Thursday, November 29, 2007
A good intro to the overwhelming brainwashing that (American) girls are subjected to, with an emphasis on consumerism and on packaged female identity. This book, while very solid, is kind of basic and not as in depth as Alissa Quart's Branded, and at times feels like it is written for people who have never thought about such things, which I suppose it is.
The authors are writing to parents, and for what it is, it is an impassioned and articulate analysis of why 'buying into' princesses and pink can damage girls' future attempts to define themselves, and the sections on children's and YA literature are most interesting to me. Of course Gossip Girl comes in for some hits, but I think it's clear that the authors realize that that series is better written than others, and also, their objections to Gossip Girl are more focused on the materialism than on the issues. The Clique, thankfully, is nailed in this book, but some of the books they recommend seem a little off to me - Ok, Speak, sure, yadda yadda, but putting How I Live Now on a list of books supposedly chosen to reflect strong female characters? Daisy was a neurotic anorexic basketcase who had an underage affair with her cousin- I liked the book, but I wouldn't see that character as a role model. Also, the Magic Schoolbus series drives me crazy. But that might just be me.
Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes
Quality: 9 Popularity: 8 Overall: 17
Quart is a great writer, and this book is, to me, a must read when looking at the unholy work that falls under the umbrella of "marketing", along with Naomi Klien's No Logo. Seriously, that is dirty dirty work.
Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers
Quality: 10 Popularity: 8 Overall: 18
I am a little torn about this book, because while I enjoyed it and it was a quick read, it was very predictable and formulaic. My favorite part was that the chapters were each titled after some great songs I had kind of forgotten about, like California Uber Alles by the Dead Kennedys and the scene in the cd store reminded me of being fourteen.
Quality: 7 Popularity: 9 (Great cover!) Overall: 16
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Sunday, November 25, 2007
The earlier chapters were a bit text-booky, but once we made it to mid-century America, the writing really picked up, and the issues became much clearer. Outbreaks of cryptosporidium in Milwaukie in 1993 and a nightmarish E. Coli epidemic in Ontario in 2000 were written about vividly and without condescending to the reader.
Some really amazing tidbits from this book- in older US cities, workers replacing pipes still regularly find lengths of wooden pipe- over 150 years old. In younger cities, the first cast iron pipes were laid in the early years of the 20th century. These pipes had a design lifespan of 125 years. In 1925, new, thinner pipes began to be used. These had a design lifespan of about 100 years. In 1950, even thinner pipes with a design lifespan of 75 years went in. As the author puts it, "As if part of some grand, unintelligent design, this pattern of manufacturing has synchronized the decay of all three different types of pipe such that they will all reach the end of their useful life at roughly the same time." Yikes! And, sir, well said.
A good meaty book.
The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink
Quality: 8 Popularity: 7 Overall: 15
A quick light read, this mystery starring Kick Keswick wasn't really great, but it was exactly what it promised to be- a wildly improbable romp through Provence, London, and the lakes of Northern Italy, in luxury cars and helicopters, with jewel theives, dubious Hungarian royalty, and Scotland Yard.
Fun for what it is. As I read it, I realized I'd read read another book by this author, witht his main character- my main question is, how old is Kick supposed to be? A strapless black lace tea length dress, with a cane? Strapless, really?
Friends in High Places
Quality: 6 Popularity: 7 Overall: 13
I hardly believe that there is a real Meg Cabot. I think, instead, there might be a factory filled with desperate writers chained to desks churning these puppies out. Maybe the 'real' Meg Cabot walks through every now and then to whip them and to make sure everything is saccharine, light, oh so very 'clean', whiter than wonder bread, and that the heroines (to really stretch a word) are just charmingly awkward enough to be non-threatening.
Seriously. Have you seen pictures of Meg Cabot? I don't want to sound catty, but the woman seems to be experiencing some kind of bizarre prolonged adolescence complete with the kind of fashion faux-pas that made Drew Barrymore's annoying character in Never Been Kissed (a story of a woman who can't let go of high school) so easily mockable. Check this out.
Anyway, Teen Idol is the story of regular everyday girl Jenny Greenley, who gets along with everyone but who has no boyfriend (awww) who is asked by her principal to help guide an under cover teen movie star through a few weeks of regular high school life as preparation for a movie he is working on. Already we have stretched credibility to the snapping point. The premise is absurd- does Cabot really suggest that readers believe that teen movie stars infiltrate high schools and that no one would notice (unless, of course, at the fundraising car wash, said teen idol takes off his shirt to reveal his distinctive tattoo, blowing his cover?)? Arrrrgh. This kind of makes my head explode.
You can guess the rest. Bleh. I kind of want to wash my brain now. And don't even get me started on The Princess Diaries.
Quality: 2 Popularity: 6 Overall: 8 YA
This turned out to be a re-read, which says a lot about it. I had totally forgotten I had read it until I got to the little chanting song "Merricat, Merricat, would you like a cup of tea?" and realized I had read it before.
Well, I don't know what to say, really, it is Shirley Jackson doing the gothic horror thing that she does, and although I really enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House and of course, her story The Lottery, gothic horror is just not my thing, and this book just strikes me as weird. I kind of wanted to kick all the characters. To say much more m ight give the 'twist' away, so I'll stop here.
Quality: 4 Popularity: 6 Overall: 10
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
This children's picture book had more wistful longing and love and mystery and sense of place and character than 99% of the fiction I've read all year. It is magical without being cheesy, enchanting without being saccharine, and incredibly moving, for reasons I don't understand.
Bear... oh, see, I can't even write about this book without getting all teary. This is the best love letter I have ever seen to the written word, and every single exquisite illustration only adds to the story.
I can't possibly express how wonderful I found this book to be.
Quality: 10 Popularity: 10 Overall: 20
I very much wanted to enjoy this.
Venkatraman is an astonishingly accomplished woman, and I can see why she would be drawn to the story of Caroline Herschel, one of the first female astronomers.
I felt like maybe there wasn't enough original material to truly flesh out the story, as so many of the primary source quotes were so very dry, and the photos included in the book seemed arbitrary and were kind of startlingly offputting.
I can see how this story could have made for fantastic historical fiction, but as nonfiction, it read very dry to me. I must say that I can hardly wait to read her novel, Climbing the Stairs, when it comes out.
Quality: 6 Popularity: 3 Overall: 9 YA
I did not get this book, let me say that first.
It is endless, and for every page of whispery thin text, there are about 5 or so pages of drawings of wide eyed French youth in the 1930's, running around train stations fixing clocks and making small automata out of toy store gears, and everyone is a theif, and it all turns out to be about movies.
It was, for me, a ghastly experience.
I do not like graphic novels.
How the heck do you translate this nonsense into Braille?
And what a waste of time it felt like.
I don't understand the huge, high praise for this publication, why it won awards, why its Amazon rating is 4 1/2 stars after 95 reviews. I don't understand it at all.
Quality: 3 Popularity: 7 Overall: 10 YA
This sequel to Dairy Queen was a great surprise to me. I remember how long it took me to warm up to the character of DJ in that book- well, once I did, I loved her, and I loved this entire book right from the start.
Her playing football has led to more complications than she could have known, and she finds out by overhearing, in a heartbreaking scene, that the family farm is losing money year after year. DJ has to make a painful decision about whether she can in good conscience play football when it is girl's basketball that offers good scholarships to college. Life is further complicated when big brother Win, playing college football on scholarship, sustains a massive spinal cord injury.
DJ is a fantastic protagonist. Her courage and straightforward goodness seem so rare in books now, and especially in this book, her story is one to relish. This book could totally stand alone, too.
Quality: 9 Popularity: 8 Overall: 17 YA
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Anahita, at 15, is to be married, once she completes weaving her wedding carpet, and the local khan himself has expressed interest in her.
Anahita, however, wants to become a master dyemaker, and wants nothing to do with the khan, a creepy man much older than her, who has had 4 previous wives die, and convinces her father and the village mullah to let her weave a riddle into her bridal carpet, and to let suitors compete to solve it, with the winner becoming her hsuband.
This book was lovely in parts, but it really dragged in others. I loved all the bits about the dye and the weaving, but all the riddles got to me after a while, and once you meet the main suitor characters, well, you won't be surprised at the end.
It felt a little predictable, as a love story, but the glimpses of life as a nomadic Iranian in the early 20th c were very cool, and Anahita, despite being something of a selfish dolt, was a very interesting protagonist, and this book had nice flavor to it, especially after so many US suburban sex dramas (Harmless, Story of a Girl, Twisted, etc etc ad infinitum).
Quality: 8 Popularity: 8 Overall: 16 YA
The full (and rather over-wordy) title is
Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children
but that is much too long to have as a title for a mere blog post.
Oh, heck. I wanted to love this book, but I did not. I think maybe this is one of those books where you're in the choir if you're reading it at all, so it has to be a fun read too- no one likes a boring preacher, right?
And it wasn't so much that it was boring at all- if he hadn't been talking about things that just seemed so common knowledge, I could have worked up my fervor for the same topic, and settled in to a great shouting about something I believe.
We are losing our civil rights, and our rights to be uncivil. We are, in many ways, treated like children by the very groups adults choose to represent us as a nation. We are denied the freedom to choose to be "fat, stupid and drunk", to quote Animal House.
But I knew that already.
Quality: 6 Popularity: 7 Overall: 13
Oooooh this was good. This book combined just about all my favorite nonfiction topics into one book- American consumer society, social responsibility vs. day to day compromise, the decline in American manufacturing, shopping, and the rapidly tipping balance of the global economy. You wedge all that into one book, and I am sold, baby.
Sara Bongiorni wrote a great, fun, dazzling read, which was lighthearted yet poignant, and effortlessly informative.
After reading an article about a woman who spent a year buying American, Bongiorni decided to try what she imagined would be an easier task- avoid "Made in China" for a year. This wasn't out of xenophobia or Freedom-Fries style goofiness, it was out of a genuine curiousity to see how hard it could be.
The result is a fantastic, fantastic book. I could go on in raptures about her tone, and how well and easily she narrates rather awkward things, like long phone calls with customer service representatives, and turns what could have so easily been a grumpy polemic into a great story from someone you want as a friend.
I want to try it. What more can I say? Well, I can say a little more- this is a book I think I will own, when it comes out in paperback. Out of all the library books I've read since I've started this blog, this is the first one that has to come live with me. (Rosemary's Baby, that rotten Bobbsey Twin book, all the Gossip Girls, and High Tide are mine- everything else has been borrowed)
Quality: 10 Popularity: 9 Overall: 19
A wretched, expoitative, voyeuristic and violent YA book.
Garrett is sent to Lake Harmony, a private juvenile delinquent camp, where he endures many violent humiliations and brainwashing etc etc.
Not my cup of tea in the least. And, if I must say so, kind of ludicrous. Before anyone wants to jump down my throat and point me to the reference and resource list at the end of the book, yeah, I know these things do happen. I just thought this was a rotten book, and it read as implausible, which is my least favorite thing of all in what purports to be 'realistic fiction'.
Quality: 3 Popularity: 6 Overall: 9
Re-read. Bath book.
Coincidentally, I read this about 2 days before Ira Levin died, and when I heard of his death, Rosemary's Baby was still floating around on the top of the book piles in the house.
Does it really get any better than this for horror? No gore, no eyeballs, just sweet, human (and inhuman) evil. His details, his dialogue.
What a master he was. From Rosemary's Baby to The Boys from Brazil, Deathtrap to Sliver to The Stepford Wives, never a wrong step, never an unbelievable twist, no matter how twisted the story (and boy are they twisted!), never a flaw. We will not speak of Rosemary's Son. I think aliens took over his typewriter for that one, and all his others were brilliant, so there.
One of the best of the best. Thank you Ira Levin.
Quality: 9 Popularity: 9 Overall: 18
This was a delight. Utterly un-self-conscious writing, fun, a book that celebrated it's authors' love of vintage clothing while making it clear that it wasn't life or death, just fun and lovely.
Allison Houette claims that she inherited her sense of style from her mother and grandmother, and that their care for and appreciation of clothing led her to love the clothes they carefully saved from earlier eras.
After she left home to try her luck as a model, she found herself in Paris (I know! It does sound as if it would be eye-rollingly nauseating, but it isn't at all- not one bit) and unable to afford new fancy clothes, a mentor taught her how to find hidden gems in flea markets and thrift shops.
After her modeling career slowed down a bit, she opened her own vintage clothing shop in Brooklyn (Seriously, this was a charming book. I usually balk like a stubborn mule when I hear/see anything about Park Slope, etc), called her shop Hooti Couture (after how people mispronounced her French last name in Florida where she grew up) and, well, sells clothes.
It is a mystery how such a slight story made for such a frothy and delicious read, but it really was like having a great latte after finding a fantastic handbag. Really. That might be the only time I ever say anything like that, so you know it's true!
Quality: 8 Popularity: 8 Overall: 16
I don't know why I keep picking these up. I think I miss Bridget Jones.
Well, this one is at least non-fiction (ish). It tells the story of an uber-bitch power-hungry corporate vp from a dot.com, who gets, well, blown off when the bubble bursts. She carries her Prada bag to the unemployment office, and then carries on stridently about how they won't take her seriously.
It went on and on, and of course, by being unemployed and having to sell all her handbags, and having to move to (gasp) a worse part of town, and even (double-gasp) having to dye her own hair instead of having a salon charge her $300, she finds inner peace and enlightenment. I am just not buying it.
Anyway, it was quick and breezy, and pretty well written. I am just so tired of these "poverty makes people real" books- Jen Lancaster (post short-skirt-and-long-jacket career girl phase) could probably kick back and keep it real with those "poor girls" the Nan Bobbsey so admired.
Quality: 4 Popularity: 7 Overall: 11
(Yeah, I totally took off points for the title. Nice cover though!)
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
The cover, obviously, was the best thing about this. Great cover.
Where to start... I think reading this reminded me why despite an entirely unnatural childhood urge to read children's books published a good 25 years before I was born, I never rocked the Bobbsey Twins.
Sacharine, trite, twee, and painful.
Disgusting little scenes and lines like this (I can hardly type it without retching)
"Queer," remarked Nan as they hurried on. "The two girls I thought the most of in Meadow Brook were poor: Nettie Prentice and Nellie the little cash girl at the fresh air camp. Somehow, poor girls seem so real and they talk to you so close - I mean they seem to just speak right out of their eyes and hearts."
BLECH! If you read the mother's reply to this, you might have the kind of swearing fit I did (scared the heck out of my cats!) so I will not trouble you so, but the book was just chock full of such loathsomeness.
I know it was published in 1952, but there is no excuse for this kind of dreck.
Of course, too, Nettie Prentice's missing father returns with a shipload of mahogany and a fortune- I wonder if Nettie stops being "so real" now that she's Bobbsey-rich?
The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore Out of print, yay.
Quality: 2 Popularity: 2 Overall: 4
(Popularity score obviously weighted to be era-appropriate- I know this was huge back in the day)
I hated the start of this book. I've been indulging myself a bit, reading things I wanted to read, so this was a bit of a shock to force myself to pick up and finish one of the RITBA nominee books again, but I'm glad that I did.
Arnold/Junior is growing up on a reservation, with more problems than you could shake a stick at. As a baby, he was hydrocephalic, and as a teen, he is still taunted and picked on and beaten up on a regular basis. His family is saddled with poverty, lost dreams, and alcoholism, and his best friend is increasingly violent and drunk.
After his first day in Geometry class, when the textbook he recieves turns out to have been his mother's, all those years ago, Arnold gets furious at the system which denies him a decent, up to date education, and transfers into a nearby white farm-town highschool. His Indian tribemates resent him for that, and his new classmates treat him horribly, initially, with some painful racist scenes.
I don't want to spoil the book for anyone who might read it, but it ended up being tearjerkingly good. For all that, though, I have to say it felt like a tearjerker from page one. Now, from my posts about the Gilbreth books, one might assume I love a book that makes me cry, but this is not the case. I love a book that makes me cry incidentally, a book that moves me so much by its own weight or character that I find myself weeping despite myself. When I call a book a tearjerker, I mean that I find myself weeping when I am supposed to. Big difference, there.
Quality: 9 Popularity: 8 Overall: 16
I am so sorry to report that in this reader's eyes, the book didn't really work.
Too many affairs, too implausible- it reached a kind of Harlequin-level silliness. Which can be magnificent- if it works, but I don't think it did, and I am kind of crushed.
Good girl Elizabeth is from an old society family, and her marriage to Henry is all settled- or is it? It turns out that Elizabeth has a tendresse for the stable boy, and her scheming maid... oh, heck. You can fill in the blanks, I'm sure.
I was so tantalized by the initial sell - Gossip Girl crossed with Edith Wharton - that I still have to kind of love it, just for the idea, but the actualization really didn't work for me. Bummer.
The Luxe (coming out in hardcover next month)
Quality: 6 Popularity: 9 Overall: 15
(Popularity points coming from fantastic cover and pre-release buzz)
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Interesting book, detailing our increasingly niche-market oriented society. Penn (known as the guy who defined "Soccer Moms" as a key voting block for Clinton) covers 75 "microtrends" (1,000,000 people being enought to pop up on his radar) that he feels will have a big impact on America today.
His methodology seems sound, and many of the trends he points out are interesting and quirky, but the book (2007) already seems a little dated- it's like FutureShock or Faith Popcorn or something- when you try to write about the next big thing tomorrow, you might be better off writing for magazines, because by the time your book is published, you might already be behind the times. In one major misstep, Penn points to Zunes as the big MP3 player- a glaring, jarring error in a book that claims to be on top of such things. Zunes were made to try to enter the Ipod dominated MP3 player market, and never caught on at all, and it just seems like a weird mistake.
One of the most alarming statistics was out of California, where 1% of teens polled expressed a desire to be "military snipers". 1%. Scary stuff.
Quality: 8 Popularity: 9 Overall: 17
Another fascinating book about the Gilbreth family, but this one a little more serious than Cheaper by the Dozen or Belles on Their Toes.
In this book, Frank Jr. writes more seriously about the theories of scientific management that his parents developed, and even more seriously about how hard Lillian Gilbreth had to work in order to be taken seriously as an expert in the field in her own right.
In one painful story, she had been asked to address the Association of Mechanical Engineers, as a keynote speaker- a great honor- but was not allowed to enter the building - the society had failed to check if the club where the meeting was held allowed women inside. It did not, and despite her being the keynote speaker, she was denied entrance.
Many anecdotes were recycled from the previous books, but this one had a more reflective tone, and allows that for all the fun, that the 11 surviving Gilbreths might have been a little busy and crowded!
And once again, I ended this book with tears streaming down my face. Sometimes genuine warmth can just knock you off your feet.
Time Out For Happiness (Out of print, used copies available)
Quality: 9 Popularity: 6 Overall: 15
Monday, November 5, 2007
Finally something I really had fun reading! I loved Braving Home by Halpern- that was a fantastic book, and I was thrilled to see another by him.
This time he takes a look at celebrity culture in America, from a few different angles. He attends a talent expo in NYC, following teens from Buffalo whose parents have invested thousands of dollars in acting and modeling classes, in hopes that their child will 'make it'. He interviews celebrity assistants, who devote their lives to making sure that their celebrity gets everything they want exactly when they want it. He interviews fan-club presidents, in one of the saddest sections in the book, and he interviews academics who have based their careers on studying fame, and who seem to teeter narrowly on an ethical edge- between studying monkeys who will give up Juicy Juice to look at dominant males and female hindquarters, one professor guages his success by his appearances on the Today show and Good Morning America.
The numbers Halpern tosses around are familiar- the terrifying expectations of teens today that they will be famous, the percentage of teens who think that they are uniquely talented and deserving of fame, the sad but true fact that lonely people are more likely to want fame, but he is such a good writer that none of it seems repetitive.
His obvious empathy for his subjects is clear here, and although in Braving Home, his writing was tinged with a little bit of awe for those wacky people living in a lava ruined town or on top of a coal fire, in this book there might be a tinge of sorrow. Ludicrous dedication to the idea of home, I think he kind of admired, but ludicrous dedication to Rod Steward, I think made him sad, as it did me.
Fun, quick, interesting read. Can't wait to read his next book. If I was a writer, I would want to be able to write like Halpern. Can't say anything better than that.
Quality: 9 Popularity: 9 Overall: 18
I came across this one while looking for crafty fun YA books, and had to have a read of it. Great cover.
The projects were ok- definitely aimed at 'hipsters' what with painting Leonard Cohen's face on your dining room wall, or making crocheted skulls, etc etc. All very clever.
Actually, there wasn't a single project I would make or that inspired me. I don't know why I feel compelled to be so nice when I write these. It felt all very last year Brooklyn.
Quality: 3 Popularity: 8 Overall: 11
Another Claire Malloy mystery from Joan Hess. Yes, I know- it's not YA. But hey, that's ok. Anyway, I remember distinctly that when I was a teenager, I read books that were not specifically targeted to me. Anyway, Claire's daughter Caron and her friend Inez are teenagers, so close enough.
To be fair, I read this because I was still feeling desperate to read something adult-ish, and I usually enjoy Joan Hess. I like the Maggody books a lot more than the Claire Malloys, and this was no exception. I read it, I like it, it was fine, but really wish she'd write another Arly Hanks in Maggody book.
This one was set in Farberville, of course, where a group sounding suspiciously like S.C.A. (Society of Creative Anachronists) but in the book was called A.R.S.E. (which, eh) was holding a festival, quirky characters, elaborate costumes, swordfighting, ballads, and murder. I kind of enjoyed it. It felt very familiar.
Quality: 5 Popularity: 7 Overall: 12
Saturday, November 3, 2007
Oh, what a treat. This was a re-read, and I loved it. When I was 12 or so I think I read Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes over and over and over. About a year ago I found a yard sald copy of Cheaper By The Dozen (with awful movie-tie-in cover- Hillary Duff- spare me) and it went into serious bath-reading rotation, so I was really pleased to get ahold of Belles On Their Toes, the sequel.
After Frank Gilbreth dies, his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth steps into his shoes running their motion-study business, and their 11 children (Anne, at 18, is the eldest) have to run the household while she tours Europe giving speeches trying to convince the world that a woman can run an engineering consulting firm in the 1920s.
I love these books, the detail and the sense of time and place- the slang, the wet smacks and ukeleles, the flappers, and Martha's big scene at the beach where she refuses to wear a 2 piece bathing dress anymore- I love the way the boys coach Jane into being a bobby-soxer rather than a vamp, I love the warmth of these stories. I cried like a baby at the end- literally sitting there howling. It is so lovely to read something that was clearly written to tell people a good story- a real, loving story- rather than all these freaking message-y youth in crisis stuff I've been reading.
Quality: 10 Popularity: 8 Overall: 18