been commissioned to write a play about Harrow's most famous alum, Lord Byron ... to whom Andrew bears an uncanny resemblance. Andrew is cast in the lead role, and begins to forge tentative, unlikely friendships with both Fawkes and the school's sole female student, headmaster's daughter Persephone Vine.

Unfortunately, the spectral white-haired boy doesn't give up that easily. Late one night, Andrew sees him a second time, when the boy leads him to a prefect's bathroom in the Harrow of yore, where a perplexed Andrew prevents him from being raped by a gang of older, larger students. Later, he recites a bizarre verse which Andrew learns (with the help of Fawkes and the school's archivist, Judith Kahn) comes from an obscure Jacobean tragedy performed at Harrow some 200 years earlier. This coincidence convinces the skeptical Fawkes that Andrew's ghost isn't just in his head, and the two become engrossed in discovering who he is and what he wants.

Until two more students fall ill, with symptoms similar to Theo's ... but which now, on closer examination, seem to indicate TB. This ratchets up the urgency and publicity of their search, especially as one of the students is Persephone.

From here on out, the book does get considerably more gripping and hard to put down. Though I'm not typically a fan of ghost stories, I did enjoy the climax and resolution of this one. If you like boarding school novels with a touch of the supernatural, give this one a try.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

#79: Sunset Park

Sunset Park, by Paul Auster (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010)

(Would actually have been #77, but I left it home on my recent trip to LI and took Bonobo Handshake and The Arrivals instead.)

Park follows the hopes and fears of a cast of unforgettable characters brought together by the mysterious Miles Heller during the dark months of the 2008 economic collapse.
  • An enigmatic young man employed as a trash-out worker in southern Florida obsessively photographing thousands of abandoned objects left behind by the evicted families.
  • A group of young people squatting in a house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
  • The Hospital for Broken Things, which specializes in repairing the artifacts of a vanished world.
  • William Wyler's 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives.
  • A celebrated actress preparing to return to Broadway.
  • An independent publisher desperately trying to save his business and his marriage.

These are just some of the elements Auster magically weaves together in this immensely moving novel about contemporary America and its ghosts. Sunset Park confirms Paul Auster as one of our greatest living writers."

Opening Line:
"For almost a year now, he has been taking photographs of abandoned things."

My Take:

Made an interesting discovery with this one. After noting last week that Sunset Park was "interesting from a literary point of view, but [hadn't] grabbed me from either a plot or character perspective," and getting to that point halfway into the book where it's neither so great you're tearing through the pages nor so bad you give up altogether, I tried something different: I read it out loud. Not all of it, mind you; just a chapter here and there when I was home by myself or while MrHazel and Twig were otherwise engaged (i.e., watching Doctor Who on Netflix).

Amazing the difference this made. As I initially suspected, Sunset Park is literary fiction, rather than something you read primarily for the plot. (Yeah, I know they're not mutually exclusive, but humor me for a minute.) Not much of consequence happens here; essentially, four twenty-somethings squat in an abandoned Brooklyn townhouse for a few months until they finally get evicted. The characters are realistic and multifaceted, but all incredibly self-absorbed and not particularly likeable: Miles, the college dropout who abandoned his father and stepmother seven years ago, and has returned to New York from Florida only to escape possible prosecution for his relationship with his high school girlfriend; Bing, the old school friend who runs the Hospital for Broken Things and secretly keeps Miles' father informed of his son's whereabouts; Alice, the perpetual grad student who finds her part-time job promoting writers' free speech far more compelling than her almost-but-not-quite-done dissertation; and Ellen, the artist whose erotic drawings provide perhaps her sole sexual outlet, given that her obsession with Miles seems doomed to remain unrequited.

But for all that there's not much of a plot here and the characters remind you of that annoying special snowflake co-worker or college dorm-mate we've all known now and again, Sunset Park has a lot to say. Much as I had the odd, life-imitates-art experience a few weeks ago of reading The Confession while the Troy Davis case was in the news, I couldn't help thinking that the Sunset Park squatters' lives of quiet desperation, seeking meaningful work and lives in a society that renders us anonymous and interchangeable, parallel the frustrations that, collectively, gave rise to the Occupy Wall Street protests and the earlier Arab Spring demonstrations. Alice has given up on adjuncting, which requires at least a full-time effort for a salary that works out to be something around minimum wage; Miles has worked here and there as a cook and trash-out worker before Bing gives him a make-work job out of kindness. All four principals are at once determined to make or be something of significance, and utterly in despair of ever succeeding. I don't know that I'd go so far as to say I loved this book, or that it's one of my favorites, but it definitely offered some interesting things to think about and a compelling but disturbing vision of contemporary American youth and culture.