Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fearful is Right!

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After the popularity of The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger's next novel was hotly anticipated by many. I went into it knowing nothing more about it than what The New Yorker had to say. I finished it last night and am still not sure what to think.

I may have been my own worst enemy in reading this book, which is about two sets of twins. I had a hard time getting a handle on the older twin, Elspeth, whose death sets in motion the events of the book. Elspeth was a rare book dealer who lived in London. Because of these facts, and her name, I pictured her as an old woman. Yet, she had a lover, a fondness for spiky-heeled shoes, and a twin whose own twin daughters are 20.

I also had a hard time getting a handle on the younger twins, Julia and Valentina. I kept picturing a set of twins I saw on that show, "Intervention." Those twins (one of whom was also called Julia) had a bizarre, unhealthy dependence on one another and a serious shared eating disorder. They had dropped out of college and spent all of their time hanging out together, sleeping in the same bed, eating the exact same number of calories and moving the same amount of steps. Setting aside the eating disorder, Julia and Valentina seemed to me to have a similarly unhealthy relationship. Julia was the "dominant" twin who made all of the decisions. Valentina merely goes along with them, always.

Elspeth, for reasons never explained, decides to leave all of her worldly possessions to her nieces, who have never met her. Elspeth and her twin, Edie, parted ways over 20 years ago when Edie stole her fiance and moved to America with him. There are strings attached to Elspeth's mysterious gift: the girls have to live in her flat for one year, and their parents aren't allowed to set foot inside of it.

The girls decide to go. There, they meet Elspeth's lover, Robert, who's writing a dissertation on the famous Highgate Cemetery nearby. They also meet Martin, who suffers from severe OCD and sets crossword puzzles. I thought the book started to get creepy here, when Valentina and Robert start to become attracted to one another (especially the scene where Valentina shows up for a date dressed in Elspeth's clothes) and Julia and Martin also develop an attachment, despite the fact that Martin has a son Julia's age and is still devoted to the wife who left him earlier that year.

The book takes a bizarre turn when Elspeth explodes back into the story, as a ghost. Of all the visions of the afterlife I've ever read about, Niffenegger's has to be the most depressing. Elspeth is trapped in her old flat, but powerless at first to do much of anything. With no body, she can't read books, watch TV, or engage in any other diversion. As the book goes one, she gets more powerful, able to write messages in the dust and engage in using a Ouija board. Many writers throughout human history have imagined the afterlife to be beautiful or terrifying. It's a bit depressing to see it represented mostly like being stuck in a waiting room for all eternity.

It just gets weirder from there, though. I won't say too much more about the plot for fear of spoiling it for anyone who wants to read the book. I'm still not sure how I felt about it. The reviews on are very mixed and seem to be written mostly by people who enjoyed her first book. Many felt confused or gypped by the ending, and I guess I did too.

Although I didn't hate the book, I can't entirely side with those who found it to be wonderful. The first half of it really dragged. The second half was creepy, and not in a good way. It had a lot of unpleasant elements, but they weren't unpleasant in any interesting or poignant way. They didn't challenge you like Lolita or make you feel deeply like The Memory of Running. They were just garden-variety unpleasant, like mold on bread or a bald dude in a thong or something. It's certainly an unusual book, but I had such a hard time buying into it that I guess I can't really reccomend it, although it did instill in me a desire to return to London to tour Highgate Cemetery.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lisa Jewell: Why I Love Her

In the shower, I was reflecting on my promised "Year End Review" post. I didn't want a mere list of the ones I really liked and disliked, so I was trying to make up categories. Funniest. Most engrossing. Stuff like that. For my best new-to-me author, I decided it had to be Lisa Jewell, and that got me thinking as to why.

My first encounter with Lisa Jewell was One-Hit Wonder, many years ago. I came across another one of her books earlier this year, her new one, in fact, and started off reading the rest of them.

They're not terribly original in plot. Many of them are a variation on the standard twisted romance that people like Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts have built film careers on. But the characters are stand-outs. They're always interesting people, with a strong point of view. You root for them, you get to know them, you ultimately rejoice in seeing them walk happily off into the sunset of their own making.

But another reason I really like Lisa Jewell is that her characters are in sync with me, and the point in my life that I'm at. I'm too old to relate to the young women in The Devil Wears Prada and their ilk. But I'm not really interested yet in reading books about women having families and all settled down. That's not me yet, either. I always thought it would be. It is a lot of my Facebook friends. Whenever I log on, I see tons of status updates about people's babies and home renovation projects. Over the summer, one woman that I went to high school with posted pictures of an obviously professionally landscaped garden at her home. I'm still renting, still figuring out what I want.

Jewell's characters are, too. Maybe, like Siobhan of Ralph's Party, their promising twenties have fizzled somewhat: she was laid off from her job at a fashion college and never found another one, unsure of what sort of work she might be suited for, unable by biology to simply become a stay-at-home mom, and unclear as to what was next for her. Or maybe, like Joy and Vince of their self-titled novel or Tony of Friend of the Family, they have whole unsuccessful lives behind them already. Perhaps, like Dig and Deen of Thirtynothing, Toby of Roomates Wanted, or Sean of Friend of the Family, they're just merely slower bloomers, still living the same lifestyle they led right out of college except maybe with a tad more money.

But still, it's neat to see them undertake their journeys towards the rest of their lives. It's nice to get the message that people don't magically "settle" at a certain age, and that there's nothing necessarily wrong with you if you don't have it figured out yet when all of your friends are married with kids, homes and careers. It's nice to know that there are other people out there wrestling with the questions of who they are and how much of the stereotypical white-picket-fencce lifestyle they want for themselves, if any. Even if those people are fictional.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Like, OMG! Sweet Valley High Comes to the Silver Screen

So, I guess I tend to live under a rock a bit. In the break room at my *new job* are old Entertainment Weekly magazines. I picked up one from September, and fucking hell, I actually learned something from it. Diablo Cody, of "Juno" fame, has acquired the rights to film the Sweet Valley High series by Francine Pascal.

Like all good children of the 80s, I read these books. Who didn't? As Cody pointed out in her article, it had all the elements. Warm California climate, with the movie-star glamour of California, too. Identical twins, which always seem to fascinate kids for some reason. But the main point she hit on was that the books were about high school students.

I'll be honest, I can't recall the books very clearly in terms of plot or anything. Elizabeth was the smart, goody-two-shoes one who wrote the gossip column for the school paper. Jessica was the bad one, although I'm not sure why. She had glamourous, bitchy friends. It was implied that she was slutty and bitchy, too, although you didn't see a whole lot of that from her. But I don't think that these books were targeted as Jessica and Elizabeth's age peers. Rather, they were for little girls that wanted to be grown up, and to be seen as grown up. By the time you were Jessica and Elizabeth's age, you'd realize just how unglamorous high school can be. Not all of your friends will have Porsches or be cheerleaders.

It makes me wonder, too, who will see this movie and how Cody will pull it off. To me, the most obvious audience is women my age, who remember the books. But let's be honest: won't it be more of a guilty pleasure for most of us than a movie we sincerely want to see? Are we supposed to be taking our daughters? Are tweens supposed to want to go alone? And, do tweens even know Sweet Valley High? I tried to find out more information about the series on the web. I turned up the most complete wikipedia article you'd ever want to see (OMG, remember when Regina Morrow died of a coke overdose? So sad.) I found numerous fan sites devoted to cataloging all things Sweet Valley (there were at least seven different series, including a university one). I learned that during the 90s, someone had made a stab at producing a television show for a couple of seasons. I failed to turn up the one piece of information that I wanted: whether these books are still being churned out, and if not, when they stopped.

Will I go see this movie? Probably not. But when it comes to RedBox, I'll definitely be there!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Need for Speed: Booking through...errr, Sunday

It was a pretty rough week, and this Thursday was the worst day of all. I was completely worn out by the time I made it home from work, and I think I went to bed an hour and a half later without even making my lunch for the next day. I just looked at this week's BTT, and it's a weird one:

Speed December 17, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 12:30 pm

Suggested by Barbara H:

What do you think of speed-reading? Is it a good way to get through a lot of books, or does the speed-reader miss depth and nuance? Do you speed-read? Is some material better suited to speed-reading than others?

I'm not really sure what they mean by "speed reading." Is it similar to skimming a book, or do they just mean going as fast as possible? And not really knowing what it is, I guess I'm a little unsure as to whether I do it or not. Some books I do read faster than others. When I was reading The Thirteenth Tale earlier this year, I couldn't put it down. I kept pushing and pushing, staying up late to see what happened next. When I absolutely had to go do something else, I just looked forward to getting back to the book. But I wouldn't say I "speed-read" the book.

And what looks like speed-reading to some may just be a difference in reading speeds. I've discovered that I can read faster than most people, but it doesn't feel as though I'm going fast. It took my boyfriend two and a half weeks to read each of the Lord of the Rings books, but I'm sure he wouldn't say that he was going slowly, just at his normal speed.

So yeah, I guess I don't really understand this BTT, or have anything terribly deep to say on the topic.

Friday, December 18, 2009

New Job, New Library

So, my new job is going pretty well. Most jobs seem great at first, but there are some real positive signs -- one literal, in fact, welcoming me and announcing to the rest of the office that I was starting there on my first day. Today, we had a potluck Christmas party, and as usual, there was way too much food, so I wasn't even remotely hungry on my lunch.

I wondered what I was going to do with myself, then I saw the answer directly across the street: the public library. For some reason I'm a little wary of being too specific about where I live and work on here, so I'll just call it Suburban Library. Around here, all of the branches are linked together, so I can use my card wherever I want. Very handy. Of course I went to check it out.

The main word I'd use to describe it is "functional." It's in a large brick building of 20th century vintage. The walls are drywall, ceiling is acoustical tile, and the floor is very low carpet. The same seems to apply to its selection. Books like Edgar Sawtelle, the Twilight series, and other hotties are all displayed prominently. Most of the new non-fiction had titles like "Divorce for Dummies" and "The First-timer's Guide to Breastfeeding."

I was surprised to learn that Barbara Kingsolver has a new novel out, called The Lacuna. I'm a little skeptical. It sounds like a departure for her into more historical fiction, and honestly, some of her other books haven't been that great. I passed up The Lacuna, because it was a rather long seven-day book. No way in hell, not Christmas week. But one of my TBR's from the New Yorker year in review was there, so I grabbed that, along with a few others. Here's my haul to the best of my memory:

Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding. The one by her I wanted to read the most, liberated from the rest of her novels.

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle. Not sure why, just looked good.

Audrey Niffeneger, Her Fearful Symmetry. This is the one from the New Yorker.

E. Annie Proulx, Accordion Crimes. The only by her that I haven't read yet.

I did OK for just being on a half-hour lunch! The staff was very nice, and it was worth taking my life in my hands to cross the street there.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Seventeen to Go (after this one)

I think now is a fine time to blog about how I have nothing to blog about. Seventeen posts to go (after this one), Christmas cards yet to write, lights yet to hang, shopping undone, a new job starting in two's a fine time to get worried! And today, I have nothing really to write about. I still have a bunch of books from my last library haul, but when they sit in my box abandoned, it's usually a sign that it's time to admit defeat and bring them back.

I started Where Men Win Glory yesterday, which is unfortunate, because it's the kind of book that makes you feel bad about giving up on. "I just didn't give a shit about the war we've been fighting for a decade?" "The heroic sacrifice of soldiers and a governement cover-up did not appeal to me?" I'd start to sound like one of the people I call at work, who say things like, "I don't really attend those types of events, I prefer to just stay home and listen to Rush Limbaugh." (Seriously. Someone said that to me once.)

I was forced to take back two of them. I tried to renew my book on Norse Mythology and one of the ones about freelance writing and they wouldn't let me. I was renewing them on their due date, so I thought maybe there was a technical glitch. I called the library about it and learned that both books had holds on them! I was so very tempted to write a note with my phone number in both books expressing my shock that someone else in the area wanted to read them and also my desire to meet this person. But I chickened out, and before my company Christmas party, I raced to the library drop-box and returned them. Whoever wanted them should have them by tomorrow at the latest!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ode to my Survival Job, or Breaking News: I Have a Job Part II

A few months ago, I breathlessly announced that I'd landed a job after over a year of looking. I'd also mentioned that it wasn't a great one, but I didn't add that I went into it with few hopes for anything other than a paycheck.

What a relief and pleasant surprise it was, then, to find a positive and supportive work environment. I'm leaving this job soon for a full-time position, with benefits. When I got the offer, it should have been a no-brainer, but this job was so hard to walk away from.

Why? Like every good environment, it starts from the top. My boss started with the organization doing part-time phone sales, just like my co-workers and I. So he knew what it was like to do our job. He knew the challenges we faced, he knew how hard it could be to call someone away from their dinner and push through their resistance to get the sale. So, he respected what we did. He also provided endless constructive criticism to help us do better. Key word, constructive. He never made anyone feel bad about themselves. He never made anyone so insecure that they didn't want to pick up the phone. He never made us afraid to ask questions or bring ideas to him.

He also hired quality people. It could have been a petty, sniping, competitive environment. But, everyone was very nice. Everyone wanted to see one another succeed. No one played stupid head games, or sucked up at anyone else's expense. When a new person came on board, there wasn't any "FNG" syndrome: they tried to get to know you and make you feel welcome.

Even the work itself wasn't bad. If you're ever faced with taking a phone job, don't be too scared. I was working for a cultural organization and theoretically calling a decent sort of person, but I encountered very few utter jerks. I would estimate my calls resulted in about 70% answering machines, 25% nice people, and 5% jerks. I enjoyed my 25%. I enjoyed chatting with the old ladies who came out with their friends. I enjoyed talking to the couple my age who were trying a subscription for the first time. I liked the old guy who decided to stretch himself and come out to some classical music, even though he'd never done so before. I liked helping the man who was a bit strapped for cash but loved our organization find a way to stay involved.

I'll miss all of it. I even thought about trying to stay, and my supervisor assured me that the door's open if I ever want to come back. I may do so. I'm excited about this new job, but still sad for what I'm leaving behind. You know that you have a hell of a good boss when he advises you to take the better opportunity!

So, I start my new job on Wednesday. I'll be writing full-time!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Books of 2009

As a direct legacy of my class with the fabulous Dr. Janet Groth, I subscribe to The New Yorker. There's always something interesting to read in there, they still have among the best short fiction available anywhere, and their online archive is unparalleled.

The current issue has an article, or featurette, called "A Year's Reading: Reviewer's Favorites from 2009." You can find this featurette here, on their website. I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read any of these, but after reading the brief and tantalizing snippets, I've added the following to my TBR list:

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood. Promises to "revist...the post-apocalyptic world of Oryx and Crake."

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger. Described as a "gothic yarn around a London cemetery." That's three magic words in a six-word description.

Lowboy, by John Wray. "A schizophrenic rides the subway." Very intriguing.

And on the non-fiction tip, there's:

Beg, Borrow, Steal, by Michael Greenberg. "Notes on a freelance life." Since I hope to have one myself, may be worthwhile to know what to expect.

A Strange Eventful History, by Michael Holroyd. "The linked lives of two nineteenth-century stage stars." Explaining why I want to read this is like explaining why money is good.

The Magician's Book, by Laura Miller. "Reading C.S. Lewis as a child and as an adult." I love the Narnia books. I wonder if Kittens not Kids knows about this one. She does now, anyway.

I'll be doing my own "Year in Review" soon, and I'll try to make my descriptions as pithy as theirs. But I've added some books to read to my own list!


I checked the BTT website today and was pleased to see an easy, fun, quirky one. Good. I have enough other shit to think about. So here it is:

Mark the Spot December 10, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:59 am

Suggested by Tammy:

What items have you ever used as a bookmark? What is the most unusual item you’ve ever used or seen used?

I've used almost everything as a bookmark. Whatever's handy. Subscription cards to magazines, paint chips, envelopes, junk mail, napkins, anything I can find. On a few occasions, I've even used my paycheck. I used to have this job where I essentially just babysat a museum. It was very slow, very dull. I always brought a book, especially since they had the world's worst internet connection. So, I always brought something to read, and occasionally used my weekly check as a bookmark. One time, I left it in the book by mistake, and the library called me about it.

But I've used everything in my life as a reader, including a few actual purpose-designed bookmarks!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The People In Your Neighborhood

A couple of years ago, I read a book of short stories set in the American West. It had a few of the usual suspects, but many authors I'd never heard of. The book was terrific, and introduced me to Mark Jude Poirer. I read a great novel by him, called Goats, and then I promptly forgot about his existence until this last trip to the library, where I happened to bump into one of his books, Modern Ranch Living.

The book is set during one hot, transformative Tuscon summer. There are two protagonists (the jacket promises three, but there are two, trust me.) Kendra is sixteen. She's into fitness and working out, and has these bizarre anger issues that even she doesn't really understand. She's working hard to get control of them. She is what one might call a "social loner". There are a couple of people she hangs out with -- her brother, the boy next door, a couple of guys from the gym, this dude that used to go to school with her but transferred -- but she isn't really close to any of them.

She also has the strangest way of talking. "Plussing as which" is sort of her catchphrase, used in context like: "Plussing as which, you'll get a sunburn if you stay out here too much longer." She has a hard time censoring her thoughts, too. In one incident, she was forced to compose a letter of apology to a neighbor lady. The lady always commented on Kendra's muscle tone, and one night in the grocery store, Kendra pointed out that the lady herself was fat and was purchasing nothing but bad food. Her therapist told her what to say in her apology letter, but she wasn't really sorry.

The other protagonist is Kendra's 30-year-old neighbor, Merv. Merv is stuck in a rather deep rut. His father died when he was fifteen, and that was just about the last thing to change in Merv's life. He still lives with his mother. He has the same friends as he did in high school, even though they're smug yuppies now. He manages a water park called Splash World, helps his mother deal with her mental health issues, and occasionally goes on dates.

The incident that sort of intertwines Kendra's and Merv's stories is the disapperance of the neighbor boy that Kendra used to fool around with on occasion. The disappearance remains mostly in the background, but it serves as sort of a catalyst for both of them. Kendra is frustrated by her inability to express herself to the police and signs up for an English class at the local community college. Merv is annoyed by the police officer's condescending attitude towards him, but also learns something disturbing about his father's death in the course of the investigation. These two things motivate him more in his job and in his life. By the end of the summer, and the story, both Merv and Kendra have managed to affect real change in their own lives.

The edges of this story are populated by fascinating characters. Kendra's parents used to be punk rockers, and now her father is a golf pro and her mother sells vintage toys at toy shows. Kendra's brother is the world's smartest professional wrestling fan. There's the bitchy and mysterious Brooke Luter, who's not exactly her brother's girlfriend, but kind of close. There's Raymond, the disabled man who hangs out in the wave pool at Merv's work and is always slipping him twenties in exchange for Merv's assistance. Merv's mother, who's terrified of house fires and has bad insomnia.

All in all, Modern Ranch Living is an enjoyable and thoughtful read.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A First for Your Library Card!!!!!

After I wrote my review of Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy, I was bracing myself. I know that my own little corner of the internet is, shall we say, lightly traveled. But I also know that parenting and raising kids is just about the most controversial topic there is, even worse than religion and politics. I wandered into a Facebook group last weekend promoting breastfeeding, and after reading a few of the discussions, I'd be just as wary of saying "maybe formula's not that bad" in there as I would yelling "Allah sucks!" in downtown Riyadh.

I also know that stuff on parenting has a way of making the rounds, so I was braced for a slew of comments along the lines of "what do you know, wait until you have some of your own." But then the completely unexpected happened.

The author herself showed up to comment!

I confess that I saw the comment last night, but was having such a rotten time at work that I didn't want to open it. What if it was bad? Even though I really liked the book, what if I'd inadvertently said something mean and hurt her feelings? Everyone at work was already blaming me for things that weren't my fault, maybe it would be a bad time to face up to something that really was my fault. Finally, this morning I realized that the comment was coming from a woman who's also known as "America's Worst Mom" and has appeared on Fixed Noise...errr...Fix News...I mean FOX News. So I stopped being so neurotic and opened it.

It was very nice, and Lenore, if you're reading this, it meant a great deal to me that you took the time to come and read my blog. Your emails also mean a lot to me, especially since you liked my Mendelssohn joke! (A recent entry on Lenore's blog was about a middle-school teacher who lost his job for making a mildly off-color, off-hand remark. I related the off-color joke my music teacher told me at the same age, also how mature it made me feel that an adult felt that I could handle a joke with a dirty word in it.)

Non-depressing historical fiction (that doesn't suck) can be a tall order. If you're in the mood for a bit of a project, I'd check out either Mary, called Magdalene or Helen of Troy both by Margaret George. If not, Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas, is uplifting but has enough historical background in it to keep it from being mere fluff. When We Were Gods, by Colin Falconer, is all about Cleopatra and was very good too. Apologies for not being able to come up with anything a bit more modern, but all the ones I could remember that were set in more modern times were either a. depressing, b. crap, or c. depressing crap.

Thanks again for stopping by! Everyone should stop by Lenore's blog too. It's very interesting, and even a bit inspiring -- I, for one, am determined to become a foot soldier in the War on Halloween, and come up with something so spooky and fun for next year that the kids will still remember it when they're my age!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Month in Review

It was a dark and stormy afternoon as yours truly cast about aimlessly for something to post on, having planned through yesterday but no further. I looked at other people's blogs but didn't find any help there. It's way too soon to blog about how I have nothing to blog about.

Then it hit me: I could resurrect one of my many, many abandoned features!

Without further ado, I present: NOVEMBER IN REVIEW!

As a personal aside, did this month go by in about five minutes for anyone else? I was shocked when Thanksgiving came, stunned to be filling out my paperwork for work and realizing that the pay period ended in December and that my end-of-year callbacks had come around!

I only read three books in November, but they were all pretty good. Lisa Jewell's Ralph's Party was a proto-Jewell (her first novel) but still enjoyable. Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was amazing, as beautiful and evocative as its title and also an interesting document of a long-gone lifestyle. Where You Once Belonged by Kent Haruf, was good too, lean, mean and nothing but action.

I tried to read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and am appropriately ashamed of my inability to get into the book. I abandoned it at around page 35 or so, despite the fact that I was about a quarter of the way through this extremely short novel.

I visited the library twice. I was pleasantly surprised to learn how inexpensive the hold fees are, but dismayed at the larger trend of lack of respect for the purpose of the library and the other patrons that are using it. I guess it fits right in with lack of respect in the stores, on the road, on the telephone, and even in internet comments (though I'm happy to say, only once here. If you're reading this, you're statistically a higher caliber of person than those that go to craigslist to swear and make racist remarks. Good on you).

I did well with my blog, making 13 posts and hitting all the BTT's. I still rarely get comments and I'm not sure what to do about that, but oh well.

All in all, November was a short, rushed month. I still have quite a bit of reading from my two library trips and am working on an interesting one right now. I think I'll get back to it!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Free Range and Certified Organic!

I wonder, who else but me would read a book on parenting when I'm not one, not planning to be one, and not studying the topic for school? I don't know how I found Lenore Skenazy's blog Free Range Kids, but I became a fan immediately, relating as it did to something that's been bothering me for a while.

I'm talking about the school buses. Have you been behind one lately? When I was kid, I grew up on a relatively small suburban street. There was a whole passel of kids on my block, and we had a bus stop. The school would tell us every year whose house had it, and all the kids would walk over and wait together. The process was reversed at the end of the day: the bus would stop at one of our houses and everyone would walk three or four doors down to their own home.

No more. Now, the bus crawls along like an inchworm, stopping at this house, then the house two doors down, then the house next door. It's not just in the suburbs. Last year, I was waiting behind a bus to turn right onto a busy street. The light changed, the bus pulled forward, then slammed to a stop, blocking all the traffic on all sides of the intersection. As I was waiting for my heart rate to slow, the doors hissed open and the bus disgorged a single girl, about 11 or 12, with a crossing guard who escorted her safely across the street. In case you're having a hard time visualizing all of this, the girl lived basically right across the street from where we were stopped at the light. She was old enough to cross (in a crosswalk) on her own AND she had a guard, yet the bus driver still felt the need to escort her even closer to her home.

Lenore Skenazy sees this as a symptom of a widespread problem affecting the way children are raised in this country. Her book cites a variety of changes in a single generation. Kids, for the most part, don't walk to school at all, or even wait for the bus. They don't play outside. They don't do much of anything that's not highly organized and supervised, even into their teen years. Her book, Free Range Kids, traces the sources of this madness (hint: it rhymes with "Cable Mews") and offers suggestions for parents on how to break out of this mindset. She addresses the fear of kidnapping by strangers (about as likely as your kid getting hit with an asteroid, and about as easily avoided), the fear of poisoned Halloween candy (I thought everyone knew that was a complete fiction, but I guess not) and the fear of rough play (legitimate, but sometimes getting minor injuries like scrapes and bruises is a key part of learning and development).

Her book is written in a conversational tone, and includes mostly anecdotal tales rather than hard evidence. It's more like, "My friend let both of her kids quit sports and they turned out great!" rather than "A study by Harvard College surveyed ten thousand kids over thirty years and found no significant correlation between participation in sports and success later in life." It's an enjoyable read, even if you're not planning children anytime soon, or ever. It brings up a lot of interesting issues about society and points out how infantilizing children and young adults harms us all. Read anything about childhoods, even 75 years ago, and you'll see that oftentimes, people didn't have much of one. Look at yearbooks from the World War II era at your local historical society, for example. You'll often see early graduation ceremonies because half of the class was going off to war. My own grandfather left school at age 16 to join the navy. He came back, married my grandmother, had my father the next year and finished building his own house a couple of years later.

I'm certainly not trying to say that things were better back then, and neither is Skenazy. But the point is that 16-year-olds are certainly developmentally capable of walking to a friend's house alone, or camping in the woods by themselves for a weekend. Yet, Skenazy uncovered numerous examples of kids who weren't allowed to do that sort of thing. She found a six-year old who wasn't allowed to go to the mailbox by herself. She found warning labels on DVDs of Sesame Street videos from the 1970s, because of the kids playing at construction sites.

I guess the main criticism I have of the book is its narrow audience. The over-protected kids we're discussing are most likely middle-class and up. It neglects the fact that, sadly, some kids really AREN'T safe going to the mailbox alone in poorer, more dangerous neighborhoods. And there are also a lot of parents out there who neglect their kids. Some of them just don't care. The kids who live next door to my parents, for example, have been more or less ignored since they were old enough to walk. They've wandered out into the street and spend hours outside completely unsupervised every day. They're four and six now, but this has been going on for a long, long while.

I think the book would have been better had Skenazy acknowledged other realities a bit more. I think both problems are different sides of the same coin. Skenazy pointed out how these days, motherhood is not just something you do, it's something you are. Society judges you as a person on how well your kids come out, how you raise them, and even whether you have them at all, and it judges you harshly. Some people who would have preferred to 'be' something else feel pressured into it anyway and wind up becoming indifferent parents. Other people pour all of their effort into every little detail, approaching it as if the smallest mis-step will doom the entire enterprise. And refuse to let a six-year-old go get the mail in a safe, quiet neighborhood.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

BTT Goes Meta

This week's question:

But, What About Me? December 3, 2009

But enough about you, what about ME?

Today’s question?

What’s your favorite part of Booking Through Thursday? Why do you participate (or not)?

Well, this is a nice, easy one to answer! I love this meme because it helps to keep my blog alive. If I'm reading a longer book, that means I have little to post about until I finish it. Or, if I'm reading a book that's not terribly good, or if I owe so much to the library that I'm not reading anything at all, it helps keep me blogging.

I especially love this meme during NaBloPoMo, or right now, when I'm trying to do 25 more posts (after this one) before 2010. It helps take the pressure off. I feel like Thursdays are a "gimme," sort of. Three more to go before the end of the year, so I really only have to make up 22 topics for posts (agh! where's my brandy!). I like the fact that it brings people over to my little corner of teh interwebz, also that it gets my out of my corner to visit other peoples' virtual book nooks. It's a chance to be a part of something online, the way NaBloPoMo was during the first year I did it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sad Little TBR

So, in my quest to hit 400 posts by year's end, I've been doing a wee bit of planning. Today was going to be TBR list day. I realized the other day that I haven't even so much as glanced at that part of my blog in a very long time, not since I changed the template and lost all of my original lists. Believe me, I will think long and hard about ever doing that again.

So I scrolled down today to edit my list. People of the Book, which I finished a few months ago, was still on there. Good. One easy thing to trim, now for the additions. There's the "new" Candace Bushnell, that I've never managed to find at the library. Good. There's the "other" novel by Geraldine Brooks. Good, that can go on there, too. Now, for all the rest of them...wait, where are they?

I couldn't think of anything that I've been *dying* to read. Sure, there are a few that I'm kind of curious about. But nothing that motivates me to keep checking the library. I could probably read 1984 anytime I want, but I never think to look for it. I'm adding David Copperfield after this post, too, even though I've had it out several times and often wind up returning it unread. I also have to add Retail Hell, by Freeman Hall, based as it is on one of my favorite blogs.

Other than that, nada. With most of my favorite authors, I've read all of their stuff and am now waiting for more to come out. And I can't think of any books I've heard of that sound so new and exciting that I just *have* to try them. So, readers, any suggestions for me?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


If you grew up in a haunted house, how would that influence the course of the rest of your life? Of your family's? How different would it be from growing up haunted by something? Those questions occupy Jennifer Finney Boylan's beautiful memoir, I'm Looking Through You.

Living under a rock as I do, I was not aware of Jennifer Finney Boylan until some enterprising library page decided that this book would make a nice component of the nonfiction display nearest the escalator. For my fellow sub-geological dwellers, Jennifer Finney Boylan is a Colby College professor, friend of Richard Russo, bestselling author and two-time Oprah guest. She also used to be known as James Boylan. That's right, she is the first best-selling transgendered author (at least that we know of for sure).

This book is the follow-up to her bestseller, She's Not There. If you don't wish to read about being transgendered, don't worry. This book focuses largely on Boylan's unusual upbringing, in the bizarre haunted house that featured the Monkey Bathroom (where the previous owner's monkey lived, of course), the creepy swingin' sixties bachelor pad living room (as she put it, where the parties used to happen before the bachelor was found mysteriously stabbed to death) and the ghost of a child, or possibly an adult, who drowned...or didn't. It's a bit reminiscent of an Augustyn Burrows book, but with much, much more happiness and stability.

For Boylan was fortunate enough to grow up in a loving home. Her father was a classical music lover and banker who would make her play her Chopin and Beethoven in ragtime or 7/8 and would mediate arguments between herself and her sister by ordering them to stop and argue the opposite point. Her grandmother was embarrassingly, humiliatingly open about sex (the story of her father's conception got dragged out at every get-together, complete with its punchline: "Best screwing I ever had!"). Her aunt was always cold, even in summer, and made copious amounts of sock-monkey cats, which she called Kittygirls.

This story is not only intriguing, but beautifully written. It almost looks effortless. It's the type of book that makes one think: "I could do that. I had a weird aunt, too. I could tell about our family traditions and stories, make people laugh and cry, too." It has a forward momentum of its own, a great deal of heart and humor. It's definitely worth a read, and I suspect her first book is, too. People may come to Finney's work for the freakshow aspect of it all, but she gives them tremendous reason to stay.