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.

Monday, April 30, 2012

#39: French Women Don't Get Fat

French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, by Mireille Guiliano (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

"Stylish, convincing, wise, funny -- and just in time: the ultimate non-diet book, which could radically change the way you think and live.

"French women don't get fat, but they do enjoy bread and pastry, wine, and regular three-course meals. Unlocking the simple secrets of this 'French paradox' -- how they enjoy food while staying slim and healthy -- Mireille Guiliano gives us a charming, empowering take on health and eating for our times.

"As a French teenager, Mireille (Meer-ray) went to America as an exchange student and came back fat. Fortunately, her kindly family physician, 'Dr. Miracle,' came to the rescue. Reintroducing her to classic principles of French gastronomy plus time-honored tricks of the local women, he helped restore her shape with a fresh understanding of food, drink, and living. The key? Not guilt or deprivation but learning how to get the most from the things you enjoy. Mireille has ever since relished a life of indulgence without bulge, satisfying yen without yo-yo on three meals a day.

"Now, in simple but potent strategies and dozens of recipes you'd swear were fattening, she revelas the ingredients for a lifetime of weight control -- from the emergency weekend remedy of Magical Leek Soup to everyday tricks like fooling yourself into contentment. Emphasizing freshness, variety, balance, and always pleasure, Mireille shows how virtually anyone can learn to eat, drink, and move like a French woman.

"A natural raconteur, she illustrates her philosophy in cherished personal stories: her first taste of Champagne (at age six), hunts for mushrooms and berries, and a near-spiritual rendezvous with oysters, to name but a few. She also shows us other women discovering the wonders of 'French in action,' eating smarter and more joyfully.

"For anyone who has slipped out of her Zone, missed the flight to South Beach, or accidentally let a carb pass her lips, here is a buoyant, positive way to stay trim, a culture's most precious secrets recast for the twenty-firest century. A life of wine, bread -- even chocolate -- without girth or guilt? Porquoi pas?"

Table of Contents:
  • 1. Vive l'Amerique:  The Beginning . . . I Am Overweight
  • 2. La Fille Prodigue:  Return of the Prodigal Daughter
  • 3. Short-term Recasting:  The First Three Months
  • 4. The Tales of the Three Cs
  • Entr'acte:  Stabilization and Eating for Life
  • 5. Il Faut des Rites
  • 6. The Seasons and the Seasonings
  • 7. More Recipes That Will Fool You
  • 8. Liquid Assets
  • 9. Bread and Chocolate
  • 10. Moving Like a French Woman
  • 11. States of Desire
  • 12. Life Stages
  • 12 bis. The Plan for Life
My Take:
Not surprisingly, some good ideas but if everything Guiliano recommends were as easy to say as to do, or as compatible with U.S. culture as with that of France, then American women wouldn't get fat, either. I do like the "eat real food and enjoy it, rather than diet foods," and "enjoy the food you love proudly, rather than gobbling it in secret" advice, though.

(A few books behind and heading out of town tonight for a week, so that's all I have time for.)

Friday, April 27, 2012

#38: Bed

Bed, by David Whitehouse (New York: Scribner, 2011)

"Mal Ede. a child of untamed manners and unbounded curiosity, is the eccentric eldest son of an otherwise typical middle-class family. But as the wonders of childhood fade into the responsibilities of adulthood, Mal's spirits fade too. On his twenty-fifth birthday, disillusioned, Mal goes to bed -- back to his childhood bed -- and never emerges again.

"Narrated by Mal's shy, diligent younger brother, Bed details Mal's subsequent extreme and increasingly grotesque transformation: immobility and a gargantuan appetite combine, over the course of two decades, to make him the fattest man in the world. Despite his seclusion and his refusal to explain his motivations, Mal's condition earns him worldwide notoriety and a cult of followers convinced he is making an important statement about modern life. But Mal's actions will also change the lives of his haunted parents, his brother and the woman they both love, Lou.

"In Bed, David Whitehouse has put a magnifying glass on contemporary society. Hailed as a 'momentous' (The Bookseller) debut in the UK, Bed is a mordantly funny and ultimately redemptive parable about mortality, obesity, celebrity, depression, and the broken promises of adulthood. It is one of the most audacious debut novels in years."

Opening Line:
"Asleep he sounds like a pig hunting truffles in soot."

My Take:
OK but a bit on the underwhelming side. I seem to be saying this a lot, but it was hard to get a good grasp on the characters and their motives. Mal comes off as a spoiled brat (if a deeply troubled one), and both the brother/ narrator (who never does get a name of his own) and their servile, enabling mother are ciphers. I also didn't see a lot of humor here, probably because so much of the description of Mal's condition was so horrifyingly grotesque. Heft was, in my mind, a much stronger book on similar themes.

#37: The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland) (New York: Vintage Books, 2009)

"Part blistering espionage thriller, part riveting police procedural, and part piercing expose on social injustice, The Girl Who Played with Fire is a masterful, endlessly satisfying novel.

"Mikael Blomkvist, crusading published of the magazine Millenium, has decided to run a story that will expose and extensive sex trafficking operation. On the eve of its publication, the two reporters responsible for the article are murdered, and the fingerprints found on the murder weapon belong to his friend, the troubled genius hacker Lisbeth Salander. Blomkvist, convinced of Salander's innocence, plunges into an investigation. Meanwhile, Salander herself is drawn into a murderous game of cat and mouse, which forces her to face her dark past."

Opening Line:
"She lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a narrow bed with a steel frame."

My Take:
Perhaps not quite as gripping as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I don't know that I can blame Larsson for that; part of that book's punch is that it introduced us to a completely new and unexpected (to U.S.-based readers, anyhow) take on the crime/ suspense genre, and to the complicated but fascinating character of Lisbeth Salander. Neither the genre or Lisbeth are as new to us here, but both Larsson and Salander still have a few tricks left up their sleeve. Another thriller with a social conscience, and a darned fun read to boot.

#36: The Cartoon Introduction to Economics

The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume Two:  Macroeconomics, by Grady Klein and Yoram Bauman (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012)

"Need to understand today's economy? This is the book for you. The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume Two: Macroeconomics is the most accessible, intelligible, and humorous introduction to unemployment, inflation, and debt you'll ever read.

"Whereas Volume One: Microeconomics dealt with the optimizing individual, Volume Two: Macroeconomics explains the factors that affect the economy of an entire country, and indeed the planet. It explores the two big concerns of macroeconomics: how economies grow and why economies collapse. It illustrates the basics of the labor market and explains what the GDP is and what it measures, as well as the influence of government, trade, and technology on the economy. Along the way, it covers the economics of global poverty, climate change, and the business cycle. In short, if any of these topics have cropped up in a news story and caused you to wish you grasped the underlying basics, buy this book."

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Unemployment
  3. Money
  4. Inflation
  5. Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
  6. The Role of Government
  7. Trade and Technology
  8. The Classical View of Trade
  9. Complications
  10. Foreign Aid
  11. Foreign Currencies
  12. The End of the Business Cycle?
  13. The End of Poverty?
  14. The End of Planet Earth?
  15. The End of Youth?
  16. The End
My Take:
OK, how could I pass this one up? I didn't expect to learn anything much from this, but was curious to see how the authors explained various macroeconomic concepts -- and I wasn't disappointed. As a stand-alone volume, it's probably better to read Volume One first if you don't really know much about economics, as Volume Two presumes you understand basic microeconomic concepts ... but together, they're a good refresher for someone who hasn't had econ in a while or a good intro for folks who've never had but want to understand the basics at a layperson's level.

Monday, April 23, 2012

#35: My Name Is Memory

My Name Is Memory, by Ann Brashares (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010)

"Lucy Broward is an ordinary girl growing up in the Virginia suburbs, soon to head off to college. As she prepares for her last high school dance, she allows herself to hope that this might be the night her elusive crush, Daniel Grey, finally notices her. As the events of the night unfold, though, Lucy discovers that Daniel is much more complicated than she imagined, and perceives that there's something going on here that she really doesn't understand. Why does he call her Sophia? And why does it make her feel so strange?

"Daniel Grey is no ordinary young man. Daniel has 'the memory,' the ability to recall past lives and recognize the souls of those he's previously known. And he has spent centuries falling in love with the same girl. Life after life, crossing continents and dynasties, he and Lucy (despite her changing name and form) have been drawn together -- and he remembers it all. It is both a gift and a curse. For all the many times they have come together throughout history, they have also been torn painfully, fatally, apart. A love always too short.

"As we watch Daniel and Lucy's relationship unfold during the present day, interwoven are glimpses of their history together. From 552 Asia Minor to 1918 England and 1972 Virginia, the two souls share a long and sometimes torturous path of seeking each other time and again. But just when Lucy begins to awaken to the secret of her past, to understand her relationship to Sophia, and to understand the true reason for the strength of her attraction to Daniel, the mysterious force that has torn them apart in the past reappears. Ultimately, they must confront not just their complicated history, but a persistent adversary as well, if they are ever to spend a lifetime together."

Opening Lines:
"I have lived more than a thousand years. I have died countless times."

My Take:
Brashares is still a writer of young adult novels at heart, but this one was stronger and more grown-up than, say, Sisterhood Everlasting, or than The Last Summer (of You & Me), which I remember reading and being disappointed by, though it must have been before I started the book blog.

Here, as the jacket suggests, Daniel is an old soul -- he's been around since at least the 6th century, in a sequence of different bodies and locations. What's uncommon about this is the fact that he remembers many of his past lives; most people, we're given to understand, have been around a few times before but are blissfully unaware of the fact. Daniel, on the other hand, has spent more than a millenium finding, falling in love with, and ultimately losing the same woman, always trying to make up for burning her house and village in a misdirected military raid in Asia Minor some time around 550 A.D. As you might guess, that girl/ woman is living in 21st-century Virginia as Lucy, a college-bound high school graduate who's had a crush on this mysterious Daniel guy all through senior year, and whose own sense of loss and isolation seems at first to stem (understandably) from the death of her older sister Dana from a drug overdose some years before the novel begins.

The novel's central questions are pretty much what you'd expect: Will Lucy ever remember knowing and loving Daniel in a past life? Will the two of them finally get it together on this go-round? And will Daniel's one-time older brother, Joaquin, a sinister dude who's been looking for revenge on Daniel and Sophia/ Lucy ever since Daniel stole his wife (guess who?) a couple of lifetimes ago, track them down and spoil everything?

Where the book falls short is in making the past-life romance between Sophia and Daniel seem believable. We're convinced by Daniel's recollections of the past that the two knew each other, and it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that a basically decent guy could still be carrying around guilt over having massacred the young Sophia's entire family ... but other than that, we don't really see anything in their past that helps us understand how or why they fell in love. I'm not convinced that proximity itself is enough; if it were, those folks I seem to see in the grocery store or library every week might just as well be my own soul mates. However, for someone who likes a little other-worldly mystery with their romance, and even a few interesting observations on life and death and love, you could do worse.

#34: Swimming

Swimming, by Nicola Keegan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)

"A spectacular debut about the rise of an Olympic champion -- a novel about competition, obsession, the hunger for victory, and a young girl with an unsinkable spirit struggling to stay afloat in the only way she can.

"When we first meet Pip, the extraordinary heroine of Nicola Keegan's first novel, she is landlocked in a small town in the center of Kansas, literally swimming for her life. Pip is tall and flat and smart and funny and supernaturally buoyant. On land, she has her share of troubles: an agoraphobic mother, a lost father, a drug-addled sister, and a Catholic education dominated by a group of high-energy nuns. But in the water, Pip is unstoppable. In the water, her suffering and rage are transmuted into grace and speed and beauty.

"Swimming is the story of Pip's journey from a small Midwestern swim team to her first state meet, her brutal professional training, and the final, record-breaking swims that lead to her dizzying ascent to the Olympic podium in Barcelona. It's the story of a girl who discovers, in the loneliness of adolescence, in the family tragedies that threaten to engulf her, the resilience of the human spirit and the spectacular power of her own body."

Opening Lines:
"I'm a problematic infant but everything seems okay to me. I'm sitting in Leonard's arms grabbing at his nose."

My Take:
This was one of those books that left me feeling a bit stupid and lightweight because I didn't enjoy it more than I did. It was OK, but as Ron Charles's Washington Post review points out, 
Swimming remains an unusually interior novel, contained entirely in Pip's discordant head. Even the dialogue is mediated by her voice, rendered only in italics, no quotation marks, sometimes slipping into shorthand and ellipses. This can feel a bit claustrophobic, as though we're missing a lot of what's happening outside her narrow attention. Moscow, Paris, Stanford University and other colorful locales are hard to see in much detail through the scrim of Pip's self-absorption, but if you've spent time around precocious teenagers (or been one), you'll recognize how true this sounds.
Charles' review was a positive, almost laudatory one nonetheless, but for me, the interior nature of the novel was a real roadblock. It was hard to get a real feel for any of the other characters, or even a vivid, objective picture of Pip (nee Philomena) herself. I'm glad I read the book and appreciate Keegan's literary skill, but think there's something I just didn't get here.

#33: Summer House

Summer House, by Nancy Thayer (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009)

"After years of wandering from whim to whim, thirty-year-old Charlotte Wheelwright seems to have at last found her niche. The free spirit enjoys running an organic gardening business on the island of Nantucket, thanks in large part to her spry grandmother Nona, who donated a portion of land on the family's seaside compound to get Charlotte started. Though Charlotte's skill with plants is bringing her success, cultivating something deeper with people -- particularly her handsome neighbor Coop -- might be more of a challenge.

"Nona's generosity to Charlotte, secretly her favorite grandchild, doesn't sit well with the rest of the Wheelwright clan, however, as they worry that Charlotte may be positioning herself to inherit the entire estate. With summer upon them, everyone is making their annual pilgrimage to the homestead -- some with hopes of thwarting Charlotte's dreams, others in anticipation of Nona's latest pronouncements at the annual family meeting, and still others with surprising news of their own. Charlotte's mother, Helen, a Wheelwright by marriage, brings a heavy heart. She once set aside her own ambitions to fit in with the Wheelwrights, but now she must confront a betrayal that threatens her sense of place and her sense of self.

"As summer progresses, these three women -- Charlotte, Nona, and Helen -- come to terms with the decisions they have made. Revisiting the lives and loves that have crossed their paths and the possibilities of the roads not taken, they may just discover that what they've always sought was right in front of them all along."

Opening Line:
"Charlotte had already picked the lettuces and set them, along with the bundles of asparagus tied with twine and the mason jars of fresh-faced pansies, out on the table in a shaded spot at the end of the drive."

My Take:
Better and more engaging than The Last Time I Saw You, if perhaps not quite as much so as Maine ... but to be honest, these stories are starting to run together a bit. Maybe it's about time to switch from the love-and-friendship chick lit genre to something else for a while. After I finish my current library backlog, that is.

Friday, April 20, 2012

#32: The Last Time I Saw You

The Last Time I Saw You, by Elizabeth Berg (New York: Random House, 2010)

"From the beloved bestselling author of Home Safe and The Year of Pleasures comes a wonderful new novel about women and men reconnecting with one another -- and themselves -- at their fortieth high school reunion.

"To each of the men and women in The Last Time I Saw You, this reunion means something different -- a last opportunity to say something long left unsaid, an escape from the bleaker realities of everyday life, a means to save a marriage on the rocks, or simply an opportunity to bond with a slightly estranged daughter, if only over what her mother should wear.

"As the onetime classmates meet up over the course of a weekend, they discover things that will irrevocably affect the rest of their lives. For newly divorced Dorothy Shauman, the reunion brings with it the possibility of finally attracting the attention of the class heartthrob, Peter Decker. For the ever self-reliant, ever left-out Mary Alice Mayhew, it's a chance to reexamine a painful past. For Lester Hessenpfeffer, a veterinarian and widower, it is the hope of talking shop with a fellow vet -- or at least that's what he tells himself. For Candy Armstrong, the class beauty, it's the hope of finding friendship before it's too late.

"As Dorothy, Mary Alice, Lester, Candy, and the other classmates converge for the reunion dinner, four decades melt away: desires and personalities from their youth reemerge, and new discoveries are made. For so much has happened to them all. And so much can still happen. 

"In this beautiful novel, Elizabeth Berg deftly weaves together stories of roads taken and not taken, choices made and opportunities missed, and the possibilities of second chances."

Opening Line:
"Dorothy Shauman Ledbetter Shauman is standing in front of the bathroom mirror in her black half-slip and black push-up bra, auditioning a look."

My Take:
I've read a few of Berg's novels over the years and my general impression is that they're solid if a bit inconsistent. I remember really enjoying Range of Motion, though none of the others stick in my head quite as clearly. Five chapters in and I'm most taken with Dorothy's humanness and vulnerability so far; Mary Alice seems just too meek and perfect, and Peter too stereotypically in hound dog, dump-your-loyal-wife-for-a-younger-woman midlife crisis mode. Lester has potential, though the long-ago loss of his pregnant wife and his absolute lack of interest in anything romantic since then seems a bit melodramatic. If nothing else, it'll be a good lazy weekend read after a busy week.

Not awful, and a fairly quick read, but not especially funny, entertaining, or memorable, either.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

#31: The Town That Food Saved

The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food, by Ben Hewitt (Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2010)

"For decades, the rural Vermont town of Hardwick (pop: 3,200) grappled with a challenged economy. Like so many small towns, the once-thriving regional industry had died, and the majority of the working population was forced to commute far beyond the town line to find work.

Enter the 'agripreneurs,' a group of ambitious young agricultural entrepreneurs with big ideas about how regionalized food-based enterprise can be used to create sustainable economic development and wean our nation of its unhealthy dependence on industrial food.
In The Town That Food Saved, Ben explores the contradictions inherent to producing high-end 'artisanal' food products in a working class community. To better understand how a local food system might work, he spends time not only with the agripreneurs, but also with the region’s numerous small-scale food producers, many of which have been quietly operating in the area for decades. The result is a delightfully inquisitive peek behind the curtain of the town that has been dubbed the 'Silicon Valley of local food.'"
Opening Line:
"If you come into the town of Hardwick, Vermont, from the east, you come in on Route 15, weaving through a series of curves that begin as gentle sweeps and become progressively sharper until you find yourself leaning in your seat, the view through your windshield tilted just a few degrees off its axis."

My Take:
Balanced if somewhat lightweight/ superficial look at what becoming a "local foods Mecca" can and can't do for a town -- specifically, the small and mostly blue-collar town of Hardwick, Vermont. I especially appreciated how Hewitt returned time and again to the problem of how most native Hardwickians (median income $15,000) were supposed to be able to afford $4 per gallon soy milk, $5 loaves of hand-made bread, and $20 per pound artisanal cheese. Some more possible answers to this question would have been even more appreciated, but at least the issue's on the table. An interesting companion to books like The Omnivore's Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, though probably not much of an introduction for someone not already familiar with the topic.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

#30: A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, by Joshilyn Jackson New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2012)

"Every fifteen years, trouble comes after the three Slocumb women. Now, as the youngest turns fifteen, she's desperate to know who used their yard as a makeshift cemetery, and why. The unlikely matriarch, forty-five-year-old Ginny, doesn't know the truth -- she only knows she must do everything in her power to keep it hidden. Between them is Liza, silenced by a stroke, haunted by the choices she made as a teenager, with the answers trapped inside her. To survive Liza's secrets and Mosey's insistent adventures, Ginny must learn to trust the love that braids the strands of their past -- and stop at nothing to defend their future.

"With riveting plot twists and off-kilter characters, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty introduces three generations of Slocumbs: a child on the cusp of womanhood searching for her true family; a woman whose fight to protect her daughter will toss her headlong into a second chance at first love; and a lost soul rediscovering her voice. New York Times bestselling author Joshilyn Jackson takes us on a wild ride from desperate mystery to a place of firm hope, providing once more that 'she knows how to grab a reader -- and not let go' (USA Today)."

Opening Line:
"My daughter, Liza, put her heart in a silver box and buried it under the willow tree in our backyard."

My Take:
Two chapters in, and weirdness aplenty has been established. Thirty years earlier, Ginny got pregnant at fourteen by a popular high school athlete who plied her with zombie punch, and used the hush money from his family to get away from the shameful gazes in her parents' small town and raise her daughter, Liza, on her own. Fifteen years later, Liza repeats her mother's mistake, disappears a few weeks after her still-unnamed daughter's birth, and returns two years later with a skinny toddler named Mosey who looks oddly unlike her mother and grandmother. Since Mosey's own fourteenth year, both Ginny and Liza have been a wreck, although Ginny desperately hopes that Liza's stroke will be all the bad luck the family's due for another fifteen years.

Then Ginny hires a local yokel to cut down Liza's beloved willow tree so she can put in a swimming pool, in hopes that this will aid Liza's recovery. He finds a silver box containing what Ginny can't help but recognize as the infant Mosey's clothing and toys, along with a tiny infant jawbone. The discovery sends Liza into an anguished rage, screaming words only Ginny and Mosey can decipher: "Umbay! Umbay! Geem, gee!" My baby! My baby! Give me, give!

I, for one, am intrigued.

(Next day) Well, I wasn't disappointed, and can't wait to track down some of Jackson's other novels if this one is any indication. It's not too much of a spoiler to say that both Mosey and Ginny (a/k/a Big) realize early on that the baby beneath the willow is probably Liza's child, in which case ... who the heck is Mosey? Neither knows that the other knows, and Mosey is by turns angry and terrified that Big won't want a thing to do with her once she learns she's not a blood relation. Did Liza steal someone else's baby? If so, does anyone know, and will they come to take Mosey back? And just who was the carney who allegedly fathered Liza's baby, anyway? a different kind of mystery than I'm used to -- less legal and police procedural, more family and relationship stuff -- but plenty of twists and intrigue to keep things interesting.

#29: The Litigators

The Litigators, by John Grisham (New York: Doubleday, 2011)

"The partners at Finley & Figg -- all two of them -- often refer to themselves as 'a boutique law firm.' Boutique, as in chic, selective, and prosperous. They are, of course, none of these things. What they are is a two-bit operation always in search of their big break, ambulance chasers who've been in the trenches much too long making way too little. Their specialties, so to speak, are quickie divorces and DUIs, with the occasional jackpot of an actual car wreck thrown in. After twenty-plus years together, Oscar Finley and Wally Figg bicker like an old married couple but somehow continue to scratch out a half-decent living from their seedy bungalow offices in southwest Chicago.

"And then change comes their way. More accurately, it stumbles in. David Zinc, a young but already burned-out attorney, walks away from his fast-track career at a fancy downtown firm, goes on a serious bender, and finds himself literally at the doorstep of our boutique firm. Once David sobers up and comes to grips with the fact that he's suddenly unemployed, any job -- even one with Finley & Figg -- looks okay to him.

"With their new associate on board, F&F is ready to tackle a really big case, a case that could make the partners rich without requiring them to actually practice much law.

"The Litigators is a tremendously entertaining romp filled with the kind of courtroom strategies, theatrics, and suspense that have made John Grisham America's favorite storyteller."

Opening Lines:
"The law firm of Finley & Figg referred to itself as a 'boutique firm.' This misnomer was inserted as often as possible into routine conversations, and it even appeared in print in some of the various schemes hatched by the partners to solicit business."

My Take:
Meh. Yeah, I've said this before, but I think Grisham has, too, so that seems fitting. Sadly, it seems the John Grisham of A Time to Kill, The Firm, and The Pelican Brief has either retired or gone on extended hiatus. The Litigators reads like something he texted in on his smartphone while devoting most of his attention to something else.

The Point, in so much as there is one, seems mostly to be about Big Pharma. While paying a condolence call to a recent widow in hopes of being hired to handle the deceased's estate, Figg stumbles on what he's sure is The Next Big Thing: several deaths that just might be related to Krayoxx, a fairly new cholesterol-reducing wonder drug manufactured by New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant Varrick. (Gee, I wonder what that's based on?) If Finley & Figg can get in on even a tiny piece of what they're sure will be a huge mass tort action and correspondingly huge settlement, they'll be in hog heaven. Trouble is, it's not quite clear who the real bad guy is here -- the Varrick minions, for having enough lawyers, money, and machinery to weather pretty much any legal hiccups that arise, or Finley & Figg, for being complete caricatures of every shady lawyer joke you've ever heard?

What was clear is that none of these players are especially likable. Zinc is more so, but his arrival at Finley & Figg and the way his path and the firm's go on from there are somewhat clumsy and unconvincing. What's supposed to be a sideline, about Zinc representing a family of Burmese immigrants whose son has suffered permanent brain damage from sucking on a cheap Halloween toy, is more compelling, but hasn't Grisham told us this story -- big shot lawyer gets burned out, but then finds more fulfillment in the less lucrative world of representing regular people -- already in The Street Lawyer?

Read it if you're bored or there's nothing else around, but don't expect serious entertainment here.

#28: Maine

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)

"For the Kellehers, Maine is a place where children run in packs, showers are taken outdoors, and old Irish songs are sung around a piano at night. Their beachfront property, won on a barroom bet after the war, sits on three acres of sand and pine needles nestled between stretches of rocky coast, with one tree bearing the initials 'A.H.' At the cottage, built by Kelleher hands, cocktail hour follows morning mass, nosy grandchildren snoop in drawers, and decades-old grudges simmer beneath the surface.

"As three generations of Kelleher women descend upon the property one summer, each brings her own hopes and fears. Maggie is thirty-two and pregnant, waiting for the perfect moment to tell her imperfect boyfriend the news; Ann Marie, a Kelleher by marriage, is channeling her domestic frustration into a dollhouse obsession and an ill-advised crush; Kathleen, the black sheep, never wanted to set foot in the cottage again; and Alice, the matriarch at the center of it all, would trade every floorboard for a chance to undo the events of one night, long ago.

"By turns wickedly funny and achingly sad, Maine unveils the sibling rivalry, alcoholism, social climbing, and Catholic guilt at the center of one family, along with the abiding, often irrational love that keeps them coming back, every summer, to Maine and to each other."

Opening Lines:
"Alice decided to take a break from packing. She lit a cigarette, leaning back in one of the wicker chairs that were always slightly damp from the sea breeze."

My Take:
If there were a prize for most-improved sophomore effort, I think J. Courtney Sullivan would win. Commencement was a decent enough read, but not really a serious one. While Maine is probably still closer to Oprah's book club than Pulitzer territory, it puts Sullivan in a category with Alice McDermott of poignant, nuanced, and highly accurate portraits of the Irish-American family. More details are available in Lily King's New York Times review, but I enjoyed this one, too.

Monday, April 9, 2012

#27: Bound

Bound, by Antonya Nelson (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010)

"Even after nearly two decades of marriage, Oliver and Catherine Desplaines maintain their secrets. Oliver, an aging entrepreneur, has spent his life looking for the next opportunities in business and in love. Catherine is his third wife, closer in age to his estranged daughters, and he's just fallen giddily, yet again, for an even younger woman.

"Catherine herself is seemingly placid and conent, supporting Oliver's career and heaping affection on their pet corgis, but she has ghosts of a past she scarcely remembers. When her best friend from high school dies, Catherine learns she is the namesake, and now guardian, of a missing teenage girl. Another specter of her adolescence has also risen: the notorious serial killer BTK (Bind, Torture, and Kill) is taunting Wichita police and boosting local news ratings after years of silence.

"In this time of hauntings and new revelations, the Desplaines grapple with their public and private obligations, their former selves, and uncertain ambitions. The couple, their past and future family members, and even the domesticated animals that circle them face the continuous choice between the suppression and indulgence of wild desires. Which way they turn, and what balance they find, may only be determined by those who love them most."

Opening Lines:
"The dog had two impulses. One was to stay with the car, container of civilization, and the other was to climb through the ruined window into the wild."

My Take:
Really wish I hadn't gotten too busy with Real Life to do this one justice, because this was a deceptively short book with a big impact and lot to think about. Really interesting characters here; I was all set to think Oliver, who's not only addicted to ever-younger trophy wives and girlfriends (his latest paramour, who we expect to replace Catherine by the book's end, is dubbed only Sweetheart, with no name or identity of her own), but willing to blow off a promise to visit his disabled mother-in-law in a nursing home while Catherine's out of town, was a complete heel, when Nelson surprised me by having him visit Grace (Catherine's 70-something mother, a former Women's Studies professor now enfeebled by a stroke) and relate to her with unexpected empathy and tenderness. As the title suggests, the novel seems to focus on themes of how our relationships and obligations to others -- particularly those who are weaker than we are, whether that's a frail elderly person, an orphaned teenager, a stray dog, or a willfully dependent spouse -- define us. For those interested in subtle, nuanced stories about love, marriage, and identity, this one's well worth a read.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

#26: The 3rd Alternative

The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life's Most Difficult Problems, by Stephen R. Covey (New York: FranklinCovey Co., 2011)

"From the multimillion-copy bestselling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People -- hailed as the #1 Most Influential Business Book of the Twentieth Century -- The 3rd Alternative introduces a breakthrough approach to conflict resolution and creative problem solving. One of Time magazine's 25 most influential Americans, Dr. Stephen R. Covey has helped millions transform their lives. In The 3rd Alternative, Covey turns his formidable insight to a powerful new way to resolve professional and personal difficulties and create solutions to great challenges in organizations and society.

"In any conflict, the 1st Alternative is my way and the 2nd Alternative is your way. The fight usually boils down to a question of whose way is better. There are many methods of 'conflict resolution,' but most involve compromise, a low-level accommodation that stops the fight without breaking through to amazing new results. The 3rd Alternative is about more than just an armistice -- it's about creating a new and improved reality. A departure from the usual approaches to conflict resolution, negotiation, and innovation, this book reveals a new way of thinking that will be embraced not only by the many fans who have flocked to Covey's prior books, but also by anyone who is seeking solutions in their professional or personal lives.

"The 3rd Alternative transcends traditional solutions to conflict by forging a path toward a third option, a 3rd Alternative that moves beyond your way or my way to a higher and better way -- one that allows both parties to emerge from debate or even heated conflict in a far better place than either had envisioned. With the 3rd Alternative, nobody has to give up anything, and everyone wins.

"To a world of escalating strife and contention, 3rd Alternative thinkers like those Covey profiles here bring creative solutions, peace, and healing. Through key examples and stories fro his work as a consultant, Covey demonstrates the power of 3rd Alternative thinking. His wide-ranging examples include a Canadian metropolitan police force that transformed a crime-plagued community by abandoning their 'them vs. us' mentality and changing the whole definition of police work; a father who rescued his troubled daughter from years of despair and near suicide in one surprising evening; a judge who brought a quick, peaceful end to one of the biggest environmental lawsuits in American history without setting foot in a courtroom; the principal of a high school for the children of migrant workers who raised their graduation rate from a dismal 30 percent to 90 percent and tripled their basic skill levels; a handful of little-known people who are quietly finding new ways to bring peace to the Middle East; and many others. These various groups and individuals offer living examples of how to create new and better results instead of escalating conflict, as well as how to build strong relationships with diverse people based on an attitude of winning together.

"Beyond conflict and compromise, The 3rd Alternative unveils a radical, creative new way of thinking. It is a groundbreaking but practical work that demonstrates why 3rd Alternative thinking represents the supreme opportunity of our time."

Table of Contents:
  1. The Transition Point
  2. The 3rd Alternative
  3. The 3rd Alternative at Work
  4. The 3rd Alternative at Home
  5. The 3rd Alternative at School
  6. The 3rd Alternative and the Law
  7. The 3rd Alternative in Society
  8. The 3rd Alternative in the World
  9. A 3rd Alternative Life
  10. Inside Out
My Take:
Honestly, I don't know; I'm still thinking about it. As business self-help writers go, Covey is better than most. He's got some tendency towards oversimplification, true, but I've seen far worse. And it's hard to find fault with someone who truly believes we can solve the world's problems through skillfully applied active listening and empathy (and even credits Carl Rogers for it). But I can't help but wonder if it's really as easy as he suggests to apply 3rd Alternative techniques to difficult situations. Unlike the famous 7 Habits, the 3rd Alternative stuff really does take at least 2 to tango, and what if you just plain can't see what the 3rd Alternative is or come up with some creative way to get there in a given situation?

Has potential, but as I said, I need to chew on this on for a while.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

#25: Caleb's Crossing

Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks (New York: Viking, 2011)

In her new novel, Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks once again takes a shard of little-known history and brings it vividly to life. In 1665, a young man from Martha's Vineyard becomes the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. From the few facts that survive of this extraordinary life, Brooks creates a luminous tale of passion and belief, magic and adventure.

"The voice of Caleb's Crossing belongs to Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny island settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneering English Puritans. Possessed of a restless spirit and a curious mind, Bethia slips the bonds of her rigid society to explore the island's glistening beaches and observe its native inhabitants. At twelve, she meets Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a secret bond that draws each into the alien world of the other.

"Bethia's father is Great Harbor's minister, who feels called to convert the Wampanoag to his own strict Calvinism. He awakens the wrath of the medicine men, against whose magic he must test his faith in a high-stakes battle that may cost his life and his very soul. Caleb becomes a prize in this contest between old ways and new, eventually taking his place at Harvard, studying Latin and Greek alongside the sons of the colonial elite. Bethia also finds herself in Cambridge at the behest of her imperious older brother. As she fights for a voice in a society that requires her silence, she also becomes entangled in Caleb's struggle to navigate the intellectual and cultural shoals that divide their two cultures.

"What becomes of these characters -- the triumphs and turmoil they endure in embracing their new destinies -- is the subject of this riveting and intensely observed novel. Like Brooks's beloved narrator Anna in Year of Wonders, Bethia provides an emotionally irresistible guide to the wilds of Martha's Vineyard and to the intimate spaces of the human heart. The narrative travels from the sparkling harbors of Martha's Vineyard to the mean, drafty dormitories of early Harvard and, as ever, Brooks buttresses her richly imagined fiction with the fascinating and meticulously researched detail that has brought her legions of readers and a Pulitzer Prize."

Opening Lines:
"He is coming on the Lord's Day. Though my father has not seen fit to give me the news, I have the whole of it."

My Take:
Enjoyed it, but not as much as I did People of the Book or Year of Wonders. This may be in large part because the pre-Colonial/ Colonial/ Revolutionary periods just aren't my favorites where historical fiction is concerned. Part of it, though, was that I was a bit frustrated at not seeing and learning more of Caleb's life firsthand. On one hand, the book's supposed to be about him (at least, so I was led to believe by the jacket), but on the other, Bethia narrates it, and once their closeness wanes, we see only the scraps of his life here and there that she learns about. The quasi-epilogue of an ending was also less than satisfactory, as I didn't feel we'd seen enough of Bethia's life between the end of the main narrative and her old age (and presumably imminent death). Again, still a solid read that I'd recommend, but (in my opinion, anyway) not quite up to the level of the other Brooks novels I've read.