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, December 16, 2011

#110: Summer Rental

Summer Rental, by Mary Kay Andrews (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011)

"Ellis, Julia, and Dorie. Best friends since Catholic grade school, they now find themselves in their mid-thirties, at the crossroads of life and love. Ellis, recently fired from a job she gave everything to, is beginning to question the choices she's made over the past decade of her life. Julia -- whose caustic wit covers up her wounds -- has a man who loves her and is offering her the world, but she can't hide how deeply insecure she feels about her looks, her brains, and her life. And Dorie has just been shockingly betrayed by the man she loved and trusted most in the world ... though this is just the tip of the iceberg of her problems and secrets. A month in North Carolina's Outer Banks is just what each of them needs.

"Ty Bazemore is their landlord, though he's hanging on to the rambling old beach house by a thin thread. After an inauspicious first meeting with Ellis, the two find themselves disturbingly attracted to each other, even as Ty is about to lose everything he's ever cared about.

"Maryn Shackleford is a stranger, and a woman on the run. Maryn just needs a few things in life: no questions, a good hiding place, and a new identity. Ellis, Julia, and Dorie can provide what Maryn wants, but can they also provide what she needs?

"Five people questioning everything they ever thought they knew about life. Five people on a journey that will uncover their secrets and point them on the path to forgiveness. Five people who need a sea change, and one month in a summer rental that might just give it to them."

Opening Line:
"It was not an auspicious beginning for a vacation, let alone for a new life."

My Take:
Halfway entertaining, but forgettable.

#109: Damned

Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk (New York: Doubleday, 2011)

Opening Lines and Summary:
"Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison. I'm just now arrived here, in Hell, but it's not my fault except for maybe dying from an overdose of marijuana."

"'Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison,' declares the whip-tongued thirteen-year-old narrator of Damned, Chuck Palahniuk's subversive new work of fiction. The daughter of a narcissistic film star and a billionaire, Madison is abandoned at her Swiss boarding school over Christmas while her parents are off touting their new projects and adopting more orphans. She dies over the holiday of a marijuana overdose -- and the next thing she knows, she's in Hell. Madison shares her cell with a motley crew of young sinners that is almost too good to be true: a cheerleader, a jock, a nerd, and a punk rocker, united by fate to form the six-feet-under version of everyone's favorite detention movie. Madison and her pals must trek across the Dandruff Desert and cross the Valley of Used Disposable Diapers to confront Satan in his citadel, and all the popcorn balls and wax lips that serve as the currency of Hell won't buy them off.

"This is the afterlife as only Chuck Palahniuk could imagine it: a twisted inferno where The English Patient plays on endless repeat, roaming demons devour sinners limb by limb, and the damned interrupt your dinner from their sweltering call center to hard-sell you Hell ... He makes eternal torment, well, simply divine."

My Take:
What a pleasant surprise. I picked this one up despite knowing Palahniuk's books leave me feeling in desperate need of a shower, because the premise just seemed too damned funny (excuse the pun) to pass up. It was, and grody as the descriptions of the underworld were, Damned made me laugh more than it left me with that visceral ickiness I had after Pygmy and Choke. It's hilarious.

#108: Falling Together

Falling Together, by Marisa de los Santos (New York: William Morrow, 2011)

Following Love Walked In and Belong to Me, de los Santos's third novel embraces the draw of college friendships. Catalina, Will, and Pen (short for Penelope) meet on a drama-filled night their freshman year and from that moment are completely inseparable, a solid trio whose bonds seem unbreakable. But something serious does come between them, and after college the friends stop speaking to one another. Yet each one feels the others' absence deeply. Until one day when Pen and Will receive a curt email from Cat: 'Please come to the ten-year reunion, I need you.' It's a mystery that neither Pen nor Will can ignore. What they find at the reunion is unexpected. This novel is partly a deep look into a friendship and what strengthened it as well as what ruined it, and partly a mystery that sends Pen and Will halfway around the world to the Philippines. The story unfolds in pieces-why the friendships fell apart and what reunites the friends in ways they would not have thought possible are slowly unveiled. While the characters are lovely and the writing is heartfelt, the pacing can be slow. VERDICT: The author's fans will enjoy this nostalgic mystery with romantic elements." -Beth Gibbs, from Library Journals

Opening Line:
"Pen would not use the word summoned when she told Jamie about the e-mail later that night."

My Take:
A solid B to B-minus. Not awful but not especially original or memorable either. Either it was never made convincingly clear why such epically wonderful friends just plain stopped speaking, or I'd half lost interest by then and missed something important. Wanted to like it and care about the characters more than I did, but didn't quite get there.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

#107: An Object of Beauty

An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010)

Opening Line
and Summary:

"I am tired, so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yeager, yet I worry that unless I write her story down, and see it bound and tidy on my bookshelf, I will be unable to ever write about anything else."

"So writes Daniel Franks, the narrator of a story about the woman he's been unable to let go of for years in the latest novel by bestselling author and acclaimed entertainer Steve Martin.

"Lacey Yeager is young, captivating, and ambitious enough to take on the notoriously demanding art world of New York City. Groomed at Sotheby's and hungry to keep climbing the social and career ladders put before her, Lacey charms men and women, old and young, rich and even richer with her charisma and liveliness. Her career sends her zipping all over Manhattan, the east coast, and even St. Petersburg, and her self-manufactured allure makes the reader wonder if it is not she who is the object of beauty. Her ascension to the highest tiers of New York parallels the soaring heights -- and, at times, the darkest lows -- of the art world and the country from the late 1990s through today.

"With twenty-two lush, four-color art reproductions throughout,
An Object of Beauty is both a primer on the business of fine art collecting and a close study of the personalities that make it run. With his latest novel Steve Martin once again displays his compassion and keen skills of observation and understanding."

My Take:
OK -- certainly better than most of the tripe I've been filling my head and my time with of late -- but didn't quite live up to its promise. Perhaps if I had more experience in the art sales and collecting world, but as it was, parts of the book seemed to get bogged down in just so much name dropping. It was also tough to really get to know or care about Lacey (who reminded me a lot of much contemporary pop music -- all glossy auto-tunes, with no substance beneath it) or our narrator, Daniel. Was there really never a crack in Lacey's veneer? No glimpse of what it was that made Daniel so fascinated with her (as it's established early on that they'd slept together only once, some time before the story began, and that this interest isn't primarily sexual)? Or who Daniel is, other than a shadowy art writer without much of a personal life? And I may have missed clues, but if indeed Lacey's success was largely ill-gotten, it would have been nice to see a bit more directly how that unfolded. Even Janet Maslin's New York Times review, which is mostly positive and praises Object of Beauty's "moral complexity," "ambiguity," and "heart," notes that the book lacks "a living, breathing Lacey," that the protagonist "serves this book more as a convenient abstraction, a way of illustrating its tutorial lessons, than a flesh-and-blood heroine," and that narrator Daniel Franks is "only minimally necessary ... watchful but bland."

While both Martin and Maslin may be familiar with the art collecting world, I'm not ... and I do prefer a bit more familiarity and intimacy with my characters. Not sorry I read it, but won't be too quick to recommend or reread it, either.

#106: Call Me Irresistible

Call Me Irresistible, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (New York: William Morrow, 2011)

"Lucy Jorik is the daughter of a former president of the United States.

"Meg Koranda is the offspring of legends.

"One of them is about to marry Mr. Irresistible -- Ted Beaudine -- the favorite son of Wynette, Texas. The other is not happy about it and is determined to save her friend from a mess of heartache.

"But even though Meg knows that breaking up her best friend's wedding is the right thing to do, no one else seems to agree. Faster than Lucy can say "I don't," Meg becomes the most hated woman in town -- a town she's stuck in with a dead car, an empty wallet, and a very angry bridegroom. Broke, stranded, and without her famous parents at her back, Meg is sure she can survive on her own wits. What's the worst that can happen? Lose her heart to the one and only Mr. Irresistible? Not likely. Not likely at all.

"Call Me Irresistible is the book Susan Elizabeth Phillips's readers have long awaited. Ted, better known as 'little Teddy,' the nine-year-old heartbreak kid from Phillips's first bestseller, Fancy Pants, and as 'young Teddy,' the hunky new college graduate in Lady Be Good, is all grown up now -- along with Lucy from First Lady and Meg from What I Did for Love. They're ready to take center stage in a saucy, funny, and highly addictive tale fans will love."

Opening Line:
"More than a few residents of Wynette, Texas, thought Ted Beaudine was marrying beneath himself."

My Take:

Maybe long-time faithful fans of the author would love and anticipate this book, but I'm not among them. My cardinal rule of sequels, or any books set in a universe the author's previously established, is that they need to work just as well as stand-alones for those who haven't read the others in the series. This one fails. Lots of stock, two-dimensional cardboard characters and ridiculous plot contrivances. Perhaps I've just read one chick lit book too many of late, but I feel a little like I just ate a full not-quite-half-gallon carton of ice cream by myself. The kind with rich but heavy little mix-ins in it.

#105: Wife-in-Law

Wife-in-Law, by Haywood Smith (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011)

"Neighbors Betsy Callison and Kat Ellis were oil and water when they met thirty-five years ago. Betsy was a prim, neat-freak, Republican wife, and Kat was a wild, irreverent hippie liberal. But they soon discovered common ground that created a bond that has lasted for decades. Until Betsy's husband, Greg, leaves her for his secretary, then comes back sniffing around two years later and convinces newly widowed Kat to marry him!

"Not that Betsy wants him back, but it's hard to move on when the newlyweds are flaunting their love right across the street. But there's trouble brewing in paradise, and no one knows philandering Greg better than his ex-wife, Betsy. Can Betsy get involved in her best friend's marriage -- even if it means helping her wife-in-law figure out the same man she shared a bed with for thirty years?"

Opening Line:
"Somebody once asked me how I pick my friends, and I just laughed, because God usually does the picking for me, and believe me, He has a wicked sense of humor."

My Take:
Fluffy, corn-battered and Southern-fried fun, if not especially literary or memorable.

#104: Joy for Beginners

Joy for Beginners, by Erica Bauermeister (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011)

an intimate, festive dinner party in Seattle, six women gather to celebrate their friend Kate's recovery from cancer. Wineglass in hand, Kate strikes a bargain with them: to celebrate her new lease on life, she'll do the one thing that's always terrified her: whitewater rafting down the Grand Canyon. But if she goes, each of them must promise to do one thing in the next year that is new, or difficult, or scary -- and Kate gets to choose their challenges.

"Shimmering with warmth, wit, and insight, Joy for Beginners is a celebration of life: unexpected, lyrical, and deeply satisfying."

Opening Line:

"Life came back slowly, Kate realized."

My Take:
Decent but not awesome. Not really enough time to get to know the characters well, or to understand the challenges Kate chose for them: best friend Ava's training for a three-day cancer walk (her own mother's death when she was ten left her absolutely paralyzed around death, to the extent of not being able to be around Kate during her illness) makes sense, but why demand that free spirited potter Dalia learn to bake bread?

Well written, though not quite to the extent oversold by the jacket blurb. What else is new?

#103: Take It Like a Mom

Take It Like a Mom, by Stephanie Stiles (New York: New American Library, 2011).

One thing sets her apart from other modern-day superheroes: mom genes. Annie Fingardt Forster used to be a lawyer who wore dry-clean only and shaved both legs. But things have changed. Now a stay-at-home mom, she wears cargo pants and ponytails and harbors a nearly pathological hatred towards hipster parents. With a three-year-old and a baby on the way, Annie knows what to expect...at least, she thought she did. Faced with her husband's job loss, pre-school politics, and a playground throwdown with her arch nemesis, Annie realizes that even with her husband and friends by her side, what she really needs is to learn to suck it up-and take it like a mom."

Opening Line:
"Since it's always kind of awkward getting started -- like a blind date, or a first date with a guy you only saw late one night in a bar -- I guess I should tell you right away that my name is Annie."

My Take:
More a sitcom than a real novel. A series of fairly entertaining chapters, but there's no real central conflict here. Ah well, it was a vacation read.

#102: Black and Blue

After wading through about a third of Emotional Intelligence and finally giving up, I read this and the next one while away for Thanksgiving.

Black and Blue, by Anna Quindlen (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010)

"For eighteen years, Fran Benedetto kept her secret. And hid her bruises. And stayed with Bobby because she wanted her son to have a father. And because, in spite of everything, she loved him. Then one night, when she saw the look on her ten-year-old son's face, Fran finally made a choice -- and ran for both their lives ...

"Now she is starting over in a city far from home, far from Bobby. And in this place she uses a name that isn't hers, and cradles her son in her arms, and tries to forget. For the woman who now calls herself Beth, every day is a chance to heal, to put together the pieces of her shattered self. And every day she waits for Bobby to catch up to her. Because Bobby always said he would never let her go. And despite the flawlessness of her escape, Fran Benedetto is certain of one thing: it is only a matter of time ..."

Opening Line:
"The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old."

My Take:
Pretty good, and bonus points for a not-so-tidy, vaguely unsatisfying ending. Never really thought to wonder before about what life must be like for those battered women who do escape.

#101: Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later

And speaking of not being ashamed of who you are ...

Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later, by Francine Pascal (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011)

"Anyone who grew up reading the Sweet Valley High series (that would be basically every girl born in the late 70s/early 80s) has been waiting for this -- Sweet Valley Confidential: 10 Years Later came out on Friday.

Make any mention of SVH to a 20 or 30-something woman and you’re likely to be bombarded with stories of childhood obsession, followed by a ranking of said woman’s favorite characters–for some reason most people liked goody-two-shoes Elizabeth, which is mystifying; c’mon, without saucy Jessica there never would have been any action! So really it’s no surprise that people have been eagerly waiting for this book. But how does it stack up to the originals?

Well, let’s just say this book wasn’t written to attract new fans. Even before the book was released it was apparent that it wasn’t meant for young readers the way the series was, but was instead written for fans of the original books. Readers who are now, like Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, adults. Readers who are thrilled by the fact that Sweet Valley-ites now drink! And use Facebook! And have sex!

Which is lucky, because honestly, without the emotional attachment to the characters (I’m emotionally attached to the Wakefields–that doesn’t sound weird, right? Right?) there isn’t much draw to Sweet Valley Confidential.

The story reads like a bad romance novel (and not the so-bad-it’s-good kind), starting with the plot: Jessica, who now works in public relations, has broken the cardinal rule of friendship and shattered her relationship with her beloved twin sister, who is now a writer in New York. The book centers on what Jessica’s offense was (I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s quite obvious) and whether or not Elizabeth will forgive her (I won’t spoil that one either). Then there’s the dialogue and first person narration, which is pretty laughable–especially Jessica’s habit of adding “so” and “like” to every sentence. In fact, even the third-person narration (the book swings between both) is questionable at times, as it’s occasionally peppered with profanity that comes out of nowhere.

The thing is, it doesn’t really matter how bad the book is. If you were a fan back then, you’re going to appreciate it. How can you not? It’s Sweet Valley! It’s the Wakefields and Lila Fowler and Bruce Patman and Caroline Pierce all grown up! It’s almost like going to your own high school reunion and being able to judge everyone’s life choices (Seriously, girl? You married that guy?) without having to worry about anyone questioning your own decisions.

Maybe that’s a stretch, but still — this book is a good time, as long as you can tap into your girlhood fandom." -Megan Gibson, from Time Magazine

Opening Line:

"Elizabeth had turned the key in the Fox lock, releasing a heavy metal bar that scraped across the inside of the front door with an impressive prison-gate sound, and was about to attack the Segal lock when the phone in the apartment started to ring."

My Take:

Yes, it was as dopey as you'd expect. Next.

#100: Introvert Power

I've fallen way behind in keeping track of the books I've read lately, so this barrage of posts will be even more cursory than usual.

Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, by Laurie A. Helgoe (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2008)

This book describes the power of introversion and how to take advantage of it. Helgoe addresses common beliefs about introversion, such as connections to mental illness, and societal taboos against solitude; the importance of private space, thinking, and observation; and how to bring aspects of introversion to the extroverted world. Helgoe, an introvert herself, is a writer and psychologist."

Table of Contents:
Part I: Antisocial, Weird, or Displaced?
  • Chapter 1: The Mistaken Identity
  • Chapter 2: Alone Is Not a Four-Letter Word
  • Chapter 3: Becoming an Alien
  • Chapter 4: "Anyone Else IN?"
  • Chapter 5: Meditating with the Majority: The Introverted Society
Part II: The Introvert's Wish List
  • Chapter 6: A Room of Your Own
  • Chapter 7: The Time to Think
  • Chapter 8: The Right to Retreat
  • Chapter 9: The Freedom of a Flaneur
  • Chapter 10: Inroads to Intimacy
Part III: Standing Still in a Loud World
  • Chapter 11: The Conversation Conundrum
  • Chapter 12: The Anti-Party Guide
  • Chapter 13: Why Did I Want to Work with People?
  • Chapter 14: The Downside to Self-Containment
  • Chapter 15: Showing Up for Relationships
Part IV: Outing the Introvert
  • Chapter 16: From Apology to Acceptance -- and Beyond
  • Chapter 17: Celebrating Introversion
  • Chapter 18: Expressing What's in There
  • Chapter 19: Moshing on Your Own Terms
  • Chapter 20: Introvert Power

My Take:

A bit extreme, though maybe that's because I always test out just this side of the E/I continuum, and the book may be written for folks further in the "I" direction than I am. Appreciated Helgoe's pointing out that introverts are slightly over 50% of the population; I'd always heard a much smaller figure myself. I also enjoyed the recommendations about not apologizing for one's introversion -- just plain up and admitting that you don't care for big, loud cocktail parties if that's the case, rather than making up some excuse and claiming that you really wish you could go. I do think she spends a bit too much time disparaging the extroverts, and paints them with a brush just about as broad as she claims they've pigeonholed introverts in the past. Another book called The Introvert Advantage (I think) which I recall reading a few years back was better, IMO.