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, March 24, 2012

#24: 1Q84

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)

"The year is 1984 and the city is Tokyo.

"A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver's enigmatic suggestions and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 -- 'Q' is for "question mark." A world that bears a question.' Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.

"As Aomame's and Tengo's narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shootout with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector.

"A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell's -- 1Q84 is Haruki Murakami's most ambitious undertaking yet: an instant bestseller in his native Japan, and a tremendous feat of imagination from one of our most revered contemporary writers."

Opening Line:
"The taxi's radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast."

My Take:
Interesting in the way it combines a fantasy world/ parallel universe, a mystery/ suspense story, and even a little bit of a love story ... but it wasn't worth the almost 950 pages it took to get there (or else this just isn't my genre, or something was lost in translation, any of which are possible). The concept of a parallel world with 2 moons where everything's just slightly different was interesting, but the whole Air Chrysalis novella that Tengo is ghostwriting and the Little People who featured prominently therein just left me cold. I can appreciate the positive reviews the book got, but it didn't really speak to me personally.

#23: Running the Rift

Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2012)

"Running the Rift follows the progress of Jean Patrick Nkuba from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life. A naturally gifted athlete, he sprints over the thousand hills of Rwanda and dreams of becoming the country's first Olympic medal winner in track.

"But Jean Patrick is a Tutsi in a world that has become increasingly restrictive and violent for his people. As tensions mount between the Hutu and Tutsi, he holds fast to his dream that running might deliver him, and his people, from the brutality around them. But the day comes when he realizes there is only one way he can continue competing, and suddenly he's thrust into a world where it's impossible to stay apolitical -- where the man who sold him bread a few weeks ago now spews hatred, where an identity card bearing the right word becomes his most prized possession, and where the woman he loves may be lost to him forever.

"Winner of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Naomi Benaron has written a stunning and gorgeous novel that takes us behind the headlines to reveal the causes and effects of Rwanda's tragic history and, more important, to portray the resilience of the human spirit. Through the eyes of one unforgettable boy who comes of age during that time, she explores the story of a country's unraveling, its tentative new beginning, and the love that binds its people together."

Opening Line:
"Jean Patrick was already awake, listening to the storm, when Papa opened the door and stood by the side of the bed."

My Take:
If you know me you'll know how rare this is, but I really have no words to do this book justice. Stunning, wrenching, and beautiful. I'm really trying to be objective here and not fall into that Saving Private Ryan fallacy of thinking any book that captures an especially harrowing moment must be good. But I don't think that's it; much of the book's power comes from the fact that for most of the book the violence is relatively understated, and only plays around the edges of the main characters' lives. Without spoiling too much, its most moving parts aren't pictures of graphic, wholesale slaughter after President Habyarimana's 1994 assassination (which are mercifully few), but the smaller scale human scenes that take place in its wake, specifically Jean Patrick's farewell conversation with his former schoolmaster, and Ineza's chilling insistence that daughter Bea run away with Jean Patrick rather than stay behind with her parents. I seem to be saying this left and right lately, but this is one of the best books I've read in a while.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

#22: Zero History

Zero History, by William Gibson (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2010)

"Hollis Henry worked for the global marketing magnate Hubertus Bigend once before. She never meant to repeat the experience. But she's broke, and Bigend never feels it's beneath him to use whatever power comes his way -- in this case, the power of money to bring Hollis onto his team again. Not that she knows what the 'team' is up to, not at first.

"Milgrim is even more thoroughly owned by Bigend. He's worth owning for his useful gift of seeming to disappear in almost any setting, and his Russian is perfectly idiomatic -- so much so that he spoke Russian with his therapist, in the secret Swiss clinic where Bigend paid for him to be cured of the addiction that would have killed him.

"Garreth has a passion for extreme sports. Most recently he jumped off the highest building in the world, opening his chute at the last moment, and he has a new thighbone made of rattan baked into bone, entirely experimental, to show for it. Garreth isn't owned by Bigend at all. Garreth has friends from whom he can call in the kinds of favors that a man like Bigend will find he needs, when things go unexpectedly sideways, in a world a man like Bigend is accustomed to controlling.

"As when a Department of Defense contract for combat wear turns out to be the gateway drug for arms dealers so shadowy that even Bigend, whose subtlety and power in the private sector would be hard to overstate, finds himself outmaneuvered and adrift in a seriously dangerous world."

Opening Line:
"Inchmale hailed a cab for her, the kind that had always been black, when she'd first known this city."

My Take:
A bit too much description of hotel room decor and clothing in the first few chapters; I'm a bit confused by exactly who and what everything means in this world. Maybe that's deliberate. We'll see.

Meh. I think this is the first of Gibson's oeuvre I've read, and honestly, it was a letdown. I can accept a slow-ish start in this genre; it's not what I read the majority of the time and it always seems to take me a little while to put all the who's who and who's on which side together. And the surveillance technologies were both cool and creepy, the characters at least reasonably interesting ...

But. Yeah, there's a but. Maybe I Just Didn't Get It or maybe this was the whole point, but the bad guys just, um, weren't. Hubertus Bigend, despite his awesome name, always comes off as a rich eccentric rather than someone with ill intentions. And all this skulduggery and danger around, um, getting a contract to design military or pseudo-military clothing? Frankly that seemed more than a bit of a stretch to me, and nothing in how Gibson got us there made it less so. One of those books I ended up finishing because by the time I realized it wasn't really going to get much better, it was too late not to. Definitely underwhelming, though.

#21: H.R.H.

H.R.H., by Danielle Steel (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006)

"In a novel where ancient traditions conflict with reality and the pressures of modern life, a young European princess proves that simplicity, courage, and dignity win the day and forever alter her world.

"In blue jeans and a pullover, Princess Christianna is a young woman of her times: born in Europe, educated in America, worried about the future of the world she lives in, responsible beyond her years. Christianna is the only daughter of the Reigning Prince of a European nation that takes its royalty seriously -- and her father has ironclad plans for Christianna's life, a burden that is almost unbearable.

"Now, after four years at Berkeley, life in her father's palace cannot distract Christianna from what she sees outside the kingdom -- the suffering of children, the ravages of terrorism and disease. Determined to make a difference in the world, she persuades His Royal Highness, her father, to let her volunteer for the Red Cross in East Africa. And for Christianna, a journey of discovery, change, and awakening begins.

"Under a searing East African sun, Christinanna plunges into the dusty, bustling life of an international relief camp, finding a passion and a calling among the brave doctors and volunteers. Finally free from the scrutiny of her royal life, Christianna struggles to keep her identity a secret from her new friends and coworkers -- even from Parker Williams, the young doctor from Doctors Without Borders who works alongside Christianna and shares her dedication to healing. But as violence approaches and invades the camp, and the pressures of her royal life beckon her home, Christianna's struggle for freedom takes an extraordinary turn. By a simple twist of fate, in one shocking moment, Christianna's life is changed forever -- in ways she never could have foreseen.

"From the splendor of a prince's palace to the chaos of war-torn nations, Danielle Steel takes us into fascinating new worlds. Filled with unforgettable images and a remarkable cast of characters, H.R.H. is a novel of the conflict between old and new worlds, responsibility versus freedom, and duty versus love."

Opening Line:
"Christianna stood at her bedroom window, looking down at the hillside in the pouring rain."

My Take:
It's a Danielle Steel novel; it is what it is. Definitely like her usual rich-and-famous stuff like this better than her attempts at real people and/or historical fiction, but it's still cotton candy for the brain.

#20: Heft

Heft, by Liz Moore (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012)

"Former academic Arthur Opp weighs 550 pounds and hasn't left his rambling Brooklyn home in a decade. Twenty miles away, in Yonkers, seventeen-year-old Kel Keller navigates life as the poor kid in a rich school and pins his hopes on what seems like a promising baseball career -- if he can untangle himself from his family drama. The link between this unlikely pair is Kel's mother, Charlene, a former student of Arthur's. After nearly two decades of silence, it is Charlene's unexpected phone call to Arthur -- a plea for help -- that jostles them into action. Through Arthur and Kel's own quirky and lovable voices, Heft tells the winning story of two improbable heroes whose sudden connection transforms both their lives. Like Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House, Heft is a novel about love and family found in the most unexpected places."

Opening Line:
"The first thing you must know about me is that I am colossally fat."

My Take:
A fairly quick read -- think I polished it off in a day, give or take -- but with a much bigger impact than I'd expected. Very engaging characters; one Washington Post review calls them "quirky" but that almost trivializes how perfectly, painfully human Arthur, Kel, and Charlene become. Don't miss this one. So far, up there with The Namesake among my favorites of the year.

#19: It's All Too Much

It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life With Less Stuff, by Peter Walsh (New York: Free Press, 2007)

"When you think of what it will take to clean your house, are you so overwhelmed you throw up your hands and cry, 'It's all too much"? Do you dream of having a closet where your clothes aren't crammed in so tightly that you can actually get to them? Is your basement filled with boxes of precious family mementos you haven't opened in ten years but are too afraid to toss? Are your kitchen counters overrun with appliances you've never used? Do your kids play in the living room because there's no room left in their playroom? If somewhere along the way you've simply lost the ability to keep your home organized and clutter-free, then It's All Too Much has the solution you've been searching for. Peter Walsh, the organizational guru from TLC's hit show Clean Sweep, understands how easy it is for clutter to creep into your life and how hard it is to get rid of it. In It's All Too Much, he shares his proven system for letting go of your clutter, regaining control, and living the life you imagine for yourself. Peter has helped clients from every walk of life. With his trademark humor and insight, Peter guides you step by step through the very charged process of decluttering your home, organizing your possessions, and reclaiming your life. Going way beyond color-coded boxes and storage bin solutions, It's All Too Much shows you how to reexamine your priorities and let go of the things that are weighing you down. Clearly and simply, Peter gives you the courage you need to go through your home, room by room -- even possession by possession -- and honestly assess what adds to your quality of life and what's keeping you from living the life of your dreams. Filled with real life examples and advice for homes of all sizes and personalities, It's All Too Much will set you free from the emotional baggage that goes along with clutter and help you lead a fuller, richer life with less stuff."

Table of Contents:
Part One: The Clutter Problem
1. This Is Not My Beautiful House
2. Excuses, Excuses
3. Imagine the Life You Want to Live

Part Two: Putting Clutter in Its Place
Step 1: Kick Start -- Tackling the Surface Clutter
Step 2: Hash It Out!
Step 3: Conquer Your Home
Room 1: Master Bedroom
Room 2: Kids' Rooms
Room 3: Family and Living Rooms
Room 4: Home Office
Room 5: Kitchen
Room 6: Dining Room
Room 7: Bathroom
Room 8: Garage, Basement, and Other Storerooms
Step 4: Maintenance
Step 5: Cleanup Checkup
Step 6: New Rituals
Afterword: Take What You've Learned into the World

My Take:
As organizational gurus go, I like Walsh better than most, but Lighten Up was much better and more useful. This one seems targeted to folks who have a way worse clutter problem than I do; I mean, sure, we could stand to clean out the guest room/ home office, but we don't have a dining table whose top we haven't seen in 12 years. The book's premise isn't rocket science: You only have as much space as you have, so don't hold on to more stuff than you can fit into it. Get a new book or pair of shoes? Well, you need to toss an old one. Saving bins and boxes and even roomfuls of memorabilia with intentions of making it into a scrapbook some day, or because it was Grandma's and you just can't part with it? It's not exactly honoring Grandma's memory if it's in a pile o' junk in the basement collecting dust. Worth reading, I guess, if you've got a major clutter problem and Flylady isn't quite your thing, but otherwise ... just indulging my weird fondness for self-help books, so nothing to see here.

#18: The Year We Left Home

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011)

"Named a New York Times Editors' Choice, a People magazine "Pick of the Week," and an Indie Next and Midwest Connections selection, The Year We Left Home is the career-defining novel that Jean Thompson's admirers have been waiting for: a sweeping and emotionally powerful story of a single American family during the tumultuous final decades of the twentieth century.

"Stretching from the early 1970s in the Iowa farmlands to suburban Chicago and across the map of contemporary America, The Year We Left Home follows the Erickson siblings as they confront prosperity and heartbreak, setbacks and triumphs, and seek their place in a country whose only constant seems to be breathtaking change.

"Ambitious and richly told, this is a vivid and moving meditation on our continual pursuit of happiness and an incisive exploration of the national character."

Opening Line:
"The bride and groom had two wedding receptions: the first was in the basement of the Lutheran church right after the ceremony, with punch and cake and coffee and pastel mints."

My Take:
Liked this one a lot. Spare, beautiful, mostly sad, but ending on a just slightly hopeful note. A good one.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

#17: The Anti-Romantic Child

The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy, by Priscilla Gilman (New York: Harper, 2011)

"Priscilla Gilman had the greatest expectations for the birth of her first child. Growing up in New York among writers and artists, Gilman experienced childhood as a whirlwind of imagination and creative play. Later, as a student and a scholar of Wordsworth, she embraced the poet's romantic view of children -- and eagerly anticipated her son's birth, certain that he, too, would come 'trailing clouds of glory.' But her romantic vision would not be fulfilled in the ways she dreamed. Though Benjamin was an extraordinary child, the signs of his remarkable precocity were also manifestations of a developmental disorder that would require intensive therapies and special schooling and would dramatically alter the course Priscilla had imagined for her family.

"In The Anti-Romantic Child, a memoir full of lyricism and light, Gilman explores the complexity of our hopes for our children, our families, and ourselves, and the ways in which experience can lead us to reimagine those hopes and expectations. Using Wordsworth's poetry as a touchstone, she speaks intimately of her poignant journey through crisis and disenchantment to a place of peace and resilience. Gilman illuminates the flourishing of life that occurs when we embrace the unexpected, and shows how events and situations often perceived as setbacks can actually enrich us. The Anti-Romantic Child is a courageous and inspiring synthesis of memoir and literature, one that resonates long after you finish the last page."

Opening Line:
"A few weeks after my first child, a boy named Benjamin, was born, a box arrived in the mail from a beloved former professor."

My Take:
As established in my last post (and probably long before that), I'm not a literary scholar ... but I really enjoyed this one nonetheless. Sure, it was a bit overly full of Wordsworth poems for my taste, but they were easy enough to skim (true confessions time), and the overall idea -- deriving meaning and inspiration for the challenges one faces in everyday life from the literature and other art we love -- is an appealing one. (Heck, I may not be a Wordsworth expert, but I've been moved to tears by many a Springsteen or Cohen song and even the occasional cummings, so perhaps my tastes are just a bit more contemporary.)

I'll admit to having been a bit skeptical at the beginning, partly because Gilman seemed to have a rather privileged childhood (especially until her own parents' separation, but even beyond that) and the first few chapters had a bit more name- and place-dropping than my chip-on-the-shoulder blue-collar-upbringing tastes tend to like. (The story about looking at the moon with Dad late one night would be just as sweet if it hadn't been in Spain, for example.) But this largely calms down later on, even if it never totally goes away, and I came to appreciate this sketch of an idyllic childhood as something she remembered and treasured and wanted for her own family precisely because it was both so precious and so fleeting.

And once we (OK, I) got past that stuff, this was one of the better books about parenting a special needs child that I've read. It seemed more honest than both; too many are a bit too syrupy and saint-like, and this one seemed ... I don't know, just more balanced.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

#16: The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2011)

"It's the early 1980s -- the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafes on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.

"As Madeleine tries to understand why 'it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,' real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead -- charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy, suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged, erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus -- who's been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange -- resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

"Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can't escape the secret responsible for Leonard's seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

"Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives."

Opening Line:
"To start with, look at all the books."

My Take:
Really enjoyed Middlesex and have heard mixed things about how this one compares. First chapter's been a bit slow to get into, but not lethally so.

(later) Better than average, but Middlesex it ain't. Fortunately, it did get a lot more engaging, at least for me, when we got past Madeleine's college days and out of the copious senior-English-major-seminar, pretentious literary jargon that seemed to take place there. Perhaps some of my more literary friends would have really enjoyed this piece, and even I admit -- I'd encountered enough of this gobbledygook peripherally, by osmosis, that I could recognize Eugenides's skill as a satirist. Even so, I'm a two-time social scientist, and as such, like both my fiction and my academics to be a bit more concrete.

I've also become a fan lately of truth in advertising when it comes to book jackets, and in all honesty -- this wasn't really a proper triangle. "Triangle," to me, implies that there's some sort of relationship among three parties that would be drastically altered if one of those parties were removed. Here that's not the case: Madeleine loves Leonard, Leonard loves her back (though perhaps not quite as much) but is really too consumed by his bipolar disorder (then known as manic depression) to be a proper partner, and Mitchell's had a long-standing unrequited crush on Madeleine. A brief flirtation or frisson between the two years earlier does not a triangle make. To some extent, this is a nitpick, but it does get at what I see as one of the book's chief weaknesses: while both the Mitchell-traveling-around-the-world storyline and the Madeleine-living-on-Cape-Cod-with-Leonard-while-figuring-out-what-to-do-with her-life one are reasonably well-done, they don't ever come together in a satisfactory fashion. We see them cross paths early in the novel (technically in flashbacks, as the story begins with Madeleine's graduation and running into Mitchell in a coffee shop), and then again, briefly and insignificantly, towards its end. Mitchell obsesses about Madeleine while backpacking around Greece and India, sure, but I don't recall her thinking much about him at all for the bulk of the book.

Again, I may be coming off a bit too harsh here; Marriage Plot certainly isn't awful. It's entirely possible that I just Didn't Get It, that I'm not sufficiently well-steeped in the Romantic novels Madeleine favors to really appreciate the whole marriage plot novel and thus, to understand the ways in which Eugenides is trying to allude to the same. If so, perhaps it's my loss. This was a decent book, and solidly written -- but not necessarily one I'll need to read again.

#15: A Nation of Moochers

A Nation of Moochers: America's Addiction to Getting Something for Nothing, by Charles J. Skyes (New York: St. Martins, 2011)

"Have we reached a tipping point where more Americans depend on the efforts of others than on their own? Are we becoming a nation of moochers?

A Nation of Moochers, Charles J. Sykes argues that we are already very close that point, if we have not already crossed the line. From the corporate bailouts on Wall Street, to enormous pension, health-care, and other entitlement costs, to questionable tax exemptions for businesses and individuals, to the alarming increases in personal default and dependency, the new moocher culture cuts across lines of class, race, and private and public sectors.

A Nation of Moochers explores the shift in America's character as well as the economy. Much of the anger of the current political climate stems from the realization by millions of Americans that they are being forced to pay for the greed-driven problems of other people and corporations; increasingly those who plan and behave sensibly are being asked to bail out the profligate. Sykes's argument is not against compassion or legitimate charity, but distinguishes between definable needs and the moocher culture, in which self-reliance and personal responsibility have given way to mass grasping after entitlements, tax breaks, benefits, bailouts, and other forms of feeding at the public trough.

"Persuasively argued and wryly entertaining,
A Nation of Moochers is a rallying cry for Americans who are tired of playing against the rules and paying for those who don't."

Table of Contents:
Part One: Moocher Nation
Scenes from Moocher Nation
Chapter 1. A Nation of Moochers
A Moocher Checklist
Chapter 2: Have We Reached the Tipping Point?
Moocher's Dilemma

Part Two: The Joys of Dependency
Chapter 3. The Rise of Moocher Nation
Chapter 4. The Joys of Dependency
The Kindness of Strangers (A Moocher Manifesto)
Chapter 5. Addicted to OPM (Other People's Money)
Want --> Need --> Right
Chapter 6. Feed Me

Part Three: At the Trough
I, Piggy Bank
Chapter 7. Harvesting OPN
Moocher's Dilemma II
Chapter 8. Crony Capitalism (Big Business at the Trough)

Chapter 9. The Two Americas

Part Four: Bailout Madness
Lessons in Moral Hazard
Chapter 10. Mortgage Madness
Chapter 11. Bailouts for Idiots (How to Make Out Big by Screwing Up)
Chapter 12. Walk Away from Your Mortgage!
An Interactive Reader's Exercise
Chapter 13. No, They Didn't Learn Anything

Part Five: Middle-Class Suckers
Chapter 14. The Bank of Mom and Dad
Chapter 15. Middle-Class Suckers
Chapter 16. Why Get a Job?
Chapter 17. Mooching Off the Kids

Part Six: What's Fair?
An Abbreviated History of Mooching
Chapter 18. We're All from Starnesville Now
Chapter 19. What's Fair?
Chapter 20. Step Away from the Trough

My Take:
Really mixed feelings about this one. The author has some valid points, especially about the pre-recession craziness that was the housing bubble and the bailout mania that came afterward. Unfortunately, a lot of that was tough to see and appreciate through Sykes' sophomoric style (not sure what the reviewer or jacket blurb writer was reading when calling the style "wryly entertaining," but I found it juvenile and mean-spirited myself) and blatant partisanship. Again, the jacket says the moocher problem cuts across race and class, but a disproportionate share of Skyes' references come from the likes of The Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, and even Ayn Rand (who, last I checked, was a novelist with some obvious political axes to grind, and not a political scholar). And it's amazing how often President Obama and his extended family seem to get bashed, while -- even in the chapters on the housing bubble and the bank bailouts -- references to the George W. Bush administration were surprisingly scarce.

In the same vein, I always get a little grumpy when folks try to redefine middle class to include whatever they want it to; Sykes cites a 2009 Forbes magazine story about a single mother who made $120,000 a year and was considering taking a less stressful job that paid half that, because the taxes, loss of financial aid eligibility for her kids, etc. didn't make the higher salary worth the bother. Um, just checked on the Census Bureau's website (yeah, I'm nerdy like that), and median household income in 2010 was $49,445; for family households, it was $61,544. Ya have a job where you make twice that, you're not really middle class. Just sayin'.

Would be interested to read a more balanced treatment of these issues and exploration of how the complicated mess of government benefits and entitlements we have may affect our culture, but this book wasn't it.