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, August 19, 2012

#75: The Book of Fires

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 16, 2012

#74: The Reader

The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink
translated by Carol Brown Janeway
(New York: Vintage International, 2008, c1997)
"When young Michael Berg falls ill on his way home from school, he is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover, enthralling him with her passion, but puzzling him with her odd silences. Then she disappears.
"Michael next sees Hanna when she is on trial for a hideous crime, refusing to defend herself. As he watches, he begins to realize that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder."

Opening Line:
"When I was fifteen, I got hepatitis."

My Take:
Liked the earlier segment of the story, in which Michael and Hanna become unlikely but passionate lovers despite Hanna clearly having some skeletons in her closet (and frankly, if she's a 36 year old woman having a clandestine affair with a 15 year old boy, doesn't this almost go without saying?) rather more than the later, in which Michael is a grown man studying law and Hanna on trial for war crimes. Maybe that's because I'd figured out Hanna's secret fairly early on, so the big reveal didn't have the punch it might. Maybe it's because I've read rather a lot of World War II novels (which would be screamingly obvious to my readers if I actually had any), and while the events of which Hanna is accused are certainly horrific, neither the Nazi atrocities nor the legal drama was the most compelling example of their genres that I've ever read. To be fair, both might read better a) in the original German, and b) to someone more intimately familiar with German culture and how WWII has affected subsequent generations. A well-written book with interesting imagery, even in translation, but not quite all I'd hoped for.

#73: One True Thing

One True Thing, by Anna Quindlen
(New York:  Dell, 1995)
"Ellen Gulden is in jail, accused of the mercy killing of her mother. She says she didn't do it; she thinks she knows who did.

"When Ellen learns of her mother Kate's cancer, the disease is already far advanced. Her father insists that Ellen quit her job and come home to take care of her, and as Ellen begins to spend her days with Kate, she learns many surprising things, about herself, her mother, and the life choices they both made. But as Kate's illness progresses, and her pain increases, so do the dosages of morphine. And so does Ellen's belief that her mother's suffering is unendurable....

"Widely admired for her intelligence, humor and insight, and for the depth of her perceptions about the public and private lives of ordinary people, Quindlen writes masterfully, and with great sophistication and grace about love and death, sexuality and betrayal, the triangles within a family, identity, growth, and change. Exploring the ambiguities that make up marriage, character, family, and fate, One True Thing takes each of us to the mysteries at the heart of the person we think we are, of who and what we know."

Opening Line:
"Jail is not as bad as you might imagine."

My Take:
This one is beautiful, heartbreaking, powerful. Not in a very wordy mood for once, but really loved it. 

#72: Four Blondes

Four Blondes, by Candace Bushnell
(New York: Signet/ Grove Press, 2002, c2000)
"Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell returns to the playgrounds of Manhattan's powerful and beautiful with her sizzling sensation Four Blondes, which gives an insider's look at the romantic intrigues, liaisons, and betrayals among the elite. She chronicles the lives of four beautiful women -- a model, a columnist, a socialite, and a writer -- as they face turning points at which each must choose among her passions.
"Studded with Bushnell's trademark wit and stiletto-heel-sharp insights, Four Blondes serves up the zeitgeist and mores of our era with gossipy, scandalous verve."

Opening Line:
"Janey Wilcox spent every summer for the last ten years in the Hamptons, and she'd never once rented a house or paid for anything, save for an occasional Jitney ticket."

My Take:
Ugh. Everything annoying and shallow and makes-you-want-to-claw-your-eyes-out about Sex and the City (the TV show; never read the book and may not bother after this) with none of the redeeming qualities (friendship, characters with at least some depth, etc.). Not a likeable person in the whole book. Also seemed remarkably dated for the early '00s, as if a story line from the 1980s somehow turned up behind the old washing machine. If I hadn't been up way too early for a flight and too tired and sad to focus on anything else, I wouldn't have bothered to finish it.

Friday, August 10, 2012

#71: The Cookbook Collector

The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman
(New York: The Dial Press, 2010)
"Heralded as 'a modern-day Jane Austen' by USA Today, National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author Allegra Goodman has compelled and delighted hundreds of thousands of readers. Now, in her most ambitious work yet, Goodman weaves together the worlds of Silicon Valley and rare book collecting in a delicious novel about appetite, temptation, and fulfullment.

"Emily and Jessamine Bach are opposited in every way: Twenty-eight-year-old Emily is the CEO of Veritech, twenty-three-year-old Jess is an environmental activist and graduate student in philosophy. Pragmatic Emily is making a fortune in Silicon Valley, romantic Jess works in an antiquarian bookstore. Emily is rational and driven, while Jess is dreamy and whimsical. Emily's boyfriend, Jonathan, is fantastically successful. Jess's boyfriends, not so much -- as her employer George points out in what he hopes is a completely disinterested way.

"Passionate, surprising, rich in ideas and characters, The Cookbook Collector is a novel about getting and spending, and about the substitutions we make when we can't find what we're looking for: reading cookbooks instead of cooking, speculating instead of creating, collecting instead of living. But above all it is about holding onto what is real in a virtual world: love that stays."

Opening Lines:
"Rain at last. Much-needed rain, the weathermen called it."

My Take:
A good read -- perfect blend of being interesting enough to keep me turning pages, but substantial enough for me to care about the characters. Not big on weighty matters while I was home last week, or, for that matter, since I've come back to work (and soul-sucking travel) this week. 

#70: Under the Banner of Heaven

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
by Jon Krakauer
(New York: Doubleday, 2003)
"Jon Krakauer's literary reputation rests on insightful chronicles of lives conducted at the outer limits. In Under the Banner of Heaven, he shifts his focus from extremes of physical adventure to extremes of religious belief within our own borders. At the core of his book is an appalling double murder committed by a pair of Mormon Fundamentalist brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a revelation from God commanding them to kill their blameless victims. Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this crime, Krakauer constructs a multilayered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, savage violence, and unyielding faith. In the process, he uncovers a shadowy offshoot of America's fastest-growing religion, analyzes the abduction of fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart (and her forced 'marriage' to her polygamous kidnapper), and raises provocative questions about the nature of religious belief.

"Krakauer takes readers inside isolated communities in the American West, Canada, and Mexico, where some forty thousand Mormon Fundamentalists believe that the mainstream Mormon Church went unforgivably astray when it renounced polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the leaders of these outlaw sects are zealots who answer only to God. Marrying prodigiously and with virtual impunity (the leader of the largest fundamentalist church took seventy-five 'plural wives,' several of whom were wed to him when they were fourteen or fifteen and he was in his eighties), fundamendalist prophets exercise absolute control over the lives of their followers and preach that any day now this world will be swept clean in a hurricane of fire, sparing only their most obedient adherents.

"Weaving the story of the Lafferty brothers and their fantastical brethren with a clear-eyed look at Mormonism's violent past, Krakauer examines the underbelly of the United States' most successful homegrown faith and finds a distinctly American brand of religious extremism. The result is vintage Krakauer, an utterly compelling work of nonfiction that illuminates an otherwise confounding realm of human behavior."

Opening Line:
"Almost everyone in Utah County has heard of the Lafferty boys."

My Take:
I'll give Krakauer credit, and assume that much of what he describes was more shocking when he first published his book 9 years ago, before so many similar news and fiction accounts have been aired. That said, it's a good book and I still like his work, but would have liked him to have focused more on contemporary Mormon Fundamentalism and less on the history of Mormonism. I know his point is that the faith's violent past somehow leads to the fundamentalist horrors that bubble up now and again, but he doesn't sufficiently convince the reader how Mormonism is different in this regard from, oh, Judaism or Christianity -- both of which have plenty of violence in their own histories. Is it just because Mormonism is more hierarchical and values absolute obedience more highly? Or is there something else? A decent read, but again, the history seemed a bit too Wild West for my liking without a clear explanation of how it got us (or Mormon Fundamentalists, anyway) where we (they) are now.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

#69: The False Friend

The False Friend, by Myla Goldberg
(New York: Doubleday, 2010)
"Twenty years after Celia’s best friend, Djuna, went missing, memories of that terrible day come rushing back—including the lie Celia remembers having told to conceal her role in Djuna’s disappearance. But when Celia returns to her hometown to confess the truth, her family and childhood friends recall that day very differently. As Celia learns more about what may or may not have happened, she becomes increasingly uncertain whom she should trust.

"In The False Friend, Myla Goldberg -- bestselling author of Bee Season -- brilliantly explores the cruelty of children, the unreliability of memory, and the unpredictable forces that shape our adult selves."

Opening Line:
"The sight of a vintage VW bug dredged Djuna Pearson from memory."

My Take: 
Not sure I ever quite bought the book's main premise -- that Djuna wasn't taken away in a strange car, but fell into a hole in the woods, and Celia's been lying about it all these years -- but it still made for an interesting story about our memories of childhood and its friendships, our growing awareness of our parents' imperfections, and how our hometowns look from a distance.

#68: The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y. K. Lee
(New York: Penguin Books, 2009)
"In the sweeping tradition of The English Patient, Janice Y.K. Lee's debut novel is a tale of love and betrayal set in war-torn Hong Kong. In 1942, Englishman Will Truesdale falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese as World War II overwhelms their part of the world. Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong to work as a piano teacher and also begins a fateful affair. As the threads of this spellbinding novel intertwine, impossible choices emerge-between love and safety, courage and survival, the present, and above all, the past"

Opening Lines:
"It started as an accident. The small Herend rabbit had fallen into Claire’s purse."

My Take:
This was another of those novels that I expected and really wanted to like more than I did. On paper the plot has promise: What will become of the rarefied world Will and Trudy inhabit (though neither really fully belong) as the war comes ever closer? What's happened to Will between the earlier, 1942-43 story line and the 1953 one featuring Claire that keeps him in Hong Kong, now as the Chens' remarkably underutilized chauffeur?

Trouble is, at least from my vantage point, it doesn't quite deliver. We learn what happens to all these people, of course, and naturally, this being a war story, some of the answers aren't pretty. But it didn't feel like we learned enough about what made the principal characters tick to really picture them in these harrowing settings and make us see the events through their eyes. Claire's pilfering habit (not a spoiler, as you learn about it somewhere around the first chapter) is interesting, but Lee barely scratches the surface of why she starts or what the purloined objects mean to her. We're told that her marriage to husband Martin is safe, conventional, and, well, not very exciting, but we don't see enough of Claire to understand exactly what she wants beyond that. Likewise, Will is a promising character I never really felt like I understood. As a prisoner of war, he shows not quite heroism, but a quiet, understated integrity and strength ... which doesn't quite jibe with how passive he seems in his relationship with Trudy.

Perhaps there's some meta-commentary here, but I found myself feeling like I imagine Lee's two chief European characters felt in Hong Kong: like a fish out of water, with things not quite fitting together as you'd expect. Not awful, and maybe I'm just not getting it, but the book didn't really resonate with me, either.