So what am I doing reading a book about how to hire household help when I have just been hired as the household help? Because I am my own manager. I a...moreSo what am I doing reading a book about how to hire household help when I have just been hired as the household help? Because I am my own manager. I am the butler, the chief of staff -- nevermind that the staff consists of one person. I was looking for advice on how to manage myself, which I found in abundance.
Also found a user-friendly guide to hiring a housekeeper, from an apologia for why you shouldn't feel guilty about hiring help to how to talk your husband into it to a walk through the hiring and training process and nanny-tax law.
The ethical subtext is fascinating. Sherman sounds like a pragmatist in many respects -- Sure, it would be fantastic if your husband would carry fifty percent of the housekeeping load, but how likely is that to happen? She offers a straightforward capitalist apology for hiring out the housework: a highly-skilled, highly-educated woman better leverages her limited time by paying someone else to do the grunt work, which in turn gives someone with a good work ethic but limited resources a chance to reach for a better life for herself and her family. Her case for hiring someone above the board and following all employment law is likewise pragmatic -- it provides benefits and protections to your employee, which could make you more competitive as an employer; it protects you from repercussions of law breaking; it establishes a law-abiding ethos for your employee-employer relationship.
I was a little surprised by the number of mainstream evangelical authors cited in the bibliography (Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend, for example, in the section on employer/employee relationships) and in the text itself -- James Dobson is cited as a proponent of hired housekeeping help for families with young children. The book is clearly not intended specifically for the Christian market, in which it would be scandalous to suggest that inequitable division of domestic labor would be grounds for divorce. But it doesn't seem strange at all to imagine this book coming straight out of a conservative Christian subculture, where housework is presumed the domain of the wife, where moral anxiety over hiring help requires several chapters to soothe away, and where the law and order stance that of course we'll follow all applicable employment laws, even if the government doesn't seem especially excited to help us, is taken for granted.(less)
It felt to me like this was a little slow getting started -- I noted a third of the way into it that we still seemed to be accompanying the author as...moreIt felt to me like this was a little slow getting started -- I noted a third of the way into it that we still seemed to be accompanying the author as she wrestles to make sense of how to rejoice in the birth of her daughter and grieve over her diagnosis at the same time. By the end, however, the pacing of earlier section seemed more fitting -- as though I, the reader, needed to dwell with AJ's early struggle in order to genuinely understand the place of acceptance and delight in her daughter by the end of the book. An honest and hopeful story.(less)
I enjoyed this book for a couple of what I imagine to be fairly idiosyncratic reasons: (1) the description of the post-Cold War shifts in the politics...moreI enjoyed this book for a couple of what I imagine to be fairly idiosyncratic reasons: (1) the description of the post-Cold War shifts in the politics and economics of science research and education and the implications for the direction of the field of physics in general and the careers of individual scientists, and (2) the description of the evolution of scholarly communication in the face of advances in communication technology and biases of mainstream disciplinary organs regarding certain types of research. A reader who does not find these subjects interesting for personal/professional reasons may well find the amount of coverage devoted to them to be rather tedious.
I picked this book up on a visit to the library for books about science in the pre-enlightenment era, because I was trying to understand more about how knowledge was classified in a worldview that didn't have the strong distinctions we now take for granted between "science," "magic," and "religion." This book was particularly illuminating in connection to that project because it illustrated how some of those distinctions aren't as firm as we might suppose even in the modern age. This account would likewise be fruitful fodder for a budding philosopher of science considering whether, why, and how scientific means of investigation might be applied to what seem to be patently unscientific ideas, like ESP and communication with the dead.
I think I've finally figured out that I am never going to figure out what I really thought of this book.
In the summer of 2007, when thousands of fans...moreI think I've finally figured out that I am never going to figure out what I really thought of this book.
In the summer of 2007, when thousands of fans were experiencing anticipatory withdrawal symptoms over the pending completion of the Harry Potter canon and begging Rowling to write more Potter stories, I blogged: "Leave the poor woman alone! ... Let her write a completely different book [if she wants]."
Boy, did she EVER write a completely different book. Wow.
The world of The Casual Vacancy is excruciatingly mundane. Most of the characters are mostly unlikable. It takes a LONG time to get into the story, to even figure out who you care about in the complex, multi-character drama.
One of the things that I admire about the whole Harry Potter corpus is the narrative discipline of sticking with a single point of view throughout, even when it would have been convenient for the storytelling to switch to another point of view from time to time. (I didn't really notice this until  I read some lower-quality fiction that jumped around w/r/t POV and found it highly irritating and  I tried my hand at a bit of fiction-writing of my own and recognized how tempting it can be.) The Casual Vacancy is told from an almost bewildering array of points of view, but this is not the function of lazy storytelling; it is integral to the character of the book. I think she pulls it off better than a lot of multi-POV stories, but that might be because, in contrast to most multi-POV stories I read, in which I fairly quickly identify one particular plot thread as the one I most care about and find the others frustrating distractions, for most of this book I wasn't deeply invested in any of the characters and simply kept reading out of bewilderment over where the whole thing was going.
It struck me time and again that this book would have been unlikely to ever have been published -- at least not in its current form -- if the author had not already been a phenomenal best seller. Few literary agents or acquisition editors, much less members of the reading public, have the patience for a book that takes so freaking long to get to the point. Perhaps we're missing out on any number of books of great genius that take a while to get off the ground because of the industry's bias, in deference to readers' short attention spans, for books that "draw you in" from the first page. Or maybe the editor on this project failed to demand tighter storytelling in this case because s/he knew it would be a blockbuster just because of the author. Or maybe both. I really can't say.
And I couldn't help wondering what kind of licensing fee was paid for the snippet of lyrics from Rihanna's "Umbrella" that makes an appearance in the novel, and whether the publisher picked up the tab. (Boilerplate book contracts these days often put the onus for securing those kinds of rights on the author, but methinks JRK merits special treatment, even if it's not at all clear that the lyrics chosen are that significant to the plot of the novel.)
In the end, I can't figure out whether this is a strong example of a sort of story that I just happen not to particularly care for, or if it's a weak and indulgent vanity exercise to which I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt because of my deep loyalty to the author. I applaud Rowling for stretching her literary wings and taking on a story that it so wildly different from what she had done before, I just can't make heads or tails of what to make of the result.
I must say that, when I reached the end, I was greatly relieved to find that this was not the sort of "character-driven novel" in which NOTHING EVER HAPPENS. Such books make me angry at the author for wasting my time. The conclusion of this book WORKS, threading the needle between tying up all of the plot threads in bow that's so neat as to be utterly unbelievable and letting the whole thing peter out into a sprawling unresolved mess. That is an impressive accomplishment.
As for the book as a whole, as I said, I really can't figure out what to think.(less)
I love Anne Lamott's voice, but I have a devil of a time actually getting all the way through her books. This one went back to the library when I was...moreI love Anne Lamott's voice, but I have a devil of a time actually getting all the way through her books. This one went back to the library when I was only about halfway through.
I suppose the reason I gave up on this one is related to reason I don't even try to read Lamott's fiction any more -- lack of plot. Maybe this is unfair, since real life doesn't really have a plot. And yet, I've read enough memoirs that actually do manage to structure their personal recollections into a recognizable story to think that it's not an unreasonable thing to wish for in a book.
I actually found the lack of chapters in this book to be stressful, as I felt bereft of guideposts to mark my progress through the narrative.
The part of the story that drew me in was Sam and Amy -- how do they navigate co-parenting, when they are both so young themselves, just starting out in life, and haven't even figured out what they want and need from each other and from themselves? But I didn't get to see enough of these answers unfolding to keep me reading. In a way, this is noble: that is not Annie's story to tell, and so it is a mark of respect for the parents of her grandchild that Annie focuses so much on her own experiences and adjustments and anxieties as a new grandmother. It's just not that interesting.(less)
The odd thing about this book is how little is it about books. Sure, there's some boilerplate about the allure of books and physical objects and the i...moreThe odd thing about this book is how little is it about books. Sure, there's some boilerplate about the allure of books and physical objects and the importance of narratives in shaping identity, yada yada, but mostly it's about the psychology of collecting and kleptomania in general, and the objects of the obsession described could just as well be anything from teacups to tulip bulbs.
This book is OK, but I didn't feel like Bartlett did as good a job as some other non-fiction writers of drawing out the "big picture" implications of the story she tells or of telling an engaging story of how the storyteller herself got drawn into the story she's telling (on that, see Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). (less)
A delightful little project, giving a glimpse into a game played by Sayers and several friends of constructing an elaborate backstory for Lord Peter W...moreA delightful little project, giving a glimpse into a game played by Sayers and several friends of constructing an elaborate backstory for Lord Peter Wimsey, inserting his forebears into British history with great scholarly attention and fabulous imagination. Scott-Giles, an expert on heraldry who joined the game by writing to Sayers and proposing a defense for the antiquity of the Wimsey coat of arms, quotes Sayers in the introductory chapter:
"My friends have become infected by my own madness; they wrestle valiantly with dates and genealogical trees and armorial bearings ... We discover Wimsey ciphers embedded in the plays of Shakespeare, and retrieve Wimsey commonplace books from the remote corners of Australia; we sally forth in a team to foist these discoveries upon bewildered literary societies in respectable universities. I cannot imagine where all this is going to end."
I give only three stars because the history as such is at points fairly dry and difficult to follow, what with the Wimseys giving the same Christian names to their sons generation after generation. I'm sure that much of my failure to appreciate the account reflects the fragmentary nature of my own grasp of British history rather than the shortcomings of the author. In any event, this sketch is sure to delight the fans and friends of Lord Peter.(less)
I read the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels not because I find them engaging qua mysteries, but because I like to spend a few days hanging around...moreI read the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels not because I find them engaging qua mysteries, but because I like to spend a few days hanging around with Precious Ramotswe and her friends. The resolution of the cases Mma Ramotswe undertakes often feels like almost an afterthought, but I don't mind that too much, because the characters are pleasant and engaging. This was more of the same -- not much of a mystery, but not an unpleasant way to spend a few reading hours. These stories tend to drag a bit in the middle, but there's just enough going on to keep you going to the end.(less)
This is a delightful pint-sized critique of the importance placed on academic assessments, especially tests, in elementary education. The ending sort...moreThis is a delightful pint-sized critique of the importance placed on academic assessments, especially tests, in elementary education. The ending sort of falls flat, but it was still an enjoyable romp. Besides, the hero-grown up of the story is the librarian, so I'm not going to argue with that!
Nora is an utterly implausible 10-year-old genius who has kept this fact a secret since toddlerhood, when she figured out she would be treated normally if she acted average. I love Nora for being brave enough to deliberately tank all her subjects to prove a point about the significance of grades, but what I love even more is that she realizes (even at 10, and even in a family that sets great store by grades) that kindness and diligence are more admirable than innate intelligence.
Frindle remains my favorite of Clements' books, but this one was fun, too.
------------------------------------ Note from previous reading, 2007:
Alas, Clements defangs the subversive thread of his story by having Nora recognize that most of her teachers share her frustration with assessment-driven education, and so it's not going to do any good, and possibly much harm, to carry on with her challenge of the system from within. So it ends up having a sort of after school special message after all: don't judge people by their grades or how they do on standardized tests, but still try to do your very best in your classes and standardized tests.
But what else are you going to say in a kid's book?
********* Favorite moment, from the day Nora decides to play her brilliance to the hilt so as to leave no doubt with her teachers of her genius (so that her subsequent failure will be unmistakably deliberate):
"In math class Mrs. Zhang and I had a ten-minute discussion about the best way to design a statistical analysis to try to discover the percentage of kids who would ever need to use the process of deriving the lowest common denominator once they left elementary school." (p 114)(less)
(view spoiler)[Seriously? How many times is poor Roger going to almost get killed because someone makes a mistake about his identity and doesn't give...more(view spoiler)[Seriously? How many times is poor Roger going to almost get killed because someone makes a mistake about his identity and doesn't give him a chance to explain himself? Wasn't that a major plot point of the last book? (hide spoiler)]
It doesn't really feel like the story has advanced significantly over the course of this installment -- more like we're just biding time, waiting for the revolution (and the fire). I was similarly disappointed when I got to the end of the fifth Harry Potter book, although I have since entirely forgiven JKR, since it ultimately became evident that the things I most hated about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix were in fact part of an elaborate set up that only made sense after the entire series was complete. I don't think I give Gabaldon credit for that much forethought, though.["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This is my favorite book of the series so far, I think, mainly because of Brianna. (Which, from glancing over the other reviews, puts me in a distinct...moreThis is my favorite book of the series so far, I think, mainly because of Brianna. (Which, from glancing over the other reviews, puts me in a distinct minority. Oh, well.)
I went into the series expecting to be seriously bothered by Claire's blithe infidelity to Frank, but found it wan't too hard to suspend moral judgment for the sake of the story and just go with the premise that meeting your soulmate when you're already married to someone else makes it OK to chuck the prior relationship, even though that is complete bullshit. At least she has the decency to feel bad about it. Plus, Claire's ongoing loyalty to Frank is a driving factor in Dragonfly in Amber, which makes it a lot more interesting that a simple celebration of adultery like The Bridges of Madison County.
Bring Brianna into the picture, though, and we get a more nuanced picture of the cost of Claire's complicated love life. It's compelling to watch Brianna come to terms with the shocking news that her beloved father, whom she just lost, wasn't really her biological father, and that her mother has been in love with someone else her entire life. She reacts at first like a child of divorce, which I think is just right. But then, slowly, we see her initially reject the father she never knew, but after a while to grow curious about him, and finally come to meet him. They perhaps get along a little too easily from the start, seeing as how they've got a 200-year generation gap to contend with, but still, that's fun, too. Besides, what's more swoon-worthy than Jamie Fraser as a warrior / scholar / laird / lover? Jamie Fraser as a devoted Da. When he tells Brianna that her young man will do right by her, or else he will kill him and find her a better man, I wanted to cheer.
I love Lord John, too. I can see why Gabaldon liked him enough to spin off his own sub-series. Poor guy. (less)
Gabaldon clearly can't be bothered by anything so mundane as plausibility in constructing her plots -- the story line of this installment careens wild...moreGabaldon clearly can't be bothered by anything so mundane as plausibility in constructing her plots -- the story line of this installment careens wildly from impossible coincidence to bizarre deus ex machina plot device at such a breakneck pace as to give whiplash to any reader who thinks very hard at all about the plot. But this is escapist fantasy founded on an impossible premise, so if you can overlook the inanity, it can be fun.
I really enjoyed the first third of the book, with the back-and-forth between the 20th century and 18th century storylines that I had wished for in Dragonfly in Amber. The next third was pretty good, too, with the depiction of our protagonists' reunion after 20 years apart and the struggle to bridge the lives lived in separation. But in the last third, the wheels really come off the cart -- um, the ship -- er, whatever. By that point, though, the reader's pretty committed to finding out what happened to Ian, so no amount of absurdity is going to make the reader jump ship. In the end, it leaves me somewhat less eager to progress to Drums of Autumn for fear that I'll witness a repeat performance, but not so put off that I'm going to give up on the series.(less)
The set-up of this story is inspired. After Outlander, any reader who is interested enough to proceed to the sequel will do so because they like and a...moreThe set-up of this story is inspired. After Outlander, any reader who is interested enough to proceed to the sequel will do so because they like and are cheering for Jamie and Claire. Having seen the great lengths to which each was willing to go to save and be with the other, you want to see them getting their happily-ever-after. But you don't get past the back cover copy of Dragonfly in Amber before you see this isn't so: Jamie and Claire evidently separated not long after we last saw them in the previous story, and have been apart for 20 years. The shock of wondering What the hell happened? is enough to keep the reader plowing through 800+ pages.
The device of starting out with a 20th-century Claire revealing her long-held secret to her daughter, then flashing back to answer the What the hell happened question, is especially well-suited to the driving theme of this story: does foreknowledge amount to fate? It draws the reader into a situation parallel to that of the protagonists: knowing (or thinking they know) how things will turn out, but desperately willing it to be otherwise.
The question of fate and changing the future is played out in two major concerns that interact in a kind of counterpoint: the question of the Randall family line, and the question of Culloden. In both cases, the actions that the Frasers would naturally pursue without Claire's foreknowledge of the historical significance of their steps are at odds with the actions that are inspired by the goals defined by that knowledge. For much of the story, it appears as if they have failed on both counts -- that is, they have changed the history that they didn't want to change, but not the history that they did. (Except that we've got the prologue to suggest otherwise.) The lack of uncertainty about the outcome does nothing to diminish the urgent suspense of the story told. (less)
Beautifully crafted. Enchanting characters, satisfying plot. Worth the read, and worthy of study by aspiring novelists seeking examples of a well-told...moreBeautifully crafted. Enchanting characters, satisfying plot. Worth the read, and worthy of study by aspiring novelists seeking examples of a well-told story.
Between, Georgia is a story of family, belonging, loyalty, and self-discovery, revisiting a classic Romeo & Juliet (or Hatfield & McCoy) style family-feud scenario in a small southern town. The mother of the protagonist is deaf and blind, a condition that plays fluidly into the storyline without feeling ponderous or sentimentalized.
If anything, the pieces of the plot fit together a little TOO neatly, but I'd much rather have that than any of the numerous "character-driven" novels I've read in which NOTHING EVER HAPPENS. Jackson draws the reader into a connection with her key characters instantly -- such that you hardly even note the complete incredibility of the narrator describing her own birth in eye-witness detail -- but the engaging characters do not become an excuse for a flaccid plot.
Jackson has fun with a "Deus Ex Machina" joke in the middle of the story, sort of winking to the reader that she is aware that the plot twist that just arrived seems a little too pat to feel natural, but then twists the idea further in order to use it as the vehicle of an important self-discovery and personal transformation for the narrator. (less)