So Much to Read
"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good."—Samuel Johnson

4 November 2005
Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
Barbara Ehrenreich

In her follow-up to Nickel and Dimed Ehrenreich again goes undercover, this time with the goal of securing a corporate job. She has such a hard time getting hired that the book is more about unemployment than working life. The only jobs she is offered are selling insurance on commission and peddling Mary Kay products. As she points out, it's more and more common that the worker is not given benefits, a guaranteed salary, or even an office to work out of, and even expected to invest her own money up front. She meets employed people searching for jobs and discovers that they're just as unhappy as the unemployed. As discouraging as being out of work is, it's made more difficult by having to seek a job that you know won't bring you satisfaction or security. Ehrenreich is a "Brown shoes will be fine with navy pants, right?" kind of girl and even her spruced-up resume isn't exactly corporate material. So it may not be surprising that she can't play the game, but why should such a smart, articulate, and hard-working woman have to play a game to get a job? What this book really reveals is that the business world is built on air: you fake your way in, and then fake your way through a job convincing people they need things that they don't. To her credit, Ehrenreich has turned this horribly depressing subject into compelling, and even funny, reading.

4 November 2005
The Early Arrival of Dreams: A Year in China
Rosemary Mahoney

Written before the Tiananmen Square massacre, this is Mahoney's account of the year she spent teaching in China as a young woman in the late 1980s. It's my favorite sort of travel writing: a likable author with a sharp eye shares her experiences in a new place, letting us get to know her acquaintances and friends (including the usual wacky expats) and sharing her thoughts and observations. As a teacher, she fought a losing battle with woefully neglected schools and students who had spent years without any notion of critical thinking. As a tourist, she was constantly thwarted by inefficiency and corruption (that's the thing about communists: working together to make things run well is the last thing they want to do). China is hot and dangerous and uncomfortable, but it charmed Mahoney, as it does her readers.
More travel writing: Bad Times in Buenos Aires

4 November 2005
I'm Not the New Me: A Memoir
Wendy McClure

We here at So Much to Read know you have many choices when it comes to memoirs by thirtyish women that focus on dating and weight loss. But this one has pictures! McClure includes color photos of vintage Weight Watchers recipe cards (ghastly concoctions like Frozen Cheese Salad and Jellied Tomato Refresher), with her comments. Her weight-loss blog, Pound, inspires others, but her real life doesn't feel so triumphant. Her boyfriend who makes fun of her "spinster" job (he's writing a novel in his head, he just hasn't gotten around to typing it up yet) doesn't help. But she's smart and funny as heck, and you know she'll be okay.

7 July 2005
True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa
Michael Finkel

Once a successsful New York Times reporter, Michael Finkel has been undone by his hubris. He falsified a source for a story, lost his job, and has retreated to Montana to lick his wounds and figure out how to start his life over. He learns that, in a bizarre coincidence, a man named Chris Longo, accused of murdering his wife and three young children, was apprehended in Mexico, where he was living as “New York Times reporter Michael Finkel.” In jail in Oregon and proclaiming his innocence, Longo agrees to correspond with Finkel. These two men, each in confinement, each accused of lying and yet each obsessed with the truth, begin, through phone calls and letters, a relationship that is both friendship and something darker and more dependent. Finkel, in his disgust at his own mistake, needs Longo so he can feel morally superior to someone—and, of course, so he can publish this book and revive his career. Longo, who, if his defense is unsuccessful, will be sentenced to die, needs someone to talk to, and possibly more. As Finkel slowly reveals Longo's story, the tension builds to a heart-stopping ending.

7 July 2005
The Right Stuff
Tom Wolfe

As long as I've been alive the space program has been a well-established and exotic endeavor, the stuff of movies, akin to deep sea diving, all about adventure. Meanwhile, commercial aviation has been steadily transforming the miracle of flight into a horror show of short tempers and stale air. So it's always seemed odd to me that rockets had anything to do with airplanes. Wolfe makes the connection, even taking us, with Chuck Yeager, to that in-between place at the edges of the atmosphere where the sky glows purple and the sun and moon shine at the same time. It's sobering to see how the driving force behind the space program was an obsession with being first (not even best, but first): as a nation, to prove our superiority to the Russians; and, among the original seven military-men-turned-astronauts, to be the one to make the history books. Wolfe is fond—a little too fond!—of the exclamatory interjection, but he takes you on a great ride.

19 May 2005
Seven Blessings
Ruchama King

What a little gem this novel is! It constantly caught me off guard with its sly observations, unpredictable plot twists, and simultaneously irreverent and holy (that is, quintessentially Israeli) worldview. Jerusalem's matchmakers have their work cut out for them, between an Orthodox American woman in her late thirties, never married and a bit of a loner; an American man, newly Orthodox and with impossibly high standards; and a nice Canadian guy "with a twitch." The matchmakers themselves are on their own journeys, one reviving a too-comfortable marriage, another turning to Torah study after a lifetime of homemaking. It's a realistic view of how tough it is to be single and Jewish, yet also buoyantly playful—a real treat.

19 May 2005
The Glass Castle
Jeannette Walls

There are tough childhoods, and then there is what Walls and her three siblings experienced at the hands of their absurdly neglectful parents. Neither her alcoholic father nor her artistic "excitement addict" mother held steady jobs or would accept any government support or charity, so in their impoverished West Virginia coal mining town they were scorned as the poor family. When the kids weren't being electrocuted, falling out of moving vehicles, or catching fire, they risked starving to death, as their parents simply didn't bother to feed them. Walls gives weight to the few good things: Her parents loved her, in their own way, and encouraged her intellectual development (though formal schooling wasn't a priority), and her siblings worked as a remarkably united and determined team, eventually engineering their escape. With such a traumatic past, Walls's detachment isn't surprising, but her matter-of-fact account of her bizarre upbringing keeps the reader at an unsatisfying distance and makes her book little more than an opportunity for voyeurism.

21 April 2005
Lonesome Dove
Larry McMurtry

Back in 1992 I spent an evening with a woman, who, in showing me her bookshelf, said of this novel, "I had to be forced to read this, but I'm so glad I did." I added it to my mental long list and, while I didn't have to be forced, it did take me thirteen years to get around to it. I even owned a paperback copy for a little while, from some dollar-a-bag library sale; now that I've read it I marvel at how a world was contained in that little book that sat on my own shelf for a year or two. A book is so much more than its physical manifestation; particularly in the case of a novel, such a small and simple object seems to have only a passing connection with the world that the reader inhabits while reading and that lives on in the head when the book is finished. The well-loved library hardcover I borrowed, at 850 pages, could't be held in one hand while standing on a train, so for a couple of weeks this was my evening reading, a ritual accompanied by peanut butter on toast and my kitty by my side. The saga of a late-nineteenth-century cattle drive from Texas to Montana is frequently coarse, terribly sad, and, at times, frankly, a horror novel. The West is dirty and dangerous and could well be another planet compared to now; all travel and all communication is on foot or horseback, but the land is vast and empty and the people few, so if you want to speak to someone you just wait for him to show up in the next town a couple hundred miles away. Maybe you'll even spot his horse on the horizon. Sure, some of the characters came from central casting, but McMurtry has a lot more going on here than it seems at first. There is senseless violence, there is often justice, and almost no one is happy. Now, when I sit down with my toast and my cat to read in the evenings, I remember that my days with the Hat Creek Outfit are over, and miss them like a friend who's moved away.

21 April 2005
A Changed Man
Francine Prose

This novel goes strong for 407 pages and then completely tanks in the last 10. In Prose's world, the inner life of every character—from the living legend Holocaust survivor heading a feel-good foundation funded by rich guilty liberals, down to the teenaged pothead writing a report on Hitler—is composed of snarky thoughts about everyone around them. Is such a cynical crowd really going to embrace a supposedly reformed neo-Nazi on first meeting and send him home that night to live with a single mom? A satire like this can get away with such a flimsy premise, so I kept reading to see which cultural sore point Prose would probe next with her sharp pen. But when she tacks on a happy-ever-after ending for the characters she's just finished thoroughly yanking around, the book stops being clever ridicule and spins off into the simply ridiculous. Recommended, if you stop before the last chapter.

21 April 2005
Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress
Susan Jane Gilman

This coming of age memoir begins with the author's Free to Be...You and Me childhood on the Upper West Side and stretches through a less-than-auspicious start to her career in journalism. It peters out a bit at the end, but whose life wasn't more fun before she had to grow up and get a job? Gilman makes merry fun of mean girls, hippies, and, most of all, herself, and she's made an admirable effort here to write about something besides chasing boys (okay, so she writes about chasing Mick Jagger instead, but that's arguably not the same thing). Lots of laughs and an occasional insight, which is way more fun than the other way around.
Also funny: The Idiot Girls' Action Adventure Club

18 March 2005
Curtis Sittenfeld

Even without the title, you know this novel is set in a prep school because all of the girls' first names are surnames and all of the boys' first names are nouns. Unfortunately, Sittenfeld has a problem shared by many writers, even those who aren't attempting to portray the quirks of the upper class: her characters' names sound nothing like those of real people. Ever since I was a kid this has driven me crazy. A particularly annoying variant is an appellation like "Old Lady Murphy." No real person uses a moniker that is forgivable only in a Hardy Boys mystery! Aside from the name complaint, Prep is a pleasure. The narrator is a scholarship girl who is equal parts envious of, resentful towards, and baffled by those teenage girls to whom great-smelling hair, a knack for dressing themselves, and the attention of boys come without effort or surprise. Sittenfeld nails this and many other things about adolescence, including the sometimes gradual, sometimes startling realization that your perception of yourself is completely different than others' perception of you. Lee is introspective but not always perceptive, easy to understand but sometimes a bit of a jerk. She's the only developed character in the book, but perhaps that's fitting for a novel about the self-absorption of the adolescent experience.
Also set in a private high school: Heart, You Bully, You Punk, Old School
Also by Sittenfeld: American Wife, The Man of My Dreams

18 March 2005
A Complicated Kindness
Miriam Toews

Nomi Nickels is the same age as Lee in Prep, living in roughly the same era and only a few hundred miles to the north, but she's a very different teenager with a very different story. Nomi was raised a Mennonite in a Mennonite town in Canada, "a town that exists in the world based on the idea of it not existing in the world...a kind of no-frills bunker in which to live austerely, shun wrongdoers, and kill some time and joy before the Rapture." Her mother and older sister have both escaped, but she and her father remain, not sure what to do with themselves, surrounded by a town full of bizarre, but never precious, characters. Nomi has managed to learn a lot about the outside world, but she's still a teenager, and, lacking a clear vision of what a better life would be, not to mention the means to get there, she's left with anger and sadness at her abandonment by half her family, a burgeoning intellectual dissatisfaction with her surroundings, a smart mouth, and a strong rebellious impulse. As a novel this is less than satisfying, as all the important action takes place before it begins, but Nomi's voice is a delight, and, unusual as her circumstances are, the basic human condition is often the source of her trouble. As she observes, reflecting on her fumbling attempts at love as well as the loss of her sister: "Some people can leave and some can't and those who can will always be infinitely cooler than those who can't and I'm one of the ones who can't."

3 February 2005
Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa's Fragile Edge
William Powers

As an aid worker in Liberia with Catholic Relief Services, Powers comes to see his mission ("Fight poverty and dependency while saving the rainforest") as less of a job description than a riddle. His sharp eye and ear make Africa come alive for the reader: the people of a war-ravaged country making lives from almost nothing, the lurking temptation of corruption, oddball expatriates, the vulnerability of animals, natural beauty, and man-made garbage. Over his two-year post he struggles with the balance between idealism and safety, the competing interests of subsistence farmers and the fragile ecosystem, discomfort with the neocolonial role he's forced into, and whether he and his fiancée, back home in upper-middle-class Washington, DC, can reconcile their rapidly diverging lives. It's a deeply personal story, and for Powers deeply personal means thinking constantly about the rest of the world and his place in it. He can't enjoy diamonds or fine wood, knowing where they come from, but he also doesn't need such material luxuries. Liberia gave him something much more valuable, something the rest of the world needs very badly: a Sense of Enough.
Another look at Africa: Out of America
Powers' next book: Whispering in the Giant's Ear

3 February 2005
Brother Iron, Sister Steel: A Bodybuilder's Book
Dave Draper

What a lovable goofball Draper is! He's weathered into a kind-looking mountain of muscle, a great improvement over his youth, when he must have been the inspiration for Rocky in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Draper clearly loves his lifelong pursuit: the simple clarity of pitting everything he's got against heavy weight, a firm grip on a solid bar, the rush of blood to a pumped muscle—and he knows you'll love it, too. He offers lots of sound advice, delivered in a commanding but jovial voice and gathered from decades of experience: He's been lifting since he was eight years old.
More about bodybuilding: Muscle
More about exercise in general: Ultimate Fitness

3 February 2005
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Malcolm Gladwell

First hunches, while hard to justify, are often more accurate than analysis. Not that radical an assertion, but Gladwell explains it thrillingly, leading us on a whirlwind tour of war games, the secrets of improv comedy, police work, autism, Chef Boyardee labels, and more, more, more. But, hold on: He's saying that a successful car salesman must throw his first impressions of a customer out the window. And that physicians should rely on an algorithm, not their impressions, to determine whether a patient is having a heart attack. And that unless you've spent years becoming an expert on taste, your impression of a sip of soda is completely useless even in telling what kind of cola you yourself like. Hmm. Plus, doctors who are likable don't get sued—interesting, but where does that fit in? And the section on speed dating would have been more interesting—and helpful—with a look at whether first impressions were accurate predictors of happiness with a partner. Still, Gladwell gives you so many juicy tidbits and so many "Aha!" moments that you feel like you're cracking the code to the human brain. Ethical and practical considerations aside, we'd all love to get a shot at researcher John Gottman's Love Lab; after watching fifteen minutes of a couple having a conversation, he can predict with 90% accuracy whether they will still be together in fifteen years. So what if this book falls apart under close scrutiny? Blink is a blast.
More on how the mind works: Stumbling on Happiness

3 February 2005
Muscle: The Education of a Bodybuilder
Samuel Fussell

Fussell, the skinny, Oxford-educated son of intellectuals, moves to New York City in the early 1980s and has his sizable paranoid streak triggered by the predatory aggressiveness of the big city. Desperate for armor, he joins the Y and overnight becomes a bodybuilding fanatic, pumping iron and gulping supplements until he's exhausted. His obsession balloons along with his muscles; he quits his job and moves into a windowless apartment from which he only emerges for twice-daily forays to the gym. His appetite still unquenched, he moves to California, becomes the hardest working man at Gold's Gym, begins the inevitable steroid injections, and soon catches himself screaming in a 'roid rage at fellow grocery store shoppers—but by then he's too far gone to care. By the time he begins competing he's starving himself so severely that he can't stand unsupported and won't brush his teeth for fear the sodium in toothpaste will cause him to retain water. It's fascinating as a portrait of an obsession, but it has almost nothing to do with weight lifting, just as it reveals that competitive bodybuilding has nothing to do with health.
More about exercise: Brother Iron, Sister Steel and Ultimate Fitness

<—2004 reviews

2006 reviews—>

"There was so much to read, for one thing, and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breathgiving air...I was rather literary in college—one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News—and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the 'well-rounded man.' This isn't just an epigram—life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all."—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby