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.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

#96: Survival Mom

Survival Mom: The Modern Family's Guide 
to Any Apocalypse, by Lisa Bedford
(New York: HarperOne, 2012)
"Undaunted by the prospect of TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know It), Lisa Bedford tackles every what-if and worst-case scenario head-on, offering practical advice on how to prepare your family for whatever might come your way. From a few days without electricity to an unexpected job loss or total chaos after the destruction of a tornado, Survival Mom provides everything you need to become self-reliant and establish plans for your family, including:
  • preparing the home for a natural disaster
  • alternative sources of energy in a power's-out situation
  • everything you need to know about food storage
  • personal protection (do I really need to learn how to shoot a gun?)
"Deep inside every mom is a Survival Mom whose passion for her family drives her to make the best of the present and prepare for the future. So tap into your Mama Grizzly instincts and channel your worries into action. Whether you're a full-fledged 'prepper' or just getting started, with real-life stories and customizable forms and checklists along with Lisa's 'you can do it' attitude, Survival Mom replaces paranoia and panic with the peace of knowing YOU have the power to keep your loved ones safe and secure."

Table of Contents:
  • Quiz: What Kind of Survival Mom Are You?
  • From Suburban Mom to Survival Mom, an Introduction
  • 1. Prepare More, Panic Less
  • 2. Survival Begins with Water
  • 3. Keeping It Clean: The Ins and Outs of Sanitation
  • 4. The First Steps of Food Storage
  • 5. Increase Your Food Storage Savvy
  • 6. Your Home Base
  • 7. The Unplugged Home: Learning to Live Without Electricity
  • 8. The Essentials for Safety and Security
  • 9. Survival Finances
  • 10. It Takes a Compound
  • 11. Preparedness on the Go: Evacuation Basics
  • 12. Survival Mom to Survival Mom
My Take:
I've heard that life imitates art, and stumbled into enough eerie parallels between what's going on around me and what's on my bookshelf to agree. Sometimes, it's just a weird but minor coincidence that makes me smile to myself. Other times, I'd much rather my reading material have remained irrelevant. If you've been in or even aware of the northeastern US last week, you know this is one of those other times. I read this book last week, when I was still adjusting to my 90-minute commute and too brain-dead in the evenings to tackle anything other than a very concrete, lots-of-bulleted-lists self-help manual. Bedford's tone here really isn't particularly alarmist, and I'm too fond of my coffee and libraries to seriously contemplate going off-the-grid, but hearing the news reports and office chit-chat about Hurricane Sandy's approach and then falling asleep envisioning some of the scenarios for which Survival Mom recommends preparing had me sufficiently shaken that I sent Filbert out to stock up on batteries and flashlights and packed a change of clothes and an extra granola bar in my satchel when I set out for work on Monday, just in case.

Here in my neck of the woods, we were lucky. It rained steadily for a few days, and the wind gusts buffeting my little Matrix Monday evening were a bit unsettling, but that was all. The power never even flickered, and with no school for Twig or I and no real weather of consequence, Tuesday felt almost like a holiday, complete with a drizzly stroll downtown and a decadent soda-fountain float for dessert. My hometown, though, where my parents and siblings still live, was another story. It could have been worse, of course; they aren't in Breezy Point, where some 50 homes burned to the ground during the storm, or in any of the coastal Jersey communities of which aerial photos show only rooftops above the flood waters. Three-quarters of the Thyme family never left their homes, and got their power back on Thursday night. The glorious, seemingly immortal pin oak still towers over the house we grew up in, though Dad's started to make noises about how it's not looking so great after two years of hurricane damage and maybe he should take it down himself before another storm beats him to it. Most importantly, everyone is safe and healthy, including my newborn niece (who's fated to spend her every birthday hearing the grown-ups retell Hurricane Sandy stories that grow taller even as she does). Still, I see loved ones with flooded homes (some for the second time in two years), beaches and other beloved landmarks devastated, news of fights breaking out in gas station lines that make me wonder if some of Lisa Bedford's more apocalyptic what-ifs are really as far-fetched as I'd initially thought.

I don't want to co-opt this disaster into Hurricane Hazelthyme, grasping at whatever tenuous connection to tragedy I can so as to make myself the center of attention. But along with the obvious sadness and loss, I feel guilty, regret that I let my own busyness and awkwardness keep me from staying closer to these friends and relatives all along so I could offer help or at least sympathy now without being perceived as a tourist or a vulture. As the only one of four siblings who settled more than 15 miles from the aforementioned pin oak, I'm accustomed to feeling cut off from my family and my home town. I last lived there at 18, when few people are yet fully comfortable in their own skin, and as I now live 5 hours away, there will always be parties I can't attend and "in" jokes I Just Don't Get. Usually, though, what I'm missing are happy things: a Father's Day cookout, a shared beach house, my nephew's birthday party, a spontaneous dinner with my oldest friend, a chance meeting and drink with a former high school classmate in a neighborhood bar. I could walk into one of these events any time, and while I'd be a recurring guest star rather than a featured-in-the-title-sequence main character, I'd nonetheless be welcome; as Robert Frost said "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Strange to say, though, I find myself wishing I'd gone out of my way to accept more party invitations, haunt more local watering holes, and make more phone calls and Facebook posts while I was there, so that I'd have earned the right to help haul ruined furniture out of some flooded basements now.

So much for not making it all about me. At any rate, this started because I'd read Survival Mom, which offers a solid, well-organized guide to increasing your family's self-sufficiency and disaster preparedness, provided you don't mind or can overlook some of the more catastrophic scenarios the author imagines. In Sandy's wake, few would argue with the logic of storing enough food and water for at least a week, even if the 2 to 3 months' supply Bedford recommends is more than your storage space or organizational skills can handle. Likewise, it suddenly seems prudent to have not just a backup plan, but a backup backup plan, for any major what-if; the generator you've been storing won't do you much good if you can't get more gas when you need it. And we've all known at least since 2008, if not earlier, that maintaining enough savings to cover several months of living expenses (Bedford recommends at least 6) is a smart idea, while buying a home you won't be able to afford if the slightest thing goes wrong (you lose your job, your spouse takes a pay cut, someone in your family becomes seriously ill, interest rates go up) is not.

Side tangent, though: Suggesting that a stay-at-home parent represents some sort of asset in case of emergency, because "[i]f Dad should lose his job, the family's income will take a big hit, but [they] have some interesting options. ... If things got really tight, Mom could become a math tutor or get a job as an accountant or bookkeeper" didn't make sense when Elizabeth Warren did in in The Two Income Trap, and certainly isn't any more plausible here. If the job market is such that Dad, who's been in the workforce all along, has a hard time finding a new job, how is a Mom who hasn't done any paid work in years going to suddenly find work that pays enough to provide significant support for her family? Unless Mom really has some rare skill set that's a) in high demand where she lives, and b) not sufficiently valued by her having been out of the workforce for some period, a better recommendation is for a family to avoid spending all their income as soon as they earn it, whether it's 1 or 2 adults doing the earning ... and to keep your skills sharp and your mind open, so that if whatever your family's current division of paid and domestic labor stops working for whatever reason, everyone's willing to change what they're doing either temporarily or long-term, whether that means picking up a second or part-time job, switching careers, or putting more time into cooking, canning, gardening, and home maintenance to offset the lack of cash you now have for such things.

Anyway, my original point from, oh, about 2 paragraphs back, is that while some of the information Bedford offers is practical, clear, and accessible even for those fairly new to the whole preparedness/ survival genre. Where she loses me, though, is where she drifts from preparing for the sorts of (oxymoron alert!) ordinary disasters that will at least touch most of us at some point -- hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, ice storms, floods, wildfires, job loss -- to apocalyptic scenarios that sound more like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel:
  • "Nuclear events -- including, but not limited to, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), suitcase bombs, and actual mushroom clouds;
  • "Terrorist attacks -- these could happen anywhere, anytime, although I have to admit that terrorists seem to favor New York City;
  • "Social unrest -- riots, strikes, large-scale and violent protests;
  • "Increased crime rate -- home invasions, car-jackings, burglaries;
  • "Economic collapse -- the devaluation of the dollar, bank closures, hyperinflation, a significant stock market crash;
  • "Biological catastrophes -- epidemics or pandemics, biological warfare;
  • "Utter and complete collapse of civilization -- it's happened before, and it can happen again."
 Maybe I'm just naive or in grave denial, but I have a hard time seriously contemplating any of the above -- or at least attempting to prepare for their remote possibility. To be fair, Bedford does note that not all conceivable disasters are equally likely, and that "it's important to assess which emergency situations are most likely to happen in you area and in your specific set of circumstances."
"In a way, making plans for emergencies is a bit like gambling. You start with the event that has the highest odds first and work your way down from there. Really, should your very first concern be a nuclear attack? Probably not. The odds are much better for a severe weather event, increased crime, or a natural disaster common to your area. Even better odds favor a deep decline in family income and the inability to pay rent or mortgage payments."
Under the circumstances, I'm willing to ignore some of her more extreme recommendations about preparing for economic collapse and building a safe room in her house, not to mention the whole firearms chapter, and just conclude that perhaps she's read a few too many of the male-targeted survivalist books and magazines she claims inspired Survival Mom and ended up with a somewhat skewed perspective on what's dangerous as a result. Perhaps I just took one too many economics classes and have too much innate pessimism, but I tend to think the danger of complete economic or societal collapse or ending up in a terrorist's cross-hairs is sufficiently remote, and the chance of our anticipating or successfully shielding ourselves from harm if one of these events does come to pass, make for an insufficient return on the time and money we'd need to invest in the attempt. (Had I been in the South Tower on 9/11, no personal firearm or inventory of home-canned peaches would have made a difference. Just saying.)

#95: Victory

Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution, by Linda Hirshman
(New York: Harper, 2012)
"A Supreme Court lawyer and political pundit details the enthralling and groundbreaking story of the gay rights movement, revealing how a dedicated and resourceful minority changed America forever.

"When the modern struggle for gay rights erupted—most notably at a bar called Stonewall in Greenwich Village—in the summer of 1969, most religious traditions condemned homosexuality; psychiatric experts labeled people who were attracted to others of the same sex 'crazy;' and forty-nine states outlawed sex between people of the same gender. Four decades later, in June 2011, New York legalized gay marriage—the most populous state in the country to do so thus far. The armed services stopped enforcing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, ending a law that had long discriminated against gay and lesbian members of the military. Successful social movements are always extraordinary, but these advances were something of a miracle.

"Political columnist Linda Hirshman recounts the long roads that led to these victories, viewing the gay rights movement within the tradition of American freedom as the third great modern social-justice movement, alongside the civil rights movement and the women's rights movement. Drawing on an abundance of published and archival material, and hundreds of in-depth interviews, Hirshman shows, in this astute political analysis, how the fight for gay rights has changed the American landscape for all citizens—blurring rigid gender lines, altering the shared culture, and broadening our definitions of family.

"From the Communist cross-dresser Harry Hay in 1948 to New York's visionary senator Kirsten Gillibrand in 2010, the story includes dozens of brilliant, idiosyncratic characters. Written in vivid prose, at once emotional and erudite, Victory is an utterly vibrant work of reportage and eyewitness accounts, revealing how, in a matter of decades, while facing every social adversary—church, state, and medical establishment—a focused group of activists forged a classic campaign for cultural change that will serve as a model for all future political movements."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction: How an Army of Good Gays Won the West
  • 1. Gays and the Cities: Community First, Politics Later
  • 2. Red in Bed: It Takes a Communist to Recognize Gay Oppression
  • 3. It Was the Sixties That Did It: Gays Get Radical, Radicals Get Gay
  • 4. Stonewall Uprising:  Gays Finally Get Some Respect
  • 5. The Good Gays Fight the Four Horsemen: Crazy, Sinful, Criminal, and Subversive
  • 6. Dying for the Movement: The Terrible Political Payoff of AIDS
  • 7. ACT UP: Five Years That Shook the World
  • 8. Failed Marriages and Losing Battles: The Premature Campaign for Marriage and Military Service
  • 9. Founding Fathers: Winning Modern Rights Before Fighting Ancient Battles
  • 10. Massing the Troops for the Last Battle: The New-Media Gay Revolution
  • 11. With Liberal Friends: Who Needs Enemies?
  • 12. Victory: The Civil Rights March of Our Generation
  • Epilogue
My Take:
I've gotten backlogged in my blogging again (backblogged?) and don't recall either any especially profound reactions to the text or vivid pictures of what else was going on while I read it, but this was a thorough, informative, and engaging history of the U.S.'s final (as of right now) civil rights frontier. Victory should be required reading not just for the LGBT community (many of whom won't require a mandate anyway) but for their mostly straight allies (even if they/ we're afraid of what someone will think if they see them/ us carrying it at work) and for anyone interested in contemporary politics, culture, and social movements.

#94: The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
(North Kingstown, RI: BBC Audiobooks America, 2007)
"In this deliciously funny novella that celebrates the pleasure of reading, the Uncommon Reader is none other than Her Majesty the Queen, who drifts accidentally into reading when her corgis stray into a mobile library parked at Buckingham Palace. She reads widely (J.R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, Ivy Compton Burnett, and the classics) and intelligently. Her reading naturally changes her world view and her relationship with people such as the oleaginous prime minister and his repellent advisers. She comes to question the prescribed order of the world, and loses patience with much that she has to do. In short, her reading is subversive. The consequence is, of course, surprising, mildly shocking and very funny. With the poignant and mischievous wit of The History Boys, England's best loved author revels in the power of literature to change even the most uncommon reader's life."

Opening Line:
"At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber."

My Take: 
Very funny, likeable little book perfect for a long, tedious drive. I started an assignment in north central Neighboring State last week, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, it's lovely to have dinner with my family and sleep in my own bed every night, especially as the town in question is no Boston. The non-commuting consultants on site don't even have the relief and picturesque walking trails of a comfortable hotel to retreat to after hours, as I did at my last assignment; they're bunking in college dorms. I know there's no conveniently-located kitchen, though I suppose there may be mini-fridges in their rooms; I couldn't bear to ask about the bathroom facilities. Given all that, being home in the evenings with a cat at my feet and show tunes from my daughter's Pandora channels filling my ears isn't hard to take. Coming home, though, is another matter. No matter which route I take, it's a 90 minute drive, far enough that I leave home before anyone else is up in the morning and go more than halfway there in the dark. Not urban dark, where the storefronts and streetlamps and incessant traffic still provide enough light to read by, or even suburban dark, where you've at least got the unflattering purplish yellow sodium streetlight glare if you need to check a map. Nope, this 3 or 4 small, roll-the-sidewalks-up-at-9-pm small towns, separated by miles of pitch black, bottle-of-ink rural darkness. More often than not, the predawn mornings are blanketed with what weather forecasters call "patchy fog," which means no visual cues to tell you if you're just driving over a hill or about to plunge off the edge of the world.

While there's no way around the length of the commute -- my skyrocketing gas bill; the bleak, sleepy loneliness of the drive in; the speed with which bedtime comes if you get home after 6 and eat supper after 7 -- I've developed a routine to alleviate its tedium. Before work, I listen to Morning Edition for about 45 minutes and 3 different radio stations, stop for coffee at a Dunkin' Donuts that's just about at the halfway point, and then put some news and current events podcast or other on for the remainder of the drive there. On the way home, though, I pick something lighter and more strictly entertaining; making me laugh out loud is a plus, though mostly it just needs to be engaging and fast-paced enough to keep me from getting drowsy at a point in the day when my energy's already pretty low.  

An Uncommon Reader was perfect for the job. It's funny and well-worded, compelling enough to hold my attention without being so action-packed that if a noisy truck or complicated merge makes you miss a few lines, you're hopelessly lost. At several points, I found myself smiling fondly at Bennett's clever phrasings as one would over coffee with an old friend. (Certain excerpts reminded me of conversations with a particular friend I haven't seen in months, and chuckling even more at the knowledge that as someone even more stubbornly proud of her Irish heritage than I am, she'll be appalled that it's a story about a British monarch that prompts me to drop her a line.) And as a voracious reader myself, it felt like a vindication of sorts to enjoy a book all about the pleasures of reading and how what one reads can change you, with a main character who often has that familiar experience of having some dreary obligation to attend to when you'd really just rather be curled up at home with your cats (or in Her Majesty's case, corgis) and a good novel.

The only down sides I saw here were ones that probably can't be avoided in a novella. Call me nosy, but I kept wanting to know more: what was it, for example, about the experience of reading or the particular books she'd read that prompted the Queen's unexpected and unprecedented feelings of tender sympathy for the doddering Sir Claude? And what, exactly, were the dilemmas or alternatives she considered that lead to her climactic announcement at the book's end?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

#93: Ten Thousand Saints

Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson
(New York: Ecco, 2011)
"Adopted by a pair of diehard hippies, restless, marginal Jude Keffy-Horn spends much of his youth getting high with his best friend, Teddy, in their bucolic and deeply numbing Vermont town. But when Teddy dies of an overdose on the last day of 1987, Jude's relationship with drugs and with his parents devolves to new extremes. Sent to live with his pot-dealing father in New York City's East Village, Jude stumbles upon straight edge, an underground youth culture powered by the paradoxical aggression of hardcore punk and a righteous intolerance for drugs, meat, and sex. With Teddy's half brother, Johnny, and their new friend, Eliza, Jude tries to honor Teddy's memory through his militantly clean lifestyle. But his addiction to straight edge has its own dangerous consequences. While these teenagers battle to discover themselves, their parents struggle with this new generation's radical reinterpretation of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll and their grown-up awareness of nature and nurture, brotherhood and loss.

"Moving back and forth between Vermont and New York City, Ten Thousand Saints is an emphatically observed story of a frayed tangle of family members brought painfully together by a death, then carried along in anticipation of a new and unexpected life. With empathy and masterful skill, Eleanor Henderson has conjured a rich portrait of the modern age and the struggles that unite and divide generations."

 Opening Lines:
"'Is it dreamed?' Jude asks Teddy. 'Or dreamt?'"

My Take:
Perhaps I was feeling unusually uncharitable here, as I read this one right after Imperial Bedrooms and had had it up to here with drug-addled adolescents before I tackled the first chapter. That said, Ten Thousand Saints didn't overwhelm me. It wasn't repugnant the way IB was, and the characters here were rather more sympathetic -- partly because it's set in the '80s and definitely conveys that this was a different time, and partly because it's easier to excuse adolescent behavior when it actually comes from adolescents.

And perhaps I just bring too much of my own baggage to the story. Jude and Teddy are of my generation, a mere two years older than I am, which means I should be able to relate to their world ... but I really can't. Sure, I grew up 30 miles from the NYC where much of the story is set, but that may as well have been another universe, and my suburban adolescence was probably more sheltered than most. Mine wasn't a drugging or even hard drinking crowd, if the motley handful of not-yet-cool nerds I occasionally socialized with constituted a "crowd" at all. I never had any burning desire to fit in either with the stoners who make up Jude & Teddy's clique at the beginning, and I don't think I knew such a thing as straight-edge existed at the time. Punk, yes, but much as I loved the music, I was well aware a big-haired teeny bopper from the 'burbs would have been eaten alive in that environment. Instead, I contented myself with volunteering at a crisis line throughout high school and growing vicariously wise through the lives that touched me there.

It's interesting, too, to look back on the '80s with enough distance and perspective that you're aware of the hallmarks of the era. As a middle and high schooler, I knew something about the culture and history of the 1920s or '40s or '60s -- enough to reference an era convincingly in a term paper, or make guesses about how my grandparents' adolescence differed from my parents' or my own. But I couldn't articulate what made the '80s the '80s or what future generations would see as the hallmarks of my decade, any more than my daughter can define the 2010s or a particularly conscious fish could tell you what it's like to breathe water rather than air. Ten Thousand Saints depicts the era as a very long, unglamorous morning after the hedonistic '70s, with the principals' parents as the clueless hung over guests you just know will spend the next week bragging about how awesome the party was and how wasted they were, and Jude, Johnny, and Eliza the housemates who get stuck cleaning up all the spilled food and broken glass. Jude's mom, Harriet, is the canonical leftover hippie, naming her kids after Beatles songs (Jude's sister is Prudence), selling handblown glass in a small town in Vermont, and earning the bulk of her income selling bongs; his father, Lester, is a successful Manhattan pot grower who takes pride in being a cool, approachable pseudo-stepdad to his girlfriend's daughter Eliza but hasn't bothered to contact his own kids in who knows how long. After Teddy's death, Jude and Eliza's guilt leads them (with Johnny's help) to discover the no-drugs, no-drinking, no-sex world of straight edge, drawing spiritual sustenance from a Hare Krisha temple whose connection to the former is never exactly clear.

Henderson's writing is clear, understated, and sad, and the setting an interesting, unusual one. I only wish the characters (yes, this is always a sticking point for me) felt big or complex enough to live up to it. The book was OK, and I finished it -- but it felt more like a duty than a pleasure to get through (although it did get somewhat better in the latter part).

Thursday, October 18, 2012

#92: Imperial Bedrooms

Imperial Bedrooms, by Bret Easton Ellis
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)
"Bret Easton Ellis's debut, Less Than Zero, is one of the signal novels of the last thirty years, and he now follows those infamous teenagers into a more desperate middle age.

"Clay, a successful screenwriter, has returned from New York to Los Angeles to help cast his new movie, and he's soon drifting through a long-familiar circle. Blair, his former girlfriend, is married to Trent, an influential manager who's still a bisexual philanderer, and their Beverly Hills parties attract various levels of fame, fortune, and power. Then there's Clay's childhood friend Julian, a recovering addict, and their old dealer, Rip, face-lifted beyond recognition and seemingly even more sinister than in his notorious past.

"But Clay's own demons emerge once he meets a gorgeous young actress determined to win a role in his movie. And when his life careens completely out of control, he has no choice but to plumb the darkest recesses of his character and come to terms with his proclivity for betrayal."

Opening Lines:
"They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book written by someone we knew."

My Take:
I've never read Less Than Zero, nor have I seen the movie it inspired. And frankly, after finishing Imperial Bedrooms, I'm not particularly inclined to do so. I've read and enjoyed books with unlikeable characters, even anti-heroes, before, but this ain't one of 'em.

The good, only because I feel compelled to say something positive about a novel heralded with such fanfare: Ellis's run-on sentences do succeed in creating the fast-paced, disorienting mood he seems to be striving for. An example, chosen purely by opening the book at random, is as follows:
"At Dan Tana's we're seated in the front room next to a booth of young actors and Rain tries to engage me, her foot rubbing against my ankle, and after a few drinks I mellow into acceptance even though a guy at the bar keeps glancing at Rain and for some reason I keep thinking he's the guy I saw her with in the parking lot at Bristol Farms, his arm in a sling, and then I realize I passed him on the bridge at the Hotel Bel-Air when I went to see Blair, and Rain's talking about the best way to approach the producer and director of The Listeners in terms of hiring her and how we need to do this carefully and that it's 'superimportant' she gets the part because so much is riding on this for her and I'm zoning out on other things but I keep glancing back at the guy leaning against the bar and he's with a friend and they both look like they stepped out of a soap opera and then I suddenly have to interrupt her."
I wish I could say that's exceptional but it's not. Annoying sometimes, yes, but I'll allow it as a deliberate literary technique.

What I can't get past, though, is the sheer, shallow, repulsiveness of the characters. Perhaps if I'd read Less Than Zero I'd feel some attachment to someone here, know some back story to make me care who lives or dies ... but I hadn't, and I didn't. I've said many times that any self-respecting sequel needs to work as a stand-alone novel, even if you know nothing about its predecessor, and Imperial Bedrooms fails on that score (if, indeed, LTZ was more engaging or the characters more likeable than I found them here). That, plus the fact that Clay is a sadistic rapist without even enough motive or complexity to be compelling in a Hannibal Lechter sort of way ... well, let's just say I'm glad the book was fast-paced and not all that long.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

#91: An Available Man

An Available Man, by Hilma Wolitzer
(New York: Ballantine Books, 2012)
"In this tender and funny novel, award-winning author Hilma Wolitzer mines the unpredictable fallout of suddenly becoming single later in life, and the chaos and joys of falling in love the second time around. When Edward Schuyler, a modest and bookish sixty-two-year-old science teacher, is widowed, he finds himself ambushed by female attention. There are plenty of unattached women around, but a healthy, handsome, available man is a rare and desirable creature. Edward receives phone calls from widows seeking love, or at least lunch, while well-meaning friends try to set him up at dinner parties. Even an attractive neighbor offers herself to him.

"The problem is that Edward doesn't feel available. He's still mourning his beloved wife, Bee, and prefers solitude and the familiar routine of work, gardening, and bird-watching. But then his stepchildren surprise him by placing a personal ad in The New York Review of Books on his behalf. Soon the letters flood in, and Edward is torn between his loyalty to Bee's memory and his growing longing for connection. Gradually, reluctantly, he begins dating ('dating after death,' as one correspondent puts it), and his encounters are variously startling, comical, and sad. Just when Edward thinks he has the game figured our, a chance meeting proves that love always arrives when it's least expected.

"With wit, warmth, and a keen understanding of the heart, An Available Man explores aspects of loneliness and togetherness, and the difference in the options open to men and women of a certain age. Most of all, the novel celebrates the endurance of love, and its thrilling capacity to bloom anew."

Opening Line:
"Edward Schuyler was ironing his oldest blue oxford shirt in the living room on a Saturday afternoon when the first telephone call came."

My Take:
This and I Thought You Were Dead, together, should be required reading for anyone who's laying low and convalescing, whether from a stubborn case of bronchitis or from acute heartbreak. What a lovely, understated story of widowhood, grief, loneliness, and ultimately, love. Edward is just so real and likeable; he felt like a distant but kind relative, or the neighbor you always meant to have in for supper. And some of his first forays into dating are both poignant and funny: the businesslike woman with whom he has nothing in common, but who nonetheless expects sex at the end of the evening; the friendly widow who can't stop talking about her late husband and displaying photo after photo of their lives together; the cosmetically-altered, seemingly ageless 70 year old. The supporting cast are also well-sketched, particularly Edward's fragile stepdaughter Julie and tough-old-bird mother-in-law Gladys. I'm even OK with the reasonably happy ending.

#90: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
(New York: Crown Publishers, 2010)
"Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells -- taken without her knowledge -- became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first 'immortal' human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons -- as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb's effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping, and have been bought and sold by the billions.

"Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

"Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the 'colored' ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, from Henrietta's small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia -- a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo -- to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

"Henrietta's family did not learn of her 'immortality' until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family -- past and present -- is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

"Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family -- especially Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother's cells. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn't her children afford health insurance?

"Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences."

Table of Contents:
Part One: Life
1. The Exam ... 1951
2. Clover ... 1920-1942
3. Diagnosis and Treatment ... 1951
4. The Birth of HeLa ... 1951
5. 'Blackness Be Spreadin All Inside' ... 1951
6. 'Lady's on the Phone' ... 1999
7. The Death and Life of Cell Culture ... 1951
8. 'A Miserable Specimen' ... 1951
9. Turner Station ... 1999
10. The Other Side of the Tracks ... 1999
11. 'The Devil of Pain Itself' ... 1951

Part Two: Death
12. The Storm ... 1951
13. The HeLa Factory ... 1951-1953
14. Helen Lane ... 1953-1954
15. 'Too Young to Remember' ... 1951-1965
16. 'Spending Eternity in the Same Place' ... 1999
17. Illegal, Immoral, and Deplorable ... 1954-1966
18. 'Strangest Hybrid' ... 1960-1966
19. 'The Most Critical Time on This Earth Is Now' ... 1966-1973
20. The HeLa Bomb ... 1966
21. Night Doctors ... 2000
22. 'The Fame She So Richly Deserves' ... 1970-1973

Part Three: Immortality
23. 'It's Alive' ... 1973-1974
24. 'Least They Can Do' ... 1975
25. 'Who Told You You Could Sell My Spleen?' ... 1976-1988
26. Breach of Privacy ... 1980-1985
27. The Secret of Immortality ... 1984-1995
28. After London ... 1996-1999
29. A Village of Henriettas ... 2000
30. Zakariyya ... 2000
31. Hela, Goddess of Death ... 2000-2001
32. 'All That's My Mother' ... 2001
33. The Hospital for the Negro Insane ... 2001
34. The Medical Records ... 2001
35. Soul Cleansing ... 2001
36. Heavenly Bodies ... 2001
37. 'Nothing to Be Scared About' ... 2001
38. The Long Road to Clover ... 2009

My Take:
Well worth waiting for. Just enough scientific detail about the history of cell culture and experimentation, with all its missteps and exciting developments, to provide context, but this is primarily a story about Henrietta Lacks herself, her family, and the racist, classist wrongs often done to poor, uneducated people of color in the name of science before we arrived at our current principles of medical ethics. Fascinating if often sad and infuriating read.

#89: I Thought You Were Dead

I Thought You Were Dead, by Peter Nelson 
(Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010)
 "For Paul Gustavson, a hack writer for the wildly popular For Morons series, life is a succession of obstacles, a minefield of mistakes to stumble through. His wife has left him, his father has suffered a debilitating stroke, his girlfriend is dating another man, he has impotency issues, and his overachieving brother has invested his parents' money in stocks that tanked. Still, Paul has his friends at Bay State bar, a steady line of cocktails, a new pair of running shoes, and Stella. Beautiful Stella. With long, sleek legs, kind eyes, lustrous blond hair. Their relationship is the one true bright spot in his world. She offers him sage advice on virtually every topic. And she only wets herself every once in a while.

"Stella is Paul's dog, and she listens with compassion to all his complaints about the injustices of life and gives him better counsel than any human could. In fact, she seems to know Paul better than he knows himself. It's their relationship that is at the heart of I Thought You Were Dead, a poignantly funny and deeply moving story about a man trying to fix his past in order to save his future, and about a dog who understands just what it means to be a man's best friend."

Opening Line:
"In the winter of 1998, at the close of the twentieth century, in a small college town on the Connecticut River, on the sidewalk outside a house close enough to the railroad tracks that the pictures on the walls were in constant need of straightening, not that anybody ever straightened them, Paul Gustavson, having had a bit too much to drink, took the glove off his right hand, wedged it into his left armpit, and fumbled in his pants pocket for his house keys."

My Take:
Surprising. I wouldn't have expected to enjoy a novel that opens with a run-on sentence like this, or one where the protagonist's talking dog is an important character -- but this is a sweet, gentle story about a lonely man at a crossroads trying to come to terms and move forward with his imperfect life. (And the talking dog works, even for a diehard realist like me, if you read it as Paul simply talking to his dog while they're alone, and imagining what she might say if she could indeed respond. Don't all pet owners do this?) Paul's relationship with his struggling father, which evolves primarily over the internet, is especially poignant. His ill-defined relationship with Tamsen is an interesting plot line as well, though I wasn't as satisfied with the way Nelson resolved this one.

#88: The Quickening

The Quickening, by Michelle Hoover
(New York: Other Press, 2010)
"Enidina Current and Mary Morrow live on neighboring farms in the flat, hard country of the upper Midwest during the early 1900s. This hardscrabble life comes easily to some, like Eddie, who has never wanted more than the land she works and the animals she raises on it with her husband, Frank. But for the deeply religious Mary, farming is an awkward living and at odds with her more cosmopolitan inclinations. Still, Mary creates a clean and orderly home life for her stormy husband, Jack, and her sons, while she adapts to the isolation of a rural town through the inspiration of a local preacher. She is the first to befriend Eddie in a relationship that will prove as rugged as the ground they walk on. Despite having little in common, Eddie and Mary need one another for survival and companionship. But as the Great Depression threatens, the delicate balance of their reliance on one another tips, pitting neighbor against neighbor, exposing the dark secrets they hide from one another, and triggering a series of disquieting events that threaten to unravel not only their friendship but their families as well."

Opening Line:
"My boy, you might think an old woman hasn't much to say about the living, but your grandmother knows when a person does right by her and when they don't."

My Take:
Lovely, lyrical language, but I felt like I missed something here. Maybe it's just that the characters and plot, like the setting and Hoover's writing, is spare -- so much so that it was hard to get much of a sense of Mary or of how the relationship between the two women evolved over time (though Eddie did feel authentic and likeable, at least where I was concerned). I've read books like this before, where we need to draw our own conclusions about characters' relationships based on a handful of events with many years in between, but here it just felt like there wasn't enough to go on to let me connect the dots. Eddie's eagerness to reconnect with her departed daughter and never-seen grandchild is compelling, but not given quite enough airtime (unless it was just too subtle and understated for me to appreciate) to fully draw me in. Might be better on a second reading, or with a group, but for now -- just OK.

#87: Bringing Up Bebe

Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, by Pamela Druckerman
(New York: Penguin Press, 2012)
"When American journalist Pamela Druckerman has a baby in Paris, she doesn't aspire to become a 'French parent.' French parenting isn't a known thing, like French fashion or French cheese. Even French parents themselves insist they aren't doing anything special.

"Yet the French children Druckerman knows sleep through the night at two or three months old, while children of her American friends take a year or more. French kids eat well-rounded meals that are more likely to include braised leeks than chicken nuggets. Her American friends spend their visits resolving spats between their kids, but her French friends sip coffee while the kids play.

"Motherhood itself is a whole different experience in France. There's no role model for the harried new mom with no life of her own. French mothers assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children, and that there's no need to feel guilty about this. They have an easy, calm authority with their kids that Druckerman can only envy.

"Of course, French parenting wouldn't be worth talking about if it produced robotic, joyless children. In fact, French kids are just as boisterous, curious, and creative as Americans. They're just far better behaved and more in command of themselves. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are -- by design -- toddling around and discovering the world at their own pace.

"With a notebook stashed in her diaper bag, Druckerman -- a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal -- sets out to learn the secrets of raising a society of good sleepers, gourmet eaters, and reasonably relaxed parents. She discovers that French parents are extremely strict about some things, and strikingly permissive about others. And she realizes that to be a different kind of parent, you don't just need a different parenting philosophy. You need a very different view of what a child actually is.

"While finding her own firm non, Druckerman discovers that children -- including her own -- are capable of feats of understanding and autonomy that she'd never imagined."

Table of Contents:
  • French Children Don't Throw Food
  • 1. Are You Waiting for a Child?
  • 2. Paris Is Burping
  • 3. Doing Her Nights
  • 4. Wait!
  • 5. Tiny Little Humans
  • 6. Day Care?
  • 7. Bebe au Lait
  • 8. The Perfect Mother Doesn't Exist
  • 9. Caca Boudin
  • 10. Double Entendre
  • 11. I Adore This Baguette
  • 12. You Just Have to Taste It
  • 13. It's Me Who Decides
  • 13. Let Him Live His Life
  • The Future in French

My Take:
Maybe it's just because it provides some justification for my own parenting style (my admittedly-human and thus imperfect teenager also "did her nights" at 3 months, and has always had a remarkably broad palate), but I enjoyed this book. There's always a danger, when comparing two cultures, to fall into the "A is good, B is bad" trap, and Druckerman does some of this, but she at least acknowledges some of the ways in which American parents may be onto something (for example, the far-greater prevalence of extended breastfeeding), and those in which cultural and political differences undergird those in parenting styles (i.e., it's much easier to establish and enforce widespread norms for parent and child behavior in a country where state-supported creches are ubiquitous and high-quality).

According to Druckerman, the advantages of French parenting essentially boil down to two. First is the concept of attend, or "wait." In the glossary of French parenting that precedes the body of the book, she explains "'Wait' implies that the child doesn't require immediate gratification, and that he can entertain himself." This begins in infancy, when parents pause for a moment before responding to a noise from the baby's room (is she really hungry or wet, or just stirring in her sleep?), and continues to be a common command throughout childhood, whether prompted by kids' requests for snacks or parental attention. The second is the cadre, or framework: "setting firm limits for children, but giving them tremendous freedom within those limits." While this makes sense, I do wish Druckerman had paid more attention here to the role society as a whole plays in setting these limits. Certainly, the prevalence of creches gives the French an edge here, as does (I believe, from what I've read) the far-greater value the French place on assimilation. Nonetheless, as someone who always strove to be a minimalist parent and often felt like an ill-prepared or merely grouchy one, there's more than a little appeal to the notion that a Good Parent need not follow her child around the playground, haul a week's worth of toys around in her diaper bag, or offer a pre-prepared, processed food snack every 30 minutes. (Parisian parents, says Drucker, offer children an afternoon snack -- gouter -- at about 4:30 pm, but otherwise just feed them at mealtimes along with the rest of the family.)

An interesting and thought-provoking read, especially for anyone who's had it up to here with the One True Way/ more self-sacrificing than thou parenting ethic of certain US sub-groups.

#86 Trans-Sister Radio

Trans-Sister Radio, by Chris Bohjalian 
(New York: Random House, 2000)
"When schoolteacher Allison Banks develops a crush on university professor Dana Stevens, she knows that he will give her what she needs most: gentleness, kindness, passion. Her daughter, Carly, enthusiastically witnesses the change in her mother. But a few months into their relationship, Dana tells Allison his secret: he has always been certain that he is a woman born into the wrong skin, and soon he will have a sex-change operation. Allison, overwhelmed by the depth of her love, finds herself unable to leave him—but by deciding to stay she must face questions most people never even consider. Not only will her own life and Carly's be irrevocably changed, she will have to contend with the outrage of her small Vermont community and come to terms with her lover's new sense of self—and hope against hope that her love will transcend their ingrained notions of what it means to be a man and a woman."

Opening Line:
"I was eight when my parents separated, and nine when they actually divorced."

My Take:
This is Bohjalian at his peak, worthy to stand alongside Midwives and The Double Bind rather than the remaindered pale shadows of The Night Strangers and its ilk. The story is narrated from four different perspectives: Allison's, Dana's, Carly's (who opens the book with the line above), and that of Allison's ex-husband and Carly's father, Will. Admittedly, I did predict one of the points in the closing, which was probably supposed to be a twist -- probably just because I've read too many novels by Bohjalian and Jodi Picoult. Not sure I totally buy how calmly both Allison and Carly seem to accept Dana's revelation, but the former, at least, is sufficiently well-explained that it's not wholly ridiculous. And I especially enjoyed the reaction from Allison's school community (parents demanding to have their kids transferred out of her class, a wishy-washy first year principal, etc.). If anything, the book could have used a bit more conflict among the main characters; most of it comes from the school, whereas any friction between the protagonists seems minor and quickly resolved. Still a good read, though.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

#85: Lily White

Lily White, by Susan Isaacs
New York: HarperCollins, 1996
"Meet Lily White, Long Island criminal defense lawyer. Smart, savvy, and down-to-earth, Lee can spot a phony the way her snooty mother can spot an Armani. Enter handsome career con man Norman Torkelson, charged with murder; to wit, strangling his latest mark after bilking her out of her life's savings. As the astounding twists and reverses of the Torkelson case are revealed, so too is the riveting story behind Lee's life.

"The critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling author ... Susan Isaacs has crafted her most dazzling novel of manners and morality. Lily White is a brilliantly crafted story of con artists and true lovers, of treachery and devotion -- and of one brave lawyer's triumphant fight for justice."

Opening Line:
"I was never a virgin."

My Take:
Needed something just plain entertaining after the density of 1491 and the often-heavy subject matter of Redemption ... plus, this is a small paperback that won't add much to the weight of my suitcase on the flight home. Should be fun.

(Afterwards) A fluffy, reasonably entertaining airplane read, which is about what I was looking for. Certainly worth the quarter I paid for it at the Boston Public Library book sale, though not one I'll need to keep around now that I've read it once. The book alternates between two stories:  Lily/ Lee's childhood, growing up in the fictional Shorehaven, Long Island in the 1960s and '70s; and the tale of her defending Norman Torkelson. Of the two, I found the former more interesting, but don't know exactly why. There's even a mystery of sorts in Lee's past: Who is the male partner she refers to throughout the book (but never by name), and how did they come together? My suspicions on this point were wrong not once, but three times (sort of), so props to Isaacs on that score -- though I'm not sure I'm 100% pleased with the final answer to this question.

Regarding the Torkelson case, this was a reasonably engaging story in itself. In brief, with no spoilers, even though the prosecution's case against Torkelson looks rock solid, and a professional con man does not the world's most sympathetic witness make, Lee's seen more than enough evidence to convince her that Norman's girlfriend Mary is a far more likely suspect. The trouble? Norman flatly refuses to let Lee talk to Mary, or to offer any defense for himself other than a simple, "I didn't kill her." Is he conning Lee, Mary, or both of them? What's Mary's own angle? And just how accurate are Lee's suspicions?

As I've said of many a book before, serious literature this one ain't -- but if you're looking for something fun to read on a trip, this will suffice.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

#84: Redemption

Redemption, by Leon Uris
New York: HarperCollins, c1995
"Master storyteller Leon Uris, internationally acclaimedauthor of such bestsellers as Exodus, Topaz, QB VII, Trinity, the Haj and Mitla Pass, continues the epic story of the Irish struggle for freedom in Redemption. A dramatic saga set against the backdrop of growing unrest in Ireland and a world on the brink of the First World War, Redemption weaves together a cast of unforgettable characters that form the heart and soul of three extraordinary Irish families.hey love freedom more than life,and they will fight to the death to win it.

"From the magnificence of New Zealand's green mountains, to the bloody beaches and cliffs of Gallipoli, to the streets of Dublin and the shipyards of Belfast, Redemption follows three Irish Patriots on their odysseys of freedom and passion- in a monumental tale of the men and women who loved, fought, and died for the chance to be free."

Opening Line:
"If the earth were flat, New Zealand would have fallen off it a long time ago, it's that far from Ireland."

My Take:
Much better when it sticks to storytelling. The purported letters from Winston Churchill and (towards the end) news reports from Theobald Fitzpatrick get boggy and boring at exactly the worst places. I also wish we'd spent a bit more time on the principal characters of this story (Conor Larkin's brother Liam and his son Rory, as well as Atty Fitzpatrick, Caroline Hubble, and the latter's sons), and not on replaying the events of Trinity. Still a good book, but I hope that's not a trend that's going to continue through Uris's other novels; he's otherwise a great author to read while traveling.

#83: 1491

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
"In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology, Charles C. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.

"Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew."

Table of Contents:

INTRODUCTION / Holmberg’s Mistake

1. A View from Above

PART ONE / Numbers from Nowhere?

2. Why Billington Survived
3. In the Land of Four Quarters
4. Frequently Asked Questions

PART TWO / Very Old Bones

5. Pleistocene Wars
6. Cotton (or Anchovies) and Maize (Tales of Two Civilizations, Part I)
7. Writing, Wheels, and Bucket Brigades (Tales of Two Civilizations, Part II)

PART THREE / Landscape with Figures

8. Made in America
9. Amazonia
10. The Artificial Wilderness
11. The Great Law of Peace

My Take:
Interesting, I guess, but as something to read on my own, somewhat dense and slow (or maybe that's just me).

#82: The Reeducation of Cherry Truong

The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, by Aimee Phan
New York: St. Martin's Press, 2012
"Cherry Truong’s parents have exiled her wayward older brother from their Southern California home, sending him to Vietnam to live with distant relatives.  Determined to bring him back, twenty-one-year-old Cherry travels to their homeland and finds herself on a journey to uncover her family’s decades-old secrets—hidden loves, desperate choices, and lives ripped apart by the march of war and currents of history.

"The Reeducation of Cherry Truong tells the story of two fierce and unforgettable families, the Truongs and the Vos: their harrowing escape from Vietnam after the war, the betrayal that divided them, and the stubborn memories that continue to bind them years later, even as they come to terms with their hidden sacrifices and bitter mistakes. Kim-Ly, Cherry’s grandmother, once wealthy and powerful in Vietnam, now struggles to survive in Little Saigon, California without English or a driver’s license. Cherry’s other grandmother Hoa, whose domineering husband has developed dementia, discovers a cache of letters from a woman she thought had been left behind. As Cherry pieces their stories together, she uncovers the burden of her family’s love and the consequences of their choices.

"Set in Vietnam, France, and the United States, Aimee Phan’s sweeping debut novel reveals a family still yearning for reconciliation, redemption, and a place to call home."

Opening Line:
"Cherry releases the grip around her brother, steadying her trembling feet onto the hot, bright concrete."

My Take:
A decent immigrant saga and family story, but would have been better if the title character hadn't been so much of a cipher. All we know is that she's a good student and curious about her family history, but we don't ever get much insight into what she's thinking and feeling as the events of the book unfold (or as she discovers what and how events unfolded in the past).

#81: In the Kingdom of Men

In the Kingdom of Men, by Kim Barnes
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
"1967. Gin Mitchell knows a better life awaits her when she marries hometown hero Mason McPhee. Raised in a two-room shack by her Oklahoma grandfather, a strict Methodist minister, Gin never believed that someone like Mason, a handsome college boy, the pride of Shawnee, would look her way. And nothing can prepare her for the world she and Mason step into when he takes a job with the Arabian American Oil company in Saudi Arabia. In the gated compound of Abqaiq, Gin and Mason are given a home with marble floors, a houseboy to cook their meals, and a gardener to tend the sandy patch out back. Even among the veiled women and strict laws of shariah, Gin’s life has become the stuff of fairy tales. She buys her first swimsuit, she pierces her ears, and Mason gives her a glittering diamond ring. But when a young Bedouin woman is found dead, washed up on the shores of the Persian Gulf, Gin’s world closes in around her, and the one person she trusts is nowhere to be found.

"Set against the gorgeously etched landscape of a country on the cusp of enormous change, In the Kingdom of Men abounds with sandstorms and locust swarms, shrimp peddlers, pearl divers, and Bedouin caravans—a luminous portrait of life in the desert. Award-winning author Kim Barnes weaves a mesmerizing, richly imagined tale of Americans out of their depth in Saudi Arabia, a marriage in peril, and one woman’s quest for the truth, no matter what it might cost her."

Opening Line:
 "Here is the first thing you need to know about me:  I’m a barefoot girl from red-dirt Oklahoma, and all the marble floors in the world will never change that."

My Take:
An engaging read in spite of the book jacket (which gives away and greatly overemphasizes events that don't take place till much later). The story is less about the disappearance of the aforementioned young Bedouin woman, and more about a very young woman's learning the meaning of marriage, friendship, and independence in a totally alien world. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

#80: The New Republic

The New Republic, by Lionel Shriver
(New York: Harper, 2012)
"Ostracized as a kid, Edgar Kellogg has always yearned to be popular. A disgruntled New York corporate lawyer, he's more than ready to leave his lucrative career for the excitement and uncertainty of journalism. When he's offered the post of foreign correspondent in a Portuguese backwater that has sprouted a homegrown terrorist movement, Edgar recognizes the disappeared larger-than-life reporter he's been sent to replace, Barrington Saddler, as exactly the outsize character he longs to emulate. Infuriatingly, all his fellow journalists cannot stop talking about their beloved 'Bear,' who is no longer lighting up their work lives.

"Yet all is not as it appears. Os Soldados Ousados de Barba -- 'The Daring Soldiers of Barba' -- have been blowing up the rest of the world for years in order to win independence for a province so dismal, backward, and windblown that you couldn't give the rat hole away. So why, with Barrington vanished, do terrorist incidents claimed by the 'SOB' suddenly dry up?

"A droll, playful novel, The New Republic addresses weighty issues like terrorism with the deft, tongue-in-cheek touch that is vintage Shriver. It also presses the more intimate question: What makes particular people so magnetic, while the rest of us inspire a shrug? What's their secret? And in the end, who has the better life -- the admired, or the admirer?"

Opening Line:
"Whisking into his apartment house on West Eighty-Ninth Street, Edgar Kellogg skulked, eager to avoid eye contact with a doorman who at least got a regular paycheck."

My Take:  
I didn't realize this when I checked the book out (after We Need to Talk About Kevin and So Much for That, I'm such a fan of Shriver's that her name on the spine was all the convincing I needed), but there's an interesting back story here. According to the author's note at the beginning, she completed The New Republic in 1998, but American publishers wouldn't touch it; for one, this was before Kevin and Shriver's earlier titles weren't selling well, and second, no one thought the public was interested in terrorism anyway. Then came 9/11, and it was several years before anyone could even think about releasing a book that treated the subject with anything approaching humor. The first few chapters hold some promise, so stay tuned.

Long overdue update. Mostly enjoyed the book, though it was a bit of a slow starter. Funny premise; execution not as good as Shriver's later books became.

#79: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
(New York: Ecco, 2008)
"David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle explores the silent world of the novel’s protagonist, Edgar Sawtelle. Edgar lives in Wisconsin during the middle of the twentieth century. Born mute, he is a teenager who seems to prefer the language of dogs more than the words of the adults around him. From his earliest memories, his favorite job on the farm was to name the new puppies that were born there. He chooses names randomly from a dictionary. As he grows older, his connection with the dogs becomes more profound. He helps to train them through sign language.

"Wroblewski begins his novel with Edgar’s grandfather, telling readers about how the dog farm began. When Edgar’s father, Gar, dies suspiciously, Edgar blames his uncle Claude, his father’s younger brother, who has meant nothing but trouble for the family. When Claude makes romantic overtures to Edgar’s mother, Trudy, Edgar is outraged.

"The story is filled with loving family memories until Claude arrives. Claude spends most of his time in the barn or at the local bar. The details of Claude’s life are sketchy at best and Edgar finds Claude to be two-faced. The man presents his best side to Edgar’s mother. She falls for him, allowing him to fill in the vacant spaces left behind from her husband’s death. Edgar sees the other side of Claude, a side that Edgar finds dangerous.

"When tensions become too strong between Edgar and Claude, Edgar takes his favorite dogs and runs away from home. For the story itself, this tension raises the level of curiosity for the reader. It is at this point that the novel takes on the form of a mystery or a sort of detective story. Edgar fears the police are looking for him because of an accidental death that he played a part in. Readers worry that Edgar might be caught because Claude is suggesting to local officials that Edgar committed murder. In the end, it is Edgar versus Claude—a fight to the finish. Unfortunately, there are no winners."

Opening Line:
"In the year 1919, Edgar's grandfather, who was born with an extra share of whimsy, bought their land and all the buildings on it from a man he'd never met, a man named Schultz, who in his turn had walked away from a logging team half a decade earlier after seeing the chains on a fully loaded timber sled let go."

My Take: 
OK, this one I liked. For a change, I actually preferred the first, oh, two-thirds or so to the end (suffice it to say that I have a low tolerance for characters speaking or otherwise interacting with the dead) but it was still an engaging story with deep characters and an unusual setting.

#78: Spring Fever

Spring Fever, by Mary Kay Andrews
(New York: St. Martin's Press, 2012)
"The New York Times bestselling author of Summer Rental delivers her delicious new escapist novel about small towns, old flames, and deep secrets.

"Annajane Hudgens truly believes she is over her ex-husband, Mason Bayless. They’ve been divorced for four years, she’s engaged to a new, terrific guy, and she’s ready to leave the small town where she and Mason had so much history. She is so over Mason that she has absolutely no problem attending his wedding to the beautiful, intelligent, delightful Celia. But when fate intervenes and the wedding is called to a halt as the bride is literally walking down the aisle, Annajane begins to realize that maybe she’s been given a second chance. Maybe everything happens for a reason. And maybe, just maybe, she wants Mason back. But there are secrets afoot in this small southern town. On the peaceful surface of Hideaway Lake, Annajane discovers that the past is never really gone. Even if there are people determined to keep Annajane from getting what she wants, happiness might be hers for the taking, and the life she once had with Mason in this sleepy lake town might be in her future."

Opening Line:
"From her seat in the sanctuary of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Annajane Hudgens wondered if there had ever been a more flawless day for a wedding."

My Take:
I seem to be saying or at least implying this a lot lately, but meh. I expected fluffy chick lit, sure, but it wasn't particularly original or exciting at that. It's pretty obvious from the very beginning that Celia will turn out to be evil and Annajane and Mason will get back together, and sure enough, they do. The means by which they get there aren't especially novel or entertaining. In short, Summer Rental was much more fun. I came away from this one mostly feeling like I'd read variations of this story many times before.

#77: The Life Before Us

The Life Before Us (Madame Rosa)
by Romain Gary (Emile Ajar), translated by Ralph Manheim
(New York: New Directions Pub. Corp., 1986)
"The Life Before Us is the story of an orphaned Arab boy, Momo, and his devotion to Madame Rosa, a dying 68-year-old, 220 lb. survivor of Auschwitz and retired “lady of the night.” Momo has been one of the ever-changing rag-bag of whore’s children at Madame Rosa’s boarding-house in Paris ever since he can remember. But when the check that pays for his keep no longer arrives and Madame Rosa becomes too ill to climb the stairs to their apartment, he determines to support her any way he can.

"This sensitive, slightly macabre love story has a supporting cast of transvestites, pimps, and witch doctors. Published by Romain Gary under the pseudonym of Émile Ajar, this novel won France’s premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 1975, making Gary the only author to have won the Goncourt twice (illicitly). The Life Before Us breaks many other rules, as well as the reader’s heart."

Opening Line:
"The first thing I have to tell you is that we lived on the seventh-floor walk-up, so you can take my word for it that Madame Rosa, with all the pounds  she had to lug around with her, had more than her share of daily life with all its sorrows and cares."

My Take:
This is my hometown's (and our biggest college's) community read this year, so I thought I'd give it a try even though there was little chance I'd be home enough to attend any of the community events (which I've never done in the past even when I was home, anyway). Turned out to be better and more engaging at the end, but still didn't really speak to me. This may be partly a function of the translation, but I found the stream-of-consciousness, wise-beyond-his-years-but-still-prone-to-frequent-malapropisms style in which Momo narrates the novel off-putting. Rare is the author who can make a child or adolescent narrator both engaging and authentic, and I don't think Gary pulls it off here. The book seems a surprising choice for a community read, and I can't help skeptically wondering if it was selected more because a) it reminds us that the lines between different religions, ethnicities, and genders can be quite blurry, and b) depicts strong friendships, even love, across the lines, albeit among those who live somewhat outside the margins of French society. Perhaps I'd have enjoyed the novel more if I were reading and discussing it with a group, but as it was, I don't think I fully appreciated it on my own.

#76: The Folded World

The Folded World, by Amity Gaige
(New York: Other Press, 2007)
"Charlie Shade was born into a quiet, prosperous life, but a sense of injustice dogs him. He feels destined to leave his life of "bread and laundry," to work instead with people in crisis. On his way, he meets his kindred spirit in Alice, a soulful young woman, living helplessly by laws of childhood superstition. Charlie's empathy with his clients—troubled souls like Hal, the high-school wrestling champion who undergoes a psychotic break, and Opal, the isolated young woman who claims "various philosophies have confused my life"—is both admirable and nearly fatal. An adoring husband and new father, Charlie risks his own cherished, private domestic world to help Hal, Opal, and others move beyond their haunted inner worlds into the larger world of love and connection."

Opening Line:
"At the moment she was born, five hundred miles away, a small boy, his mouth ringed with jam, paused in his play on the carpet."

My Take:
(Quickly, as I'm both backlogged and -- having gotten up at 2:45 to catch an early flight -- tired.) OK after a bit of a slow, confusing start, but not exceptional. Yet another meta-critique that may or may not have been what the author intended: for a novel that's all about how there are typically many more facets and much more complexity to an individual or a relationship than what we see on the surface, the novel almost seems too much aware of its own intricacy ... to the detriment of the characters and plot.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

#75: The Book of Fires

The Book of Fires, by Jane Borodale
(New York: Viking, 2009)
"It is 1752. Winter is approaching, and two secrets -- an unwanted pregnancy and a theft -- drive seventeen-year-old Agnes Trussel to run away from her home in rural Sussex. Lost and frightened as night descends on the menacing streets of London, she is drawn to a curious sign depicting a man holding a star. It is the home of Mr. J. Blacklock, a brooding fireworks maker who is grieving for his recently deceased wife. He hires Agnes as his apprentice, and as she learns to make rockets, portfies, and fiery rain, she slowly gains the laconic Blacklock's trust. He initiates her into his peculiar art and sparks in her a shared obsession for creating the most spectacular fireworks the world has ever seen.

"But her condition is becoming harder to conceal, and through it all, the clock is ticking -- for Agnes's secret will not stay hidden forever. Soon she meets Cornelius Soul, seller of gunpowder, and she conceives of a plan that could save her. But why does Blacklock so vehemently disapprove of Mr. Soul? And what is Blacklock hiding from her? Could he be on the brink of a discovery that will change pyrotechny forever? A summer storm is brewing -- but Agnes has no idea that her mysterious mentor has been watching her, and hatching plans of his own.

"The Book of Fires vividly evokes a dark bygone world and offers a masterful portrayal of a relationship as mysterious and tempestuous as any the Brontes imagined. Jane Borodale's portrait of 1750s London is unforgettable, from the grimy streets to the inner workings of a household where little is as it seems. Beautifully written, complex and layered, The Book of Fires is a captivating debut of fireworks, redemption, and the strange alchemy that will forever change the fortunes of a young woman once bound for ruin."

Opening Line:
"There is a regular rasp of a blade on a stone as he sharpens the knives."

My Take:
If I've read a few books lately that didn't quite live up to my expectations, I had the opposite experience here. I had only a short time to visit the library and stock up on books before my latest trip so I went through my list and grabbed about the first 8 I could find. Were I been home, this might have been one of those that stayed on the shelf untouched until it was due back ... as it was, I read almost everything I bring along as choices are limited, and I'm glad I did. Agnes is such an interesting narrator, the landscape she inhabits so unusual, and the central conflict -- will Blacklock discover her pregnancy and send her away? -- so well-crafted that I was sad for the story to end. Borodale manages to make the other characters, particularly Blacklock and the other 2 house servants, Mary Spurran and Mrs. Blight, both believable in their time and engaging for a contemporary reader. Likewise, the setting is sufficiently detailed that I felt like I could picture it without being so overly so that it lost me in the descriptions. I'll be on the lookout for other works by this author.