31 August 2008

Course Packed: Keith Maillard, Gloria (Junior Year)

Part of a brief series on the non-required reading that I liked best in college.

I had never heard of this novel or its author when I discovered it in a New Jersey secondhand bookstore, nor would I have guessed that it would end up being the best book I read in 2004. What attracted me about it was its length -- I'm always looking for a substantive read -- and its cover photograph of what looks like a debutante's neck with a 1950s evening gown and strand of pearls.The heroine of Maillard's novel has the trappings and the suits of debutantery -- sorority letters, an honors degree from a respectable school (class of '57) and an upstanding, desirable boyfriend. But as she returns to her West Virginia hometown and the country-club set in which she grew up, Gloria keenly feels that all of her roles in life, from privileged teen to campus May Queen, have been a put-on.

She gamely attempts to rejoin this privileged world, but lost in her thoughts, Gloria drifts through her past while she puts off thinking about her uncertain future. The conventions of her old life, distant father and fashionably alcoholic mother, suddenly make her feel like she's living in a foreign country. So too the voice of her college boyfriend, pleading with her to marry him and make their relationship up to this point "official" or "worth it," seems like a dispatch from a different era.

Maillard offers no easy answers or, really, precedent to the way Gloria falls apart in this book. The way she travels back into memory for guidance, for explanation of the self-consciousness with which she has suddenly been burdened -- what she calls the "secret watcher" -- makes the novel so rich and dense I was shocked when I finished the book. Three or four times a year I find myself picking it up and reading hundreds of pages in one sitting, particularly at night, letting the dark circles under my eyes deepen while I wander back into this world. In fact -- heck, I'm going back to read it right now.

Much, much earlier: Max Frankel, THE TIMES OF MY LIFE AND MY LIFE WITH THE TIMES (Freshman Year)
Ingrid Bengis, METRO STOP DOSTOEVSKY (Sophomore Year)

30 August 2008

Staycation Reading

Haven't you heard? Everyone's staycating this year instead of going somewhere. It's the newest and coolest, according to the New York Times! I'm really at the forefront of this trend because of all the staycations I took last year, which had nothing to do with the fact that I was unemployed for two months. No connection at all.

In any case, I'm staying in New York over Labor Day weekend not because I'm a sad-sack but rather because my dear old dad is extending a business trip to spend a few days in the city with me. He doesn't get here tomorrow, but today I'm off to the beach sans cell phone, avec a few (I hope) good reads:
  • Emma Donoghue, SLAMMERKIN and LIFE MASK. I just got a copy of Donoghue's newest book set in 1800s England, THE SEALED LETTER, and am looking forward to immersing myself in this world while doing things its women can't do, like wearing pants.
  • Joseph O'Neill, NETHERLAND. Weirdly enough, this book found its way to me at the library right after I had the opportunity to hear the author read. I've already read a few chapters, but I'm getting the sense it's the kind of book that deserves to be devoured in one (beach?) sitting.
  • Jean Chatzky, MAKE MONEY, NOT EXCUSES. I had hoped to have had this read before my Talk of the Town appearance this week, and that didn't happen, but I'm interested in what I guess you could call a woman-powered approach to personal finance. (Farnoosh Torabi also worked for her at one point and thanks her in YOU'RE SO MONEY.)

29 August 2008

My Fringe '08 Bookshelf

Now that I have more or less recovered from my playmania of the past two weeks, I wanted to spotlight a few books I'm adding to my "Want to Read" list because of what I saw at the Fringe Festival. Of course, I'm always looking for book recommendations even when I'm on the clock doing other things. Hence, my Fringe short list:

Jennifer Toth, THE MOLE PEOPLE. Journalist Toth inspired a lot of skepticism in her fellow reporters with this account of the real-life counterparts to the mythic albinos living in the subway. The idea of alligators in the sewers is too horrible to contemplate but I am curious as to what would motivate someone to live in an abandoned tunnel full time. Source: Radiotheatre Presents "The Mole People."

Jason Fagone, HORSEMEN OF THE ESOPHAGUS: COMPETITIVE EATING AND THE BIG FAT AMERICAN DREAM. Catching a solo show about a year driving the Oscar Mayer signature vehicle didn't really make me want to eat hot dogs, but it did make me think of the Nathan's hot dog eating contest at Coney Island and hence, this book whose quirky title has always stuck with me. Source: "My Salvation Has A First Name: A Wienermobile Journey."

Dorothy Parker, THE PORTABLE DOROTHY PARKER (ed. Marion Meade). The Fringe was the second time this summer I'd encounter Mrs. Parker onstage and given how both meetings turned out, I should wish to see her much more often. I'm especially interested in her criticism and journalism, but couldn't find a collection specifically devoted to that, so this omnibus will have to do. Source: "That Dorothy Parker."

Matt Haig, THE DEAD FATHERS CLUB and Nick O'Donohue, TOO, TOO SOLID FLESH. After one full version of "Hamlet" and this work inspired by and rearranging the Shakespearean tragedy at the Fringe, Hamlet has been on my mind (if he ever leaves). These two novels both offer novel takes on the play: In Haig's book, the prince is an 11-year-old in Britain whose uncle is taking over his dead father's pub; O'Donohue's scifi approach involves a set of androids performing "Hamlet" whose designer is unexpectedly murdered. Source: "Bound In A Nutshell."

28 August 2008

Desperation Street

"The happy implication was that they alone, the four of them, were painfully alive in a drugged and dying culture."

You may have guessed it from the times I quoted this book last week, but I'm just going to open with it now: Richard Yates' REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is one of the best books I've read this year. It's been on my to-read list forever and I actually returned it unread to the library earlier this year because I couldn't renew it, but I am so glad I went back to read it.

Frank and April Wheeler are a pair of what appear to be cookie-cuter 1950s suburbanites -- educated, 2 kids, he works and she stays at home (although she has worked in the past). Neither of them are particularly happy: He works for a company he applied to because it had once rejected his father, trying to do as little as possible and missing his old post-war bohemian life when he was an erudite, handsome college man.

April keenly senses that Frank is unhappy -- they were living in the city when she got pregnant, "seven years too soon," which forced his hand in a sense -- but doesn't really know how to help. She feels like she doesn't truly love her kids and misses the days when she once dreamed of being in actress. In fact, the book opens with April performing in a play through the community theatre which the Wheelers and their friends the Campbells started, which just embarrasses them all. When April hits upon a plan that would allow them to leave their house on Revolutionary Road, she thinks it'll solve everything about their life:
"You could have called my bluff in a minute...but you didn't. You were too good and young and scared; you played right along with it, and that's how the whole thing started. That's how we both got committed to this enormous delusion -- because that's what it is, an enormous, obscene delusion -- this idea that people have to resign from real life and 'settle down' when they have families. It's the great sentimental lie of the suburbs, and I've been making you subscribe to it all this time. I've been making you live by it! My God, I've even gone as far as to work up this completely corny, soap-opera picture of myself... Now do you see what you have to forgive me for? And why we have to get out of here and over to Europe as fast as we possibly can?"
But Frank proves curiously opposed to the idea, even as outwardly he conforms to his wife's plans. The author also discusses how the neighbors are affected by the Wheelers' plan, from their best friends whom they secretly can't stand to the nosy empty nester next door.

There's something that feels very epic about Yates' book. Despite the specificity he gives the characters, Frank and April -- perhaps with the passage of time between this book's publication and now -- feel very much like a 50s Everycouple in the way we have come to see that decade. e suffers the slings and arrows of no longer being in the war by drinking too much; she could be sexually repressed and feels like an inadequate mother. (If you've seen "Mad Men," you're probably thinking of the Drapers, and the comparison is apt.)

But since REVOLUTIONARY ROAD comes from that era, it's a more nuanced take on the fifties than later portrayals which hammer their points home. For example, the nosy empty-nester is in a long-standing disagreement with her husband because she likes to work and he doesn't:
"And [Mrs. Givings] had never been able to explain or even to understand that what she loved was not the job -- it could have been any job -- or even the independence it gave her (though of course that was important for a woman constantly veering toward the brink of divorce). Deep down, what she'd loved and needed was the work itself."
By the same token, even minor characters get wonderfully sketched out moments, as in this one, where Frank is watching a woman on the street with whom he has just had a confrontation of sorts:
"[H]e crept back to the front door, pushed aside the dusty net curtain that covered its glass and peered down, just in time for a rear view of Norma out on the curb, wagging her handbag for a taxi. Her back was stiff with anger and there was something extremely pathetic about her suitcase, which looked expensive and brand-new. She had probably spent days buying it and weeks shopping for the things that would ride in its silken depths today -- new bathing suits, slacks, sun lotion, a new camera -- all the fussy, careful apparatus of a girlish good time. With the odd whimpering sounds still bubbling up from his rib cage he felt an incongruous wave of tenderness go out to her, as she climbed into the cab and rolled away."
As you can tell, this book gave me a feeling I haven't had for a long while where I felt compelled to copy down passage after passage because they were so exquisitely rendered. I heartily recommend this book, and suggest you read it now before the forthcoming film adaptation, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio ("Titanic" reunion!), makes quick work of its subtlety.

27 August 2008

Talk of the Town Tonight: Farnoosh Torabi

I bought this book. Should you?

Tune in tonight to Talk of the Town with Parker Sunshine to hear me talk about Farnoosh Torabi's YOU'RE SO MONEY.

~7:30PM EDT (~4:30PM PDT, 1:30PM Anna Time)
WEBR for D.C./Virginia/ Maryland locals (available through your TV)
Everyone else: Tune in here!

My Personal Finance Toolbox
How Did We Get Here?

26 August 2008

I'm out of mojo today, but these two book-related items made me laugh:

For Elizabeth: Why Can't High Schools Ban CATCHER IN THE RYE Already? [Gawker] Mostly for the list below of the things everyone loves.

"You know why Catherine had fits? Because her parents were probably cousins too! I liked Cathy Jr. until she went stupid." Cathy of Atomic Tangerine (and my sister's former roommate) registers some [spoilery?] complaints about WUTHERING HEIGHTS and KIDNAPPED. I hope this is the beginning of a series.

25 August 2008

Fringe Benefit II: Wrath Of Fringe

I saw 15 shows this year during the New York International Fringe Festival and in between, I read eight books. I read in 10 different venues, in line to pick up my tickets, in line to sit down and waiting for shows to begin or resume. And then I read on empty subway platforms in the Financial District or the Lower East Side, waiting for the train home (or the train to the train home).

I'm certainly not tired of reading now, but I could use a few quiet nights at home. So if I'm slightly less inspired this week, I pray you pardon me -- still catching up on reviews. One of the books I already wrote about here, Jincy Willett's THE WRITING CLASS, and I'm planning to review the best two later this week once I replenish my store of opinions. (Who knew I had a finite number?)

24 August 2008

Stray thoughts for Sunday

  • Given my love of YA phenomena it's probably not surprising that I feel myself getting sucked into the TWILIGHT hoorah. But from what I've read, these books are addictive but so poorly written I would have to read them with a glass of wine in my hand -- or several. (Something I never do: My recall goes out the window, which sort of defeats the purpose.) That would be kind of a fun gimmick though: So I Drank Red Wine And Read TWILIGHT...
  • Hey Ellen, how's cutting back on library books working for you? Uh, not so well really! I have 10 out right now and will probably be down to 8 by the end of the month, so there's a little progress. But I've racked up about $15 in fines this year, clear proof that I have too many out. (And $7 of them were on that James Frey book. You owe me, Frey!)
  • Today's New York Times etiquette question about removing a bad book club member is making me paranoid that someone is writing in about me. I joined less than eight months ago, and it was totally kosher with the organizers... I think... Nah, I'm pretty sure it wasn't me. For one thing, all of the books we've read have been good, or at least good enough for me to not be obnoxious about them. It is a good question, though!
  • I'm going to my first Mets game this afternoon; with this being Shea Stadium's last year, the hour-plus-each-way trip seemed worth it. I'm meeting friends there for an afternoon of fun in the sun (including one pal who was only told to meet the rest of us in Queens -- what she thinks we're doing, I have no idea!) but going early because it's Free T-shirt Day. Number of books bringing: Two... no wait, maybe three.

23 August 2008

He, too, has been changed in his turn: Read Like Joe Biden

The world discovered late last night or early this morning that presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama picked Delaware senator Joe Biden as his vice-presidential candidate. I knew next to nothing about Biden before today, but for the record, Camus totally called this one last week.

So what does Joe Biden like to read? A cached version of his Facebook page gives us two of his favorite books last year: AMERICAN GOSPEL: GOD, THE FOUNDING FATHERS AND THE MAKING OF A NATION by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, and IRISH AMERICA: COMING INTO CLOVER by Maureen Dezell. If you would guess by these that Biden is religious and of Irish descent, you are correct. A site on the Iowa caucus adds John Grisham's THE RUNAWAY JURY to this list, which I remember as being slightly better than THE PELICAN BRIEF and THE RAINMAKER but not as memorable as THE FIRM.

Of course Biden has also written a book, and last year's PROMISES TO KEEP: ON LIFE AND POLITICS is probably disappearing from your local secondhand bookstore right this second. And according to the Huffington Post, he likes to quote Yeats' "Easter 1916" on the Senate floor (from which the title of this post was taken).

21 August 2008

Bad patron! We're calling the cops!

For want of two overdue paperbacks, a Wisconsin woman (left) was arrested and thrown in jail for failing to return library books. Thanks to the Smoking Gun, we know those books were the incredibly popular WHITE OLEANDER and ANGELS AND DEMONS.

I have to laugh because the town in which avid reader Heidi Dalibor was arrested is literally one town over from where I grew up. You know how small towns have rivalries? We always used to pick on Grafton because of its sad-sack downtown and its depressing little mall (about to be demolished), even though the two towns are practically twins.

Grafton's a lot nicer than it used to be with the addition of a fancy wine store and an Alterra (and the Target!) but now we have new ammunition against it, peculiar and draconian lending policies. Heidi, you seem like a good person at heart, shake the dust of Grafton off your feet! That's from one Wisconsin girl to another.

20 August 2008

"I still had this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere, as far ahead of me as the seniors at Rye when I was in sixth grade; people who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying, who never had to make the best of a bad job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time. Sort of heroic super-people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I'd suddenly know that I belonged among them, that I was one of them, that I'd been meant to be one of them all along, and everything in the meantime had been a mistake; and they'd know it too. I'd be like the ugly duckling among the swans... It's a thing I wouldn't wish on anybody. It's the most stupid, ruinous kind of self-deception there is, and it gets you into nothing but trouble."


19 August 2008

Talk of the Town Tuesday: How Did We Get Here?

In a sense, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi's THE TWO-INCOME TRAP and Shira Boss' GREEN WITH ENVY are attempting to answer the same question: How did Americans, collectively, get so far into debt? Rejecting a strictly moral explanation -- that we have all drifted from thrift into servitude -- the fact that we are carrying an average of $46,000 of debt per person in this country* forces self-examination.

It's the moral component that initially put me off Warren and Tyagi's book which examines the effects of women entering the workforce in the past 60 years, and I think it's clear why I might have specific objections to where the book seemed to be going. As more and more women started to work, the authors argue, families adjusted their lifestyles up and caused a monetary arms race to buy into the best school districts; at the same time, they lost the economic incentive of having a full-time caretaker and household economist who, if necessary, could go to work if the family was having a crisis. Due to the combination of these two factors, two salaries actually buy less than one would in 1950, and not just because of child-care costs or super-sized houses. When emergencies happen, families have less wiggle room than ever -- enter medical bills put on credit cards, home-equity loans and bankruptcy.

The point where this book started to turn was where Warren and Tyagi acknowledged what I had been thinking all along: Even if this problem exists, we can't just send working moms home to fix it. And they pay more than lip service to the oft unstated fact in arguments over whether moms should work and stay at home, the reality that for most women this is not a choice. But their suggestions for families and governmental programs for how to encourage a return to the single-income household are a little unrealistic, and for me were still hard to take after the emphasis that women working, not the more diplomatic "a second parent working," triggered this crisis. (I realize it would be historically inaccurate to say otherwise, but refusing to even suggest that either parent could stay home today was problematic for me.)

I saw myself much easier in the subjects of Shira Boss' GREEN WITH ENVY, which opens in a New York City apartment building with a scene between neighbors. The couple next door to Boss and her husband move in burdened with the rumor that they paid for their apartment in dot-com cash and immediately set about redecorating in the way only people with pots of money would do -- or so it seems. Naturally, the truth is more complicated than that, and from this experience and other interviews Boss extrapolated her own theory about how debt became so attractive to us as a society: We see and covet what other people have, so we pursue it on our incomplete information, and then don't have the funds for what we really want in life.

This book came to my attention via a review -- really more like a study guide -- on the personal-finance blog The Simple Dollar, which described it as slightly simplistic but a good quick read. The solutions Boss offers are not really practical or institutional, nor are they particularly prescriptive: Getting yourself to stop envying your neighbors is a noble goal but it won't get you out of the debt you're already in. The trick is, and I don't think the author goes into this as much, to envy the right people. Not every couple can choose to keep one parent at home, but if they identify that as as a goal, they can direct that envy into something good.

Tune in August 27 to hear me talk about a more recent personal finance book, Farnoosh Torabi's YOU'RE SO MONEY, on Talk of the Town with Parker Sunshine. Next week I'll review

*Sean Maher, "The Great Consumer Crash of 2009," via Sweetney.

18 August 2008

"It had been easy to decide in favor of love on Bethune Street, in favor of walking proud and naked on the grass rug of an apartment that caught the morning sun among its makeshift chairs, its French travel posters and its bookcase made of packing-crate slats -- an apartment where half the fun of having an affair was that it was just like being married, and where later, after a trip to City Hall and back, after a ceremonial collecting of the other two keys from the other two men, half the fun of being married was that it was just like having an affair. She'd decided in favor of that, all right. And why not? Wasn't it the first love of any kind she'd ever known? Even on the level of practical advantage it must have held an undeniable appeal: it freed her from the gritty round of disappointment she would otherwise have faced as an only mildly talented, mildly enthusiastic graduate of dramatic school; it let her languish attractively through a part-time office job ('just until my husband finds the kind of work he really wants to do') while saving her best energies for animated discussions of books and pictures and the shortcomings of other people's personalities, for trying new ways of fixing her hair and new kinds of inexpensive clothes ('Do you really like the sandals, or are they too Villagey?') and for hours of unhurried dalliance deep in their double bed. But even in those days she'd held herself poised for immediate flight; she had always been ready to take off the minute she happened to feel like it ('Don't talk to me that way, Frank, or I'm leaving. I mean it') or the minute anything went wrong."


17 August 2008

Unbookening Extra: Books, the line item

The Guardian books blog offers some tips for filling your shelves on the cheap: Get as many free volumes as you can, visit the library and take advantage of bookstore sales.

These are pretty good; of course I would add Bookmooch and borrowing from friends and relatives to this list of tactics. I used to be a big fan of the one-cent Amazon find (in which independent sellers knock the Marketplace price for a used copy down to $0.01, which with shipping makes the book about $4), but I've been off those recently. Instead of Oxfam bookstores, we have the dollar shelf at the Strand and library sales (I hear the Upper East Side has a great one). Best user tip from the comments:
"I also find reading over people's shoulder on the tube a good way of trying a book you like the look of before committing to a purchase."
That's cheap! But also, difficult depending on when you're riding and how good your vision is.

Sadly U.S. magazines have not caught on to the European trick of packaging a freebie (cheap purse, flip-flops, book) with each issue on the newsstand. I still use my electric blue checkbook wallet I got from Spanish Glamour -- come on, guys, what are you waiting for?

Thanks to Riese's Auto-Fun for pointing this out.

15 August 2008

Giving a whole new meaning to the word "plot"

I already copped to not being a morning person, but today I brought it on myself. I got home at 1:45AM and should have gone straight to bed, but I had a chapter of Jincy Willett's novel THE WRITING CLASS left... well, you know how it goes. I had to finish it, there was a murderer on the loose!

Like the classic Agatha Christie mystery TEN LITTLE INDIANS, THE WRITING CLASS examines a group which discovers one of its members is a killer. I wasn't familiar with this term before, but the instructor in the book, a former novelist named Amy Gallup, calls this a "locked-room mystery" because the number of suspects are limited by geography. The prankster's trail indicates that he or she has to be someone in the workshop, which includes the usual suspects of thriller-writing doctor, bored twentysomething, over-eager course repeater... and a psychopath.

I cannot remember for the life of me which blogger recommended this to me, but if you're out there -- thank you. I could set it down and pick it up between shows and I still managed to keep up with the mystery, although the satire of the group writing class piqued my interest more since I have been in fiction writing classes like this. (Well, not exactly like this -- no one ever drew obscene things on any of my manuscripts.) There's also a funny subplot about Amy's blog, which she names "Go Away" and uses to post about the sexiest letter in the alphabet and her homegrown movie-book hybrids.

I don't see myself reading it again but I'd definitely be interested in checking out Willett's short stories and her novel WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD.

14 August 2008

My Question For Tom Wolfe

Remember how I wrote about Haruki Murakami taking questions for TIME Magazine? Tom Wolfe, celebrated author and man in white, is doing the same TIME series and I couldn't help joining in. So here's my question:
Mr. Wolfe, who would win in a rap battle, you reading the lyrics which you wrote for Doctor Dis in I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS, or Jay-Z? Fine print: by answering this question you are in fact agreeing to participate in this rap battle with Jay-Z, although we will give you a 16-measure boost from Lil'Wayne.
Hmm. Maybe you can do better than me. But how could you not want to see that? By the way, I have read ...CHARLOTTE SIMMONS but I didn't like it as much as THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST, which I will always associate with a family vacation to Brazil where I devoured it in a hammock.

13 August 2008

Amy Shearn, Morning Person

I don't like mornings. I remember the torture of staying in my room until 6AM as a little kid, but I recently started setting my alarm for 7, and it hurts. For the first few hours I'm a coffee-seeking missile, although -- as hoped -- modestly more productive during the day overall. (That's still an hour-plus later than I used to get up in high school, after staying up all night on AOL IM! Ah, youth.)

So I was impressed by writer Amy Shearn's confession in an interview with Claire Zulkey that she wrote her first novel, HOW FAR IS THE OCEAN FROM HERE, before work every day:
I write in the mornings before work, from 5:30-7:43, because at 7:43 I need to watch Pat Kiernan on In the Papers or my whole day feels sad and empty. Then I go to work... I think you have to treat it like a job. Even if you have a job already.
(Kiernan is a NY1 anchor, which I didn't know before.)

I had requested to review Shearn's novel, and it didn't work out, but I'm definitely interested in checking it out now. As it turns out, she is giving a free writing class in New York City tonight, at the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble. I wish I could make it, but being otherwise occupied I will have to catch her when she gives another on October 5th.

Filmbook Extra: I'd Buy That Shirt

At an outdoor performance of "Hamlet" at the Cloisters, Fort Tryon Park: A tween girl wearing a T-shirt that read "Never judge a book by its movie."

So true! Hope she enjoyed the show (presented by Gorilla Rep) -- I did.

11 August 2008

Fringe benefit

Friday was the official start of the biggest event of the year for a certain sub-section of theatre critics and theatregoers. I speak of course of the New York International Fringe Festival, a smorgasbord of performance-related things which officially kicked off Friday. My first Fringe show of approximately 15 (I keep adding and dropping, much like course shopping period in college) was yesterday and the thought of seeing all that theatre is still exciting -- if a little exhausting.

But I'll probably get a ton of reading done. Not during the shows, I mean, but while we're seated and waiting (I usually show up half an hour in advance), between shows on nights I'm covering more than one, and the inevitable post-work pre-show void. I won't have my laptop with me and I don't have a Blackberry, but I have a stack of books specifically marked for intra-Fringe consumption. It is suddenly clear to me why my parents always tried to get me books for long car trips: If I have a book, I can wait for eons.

If you are reading this and in the Fringe Festival, I salute you! It takes a terrific amount of time to get these shows up and audience sizes can be variable through no fault of your own. (And sometimes there are snakes like me hidden in them.) As for everyone else, I'll be in my seat, reading.

10 August 2008

Unbookening, unnormally

Yes, I know "unnormally" isn't a word.

This month's Unbookening is going to be a little different. As of August 2nd I stopped adding books to my Bookmooch inventory for the month, because... I'm giving all of this month's books away to someone I don't know. Specifically, a Peace Corps friend of a friend who posted a plea for any and all reading materials in English for herself and her fellow corps member.

I've never met her and I want this donation to be a surprise, so I'm not linking to her right now, but I will later! I'm hoping to send her a box of 10-12 books along with a few "comforts of home" which she requested. If she's already read them, perhaps she can share or trade with other people there. I have enough Bookmooch points, and I can't imagine living in a place with zero availability of English books. The cost of shipping a flat-rate box will probably be around what I would normally spend on Bookmooch in a month anyway.

Locals, if you have anything you want to stick into the box, let me know. (I won't count that towards my totals.)

08 August 2008


A serendipitous find in the Mulberry Street branch of the New York Public Library, an exquisite box that smells like a yoga studio. The book I checked out actually holds 3 memoirs by the long time writer and editor; AMERICAN GIRL chronicles her childhood in Bristol, Rhode Island; MANHATTAN, WHEN I WAS YOUNG is about the launch of her career as a magazine girl, marriage and children, and SPEAKING WITH STRANGERS follows her into midlife with the personal frustrations of being a single mother.

Cantwell wrote her memoirs in the '90s, and she must have realized how closely her experiences mirrored those of many other women in her generation, coming of age right after World War II and interlacing city life and small-town values. This is especially evident in her discussion of the divorce; she was crushed to have to go through it, but her husband "B." had after years of tumult fallen in love with his secretary and wanted to marry her. Her Catholic upbringing rebelled against both the idea of divorce and the notion of finding love again; she eventually had a long and tortured affair with a married Southern novelist, from whom she felt she couldn't extricate herself. (But such is her discretion that she only refers to him as "the balding man." If you want to know who the lover was, read her Times obit. Kind of mean of them to do given that she worked for the Times!)

Unlike a lot of memoirs that look back at New York, Cantwell's latter two volumes hardly addresses the changes in the city, except when they affect her directly. Still, I found it fascinating to compare her life to mine even in details as minute as what her first apartment looked like and where it was proper for "magazine girls" to eat lunch. Her small-town upbringing I also related to in some respects, although I found that memoir alone a little dull compared to the rest. (Was born, played, switched schools, was teased; got older, had boyfriend, felt town was stifling; escaped. That's the lot of it.) SPEAKING WITH STRANGERS is almost a travel memoir, given the space Cantwell devotes to her trips all over the world -- ending with a bizarre stop in Hawaii -- but she remains emotionally tethered to her daughters and to a lesser extent "the balding man" in New York.

This book also gives the lie to the notion that work-life balance is a new issue for anyone. Cantwell never seriously considers quitting her job, but even before her daughters are born she struggles with trying to be the best wife and the best employee. She doesn't come to any broad revelation about how to fit all those pieces together, but in SPEAKING WITH STRANGERS she has at least made peace with the pieces.

06 August 2008

59. Max Beerbohm, ZULEIKA DOBSON

Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl, but girl is cruel to boy. So boy decides to kill himself. Girl changes her mind and decides to love him so boy will change his mind, but when boy changes his mind, girl goes back to her original attitude, and thus boy and girl are never quite in concert.

We know the protagonists of Max Beerbohm's ZULEIKA DOBSON are shallow, because the narrator makes this clear from the start. Zuleika is a rich dilettante known mostly for her traveling show of magic tricks, who has come to stay with her grandfather at Oxford at the fictional Judas College.* When her path crosses with the Duke of Dorset, they could be a perfectly shallow match: He's an indifferent scholar for whom his vast wealth is really no big deal, who enjoys drinking with his club the Junta. But he decides that Zuleika must be his -- and, embarrassed by his elaborate declaration of love (involving sheep, no less!), she rejects him with a sniff. The Duke retreats to his friends, expecting them to cheer him up, but they declare they are in love with Zuleika too -- and if she won't have them, they won't have anyone.

ZULEIKA DOBSON is Beerbohm's only novel and I wish he had written more fascinating little dark fables like this one. What the Duke decides to do, and the way he and Zuleika ping-pong between trying to figure out their feelings and act how their breeding dictates they should, is so bizarre and switchback-filled that abruptly in the middle of the book I realized that I wasn't engrossed in boy meets girl any more. I was lost in a much greater allegory which delivered a peculiar punch at the end.

Progress of LN VS. ML: 48 read, 52 unread.

Next up on LNVSML: Joseph Conrad's THE SECRET AGENT (#46). Read it on Dailylit, like me!

*As I discovered by perusing this list of fictional Oxford colleges. Is it because of libel laws that English writers are so loath to set their works in colleges that exist?

05 August 2008

ToTT Tuesday: My Personal Finance Toolbox

My review of Farnoosh Torabi's YOU'RE SO MONEY on Talk of the Town with Parker Sunshine airs August 27. Yay!

I got interested in Farnoosh Torabi's YOU'RE SO MONEY because, as I wrote last week, I'm getting used to organizing my own finances and plan for an uncertain future. So I thought it might be useful to share what my money reading looks like right now as the background I'm taking into this book.

I Read
Suze Orman, THE MONEY BOOK FOR THE YOUNG, FABULOUS AND BROKE. The title's a little silly, but "Suze" is in the self-esteem business as well as the personal finance business, which is why this was the finance book I gave my sister for graduation as part of a "Welcome to the Real World, Too Late To Retreat" package.
Michelle Goodman, THE ANTI 9-TO-5 GUIDE. This book specifically covers freelance personal finance, and that's not all it discusses, but I'm proud after reading it last month to add it to my arsenal.
Dave Ramsey, THE TOTAL MONEY MAKEOVER. In some ways Ramsey's advice counters Orman's, especially about getting into debt, but I like Ramsey's wherever-you-are approach to improving your financial situation. When I started listening to his radio show (which streams at daveramsey.com) I wasn't in the dire straits that many of his callers describe, but I was content to not keep track of where my money was and to let the chips fall where they may. If nothing else this book will make you keep track of your spending.

I Follow
Personal finance blogs, especially Her Every Cent Counts, Give Me Back My Five Bucks, Escape Brooklyn and SF Money Musings (now Soul-Searching 20something On a Mission). These are all blogs by women around my age who are dealing with career changes, establishing good savings habits and learning when to splurge. I admire them because I'm not remotely brave enough to share my financial life with the world, even anonymously.

I also listen to NPR's Marketplace and Marketplace Money, which doesn't always cover personal finance but is a great way to ease into the scary category of business news.

So where do you get your personal finance information? From the brokerage of Mom and Dad? (Hey, I still ask them for advice a lot.) From an outside advisor? From your savvy friend?

04 August 2008

Subway Storytelling

"If a Los Angeleno's SUV is a culturally sterile environment, a New York subway is a veritable petri dish, swarming with life. Sometimes it's too much; sometimes the peddlers and the mooch artists and the nodding junkies and the militant nonbathers are more than one can bear, and all one wants to do is hide behind a newspaper and tune it all out. But it's life, it's the city, and in a very real sense it's why most of us live here--not for the theater, not for free concerts in the park, but for the urgent pulse of the metropolis."
--Lawrence Block

Everyone who lives in New York for any length of time has a library of subway stories -- bizarre, scary or funny things that happened to them or that they witnessed on the subway. It's inevitable when you jumble that many people together that stuff happens. I nearly became a character in someone else's subway story last summer when, stricken by a bug on the way to Philadelphia, I was trying to conceal how sick I felt until the next stop so no one would pull the emergency stop and make my fellow passengers angry. (I made it... thank goodness. No one wants to be responsible for a train delay, it's worse than being violently ill.)

The essay collection THE SUBWAY CHRONICLES won't give non-New Yorkers the history of the subways, except when it's incidental to the story. But it will give you the experience of riding it as described by many writers over many different lines. Johnny Temple's "The First Annual Three-Borough Subway Party" is a story of a non-story, because the party, despite exquisite planning, never actually took place. Patrick Flynn's "Parnassus Underground" argues that he likes his super-long commute that takes him from bus to subway to subway; Stan Fischler describes his awe of the subway as a young boy growing up in midcentury Brooklyn. Garret Chaffin-Quiray gave me a lot of fodder for my Netflix queue with a discussion of movies that have subway scenes or rely on the subway (like "The Warriors," which makes an appearance in Jonathan Lethem's piece as well).

But my favorite essay was Robert Lanham's "Straphanger Doppelganger," a chillingly hilarious account of what happens when you meet the person who looks just like you and has been going around making you look bad. In Lanham's case, his doppelganger had been taking out mysterious women, causing reports to trickle back to his wife, so Lanham decided to find the guy who "resembled some weird amalgamation of Jon Voight, circa 'Midnight Cowboy,' and the guy with the unfortunate bangs from 'Logan's Run.'" I haven't found my own subway twin, but I'm sure she's out there somewhere.

03 August 2008

Spoiling James Frey (If He Weren't Already)

There's a word I try to avoid using to review books 'round these parts, or in general. I think it's overused in life, and books of a certain caliber attract the tag just by what they set out to do in general. But if there's one word I would use to describe James Frey's first "official" novel BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, it would be: pretentious. If that's all you need to know, I urge you to go forth and use that estimation of the book at dinner parties. If you need specific examples, read on.

I hadn't even expected that as I kept the book out of the library for a good six weeks, putting it off in favor of more fun reads. I anticipated badly written, and there's some of that. I suspected generalization, and there's a lot of that. But pretension, I was not on guard for that. So here's your Wormbook whitepaper on how not to make your book pretentious, with spoilers. You've been warned:
  • We may or may not be in a recession, but there is no shortage of periods in this country. Frey writes all his sentences like this jams them together in an unhappy alliance. It's meant to move the speed of the book along it makes the book seem like it hasn't been proofread. I hope you are getting irritated already there were 400-plus pages of this. I don't know what's wrong with short sentences breaking your thoughts in half is not a big deal. Maybe it works for a memoir maybe it was designed for me to want to copy-edit my library book.
  • Adding one detail to your stock character does not make him or her less of a stock character. A daughter of hard-working immigrants who is forced to take a demeaning job to get by has a source of secret pain -- her thighs! Esperanza (and don't get me started on how bad books have ruined this lovely name for me) virtually goes into hiding after her dress accidentally flips up at a graduation party and lots of men get a look at the thighs she hates. So, what do you know, eventually she meets a nice man who loves them (and who happens to be the son of her mean employer). Another example: He's not just a wino, he's a wino who only drinks Chablis!
  • When bad things happen to stock characters, it's not Indicative of the Terrible Burden Of The City. It's an indication that the 19-year-old runaway trying to support his girlfriend shouldn't have stolen from the biker gang. Much has been made about the book's Los Angeles setting, and while there are cool things that can be done with it, BRIGHT SHINY MORNING really uses the city the way "Entourage" uses Hollywood -- as a shortcut to load a particular view in your mind so the author won't have to do the heavy lifting. I'm sure if you stole from a Minneapolis biker gang, they too would hunt you down and leave your pregnant wife to cry alone in an apartment she can't afford.
  • That said, there was one L.A. character I thought was well drawn. Naturally, he's a real person. Seriously, when are we going to get the Great American Perez Hilton novel? Minus half a point on the Pretensiometer for the 4-page excerpt on the gossip columnist America reads and pretends not to know about. Out of any profile I've read of Hilton (alias Mario Lavandeira) Frey's biography of him is probably the most succinct if not the best sourced. But it's pretentious to give us this glimpse of What Might Have Been. The fame-hungry, writing of the fame-hungry?
  • Non-diegetic sections get annoying the minute they start calling attention to themselves. I didn't bother to check the facts that Frey wrote into the book between chapters, because I assume they're a little skewed if not incredibly skewed. But there is one section where it really works, and I apologize in advance to you MOBY DICK fans out there: The section on the Los Angeles freeway system -- a largely narrator-free explanation of the different major highways, their local names and reputations -- was this book's "Whiteness of the Whale" moment, but (for me) actually interesting. So when Frey decides to later serve up multiple chapters of "Fun Facts Los Angeles," it just seems like he got too lazy to knit them into coherent discussions. And when you introduce a chapter with "Every city can be fun, and every city has certain elements, or facts, about it that are fun," I just want to hit you. We get it! You're so cool you don't care that this completely interrupts the narratives I didn't care about anyway!
I have read BRIGHT SHINY MORNING. Now let us never speak of it again.

02 August 2008

Celebrity author sighting!

This just in: Camus is having dinner with his parents in Princeton, New Jersey mere feet away from Toni Morrison. Not exactly surprising since she teaches at Princeton, but he notes she is "rocking the white dreads."

Unbookening Month 6: Hmm, That Didn't Work

3 books gotten on Bookmooch
16 books checked out of the library
6 books received for review
Borrowed 4 books from home
Got one book as a present (ALL WE EVER WANTED WAS EVERYTHING)
Bought 1 book
= 31 books in.

9 books given away on BookMooch
14 books returned to the library
Gave away 5 books
= 29 books out.

Two notes on this month:
1. Now that Nick Hornby has retired his "What I'm Reading" column for The Believer, maybe I should switch to his format of books bought/ books read. Of course, that would defeat the purpose of trying to get books out of my house and telling the Internet what a failure I am at said getting.
2. This blog is now the first and only Google search result for "Ainslie Copper."

Books I read this month
80. Rachel Kushner, TELEX FROM CUBA
81. Jennifer Traig, WELL ENOUGH ALONE
82. Shawn Stewart Ruff, FINLATER

83. Bernard Malamud, THE NATURAL
84. [Ainslie Copper]
85. [Ainslie Copper]

87. [Ainslie Copper]
88. Shira Boss, GREEN WITH ENVY
89. Elizabeth Warren, THE TWO-INCOME TRAP
90. Jess Winfield, THE BOOK OF WILL
91. Joanne Passet, SEX VARIANT WOMAN

92. Jacquelin Cangro (ed.), THE SUBWAY CHRONICLES (review to come next week)

95. Glinda Bridgforth and Gail Perry-Mason, GIRL, MAKE YOUR MONEY GROW!
96. Roger Kahn, THE BOYS OF SUMMER
98. Max Beerbohm, ZULEIKA DOBSON (lnvsml)
99. Buzz Bissinger, THREE NIGHTS IN AUGUST
100. Michael Lewis, MONEYBALL

01 August 2008

Baseball Week: Stats Are Fun!

Every baseball player comes packaged with a set of statistics, but are they the right ones? That's the central question of Michael Lewis' MONEYBALL, which follows a season with the Oakland A's as they run a team, well, rather differently than others are currently been run.

Team manager Billy Beane, a former baseball player, read the works of a rogue statistician and baseball fan named Bill James, which intended to find out what stats really reveal how valuable a player is to the team. Those stats drive Beane's approach to buying players on the second-lowest budget in Major League Baseball, on which he was somehow able to improve the team's record substantially even after losing its best known players to free agency. So, it's THREE NIGHTS IN AUGUST meets FREAKONOMICS, more or less.

I'm not going to pretend that I understood the statistics in the book well enough to challenge them. Heck, I didn't even know where the word "sabermetrics" came from or what it meant before I read this book. (It's from the Society for American Baseball Research, which James was a major part of and which promoted these new statistics.) I have a feeling that someone better with numbers than I would be able to poke holes in Lewis' explanations, but for me I found them sufficient and easy to understand for the layperson. And like THREE NIGHTS IN AUGUST, Lewis clearly spent a lot of time with the team, just hanging out and observing how these management changes -- especially a shift away from traditional scouting methods -- have affected the team.

At the same time, I can see why some people who cover baseball would disparage the book, and not because they are just jealous. Lewis even pinpoints the primary weakness of the sabermetrics approach: It only takes into account past performance, not future potential. In this model a player is no better than he has been earlier, so a slow starter in the pros would probably never get a shot under the James/Beane model. But the team that Beane assembles makes this evident, as players who join the team don't quite perform as they have on paper. One could also argue that sabermetrics reduce players to numbers, but not in a way that the stats don't already do. I don't think that MONEYBALL's numbers will ruin the way I watch baseball; if anything, it will make me more curious about the stats I usually ignore.

Dugout Jitters
Is This The Great American Baseball Novel?
Filmbook: "The Natural" (1984)
Roger Kahn, A Boy Among Boys

Off in a lonely Netherland

I didn't end up seeing Richard Price and Charles Bock last night, although I don't doubt that I would have had a great time hearing them read. Instead I went down to Union Square to catch the Booker longlisted Joseph O'Neill read from his third novel NETHERLAND. To be fair, he wasn't the only draw, though: O'Neill was reading as part of the Barnes & Noble "Upstairs at the Square" series which unites writers and musicians once a month, the accompanying musician in this case being singer Aimee Mann.

I don't think even host Katherine Lanpher realized how well O'Neill and Mann were suited to each other, although as Lanpher pointed out Mann is often described as a "literary" songwriter: "I think if you write a song and you put more than three details in it, you're described as literary," Mann responded. It later came up in conversation that the author had listened to some Aimee Mann songs while he was writing; Mann offered to have him sing along with her, but he said he didn't listen to the lyrics, so there was a little good-natured heckling. Beyond those connections, O'Neill's book is about a Dutch loner in New York City who plays cricket; Mann soundtracks people's alienation, whether literally on the "Magnolia" soundtrack or in more intimate settings.

I haven't been able to read it yet -- waiting for a library copy to come through -- but I'm looking forward to digging into NETHERLAND with Aimee's new album "!@$#$@^# Smilers" ringing in my ears. I wish B&N would go ahead and post the next Upstairs at the Square event!