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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Louise Erdrich, THE ROUND HOUSE

I'd read some short stories by Erdrich, but this was the first time I read one of her novels. This is one of my favorite genres to read--a mystery that unwinds amidst a network of relationships and actions that reach deep into the past. Given the 13-year-old observant protagonist/narrator and questions of the kinds of laws and mores that result in (in)justice, I found myself thinking of To Kill A Mockingbird; the plot twists and the emotional intensity reminded me of Tana French; and I felt shades of Sherman Alexie in the realism of life on the reservation and some of the wry humor (this hero, Joe, feels a bit like Alexie's of "True Diary"). And Erdrich writes wonderfully; I found myself underlining phrases and rereading them several times before moving on. They're never as good out of context, but here are some: "A life that had worn itself into bachelor grooves and a house of womanless chaos." "I felt the tremendous hush in our little house as something that follows int he wake of a huge explosion." "I knew if I moved I'd snap the pull between them." Enjoyed this very much, and still thinking about it.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Stephanie Danler, SWEETBITTER

This book could have been the fairly predictable story (think The Devil Wears Prada x Kitchen Confidential) of a lonely and naive 22-year-old coming from the sticks of Ohio to NYC, taking a job in a high-end restaurant, meeting a hot (but damaged, naturally) bartender, experimenting with drugs, scraping by in a rotten little apartment, finding a mentor who turns into an enemy when threatened, and evolving to a wiser self. But this book is both more nuanced and more painful than that synopsis suggests, showing how profoundly a lack of self (we don't even get Tess's name until a good way into the book) shapes every aspect of one's life. The knowledge of food and wine and the restaurant industry feels like we're being let in on secrets, like Tess is; and the writing is deft, playful, and suggestive. "A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember." "I don't know what it is exactly, being a server. It's a job, certainly, but not exclusively ... One doesn't move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter." "So--some tomatoes tasted like water, and some tasted like summer lightning." A very good debut.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Erik Larson, DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA

Another historical page-turner by the author of *Devil in the White City*. Like that one, this book blends two related stories: that of the German U-boat commander and that of the Lusitania, including stories of the captain and some individual passengers (which I found fascinating). There's a kind of magic about the way Larson interweaves the two stories. I mean, we all know how it ends, right? But the alternating chapters mimic the feeling of watching the two vessels move closer and closer .... you can't put it down. What I liked most is the way Larson situates the sinking within several historical contexts--the recent Titanic disaster; the political machinations of WWI, with Britain desperately hoping the US would join in the war; President Wilson's personal life; the newspaper reports, etc. An intelligent, accessible read for history lovers!

Julie Lythcott-Haims, HOW TO RAISE AN ADULT: BREAK FREE OF THE OVERPARENTING TRAP AND PREPARE YOUR KID FOR SUCCESS

I think this is an important book. It's pretty well acknowledged now that there's been a swing in the pendulum of parenting, from what some call "benign neglect" toward helicopter parenting. By "helicopter parents," she doesn't mean parents who care about their children and support their interests, even when it's not always convenient; she means the parents who try to forestall all failures, disappointments, and heartache ... and end up with kids who have a poor sense of self-efficacy and low self-esteem, and can't cope so well with the real world, once they're beyond their parents' realm.

My favorite Crazy Parent story: a young man working long hours as an investment banker had a mom who tracked down his boss's private number and called to complain on her son's behalf. The young man walked into work on Monday and was handed his personal items in a box with the note "Ask Your Mother" on top. Egads.

Lythcott-Haims is a former Stanford dean and a parent herself, in Palo Alto, which she describes as a hub for helicopter parenting. What I found valuable is (1) the way she historicizes this pendulum shift, pointing out why it has happened; (2) her discussion of the how helicopter parenting is harming our kids, leading to anxiety, depression, and addiction; (3) her condemnation of the arms race of college admissions and suggestions for how to stop perpetuating it; (4) her caution about "the perils of parenting alone"; and (5) the number of resources she uses (TED talks, other books, etc.), some of which I am going to look at later.

My one gripe is that she sets up the past as somewhat idyllic ... as if life skills were naturally absorbed by children in previous generations. She writes that "children who are otherwise healthy and developing normally used to develop these skills naturally in the normal course of childhood." Well, maybe. But there's a gray area there around "developing normally." I was brought up in a household that was normal in some respects, but my family was pretty non-relational; my parents were certainly not helicoptering. But while I learned some self-reliance, they didn't teach me a lot of the life skills on that list. I went to college having no idea about some things; I had to pick them up later, and was often embarrassed by my lack of knowledge or frustrated or just puzzled about how other people knew how to talk to professors, or cook a real meal, or change a tire, or whatever. So in my view, the "benign neglect" can go too far.

My favorite quote: " ... we've lost a sense that it takes a village to raise a child, and instead of being able to rely upon informal community networks to help us raise 'our kids' in the public sphere, we're each left to raise 'my kid' alone in the private sphere where we are anxious and alone in figuring out how to best prepare our kids for the world outside" (p. 120).

I would recommend to people who liked *Excellent Sheep* and (one of my favorites) Judith Warner's *Perfect Madness, Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.*

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Kevin Kwan, CRAZY RICH ASIANS

I enjoyed this spicy satire of money and manners in modern-day Singapore. It's full of shallow, scheming characters and lists of clothing designers and a lot of posturing and whining that is at times annoying and at other times just plain funny. So in some aspects, it's a beach read. But on another level, it's a satire with the social maneuvering writ VERY LARGE. So I found myself thinking of Jane Austen, the Best Satirist Ever of social manners and the ways money shapes people's lives. This book is in some ways a revved up modern-day Asian version of Pride and Prejudice, maybe combined with Emma. Lots of narcissism, controlling behavior, and obtuseness; a Mr. Collins figure; and an overbearing mother worthy of comparison to Mrs. Bennet, who is married to a man who hides in his study to watch action movies (a la Mr. Bennet). And through it all, a Lizzie (Rachel) who manages to stay true to herself. There's another couple that, despite best efforts, fails to keep their marriage together; they are the Fateful Warning of how pernicious this money-obsessed culture is. My only gripe was the "big reveal" at the end about Rachel's father, which to me felt unnecessary; the book was succeeding on its own terms; it felt to me like Kwan was setting a piece of filet mignon atop a delicate chocolate mousse to add some "heft" at the last minute. Sorry, food metaphors abound ... there was just so much good food in this novel! But I'd recommend this book for a fun, engaging read.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Melanie Benjamin, THE AVIATOR'S WIFE

I enjoyed this book about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh; but I felt it was uneven in several respects. It is told in the first-person, and for the first thirty pages, it felt to me that the author didn't quite have a handle on Anne; I can understand the mixed feelings and uncertain identity of early adulthood, but Anne's psychology felt incoherent. Fro example, she repeatedly refers to herself as "tongue-tied and shy," uncomfortable with her siblings, the "second" sister in the Morrow family, in the "shadow" behind her older, blonde sister. (I kept thinking of Glinda and Elfaba; Elfaba is, of course, the quieter and smarter one, the one who ends up with the man.) But she's buoyant and chatty with her two siblings on the train all the way down to Mexico: "I can't wait to see Con! ... And Mother, of course. But mainly Con!" At one point, she almost seems to try to excuse the inconsistencies in her attitudes and feelings with "Before I could sort out my tangled thoughts ..." However, by page 100, her voice and her psychology emerges as more consistent. And from that point on, I was swept up into the story.

Some of the other reviewers seemed to dislike the book because Charles Lindbergh was a philanderer, a narcissist, tyrannical, and anti-Semitic. The episodes about his response to Hitler's Germany are chilling; there is almost a too-easy line drawn between his loveless childhood, his hard-nosed parenting style, and his appreciation for the Nazis. Others took issue with Anne's inability to stand up to him, or her own unfaithfulness. But I have no problem with characters who are neither heroes nor outright villains, who are struggling, inconsistent in their behavior, or lying to themselves and others. I feel it's to an author's credit if she is able to make us feel for the protagonist(s)--even if it's frustration or revulsion. I also appreciated the way Benjamin was able to suggest how the popular press, as well as the American desire for masculine heroes and for particular versions of supportive wife/motherhood, participated in constructing both Charles and Anne's public personae.

Having written historical fiction myself, I appreciate all of Benjamin's work to wrap her hands around the vast amount of material and to provide in a way that doesn't involve periodic "info dumps." Her handling of the episodes--the kidnapping, the fights with the press, the travels, the final discoveries--are, overall, well-done. I enjoyed.

Friday, April 21, 2017

William Deresiewicz, EXCELLENT SHEEP: THE MISEDUCATION OF THE AMERICAN ELITE & THE WAY TO A MEANINGFUL LIFE

This is an important book about a disturbing trend: high school students are jumping through hoop after hoop to reach college, only to find themselves disaffected, depressed, and disconnected from their own emotions and psychological selves, including their interests and passions, after they arrive. They have tremendous intellectual horse power, a great work ethic, and no clue of what fascinates or engages them. He holds the system accountable--primarily the college admissions process which, in the face of record numbers of applications, focus on the "easy" measures--the GPA, the SAT, the ACT, the number of APs, the number of extracurriculars--instead of how a student learns, thinks, and participates in meaningful ways in the world. He also has suggestions for how to change it ... but it's not an optimistic ending. This does, however, help parents and educators support students in resisting the NOISE and in trying to develop their authentic passions in ways that ultimately lead to fulfilling lives and careers.