Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Talk: THE GOOD GIRLS REVOLT, by Lynn Povich

The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace
Lynn Povich
PublicAffairs (September 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 161039173X / 9781610391733)
Nonfiction: History/Women, 288 pages
Source: ARC from publisher, obtained at Book Expo America 2012
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines (Chapter 1): “On March 16, 1970, Newsweek magazine hit the newsstands with a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement, ‘Women in Revolt.’ The bright yellow cover pictured a naked woman in red silhouette, her head thrown back, provocatively thrusting her fist through a broken blue female-sex symbol. As the first copies went on sale that Monday morning, forty-six female employees of Newsweek announced that we, too, were in revolt. We had just filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging that we had been ‘systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume a subsidiary role’ simply because we were women."
Book description, from the publisher’s websiteOn March 16, 1970, Newsweek magazine hit newsstands with a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement entitled "Women in Revolt." That same day, 46 Newsweek women, Lynn Povich among them, announced they'd filed an EEOC complaint charging their employer with "systematic discrimination" against them in hiring and promotion.
In The Good Girls Revolt, Povich evocatively tells the story of this dramatic turning point through the lives of several participants, showing how personal experiences and cultural shifts led a group of well-mannered, largely apolitical women, raised in the 1940s and 1950s, to stand up for their rights—and what happened after they did. For many, filing the suit was a radicalizing act that empowered them to "find themselves" and stake a claim. Others lost their way in a landscape of opportunities, pressures, discouragements, and hostilities they weren't prepared to navigate.
With warmth, humor, and perspective, the book also explores why changes in the law did not change everything for today's young women.
Comments: As 2013 begins, 80-year-old Newsweek magazine will enter a new phase as an online-only publication. It’s not the first time that changes in the socioeconomic landscape have forced it to change how it operates. Forty years earlier, the magazine was sued by almost fifty of its female employees when they didn’t see any other way out of the uncredited “research” ghetto in which any woman who wasn’t a secretary was forced, by practice and policy, to dwell. In The Good Girls Revolt, Lynn Povich--one of the Newsweek women who spearheaded the lawsuit--describes the work culture that deemed that writing, reporting, and editing were men’s work, and the societal changes that drove a group of well-educated, capable women to demand that culture be changed.

The Newsweek lawsuit may not be an especially well-remembered incident in the barrier-breaking and society-reshaping years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but as the first action of its kind by women working in the media, it’s a significant one. In March 1970, Newsweek was the first major newsmagazine to do a cover story on the second-wave feminist movement--and with no women reporters or writers on staff, it had to hire a freelancer to produce it; the researchers and fact-checkers who sued to change that status announced their legal filing the same day that story was published. Change didn’t come quickly--or particularly willingly--and when internal “understanding” broke down, the women pursued further legal action.

In documenting the story of the lawsuit, Povich--who was named Newsweek's first female senior editor five years after the first filing--spoke with many of the individuals affected by the action, including those charged with implementing its mandated remedies and those who were conflicted over being involved with it at all. While they supported changing Newsweek's discriminatory practices, some of the women who joined the lawsuit didn’t personally want the opportunity to become writers or reporters or editors, and Povich treats their viewpoints as even-handedly as she does those of women for whom those opportunities couldn’t come fast enough.

Thanks to actions like the Newsweek lawsuit, gender discrimination in the workplace is officially illegal now, but that doesn’t mean it’s disappeared; it just takes more subtle forms that are more challenging to address. Those of us who were children when these groundbreaking events were occurring--and those who weren’t born until after the Equal Rights Amendment had withered from lack of passage--need to be reminded of the struggles that made things possible for us and of the matters that are still far from settled. The Good Girls Revolt is a fast-paced, engagingly written (and reported) chronicle of one of those struggles...and a good, consciousness-raising reminder.

Rating: 3.75/5

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Book Talk: *Dare Me*, by Megan Abbott

cover image: DARE ME by Megan Abbott, via indiebound.org Dare Me: A Novel
Megan Abbott (Twitter) (Facebook--author page) (Facebook fan page for Dare Me)
Reagan Arthur Books (August 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0316097772 / 9780316097772)
Fiction, 304 pages
Source: Purchased e-book (iBooks edition: ISBN 9780316203234)
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines: “‘Something happened, Addy. I think you better come.’

“The air is heavy, misted, fine. It’s coming on two AM and I’m high up on the ridge, thumb jammed against the silver button: 27-G.

“‘Hurry, please.’

“The intercom zzzzz-es, and I’m inside. As I walk through the lobby, it’s still buzzing, the glass walls vibrating.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
The raw passions of girlhood are brought to life in this taut, unflinching exploration of friendship, ambition, and power.

Addy Hanlon has always been Beth Cassidy's best friend and trusted lieutenant. Beth calls the shots and Addy carries them out, a long-established order of things that has brought them to the pinnacle of their high-school careers. Now they're seniors who rule the intensely competitive cheer squad, feared and followed by the other girls -- until the young new coach arrives.
Cool and commanding, an emissary from the adult world just beyond their reach, Coach Colette French draws Addy and the other cheerleaders into her life. Only Beth, unsettled by the new regime, remains outside Coach's golden circle, waging a subtle but vicious campaign to regain her position as "top girl" -- both with the team and with Addy herself.

Then a suicide focuses a police investigation on Coach and her squad. After the first wave of shock and grief, Addy tries to uncover the truth behind the death -- and learns that the boundary between loyalty and love can be dangerous terrain.
Comments: Occasionally I feel like no matter how closely I'm reading a book, I'm missing something. It may be due to something in the writing style that's eluding me or an important element in the story that I don't quite understand for some reason, but regardless of what causes it, I feel as if I'm somehow a few steps behind. Sometimes I'll get to the end and still feel like I haven't caught up; it feels like waking up from a dream that I was trying to understand while dreaming it, and it's frustrating. A re-read might clarify things for me, but reading experiences like this don't usually leave me too inclined to want to re-read. It's disappointing, particularly when it was a book I was initially pretty excited about reading.

Megan Abbott's Dare Me was one of those reading experiences for me. It was fast-moving and gripping, but although the story isn't overly complex, I couldn't seem to shake a sense of confusion throughout. That may have been partly because it's centered on a cheerleading team; I'm a nerdgirl and certified non-jock without much interest in sports and their trappings, and the world of cheer is pretty foreign to me. But there was also something stream-of-consciousness in the first-person narration of Abbott's "lieutenant" cheerleader Addy that kept me off-balance and somewhat outside the story. I don't mind not being able to figure out where a story is going; I actually think that's a good thing, generally. However, it does bother me when I feel like I can't make sense out of where it's been.

With its high-school setting and borderline "mean-girl" characters, Dare Me seems to fall into the "YA-crossover" niche, although its darker story elements--adultery, a suspicious death, underage drinking--are most certainly adult. That said, there's not much adult presence here. Parents barely make an appearance in the novel, while the breaching of teacher/student boundaries is central to its plot; it's a disturbing element, and it's probably intended to be.

To be fair, my expectations may have been out of whack; I had the impression that Dare Me would be a little more like Gone Girl, and it's...not. Based on the blogger reviews that piqued my interest in this novel in the first place, I have the feeling that my response to the novel is a minority opinion, but although I was never bored, I just didn't connect with it.

Rating: 3.25 of 5

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

At the movies: *The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey*

THE HOBBIT teaser poster, via www.thehobbit.com

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Warner Bros.)
Fantasy/adventure, 2012 (rating: PG-13)
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis
Written by: Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Guillermo del Toro; adapted from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Synopsis, via RottenTomatoes.com:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey follows title character Bilbo Baggins, who is swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, which was long ago conquered by the dragon Smaug. Approached out of the blue by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior Thorin Oakenshield. Although their goal lies to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain, first they must escape the goblin tunnels, where Bilbo meets the creature that will change his life forever... Gollum. Here, alone with Gollum, on the shores of an underground lake, the unassuming Bilbo Baggins not only discovers depths of guile and courage that surprise even him, he also gains possession of Gollum's "precious" ...a simple, gold ring that is tied to the fate of all Middle-earth in ways Bilbo cannot begin to know. -- (C) Warner Bros
I love Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings. (I’m one of those heretics who prefers his films to Tolkien’s novels.) I was pleased by the announcement that he’d be responsible for the film version of the story that preceded them, The Hobbit. I was a little befuddled by the later news that The Hobbit would be made into two movies, and flabbergasted that it was being stretched into a third. Granted, it’s been decades since I last read The Hobbit, but my recollection was that it just wasn’t a big enough story to be a trilogy all by itself. Its big brother was based on three books (or three parts of one huge book, depending on your perspective), so three films made sense in that case, but...what?

I’m still not sure three movies are necessary, but having been through the first third of the saga now, I’m in for the long haul.

Just minutes into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey  I already appreciated that Jackson had eventually decided to direct these films himself, because it allows for a vision of Middle-earth that’s familiar and consistent with the earlier LotR movies (the ones based on a later story--yes, the chronology does get a little confusing!). It’s a vision that made me once again want to live in the Shire. (My taller family members would prefer Rivendell.)

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a children’s book, which gives it a different tone than the LotR trilogy, and while An Unexpected Journey doesn’t feel like a children’s movie, it does, appropriately, have a different tone from its film brethren as well. There’s more humor, and it’s sillier. The goal of its traveling adventurers is a little smaller than defeating the forces of evil, although it will involve battle with a dragon. And the cast of characters is a little less diverse--fewer elves, many more dwarves, and just one hobbit. (And only one wizard, but it’s Gandalf the Grey, so why would you need any more?)

It takes some time for that hobbit to come into his own. Bilbo Baggins is a very reluctant adventurer, and spends most of the first half of the film reacting to the situations that Gandalf and the dwarves have thrown him into. Martin Freeman does a fine job of reacting, but it’s beautiful to see his Bilbo start emerging as a more active agent within the story as the film progresses, peaking with his riddle-exchanging encounter with Gollum and that troublesome ring.

Telling this story over three films--and augmenting it with “historical” material from the appendices at the end of the third LotR novel, The Return of the King--means that it won’t be rushed, and seeing how Bilbo grew in this installment made me appreciate that decision. The Hobbit doesn’t have the epic scope of The Lord of the Rings, and it’s not meant to, but there were moments in An Unexpected Journey that felt epic in the context of the full story of Middle-earth. This first installment runs nearly three hours on its own, but I didn’t feel that it dragged at all, and that makes me more optimistic about the two parts to come. I’m also hopeful that by the time we get to the last one, I’ll finally have all the dwarves sorted out.

Note: I saw this movie in conventional 2D, so I'll leave the techy discussion of the 48-frames-per-second 3D version to others.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

(Audio)Book Talk: *Where'd You Go, Bernadette* by Maria Semple

cover image: WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE via indiebound.org Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel
Maria Semple (Facebook)
Audiobook read by Kathleen Wilhoite
Little, Brown and Company (August 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0316204277 / 9780316204279)
Fiction, 336 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Hachette Audio; Audible ASIN B008XDY8GS)
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines: “The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, ‘What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.’ You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, ‘The truth is complicated. There’s no way one person can ever know everything about another person.’

“Mom disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it’s complicated. Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.

“It doesn’t mean I can’t try.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.
Comments: I wasn't thoroughly enamored of Maria Semple's debut novel, This One is Mine, but I liked it enough to feel inclined to watch for what she'd do next. While waiting for that to come along, I also checked out some of the work she'd done in her earlier career as a television writer--namely the entire series run of Arrested Development on Netflix--and became even more alert for something new from her. It came along this summer, and Where'd You Go, Bernadette has landed on several "best-of-2012" book lists.

Cleverly structured as a modern-day epistolary novel--almost more of a scrapbook, comprised largely of letters and e-mails between characters--...Bernadette represents the efforts of the title character's teenage daughter, Bee, to reconstruct just what was going on during the weeks preceding her disappearance from her own home during an attempted mental-health intervention, and what's become of her since. As she tries to piece the story together, Bee learns about her mother's past as a visionary architect...and why she not only hasn't designed a single thing in nearly twenty years, she has become increasingly less interested in leaving their tumbledown Seattle home, and it so often goes wrong when she does. However, Bernadette's most recent solution to that problem--contracting her family's personal errands to an online virtual assistant in India --turned out the be less ideal than it seemed.

The novel's framework allows Semple to give voice to a large cast of characters and follow them through their interactions with one another; the text-communication device also permits exposition that feels more organic to the story. The strongest and most present voice is Bee's as she knits the pieces together and reflects on her close relationship with her offbeat but loving mother; but despite appearing in the story only through her own correspondence, Bernadette is also remarkably vivid.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a smartly comic novel, and its humor frequently goes in unpredictable directions. I already knew that Semple was adept at satire, but didn't entirely expect the degree of humanity she gives to most of her characters here. I'd had high hopes for This One is Mine and they weren't quite realized; I didn't quite know what I should expect from Semple's second novel, and was pleasantly surprised and satisfied by what I found there. The surprise was even more pleasant because I'd somehow missed the memo about the novel's structure, and decided to read it by ear. You probably wouldn't think a novel built on correspondence could work well as an audiobook, but it really does.

I couldn’t find other audiobook credits for narrator Kathleen Wilhoite, but she’s an actor/singer/songwriter whose lengthy IMDb filmography includes a recurring role on the TV series Mad About You, where Maria Semple was a writer. (That’s an interesting bit of connection trivia...that may mean absolutely nothing.) It's always clear which characters Wilhoite is voicing, and she's notably effective and endearing as fifteen-year-old Bee.

It's also clear why this novel has been getting so much praise, and why I'll keep watching to see what Maria Semple does next.

Rating: Book 4/5, Audio 3.75/5

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

#stopitnow: Bullet Points--or, Me and a Gun, revisited

I originally wrote this after the Tucson shootings in early 2011, and revised it a bit after the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut last week. Members of the #GenFab bloggers' group have been sharing their responses to the Sandy Hook School shootings with the hashtag #stopitnow. What follows are my personal opinions on the generalities of a very complex issue, with links to facts on the matter where appropriate. I've linked to others' posts in a Readlist.

Whenever there’s a newsworthy shooting somewhere in this country, the debate about guns and their “control” gets revived. America is a nation born from war; it wouldn’t have come into existence without firearms. Our Constitution’s Second Amendment was meant to ensure our right to bear arms in defense of ourselves, our families, and our country. However, all too often, they’re used for purposes pretty much unrelated to that right, and activities that, being against the law, are technically unprotected by the Constitution.

My parents were both victims of gun violence associated with criminal activity. When I was twelve years old, they were both shot in an attempted robbery at the liquor store they owned at the time; my father’s knee was shattered when he came out from behind the counter, and my mother sustained a flesh wound when she chased the robber out of the store. (By the way, he didn’t get any money--but he did get arrested a few days later.) My sister and I were in the store at the time--a Saturday evening, the night before Easter 1976--and witnessed it all. It’s no overstatement to say it changed our lives; by the end of that year, my parents had sold the store, our house, and most of what we owned, and we moved from Connecticut to Florida to start over. (This happened roughly 30 miles--and 36 years--from the town where Sandy Hook Elementary School is located.)

When I had a child of my own, I was one of those parents who didn’t want him to play with toy firearms, although I did make exceptions for the occasional water pistol. However, I observed what many parents of little boys do; if they want to play “shooting” games, they can pretend anything is a gun. (I don’t mean that as a sexist statement; girls may do it too, but I only know from raising a boy.) My son wasn’t all that interested, fortunately, but he did engage in that pretend play every now and then. And he spent most of his growing-up years in the South, where gun culture is pretty well entrenched, although we really didn’t know anyone who used them.

I have joked occasionally about the irony that I would leave Tennessee and move to California before I lived with a guy who owned a firearm. Early in our acquaintance, and well before we were officially “in a relationship,” the man who would become my second husband told me that one of his favorite hobbies was target shooting and that he had an interest in collecting firearms. He hadn’t wanted to mention it until I’d gotten to know him a bit--and had a good sense of how non-aggressive he was--but he did feel I should know fairly early on, as it was the kind of thing that might affect my feelings about him. He was well aware that people can have some prejudices against gun owners--but since I hadn’t yet told him about the robbery, he didn’t realize that I might be someone with those prejudices. I surprised myself by how calmly I took this revelation; I told him that it was his thing, and as long as he didn’t expect me to participate in it, I wouldn’t bother him about it.

And I really haven’t, although I am the last person I ever thought would live with firearms in the house. But I also live with someone who is is exceedingly responsible about firearm ownership and usage, serious about safety, and fundamentally nonviolent. Because he’s the only firearms owner I’ve had a close relationship with, I can’t say whether my husband is “typical” or not, but I suspect he probably is; we just don’t hear much about the gun owners who don’t fit the “NRA gun nut” image. My husband’s firearms are stored, unloaded, in a locked safe. They’re removed only for his trips to the shooting range (and occasionally for cleaning); he has no interest in hunting or any other uses for them, and no one touches them without his supervision. Not surprisingly, he’s not as averse to toy firearms as I was when my son was little--my stepson owns a few Nerf dart guns, which he’s not permitted to point at any living creature--but he’s never allowed violent video games, particularly those of the “first-person-shooter” variety, and he’s never pushed shooting with his daughter and son; they’ve used air rifles and accompanied him to the target range a few times, but they’re not overly interested.

taking aim at target range (by Paul Vasquez, used at www.3rsblog.com)

I have mixed feelings about the worth of “prohibition” laws in general. Outlawing the production and sale of alcoholic beverages in the 1920s not only didn’t stop people from drinking, it was a major factor in the growth of organized crime. The illegality of abortion prior to 1972 didn’t stop it from happening then, and efforts to curtail its legal availability now won’t stop it either. But as you might imagine from my experience in that liquor-store robbery when I was twelve, I’ve been quite strongly in favor of gun control most of my life. On the one hand, I (kind of) get the NRA’s “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” position; on the other hand--yeah, people kill people, but in this country far too many of them have much too easy access to guns to do it. Even where there are restrictions and prohibitions against gun purchases, I suspect that a determined criminal mind--or an unstable one--will find a way around them, but the fact remains that stricter gun laws correlate with less gun-related violence.

In the years since, I’ve thought we were relatively fortunate that my family’s experience with such violence happened when it did, the mid-1970s; now it seems like criminals are more interested in not leaving witnesses, regardless of whether they get what they came for, and my parents might not have made it out with just bullet wounds and broken bones. I don’t blame “the media” for what seems to be a more widespread appetite for carnage, but I do believe that as violence in entertainment--and as entertainment--has become more prevalent and more graphic, it’s come to feel less real, to the extent that some seem to disassociate violent acts from their effects on living human beings. That may point to an issue that needs at least as much attention as gun control, and maybe even more: mental-health care and treatment, starting with a hard look at the attitudes and stigmas surrounding it. There are even bigger questions of ethics and morality connected with all this--Is a criminal act less of a crime if it's committed by someone mentally unstable who may not really understand what they're doing? Is it more of a crime if the person who commits it understands it but is incapable of caring about it?--but since we're already struggling as a society with the more concrete questions, I'm not sure when we'll be prepared to tackle the philosophical ones.

I'm pretty sure of this, though: the “right to bear arms” is a significant American one, but the right to health and safety is a fundamental human one--and personally, that’s the right I’m more interested in defending.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Thursday, December 13, 2012

(Audio)Book Talk: *Shine Shine Shine* by Lydia Netzer

Shine Shine Shine
Lydia Netzer (Blog) (Facebook) (Twitter)
Audiobook read by Joshilyn Jackson
St. Martin's Press (July 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 1250007070 / 9781250007070)
Fiction, 320 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Macmillan Audio; Audible ASIN B008M20XUK)
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines: “Deep in darkness, there was a tiny light. Inside the light, he floated in a spaceship. It felt cold to him, floating there. Inside his body, he felt the cold of space. He could still look out the round windows of the rocket and see the Earth. He could also see the moon sometimes, coming closer. The Earth rotated slowly and the spaceship moved slowly, relative to the things that were around it. There was nothing he could do now, one way or the other. He was part of a spaceship going to the moon. He wore white paper booties instead of shoes.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
When Maxon met Sunny, he was seven years, four months, and eighteen-days old. Or, he was 2693 rotations of the earth old. Maxon was different. Sunny was different. They were different together.
Now, twenty years later, they are married, and Sunny wants, more than anything, to be “normal.” She’s got the housewife thing down perfectly, but Maxon, a genius engineer, is on a NASA mission to the moon, programming robots for a new colony. Once they were two outcasts who found unlikely love in each other: a wondrous, strange relationship formed from urgent desire for connection. But now they’re parents to an autistic son. And Sunny is pregnant again. And her mother is dying in the hospital. Their marriage is on the brink of imploding, and they’re at each other’s throats with blame and fear. What exactly has gone wrong? Sunny wishes Maxon would turn the rocket around and come straight-the-hell home.
When an accident in space puts the mission in peril, everything Sunny and Maxon have built hangs in the balance. Dark secrets, long-forgotten murders, and a blond wig all come tumbling to the light. And nothing will ever be the same.…
Comments: I’ve quoted the publisher’s synopsis of Shine Shine Shine above, but here’s a capsule from the author’s website that gets to its essence:
“A novel about robots, sex, the American family, the secrets of newsmen, the dangers of fitting in, and a rocket to the moon.”
I prefer that short description of a novel that’s not at all easy to describe, and I’ve included two descriptions because I’m not really sure how to sum this one up in my own words. Let me try this: Shine Shine Shine  is Lydia Netzer’s ambitious, strange, genre-blending debut novel, and while it seems to reflect a wide range of influences, the whole of it is strikingly original.

Shine Shine Shine ’s primary narrative thread is propelled by two collisions occurring within days of each other and over a hundred thousand miles apart. Nine-months-pregnant Sunny Mann’s minivan is broadsided while she is driving home with her autistic son, Bubber, after visiting her dying mother in the hospital. The only casualties are the van and one of Sunny’s wigs--its flight into a puddle exposes her to the neighbors as completely bald. The accident occurs on the day her astronaut husband Maxon has left on a mission; he’s with the team charged with delivering the robots he developed to prepare the moon for a human colony. But when their ship is hit by an asteroid and they lose communication with NASA, their mission--and lives--depend on Maxon’s ability to put those robots to work a little earlier than expected.

The parallel threads of accidents and aftermath are intercut with flashbacks to Sunny and Maxon and their near-lifelong history together, as seen from both of their perspectives and by Sunny’s mother, Emma Butcher. Maxon and Sunny are an odd couple, but not in the sense of being a strange match; it’s because that they’re both odd. Sunny’s not just bald-headed, she’s a completely hairless, fatherless girl who craves normalcy, and Maxon is a misfit genius with some resemblance to the robots he’ll eventually create. These people could have been portrayed as not much more than off-putting collections of quirks, but for the most part, Netzer dodges that potential hazard. Although I found the storytelling in Shine Shine Shine  a little overworked in spots, I was won over by the richness and humanity of her characters. I could identify with them, but I didn’t feel like I’d met them before, and I appreciated that.

This novel first came to my attention last spring in a Shelf Awareness “Maximum Shelf” feature, and while it seems to have fallen short on the book-blogger buzz-o-meter since then, it lodged in a corner of my brain as “the one about the bald wife and the astronaut” (although at times I did confuse it with the also starry-covered The Age of Miracles). But when I learned that the audiobook was narrated by Joshilyn Jackson, I quickly and easily decided that I wouldn’t delay in reading Shine Shine Shine  by ear. Jackson beautifully differentiates the three narrative voices, and her performance seems to convey a real affection for the material--the narrator and the author are long-time friends. If you also choose to read this as an audio, stick around for the conversation between Netzer and Jackson about the book and two songs from Netzer’s “folk-punk” band, The Virginia Janes, that close the recording.

I’ve seen mixed blogger responses to Shine Shine Shine   which really isn’t that surprising--in its way, it’s as odd as its protagonists, and that won’t work for every reader. I loved it for the fact it wasn’t afraid to be odd, but I’m still trying to decide how much I loved it for itself. In any case, it captivated me, and I’ll be interested in seeing how Lydia Netzer follows it up.

Rating: Book--3.75/5, Audio--4/5

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Shelf Awareness Book Talk: *Listening for Madeleine* by Leonard Marcus

cover of LISTENING FOR MADELEINE, via IndieBound.org Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices
Leonard S. Marcus (Goodreads)
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (November 2012), hardcover (ISBN 0374298971 / 9780374298975)
Nonfiction: biographical essays, 384 pages

A version of this discussion was published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (December 4, 2012). Shelf Awareness provided an Advance Readers Copy of the book and payment for the review.

Opening lines:“She was born in New York City on November 29, 1918, the only child of Charles Wadsworth Camp and Madeleine Hall Barnett Camp. Her parents, whom she ruefully described as ‘Olympian,’ grew up in privileged circumstances--Charles at Hilton, a rambling old house in Crosswicks, New Jersey; Madeleine in Jacksonville, Florida, where her family owned the largest bank.”
Book description, from the publisher's website:
Madeleine L’Engle is best known to the world as the author of A Wrinkle in Time, the enduring milestone work of fantasy fiction that has enthralled millions of readers for the past fifty years. But to those who knew her well, L’Engle was much more: a larger-than-life persona, an inspiring mentor, a strong-willed matriarch, a spiritual guide, and a rare friend. The renowned literary historian and biographer Leonard S. Marcus reveals L’Engle in all her complexity through a series of incisive interviews with the people who knew her most intimately. Vivid reminiscences of family, colleagues, and friends create a kaleidoscope of keen insights and snapshot moments that help readers to understand the many sides of this singularly fascinating woman.
Comments: The first author that I wanted to know about as a person was Louisa May Alcott. The second was Madeleine L'Engle. In addition to almost all of her fiction, I've read some of her nonfiction, including her four memoirs, collectively known as the Crosswicks Journals; I've visited her old stomping grounds at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City; and I thought I knew a good amount about her. But I didn't know she came from a prominent Florida banking family. I didn't know she'd lost a son. I knew she was very active in the Episcopal Church, but wasn't aware that she actually preached on occasion, and didn't know about her involvement with an evangelical, fundamentalist church group. And I didn't realize that several members of her family disagreed with her portrayals of them in her memoirs.

In the Crosswicks Journals, as well as in her other nonfiction writing and active public speaking, Madeleine L'Engle had many opportunities to tell her own story. In Listening for Madeleine, Leonard Marcus shapes the reflections of a wide range of L'Engle's relatives, friends, and colleagues into an unconventional biography--more of an oral history--of the award-winning novelist through the perspectives of those who knew and were influenced by her.

Marcus organizes the 50 interviews presented in the book according to the context in which the party knew L'Engle: writer, mentor, friend, family member, or fan. While certain of her characteristics seem to have been evident to nearly all of them--her work ethic, her keen intellect and curiosity, her faith and spirituality--other facets of her personality were revealed, or experienced, less uniformly. For example, while many considered her giving, generous, and warm, some perceived this as a cultivated manner rather than a natural attribute--part of L'Engle's persona, the character she presented as herself. Some of those closest to her have challenged that presentation, noting that L'Engle was a storyteller and writer of fiction, and that extended to aspects of her own story.

If that's the case, then L'Engle's own memoirs may not be genuinely "autobiographical"--or, at any rate, they may not be completely, factually accurate. With that said, Listening for Madeleine isn't a genuine, conventionally researched biography, either. Leonard Marcus has assembled a fascinating, impressionistic portrait of this complex and influential woman. It might best be considered a companion to the Crosswicks Journals, giving readers the opportunity to see Madeleine L’Engle from a variety of angles.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Notes on This Year's Reading (which is not finished yet!)

This isn’t an official “Year in Review” post, because I feel like it’s still a little early for me to go there, but it is a bit of a rehearsal for it. I haven’t done much in the way of taking stock this year, so I feel a need to get my bearings.

Part of that need comes from a sense that, particularly for the last few months, I haven’t done much bloggish, period. This was the year I discovered the fun of photo-editing apps, and playing with them has cut into the time I spend on both writing my own posts and reading other people’s. (Tradeoff: I am doing more photo-based blogging!)

And for several weeks now, I’ve been feeling much more drawn to reading books than blog posts. I still skim my feed-reader frequently (as in multiple times per day), and I do make an effort to share good links as often as I can even if I’m not commenting on them directly. But when that reader feels overly full, I’m not hesitant to activate the “mark all as read” function to make the backlog go away--and make myself feel better about it--for a little while. (It’s not all better. There’s still a little guilt. But can anyone keep up with it all these days?)

Bookshelf collage www.3rsblog.com

As far as books go, though, I’m on some sort of year-end reading tear. I am currently reading three books at once--one in print, one on my iPad, and one audiobook. Last month I successfully double-teamed a print book and an e-book. I’ve never been a proficient polygamous reader, but getting more into audiobooks may be shifting me in that direction.

This year I gave up on trying to maintain a book-review index here and decided to start using Goodreads as my review archive. I also joined their 2012 Reading Challenge with a goal of 52 books for the year. I won’t make it, but I don’t think I’ll miss it by much...and I’m pretty sure that tracking my books-read number via a blog widget is a factor in my recent binge reading.

I think I joined three reading challenges besides the Goodreads one, and other than labeling my Book Talk posts when they fit into one of them I haven’t given them much attention. I’m pretty sure I met my goal for the Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that I’ve already beaten my target for the Audiobook Challenge--I aimed for six and I’ve read ten so far, with one still in progress as I draft this post. I fell short on the E-book Reading Challenge, though. I’m no longer using a dedicated e-reader; I’ve found that regardless of whether it’s in the Kindle, Nook, or iBooks app, I’d rather read on my iPad. The drawback to that is that I’m too easily diverted by the other things there are to do my iPad. I’ve also concluded that although I like the idea of killing fewer trees, I still need to see print versions of ARCs and review books waiting around my house in order to remember my responsibilities toward them, so e-galleys are probably not for me at this stage.

I may not achieve my planned book-a-week average this year, but the quality measures are good. As I said, I’m using Goodreads much more now, but LibraryThing remains my first love for book cataloging, thanks to their tagging capabilities and their enabling of the more nuanced half-star in book ratings--I use tags to note my own quarter-star adjustments. The rating I gave most often was 3.75/5, but I gave three books a rating above 4 of 5 (and five-star ratings on Goodreads). Theoretically, that should make my “Books of the Year” choices pretty obvious, but I’m not sure it will.

That’s still a few weeks off yet, though--it may not be done till after January 1, 2013--and I want to get to Jamie’s End of Year Book Survey, too. But even if I’m not ready to bestow year-end honors, “Best of 2012” book lists are popping up in lots of places already! I’ve compiled some that you might not have seen yet into a Readlist, and if you’ve come across others you’d like to add, please use this edit link to share them!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Friday Foto: Beginning to Look Like Christmas

Holiday scenes from The Grove/Farmers Market and my house--collage made with PicFrame
Inside and out, the holiday season has officially arrived! (And yes, we really do have those books under the tree...but no one reads them.)

This is my favorite Christmas scene in my house this year, though:

Captain America watches over the Nativity scene

How are your holiday preparations coming along?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Talk: *Flight Behavior* by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behavior: A Novel
Barbara Kingsolver (Facebook)
Harper (November 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0062124269 / 9780062124265)
Fiction, 448 pages
Source: ARC from publisher, received at BEA 2012
Reason for reading: TLC Book Tour

Opening Lines: “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise. Innocence was no part of this. She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Flight Behavior takes on one of the most contentious subjects of our time: climate change.  
Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. Now, after a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, she has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks momentary escape through an obsessive flirtation with a younger man. As she hikes up a mountain road behind her house to a secret tryst, she encounters a shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire. She can only understand it as a cautionary miracle, but it sparks a raft of other explanations from scientists, religious leaders, and the media. The bewildering emergency draws rural farmers into unexpected acquaintance with urbane journalists, opportunists, sightseers, and a striking biologist with his own stake in the outcome. As the community lines up to judge the woman and her miracle, Dellarobia confronts her family, her church, her town, and a larger world, in a flight toward truth that could undo all she has ever believed.
Comments: The opening scene of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior implies something pretty ordinary: the desire to flee our everyday lives that sometimes overcomes even those of us who are mostly satisfied with them. “Mostly satisfied” wouldn’t really apply to Dellarobia Turnbow, however, and her climb up a nearby mountainside will indeed change life as she knows it--but not at all in the way she thinks it will. She comes back down that mountain with the intent to live differently. She’s about to learn that she--and her family, her town, and the world at large--all need to live differently, and the very earth is deciding this for them.

Some fiction isn’t “about” much of anything. Flight Behavior is “about” a lot of things. Climate change is the "big" thing, and it’s considered in terms of the scientific facts and the popular resistance they’ve encountered in many places. Marital and family disharmony is another key element of the novel; Dellarobia is a devoted mother to her two children, but her life is far from what she expected it to be and she’s uncertain of her place in it. However, I felt the novel’s central force was the tension between the two worldviews that seem to characterize 21st-century America--liberal/conservative, red/blue, or whatever shorthand you choose to identify it. That tension is based in differing responses to change, and ultimately, “change”--not just of the environmental variety--is the primary theme of Flight Behavior. Our knowledge of the world and the people who surround us--and even of ourselves--is often incomplete and imperfect, and any bit of new information can force us to reassess everything and engage with the world in a new way.

There’s a great deal going on here. The author’s background in biology informs the scientific elements of the novel, but those elements aren’t conveyed in a manner that feels inauthentic to the story. Kingsolver’s characters are well-developed and complex, and their grappling with the effects of a changing natural world on their lives feels authentic as well. However, what struck me most about Flight Behavior was a sense of empathy and compassion. The novel’s setting is the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Tennessee, a conservative, economically-struggling area subject to a fair amount of Southern stereotypes; by endowing Dellarobia with wry humor and just enough self-awareness, Kingsolver refrains from making her characters cheap targets.

I heard Kingsolver speak about this new novel of hers at Book Expo America this past summer, and when she said it was about global warming, I was a little apprehensive about it. I’m not someone who doesn’t believe it’s real, but I was concerned about the potential for heavy-handedness and preachiness from an author I used to read faithfully, but whose recent books haven’t greatly appealed to me. I don’t love The Poisonwood Bible as I think I should; I was somewhat underwhelmed by Prodigal Summer; and I haven’t really wanted to read The Lacuna at all. But I’m back in the fold now, and I’d call Flight Behavior Kingsolver’s most accessible and engaging novel since Pigs in Heaven (which is probably my favorite of hers). I’d also call it one of the best novels of 2012.

Rating: 4.25/5

Other stops on this TLC Book Tour:

Tuesday, November 6th: A Reader of Fictions
Wednesday, November 7th: Dolce Bellezza
Thursday, November 8th: The Blog of Lit Wits
Monday, November 12th: Caribousmom
Tuesday, November 13th: Bookish Habits
Wednesday, November 14th: 50 Books Project
Thursday, November 15th: Unabridged Chick
Monday, November 26th: Book Snob
Tuesday, November 27th: What She Read … – joint review
Wednesday, November 28th: Becca’s Byline
Thursday, November 29th: A Patchwork of Books
Monday, December 3rd: Tina’s Books Reviews
Tuesday, December 4th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Wednesday, December 5th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Monday, December 10th: 50 Books Project
Tuesday, December 11th: Man of La Book
Thursday, December 13th: Seaside Book Corner
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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Love Among the Nerds: The "how we met" story

 Those of you who have been reading here for a while have probably heard this story before, maybe more than once, so you get a pass on reading it again (unless you really want to, of course!). But it’s a story I particularly enjoy telling, so I’m sharing it again as part of the December #GenFab Blog Hop: the theme is “How I Met My Spouse/Husband/(Otherwise) Significant Other.”

There's something in my spam e-mail almost every day from one online dating site or another. I have no interest in or need for dating sites at this point in my life...but there was a time when I did, almost eight years ago. Spam doesn't work for me, but online dating actually did.

This is us, 2012--Paul Vasquez/www.3rsblog.com

It was nearly three years after my divorce before I was ready to try dating again. Those three years had given me ample opportunity to think about what I wanted to find in a partner and what mattered in a relationship. There were the big things, of course: compatible worldviews and values, intelligence, compassion, and, for me, sense of humor. But then there were any number of smaller things I felt would make day-to-day relating more enjoyable, such as similar frames of pop-culture reference and tastes in entertainment.

In order for those secondary attributes to mesh well, a guy would have to be...well, a geek. But how would I find that geeky guy? I was technically a single mom, but my son was in university 2000 miles away, so I wasn’t meeting other parents at kid-related functions, and my dog hadn’t introduced me to much except occasional casual conversations with neighbors. I had an 80-mile round-trip daily work commute--alone, in my car, because I live in the Greater Los Angeles area and that’s pretty much how we get around. And aside from the job and the dog, I didn’t get out much; I was a bookworm who had never been a bar person.

I thought the odds were good that, being a geek, Geeky Guy was probably online--but where should I look for him? The online equivalent of a personal ad made me uncomfortable; I wasn't interested in randomly skimming photos and sketchy profiles. If I was going to try online dating, I wanted to get more out of it than that, so I shelled out the big bucks for eHarmony.com’s “compatibility assessment” and a one-year membership. They promised a method more like that of a matchmaker, making introductions based on analyzing the detailed personality profiles each member submitted. I liked the idea of someone doing that screening for me.

The “introduction” e-mails began coming within a couple of days of my joining. Some didn't go anywhere, but a few moved forward into the next stages of eHarmony's "guided communication" process; by the time I entered the "open communication" stage with one of them, I felt like we were clicking, at least in writing. Less than two weeks after we were introduced, we met in person for a weekend lunch date.

Even though we lived in neighboring towns at the time, chances are that without an online matchmaker, Tall Paul and I wouldn't have met at all. More recently divorced than I was, he'd only joined the site for three months initially, and had extended his membership just a week or two before I signed up; even with eHarmony, we could have missed each other if he hadn't done that!

Paul described himself as a "dork," but other things I knew about him didn't really jibe with my experience of dorks. He was creative--a trained artist/illustrator and developing photographer (no pun intended, although a weakness for them is one of the many things we share), working as a graphic designer--as opposed to scientific, he was into cars and motorcycles, and with his beard and earring, he definitely didn't look the part. He didn't even need glasses, due to having recently had LASIK surgery on his eyes. I questioned his nerd bona-fides, but looked forward to meeting him in person just the same.

Our Sunday lunch date lasted all afternoon, and we talked about all sorts of things, catching each other's references right and left. After a few more dates, I knew for sure--the guy's nerd credibility was established. He wasn't a techie, but he loved his technology, especially if it was made by Apple; he knew his way around a comic-book store; his music and movie libraries were both extensive, and we knew and liked many of the same things in both of those spheres; our senses of humor were warped in the same direction. He may not have looked the part, but he not only affirmed his nerdiness, he fully embraced it. On my second date with Paul, I told him I was "a geek's dream girl" during a conversation about how many seasons' worth of The Simpsons each of us owned on DVD (I had him beat). I may have been overselling a little, but luckily for me, he seemed to be buying it.

I probably shouldn’t assume my experience is universal, but my feeling is that when you’re already past forty when you meet a might-be-special person, the heart and mind come to agreement on things pretty quickly; where you’d caution a younger person to take things slow, the midlifer doesn’t have time to waste. We moved in together after six months, and exactly a year after that--on October 21, 2006--we were married. It’s a second marriage for us both, and our wedding ceremony included our respective children in forging a new family. We hit it off so easily, and so well, that it feels like we've known each other all our lives and sometimes I forget that we met online just seven and a half years ago.

This was us, 2006 (Michael Getlin Photography/www.3rsblog.com)

Although I suppose we might have eventually met in Target. I did see him there the day before we went on that lunch date...but he didn’t notice me, so the whole process could have taken a lot longer.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Book Talk: *Sutton*, by J.R. Moehringer

J.R. Moehringer (Facebook) (Twitter) (Goodreads)
Hyperion (September 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 1401323146 / 9781401323141)
Fiction (20th-century historical), 352 pages
Source: ARC received at Book Expo America 2012
Reason for reading: Review copy/personal interest

Opening lines: “He’s writing when they come for him.
“He’s sitting at his metal desk, bent over a yellow legal pad, talking to himself, and to her--as always, to her. So he doesn’t notice them standing at his door. Until they run their batons along the bars.
“He looks up, adjusts his large scuffed eyeglasses, the bridge mended many times with Scotch tape. Two guards, side by side, the left one soft and fat and pale, as if made from Crisco, the right one tall and scrawny and with a birthmark like a penny on his right cheek.
“Left Guard hitches up his belt. On your feet, Sutton. Admin wants you.
“Sutton stands.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Born in the squalid Irish slums of Brooklyn, in the first year of the twentieth century, Willie Sutton came of age at a time when banks were out of control. If they weren’t taking brazen risks, causing millions to lose their jobs and homes, they were shamelessly seeking bailouts. Trapped in a cycle of bank panics, depressions and soaring unemployment, Sutton saw only one way out, only one way to win the girl of his dreams. 
So began the career of America’s most successful bank robber. Over three decades Sutton became so good at breaking into banks, and such a master at breaking out of prisons, police called him one of the most dangerous men in New York, and the FBI put him on its first-ever Most Wanted List. 
But the public rooted for Sutton. He never fired a shot, after all, and his victims were merely those bloodsucking banks. When he was finally caught for good in 1952, crowds surrounded the jail and chanted his name. 
Blending vast research with vivid imagination, Pulitzer Prize-winner J.R. Moehringer brings Willie Sutton blazing back to life. In Moehringer’s retelling, it was more than need or rage at society that drove Sutton. It was one unforgettable woman. In all Sutton’s crimes and confinements, his first love (and first accomplice) was never far from his thoughts. And when Sutton finally walked free—a surprise pardon on Christmas Eve, 1969—he immediately set out to find her.
Comments: When I arrived at the second of the two Book and Author Breakfasts I attended at BEA 2012, I was very pleased to find a galley of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue at my chair--hopes of obtaining one were my primary reason for buying a ticket to this event, where he would be one of the three speakers. I was somewhat indifferent to the ARC of journalist J.R. Moehringer’s debut novel, Sutton, that was also waiting for me--until I heard him talk about it. Unless it’s for a tour or a paid review, I don’t usually read ARCs too far in advance of publication date, and I’ve been trying to make time for this one since it came out in September. I just finished it a couple of days ago. (I still haven’t gotten to Telegraph Avenue, however...)

Making celebrities out of people whose deeds aren’t exactly things to celebrate is well-established American pastime, and for several decades through the mid-20th century, bank robber Willie Sutton was one of the biggest. A master of disguise dubbed “The Actor” by the press, Sutton learned his “trade” on jewelry-store jobs, but soon moved on to robbing banks because--in one of those quotes long-attributed to someone who may or may not actually have said it--”that’s where the money was.” In an era of frequent financial depressions--the “Great” one of the 1930s was preceded by several smaller ones earlier in the century--banks were not popular institutions with beleaguered average Americans. But Sutton’s success in undermining them, combined with his reluctance to use violence in doing it, made him quite popular. However, in Moehringer’s take on Sutton’s story, it wasn’t all about the money; he really did it (mostly) for love.

Framed by the day of Sutton’s release from New York’s Attica State Prison--Christmas 1969--which he spent in the company of a reporter and a photographer, traveling back and forth throughout New York City on a tour of his personal history, most of Sutton is told in flashback. Largely self-educated through his love of books, Willie portrays himself as a methodical thinker and careful planner (except, perhaps, in selecting his partners in crime), driven by tough economic times and lack of schooling into the only “career” path that offered the potential means to win the lovely and well-off Bess Endner. If popular acclaim for taking on--or, rather, from--those bloodsucking bankers, jars of cash buried all over New York City, and a spot at the top of the FBI’s very first Ten Most Wanted list are any measures, he was quite a success at his job.

Sutton wasn’t a Robin Hood--he “robbed from the rich,” yes, but didn’t exactly redistribute the wealth--but his activities were born of a common resentment of the financial markets and the effects of their boom-and-bust machinations on the working classes. Nearly a century later, we’re again living under conditions similar to those that spawned his criminal career--bank failures, unemployment, property loss--and those similarities suggested to Moehringer that this antihero’s story might resonate with a new audience.

It helps that it’s a fast-moving, fast-talking narrative researched and related by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. The book has some stylistic quirks--most notably the lack of quotation marks in dialogue and use of present tense throughout--that some readers may find bothersome, but didn't bother me; I actually found they enhanced the book's impact. That said, Sutton is historical fiction and not biography, and Willie Sutton may not be an entirely reliable narrator--but he’s got a heck of a story, and I was thoroughly drawn into it. They don’t make bank-robbing antiheroes like that any more.

Rating: 4 of 5

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