About Me

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

#99: Heads You Lose

Heads You Lose, by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2011)

"From New York Times-bestselling author Lisa Lutz and David Hayward, a hilarious and original tag-team novel that reads like Weeds crossed with Adaptation.

"Meet Paul and Lacey Hansen: orphaned, pot-growing, twentysomething siblings eking out a living in rural Northern California. When a headless corpse appears on their property, they can't exactly dial 911, so they move the body and wait for the police to find it. Instead, the corpse reappears, a few days riper ... and an amateur sleuth is born. Make that two.

"But that's only half the story. When collaborators Lutz and Hayward -- former romantic partners -- start to disagree about how the story should unfold, the body count rises, victims and suspects alike develop surprising characteristics (meet Brandy Chester, the stripper with the Mensa IQ) and sibling rivalry reaches homicidal intensity. Will the authors solve the mystery without killing each other first?"

Opening Line:
"Dave, I just finished the first chapter of a new novel -- a real crime novel with a dead body and all -- and I thought of you."

My Take:
Maybe I've just fallen for the gimmick, but this was an OK (slightly muddled, as you'd expect) novel made much funnier and more interesting because of the meta-story. As noted above, the authors took turns writing alternating chapters -- without having agreed on a plot line or details in the beginning. Neither knew till they saw each chapter what his/ her cowriter would have done, and as you'd expect with exes, they don't always see eye to eye. They did establish a rule that neither could undo plot development established by the other, but they also have a good bit of fun seeing just how far they can push this rule. (Without spoiling too much, I had "He's really most sincerely dead" running through my head more than once.)

Other than that, the less said about the plot, the better ... but if it sounds funny, give it a read.

#98: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010)

"Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I., becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy after a fateful morning on a Chicago rooftop.

"Forced to move to a new and strange city, with her strict African American grandmother as her new guardian, Rachel is thrust for the first time into a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, startling blue eyes, and beauty bring a constant stream of attention her way. It's there, as she grows up and tries to swallow her grief, that she comes to understand how the mystery and tragedy of her mother might be connected to her own uncertain identity. Raised by her mother to think of herself as white, Rachel is now expected to 'act black.' And all the while, she keeps asking herself why she has to be defined by her skin, and whether labels say more about who she is, or more about a world that attempts to brand her as black or white."

Opening Line:
"You my lucky piece," Grandma says.

My Take:
Not quite as clear and gripping all the way through as the first few chapters start out, but nonetheless an outstanding book. It opens in 1982, at which point the not-quite-teenaged Rachel has recently moved to Portland with her grandmother and much younger and warmer Aunt Loretta, and is still stung with fresh grief compounded by her new guardians' refusal to even mention her mother's name. We learn, in fairly short order, that Nella (Rachel's mother) had left not just her abusive husband, but the unique insularity of military base life ... only to find that Chicago @ 1980 couldn't quite wrap its brain around a white mother with three seemingly black children. Eventually, her inability to raise and guide them properly under the circumstances led her to jump (or perhaps be pushed) off a rooftop; only Rachel survived.

While the story centers primarily on Rachel, we do get to know other characters to some degree, including Brick, the young man who was fascinated with birds as a child until he saw Rachel's brother Robbie fall to his death, and Drew, Aunt Loretta's mover-and-shaker boyfriend whose influence in Rachel's life far outlasts his relationship with her aunt.

This may be one I'll want to buy and reread; I think there are probably layers of meaning I didn't quite get the first time around. Even so, I still enjoyed it.

#97: Authentic Happiness

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, by Martin E. P. Seligman (New York: Free Press, 2002)

"Over a decade ago, Martin Seligman charted a new approach to living with 'flexible optimism.' Now, in his most stimulating and persuasive book to date, the bestselling author of Learned Optimism introduces the revolutionary, scientifically-based idea of 'Positive Psychology.' Positive Psychology focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses, asserting that happiness is not the result of good genes or luck. Seligman teaches readers that happiness can be cultivated by identifying and using many of the strengths and traits that they already possess -- including kindness, originality, humor, optimism, and generosity. By frequently calling upon their 'signature strengths' in all the crucial realms of life, readers will not only develop natural buffers against misfortune and the experience of negative emotion, they will move their lives up to a new, more positive plane.

"Drawing on groundbreaking psychological research, Seligman shows how Positive Psychology is shifting the profession's paradigm away from its narrow-minded focus on pathology, victimology, and mental illness to positive emotion, virtue, and strength, and positive institutions. Our signature strengths can be nurtured throughout our lives, with benefits to our health, relationships, and careers.

"Seligman provides the Signature Strengths Survey along with a variety of brief tests that can be used to measure how much positive emotion readers experience, in order to help determine what their highest strengths are. The life-changing lesson of Authentic Happiness is that by identifying the very best in ourselves, we can improve the world around us and achieve new and sustainable levels of authentic contentment, gratification, and meaning."

Table of Contents:

I: Positive Emotion
  • 1. Positive Feeling and Positive Character
  • 2. How Psychology Lost Its Way and I Found Mine
  • 3. Why Bother to Be Happy?
  • 4. Can You Make Yourself Lastingly Happier?
  • 5. Satisfaction about the Past
  • 6. Optimism about the Future
  • 7. Happiness in the Present
Part II: Strength and Virtue
  • 8. Renewing Strength and Virtue
  • 9. Your Signature Strengths
Part III: In the Mansions of Life
  • 10. Work and Personal Satisfaction
  • 11. Love
  • 12. Raising Children
  • 13. Reprise and Summary
  • 14. Meaning and Purpose
My Take:
Another book that can't quite decide what it wants to be. The overview of positive psychology -- what it is, what the underlying research shows, and so on -- was interesting and informative, even if I find Seligman's dismissal of that branch of psychology that deals with the causes and treatment of mental illness glib and offensive. (Is there a role for psychology in bettering so-called normal, healthy individuals' lives and productivity? Sure. But does that mean it's not important to study or treat, say, schizophrenia, or depression, or alcoholism? Certainly not, though it almost sounds like this is what he's suggesting in places.) And I'll capitalize positive psychology about the time I start capitalizing realtor. Is that really a way to get yourself taken seriously? Why doesn't it seem necessary for, say, doctors and teachers and ministers -- or for molecular biology and child development and economics?

But Seligman's also given to excessive musings about his career and his family (second, presumably much younger wife, four perfectly cherubic home-schooled kids), which comes off as more smug and self-congratulatory than as illustrating important points. Additionally, he can't seem to decide if he wants the book to be an overview of positive psychology or a self-help book ... and the many self-tests and checklists tend to distract from the flow. Perhaps he should have taken a lesson from his one-time mentor, Aaron Beck, in this regard.

#96: The Night Strangers

The Night Strangers, by Chris Bohjalian (New York: Crown Publishing, 2011)

"From the bestselling author of
The Double Bind, Skeletons at the Feast, and Secrets of Eden, comes a riveting and dramatic ghost story.

"In a dusty corner of a basement in a rambling Victorian house in northern New Hampshire, a door has long been sealed shut with 39 six-inch-long carriage bolts.

"The home's new owners are Chip and Emily Linton and their twin ten-year-old daughters. Together they hope to rebuild their lives there after Chip, an airline pilot, has to ditch his 70-seat regional jet in Lake Champlain after double engine failure. Unlike the Miracle on the Hudson, however, most of the passengers aboard Flight 1611 die on impact or drown. The body count? Thirty-nine – a coincidence not lost on Chip when he discovers the number of bolts in that basement door. Meanwhile, Emily finds herself wondering about the women in this sparsely populated White Mountain village –- self-proclaimed herbalists –- and their interest in her fifth-grade daughters. Are the women mad? Or is it her husband, in the wake of the tragedy, whose grip on sanity has become desperately tenuous?

"The result is a poignant and powerful ghost story with all the hallmarks readers have come to expect from bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian: a palpable sense of place, an unerring sense of the demons that drive us, and characters we care about deeply.

"The difference this time? Some of those characters are dead."

Opening Line:
"You see the long, wide, perfectly straight strip of asphalt before you, the hangar to your right with the words GREEN MOUNTAIN BOYS painted in billboard-size letters along the side."

My Take:

I've had pretty mixed reactions to the last few Bohjalian books I've read. The Double Bind, my first, was a tremendous punch in the gut (yes, in a good way); Midwives was awesome. Skeletons at the Feast and Secrets of Eden, not so much.

Night Strangers was somewhere in between -- probably because Bohjalian tries to weave two stories together here, and one's a lot more compelling than the other. The real ghost story -- Chip struggling with his visions of those of his dead passengers who haven't yet been able to let go of their lives on earth -- is fascinating, poignant, sad, and sweet. The whole herbalists thing, though? Not very interesting. First of all, the ladies of Bethel -- who seem to have a WAY higher number of greenhouses per capita than the national average, and who all have odd floral names like Anise, Reseda, and Clary -- just come off as too weird and even nasty from the get-go, which makes it hard to get drawn into their story line. More importantly, even Emily notices this ... and it's just plain too much to believe that this lawyer/ mother, already torn up over uprooting her daughters' lives for the sake of her husband's recovery, would ignore every initial suspicious/ hinky feeling she has about the plant ladies and move so quickly from, "Hmm, why are these old biddies so unnaturally interested in my tween girls?" to "Oh, well, let's just have the girls stay with them after school every day." And I really didn't like the ending -- not because it was particularly upsetting (which was probably the effect the author was going for), but just because it's not well set-up and not very believable.

Oh well.

Friday, November 4, 2011

#95: Drive

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel H. Pink (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009)

"Most of us believe that the best way to motivate ourselves and others is with external rewards like money -- the carrot-and-stick approach. That's a mistake, Daniel H. Pink says in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, his provocative and persuasive new book. The secret to high performance and satisfaction -- at work, at school, and at home -- is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

"Drawing on four decades of scientific research on human motivation, Pink exposes the mismatch between what science knows and what business does -- and how that affects every aspect of life. He demonstrates that while carrots and sticks worked successfully in the twentieth century, that's precisely the wrong way to motivate people for today's challenges. In Drive, he examines the three elements of true motivation -- autonomy, mastery, and purpose -- and offers smart and surprising techniques for putting these into action. Along the way, he takes us to companies that are enlisting new approaches to motivation and introduces us to the scientists and entrepreneurs who are pointing a bold way forward.

"Drive is bursting with big ideas -- the rare book that will change how you look and transform how you live."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction: The Puzzling Puzzles of Harry Harlow and Edward Deci
Part I: A New Operating System
  • Chapter 1: The Rise and Fall of Motivation 2.0
  • Chapter 2: Seven Reasons Carrots and Sticks (Often) Don't Work ...
  • Chapter 2A: ... and the Special Circumstances When They Do
  • Chapter 3: Type I and Type X
Part II: The Three Elements
  • Chapter 4: Autonomy
  • Chapter 5: Mastery
  • Chapter 6: Purpose
Part III: The Type I Toolkit
  • Type I for Individuals: Nine Strategies for Awakening Your Motivation
  • Type I for Organizations: Nine Ways to Improve Your Company, Office, or Group
  • The Zen of Compensation: Paying People the Type I Way
  • Type I for Parents and Educators: Nine Ideas for Helping Our Kids
  • The Type I Reading List: Fifteen Essential Books
  • Listen to the Gurus: Six Business Thinkers Who Get It
  • The Type I Fitness Plan: Four Tips for Getting (and Staying) Motivated to Exercise
  • Drive: The Recap
  • Drive: The Glossary
  • The Drive Discussion Guide: Twenty Conversation Starters to Keep You Thinking and Talking
  • Find Out More -- About Yourself and This Topic
My Take:
Will this be more akin to Who Killed Change? or to Employees First, Customers Second? We shall see.

OK, a few weeks later and I've fallen dreadfully behind in my book blogging, so these next few entries will be short. Drive made sense and definitely had some ideas I'll plan to use once I'm reemployed, but got a bit repetitive midway through. Next.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

#94: The Weekend

The Weekend, by Bernhard Schlink, translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside (New York: Pantheon, 2010)

"Old friends and lovers reunite for a weekend in a secluded country home after spending decades apart. They excavate old memories and pass clandestine judgments on the wildly divergent paths they've taken since their youth. But this isn't just any reunion, and their conversations about the old days aren't your typical reminiscences: After twenty-four years, Jorg, a convicted murderer and terrorist, has been released from prison. The announcement of his pardon will send shock waves through the country, but before the announcement, his friends -- some of whom were Baader-Meinhof sympathizers or those who clung to them -- gather for his first weekend of freedom. They have been summoned by Jorg's devoted sister, Christiane, whose concern for her brother's safety is matched only by the unrelenting zeal of Marko, a young man intent on having Jorg continue to fight for the cause.

"Bernhard Schlink is at his finest as The Weekend unfolds. Passions are pitted against pragmatism, ideas against actions, and hopes against heartbreaking realities."

Opening Lines:
"She got there just before seven. She'd expected to make more headway and arrive sooner by traveling in the early morning."

My Take:
No pithy or snarky comments to offer here, but this was a pretty good book. Compact, good use of language (even in translation). Interesting characters, all of whom clearly have way more going on in their stories than we get to see, but this makes sense for a story that takes place pretty much in the course of a single weekend (though with lots of discussion and memories of past events, obviously). Almost has the feel of a stage play, which wasn't a bad thing -- just an interesting one. Characters include Christiane, who questions the degree to which she's put Jorg at the center of her life (too much? not enough) and whether she's done right by him; Ulrich, who seems intent on drawing some explanation from Jorg about just how it felt to kill someone; Ulrich's daughter Dorle, who's intent on seducing someone important this weekend if it kills her; Karin, the vicar whose constant peacemaking attempts belie her own secret doubts; Ilsa, the single teacher suddenly compelled to spend her time chronicling the adventures of terrorists/ freedom fighters like Jorg; Christiane's housemate Margarete, who helps keep the weekend flowing smoothly despite not having met the other guests before; and Henner, who may or may not have been the one who tipped the police off as to Jorg's whereabouts all those years ago. This is not a warm, fuzzy, chick-lit sort of reunion story, where everything's neatly wrapped up by the last page; rather, it's an intriguing meditation on what becomes of our dreams and ideals as we grow older.

#93: Committed

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, by Elizabeth Gilbert (New York: Viking, 2010)

"At the end of her bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love with Felipe, a Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship who had been living in Indonesia when they met. Resettling in America, the couple swore eternal fidelity to each other, but they also swore to never, ever, under any circumstances, get married. (Both were survivors of previous bad divorces. Enough said.) But providence intervened one day in the form of the U.S. government, which -- after detaining Felipe at an American border crossing -- gave the couple a choice: they could either get married, or Felipe would never be allowed to enter the country again.

"Having been effectively 'sentenced to wed,' Gilbert decided to tackle her fears of matrimony by becoming a student of the institution. Over the next ten months, as she and Felipe wandered haphazardly across Southeast Asia, waiting for the U.S. government to permit them to return to America and get married, the only thing she talked about, read about, or thought about was this perplexing subject.

Committed tells the story of one woman's efforts -- through contemplation, historical study, and extensive conversation with every soul she encountered along the way -- to make peace with marriage before she entered its estate once more. Told with Gilbert's trademark wit, intelligence, and compassion, the book attempts to 'turn on all the lights' when it comes to matrimony, frankly examining questions of compatibility, infatuation, fidelity, family tradition, social expectations, divorce risks, and humbling responsibilities. Myths are debunked; fears are unthreaded; historical perspective is sought; and romantic fantasies are ultimately exchanged for vital emotional compromises. In the end, the book becomes a kind of celebration of love -- with all the complexity and consequence that real love, in the real world, will always entail."

Table of Contents:
  1. Marriage and Surprises
  2. Marriage and Expectation
  3. Marriage and History
  4. Marriage and Infatuation
  5. Marriage and Women
  6. Marriage and Autonomy
  7. Marriage and Subversion
  8. Marriage and Ceremony
My Take:
Well-written and reasonably enjoyable, but not nearly so much so as Eat, Pray, Love. With that book, I was in a somewhat-skeptical camp; on one hand, it's hard to feel sympathy for someone so devastated by a bad divorce that she has to travel around the world for a year to find herself again, but on the other, Gilbert does write well, and as I'm not likely to have an extended sojourn in Bali or Italy any time in my own foreseeable future, reading someone else's travel memoir seemed like the next best thing.

Here, again, I enjoy the subject matter, as well as Gilbert's narrative style. Early on in the book, she visits with a houseful of Hmong women in rural Vietnam, and while she does a pretty good job of not romanticizing their poverty and isolation, she does capture something about the prevailing Western view of marriage that Pamela Haag, in Marriage Confidential, tries but never quite manages to nail down:
"But surely something has been lost, as well, in our modern and intensely private, closed-off homes. Watching the Hmong women interact with each other, I got to wondering whether the evolution of the ever smaller and ever more nuclear Western family has put a particular strain on modern marriages. In Hmong society, for instance, men and women don't spend all that much time together. Yes, you have a spouse. Yes, you have sex with that spouse. Yes, your fortunes are tied together. Yes, there might well be love. But aside from that, men's and women's lives are quite firmly separated into the divided realms of their gender-specific tasks. Men work and socialize with other men; women work and socialize with other women. ...

"If you are a Hmong woman, then, you don't necessarily expect your husband to be your best friend, your most intimate confidant, your emotional advisor, your intellectual equal, your comfort in times of sorrow. Hmong women, instead, get a lot of that emotional nourishment and support from other women -- from sisters, aunties, mothers, grandmothers. A Hmong woman has many voices in her life, many opinions and emotional buttresses surrounding her at all times. Kinship is to be found within arm's reach in any direction, and many female hands make light work, or at least lighter work, of the serious burdens of living."
I also found myself nodding in agreement at the clarity with which Gilbert describes the delicate dance of negotiation and compromise that happens in a marriage. Contemplating a solo trip to Cambodia, she muses,
"[H]e belongs to me now. And I belong to him, in exactly the same measure. Which does not mean that I cannot go to Cambodia by myself. It does mean, however, that I need to discuss my plans with Felipe before I leave -- as he would do with me were our situations reversed. If he objects to my desire to travel alone, I can argue my point with him, but I am obliged to at least listen to his objections. If he strenuously objects, I can just as strenuously overrule him, but I must select my battles -- as must he. If he protests my wishes too often, our marriage will surely break apart. On the other hand, if I constantly demand to live my life away from him, our marriage will just as surely break apart. It's delicate, then, this operation of mutual, quiet, almost velvety oppression, Out of respect, we must learn how to release and confine each other with the most exquisite care, but we should never -- not even for a moment -- pretend that we are not confined."
Well-turned phrases and personal anecdotes aside, though, there's really not a lot of new material here for anyone who's read some of Stephanie Coontz's work on the history of marriage (which Gilbert cites and acknowledges heavily). Decent narrative non-fiction, but not life-changing.