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.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

#67: Mohawk

Mohawk, by Richard Russo
(New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1994, c1986)
Summary:
"Mohawk, New York is one of those small towns that lie almost entirely on the wrong side of the tracks. Its citizens, too, have fallen on hard times. Dallas Younger, a star athlete in high school, now drifts from tavern to poker game, losing money, and, inevitably, another set of false teeth. His ex-wife, Anne, is stuck in a losing battle with her mother over the care of her sick father. And their son, Randall, is deliberately neglecting his school work -- because in a place like Mohawk, it doesn't pay to be too smart.

"In Mohawk, Richard Russo explores these lives with profound compassion and flint-hard wit. Out of derailed ambitions and old loves, secret hatreds and communal myths, he has created a richly plotted, densely populated, and wonderfully written novel that captures every nuance of America's backyard."

Opening Line:
"The back door to the Mohawk Grill opens on an alley it shares with the junior high."


My Take:
Was going to go for something fluffy again (Four Blondes, anyone?) but something about Russo's stories of hard luck former boom towns along the old Erie Canal seemed appropriate for my last scheduled week in Boston exile. He usually manages to be both wistful and warm-hearted at the same time. Let's see.

(time passes)

A good choice. As with Russo's other novels, he manages to portray upstate New York's Appalachia-meets-Rust-Belt, seen-better-days small towns and their inhabitants both so clearly, but with such compassion and warmth, that you almost find yourself seeing why it is that folks still live there (though you're not quite packing your own bags, of course). Mohawk isn't my world, but it's not too far away and I've driven through it often enough (this is metaphor, people; Russo's Mohawk isn't a real town, though it may as well be) that it was a good read for a homesick week. Recommended if you like portraits of small town Americana, or even if you just enjoyed Empire Falls and want to get a look at the town 30 years earlier. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

#66: Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
(New York: Back Bay Books, 2007)
 Summary:
"The sheriff's deputy at the front door brings hard news to Ree Dolly. Her father has skipped bail on charges that he ran a crystal meth lab, and the Dollys will lose their house if he doesn't show up for his next court date.

"Ree's father has disappeared before. The Dolly clan has worked the shadowy side of the law for generations, and arrests (and attempts to avoid them) are part of life in Rathlin Valley. But the house is all they have, and Ree's father would never forfeit it to the bond company unless something awful happened. With two young brothers depending on her and a mother who's entered a kind of second childhood, Ree knows she has to bring her father back, dead or alive, or else see her family turned out into the unforgiving cold.

"Sixteen-year-old Ree, who has grown up in the harsh poverty of the Ozarks, learns quickly that asking questions of the rough Dolly clan can be a fatal mistake. She perseveres past obstacles of every kind and finally confronts the top figures in the family's hierarchy.

"Along the way to a shocking revelation, Ree discovers unexpected depths in herself and in a family network that protects its own at any cost."

Opening Line:
"Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. "

My Take:
This was a Winter's Bone day. It's a short book, and I read it all on my Kindle today -- part in my apartment after polishing off the less-than-satisfying An Inconvenient Woman, and most at the Summer Arts Festival in Copley Square while waiting for the Low Anthem set. (I'd hoped to stick around for Suzanne Vega but the weather had other plans.)

Another review I found online while looking for a synopsis to steal called Woodrell's use of language "spare and judicious," which seems pretty accurate. If you've seen the acclaimed indie movie, it actually follows the book pretty closely (except for having changed Ree's youngest sibling to a sister, which hardly matters). If anything, the movie depicts a slightly-less-hardscrabble home for Ree and her family than I'd envisioned, though the relatives' homes are pretty much as I'd pictured them. I'm not sure whether to think depiction of the rural, southern Missouri Ozarks setting is too over-the-top (again, in a spare and judicious way), or if I'm just too sheltered here on the east coast, and there really is that big a difference between central New York-style Appalachia and the Central South/ Ozark variety.

Then again, I remember driving a short 20 minutes into the backcountry with Mr. Hazel a few years ago for a hike in a state forest, and being stunned just at the shanties I could see from the road and the fact that this particular flavor of poverty existed so close to my own, smug-college-town backyard. In other words, strike the question about whether there are really Ozark communities this poor and off-grid, because there probably are.

Anyway, a good book and a good movie. I'd recommend both, if you're up for something more than a little on the dark and gritty side and aren't looking for a magical happy ending.

Monday, July 23, 2012

#65: An Inconvenient Woman

An Inconvenient Woman, by Dominick Dunne
(New York: Bantam Books, 1991 c1990)
Summary:
"Wealth. Beverly Hills billionaire, banker, and art collector Jules Mendelson and his elegant, aristocratic wife, Pauline, reign as the king and queen of West Coast high society. From their lavish mountaintop estate they preside over intimate dinner parties for ambassadors and art dealers, business tycoons and film stars. But L.A.'s royal couple is about to be dethroned.

"Murder. He's a smooth dancer with Latin charm, a member of an old Spanish Land Grant family that helped found the city, and Pauline's good friend. But when Hector Paradiso dies under the most sordid and distasteful circumstances, it's Jules who takes charge -- and takes steps to make Hector's murder look like suicide.

"Justice. Philip Quennell isn't part of their world. A young writer new to L.A., he finds observing the lives of the rich and famous fascinating. Until he discovers that the wealthy live by a different set of rules, rules that say if you have enough cash and connections you can stop a murder investigation cold. Now Quennell vows to expose those who'd let a killer go free.

"Passion. Flo March is Jules's enchanting young mistress. But between pillow talk and her own unquenchable curiosity, this beautiful redhead knows far too much about Hector's death -- and Jules's life. Soon, as intrigue threatens Jules's marriage, business, and reputation, events conspire to make Flo An Inconvenient Woman."

Opening Line:
"Later he was vilified and disgraced; Archbishop Cooning denounced him from the pulpit of Saint Vibiana's as a corruptor, and the archbishop's words spread throughout the land."

My Take:
I certainly haven't given up on Rise and Shine; truth be told, it'll probably be the more satisfying of the two, though Inconvenient Woman does promise to be guilty, Klondike-in-the-freezer, glass-of-wine-on-the-coffee-table fun for a small town homebody on her own in the big city. But I'm still not fully Kindle-ized yet, and can't quite bring myself to lie in bed with an e-reader when I want to flip through a quick chapter or 2 before going to sleep. Ergo, I'm breaking out one of the paperbacks I've had stacked on my desk for a month or so (can you tell this was one of my 25-cent finds at the library book sale) for bedtime reading. 

(tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock)

Sometimes you do get what you pay for. Inconvenient Woman wasn't bad enough for me not to finish -- it's the kind of fluffy, insubstantial thing that's perfect for reading at bedtime. The chapters are short enough that you can always make it through 1 or 2, the storyline doesn't require particularly close attention, and it's not compelling enough that you find yourself starting "just one more" chapter over and over till it's suddenly 2 am. 

And that's about all I can say for it. Perhaps its a period piece, but it seems something that would have been dated even in the early 1990s (though I didn't exactly move in LA high society at the time, so what do I know?) Sure, it was 20 years ago, but would the fact of Hector's being gay really have been so scandalous that no one acknowledged it? (His penchant for barely-legal PYTs and sex for money, OK.) It also doesn't help that few of the characters are especially interesting. Make that "one." Philip Quennell has potential, but we never really get under his skin enough to feel like we know what makes him tick. Yes, he's a recovering alcoholic; yes, he wrote an expose of a book before IW opens that made him some powerful enemies; yes, he's the only person in the novel who won't back down on questioning how and why Hector's death came to be labeled a suicide. (BTW, Dunne never fully clears up who did it, either, as the never-convicted killer identified at the book's end has an alibi that's never addressed.) Flo March is a runner-up, though her beautiful-but-naive working class waitress character seems a bit dated and predictable. But as for Jules and Pauline? Not just not likeable, but not particularly dislikeable or loathsome, either. He's a rich guy with powerful connections who can pull strings the rest of us can't imagine. She's a rich guy's wife with impeccable taste (of course, her bottomless bank account doesn't hurt) who initially seems more sympathetic but ultimately reveals that she's not above pulling a few strings of her own to retain her position of privilege. All in all, the book wasn't so bad that I'd be unwilling to give Dunne's take on the rich and famous another shot, especially for a quarter -- but The Nanny Diaries or a juicy, trashy Olivia Goldsmith romp it ain't.

#64: Rise and Shine

Rise and Shine, by Anna Quindlen
(New York: Random House, 2006)
Summary:
"From Anna Quindlen, acclaimed author of Blessings, Black and Blue, and One True Thing, a superb novel about two sisters, the true meaning of success, and the qualities in life that matter most.

It’s an otherwise ordinary Monday when Meghan Fitzmaurice’s perfect life hits a wall. A household name as the host of Rise and Shine, the country’s highest-rated morning talk show, Meghan cuts to a commercial break–but not before she mutters two forbidden words into her open mike.

In an instant, it’s the end of an era, not only for Meghan, who is unaccustomed to dealing with adversity, but also for her younger sister, Bridget, a social worker in the Bronx who has always lived in Meghan’s long shadow. The effect of Meghan’s on-air truth telling reverberates through both their lives, affecting Meghan’s son, husband, friends, and fans, as well as Bridget’s perception of her sister, their complex childhood, and herself. What follows is a story about how, in very different ways, the Fitzmaurice women adapt, survive, and manage to bring the whole teeming world of New York to heel by dint of their smart mouths, quick wits, and the powerful connection between them that even the worst tragedy cannot shatter."

Opening Line:
"From time to time some stranger will ask me how I can bear to live in New York City."

My Take:
Started this on the plane from Syracuse to Philadelphia to Boston last night (I don't remember exactly which leg I was on or which airport I was cooling my heels in at the time) and it's promising; I usually like Quindlen. Stay tuned.  

(time passes)

Pretty darned good. Meatier and more nuanced than a lot of the bourgeois upper-class porn I've read, which is a lot. (And hey, I mean "porn" in the sense of "sneaking a guilty peek into how the 1% or the 0.001% lives" sense, not the "50 shades" way.) Chiefly this is because Meghan is neither the narrator nor the book's chief focus. That would be her younger sister, Bridget, who leads a far more ordinary, low-profile life as a social worker, dating a much older cop. She's close to her famous sister, sure, but seems not all that interested in basking in her limelight; if anything, it's a distraction from their relationship. Rather than being a thin frame story for a book full of designer name-dropping, Rise and Shine is more about the effects of fame and wealth on those on its periphery: spouses, siblings, kids. 

If I have to pick a quibble, it's with the almost-too-perfect character of Leo, Meghan's son and Bridget's nephew. While he shows some flashes of normal youth -- being a bit untidy, bringing a stray kitten home to his aunt's apartment on a whim, buying way too many apples -- he's otherwise depicted as just so good-natured and unspoiled (despite a mother who makes $10 million a year and a father whose investment banking career is nothing to sneeze at either) that it seems too obvious a set-up for the "worst tragedy" alluded to in the publisher's blurb. As this is part of what saves the book from a too-perfectly-wrapped-up ending, though, I'll take it. Worth a read or a recommendation.
 


Friday, July 20, 2012

#63: Nudge

Nudge: Improving Decisions 
About Health, Wealth, and Happiness
by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein 
New York: Penguin Books, 2008
Summary:
"Nudge is about choices -- how we make them and how we're led to make better ones. Authors Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein offer a new perspective on how to prevent the countless bad mistakes we make in our lives -- including ill-advised personal investments, consumption of unhealthy foods, neglect of our natural resources, and other numerous bad decisions regarding health care, our families, and education. Citing decades of cutting-edge behavioral science research, they demonstrate that sensible 'choice architecture' can successfully nudge people toward the best decision without restricting their freedom of choice. Terrifically straightforward, informative, and often very entertaining, this book is a must read for anyone with an interest in our individual and collective well-being."


Table of Contents:

Part I: Humans and Econs
  • 1. Biases and Blunders
  • 2. Resisting Temptation
  • 3. Following the Herd
  • 4. When Do We Need a Nudge?
  • 5. Choice Architecture
Part II: Money
  • 6. Save More Tomorrow
  • 7. Naive Investing
  • 8. Credit Markets
  • 9. Privatizing Social Security: Smorgasbord Style
Part III: Health
  • 10. Prescription Drugs: Part D for Daunting
  • 11. How to Increase Organ Donations
  • 12. Saving the Planet
Part IV: Freedom
  • 13. Improving School Choices
  • 14. Should Patients Be Forced to Buy Lottery Tickets?
  • 15. Privatizing Marriage
Part V: Extensions and Objections
  • 16. A Dozen Nudges
  • 17. Objections
  • 18. The Real Third Way
  • 19. Bonus Chapter: Twenty More Nudges

My Take:
Surprise, surprise. For all the behavioral economics/ consumer decision-making stuff I've read, this one was different. It focuses less on the why we make the weird, illogical decisions we do and how policies in various areas might be designed to nudge us in a spirit of what the authors call libertarian paternalism:
"The libertarian aspect of our strategies lies in the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like -- and to opt out of undesirable arrangements if they want to do so. To borrow a phrase from the late Milton Friedman, libertarian paternalists urge that people should be 'free to choose.' We strive to design policies that maintain or increase freedom of choice. ... Libertarian paternalists want to make it easy for people to go their own way; they do not want to burden those who want to exercise their freedom."


"The paternalistic aspect lies in the claim that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people's behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better. In other words, we argue for self-conscious efforts, by institutions in the private sector and also by government, to steer people's choices in directions that will improve their lives. In our understanding, a policy is 'paternalistic' if it tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves. ...


"Libertarian paternalism is a relatively weak, soft, and nonintrusive stype of paternalism because choices are not blocked, fenced off, or significantly burdened. If people want to smoke cigarettes, to eat a lot of candy, to choose an unsuitable health plan, or fail to save for retirement, libertarian paternalists will not force them to do otherwise -- or even make things hard for them. ... [Choice architects] are self-consciously attempting to move people in directions that will make their lives better. They nudge.


"A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not."
The bulk of the book offers examples from a variety of public policy arenas, from retirement savings to health care to school choice to freedom to marry. Thaler and Sunstein's writing is accessible and funny, and they're never afraid to poke some gentle fun at themselves or at the mostly well-earned reputation of economists in general. If the topic sounds interesting, you'll probably enjoy the book.

#62: The Wolves of Andover

The Wolves of Andover, by Kathleen Kent
New York: Reagan Arthur Books/ Little Brown and Company, 2010
 
Summary:
"In the harsh wilderness of colonial Massachusetts, Martha Allen is forced to take work as a servant in her cousin's home. Unwed and, at nineteen, considered by most a spinster, Martha locks wills with everyone around her -- including Thomas Carrier, the unusually tall and resolutely silent hired worker whose stubborn independence matches her own.

"There are whispers about Thomas's mysterious past and what role the taciturn 'giant' many have played in the English Civil War, which ended with the execution of King Charles I. As Martha comes to know him, she discovers a companion who respects her own outspoken nature and in whom she can confide the dark secrets of her youth. But in the rugged new world they inhabit, danger lurks both near and far. In London, King Charles II is conspiring with his lords to assemble a band of assassins to kill the man suspected of executing his father. Before long, they will arrive in New England to hunt down the man who cut off the head of a king. And at home, wolves -- in many forms -- are hungry for blood. As Thomas reveals to Martha his days as a soldier in England, she comes to see him as a kindred spirit, even as she realizes his secret will place her, and her loved ones, in danger."

Opening Line:
"The woman worked her way out of the crowd, grabbing Cromwell by the cloak, and pulled at it until he turned to face her."

My Take:
OK, something about that opening line just reminds me more than a little of Ellen in the first pages of Pillars of the Earth. That said ...

Slightly slow to draw me in (the colonial era isn't usually my favorite for historical fiction) but a compelling story once it did. Loved Martha's character and what we get to know of Thomas, who remains more than a bit of a cipher even at the end. Daniel, husband of Martha's cousin Patience and head of the household where Martha and Thomas work, turns out to have a few surprises up his own sleeve, too. Engaging and substantive read.   

#61: Rebels in White Gloves

Rebels in White Gloves: Coming of Age 
with Hillary's Class -- Wellesley '69, by Mirian Horn 
New York: Times Books/ Random House, 1999
 Summary:
"'Freak out, Suzy Creamcheese. Drop out of school before your brain rots,' urged Frank Zappa. 'Protest boxy suits! Protest big ugly shoes!' exhorted the Wellesley News. 'Get your ring before spring,' cooed the women's magazines. Reject 'inauthentic reality' in favor of 'a more penetrating existence,' advised Hillary Rodham to her fellow graduates. Whipsawed by these conflicting mandates, the Wellesley Class of '69 were women on the cusp, feeling out the new rules. Rebels in White Gloves is their story.
"When these women entered Wellesley's ivory tower, they were initiated into a rarefied world where the infamous 'marriage lecture' and white gloves at afternoon tea were musts. Many were daughters of privilege; many were going for their 'MRS.' Four years later, by the time they graduated, they found a world turned upside down by the Pill, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Roe v. Wade, the Vietnam War, student protests, the National Organization for Women, and the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment. 'Coming of age at a rare moment in history and with the equally rare privilege of an elite college education,' writes Miriam Horn, 'the women who graduated from Wellesley in 1969 were destined to be the monkeys in the space capsule, the first to test in their own lives the consequences of the great transformations wrought by the second wave of feminism.'

"For the thirtieth anniversary of the Class of '69 -- 'Hillary's class' -- Horn has created trenchant, remarkably nuanced portraits of these women, chronicling their experiments with sex, work, family, politics, and spirituality. Horn follows them as they joined SDS, tumbled into free-love communities, prosecuted pot growers, ministered to Micronesian natives, fled trust-fund security, forged and surrendered marriages, plumbed the challenges of motherhood, and coped with the uncertainties of growing older. As Horn writes, 'The women of '69 have come out as debutantes. They have also come out as lesbians, as victims of domestic abuse, as alcoholics.' In all their guises, these are wise, well-spoken women who look back on the last thirty years with great eloquence and humor, and whose coming of age mirrors all women's struggles to define themselves.

"On Commencement Day at Wellesley thirty years ago, Hillary Rodham told her classmates, 'We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us understands and attempting to create within that an uncertainty. The only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives.' In Rebels in White Gloves, Miriam Horn has created raw and intimate portraits of women on the verge. Their tumultuous life paths -- wild, funny, heartbreaking, unforgettable -- are a primer in women's history of the past fifty years and a timely attempt to make sense of the increasingly blurred line between the personal and the political."

Table of Contents:
  1. The Wellesley Years
  2. Mothers and Daughters
  3. Rebellions and New Solidarities
  4. Reinventing Womanhood
  5. Breaking the Barriers
  6. Balancing Work and Family
  7. Full-Time Moms
  8. On Their Own
  9. Spiritual Journeys
  10. In Search of Self
  11. Life's Afternoon
My Take:
Not surprisingly, I really enjoyed this one -- not least because it didn't purport to offer any neat, tidy answers. An intriguing read for anyone interested in latter twentieth century history, women's history, or how our paths are shaped by and diverge after our college experiences (I can check all of those boxes). Thankfully, less navel-gazing than some accounts I've read that try with less skill to extrapolate some greater significance from a small, non-representative sample of individuals' experiences.

#60: A Slipping-Down Life

A Slipping-Down Life, by Anne Tyler
(New York: Ivy Books, 1992, c1970)

Summary:
"The story is based on a young girl called Evie Decker who we are told in the first page of the novel is not musical. She develops an attachment however for a rock and roll singer who is called Drumstrings Casey. She begins to follow him around to all the places where he sings. He pays no attention to her and so she decides to do something dramatic.

"We are told how one night while he is playing in a club she appears with the name Casey etched on her forehead. As a result he begins to notice her, but he despises her ... . He is egotistic and concerned with furthering his own career. He plays with one man who is a drummer and who decides to act as his manager. This man is called David and he offers Evie the chance to help Drumstrings in his singing career by attending all the concerts and showing to the crowd what one woman will do for a singer. ..."


Opening Lines:
"Evie Decker was not musical. You could tell that just from the way she looked -- short and wide, heavy-footed."


My Take:
This one's a first:  the first book I read on my new, early birthday present Kindle. (Thanks, Mom.) Honestly, I think I still prefer the feel of an old-fashioned paper-and-ink novel, but the Kindle does have its place. When traveling, for example. (Though I do remember hearing some airplane neighbors on a recent flight commiserating about how hard-core readers still need to bring a non-electronic book on flights, for that takeoff and landing period when no electronic devices at all are allowed, period, the end.) 


Anyway, I read Slipping-Down Life on the train to and from Providence last weekend, and knew without checking the publication date that it must have been an early Tyler novel. There's not the depth and complexity of, say, Noah's Compass or Digging to America. It's also notably shorter than most of the Tyler books I've read, though I didn't have any pages to hold and compare so part of that may have been a function of the simpler story line needing less time and attention. Nonetheless, there are moments when Tyler even here captures small details just perfectly: the awkwardness of Evie and Violet's first trip to a rock show, for example, or the thoughtless cruelty of how Drum speaks to Evie in a key scene later (details deliberately vague to avoid spoilage). 


All in all, glad I checked this out of the library rather than buying it, as I don't think it merits repeat readings, but it was about what I wanted for an hour-long, not very scenic train ride on an overcast day. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

#59: A Map of the World

A Map of the World, by Jane Hamilton
(New York: Doubleday, 1994)
 Summary:
"The book is concerned with how one seemingly inconsequential moment can alter lives forever. Alice Goodwin, mother of two, school nurse and wife of an aspiring dairy farmer in Wisconsin, is getting ready to take her two daughters and her best friend, Theresa's two little girls to their farm pond to swim. When she goes upstairs to find her bathing suit, Lizzy, Theresa's 2-year-old, slips away to the pond and drowns. It all goes downhill from there. The town tramp, whom Alice reprimanded for constantly bringing her sick son to school, accuses Alice of molesting her child. The entire town turns on the Goodwin family, fairly new to the area, and several other mothers come forward with tales of Alice's 'abuse'. Imprisonment, trial and loss of the farm ensue and Alice's husband and Theresa become 'involved.'

"The novel is essentially about a search for authenticity in the contemporary American midwest. A couple struggles to maintain their lives on a farm, keep to ethical practices of both farming and living, and to raise their two young children, but American society stymies their efforts. The novel is an indictment of the U.S. legal system, which works with the subtlety and mercy of a sledgehammer; the farming system, which values dollars over good food and the environment; and the American idea of marriage, which is falling apart from its own internal contradictions. However, the novel manages to be very funny throughout. Its humor comes out not just in the wicked, scathing sentences of its first third, told in a voice that one imagines is close to the author's own, but also in the structural choice of placing section two in the voice of the hilariously but tragically non-verbal husband. The contrast between husband's and wife's thinking is far more eloquent and entertaining than the recent popular psychological studies on the subject of male-female mental processes. Also included: the annoyingly efficient but oblivious mother-in-law, class and race differences but from a female perspective, and the politics of a small town."

Opening Line:
"I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident."

My Take:
Yay! Once I finish this entry I'll be up to the book I'm currently reading.
Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

#58: The Inhabited World

The Inhabited World, by David Long
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
 Summary:
"Evan Molloy -- a son, husband, and stepfather -- fatally shot himself but doesn"t know why. He is now stuck in a state of purgatory in the house in Washington State where he lived and died. Currently, a woman named Maureen Keniston lives there. She is in her late thirties and is trying to restart her life after breaking off a long affair with a married man. The novel moves back and forth between the story of Evan"s increasingly troubled life and Maureen"s efforts to emerge from her own purgatory. In watching Maureen's struggles and ultimate triumph, Evan comes to see his own life and death in a completely new way."

Opening Line:
"When he looks at his hand, he sees the hand he remembers -- ropy branching veins, a ridge of waxy skin on the inside of the wrist were he fumbled a glowing iron rod at his father's forge one afternoon in 1966."

My Take:
I've said it before, but meh. Very slow. Either I didn't get something at the end (perhaps I'd already gotten bored and wasn't paying sufficient attention) but it seemed as though nothing happened. Not one of my favorites.

#57: A Proper Education for Girls

A Proper Education for Girls, by Elaine di Rollo  
(New York: Crown Publishing, 2009)
Summary:
"Not since the Bront√ęs have we seen the likes of the Talbot sisters, plucky peach growers with a peculiar upbringing and a flair for subversion. Set in England and India in the mutinous year of 1857, A Proper Education for Girls tells the story of Alice and Lilian Talbot, twins separated for the first time in their lives by their martinet father. After an affair comes to a tragic end, Lilian is banished from the Talbot mansion and married off to a sickly missionary in India. Unwilling to play the part of the demure missionary wife, beautiful, tomboyish Lilian quickly takes advantage of her husband’s hypochondria and her newfound freedom as a British expatriate, tramping off into the jungle to paint pictures of the indigenous flora and secretly learning the language and customs of her adopted homeland.

"Meanwhile, the plain but sharp-witted Alice remains on her father’s isolated estate, serving as curator to his strange and vast Collection under the watchful eye of the malevolent Dr. Cattermole. The Collection, which has taken over every inch of the rambling estate, is the essence of Victorian England -- antiquated and ingenious, austere and excessive. Twelve perfectly synchronized grandfather clocks stand at attention at the bottom of a staircase. Botanical specimens have overrun the conservatory, turning the room into a tropical greenhouse. Forgotten houseguests roam amid fossilized sea creatures, display cases of Greek pottery, and mechanical contraptions. A peach tree, inherited from their mother and planted in a wheelbarrow for portability, is a constant reminder of Lilian’s absence.

"Though Mr. Talbot has cut off all communication between the sisters, a cryptic letter from Lilian manages to slip through, and hidden in the envelope is a puzzling photograph of a tiger hunt. Alice sets about cracking the code in the letter, finding an unlikely ally in Mr. Blake, the photographer hired to document the Collection. While Mr. Talbot is absorbed in the eccentric but seemingly benign Society for the Propagation of Useful and Interesting Knowledge, Alice plots her escape from both her oppressive father and Dr. Cattermole’s unspeakable plans for her future.

"Intrigue is rife in India as well, where Lilian continues to defy convention. Playing her many admirers off one another, she quietly works toward the goal of reuniting with her sister. But the violent onset of the Indian rebellion against British rule threatens to derail her plans. And back at the Talbot estate, the Society’s experiments are taking a menacing turn. Will the sisters' resourcefulness and profound devotion to each other be enough to save them? Capturing the Victorian era in all of its whimsy and horror, A Proper Education for Girls is a superb debut novel about the power of sisterhood."
 
Opening Line:
"Travelers unfamiliar with the countryside around the great house would come upon its boundary walls with some surprise." 

My Take:
Not usually my favorite era for historical fiction, but I enjoyed this one a lot more than I expected to -- probably because of the sisters' ingenuity at making very close call escapes from what could have been truly horrific circumstances. Worth a read.

#56: House Lights

House Lights, by Leah Hager Cohen 
(New York: W. W. Norton, 2007)
 Summary:
"A poignant novel about how secrets threaten the stability of a family. Late in her twentieth year, Beatrice mails a letter on the sly, sparking events that will change her life forever. The addressee is her grandmother, a legendary stage actress long estranged from her daughter, Bea's mother. Though Bea wants to become an actress herself, it is the desire to understand the old family rift that drives her to work her way into her grandmother's graces. But just as she establishes a precarious foothold in her grandmother's world, Bea's elite Boston home life begins to crumble. Her beloved father is accused of harassment by one of his graduate students; her usually composed mother shows vulnerabilities and doubt. And Bea is falling in love with someone many would consider inappropriate. Powerfully written and psychologically complex, House Lights illuminates the corrosive power of family secrets, and the redemptive struggle to find truth, forgiveness, and love."
 
Opening Line:
"Near the end of the time that I still thought the world of him, my father and I took a walk along Memorial Drive."

My Take:
Interesting book to read in Boston, as the author's attractive but slightly ramshackle childhood home in Cambridge and her grandmother's museum-perfect Beacon Hill residence are very much characters in themselves. A more thorough review (Kathryn Harrison's from The New York Times) is here, but my own quick opinion:  The story of Beatrice's family falling apart as she grows up and flees the nest at the same time it becomes impossible to ignore her father's history of sexual misconduct is gentle, compelling, and heartbreaking. The thread that follows her desire to be an actress and sudden habit of spending every spare moment at her practically-a-stranger grandmother is less so, at least for me.

#55: Who's Your City?

Who's Your City? How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life
by Richard Florida (New York: Basic Books, 2008)
 Summary:
"It’s a mantra of the age of globalization that where you live doesn’t matter: you can telecommute to your high-tech Silicon Valley job, a ski-slope in Idaho, a beach in Hawaii or a loft in Chicago; you can innovate from Shanghai or Bangalore.

"According to Richard Florida, this is wrong. Place is not only important, it’s more important than ever.

"Globalization is not flattening the world; on the contrary, the world is spiky. Place is becoming more relevant to the global economy and our individual lives. The choice of where to live, therefore, is not an arbitrary one. It is arguably the most important decision we make, as important as choosing a spouse or a career. In fact, place exerts powerful influence over the jobs and careers we have access to, the people meet and our 'mating markets' and our ability to lead happy and fulfilled lives.

"Who’s Your City? provides the first ever-rankings of cities by life-stage, rating the best places for singles, young families and empty-nesters. And it grounds its new ideas and data to provide an essential guide for the more than 40 million Americans and over 4 million Canadians who move each year. The book shows readers how to choose where to live, and what those choices mean for their lives, happiness and communities."

Table of Contents:
  • 1. The Question of Where
Part I: Why Place Matters
  • 2. Spiky World
  • 3. Rise of the Mega-Region
  • 4. The Clustering Force
Part II: The Wealth of Place
  • 5. The Mobile and the Rooted
  • 6. Where the Brains Are
  • 7. Job-Shift
  • 8. Superstar Cities
Part III: The Geography of Happiness
  • 9. Shiny Happy Places
  • 10. Beyond Maslow's City
  • 11. Cities Have Personalities, Too
Part IV: Where We Live Now
  • 12. Three Big Moves
  • 13. The Young and the Restless
  • 14. Married With Children
  • 15. When the Kids Are Gone
  • 16. Place Yourself
My Take: 
Interesting to think about. Wish I'd read this closer to when I read The World Is Flat, or perhaps in a book group that was reading both, so I could sink my teeth into Florida's and Friedman's competing ideas more deeply.

#54: Generation Debt

Generation Debt: Why Now Is A Terrible Time to Be Young 
by Anya Kamenetz
(New York: Riverhead Books/ Penguin, 2008)

Summary:
"In this thoroughly researched and rousing manifesto, Anya Kamenetz chronicles and questions the plight of the new 'youth class': 18 — to 29-year-olds who are drowning in debt and therefore seemingly unable to 'grow up.' Many older adults perceive today's youth as immature slackers, 'twixters,' or 'boomerang kids,' who simply cannot get their act together, but Kamenetz argues that this perception is a misinformed stereotype.

"Numerous economic factors have combined to create a perfect storm for the financial and personal lives of America's youth: a college degree is essential for employment yet financially crippling to many, government grants for education are at an all-time low, Social Security and Medicare are on their deathbeds, and our parents and grandparents are retiring earlier and living longer. How will we get ourselves out of this mess? By analyzing and explaining the causes of this phenomenon, Kamenetz demonstrates the urgent need for people to begin investing in our nation's youth. Generation Debt will get you thinking in new ways about American values — and America's future."

Table of Contents:
  1. Why Generation Debt?
  2. College on Credit
  3. Low Wage Jobs
  4. Temp Gigs ...
  5. ... Without Benefits
  6. Federal Rip-Offs: Deficits, Social Security, Medicare
  7. Family Troubles: Love and Independence
  8. Waking Up and Taking Charge
My Take:
As usual, I'm going to find a cop-out:  The Frugal Law Student's blog says it better than I can (especially as it's been about a month since I read it). In a nutshell, makes some interesting points but is a bit on the whiny side in places, especially when making a crisis out of problems faced chiefly by the privileged. (The whole book isn't like this, but it gets there in places and they're the ones where I found the whining particularly grating.)

#53: The Interruption of Everything

The Interruption of Everything, by Terry McMillan  
(New York: Viking, 2005)
Summary:
Since Terry McMillan’s breakout novel Waiting to Exhale surged onto the bestseller lists, critics and readers alike have been captivated by her irreverent, hilarious, pitch-perfect tales of women’s lives and contemporary issues. With The Interruption of Everything, her sixth novel, McMillan takes on the fault lines of midlife and family life, reminds us once again of the redeeming power of friendship, and turns her eye toward the dilemma of how a woman starts to put her own needs higher on the to-do list while not shortchanging everyone else.

"Marilyn Grimes, wife and mother of three, has made a career of deferring her dreams to build a suburban California home and lifestyle with her husband, Leon. She troubleshoots for her grown kids, cares for her live-in mother-in-law, Arthurine (and elderly poodle, Snuffy); keeps tabs on her girlfriends Paulette and Bunny and her own aging mother and foster sister—all the while holding down a part-time job. But at forty-four, Marilyn’s got too much on her plate and nothing to feed her passion. She feels like she’s about ready to jump. She’s just not sure where.

Highly entertaining, deeply human, a page-turner full of heart and soul, The Interruption of Everything is vintage Terry McMillan—and a triumphant testament to the fact that the detour is the path, and living life 'by the numbers' never quite adds up."

Opening Line:
"The only reason I'm sitting on a toilet seat in the handicapped stall of the ladies' room is because I'm hiding."

My Take:
One of my more expensive finds from the May booksale at the Boston Public Library (think I paid a dollar for it), and a highly entertaining read. Things do tend to wrap up a bit too neatly and quickly at the end, which is often a peeve of mine, but it wasn't necessarily a bad ending -- just one that might have benefited from a loose end or 2.
 

Monday, July 9, 2012

#52: When She Woke

When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011)
 
Summary:
"From the author whose international bestseller, Mudbound, so hauntingly re-created America’s past comes a stunning creation of America in the near future, where faith, love, and sexuality have fallen prey to politics.

"Hannah Payne’s life has been devoted to church and family, but after her arrest, she awakens to a nightmare: she is lying on a table in a bare room, covered only by a paper gown, and cameras are broadcasting her every move to millions at home, for home observing new Chromes criminals whose skin color has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime is a new and sinister form of entertainment. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder. The victim, says the state of Texas, was her unborn child, and Hannah is determined to protect the identity of the fathera public figure with whom she’s shared a fierce and forbidden love.

"When She Woke is a stunning story about a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are released back into the population after being 'chromed.' In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a path of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she has held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes the personal."

Opening Lines: 
"When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign."

My Take:
Spectacular, contemporary/ dystopian reimagining of The Scarlet Letter.

#51: Julia's Child

Julia's Child, by Sarah Pinneo (New York: Plume, 2012)

Summary:
"A delectable comedy for every woman who has ever wondered if buying that $6 box of organic crackers makes her a hero or a sucker.

 "Julia Bailey is a mompreneur with too many principles and too little time. Her fledgling company, Julia’s Child, makes organic toddler meals with names like Gentle Lentil and Give Peas a Chance. But before she realizes her dream of seeing them on the shelves of Whole Foods, she will have to make peace between her professional aspirations and her toughest food critics: the two little boys waiting at home. Is it possible to save the world while turning a profit?

Julia's Child is a warmhearted, laugh-out-loud story about motherhood’s choices: organic vs. local, paper vs. plastic, staying at home vs. risking it all."

Opening Line:
"Though I wasn't familiar with the neighborhood, St. Agatha's was easily found in the middle of a leafy Brooklyn street."

My Take:
Funny little book -- really does, as Publisher's Weekly put it, "[Skewer] the cult of the child with an insider’s eye." Unfortunately, as this was the third or fourth BookLite in a row I read a few weeks back, the moment has passed and it seems hardly worth it to go back and remember enough detail to illustrate what I liked about it. If the summary sounds like it might be funny, you might enjoy it.

#50: Home Front

Home Front, by Kristin Hannah (New York:  St. Martin's Press, 2012)

Summary:
"All marriages have a breaking point. All families have wounds. All wars have a cost…


"In her bestselling novels Kristin Hannah has plumbed the depths of friendship, the loyalty of sisters, and the secrets mothers keep. Now, in her most emotionally powerful story yet, she explores the intimate landscape of a troubled marriage -- with this provocative and timely portrait of a husband and wife, in love and at war.


"Like many couples, Michael and Jolene have to face the pressures of everyday life — children, careers, bills, chores — even as their twelve year marriage is falling apart. Then an unexpected deployment sends Jolene deep into harm’s way and leaves defense attorney Michael at home, unaccustomed to being a single parent to their two girls. As a mother, it agonizes Jolene to leave her family, but as a soldier she has always understood the true meaning of duty. In her letters home, she paints a rose-colored version of her life on the front lines, shielding her family from the truth. But war will change Jolene in ways that none of them could have foreseen. When tragedy strikes, Michael must face his darkest fear and fight a battle of his own -- for everything that matters to his family.


"At once a profoundly honest look at modern marriage and a dramatic exploration of the price of war on an ordinary American family, Home Front is a story of love, loss, heroism, honor and ultimately, hope."

Opening Line:
"On her forty-first birthday, as on every other day, Jolene Zarkades woke before the dawn."

My Take:
Chick lit that doesn't leave you feeling like you've overindulged in Haagen-Dasz when you're done. A good beach or airline read.  

Thursday, July 5, 2012

#49: Lone Wolf

Lone Wolf, by Jodi Picoult (New York: Atria Books, 2012)

Summary:
"Edward Warren, 23, has been living in Thailand for five years, a prodigal son who left his family after an irreparable fight with his father, Luke. But he gets a frantic phone call: His dad lies comatose in a NH hospital, gravely injured in the same accident that has also injured his younger sister Cara.

"Cara, 17, still holds a grudge against her brother, since his departure led to her parents’ divorce. In the aftermath, she’s lived with her father – an animal conservationist who became famous after living with a wild wolf pack in the Canadian wild. It is impossible for her to reconcile the still, broken man in the hospital bed with her vibrant, dynamic father.

"With Luke’s chances for recovery dwindling, Cara wants to wait for a miracle. But Edward wants to terminate life support and donate his father’s organs. Is he motivated by altruism, or revenge? And to what lengths will his sister go to stop him from making an irrevocable decision?

"Lone Wolf looks at the intersection between medical science and moral choices. If we can keep people who have no hope for recovery alive artificially, should they also be allowed to die artificially? Does the potential to save someone else’s life with a donated organ balance the act of hastening another’s death? And finally, when a father’s life hangs in the balance, which sibling should get to decide his fate?"

Opening Line:
"In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have freed the tiger."

My Take:
Granted, that's a cool opening line -- but a review for this one is hardly worth my time or my reader's. (Dontcha like how I manage to be both self-deprecating and poke tongue-in-cheek fun at the apostrophe abuse that so grates on the nerves of the grammarians among us there?) It's a Jodi Picoult book, and you either like that sort of thing or you don't. I do now and again but don't expect the earth to move (unless the dizziness from the author's shifting-fonts-to-represent-different-characters technique counts).

#48: Another Piece of My Heart

Another Piece of My Heart, by Jane Green (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2012)

Summary:
"Andi has spent much of her adult life looking for the perfect man, and at thirty-seven, she's finally found him. Ethan--divorced with two daughters, Emily and Sophia--is a devoted father and even better husband. Always hoping one day she would be a mother, Andi embraces the girls like they were her own. But in Emily’s eyes, Andi is an obstacle to her father’s love, and Emily will do whatever it takes to break her down. When the dynamics between the two escalate, they threaten everything Andi believes about love, family, and motherhood—leaving both women standing at a crossroad in their lives…and in their hearts."

Opening Lines:
"The sheets are drenched. Again. Andi takes a long time to wake up, drifting in and out, aware she is hot, then freezing, then finally, when she moves into a state of consciousness, wet."


My Take:
Entertaining but forgettable fluff. (I think this and the next few were the result of a brain-dead phase I had, after a missed connection and a hellacious night in Newark stole half of a precious weekend home with my family.) Till I looked up the title online and read the jacket blurb (the book itself's been returned to the libe long ago) I'd forgotten exactly which one this was. The character's names and a vague memory of reading it in JFK and/or the Syracuse airport brought it back a little ways, but there's not much else I can say about it. The literary equivalent of a movie you won't bother going to see in the theater, but would watch at home some night when there's not much else on.

#47: Dedication

Dedication, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (New York: Atria Books, 2007)

Summary:
"What if your first love left town, without a word to anyone, days before graduation?

"What if he went on to become one of the biggest recording stars on the planet and every song he’s famous for is about you? What if, after thirteen years of getting on with your life – walking past his face on newsstands, flipping past his image on TV, tuning him out on the radio – you get the call that he has landed back in your hometown for an MTV special two days before Christmas?  What if you finally had the chance to confront him?  What would you do?


"Kate Hollis finds herself on the threshold of her thirtieth birthday, about to discover that the only way to embrace life as a fully-fledged, well-adjusted adult is to re-visit seventeen."

Opening Lines:
"'He's here.'
 "'Laura?' I ask into the phone, disoriented, voice sandy with sleep."

My Take:
Saturday of my first weekend in Boston was wet, wet, wet. As in, the 40 days and 40 nights kind of rain. OK, maybe it was closer to 4 hours, but I still don't think I could have gotten any soggier even if there had been an ark instead of just a parade of duck boats swimming by. It only hit me that morning that I'd left both my raincoat and all my umbrellas back home in NY.

About 5 minutes later, it dawned on me that I might would get wet if I went out anyway, but I was about as certain to get weepy and fragile and withdrawn if I just sat here alone in my conveniently-located but poorly lit apartment, and ... well, wet stuff dries. So I set off down Charles Street with an adventurous spring in my step, snapping artful pictures of puddles and park benches with my iPhone. I fueled up for my trek beneath the tin-punched ceilings of Panifico and vowed to walk off my delicious but generous plate o' hash before I went back home. I fell in love with Commonwealth Avenue and its memorials on every corner, flanked by the hundred-year-old townhouses with their curved fronts and indecorous flower boxes who seem to be Boston's true grandes dames. I stumbled across a Marshall's incongruously planted between a Talbot's and a La Perla, finally brought an umbrella after I was drenched enough for my hair and jacket to drip a path through the store, and told myself the funny looks I imagined getting from the Back Bay Brahmins (well, any who'd wandered into Marshall's by mistake on their way to the Kate Spade in the next block) would make for a colorful story.

And since I was right there on Boylston Street anyway, and it was a rainy day, I found myself in Copley Square across from the Boston Public Library, which just happened to be having a book sale that day. You can guess where this is going. For a dollar or in some cases (i.e., if you ain't too proud to read anything from the paperback romance boxes) a quarter apiece, I could stock up on fun reads aplenty. Most are still in the apartment unread, but I did read Dedication (you knew I'd get there eventually, right?) a few weeks ago.

Decent, but I fear McLaughlin and Kraus may always suffer from the fact that they'll never write another Nanny Diaries. Dedication was pretty good, a fun read ... but I felt like I was meant to empathize with Kate a lot more than I did. Wondering about an old flame, especially if he's gone off and become famous? No personal experience but I can imagine how it might work. But the degree to which it's become an obsession, and to which it's been The Only Thing Jake seems to have written about over the years? Not feeling it. Worth what I paid for it, I guess, but not really funny or moving enough to keep it on my shelf long-term.

#46: Sophie's World

Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, by Jostein Gaarder, translated by Paulette Moller (New York: Berkeley Books, 1997, c1994)

Summary:
"A page-turning novel as well as an exploration of the great philosophical concepts of Western thought, Sophie's World -- with more than thirty million copies in print -- has fired the imaginations of readers all over the world.


"One day fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen comes home from school to find in her mailbox two notes, each with a question: 'Who are you?' and 'Where does the world come from?' From this irresistible beginning, Sophie becomes obsessed with questions that take her far beyond what she knows of her Norwegian village. Through successive letters, she enrolls in a kind of correspondence course, covering Socrates to Sartre, with a mysterious philosopher, while also receiving letters addressed to another girl. Who is Hilde? And why does her mail keep turning up? To answer this riddle, Sophie must use the philosophy she is learning -- but the truth turns out to be far more complicated than she could have imagined."


Opening Lines:
"Sophie Amundsen was on her way home from school. She had walked the first part of the way with Joanna. They had been discussing robots. Joanna thought the human brain was like an advanced computer. Sophie was not sure she agreed. Surely a person was more than a piece of hardware?"

My Take:
Finally got around to reading this one after having it on my shelf for, well, longer than I can remember. Fascinating concept and an accessible, even enjoyable overview of Western philosophy for those who (like me) somehow didn't take that particular elective in college. The story and/or plot do get a bit bogged down at times, with the philosophy often overwhelming the Sophie-and-the-philosopher frame story ... but to be fair, part of this may be a result of the translation. Not quite a page-turner, at least for me, but still much more interesting than browsing Wikipedia or lugging around a college textbook for a taste of the history of philosophy.

#45: All Other Nights

All Other Nights, by Dara Horn (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009)

Summary:
"'How is tonight different from all other nights?' For Jacob Rappaport, a Jewish soldier in the Union army during the Civil War, it is a question his commanders have already answered for him -- on Passover, 1862, he is ordered to murder his own uncle in New Orleans, who is plotting to assassinate President Lincoln. After this harrowing mission, Jacob is recruited to pursue another enemy agent, the daughter of a Virginia family friend. But this time, his assignment isn’t to murder the spy, but to marry her. Their marriage, with its riveting and horrifying consequences, reveals the deep divisions that still haunt American life today.

"Based on real personalities like Judah Benjamin, the Confederacy’s Jewish Secretary of State and spymaster, and on historical facts and events ranging from an African-American spy network to the dramatic self-destruction of the city of Richmond, All Other Nights is a gripping and suspenseful story of men and women driven to the extreme limits of loyalty and betrayal. It is also a brilliant parable of the rift in America that lingers a century and a half later: between those who value family and tradition first, and those dedicated, at any cost, to social and racial justice for all.

"In this eagerly-awaited third novel, award-winning author Dara Horn brings us page-turning storytelling at its best. Layered with meaning, All Other Nights presents the most American of subjects with originality and insight -- and the possibility of reconciliation that might yet await us."

Opening Line:
"Inside a barrel in the bottom of a boat, with a canteen of water wedged between his legs and a packet of poison concealed in his pocket, Jacob Rappaport felt a knot tightening in his stomach -- not because he was about to do something dangerous, but because he was about to do something wrong." 

My Take:
Here's one I wish I'd reviewed for real shortly after I finished it, because I remember really liking it but can't remember enough details to offer a useful review. If the jacket blurb above intrigues you and you're a fan of Civil War fiction that's not the same old thing, check out Wendy Smith's Washington Post review, or just check out the darned book.   

#44: Walking to Gatlinburg

Walking to Gatlinburg, by Howard Frank Mosher (New York: Shaye Areheart Books, 2010)

Summary:
"A stunning and lyrical Civil War thriller, Walking to Gatlinburg is a spellbinding story of survival, wilderness adventure, mystery, and love in the time of war.

Morgan Kinneson is both hunter and hunted.  The sharp-shooting 17-year-old from Kingdom County, Vermont, is determined to track down his brother Pilgrim, a doctor who has gone missing from the Union Army.  But first Morgan must elude a group of murderous escaped convicts in pursuit of a mysterious stone that has fallen into his possession.

"It's 1864, and the country is in the grip of the bloodiest war in American history.  Meanwhile, the Kinneson family has been quietly conducting passengers on the Underground Railroad from Vermont to the Canadian border.  One snowy afternoon Morgan leaves an elderly fugitive named Jesse Moses in a mountainside cabin for a few hours so that he can track a moose to feed his family.  In his absence, Jesse is murdered, and thus begins Morgan's unforgettable trek south through an apocalyptic landscape of war and mayhem.

"Along the way, Morgan encounters a fantastical array of characters, including a weeping elephant, a pacifist gunsmith, a woman who lives in a tree, a blind cobbler, and a beautiful and intriguing slave girl named Slidell who is the key to unlocking the mystery of the secret stone.  At the same time, he wrestles with the choices that will ultimately define him – how to reconcile the laws of nature with religious faith, how to temper justice with mercy. Magical and wonderfully strange, Walking to Gatlinburg is both a thriller of the highest order and a heartbreaking odyssey into the heart of American darkness."


Opening Line:
"Years later Morgan Kinneson would conclude that it was probably reading that had gotten him and his brother, Pilgrim, into trouble in the first place."

My Take:
I didn't hate it, but this was one of those books that I had high hopes for based on some laudatory reviews, and it didn't quite live up to my expectations. Every other reviewer, it seems, calls books "lyrical," and perhaps this one was; it's been over a month but I do recall the language being intriguing, and several of the characters and scenarios Morgan wanders into have a fascinating, almost fantastic appeal. Overall, though, I had the impression that I myself was taking a long road trip through unfamiliar country: interesting and lovely to look at in places, but rather slower than I'd like in many others.

#43: My Name Is Mary Sutter

My Name Is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira (New York:  Viking, 2010)

Summary:
"In this stunning historical novel, Mary Sutter is a brilliant, headstrong midwife from Albany, New York, who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Determined to overcome the prejudices against women in medicine -- and eager to run away from her recent heartbreak -- Mary leaves home and travels to Washington, D.C. to help tend the legions of Civil War wounded. Under the guidance of William Stipp and James Blevens -- two surgeons who fall unwittingly in love with Mary's courage, will, and stubbornness in the face of suffering -- and resisting her mother's pleas to return home to help with the birth of her twin sister's baby, Mary pursues her medical career in the desperately overwhelmed hospitals of the capital.
Like Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and Robert Hicks's The Widow of the South, My Name Is Mary Sutter powerfully evokes the atmosphere of the period. Rich with historical detail (including marvelous depictions of Lincoln, Dorothea Dix, General McClellan, and John Hay among others), and full of the tragedies and challenges of wartime, My Name Is Mary Sutter is an exceptional novel. And, in Mary herself, Robin Oliveira has created a truly unforgettable heroine whose unwavering determination and vulnerability will resonate with readers everywhere.


Opening Lines:
"'Are you Mary Sutter?' Hours had passed since James Blevens had called for the midwife."

My Take:
Here's where the reviews get pretty terse and cursory. As I said, before I came to Boston, I spent a few weeks in Ohio. What I hadn't yet mentioned was that I almost got sent to Memphis for a few months. When that looked like a possibility, I began looking into what there was to keep myself busy after work and on weekends, and began making grand plans to indulge my interest in both Civil War and Civil Rights history. The trip didn't happen but a number of historical novels set during the Civil War did, and I'm still slogging my way through James M. McPherson's master single-volume work on the subject, Battle Cry of Freedom

Anyway, I enjoyed Mary Sutter. If you enjoy Civil War stories and want one with a slightly different focus than you're used to, like books about iconoclastic women ahead of their time (as opposed to reviews by redundantly verbose readers!), or enjoy fiction that touches on the historical practice of medicine, give this one a try.