Wednesday, February 8, 2012

LAST QUARTER OF 2011 CATCHUP

Yeah, sorry about that, er, five-month absence. It turns out that maybe (just maybe!) I don’t have the time to pontificate at length about every book I read in addition to posting every recipe I make? But never fear! I am not giving up, just retrenching a little. I’ll get the old stuff out of the way as best I can, and then figure out how to handle new stuff from here on out. This will probably mean monthly roundups with short blurbs about books on which I don’t have much to say, interspersed with longer posts about books I want to cover in depth.

Ironically, my book consumption declined dramatically at around the time I stopped updating this site. I used to spend half of my hour-long lunch break reading, five days a week, but that time has gradually been chipped away. I started telecommuting two days a week, using my breaks for errands and biking and other non-reading things; then my company started allowing us to take half-hour lunches and leave 30 minutes early at the end of the day, an option I started utilizing more and more often, spending my half-hour break walking (a must for me, to survive sitting at a desk all day) instead of reading. Also, in the first half of 2010, I was taking three-hour round-trip Metro rides to work twice a week, sometimes finishing an entire book in just one or two commuting days. Then, in July, I acquired a carpooling partner, which has been wonderful in every way (much shorter and easier commute, new friend, etc.) except for the loss of all that uninterrupted reading time. Now I just try to snatch a few peeks at my books at odd times of the day, while eating breakfast, brushing my teeth, etc., and I’m lucky if I can finish two books a month. I really need to make an effort to carve out reading time in the evenings and on the weekends, because I just don’t feel like myself when I’m not tearing through piles of books at a good clip. It doesn’t help that after the last movie came out, I decided to reread all the Harry Potter books, and then got majorly bogged down in my least favorite, the interminable Goblet of Fire. (Thankfully, I’m now over the hump, having just finished Order of the Phoenix, so I predict smoother sailing from here onward. I love this series, but my favorite parts are the grownup characters and the good-vs.-evil uberplot, less so the adolescent angst, irritating homework procrastination, and endless Quidditch scenes.)

But! At least this little lull gives me a chance to try to get this blog up to date without constantly trying to hit a moving target, right? So buckle up and let’s do this thing.

Miss Buncle’s Book, by D.E. Stevenson: Odd, hilarious, and thoroughly delightful. A seemingly mind-mannered spinster secretly writes a bestselling, thinly fictionalized potboiler about her quirky small town, her neighbors instigate a witch hunt to discover the pseudonymous author’s identity, and strangely, some of the novel’s plot twists start coming true. I’m thrilled to have found a brand new author in my favorite genre of obscure early-twentieth-century comedies of manners—particularly one as prolific as Stevenson (the “D.E.” stands for Dorothy Emily), who has 46 entries in my library catalog alone (most of them, I’m sure, sadly out of print). Stevenson does seem to have an annoying-to-me habit of using an excessive number of comma splices, one of my editorial pet peeves, but I’m trrying to let that slide, chalking it up to different grammatical standards of her country and era, or at least the carelessness of her publisher’s proofreading department.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, by Douglas Adams: The second (and, sniff, final) Dirk Gently book, and I liked it just as much as the first—maybe slightly more, actually, because it featured (a) a realistic female protagonist, (b) Thor, and (c) one of the best titles ever.

It Looked Different on the Model: Epic Tales of Impending Shame and Infamy, by Laurie Notaro: Notaro keeps publishing interchangeable collections of humorous personal essays and I keep checking them out, but at this point it’s more out of a strange sense of loyalty/compulsion/completism than any great enjoyment. They entertain me well enough for the moment but evaporate from my brain as soon as I finish them. If I had infinite time on my hands I wouldn’t mind this, but given my constraints and huge TBR list, I really need to break the cycle and just quit.

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman: I really liked The Magicians, so I was excited when I discovered there was going to be a sequel, but I was also surprised. After rereading the first book to get up to speed for the second one, I don’t know how I could have been so incredibly dense, or at least na├»ve, the first time around, because its ending practically screams sequel setup. This is the second time in recent memory that I’ve apparently been willing to believe that writers are cruel or inventive enough to end their standalone novels with odd dangling cliffhangers. Anyway, I’m still not sure The Magicians really needed a sequel, but at least the one it got is pretty good. A lot of the action takes place in Fillory, the Narnia-like imaginary land, and on a sea voyage that brings to mind The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Quentin is a bit less self-centered, emo, and annoying this time around, which is nice, but the really interesting stuff comes in the flashbacks that explain what happened to Julia, his high-school friend who wasn’t accepted to Brakebills and had to learn her magic on the streets. Parts of her dark and disturbing story reminded me of The Secret History, which is always a plus. Overall, the plot is a bit less focused, but it was clearly paving the way for a third book that will assumably wrap everything up, so that didn’t bother me too much.

Spoiled, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan: Soapy, contemporary pop-cultural teen novels were never my bag when I was younger and I don’t like them any better now, but I read this one out of allegiance to its authors, the founders of Go Fug Yourself, one of the funniest and best-written blogs around. I wasn’t wowed by this frothy, fashion-preoccupied little confection, but it was still smarter and more substantial than most of the genre. The Hollywood satire was amusing and the story endearing enough that I don’t regret reading it.

Miss Buncle Married, by D.E. Stevenson: Having found true love with her adorable editor (not surprisingly, I’m always a sucker for an editorial romance) at the end of the first book (see above), Barbara Buncle (now Abbott) moves to a different town with her new husband and finds it as full of fascinating characters as the last. The plot has less structure than Miss Buncle’s Book, leading the story to feel a bit fluffy and meandering at times, and it’s a bit sad to see Barbara repressing her artistic impulses (she writes a wonderful book about her new town but decides she can never publish it or she’ll hurt everyone’s feelings and become an outcast the way she did in her last town), but I was once again charmed by the characters and Stevenson’s writing.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs: A disappointment. This book generated a lot of buzz, and while I can see why—a supernatural YA story constructed around bizarre found photographs is definitely a cool idea—I don’t think it lived up to the hype. This is partially the fault of my expectations: based on the chilling cover photo, I thought it was going to be a creepy Victorian freak show ghost story, when in reality it reminded me more of X-Men. But I also think it wasn’t particularly well-written and struggled under the weight of its own conceit; the photos on their own are so eerie that it’s kind of a letdown when the story explains them, and working them in with the text sometimes felt contrived, like a writing exercise that’s gone on too long. The book is clearly setting up potential sequels, but I don’t have much interest in reading them. I would, however, watch the inevitable film version, because a book with such a big visual component might actually work better as a movie.

Even more disappointingly, my lukewarm feelings for this book shot a hole in a theory I had recently developed, which was that I was bound to love any book with “Miss” or “Mrs.” (or possibly, though yet untested, “Mr.” or “Major”) in the title. I mean, come on: Mrs. Dalloway, Miss Pym Disposes, Miss Mapp, Miss Hargreaves, Mrs. Ames...? All good stuff. Now it’s back to square one, I guess.

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean: Orlean is right up there with Mary Roach in my favorite nonfiction writers list, so I was thrilled to see that she finally put out a new book, but less thrilled that it was about Rin Tin Tin—about whom, admittedly, I knew nothing, but it seemed like a slight topic. More fool I, because this turned out to be a fascinating, riveting, lovely book. I’ve already subjected a number of people to enthusiastic in-person recitals of all the factoids I gleaned from it, so I’ll just say that the story of Rin Tin Tin, an orphaned German Shepherd puppy found in an abandoned German encampment by an American soldier amid the battlefields of France during World War I, who would go on to become a beloved movie star and entertainment franchise, is really interesting, but even better are Orlean’s digressions into everything from the history of the breed to the military use of animals during both world wars to the birth of the film industry, and her overall meditations on humanity’s very relationship with domestic creatures. This is a must-read for any animal lover.

The Distant Hours, by Kate Morton: A’s mom sent this to me with a note saying she thought it was right up my alley, and sure enough, I really liked it. I have a hard time resisting stories where modern-day characters delve into secrets of the past, particularly if they avoid visits to the library and long-lost letters, and this one also involved (a) World War II in Britain (particularly the evacuation of children from London during the Blitz), (b) a protagonist who’s an editor and loves Jane Eyre, (c) sisters living in a castle with their distracted writer father a la I Capture the Castle, and (d) a literary mystery surrounding the genesis of a (fictional) classic children’s novel. I was skeptical at first, but Morton deftly interweaves past and present to tease out the suspense and pays clever homage to Gothic fiction without going over the top. The book is long and fairly dense, but I could barely tear myself away—it was a good thing I was reading this on my Thanksgiving vacation. I didn’t feel a deep emotional connection to the book, per se—I didn’t think the characters were very vivid or especially likable—but the excellent storytelling and dark, foreboding mood kept me breathlessly enthralled. Good fun, the English-major version of a beach read.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, by Michael Sims: Liked the idea, disliked the writing. It rubs me the wrong way when biographers get overly lyrical and fanciful and try to write about their subjects as though they’re fictional characters, and this book had that in spades, at the expense at much actual analysis. It was interesting to learn that White actually had his own farm as an adult, and those experiences directly inspired Charlotte’s Web, but the concept seems better suited to a long article than a 300-page book; there was SO MUCH detail, especially in the childhood chapters, that might have been at home in a 600-page general biography but didn’t contribute much to this more focused version and honestly felt like it was only there to pad things out. I liked learning more about White, particularly his awesome-sounding wife, Katherine (who was his editor at the New Yorker—another editorial romance!), and the early days of the New Yorker (did you know that Harold Ross once told James Thurber, “How the hell did you get the idea you could draw?”), but I probably would have been better off reading a brief general bio or a history of the magazine. The stuff about the inspiration and writing of Charlotte’s Web and White’s earlier children’s books is of course the best part (such as the fact that Garth Williams, who went on to be a major illustrator, got his start with Stuart Little), but much of the same ground is covered Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, a book I much prefer. (Also: I know I’m just being cranky now, but I still don’t know what “E.B. White’s eccentric life in nature” is really even supposed to mean. Also: Several glaring typos, including “nickle” instead of “nickel,” did not help me feel any more kindly disposed. Run spell check, at the very least!)

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson: Love Jon Ronson. Love this topic. Loved this book so much I nearly read it all in one sitting, on the plane from LA to St. Paul for Christmas, then immediately bought a copy for A. It’s mesmerizing, hilarious, and disturbing in equal measures.

Friday, September 9, 2011

DELUSIONS OF GENDER

I would like all my feminist friends to read this book. (Actually, I’d like everyone to read this book, but I’m trying to be realistic.) As someone who believes gender is a social construct, it’s a little discouraging to reach childbearing age and hear from a million different people, friends and cultural pundits alike, “I used to think that, too, until I had a kid and realized differences between girls and boys are totally innate! I tried to raise my son/daughter gender-neutral and he turned everything into a gun/she turned everything into a doll!” Thank goodness for the wry, reasonable voice of Cordelia Fine, who in this book, subtitled How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, handily debunks the pervasive scientific myth that gender stereotypes are rooted in actual hard-wired differences between men’s and women’s brains. Instead, she demonstrates that those stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in human culture that they color every survey, psychological study, neurological experiment, and expert analysis, as well as our own thoughts and actions.

Good news: The human mind is incredibly adaptive! Bad news: It loves to adapt to society’s expectations, even against our conscious will. (For instance, women perform more poorly on spatial reasoning tests after being told that women usually perform more poorly on spatial reasoning tests—or even after simply being asked to check a box indicating their sex at the beginning of the test—than those given no gender cues.) In an environment so completely saturated with gender tropes, is it any wonder that one parent’s well-intentioned purchase of a toy fire truck for her daughter or a pink sweater for his son isn’t enough to reverse the barrage of traditional-gender-role messages from all other sources? After all, gender is the central signifier we use when identifying babies (as the rigid pink and blue dichotomy makes clear), and studies have shown that gender stereotyping begins even before birth (pregnant women who knew the sex of their babies characterized the strength and frequency of their kicks accordingly—calling the boys more “strong” and “athletic” and the girls more “calm” and “quiet”—even though fetal monitoring showed no difference). It should be no surprise, then, that small children quickly pick up on the fact that their gender seems to be of the utmost importance to the adults around them, minutely study the smallest clues as to how boys and girls are “supposed” to behave, and then do their best to conform. Gender differentiation is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is usually a topic guaranteed to make me both righteously indignant and depressed, but those feelings were leavened by sheer glee at watching Fine so methodically demolish biased studies, pseudoscience, and the distorting sensationalism of the media in her measured, well-researched, yet incisively witty prose. Although the overall tone is serious, Fine’s frequent displays of sardonic humor and occasional sparkles of self-deprecating personal asides reminded me of Mary Roach, my all-time fave science writer. For instance:
When I tell parents that I’m writing a book about gender, the most common response I get is an anecdote about how they tried gender-neutral parenting, and it simply didn’t work. (The next most frequent reaction is a polite edging away.)
I thoroughly enjoyed Delusions of Gender and will definitely check out Fine’s earlier neuroscience title, A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

PEGASUS

I’ve been putting off writing about this because, honestly, I’m a bit embarrassed to have read a book called Pegasus. I mean, it sounds very My Little Pony, doesn’t it? Right from the first line:
Because she was a princess she had a pegasus. 
But this book is by Robin McKinley, author of The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword, and many other YA classics I have loved since my preteen years, and she is messing with you with that first line, because the next sentence begins:
This had been a part of the treaty between the pegasi and the human invaders nearly a thousand years ago… 
In the world McKinley depicts, the pegasi are not cuddly, pastel Lisa-Frank-style winged horses, but intelligent beings with their own intricate civilization (including a semi-telepathic language, agriculture, history, and beautiful arts and crafts that they create with tiny proto-hands) who share their land with humans in exchange for protection against incursions of various monsters. The arrangement includes a system of binding ceremonies pairing royal/noble humans with royal/noble pegasi of the same age. This is intended to promote understanding between the races, yet even paired humans and pegasi can only communicate with each other via a rudimentary language of gestures, with the aid of a specially trained magician. (Humans and pegasi are also not allowed to touch, supposedly to protect the pegasi from being treated like common horses.) No one really questions this until 12-year-old princess Sylvi meets her pegasus, Ebon, and finds that they can talk easily. The unheard-of close friendship between Sylvi and Ebon rocks their respective societies to the core, with some hoping that it will lead to greater cross-cultural understanding while others maintain that it spells doom for the entire kingdom.

I really liked Pegasus, but I’ll be the first to say that it’s an odd book. Like another of my faves, Connie Willis, Robin McKinley is Not for Everyone. Her books are often long, she breaks many of the traditional rules about showing vs. telling with large passages of exposition and description and little dialogue, her stories hinge more on abstract/internal conflicts than traditional actiony plots, and she yanks you right into the worlds she creates, leaving you to gradually figure out their rules later. Pegasus in particular could be considered very rambling and slow-moving, although I found it fascinating and prefer to think of it as expecting a healthy level of intelligence on the part of its readers. I can definitely see why some people were frustrated with it, particularly because (again like Connie Willis, with Blackout and All Clear) it ends with a jarring surprise cliffhanger. Actually, I wouldn’t even call it a cliffhanger—it’s an ending of sorts, just not a happy or satisfying one—but most people are referring to it that way, and at least Willis included a mention of her planned sequel at the end of the first book, whereas I had to track down McKinley’s blog to learn that there would indeed be a Pegasus 2. The funny thing is that as I reached the last sentence and realized the book was going to end on a major downer with everything unresolved, even as I suspected this must mean there would be a sequel, I was totally willing to believe that this still might be a standalone book, and that McKinley was just trying to do something wildly experimental, albeit severely depressing. I certainly didn’t get as enraged as many of the Internet reviewers; I just thought, “Huh. That’s weird, and if that’s really the ending it’s kind of a bold choice.”

So, like Willis’s Blackout, this is really one huge book split into two volumes, which pissed off a lot of people but which I enjoyed, even though I can’t really render a final verdict on it until I read the next one. I definitely loved the characters, especially Sylvi and her badass mother, liked the concept, and adored the comfortable, lived-in way McKinley always writes—her fantasy is not high-flown, but very realistic, rooted in little everyday details, giving you a sense of what it would really feel like to inhabit that world. Also, although I haven’t reread The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword in years (time to remedy that, I think!), I suspect that McKinley dropped some clues in Pegasus that might tie it in with the world of those books, which would be awesome.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

THE SINGING SANDS

This was the last of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant mysteries, published posthumously in 1952, and it ended up being my favorite—surpassing The Daughter of Time, which, although it appeals heavily to the historical nerd in me, is really just a playful curiosity in the Grant canon; the stakes are a lot higher here. Like Daughter, The Singing Sands has Grant on sick leave from his Scotland Yard job, but this time his illness is mental, not physical: he’s had a nervous breakdown and is traveling to Scotland to recuperate at his cousin’s house when, naturally, he stumbles across a murder. Although he struggles not to get involved, of course he can’t resist the temptation to sleuth for long. I’m always a sucker for a reluctant hero, but Tey takes it farther than the usual “one final heist” trope. What’s interesting about this book is how very introspective it is; the real focus is on Grant’s emotional state, with the mystery existing primarily as his means of redemption—large portions of the story don’t relate directly to the crime-solving plot at all. Alan Grant is a complex, intelligent character, and it’s a pleasure to watch his mind at work. It’s pointless to mourn what might have been, but I can’t help wondering what would have happened to him if Elizabeth Mackintosh (Tey was a pen name) hadn’t died of cancer at age 55. I’m definitely sad to have come to the end of this series and Tey’s limited yet oh-so-pleasing oeuvre.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A SINGLE MAN

I saw the movie when it came out (yay, Colin Firth) and thought it was beautiful, but it never occurred to me to seek out the book it was based on until I was perusing the rare book exhibit at the Huntington Library (where we are members) a couple of months ago, and one of the rotating displays happened to feature the first page of Christopher Isherwood’s original manuscript. A and I stood there and read it, then turned to each other and said, “This is really good.” I promptly went home and put the book on hold at the library, and I was not disappointed. Both daring and restrained, transcendent and simple, this slim stream-of-consciousness story of a day in the life of George—a middle-aged British professor grieving the sudden death of his partner—is a singular achievement. Not only is it a milestone in gay literature, but it also captures its time and place so well (Southern California in the early 1960s) that I’m surprised it doesn’t appear more often alongside the usual suspects (Raymond Chandler, John Fante) on lists of great L.A. novels. Although the film admirably captures the tone of the book, I was surprised to find that the actual events varied significantly; director Tom Ford added a lot of original touches that are not strictly true to the book, but are so much in keeping with its sensibility that I almost can’t say which version I liked better (a rarity in comparing book-to-screen adaptations). Both are gorgeous, absorbing, and moving.

Here are the first two paragraphs that caught my attention at the Huntington that day:
Waking up begins with saying am and now. That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognised I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it had expected to find itself; what’s called at home.

But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder; one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labelled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until—later or sooner—perhaps—no, not perhaps—quite certainly: It will come.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS

There was so much buzz about this book when it came out earlier this year that I assume you know all about it already, but just in case: Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black working-class woman who died agonizingly of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951. Before her death, without her knowledge, doctors at Johns Hopkins took a sample of cancerous cells from her tumor and ended up using them as the source for the first-ever line of human cells that could survive and grow in a laboratory culture. Her cells, christened HeLa, spread across the globe, becoming the go-to resource for medical research, from testing the polio vaccine to being shot into space. For a long time, Lacks’s husband and children had no idea any of this was happening, and few members of the scientific community or the public knew the truth about where the cells came from. In her painstakingly researched book, Rebecca Skloot sets the record straight, providing the full story of Henrietta Lacks, her cells’ massive contributions to science, and her family’s struggle to discover and understand what really happened to their mother.

I tend to avoid trendy books, at least until the buzz dies down and I can get a better sense of their enduring value, mostly just to save myself some time—I would read almost every book I could get my hands on if given the opportunity, but life is only so long and I already have a to-be-read list that approaches 100 items, so I need to be judicious sometimes. Immortal Life sounded interesting to me, but so do a lot of nonfiction books, and then where do you stop? Luckily, I met someone at a party who had just listened to it as an audiobook and highly recommended it. Of course! This was the perfect solution for me, since I could still get the content without having to devote precious reading time to it. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a huge audiobook fan, but I do better with the nonfiction ones because I’m already conditioned to listening to factual content on NPR, and the books just feel like long news stories. And Immortal Life was an absolutely riveting listen, like a 10-hour episode of This American Life. I listened to it everywhere I drove for the next few weeks, not just on my daily commute but on my way to friends’ houses or while running errands. Lacks’s story is amazing, and Skloot tells it with intelligence, sensitivity, restraint, and grace, particularly as she details her interactions with the surviving members of the family and her rollercoaster friendship with Lacks’s daughter, Rebecca. The book is informative, entertaining, and moving, an addictive mixture of biography, medical history and ethics, science, race and class issues, and investigative reporting. I highly recommend it, whether in paper or audio form. It’s so good, it would have been well worth my precious reading time.

(As a trivial but amusing aside, I was surprised to learn, during a chapter on the history of cell culturing, that Bill Cosby’s “Chicken Heart” routine, which I listened to over and over again on the record player as a kid, was based on a real radio show about a chicken heart that ate New York City, which was in turn based on a real quack scientist who claimed to be keeping chicken heart cells alive in culture. You can’t make this stuff up, apparently.)

Friday, July 29, 2011

THE NIGHT BOOKMOBILE

Audrey Niffenegger is best known as the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife (which I love), but she’s also a visual artist who has written and illustrated several graphic novels. This one is more like a picture book for adults, clocking in at just 40 pages, with large full-color art and simple, spare text. The plot is both enchanting and haunting: a woman walking alone in Chicago at night stumbles across a bookmobile that contains every item she’s ever read, even cereal boxes (my favorite detail is that in the books she never finished, all the pages are blank after the point at which she stopped reading). In the morning, the bookmobile departs, but she’s become obsessed with it and spends the rest of her life searching for it. She encounters it only twice more over the course of many years, both times with life-changing results.

This story resonated deeply with me, as I assume it should for any dedicated book lover; it captures the fascinating power that books hold over those who read them—their pleasures (you are made of sterner stuff than I if you don’t think the night bookmobile sounds like the supercoolest thing ever), but also their perils (the prevailing tone is dark, particularly the ending). The book took about 10 minutes to read, but its spooky loveliness will stay with me for a long time. I was excited to read in the afterword that Niffenegger plans to make it the first volume of a larger project called “The Library.”

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

THE PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE

As I’ve mentioned in passing before, I loved Jeanne Birdsall’s two previous Penderwicks books, The Penderwicks and The Penderwicks on Gardham Street, and this one was every bit as adorable. Cozy but not cloying, old-fashioned without being out-of-touch, and gentle but never boring, all the stories about the smart, lively, prickly, closely knit Penderwick sisters are instant classics. I want to load this description with words like “sweet” and “cute” and “adorable,” but don’t get the wrong idea; there’s nothing forced or precious here. As lovable as they are, the Penderwicks are realistic characters: intellectual but not overly precocious, just as interested in soccer as in books, quirky but not neurotic, nice but not saintly…and sometimes downright cranky. In this installment, watchful eldest sister Rosalind departs for a much-needed vacation from her duties, leaving hot-tempered Skye as the reluctant and often frantic OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick) as she and her two younger sisters—dreamy writer Jane and shy little Batty, who quite frankly steals any scene in which she appears—their friend Jeffrey, and their aunt Claire head up to a cottage on the coast of Maine. This book combines two of my favorite kid’s-book tropes, the Warm Large Family and the Idyllic Summer Vacation, into a very unique, funny, and even moving tale. I’ve read that Birdsall has planned this as a five-book series, and although I’m thrilled that there are two new Penderwicks books in my future, part of me is thinking, Only five? I could quite happily read about the Penderwicks until they are old and gray.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY

I’ve loved The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels since high school, so I’m not sure why it never occurred to me to check out any other books Douglas Adams may have written until I saw Dirk Gently mentioned in glowing terms at Bookshelves of Doom. And, duh, I really liked it—as of course I would, since it involves both time travel and a quirky private detective, two of my favorite literary elements, handled with Adams’s signature wit. (There are also ghosts, cats, pizza, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to sweeten the deal.) It will take repeated readings for Dirk Gently to rival Hitchhiker’s Guide in my affections, but with a book this fun, the prospect is hardly a chore. In the meantime, I’ve laid hold of the sequel, and I’m crossing my fingers that the forthcoming BBC show will be a worthy adaptation...and comes to the U.S. soon.

Friday, July 22, 2011

SWIMMING IN THE STENO POOL

Given its subtitle, A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office, and its cheeky vintage-art cover, one might be forgiven for assuming that is just another one of the heaps of lightweight hipster nostalgia books that began to flood the market in the early 2000s, when reviving/celebrating/satirizing midcentury culture and design became all the rage. That is, if one didn’t happen to know that Lynn Peril is one of the sharpest, wittiest feminist cultural historians around. As the author of the sadly defunct zine Mystery Date, the books Pink Think and College Girls, and the “Museum of Femorabilia” column in Bust magazine, she specializes in examining the ways in which women’s identities were portrayed and constructed through pop culture—advertising, advice books, etc.—throughout the twentieth century. She continues this effort in Steno Pool, exploring the history of that much maligned, celebrated, and even fetishized figure, the secretary: a topic near to her heart because, it turns out, she is one.

I picked up this book mainly because I loved Peril’s previous two and it seemed like good retro fun. I was not surprised to be so interested and entertained, but I was a bit taken aback by how much it resonated with me. A history of secretaries is by proxy a partial history of women in the modern white-collar workforce (since it was one of the few jobs outside the home that was socially acceptable for women—at least, single women; there is an entire chapter on the additional obstacles, including outright firing, faced by working married women—and remains female-dominated today), and as an office worker myself, I connected with it quite personally. The story is both empowering (working girls, yay!) and depressing (sexism, boo!); even if you think you know it—typing and dictation, groping and harassment, the glass ceiling and making coffee—seeing it all laid out with Peril’s stringent analysis is informative. So much of the material she quotes might seem hilariously antiquated and irrelevant if she didn’t do such a good job of demonstrating how systematically it reflected complex social norms that still resonate today. I’ll resist launching a rant, but much of the book inspires a healthy sense of outrage, though it’s leavened by amusing factoids and Peril’s wry humor. This is a natural follow-up to College Girls and a good companion to one of my other favorite twentieth-century histories, Betsy Israel’s Bachelor Girls. Not to mention a great reminder of how fortunate I am to have a job that values me and doesn’t limit or discriminate against me, which is useful to think about when I’m dragging myself reluctantly out of bed on a Monday morning.