About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

#93: Ten Thousand Saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 18, 2012

#92: Imperial Bedrooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

#91: An Available Man

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

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

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

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

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

#90: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#89: I Thought You Were Dead

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

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

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

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

#88: The Quickening

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

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

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

#87: Bringing Up Bebe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#86 Trans-Sister Radio

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

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

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

Thursday, October 4, 2012

#85: Lily White

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

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

Opening Line:
"I was never a virgin."

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

#84: Redemption

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

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

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

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

#83: 1491

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

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

Table of Contents:

INTRODUCTION / Holmberg’s Mistake

1. A View from Above

PART ONE / Numbers from Nowhere?

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

PART TWO / Very Old Bones

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

PART THREE / Landscape with Figures

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

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

#82: The Reeducation of Cherry Truong

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

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

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

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

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

#81: In the Kingdom of Men

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

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

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

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