Thursday, November 20, 2008

Careful What You Wish For

Well, I finished. This is not a problem with the book--it was marvelous, even the sad parts. It's more that I was supposed to have a baby two days ago and I'm GETTING IMPATIENT.

But that's a separate blog. I'm here now to say that I loved loved loved In the Company of the Courtesan and I'm so glad to have gotten such a good, interesting read in under the wire. The historical detail was so interesting, the story was simple but intriguing, the characters were complex and likable. I'm especially impressed with how well the author used the first person narrator--his closeness to the different characters and how well he knew them, and how they could all still surprise him. The idea of intimacy and loneliness comes through in very subtle ways.

I'm also reading The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz. It's very interesting, though a lot of the content in middle overlaps with things I read recently in Stumbling on Happiness. The sneaky tricks our minds play in the decision-making process are all outlined here again, and the studies listed are even the same. Also, while I agree that freedom of choice can be a psychological burden, he really ignores the fact that life in a world without choices can suck. When he's talking about products, it makes more sense--advertisers, trick pricing structures, is one product really better than another--these are all great points. But when he talks about the burden of making decisions like whether you want to live together before getting married or whether you want to have kids, he really doesn't acknowledge how trapped people were when they didn't have choices there.

He talks about how employers used to make important screening decisions regarding things like health insurance and retirement investments, and how the employees were better off when the experts were doing it--um, what makes you think the employer was interested in getting you the best health care, rather than the best deal for themselves? He places a lot of trust in institutional oversight, and I don't necessarily buy that.

I'm hoping that his section on what we can do about it ends up being more useful. I'm also hoping that he gets further into the issue, so far touched on only briefly, that if you want the default, or are dealing with a subject that you don't know a lot about, choice is a burden, but if you need something unusual, or have enough information or investment to make the decision easier, it can be really necessary. Yeah, I wish I could just choose from three or four computers when I need to buy something to do my email and play solitaire. But my husband wants to play video games, write programs, and organize his music, and he knows how to get that. Should he not be able to? Again, hopefully I'll find out more as the book goes on.

But hopefully, it'll take me weeks to finish, because I will be interrupted tomorrow by the arrival of the tardy, tardy baby.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I Hope I Finish

In the Company of the Courtesan, by Sarah Dunant. I've been less than inspired by anything I've read lately, even when the books are pretty good. I've been picking things that are simple, often YA, plot-driven--usually what I need when I'm having trouble concentrating. But a couple of weeks ago I was at the library, and this book that had been on my list for a while happened to be sitting out, so I picked it up.

I was really hopeful about this book, but I really don't know anything about the author or much about the story. Mostly I liked the cover design, which included the Venus of Urbino. And, as it turns out, it's richly written, descriptive, and takes place in 16th century Venice. The latter is not a problem, but the former sound like qualities I would not be looking for in a book right now.

But this book is amazing. It's full of wonderful detail about what is involved in being a fabulous courtesan, how the rich and the poor live in Venice, how to escape a marauding army, and so on. The story is simple, but engaging, and the narrator is a wonderful character. I'm so glad I'm reading it--I really needed something that I could dig into and love right now. So pleased!

It's not a fast read, exactly, though, and the baby was due today, so we'll have to see if I finish it. Oh, everyone wish me luck.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Advice to Young Writers

If you're going to write a book about betrayal, don't put the betrayal at the end.

That could be the hormones talking, though.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

An Unconventional Reaction

Okay, let's get the smaller one out of the way: Tamar, by Mal Peet, is a young adult book (nominally) about operatives in the Dutch resistance in World War II, but it's not coming together for me. I think the reason is that the driving mystery or plotline of the story is in an envelope story about the granddaughter of one of the operatives, living in London in the 90s, but that plotline does not get a lot of pages or a lot of time to drive. It's not tied in with the historical part yet (I'm halfway done).

Also, I think that the "big reveal" that we're building up to is something that I called in the first 20 pages, and if so, there's really no driving force at all. The story of the resistance is interesting, but it doesn't have the force needed to drive the book--that's really been invested in the personal story, which I've already figured out. I won't spoil it, but I will say that the exclusive use of code names in the Netherlands led me straight to my prediction, and it's unfolding, gradually, exactly as I expected. I can even see, now how it's going to come together. But I'm going to read another 200 pages to find it out. If I can finish it in the 4 days I still have it from the library.

But I'm really here to talk about Sandra Lipsitz Bem's An Unconventional Family, which bugged me a lot from the beginning, bugged me a little throughout, and then irritated me at the end. And it's hard for me to articulate why and how, partly because of the feminist message, and partly because I agree with so much of what she does, but I really don't like the way she says it.

Part of the problem is that the woman is an academic, not a writer. She writes what comes out as a very readable academic book, not even a popular academic book. She announces what she's going to talk about and then uses a colon before she starts talking about it, resulting in phrases like, "The reason for this is as follows:..." She talks about her family life, her relationship with her husband, her feelings for her children, in the incredibly clinical language you find in social psychology articles (and I know from social psychology, let me tell you) and feminist texts. This is a turnoff--if I wanted to read about her academic, feminist-psychlogical theories about family, I'm sure there's a tome I could read somewhere.

What bugged me at first was her description of how special and wonderful she and her husband were for deciding to trade off making dinner every other night, do chores like roommates instead of "husband and wife" with the attendant gendered expectations. This sounds like the basis of all my friends' marriages, so it's not that exciting an innovation to me. When they developed this revolutionary plan, though, it was 1965, and I'm sure it seemed crazy and idealistic. But the problem is, the author (writing in 1998), does not acknowledge this, doesn't try to build an image of the context for this being an exciting plan, doesn't try to compare it to a typical marriage of the time, or to compare that with a more typical marriage of today. Basically, she ignores any context that her younger reader might bring to her story, and any emotional analysis someone might do based on that.

So that was really annoying me at first--a combination of, "He cooks dinner? How special for you," and, "Yeah, I bet that was CRAZY at the time, right? Right? Anyone?" Then, I got into the book, and tried to bring my own historical context, and it got a little better. She talked about the struggles of matching two academic careers, which is still difficult and which isn't something that I can bring personal experience to, and I found that more interesting.

And then she started talking about parenting, which was nutty. Their goal was to raise children who were not gendered; who understood sex as solely a physical definition--a penis makes a boy, a vagina makes a girl, and besides that, you can't tell which is which, really. This made me think about where the idea of the transgendered comes in, especially since another of their goals was for the children to have no idea that heterosexuality was more "normal" than homosexuality.

Two problems with this stuff--one is that her strategy involved keeping the very fact that these ideas exist from the children. It was never explained to them that other people think differently, or that their friends' parents would disagree with theirs, or that they might get picked on for doing certain things at school (which they then did). The second problem is that, in the interviews toward the end of the book with her now-college-aged children, they come of as irritating, self-satisfied prigs who are amused by the rest of the world, including their friends either struggling with or having opinions about gender. They're really smug and talk like little professors. Ick.

I think the parenting part is the most interesting section of the book, because it's the most unusual and actually revolutionary strategy they use. The egalitarian partnership just looks modern--the parenting is entertainingly bizarre. And I'm glad I read this book, because I did a huge amount of thinking, and I had a very emotional response to it. But I can't say that Sandra Bem has talked me into anything, at all. Sometimes, though, these are the most satisfying ones to read.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Miles Away

You would think I'd be doing nothing but reading, as I sit around and wait for the baby to arrive. But for a long time, I was off the books. I've had a pretty good stretch for the past few days, though, so I'm going to come here and plug them.

First: Jo Walton has come out with Half a Crown, which is the final book in the trilogy that started with the awesome Farthing and continued with the more complex and, I think, less successful Ha'penny. I had reserved the book through the library even before it came out, so when it magically showed up in my email that I had to pick it up, I was excited and surprised. Short review: excellent book.

Longer review: Half a Crown actually made me rethink the whole series. Ha'penny works much better as a second act than it does by itself--like so many middle stories, it's really a setup for the third one. But since the stories don't actually continue each other, it works as a setup almost entirely in theme and emotional impact. Farthing still stands alone, of course, but it also sets up the whole trilogy with a very small, local story, with bigger implications and shadows. Then, Ha'penny expands on those implications, turning a small story with political implications to a story that takes place on the political stage. It's the part of the story where everything goes wrong, and really, nothing goes right in it. But Half a Crown tops it all off--though the characters are wonderful and the personal side of it is dead on, the point of the story is a political thriller. And it's great, a lot of fun, very satisfying. So go out and read Farthing. Really, like, now.

I also read Whatever It Takes, which is a nonfiction book about Geoffrey Canada, an education activist in Harlem whose life work is to improve schooling for low-income black children by building a community that turns them into learners. The book is really the story of Promise Academy, the charter school he founded as a part of his Harlem Children's Zone program. It's still fairly new, so the story isn't over, but the ideas behind it are interesting--the issues of improving test scores vs. creating learners, the fact that middle school might be too late to turn out great students, and the challenges of having huge amounts of funding from generous benefactors who are accustomed to running successful business--and who look for business-like, results-oriented feedback on their investments.

Before I go, I'll just drop in a little plug for Lyra's Oxford, by Philip Pullman. It's really a short story with some other things tacked on, and the story is very slight. But it's promising me more, bigger stories in the future. I think it might be lying, but the promise is enough for now.

I'll let you know if I come up with anything else--I'm falling behind on The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell, which is great, but I'm not set up for ease of audiobook listening right now. And I'm starting another interesting nonfiction book that's kind of irritating, but I haven't decided yet. I'll let you know.