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, January 27, 2013

#108: Now You See Him

Now You See Him, by Eli Gottlieb
(New York: William Morrow, 2008)
"The deaths of Rob Castor and his girlfriend begin a wrenching and enthrallingly suspenseful story that mines the explosive terrains of love and paternity, marriage and its delicate intricacies, family secrets and how they fester over time, and ultimately the true nature of loyalty and trust, friendship and envy, deception and manipulation.

"As the media take hold of this sensational crime, a series of unexpected revelations unleashes hidden truths in the lives of those closest to Rob. At the center of this driving narrative is Rob's childhood best friend, Nick Framingham, whose ten-year marriage to his college sweetheart is faltering. Shocked by Rob's death, Nick begins to reevaluate his own life and past, and as he does so, a fault line opens up beneath him, leading him all the way to the novel's startling conclusion."

Opening Line:
"At this late date, would it be fair to say that people, after a fashion, have come to doubt the building blocks of life itself?"

My Take:  
Side note:  While the barrage of end-of-year books I've just posted may have gotten somewhat out of order, I do know this was the last book I read in 2012. Just as parts of our lives have their own soundtracks, much of what I've done and read this past year comes with its own scenic backdrop. (Of course, some of the scenery was prettier than the rest.) There are novels I know I read in Boston because I can't see their covers without picturing the bedspread in my Boylston Street apartment; others I place in D.C. from the memory of painstakingly cramming the flimsy Days Inn pillows into place behind me so I could lean back while I read. Strangely, I could certainly look it up, but I don't know what I read in Pullman. I can see the autumn Palouse light, golden on the rolling hills and tinged pink through my window; I know I sat in the Lighty Hall atrium at lunchtime with a mocha in my right hand and a book in front of me. (What I remember from that trip is the podcast -- Frontline's "God in America" -- that served as its soundtrack: gasping uphill through the wildfire and paper mill smog in Lewiston on the way to the Nez Perce County Fair; twilight descending between the downtown taqueria with the mural and the community garden's fading sunflowers as I took the scenic route back to my hotel; gazing out the airplane window as Minneapolis fell away and realizing I'd be back amid the familiar bustle and mess of my family within hours.)

But this book did not come to Pullman. This one came to Boston over New Year's; I fiddled with the adjustable mattress as I sprawled on my bed in the Revere, the air smelling faintly of peppermint shampoo, Eliza channel-surfing and Mike doing game prep on his laptop at the art deco-inspired desk. Perhaps I sipped a glass of the wine we picked up at the 570 Market on our way back from dinner at Addis; it's likely I schlepped it to Manchester in my satchel when we drove up to see the NH side of the family.

If only. If only I could make the time to capture moments like this more frequently, rather than just sneaking them into tangentially-related blog posts like Jessica Seinfeld's vegetable brownies.

But oh, yeah, the book. Gatsby a la Richard Russo, if you transplant the title character from Roaring '20s Long Island to 21st-century Mohawk small-town Upstate New York. This is a good thing, and a good (if sad) story.

#107: San Miguel

San Miguel, by T. C. Boyle
(New York: Viking, 2012)
"This latest novel from Boyle (The Women; When the Killing's Done) portrays two families living and working on barren San Miguel Island off the coast of California. In 1888 Marantha Waters leaves her comfortable life on mainland California and moves out to San Miguel with her adopted daughter and husband, a steely Civil War veteran convinced that he'll have success sheep ranching on the island. Marantha is seriously ill, but instead of breathing the clean, restorative air she expected, she must live in a drafty, moldy shack in a damp environment where the sun rarely shines. Years later, in 1930, Elise Lester, newly wed at 38, moves to San Miguel with her husband, Herbie, a World War I veteran. Though Herbie has his highs and lows, they are happy, and they have two daughters. The outside world learns of their pioneering ways, and they achieve a celebrity Herbie hopes will translate into additional income. Then World War II arrives, and with war in the Pacific, their insular island location may no longer be a refuge"

Opening Line:
"She was coughing, always coughing, and sometimes she coughed up blood."

My Take:
I don't think I'll ever be quite as transported by another of Boyle's books as I was by The Tortilla Curtain, but I know that's my problem. He's a fascinating writer, very skilled technically and with recurring themes (humans vs. nature, government vs. the civilian everyman or -woman, and with the addition of this to When the Killing's Done, apparently the Channel Islands) I enjoy. Intriguing characters here, especially if they were based on real people ... which would explain why the story seems not to have much of a real ending.

#106: The Outsourced Self

The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times
by Arlie Russell Hochschild
(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012)
"From the famed author of the bestselling The Second Shift and The Time Bind, a pathbreaking look at the transformation of private life in our for-profit world.

"The family has long been a haven in a heartless world, the one place immune to market forces and economic calculations, where the personal, the private, and the emotional hold sway. Yet as Arlie Russell Hochschild shows in The Outsourced Self, that is no longer the case: everything that was once part of private life—love, friendship, child rearing—is being transformed into packaged expertise to be sold back to confused, harried Americans.

"Drawing on hundreds of interviews and original research, Hochschild follows the incursions of the market into every stage of intimate life. From dating services that train you to be the CEO of your love life to wedding planners who create a couple's "personal narrative"; from nameologists (who help you name your child) to wantologists (who help you name your goals); from commercial surrogate farms in India to hired mourners who will scatter your loved one's ashes in the ocean of your choice—Hochschild reveals a world in which the most intuitive and emotional of human acts have become work for hire.

"Sharp and clear-eyed, Hochschild is full of sympathy for overstressed, outsourcing Americans, even as she warns of the market's threat to the personal realm they are striving so hard to preserve."

Table of Contents:
  1. You Have Three Seconds
  2. The Legend of the Lemon Tree
  3. For as Long as You Both Shall Live
  4. Our Baby, Her Womb
  5. My Womb, Their Baby
  6. It Takes a Service Mall
  7. Making Five-Year-Olds Laugh Is Harder than You Think
  8. A High Score in Family Memory Creation
  9. Importing Family Values
  10. I Was Invisible to Myself
  11. Nolan Enjoys My Father for Me
  12. Anything You Pay For Is Better
  13. I Would Have Done It If She'd Been My Mother
  14. Endings 
  15. The Wantologist
My Take:
Another Second Shift or Time Bind this ain't. I suspect Hochschild's decision to write it was born of her own conflicted, guilt-spiked feelings at seeking a paid caregiver for her elderly aunt, and I think the book might have been stronger and more compelling had it focused on those intimate activities -- child and elder care, for example -- that pretty much everyone needs, and which have increasingly been moved to the market sphere and paid for. That story's been told many times, though, so what we're left with seems less like a thoughtful exposition and discussion-starter and more a voyeuristic "Wow, look at all the crazy, unnecessary stuff the 1% (or maybe just the 0.1 or 0.01%) will pay people to do for them!" Sure, it's interesting and may seem creepy or just weird that someone who's rich enough will spend beaucoup bucks on a kid's birthday party or various aspects of the wedding-industrial complex, but it's hardly a social problem on the order of the second shift.

#105: Tumbleweeds

Tumbleweeds, by Leila Meacham
(New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2012)
"Recently orphaned, eleven-year-old Cathy Benson feels she has been dropped into a cultural and intellectual wasteland when she is forced to move from her academically privileged life in California to the small town of Kersey in the Texas Panhandle where the sport of football reigns supreme. She is quickly taken under the unlikely wings of up-and-coming gridiron stars and classmates John Caldwell and Trey Don Hall, orphans like herself, with whom she forms a friendship and eventual love triangle that will determine the course of the rest of their lives. Taking the three friends through their growing up years until their high school graduations when several tragic events uproot and break them apart, the novel expands to follow their careers and futures until they reunite in Kersey at forty years of age. Told with all of Meacham's signature drama, unforgettable characters, and plot twists, readers will be turning the pages, desperate to learn how it all plays out."

Opening Line:
"The call he'd been expecting for twenty-two years came at midnight when he was working late at his desk."

My Take:
Silly, entertaining, but forgettable fluff. We all have our guilty pleasures; this one wasn't the best of its kind I've read, but it wasn't the worst, either. That's all.

#104: Daughter of Fortune

Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende 
(translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)
(New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008)
"An orphan raised in Valparaiso, Chile, by a Victorian spinster and her rigid brother, vivacious young Eliza Sommers follows her lover to California during the Gold Rush of 1849. Entering a rough-and-tumble world of new arrivals driven mad by gold fever, Eliza moves in a society of single men and prostitutes with the help of her good friend and savior, the Chinese doctor Tao Chi'en. California opens the door to a new life of freedom and independence to the young Chilean, and her search for her elusive lover gradually turns into another kind of journey. By the time she finally hears news of him, Eliza must decide who her true love really is"

Opening Line: 
"Everyone is born with some special talent, and Eliza Sommers discovered early on that she had two: a good sense of smell and a good memory."

My Take:
Maybe it's because I'm now getting into the more recent parts of my backlog, or maybe it's just that Isabel Allende is a brilliant writer, but when I decided it was time for a Latin American-themed flight of books, this was what I had in mind. (The fact that the protagonist's name is Eliza doesn't hurt, but I'd have loved Daughter of Fortune anyway.) Exciting adventure story with just enough twists and turns, and great characters. Just blogging about it and remembering how much I enjoyed it is almost enough to make me look forward to my long commute tomorrow and listening to Ines of My Soul. Almost.

#103: Dancing to "Almendra"

Dancing to "Almendra," by Mayra Montero 
(translated by Edith Grossman)
(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007)
"Havana, 1957. On the same day that the Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia is assassinated in a barber's chair in New York, a hippopotamus escapes from the Havana zoo and is shot and killed by its pursuers. Assigned to cover the zoo story, Joaquin Porrata, a young Cuban journalist, instead finds himself embroiled in the mysterious connections between the hippo's death and the mobster's when a secretive zookeeper whispers to him that he 'knows too much.' In exchange for a promise to introduce the keeper to his idol, the film star George Raft, now the host of the Capri Casino, Joaquin gets information that ensnares him in an ever-thickening plot of murder, mobsters, and, finally, love.

"The love story is, of course, another mystery. Told by Yolanda, a beautiful ex-circus performer now working for the famed cabaret San Souci, it interleaves through Joaquin's underworld investigations, eventually revealing a family secret deeper even than Havana's brilliantly evoked enigmas.

"In Dancing to 'Almendra,' Mayra Montero has created an ardent and thrilling tale of innocence lost, of Havana's secret world that is 'the basis for the clamor of the city,' and of the end of a violent era of fantastic characters and extravagant crimes."

Opening Line:
"On the same day Umberto Anastasia was killed in New York, a hippopotamus escaped from the zoo in Havana."

My Take:
Awesome as that opening line is, I think this was one of those books I'd hoped to like a lot more than I did. More good writing (how I wish I could produce it instead of just recognizing it, but sadly, whatever facility with words I once had, I don't have two original thoughts to rub together), and certainly Batista-era Havana is as much a character in the novel as anyone else. Noir isn't really my favorite genre, though, so I'm probably not the person who'd get the most from this book.

#102: American Youth

American Youth, by Phil LaMarche
(New York: Random House, 2007)
"American Youth is a controlled, essential, and powerful tale of a teenager in southern New England who is confronted by a terrible moral dilemma following a firearms accident in his home. This tragedy earns him the admiration of a sinister gang of boys at his school and a girl associated with them. Set in a town riven by social and ideological tensions an old rural culture in conflict with newcomers this is a classic portrait of a young man struggling with the idea of identity and responsibility in an America ill at ease with itself."

Opening Line:
"The two boys walked the high ridge at the center of the wood road, avoiding the muddy ruts along the sides."

My Take:
As far as I remember, I liked it well enough and appreciated that it was well-written. Didn't absolutely love it or have a tough time putting it down, though.

#101: Talk to Me First

Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids' Go-To Person About Sex, by Deborah Roffman
(Boston: Da Capo Press, 2012)

"Nationally acclaimed educator and author of Sex and Sensibility, Deborah Roffman distills her more than thirty years of experience teaching kids -- and their parents -- into this indispensable guide, helping you to be your kids' number one source for information and guidance on human sexuality. Roffman tackles everything from developmental stages to strategies for handling embarrassing or difficult conversations, offering the best way to make sure you both keep talking (and listening)."

Table of Contents:
  1. Getting There First About Sex
  2. Raising Children in a World Gone Upside Down
  3. Parenting Is a Five-Piece Suit
  4. Affirmation: Our Children as Sexual Beings
  5. Information: Folding in the Facts
  6. Clarity About Value: Honing Your Message
  7. The Delicate Art of Limit-Setting
  8. Anticipatory Guidance: Turning Children over to Themselves
  9. Practice Makes Perfect: Let's Go Fishing
My Take:
Here's one where I really wish I'd kept up on my blogging, as I remember this being an especially useful book about parents, kids of all ages, and communications around sexuality (and in general). Unfortunately, enough time has gone by that the book's long been returned to the library and I don't recall enough specifics to comment on in more detail. Oh well. If you're looking for a good book about talking with kids about sex that doesn't push a particular agenda, read this one.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

#100: Between You and Me

Between You and Me, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
(New York: Atria Books, 2012)

"Twenty-seven-year-old Logan Wade is trying to build a life for herself far from her unhappy childhood in Oklahoma. Until she gets the call that her famous cousin needs a new assistant -- an offer she can't refuse.

"Logan hasn't seen Kelsey in person since their parents separated them as kids; in the meantime, Kelsey Wade has grown into Fortune Magazine's most powerful celebrity. But their reunion is quickly overshadowed by the toxic dynamic between Kelsey and her parents as Logan discovers that, beneath the glossy facade, the wounds that caused them to be wrenched apart so many years ago have insidiously warped into a showstopping family business.

"As Kelsey tries desperately to break away and grasp at a 'real' life, beyond the influence of her parents and managers, she makes one catastrophic misstep after another, and Logan must question if their childhood has left them both too broken to succeed. Logan risks everything to hold on, but when Kelsey unravels in the most horribly public way, Logan finds that she will ultimately have to choose between rescuing the girl she has always protected ... and saving herself."

Opening Line:
"'Okay, we're coming up on our final hill,' Sandra, my instructor. puffs into her microphone, reaching out from her bike to dim the spin room's lights even further."

My Take:
Poor McLaughlin and Kraus. While I'm sure they're laughing all the way to the bank, I think by now it's safe to say that they're unlikely to ever have another zeitgeist-grabbing megahit anywhere close to what they did with The Nanny Diaries. You and Me was good enough, an entertaining, engaging few days' read -- but not so memorable and compelling that I can picture where I was and what else was going on while I read it (in contrast to Dedication, for example, which wasn't really much better but does conjure up my room in the Colonial Building on Boylston Street). This one does a lot of hinting at some deep, dark back story behind Logan and Kelsey's childhood separation, and at the creepiness of Kelsey's overly close relationship with her parents, but never delivers anything scandalous or surprising enough to merit all the ominous foreshadowing. As a story of Logan, girl next door who stumbles into the bright lights, big city of celebrity and finds it's not all it's cracked up to be, it's OK, but not terribly memorable. 

#99: Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L James
(New York: Vintage Books, 2012)

"When literature student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly, innocent Ana is startled to realize she wants this man and, despite his enigmatic reserve, finds she is desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana's quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her, too -- but on his own terms.

"Shocked yet thrilled by Grey's singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success -- his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving family -- Grey is a man tormented bu demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian Grey's secrets and explores her own dark desires." 

Opening Line:
"I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror."
My Take:
Yes, I succumbed. This book generated so much buzz, both rave reviews from adoring fans and the media being all atwitter about it, that I had to see what the big deal was. Frankly, I was underwhelmed. The writing is pretty darned awful, smacking of the mediocre, unedited fan fiction it originally started out as. After the umpteenth description of how Ana "flushed scarlet" or mused that her "inner goddess" was doing something or another, I couldn't help giggling, which probably isn't the reaction James was going for.

As erotica, meh. It has its moments, but I've read better; I don't think adult literature is exempt from the rule that it's tough to get into the spirit of things if the characters are wooden and one-dimensional. Far more remarkable than the book itself, as I see it, is the widespread amazement at its success. Why are we so surprised that women, even women in their 30s and beyond who (gasp!) have children want to read steamy books, or that some of the steamy books they seek out deal with (ahem) varsity-level sexual variations? I'm not even talking directly about what consenting adults might or might not get up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms; like most bibliophiles, I don't want to read only about things that resonate with my own personal experience. If I can read murder mysteries or espionage thrillers without wanting to be a detective or a spy, or can enjoy Terry McMillan's novels without being African-American, well ... why can't I enjoy an adult novel whether or not I share the main characters' intimate proclivities? Maybe the bigger story here is that Fifty Shades' success hints at an unserved need: if this book could become a bestseller despite its sloppy, shoddy writing, might there be a far greater market for woman-oriented erotica than we've been willing to acknowledge up until now?

#98: French Kids Eat Everything

French Kids Eat Everything: 
How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters, by Karen Le Billon
(New York: William Morrow, 2012)
"Moving her young family to her husband's hometown in northern France, Karen Le Billon is prepared for some cultural adjustment but is surprised by the food education she and her family (at first unwillingly) receive. In contrast to her daughters, French children feed themselves neatly and happily -- eating everything from beets to broccoli, salad to spinach, mussels to muesli. The family's food habits come under scrutiny, as Karen is lectured for slipping her fussing toddler a snack -- 'a recipe for obesity!' -- and forbidden from packing her older daughter a lunch in lieu of the elaborate school meal.

"The family soon begins to see the wisdom in the 'food rules' that help the French foster healthy eating habits and good manners -- from the rigid 'no snacking' rule to commonsense food routines that we used to share but have somehow forgotten. Soon, the family cures picky eating and learns to love trying new foods. But the real challenge comes when they move back to North America -- where their commitment to 'eating French' is put to the test. The result is a family food revolution with surprising but happy results -- which suggest we need to dramatically rethink the way we feed children, at home and at school."

Table of Contents:
  1. French Kids Eat Everything (and Yours Can Too)
  2. Baby Steps and Beet Puree: We Move to France, and Encounter Unidentified Edible Objects
  3. Schooling the Stomach: We Start Learning to "Eat French" (the Hard Way)
  4. L'art de la table: A Meal with Friends, and a Friendly Argument
  5. Food Fights: How Not to Get Your Kids to Eat Everything
  6. The Kohlrabi Experiment: Learning to Love New Foods
  7. Four Square Meals a Day: Why French Kids Don't Snack
  8. Slow Food Nation: It's Not Only What You Eat, It's Also How You Eat
  9. The Best of Both Worlds
  10. The Most Important Food Rule of All 
My Take:
Liked it, but not quite so much as Bringing Up Bebe. I think the chief difference is that Le Billon managed to push some of my rusty-but-still-functioning parental guilt/ smugness buttons in a way Druckerman's book didn't. To be fair, the two aren't identical; French Kids is more narrowly focused on the French attitude towards food and eating, while Bebe is a broader observation on French parenting in general.

Anyway, it's no secret that I've wrestled with my share of parenting demons over the years. I've always been a working mother; I nursed my daughter for a year; she has no siblings. For all the much-publicized trials of raising a teenager, this is one thing that gets better with time; you've realized by now that whether and how long you breast-fed and what you do from 9 to 5 really doesn't matter all that much, and you can commiserate with other parents about adolescent attitude flare-ups without their insisting that you wouldn't have this problem if only you were co-sleeping.

One of the areas where I never quite fit the toddler parenting mold was preparedness. I carried a diaper bag when we still needed one, and would toss in a favorite toy or 2 if we were traveling to a kid-free home overnight, but other than that, I was never The Mom Who Has Everything. And while I sometimes wished I had a Band-Aid or box o' wipes handy, neither Twig nor I ever suffered for a lack of little prepackaged baggies of Teddy Grahams and goldfish crackers. Sure, I felt a little sheepish on those play dates where other moms ended up feeding both their own kid and mine from their Cheerios stash, but I also knew Twig was way more interested in the playground than the food, and probably wouldn't have thought to ask for a snack on her own if her friend wasn't having one right there in front of her. In fact, my first inkling that the local Supermom (a truly lovely person whose child was Twig's favorite preschool playmate) just might not win all the medals in the parenting Olympics came when we took the kids to lunch at a grocery store cafe, and Twig happily devoured her strawberries and yogurt without much prompting, while Supermom laboriously spread cream cheese on tortilla chips one by one for Superkid.

Point is, I was primed from the get-go to do some private eye-rolling at some of the French parenting norms that proved so hard for Le Billon to accept. Of course you don't make special kid-friendly food at every meal; if a child is hungry enough, s/he'll eat at least some of what everyone else is having. And naturally the after-school snack can wait till you get home; barring exceptional circumstances, there's no need for regularly dining a la car. (5 hour road trips? Sure, pack a few snacks. A 15-minute trip home from school or day care? Not so much.) Long story short (or at least shorter than it would be if I kept on keepin' on), Le Billon's observations about French food culture are fascinating to think about for anyone interested in the topic, whether or not they have young children, though I ended up without much sympathy for the author herself.

#97: The Middlesteins

The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg
(New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2012)
"For more than thirty years, Edie and Richard Middlestein shared a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago -- two children, a nice house, ample employment, and generous friends. But things are splintering apart, for one reason, it seems: Edie's fixated on food -- thinking about it, eating it -- and if she doesn't stop, she won't have much longer to live.

"When Richard abandons his wife, it is up to the next generation to take control. Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, is determined that her father pay for leaving Edie. Benny, an easygoing, pot-smoking family man, just wants to smooth things over. And Rachelle -- a whippet-thin perfectionist -- is intent on saving her mother-in-law's life, but this task proves even bigger than planning her twin children's spectacular b'nai mitzvah party. Through it all, they wonder: Do Edie's devastating choices rest on her shoulders alone, or are others at fault, too?"

Opening Line:
"How could she not feed their daughter?"

My Take:
I formally left Catholicism almost 14 years ago, and hadn't been to confession in more than a decade before that, but sometimes, childhood memories die hard. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been two months since my last blog post.

This doesn't mean I haven't been reading (though I've slacked off since New Year's, completing a whopping 2 books since the start of January); only that I haven't carved out time to blog about what I've read. That's part of a way bigger issue that merits contemplation, but for now, I think I'll just bang out a scarcely-commented log of what I've read since then.

So here goes. Loved The Middlesteins, and also loved in a quietly arrogant way that this was one I happened to stumble across and read before all the reviewers seized upon it. I think it was the NYT Book Review podcast that mentioned this one just before Thanksgiving, calling it a meditation on the complex relationships and obligatory dysfunctions that are part of every family; I'd read it as an observation on Edie's obesity being a natural outgrowth of women's/ mothers' traditional nurturing/ caregiving roles, but I don't think either view is unjustified. As to whether it hit a wee bit close to home given my own weight and emotional eating struggles over the years, well ... as I said earlier, that's a subject for another, much longer post. In the meantime, let's leave it at saying I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it highly to others.